Seven tattoo poems

With thanks to Kerry Gentle and Anna Maxwell

The idea behind these poems was inspired by reading Helen Mort’s book – The Illustrated Woman. I wanted to write about what my tattoos mean to me, and what they say to others.



First

I’ve seen so many marks on skin
over the years. Gym-addicted, I’ve watched
them grow in popularity, spread as fashion
statements or self-expression
for men and women.

I like many of them, and I remember
the first one I thought beautiful.
A supple woman, a subtle flower
across one shoulder, was all it took
for understanding.

Lunges. She walked past me,
dipping, holding weights, and she
was the flower, and the flower was her.
I looked away, then at her eyes,
focussed ahead, confident,
in her own skin.

What would mine be like?
Not an abstract design, a pattern,
not a jumbled sleeve, a symbol,
of what I am, of what I’m like.
An open book, apt for a writer,
and right for me, and that was my first
at 74, an old dog in a new world.



Second

At fifteen, a paper round helped me
buy that first clarinet. It squeaked at first
but that’s the same for all learners.
First public gig was in the school orchestra,
2nd trumpet part in the Water Music.
Suitably scared to perform in public,
but buzzed, I did it.

I wanted a sax, listened to a lot of tenors
but the budget only stretched to an alto,
like the clarinet, second-hand.
Still, I learned it, bonded in a trad band,
played for dances, until I lost my steps,
my way, a drop-out, then a barman,
with no time for anything.

Then love, a proper job, career path,
marriage, family, and the horns silenced.
Hankerings sometimes surfaced.
Shoulda been a tenor player, but that waited
until I was seventy.

Felt right immediately, still does.

Another symbol for the left arm, a sax,
and Kerry put it there. The second.


Third

The last leg, Hakone back to Tokyo,
mega-city, sprawl along the Pacific coast,
so different from the California highway.

Dawn, a final view of Fuji,
a good breakfast, hit the Tokaido.

A view of little Pacific waves
lapping gently on the beach,
then city after city, Yokohama,
Kawasaki, all merging at the end.

At Kamakura, the huge bronze Buddha
photographed, then I bought the brass
souvenir that still sits on my windowsill.
Last temple, three last bows, a bento meal,
a kendo match on TV, and the next day’s
long flight home.

The photo, traced, now inked on me,
the green patina, serene expression,
temple memories and a long life
on the eight-fold path, part of me,
and that’s the third.


Fourth

Stewarding at a book festival,
met the geneticist, special offer,
the spit kit, questionnaire.

He found that males whose grandads,
like mine, were from the north-east
had a specific marker he named Pictish.

Results came in, memories, travels
in Buchan and Moray, vague histories
and a family tree, all came together,
added up. I am Pictish.

I remembered the carvings, the stones,
the books that explain, but don’t really.
Academics with theories, romantics with dreams
have had their say, but only the stones are real.
Enigmas, often crosses on one side,
images on the other.

Fish, warriors, bull, boar, Z- and V-rods,
a mythic Beast as alien as Grendel,
didn’t appeal. An Inverurie horse,
more like a pony, heather or head-dress
woven in the mane, was the one I chose.

I was born in a Year of the Horse, and I admire
their strength, their stoic fortitude.
On a whim, I wanted it blue, and spotted,
and that was fourth.


Fifth

Visiting my local town I found
a tattoo studio had opened. This
just when my first artist moved.
Seemed like an omen.

I’d had a thought for a design
to unify the Buddha and the book
by twining two vines round both
in a figure-of-eight.

I popped in with a rough sketch
met apprentice Anna, liked her.
She did flowers; I specified mine,
a blue and a yellow. We made dates
for two three-hour sessions
in that draughty upstairs room.

We talked as she worked, as you do.
She spoke about her daughter,
her day job, why she needed
extra income. She’d gone online,
had bud and leaf shapes, colours
of the flowers I wanted. Accurate.
Great to find an artist who’d share
my thoughts, make them real.

