Monday, 7 October 2013

Poetry Events in Manchester this week

I'll be in Manchester this week for two events with Manchester Literature Festival and Manchester Art Galleries. On Thursday 10th October I'll be performing a new poetry commission inspired by (and in reaction to) paintings in the Manchester Art Galleries exhibition 'A Highland Romance - Victorian Views of Scottishness'. Thanks to Manchester Literature Festival for inviting me to take on this very interesting commission...which threw up the possibility that Victorian Views of Scottishness might not be so very different from contemporary ones (see prevalence of Highland Cows). On Saturday 12th I'll be tutoring a day-long workshop in the gallery exploring ekphrasis – poetry inspired by visual art. We've got a beautiful big studio and lots of materials to play with, so I'll be curious to see if participants are interested in exploring the materiality of language.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

'There are tidal zones'

I'm posting this new poem from Bergen writer Kristian S. Haeggernes' forthcoming collection, Urne, because I love it, and because it includes a sidelong reference to limpets. In Norwegian, the word for 'limpet' translates as 'elbow-snail'. Lovely.

There are tidal zones
in me as well. At low tide
the crabs scuttle sideways

over my diaphragm     Waving
overgrown claws that take over
control of my arms

when I dance     I prefer
to dance alone     At high tide
my elbows come loose

wandering off to eat
dreams off of my skin

I prefer to sleep alone
I don't want anyone to see me

where I am most myself
Submerged in my own breath

Written & translated by Kristian S. Haeggernes.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Limpets far and wide

The limpets of The Dominant Species (as photographed by Susan Timmins) are incredibly proud to appear on the cover of Bergen poet Kristian Haeggernes' new collection, Urne.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

T S Eliot Prize 20th Anniversary Tour tonight

I'm reading in Oldham tonight as part of the Poetry Book Society's T.S.Eliot Prize 20th Anniversary Tour. Bad things about this: I've got the cold. Good things about this: I get to hear Ian Duhig, Jane Draycott and Shamshad Khan and check out the new tram line to Oldham. I love trams and undergrounds mostly because of the maps with coloured lines, my favourite being the Mexico Metro. Glasgow's Clockwork Orange also has a special place in my heart for its intense olfactory experience.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Eleven minutes, or 'I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons upon any Navy vessel'

Working hard on 'A Highland Romance' this commission for Manchester Art Galleries and the Manchester Literature Festival, due in Monday. The good thing about commissions is they force you out of your comfort zone. This week I've rediscovered William Morris's Icelandic Journals, researched Victorian landscape painter Henry Moore, submarine slang, and worked out how long it takes the RAF GR4 Tornado to travel from Lossiemouth to Burra (178m) at top speed. The latter very unsettling, and I'm kind of looking forward to getting back to carnivorous bog-plants and clams.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Two Cigarettes - after Norman MacCaig

Norman MacCaig used to say – typically dismissively – that it took him one cigarette to write a poem, or two for a long one.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013



Nestscrapes, a set on Flickr.
A collection of nest-scrapes from the banks behind my house to tide us over to next spring, when the nesting birds return.

Monday, 9 September 2013


The new book - a poetry collection called 'Byssus' – is due at the publisher's in two weeks' time. And writing, with conditions of a contract to fulfil, and the awareness that this really is my last chance to say what I'm trying to say in this book about Shetland - home - folk - bodies - the natural world, has become something of a performative act. Everything I do now, including naps on the cliff top when my head's too full to work, feeds the book. (I've spent the last two weekends 'skiving' at Wordplay and Screenplay - the annual book and film festivals organised by Shetland Arts). The desk is covered in paper. A friend brought me a dip-pen and a bottle of green ink from France. I like it very slows me down. Small towers of teabags rise on the chopping board. Half-realised poems go in and out of the manuscript. Cryptic lists everywhere of things that I am trying to say and hope I might have said at the end of the fortnight. As a strategy, it half-works. A smell of woodsmoke in the kitchen: a friend showed up with a tub of fish last week. Swimsuits drying in front of the radiator: we got perhaps our last swim of the season in a pool on the cliffs. It all feeds the book, just because this book is about how you make yourself at home. I wonder if I'll ever write about anything else. It is coming gradually into focus. This post is as much for myself. It is all so pleasurable. I want to remember this when - once again, I've got nothing to say, and can't imagine myself as a poet. At the moment I'm trying to write about puffballs - how they convert from this (above) to this (below).


