Friday, 30 September 2011

Road Blog Books!

Taobh an Iar, Dòmhnall Fearghasdan
Grain, John Glenday
Undark, John Glenday
North Uist Works, Andy Goldsworthy
A World of Strangers, Nadine Gordimer
My Childhood, Maxim Gorky
The Torrents of Spring,
Ernest Hemingway
Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway
The Europeans, Henry James
The Dogs of Riga, Henning Mankell
The Concise British Flora in Colour, W. Keble Martin
The Koran
Weaving & Other Pleasant Occupations, R.K. & M.I.R. Polkinghorne
The CEO's Scandalous Affair, Roxanne St. Claire
Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
Confluence, pub. Taigh Chearsabhagh
Secrets of the Sea, Reader's Digest
the outer hebrides – made in holland, fred schley

Road Blog # 5 Wick – Kirkwall & Home...

Here's Niall Campbell on the Hamnavoe, on the way to Stromness. Keep an eye on him, I would – after sharing two readings with him, I can see why he's doing so well, having won this year Eric Gregory Award, a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, and with a pamphlet forthcoming with the excellent Happenstance Press, who also publish Gill Andrews. (Gill wrote 'Tom Potter', one of my Best Scottish Poems 2010). Niall is having his own Poet's Tour in October (scroll down for the dates), so catch him in Inverness, Skye, Lochmaddy or Ullapool if you can...

I gave a workshop at breakneck speed in Wick, having driven from Scourie along the North Coast on a persistently rainy day. I did get a clammy walk at Faraid Head and a hot chocolate at the Loch Croispol Bookshop and Cafe, and snacked as I travelled east on fairly elderly date slices and Manchego. Nice to meet some Wick writers and read in the lovely Fergus Gallery above the Library, and then it was the early boat to Stromness and a slow drive to Kirkwall, detouring by Scapa Flow and the Italian Chapel. VERY TIRED. Sat and stared into middle distance at The Reel for a few hours in the afternoon...and revived with hot pot at Judith Glue before reading at the St Magnus Centre with Niall, and the Orkney poet Morag MacInnes, whose performance is always explosive. She's a fantastic reader of her work – that night, from her Hansel Cooperative Press pamphlet, Alias Isobel, (audio clips here) and from These Islands We Sing.

This morning I finally tottered off the Hrossey in Lerwick, and drove home and unpacked the car. The cat is preparing himself to forgive me, as Uncle Monty put it in Withnail and I, the pressure has been boosted in the boiler (it goes into hibernation when neglected), and there's three days to clean, do laundry and catch up with friends, emails and work before I head off again. I'll make one final post to list the books bought, borrowed and gifted over the last two weeks. Many thanks to Peter Urpeth for the 'Poet's Tour' and to all the folk who put me up, fed me, took part in events and shared their work...

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Road Blog # 4 Skye – Assynt – Wick

MacCaig country – looking southish from the shank of Stac Pollaidh. But it's late, and Niall Campbell and I are booked on the early boat to more of Wick follows...

Skye Rope – Iris blades & plastic

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Road Blog # 3 Stornoway – Harris – Skye

Petrol gauge on the red, but I turned North again in Tarbert to retrace a couple miles and photograph this beautiful mountain – Sron a' Sgaoth (?)

I was a bit raddled by the time I'd crossed North Harris and Lewis on flooded roads, and gone astray in the outskirts of Stornoway. I'm not great at reverse parking these days either. I revived at the Golden Ocean, finishing off the set list while wolfing chilli squid so hot it blistered the roof of my mouth. Big Mamma Frog asks how a poet decides what to read: in my case, the set list is a bit of a comfort blanket, part of the process of persuading myself that it's alright to stand up in front of a group of people and speak. Which poems I read depends a bit on who I'm reading to, where I'm reading, what's on my mind.

I know plenty poets who decide what to read as they go along. I couldn't, but I often substitute, remove or add poems, as I did that night. I shared a stage in the Library Cafe with the Gaelic poet Anne Frater, whose collection Fo’n t-Slige is not easy to get hold of, although her work does appear in Kevin MacNeil's new anthology These Islands We Sing. Anne opened her reading with a set of wry love poems, explaining it took her a long time to 'find her prince' after which I decided to begin with 'Love's Dog', which I don't read very often these days. (Talking of 'Love's Dog', I'm typing this whilst heavily leant on by a spaniel, Max, the 'Orchid Dog' of my first collection, Almanacs.)