Lines first, the freehand stems a scaffold
for leaves, buds and blossoms, and parts of that
hurt, I won’t disguise it. Next week she added
colour, shading. By the end, the yellow flowers
were orange, from plasma, but that dispersed.

Right arm’s complete, a thing of meaning
and beauty, elegant, in a floral framework,
and that was fifth.


Sixth

You know how much I love hills,
how I need to see the views.
Never a Munro-bagger, I’ve managed many.
It’s some years since the last one,
but I remember: the Arrochar Alps,
all of them, the Ben Lawers group, Stob Binnein,
Ben More – a big hill indeed. I found some flecks
of yellow paint from the helicopter crash,
smelled the spilt fuel. Beinn Dorain, seeing MacCaig’s
frogs in the wet grass, the hare on the summit.

And the ravens, of course. They checked me out
on my solitary walks, spoke in that bass croak.
I didn’t need their language to know
what they meant. A pair, tumbling, claw-birling,
under a crag in Glen Turret; a family having fun
below me on Schiehallion, their rapid chatter
on the saddle between Cruach Ardrain
and Beinn Tulaichean. Raven has to be
my spirit bird, my sixth.

It was winter, snow drifting down
outside the draughty windows,
a barely heated studio, a great barn
of a room, and me, stripped to the waist,
shivering, as Anna inked the bird
on my shoulder, shortcut
to mountains of memories.


Seventh

My six designs, done in old age,
are still fresh, good as new.

Then things happened.
The big one was the pandemic; studios shut,
no personal contact, and with reason.
With no immunity, the thing
would have run riot. I know
the equations, could do the sums,
make the same predictions
as the experts.

Some places never re-opened.

The problem for me is
I can’t decide what I want.
The right arm’s a whole picture,
but the left one needs something
to bring the symbols together.
Trouble is, I don’t know
what that would be. Thoughts
of a DNA ribbon, a wavy stave
of musical notes. A Pictish knot
might do.

And who would do it? Artists
move around, move away,
and it’s such a personal thing,
artist and skin.

I’ll let things settle, print a photo,
of what I have, sketch a line
to link what’s there,
before I’m too old.

Colin Will
31/08/2022 – 05/09/2022


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A new blog direction

I discovered a Cretan diary from 2018 in an old notebook, and later on in the same year some notes on our visit to Mull, Iona, Staffa and the Treshnish Islands.

So I’ve decided, once I get these two diaries typed up, to go through all my travel diaries and put them up here in chronological order. They’ll be warts and all, the original notes, not the modified versions, some of which I’ve published as haibun in The Book of Ways. It’ll probably take me a couple of weeks to put them in order and make a start. They’ll be illustrated too.

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Publications, Parts 2 and 3

Colin Will Bibliography

II Poems in printed magazines

Agniewska’s Dowry
Ambit
Black Light Engine Room
Botanical Society of Scotland News
Broadside
Cencrastus
Climber
Drey
Edinburgh Geologist
Envoi
Far Off Poems
Fife Lines
Gutter
Haiku Scotland
Iota
island
Lallans
Markings
New Writing Scotland
Nomad
Northwords
Northwords Now
Ofi Press Magazine
Other Poetry
Poetry Postcard Quarterly
Poetry Scotland
Spectrum
The Edinburgh Geologist
The Eildon Tree
The Herald
The Hold
The Linnet’s Wings
The Scotsman
West Lothian Life
Windows for Burns Night
Zed2O

There may be some others, but these are the ones of which I have copies.