Saturday, 31 August 2013

And to my new favourite website... the mysterious toymaker at ill-trickit trows, which you have the choice of perusing in English or Shetland Dialect. Love it.

What a bad blogger I am!

Well here's a link to Sheenagh Pugh's – who's just given an powerful reading at Shetland's Wordplay Festival with David Harsent – as a peace offering. I loved her poem 'The Beautiful Lie' and David's translations of Yannis Ritsos.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Jane Outram

Got to share these stunning new knitting patterns from Jane Outram: now up at Ravelry. I met Jane when she was working at the Old Scatness dig in Dunrossness, Shetland. In between guiding visitors around the broch and replica roundhouses, she'd be sitting on the floor in Pictish garb, creating woven textiles from her own designs. Scatness has been closed, to my dismay, but at least Jane's creativity has found a new outlet in her Eder Yoke and Haily-Puckles Shawl

Monday, 18 March 2013

Reel Words: Found in Translation

Getting in the mood for Part 2 of Reel Festivals' collaboration between poets from Scotland and Iraq, here's my blog from Erbil...

First the light that seems to have travelled huge distances, pouring over the blue tarps and oblong pits of chalk-green water, to meet us here and wrap its arms about us, wipe our faces: warm and diffuse and peachy light. I have never seen light like this…
Sense of the city expanding rapidly, like lichen does; amidst the girders and piled earth, men are gathering round a fire. Hens roam, and peck, and are trod. One nimbly descends a ladder leading from one half-built storey to another. A guy on the roof of the hotel opposite doubles over in his black suit to drill.
Children are wheeling each other on an office chair through the streets of Shaqlawa. Tinsel zigzagged over the street. An abacus of chickens revolve on their spits. The long necked baskets full of nuts and seeds and kernels and dried peas.
Tall in quarter-tones come the calls to prayer, and draw us out of our Swedish-style cabins.
Consuming all I can of here: the glasses of sweet tea frisbeed across the table on their painted saucers, the turnip simmered in date juice, its black gravy served in a teacup. Awezan’s sister sends a deep, lidded tureen full of homemade dolma: stuffed vine-leaves, stuffed cabbage leaves veined like ears.
Conference hall: mothballs, and chandeliers. Sabreen and I are working on ‘Birches and Maples’. She and Dina are discussing something in Arabic, at length. While I wait, I listen greedily to their faces. Sabreen draws the balls of her spread fingers down her cheek. She’s going to ask me a question about crying.
Can you all tell with how much effort I open my mouth, except to stuff it with dolmades, and pitta, and hummus and baba ghanoush, and the white curd with the bitter aftertaste, and the highly citric salad of tomato and cucumber and fried flatbread, and the stew of lamb’s leg with its stump of hollow bone, thickened with chopped pitta? Breakfast is lentil soup hyphenated with thin noodles, yoghurt with fig syrup. Some of us stayed up too late. We blink at each other, ‘beyanee bash’, and lay out our dreams before each other, piece by piece. I dream I’m holding a large stoneware bowl in my lap, polishing it to a high sheen. Dreams about abandonment, a dream about a train, dreams about the way home, sexy dreams.
Zaher explains his poem line by line. It’s called ‘Born To Die’ and is a letter to God which he asks his son, born a month premature, to deliver. There’s an image at the end, which troubles me, as he translates it. The image, I think at first, is both too complicated and too stark. It sounds like it refers to a foetus preserved in alcohol. It bothers me all week. The morning before our readings in Erbil, I sit down with Zaher and Dina again. When it comes clear, I want to cry. The glass he refers to is the transparent wall of the incubator. His friends are looking through it at his baby son, and saying ‘he’ll never make it; his heart isn’t fully developed yet.’ So much rides on our understanding each other.
And the poisoned apples in Awezan’s ‘Oblivion Season’ refer to the smell of the chemical weapons deployed by Saddam Hussein.
It dawns on me, through the week, what extraordinary poems these are.
When Lauren and Hoshang and Dina are busy, we have to find ways to communicate for ourselves. We choose for each other morsels of food; we lay a hand on the upper arm; we smile like loons, laugh louder; we mime, drawing with our hands in the air; we press a palm to our heart. We point to things and name them: pass a phone with a photo of a child, a husband, a house, a cat, a view of the sea. It’s exhausting. It’s astonishing how often we guess right.
Behind the carpet curtain over the warehouse door, a battalion of pool tables with bleach-spotted blue baize, trio of shishas, a picnic table for a card-game; ping-pong table. Foxed and splintered cues. Dina drags off a red leather glove between her teeth and flings it down on the cushion. We’re going to get trounced.
Lauren says the woman in charge says whoever comes here, wherever in the world they come from, says there is no work. She says that everyone who comes says they are tired.
