Ian Hamilton Finlay, Little Sparta and other matters

little-sparta

I got the Newsletter of the Little Sparta Trust recently and, among other interesting things, there was a link to applications for a Residency this year. I thought about it, indeed I drafted an ‘Expression of Interest’, but at the end of the day I decided against applying, for reasons I’ll explain later. But it got me thinking again about Ian Hamilton Finlay, his garden, his poetry, and his art.

I first came across him in my ‘Beat’ days in the early 1960s. I used to frequent Jim Haynes’ The Paperback bookshop in Charles Street, the one with the rhinoceros head above the door (and how incorrect is that these days). Jim brought me mugs of black coffee, and I browsed the shelves for modern poetry – mainly American and European, but some home-grown writing. In 1962 I attended the infamous Writers’ Conference in the MacEwan Hall, bought Donald Allen’s New American Poetry, 1945-1960, and several issues of a broadsheet called Poor. Old. Tired. Horse., produced by Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press. It caused a revolution in my head. It was here that I first came across Lorine Niedecker, Jerome Rothenberg, Larry Eigner, and Cid Corman, along with work by Edwin Morgan, Pete Brown and many others. I like to think this was where I developed my internationalist outlook, and my love of ‘free’ verse.

Later I became a ‘respectable’ figure in society, a librarian even, but I still have that anarchic, rebellious side to my nature, hence the tattoos, and the love of improvisation, whether through jazz or through words. Ian was developing a series of ambitious projects which may be loosely categorised as concrete poetry, and I saw several of his artworks, with variations on words incised into walls, in Livingston and elsewhere.

And of course Little Sparta was developing, set in the natural landscape around Stoneypath. It was here that he explored the concepts of setting art in nature, of the inevitable contrasts and links between the given and the made. In my own writing I was beginning to explore these themes too, although my botany and my geology came from my scientific training, rather from artistic or aesthetic considerations. A lot of my writing, since the 1990s, has been informed by my scientific background, as well as my love of the arts and of gardens.

Then, when I was on the Committee of the Scottish Poetry Library, Tessa Ransford and I visited Little Sparta, to commission Ian to design a tapestry for the new library building then taking shape in the Canongate.

My most tangible link to Ian, however, is my long-lasting friendship with his son Alec. He and I have worked together on a variety of projects, from renga platform days to writing essays on Scottish mountain flowers, to helping with the National Memorial for Tissue and Organ Donation, among many others.

My 2012 poetry collection, The Propriety of Weeding, has this quotation from Ian as its Foreword:

The dull necessity of weeding arises, because every healthy plant is a racist and an imperialist; every daisy (even) wishes to establish for itself an Empire on which the sun never sets.

Here, I think, is the essence of my dilemma. Most of the everyday landscapes we see around us have been created artificially, and are managed, weeded if you like. The remaining pockets of wild nature are rare and hard to find, but it’s here that my inspirations mainly come from these days; they appeal to my wild side.

So, although I love art and gardens, and I’ve written extensively about them, when I considered the Residency carefully, I came down on the side of preferring to write new things about new subjects, rather than go over old ground. And as I’m mainly writing short stories these days my favourite subject is people, in all their variety and their common humanity.

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An Epiphany

 

 

cw_gentle

This is the T-shirt my younger son Duncan sent me the other week. I wore it at last week’s Newcastle launch, and it seemed to go down well.

The thing is, it’s always been one of my favourite poems, at least the first verse is. (I’m not fond of villanelles as a rule, but I make an exception for this one.)

And my son saw the design listed and ordered it for me because he realised, before I did, that this is exactly what I’ve been doing the last few years. I was 71 when I bought my first tenor sax and started playing it. I was 72 when when I bought the soprano sax. I love playing these instruments, and I get a huge kick out of it. I was 74 when I got my first three tattoos. They feel right and natural, they’re part of me now, and I don’t regret for a minute that I have them. (I may get a fourth this year, if I can decide on a design.)

So I am Getting On, as they say, but I’m not going quietly or gently; I burn, I rave, I rage against the negative aspects of ageing. And I’m having a hell of a good time about it.

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The trouble with phones

I have a problem with phones. I have a landline, which is listed, and I have Caller Display on it. When I see a number I don’t recognise, or the display tells me it’s International or Number Withheld, I just don’t answer it. That’s cut down the number of spam and phishing calls considerably, and it’s a ‘boon and a blessing to men’ as the advert said*. And if that means I don’t deal with any overseas call centre it’s not my fault; it’s the fault of the company who doesn’t want to pay for a UK call centre.