III Poems in printed anthologies

100 Favourite Scottish Poems to Read Out Loud
A Set of Ribbons
After the Watergaw
Atoms of Delight
Be Not Afraid
Birželio Sodai ‘08
By Grand Central Station We Sat Down and Wept
Callander Haiku
Collection Point
Don’t Be Afraid; an anthology to Seamus Heaney
Double Bill
Edinburgh; an intimate city
Inspired? Get Writing
Into the Forest
Landfall
Mesostic Herbarium
One touch of Nature
Poems for the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology
Poetry and Geology
Present Poets 2
Scotia Extremis
Shared Writing; renga days
Shorelines, Making Waves, Soundwaves (NVP)
Skein of Geese
Skybound
Split Screen
Still Standen
Strawberries; poems in honour of Edwin Morgan
Ten Seasons
The Call of the Clerihew
The Edinburgh Book of Twentieth Century Scottish Poetry
The Road North
The Way to Cold Mountain
Things Not Seen
Tidelines
Umbrellas of Edinburgh
Untitled Two (Neu Reekie)
Variations on a New Song
Verse Chain
Wild Words
Wind Blown Clouds
Working Words
Write, Well
Writer of the Year (Tyne & Esk Writers)

Again. these are ones I have copies of.

IV: Poems in online mags, webzines and websites

a handful of stones
And Other Poems
Bolts of Silk
Clear Poetry
Contemporary Haibun Online
Epistrophy
Every Day Poems
Gravity
Haibun Today
Ink, Sweat and Tears
New Linear Perspectives
Notes from the Gean
Nutshells and Nuggets
qarrtsiluni
Sketchbook
Snakeskin
Softblow
St Abbs Community website
The Fat Damsel
The Linnet’s Wings
The Passionate Transitory
The Periodic Table of Poetry
The Road North
The Stare’s Nest
Usenet Newsgroup rec.arts.poems
Verse Wrights
World Haiku Review
Zimmerzine

There are probably others, but these are all in acknowledgements in books.

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Publications

Rapidly approaching 80 as I am, I thought I’d have a go at assembling a personal bibliography. I’ve had lots of articles on librarianship and information science published in professional journals, and some management papers – corporate plans etc – published in my time with The Botanics, but I’m restricting this to literature – poetry and fiction.

I may at some point try to list the poems and stories I’ve had published in magazines and anthologies but first, these are the monographs.

Colin Will Bibliography (to 2021)

Literary works – Monographs

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

1998
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) (collection and revision of Poetry cards)

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)

2017
The night I danced with Maya. Red Squirrel Press. 92pp (paperback)

2018
Wee Poems [12 ‘haiku’]. San Diego, Poems For All #1744. Published for StAnza 2018.
Word Play [short stories]. Postbox Press. 180pp. [Paperback)

2021
Long Shorts (short stories). Postbox Press. 180pp. (Paperback)

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The novel; an update in January 2022

When I finished my novel, The Way We Say Yes, in October last year I had a number of offers to read it from kind friends, but I decided against that. I wanted a totally objective assessment from a stranger, a literary professional. I’d had a good experience with The Literary Consultancy when I was putting my first full-length short story collection – Word Play – together. The report from their reader was invaluable. It resulted in the rewriting of almost all the stories in that book, and in a permanent change in the way I look at my own writing.

I had no qualms about sending them the manuscript of my novel, despite it being around 93,000 words long. They assigned a reader, and I waited, mostly patiently, for his report. I must admit that for the last couple of weeks I was expecting it to arrive at any moment. I was by turns anxious and treating the expectation with my usual sang froid. (Who am I kidding? I was scared stiff.)

The report arrived yesterday, and it’s massive. It’s thorough, painstakingly detailed and – get this – mostly positive and encouraging.

It will take me a couple of weeks to digest it, and longer than that to get down to the rewrite (I have other writing and editing priorities just now), but I will do it.

The novel contains two interwoven timelines; one medieval, the other modern. The reader suggests rebalancing these; more medieval, less modern. I can see how that will work, and I’m already steeped in the events of the Albigensian Crusade, so writing those sections will be a joy. He also recommends cutting some of the modern story, and he’s made some eminently sensible suggestions, only several of which will break my heart.

The upshot is that I can see the second draft being finished in the second half of this year, and it will be slightly smaller; perhaps 86,000 words or so. I’m not even going to think about what happens after that. I can do this.

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Storm Arwen

The storm (Force 11 here) which hit us on the 26th and 27th of November was one of the most destructive I can remember, and I can remember the big one of January 1968, known as Hurricane Low Q.