On the Purple Poetry Bus back to Erbil: small towns, women in black hijab, piled red silt greenish clay, twirled cypress, pine, eucalyptus, an endless plain below the hairpin bends, the guards at the checkpoint levelling his rifle at something in the trees, his colleagues egging him on. Statuesque goats, a thin horse. On the outskirts of the city, we pull over for ten minutes while Dan sorts something in a hotel. Two lads are playing a throwing game on a demolished lot. They chuck their bits of rubble and watch carefully to see where they fall. They measure the distance with handspans. Then they pick up their stones and chuck them back in the opposite direction. When we leave they’re still playing.
I wake, saying: ‘don’t rehearse what you’re going to say.’
In the citadel, the others have disappeared down a rabbit-hole…I totter on through the rain. A strata of bright muddy fabric is exposed in the clayish walls. A length of brocade, a shirt cuff with the button on, a ragged scar of red, a gush of coarse cream fishnet, vinyl tablecloth. A clear glass bottle neck pouting fishily from the mortar. A perplexing geology. I ask Awezan about it in the tea-house. She asks some guys behind us. No-one is sure about the fabric. The KRG evacuated the city for renovation in 2006. This was the first time the tell had been uninhabited for thousands of years. We wonder if the fabric is a protest. But, I say, it’s cemented into the wall and the wall doesn’t look recent. Surely the fabric predates the evacuation. Though it’s hard to tell. I’m thinking of D, a Shetland friend, who strengthens the plaster in his stane-wark with straw. I wish I could speak Kurdish. It’s driving me nuts. There is the language and there’s getting the nerve up to speak. Keep trying.
We’re still in the citadel’s cochlea when the call to prayer comes. It is raining hard. I’m recording video, for audio’s sake, on my little camera. The camera is running with water. So am I. I need to come back, but on our last morning we run out of time. I spend my last couple hours in the ancient city buying, not looking. Feels very wrong.
Our panel event where we talk about our translation project in the tea-house below the citadel. Thunder like depth charges, reverberating through the bench below the window of the tea-house. Scrolling the channels of the interpretation unit…Kurdish…English…Arabic…lightning over the souk. I jump, and a old guy in the audience laughs his head off. ‘No bombs in Erbil!’ he says.
Oh…I can’t remember. Don’t talk about…lying awake…sheet rain falling. Waking to the sound of pouring rain, and the call to prayer and endless construction. I’m getting profligate with bottled water. Next to our grand hotel is a great half-flooded crater, with a torrent of rubbish flowing down into it. Dust and mud and dud and must. A dry day: the souk smells of honey and the engine oil that Dina smells everywhere, and in this alley, a bilious smell from crumbly bombs of goat’s-cheese in a long-haired goatskin bag. I wonder if you shape these cheese by cupping a pile of curd between your palms and pressing. the whey out between your fingers. They look like that. And here, woodsmoke, where carpenter’s are varnishing cribs and planing. Honey. Hey honey. A wad of weeping comb on a knife passed to me by the honey-seller. Wet hair, muddy jeans. Brooks running through the alleys of the covered souk. Sucking it down to a thick pellet of brown wax.
The aborted trip to Lalish; the road is flooded with muddy water. The first flood is outside a premises advertising ‘speedwash’ but I think it’s a coincidence. The traffic police have rolled up their trousers and are going barefoot. Cars and trucks overtake the crawling traffic on both sides, skirting the flood at its shallowest point. We’re all hanging out the car-windows and photographing each other hanging out of car-windows. We head to the flooded Tigris instead. There are wild dogs with huskies’ crescent tails. Teetering blades of silt and rubbish island the spate: the trashy fount of civilisation. I’ve been asking after wildlife ever since I got here, and finally begin to see birds: a black and white bird with a kingfisher’s anvil-shaped skull, crouching on a cement pile by the overflow; a bird like a game of consequences, half a cormorant and half a cuckoo; an unassuming-looking passerine which hovers acutely like a bird of prey. Something fleeting, looping and pale. Unsmiling teenagers out of school gather to be photographed with us, and we with them. They all have oiled quiffs. One of the boys has a sickly pale complexion, and dark circles under his eyes. We want to make the most of each other.
A guy is herding a mixed bag of ovines towards the drainage ditch. I say I’m trying to separate the sheep from the goats, which nobody finds as funny as I do. I feel like a boiled egg with the top lifted off.
Ghareeb’s Strip the Willow needs some work, but so do my salsa and my…what was that Kurdish dance called? Hoshang fills a pipe for me. That’s the last I see of him. Somewhere between dances he slips away.
Train to Edinburgh. In the nick of time. I’m never late. It’s good for me to be late. Two hours sleep the night before last, four last night. Feeling younger. Everything looks fleeting and distant, and hilarious, like this lady in the windowseat, who has wrapped her banana in bubble wrap.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Visitors' Book from 'The Dominant Species'