I have a mobile (and I won’t tell you the number), which I use all the time for emails, the occasional text from my family and close friends, and for Internet access. But I have never learned how to use it for voice calls. I usually have it on silent anyway. So when I get the very rare call on it, I haven’t a clue how to answer it, so I don’t. (Yes I know I can read the manual, but I don’t want to, so there). And then I get a message saying I have a Missed Call. If it’s from somebody in my contacts file I can see who I’ve missed, so I can text them, otherwise it remains an eternal mystery, and I usually clear my Missed Calls list anyway.

When I was working, especially when I was in senior management, I was on the phone a lot, and I was used to it. But since retirement my hearing has deteriorated quite a lot, and even with two hearing aids, it’s not good and only going to get worse. I find that, even with volume controls on my phones, my hearing is such that I have no confidence in my ability to understand what’s being said to me over a phone. I have to concentrate so hard on identifying the words that it doesn’t leave me enough time to think about their meaning, and what my response should be. With person-to-person talking, I can see their face, their lips, and the visual cues are enough to help me. But I can’t lip-read on a phone.

So, I’m sorry if I’ve missed your call, whoever you are, and I hope that the reason you wanted to speak to me wasn’t a matter of life or death (however unlikely that scenario may be). If you can’t reach me by phone, I always respond to emails, and that’s my preferred medium for communication over distance. You do have my email address, don’t you?

* The old stationery advert went:
They come as a boon and a blessing to men;
The Pickwick, the Owl, and the Waverley Pen.

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Driven

When I was mainly writing poetry I didn’t write every day. An idea might come to me, I’d draft something, put it aside for a few days, come back to it, edit it, put it away for a little bit longer, dig it out again, revise or polish and so on. In other words, I gave myself time in between to do other things. The main thing was to get my mind into the right place where a poem might be possible.

But short stories have taken over my life. Already this month, I’ve finished two stories I started last month. One is just over 3,000 words; the other just short of 6,000. I use more or less the same procedure with them – finish, print out, read through immediately with a pencil, do the first corrections and minor edits, print out again and set aside for later polishing or editing. But I’m often working on two different stories at different stages at the same time. There are no gaps. I cannot stop writing. I finished one two days ago and I immediately started on a new one the same day, and I’ve already written 1,500 words of it. I suspect it’ll be another long one. It’s about an unexpected visitor who may or may not be the unknown son of the main character. There are so many plot possibilities, and I don’t want to cut off my options prematurely until I see how promising the leads are. Feels a bit like a chess game in fact.

At the same time I’m exploring stylistically, so I may have one – usually short – which is mostly narration, and another which uses a lot of dialogue. Incidentally, I’ve realised that an earlier, completed one which is almost entirely dialogue might work as a play. The narrative might become stage directions. And that may finally help me to write a proper play. I was involved with amateur drama, as actor, director, lighting designer etc, for 20 years, and I’ve never written a play. Maybe now I can, so that’ll be another direction I can take.

It’s as if, as I get older, my writing is accelerating. I can’t seem to slow down, and I don’t have to prepare myself mentally to write fiction. I just have to sit in front of the screen, and the words start flowing. It’s exhilarating.

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The year of telling stories

2016 is the year that lots of things changed for me, as a writer and as a publisher, and it all started in December 2015. I was talking to Sheila Wakefield about some of my experiences in the world of amateur drama. As we spoke I realised that some of the things that happened in the drama clubs I once belonged to could be made into stories.

At the same time I was becoming unhappy about my poetry writing. I wrote many poems in 2014 and 2015 – probably too many – and I wasn’t satisfied with the quality of some of them. Sometimes I felt they were same old same old; I was repeating approaches to my writing, and losing sight of Pound’s dictum: Make It New! By coincidence, or maybe not, I had a succession of rejections from magazines, and I knew I’d have to change.

I decided to take a short break from writing poetry, and to try my hand at fictionalising some of my amdram experiences. I didn’t want them to be autobiographical, but at the same time I had experienced or observed many things that I thought others might be interested in. I took soundings from friends about the first few stories, and I was encouraged by their responses – especially the critical ones. Improving my writing was definitely something I could get my teeth into. I was also reading a lot of other short story writers – re-reading Raymond Carver and Hemingway, discovering Alice Munro and Grace Paley among others, and learning from them what worked and what didn’t.

By the Spring I’d written nine short stories set the world of amateur drama, and I’d also written several others in different settings. I began to send some out. I entered three short story competitions (didn’t place in any of them) and sent some to magazines. One that I sent to the Scottish Book Trust’s ‘Secrets and Confessions’ project was published on their website (but didn’t make the printed volume). I felt that was a validation. In May Sheila asked me to consider putting together a short story pamphlet for her Postbox Press imprint, and that resulted in ‘Getting On’ in October. I’ve now written about 40 stories this year, some 80,000 words, and I just can’t stop (nor do I wish to).