Wind speeds were between 90 and 100mph when it came ashore on the East coast of Scotland, and that included Dunbar.

The John Muir Country Park plantation of Scots Pine was devastated, with between 80 and 90% of the trees destroyed. It’s still unsafe, so I haven’t seen it for myself.

What I have seen is the damage to buildings and property in Dunbar, and the effects on sea life. A huge volume of kelp was ripped from the holdfasts on the sea-bed and washed ashore. A lot of the creatures which lived in its shelter were battered on rocks or sand, and now litter the beach. Jane and I walked along yesterday, and it was upsetting to see all the dead lobsters of all ages and sizes. Gulls had stripped away the flesh from most of them, leaving only their blue shells.

I know there are lobsters round here, but I’d never thought about octopuses being part of the marine fauna. Yet here they are, at least half a dozen of them, and that’s just on the surface. Below the tangle there may be many more.

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Telling Stories

What I learned about myself, in the period between 2016 and now, is that I love to tell stories. I love making up characters, settings and situations, the more three-dimensional and true-to-life (as I imagine life), the better.

So if I have to do some research on facts to fit places and events my characters exist in, I’ll do that quite happily. I know some story writers and novelists start with the imagination and stay in it for as long as their tale lasts, that’s not the way it works best for me. It’s even more essential with historical elements in fiction, as in one thread of my novel. Real things happened to real people, and we have records, even if some of them are partial. I have to get at least these bits right. And if I need to know upon which day of the week Hogmanay 1999 fell, so be it. I will find out.

Oh, I know I’ve experimented with “magic realism”, because I’ve read and enjoyed the fictions of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others, but the “magic” bit is always minor, always secondary. Maybe it’s just a wholly implausible thing one of my characters does or says, while the other characters react in a wholly predictable manner – I quite like that technique – like when a wife says, out of the blue, that she needs to go to South America. I may write more of those stories.

The need to have my stories rooted in some version of reality is probably why I’ve never tackled science fiction, although I confess to having read an awful lot in that genre when I was younger. I probably just lack the depth of imagination to create whole worlds where the laws of physics or the inevitabilities of biology don’t apply. I still love the stories and novels of Ray Bradbury, for instance, because he was a masterly story-teller. But I couldn’t write the kinds of stories he wrote,.

I suppose it’s having finished a novel on which much of my time and thought has been focussed for several years that’s made me think about things like this. I do love the craft of writing, as well as the art of it. I want to write better.

I don’t know in which direction my writing will take me next; maybe more stories, or maybe poetry? And if poetry, is that the same as storytelling? I think not. Stories illuminate a character’s actions and intentions in a continuous fashion. Poems are like going for a walk in the hills at night, and only switching on a torch every few hundred metres. They illuminate a thought, a vision, a seeing, something that’s instant and all-pervading. I love that. I’ll try to do more, but it’s a different form of thinking, as well as a different form of writing.

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Finished

That’s the first draft of the novel finished, printed out, proof-read, and now I’ve started a critical read.

I’m more than halfway through the critical read, and I’ve already rewritten several sections that needed substantial revision. I should finish it this weekend.

What then? Frankly, I’m not sure. I didn’t write it with the aim of publication, as I’ve said before, but to get it out of my system, and to prove to myself I can write a novel. I’ve had the idea in my head for a very long time, ever since Jane and I visited the Languedoc and toured round some of the Cathar sites. Discovering that two of the major massacres of the Albigensian Crusade took place on my birthday, albeit in 1209 and 1210, gave me a weird feeling, as if I was somehow destined to write something which contributed to an understanding of the Cathars, their beliefs, and the reasons the Crusaders attacked them with such ferocity and brutality. I also wanted to describe something of the social setting for those living at the time. But I didn’t just want to write about some obscure events which took place in what’s now part of France in the 13th century. I wanted to write a modern story too, and have the Cathar narrative weave in and out of that story.