I wish I knew Gaelic. But if you don't know a language, you've still the pleasure of dwelling on its song, undistracted by meaning, even punctuated with the words 'laminator' and 'serial killer'. In fact I'm not sure how much information I take in from a single hearing of any poem: an image or phrase or two usually sticks, little more. A great deal of the pleasure taken in someone else's reading is in its ephemerality. Of her English translations, though – Frater's first line invariably plunges you into the heart of her poem. There's absolutely no word wasted, and no blousiness in her imagery, with an added sere edge in poems about the loss of the Iolaire, and about the Iraq War.

Thanks to the staff of the Stornoway Library for their hospitality, and Peter Urpeth for introducing the event, and for organising this Poet's Tour. And for a fine night in the Criterion afterwards, with fiddle, banjo, whistle, bodhrán, dancing and the good company of writer and artist Ian Stephen among others. I'll be AWOL for a couple days now, next reading in Wick on Tuesday night.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Saturation in Harris!

Amazing colours, even in the rain. My jeans are over the hotel radiator drying out, hopefully in time for my reading here in Stornoway. One hour to go, and I've yet to make an set-list...

Road Blog # 2 Portree - Lochmaddy

Welcomed to Lochmaddy with a stack of Taigh Chearsabhagh publications, including a beautiful book 'Taobh an Iar', about the work of painter Dòmhnall Fearghasdan. Plenty paintings and sketches in the book to tide me over after I leave. I love North Uist, the little I remember from a visit a few years ago, and saw through the rain today: lots of tempting looking sand-flats, inklings of waterlilies. Frustrating to leave this morning, but I took a detour to Sollas Bookbinding and had good talks about text and authority and translation with Corinna Krause, who generously showed me her new work and new tools. Thanks to Alex and the folk at Taigh Chearsabhagh for a very fine if too-short stay, and to those who read at the Open Mike!

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Workshop at the Portree Library

The student on the right is Calum Kelly, who wrote a great poem in the session: surreal and really original...

Road Blog #1 Inverness – Portree

I'm only two days into the Poet's Tour and already the car is beginning to smell like someone's living out of it. Total chaos of books (22 copies of mine, John Glenday's wonderful 'Grain' and 'Undark', and ten or so secondhand I've picked up at Leakey's in Inverness and the Nice Cafe and Bookshop in Kyleakin), clay, picnics, clothes escaping suitcase, full array of coats, waterproof and otherwise. Having a lovely and hectic time. I met the Highland Literary Salon on Tuesday night, including Angus Dunn, whose name I've known a long time but never met. Given my love of marine life, it was great to hear about his mobile whelk – wish I could see it for myself.

Yesterday I drove to Skye through Glen Shiel in heavy rain and launched almost immediately into a workshop that included school students and members of the Skye Literary Salon, followed by an interview for Charlotte Johnson's new Atlas Arts Cafe on Radio Cuillin, followed by a reading with Mark O. Goodwin, Iain Oughtred and Val Fellows of the Skye Literary Salon at the Isle of Skye Baking Company. Wonderful to meet Meg Bateman too. It's a great venue: relaxed, easy acoustics, and brilliant food. Thanks to Orla Broderick for organising both events in Skye, and Stewart Lackie for the event in Inverness!

Getting ready to leave for Uist around midday...the sea looks bumpy. Ick.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Porcelain stop...

Home with my mum and dad for the weekend before I head to Inverness for the first of the Poet's tour events...and taking advantage of being near the Potteries to pick up 25kg of porcelain from Potclays for the limpets. I'm travelling Pictishly with an eye for commodities: the clay, a few kilos of sloes, and a mind's-eye compilation of ropes. The thick, adder-striped hawsers that are reeled onto great drums on the Hjaltland's deck as we left the dock at Holmsgarth; an exhibition of steel winding ropes from coal mines at the brilliant Heritage Centre at Apedale, North Staffs.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Venues & Dates for Poet's Tour

Here's the finalised details for my tour round the Highlands and Islands. Hi-Arts have got lots of other poetry events on this autumn, so keep an eye out. Pass it on and hope to see some of you there!