'reminds me of many days spent at the 'banx' heem in Whalsay as a peerie lass. Brings lovely calm happy memories for me'

'...Eerie, yes...'

'Magical, jelly eyes...Beautiful, munching quite noisily in the dark'

'A seance of life on the move'

''neath each water tide
new ephemeral wonders to see'

'it was like a never ending black sea with floating limpets!'

'bring me back when I was a bairn at the Sletts'

'Something I was not expecting on my walk home. Pleasingly different'

'it was brally good mate'

'silent but loud'

'very soothing experience'

'beautiful and hypnotic'

'One of them definitely moved. DEFINITELY'

'I'm sure they were whispering'

'Like fairies' villages – gentle lights and peace. Same kind of feeling as a stone circle.'

'Like a face with a pimple - great light and a bit creapy cause they might be alive'

'terveiset suomesta. upeita simpukoita, aivan kuin ne ryomisivat kohti – Greetings from Finland. stunning sea shells, as they scrape towards'

Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Dominant Species is on this weekend!

(photo Susan Timmins)

The Dominant Species is an installation of approximately ninety porcelain limpets. Exploiting the translucency of porcelain, the limpets describe a rockpool of light in the suitably maritime venue of the Shetland Museum and Archives' Pier Store.  The venue is so maritime, in fact, that the exhibition had to be rescheduled when storm-surges flooded the Pier in December, and again a week later, when gales made it too dangerous to walk out to the Store. (photo Cathy Hallett and full story at Shetland News).

For more than three years, limpets dominated my domestic and creative life. Limpets on the windowsills, the mantelpiece, the shelves. A tub of greening porcelain slip on the kitchen counter, porcelain dust on the handles of the kitchen cupboards. The species was advancing. A fact-finding party from the growing colony had established itself on my windowsill. Surreptitiously, while I was working, I peered over the laptop to see what they were up to. As soon as the sun came out, they began to glow with that lovely, submerged, golden light. The invasive species seemed to hoard sunlight, glowing – as the poet John Glenday said – as if they hid their light under a bushel.

Many limpet-shells found on the beaches and banks are perforated. Whelks will bore into a limpet's stronghold to predate on the soft animal inside. But when I first made a pore in the shell of a porcelain limpet, I made a vestigial face. A pair of limpets angled towards each other were communicating: challenging, agreeing or negotiating. They'd apparently become sentient. 

My hope for this installation is that visitors' responses will be ambiguous: the limpet-pool potentially peaceful or unsettling. I want to ask whether our ways of making homes for ourselves in the natural world are invasive or symbiotic. 
Thank you to…

Dr Angus Jackson at the Environmental Research Unit at UHI, who recorded the sound New Zealand limpets make when grazing. I'm grateful to him for letting me use it as a soundtrack to The Dominant Species. Big thanks also to Susan Timmins, documenting the show, Roxane Permar, for feedback on the installation, Alasdair Stuart for huge amount of help with firing and to Janice Armstrong, for her introduction to porcelain and for teaching me how to make a thumb pot. And to very many others, for their encouragement and enthusiasm.

The Dominant Species will be open at the Shetland Museum and Archives' Pier Store Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th February, from 10.30 – 16.00. First come, first chance at the hot juice!