I’m very pleased that I’m still writing poetry, although not nearly as much as I have in previous years. 2016 is ending with a new poem written in the last couple of days. My new collection – Pictish – will be coming from Red Squirrel Press in 2017, on my 75th birthday, and I hope I’ll continue to write poetry in the years to come.

On the publishing front, I’ve wound up Calder Wood Press, but I’ve begun a new role as Editor at Postbox Press, where I’m immersed in reading submissions of novels, novellas and short stories. I’m enjoying it immensely. As a poetry editor I know I made a lot of friends and a few enemies. I suspect that as a literary fiction editor the proportions will be reversed, but I’m just as committed to quality writing, whether it’s prose or poetry. I won’t compromise on quality, whether it’s other authors’ writing or my own.

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Getting On

getting_on_200

The title story in my new short story pamphlet (available from the Red Squirrel Press website folks) features an old man reflecting on his own experience of ageing. I’ve made him slightly older than me, and it’s fiction of course. I haven’t experienced everything this old man talks about, but I do understand what he’s going through, because I’m going through the same process – we all are.

Everyone ages at slightly different rates, and even different parts of your body age differently. Of my senses, I’ve noticed the hearing loss most acutely, and it’s probably linked to a feeling of insecurity over my sense of balance.

My sight’s deteriorating too, but much more slowly. I’ve got cataracts (who hasn’t?) but they’re not developing quickly. I think I’m lucky, especially when I compare myself to my wife, who now has an appointment later this month in the Ophthalmology Department at the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Clydebank for an assessment of her cataracts.

My fitness regime has allowed me to compensate for the osteoarthritis in my knees by strengthening my quadriceps muscles, and similarly my shoulder problem has been alleviated by strengthening the rotator cuff muscles. What troubles me lately is a shooting pain which sometimes goes through my left wrist – the one I broke falling off my bike, the one which now has a steel plate screwed into it. It’s excruciating, and I lose all strength in my hand when it hits me, although it only lasts seconds. I suspect it’s neurological.

Mental faculties seem to be OK so far – I still do well at University Challenge questions, but they test my long-term memory, which has always been good. I’ve no idea if my short-term memory is getting worse. Planning and decision-making are still good. I’m definitely less tolerant of bad behaviour and some of today’s rather weird (to me) social mores. But these feelings sometimes translate into ideas for new short stories, so they can’t be all bad.

So all in all, I’m rather looking forward to reaching my 75th birthday in 2017. I’ll celebrate it with poetry, and I hope some of my friends will join me.

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Colin Will Bibliography

A friend asked me recently how many collections I’ve had published, and I had to do a bit of calculation. But given that I used to be a librarian, and that librarians are supposed to be able to compile bibliographies, I decided to do just that, so here goes. I haven’t noted which titles are out of print (assume everything before 2010, apart from the Kindle e-books), and I haven’t made a note of ISBNs.

Colin Will Bibliography

Literary works – Monographs

1996
Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Highlands, and more. Diehard. 60pp (paperback)

1997
Flowers of Scotland. Calder Wood Press. (Poetry card)
Painted fruits. Calder Wood Press. (Poetry card)
Roundabout Livingston. Calder Wood Press. (Poetry card)
Landings. Calder Wood Press. (Poetry card)

1999
Robin’s Rowan. Calder Wood Press. (Poetry card)

2000
Seven Senses. Diehard. 62pp (hardback, quarter leather)
Six hundred lines; 200 haiku from West Lothian schools (compiled and edited). Calder Wood Press. 17pp (pamphlet)

2005
Mementoliths. Calder Wood Press. 36pp (pamphlet)

2006
Sushi & Chips. Diehard. 60pp (paperback)

2009
Mementoliths 2. Calder Wood Press. (Kindle e-book)
Recycled Cards. Calder Wood Press. (Kindle e-book)

2010
The floorshow at the Mad Yak Café. Red Squirrel Press. 54pp. (paperback)

2011
Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Highlands (revised). Calder Wood Press. (Kindle e-book)
Seven Senses (revised). Calder Wood Press. (Kindle e-book)

2012
The propriety of weeding. Red Squirrel Press. 92pp. (paperback)

2013
The year’s six seasons [East Lothian poems]. Calder Wood Press. 40pp. (pamphlet)

2014
The Book of Ways [haibun]. Red Squirrel Press. 237pp. (paperback)

2016
Getting On [short stories]. Postbox Press. 32pp. (pamphlet)

Red Squirrel Press and Postbox Press titles are available through the website.

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