Tuesday 20th September 2011, 7.30pm: The Poets' Tour - reading at Highland Literary Salon, Glen Mhor Hotel, Inverness: free.

Wednesday 21st September 2011 (afternoon): Poetry workshop, 2pm, Portree Library, Portree, Isle of Skye. Places limited, please reserve a place via Portree Library on 01478 614820. Free.

Wednesday 21st September 2011 (evening): The Poets' Tour - reading at Isle of Skye Literary Salon, Isle of Skye Baking Co. Dunvegan Road, Portree: 7.30pm, free, with Myles Campbell and other local poets. Refreshments available, plus the very popular option of a light meal will be served from 5.30pm- 6.45pm in the Bakery with homemade soup, freshly baked breads, salads, cakes & tea/coffee £9.50pp – booking essential for meal on 01478 612669.

Thursday 22nd September, 2011, 7pm: The Poets' Tour - reading at Taigh Chearsabhagh, Lochmaddy, North Uist, 7pm, free.

Friday 23rd September, 2011, 7pm: The Poets' Tour - reading with Anne Frater at The Library Cafe, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 7pm: free.

Tuesday 27th September, 2011, 5.45pm - free: poetry workshop at St Fergus Gallery, Wick Library, Sinclair Terrace, Wick, Caithness KW1 5AB - booking essential, places limited, please e-mail Peter Urpeth at to book a place.

Tuesday 27th September, 2011, 7pm: The Poets' Tour - reading with Niall Campbell at St Fergus Gallery, Wick Library, Sinclair Terrace, Wick, Caithness KW1 5AB. Free entry, refreshments available.

Wednesday 28th September, 2011, 7pm: The Poets Tour - reading with Morag MacInnes and Niall Campbell. St Magnus Centre, Kirkwall, Orkney, 7pm, free.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Elves & The Shoemaker

The other day a friend asked me if I had a new manuscript on the go and I said no, believing it. So I'm genuinely surprised to sift this pile of clumsy but sometimes songish drafts on my desk. How to explain it except that someone else must be sneaking in at night and writing them?

Monday, 12 September 2011

The Best British Poetry 2011

is now available...and includes my odd response to Rabelais' wonderful poem 'The Descriptions of King Lent'...all very marine...

I'm just getting ready for my tour of the Highlands & Western Isles: order books; set up autoreply; get in a big store of catfood; check oil, tyres, camera, ferry'll be exciting to be on the road again! I'll be giving readings & workshops in Inverness, Skye, North Uist, Stornoway, Caithness and Orkney...hopefully be able to update the blog a bit as I go...

Friday, 2 September 2011

Old Scatness

Managed to squeeze a third visit to Old Scatness broch and iron-age village in before it closed for the season. Now, I am not good with archeology. I can't hold those great swathes of time in my head. But Scatness is kind of different on account of its living history approach. You get the tour of the aisled wheelhouses and the massive broch that was discovered by accident when diggers building an access road to Sumburgh airport ploughed into its side, but what I love about the place is that the archeologists and historians there also devote time to demonstrations of Pictish crafts, such as the tablet weaving above (photo by Susan Timmins), woodturning, pottery, soapstone carving, silverwork, rope-making. They're making some beautiful work: artists as much as archeologists.

You can also, in quite a casual way, hang around the replica wheelhouse, with its fish-oil lamps and peat fire burning: a quiet, safe, warm, smoky place to hunker down out of the wind and try to imagine what the Pictish life might have been like. That's tricky, because Pict seems to be more a cultural term than a temporal one...the Picts 'appear' later in Shetland than South. That makes it sound like the Picts arrived from somewhere else: not so. The late Iron Age people just start being called Picts when certain decorative artefacts, like Scatness's carved bear stone, begin to show up. It's this cultural definition that makes me long to be able to relate to this lost community. And after all, some things about Pictish Shetland haven't changed much. It's still a place rich in resources, and in its creative and expressive folk.

What I took from this particular visit was a metaphor, but I don't want to speak about it until I see if it's going to become a poem or the meantime, I've got a terrible yearning to build a turf kiln...