A lot of my short stories are about couples and their interactions, but they’ve usually been focussed on short time scales. This time I wanted to cover a longer period in the modern story, about thirty years in total, and I’d never attempted anything like that before. But it’s been constantly fascinating as well as challenging. And now it’s done, or at least drafted. At the moment it’s just over 90,000 words, the longest thing I’ve ever written, apart from my PhD thesis..

I’ve had to focus a lot of time and energy on the writing this past year. Fortunately, with the social effects of the pandemic, I haven’t had any real conflicts of interest or time. That’s been a bit of a luxury, I suppose, and I shouldn’t expect that to continue in future. I’ve got some editorial commitments for the next few months, so any writing time I have will be for shorter things.

I feel happy and relieved that I’ve completed what I set out to do, and I’ll consider very carefully what I want to do next, both with the novel and with my writing life. Would I write another novel? Not immediately.

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Novel update

Peyrepertuse

This is part of the ruined Cathar stronghold of Peyrepertuse, the most dramatic of the hilltop castles we visited in the Languedoc in 1998. This is the view from the higher fortifications to the lower ones. It was never captured by the Crusaders, but it was always a remote and difficult site to occupy, and it could never have withstood a siege.

At the moment I’m nearing the end of the first draft of the novel, with nearly 74,000 words written. Of course it will need rewrites and revisions, but I’ll do those based on the first full draft.

Originally I thought the novel would be complete at 80,000 words, but it will probably run to about 86,000.

I know what are the major events which will take place in the next major section, the ante-penultimate one, and I’m working my way through it now. The final section is partly written, but I haven’t even started on the one before that, so it exists only as a title at the moment.

Each section, and there are 14, is between 4,000 and 8,000 words, and will be split into chapters.

The Cathar interludes are all written, and will be tipped in to the main narrative when I assemble le tout ensemble.

The tower at Minerve

Minerve is where the Cather story ends, in 1210, but I won’t say where or when the modern story ends, because that would be a spoiler.

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My novel in Autumn 2021: the “why?” of it

Title: The Way We Say “Yes”

My interest in the Languedoc and its history goes back some considerable time. I read Montaillou, by Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie some time after it was published in English in 1978. I was fascinated by this story of Catharism, the Albigensian Crusade, and the Inquisition.

It stayed in the back of my mind until my wife and I rented a holiday gîte in Paraza, on the Canal du Midi, in 1998. En route we stopped at Beziers and learned of the massacre which took place there on 22nd July 1209. Later, because it was far too hot to hang around, we toured the hilltop fortresses at Queribus, Montsegur and Peyrepertuse, and visited Carcassonne, Mirepoix and Minerve, among other medieval sites. At Minerve I learned of the burning there of 140 Cathars, on the 22nd of July 1210, exactly a year after the massacre at Beziers. My own birthday is the 22nd of July, albeit in 1942. I convinced myself that I was destined to write about the history.

At the time I was still working at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and also very much involved with my profession of librarianship. It didn’t leave me much time for writing, but I was able to fit in some research, decided on a structure for the novel and sketched out my ideas. The novel was to feature a modern story, taking place mostly in the Languedoc. It would also contain a parallel 13th century narrative. I had filled out some of the blanks in my structural diagram, and written some of the easier sections, sometimes on the commuter train between Dunbar and Edinburgh.

Then Kate Mosse published her excellent novel Labyrinth in 2005. It too contained a modern story with Cathar interludes, but it was a totally different book from the one I was writing. What completely knocked the stuffing out of me was that the names of four of her Cathar characters were the same as four of mine. I will freely admit that I’d selected mine from Inquisition records mentioned in Montaillou.

The coincidences, although they are superficial ones, led to me abandoning my novel. and it’s only recently that my interest has been rekindled.

There have been further ups and downs along the way, and a second abandonment in 2019, but now I’ve come back to it with renewed determination to finish it, for my own satisfaction.

Among the sources I’ve found useful are:

Le Roy Ladurie, Emanuel: Maintaillou. 1978
Lambert, Michael: The Cathars. 1998
Mosse, Kate: Labyrinth. 2005
Gougaud, Henri and Sioen, Gérard: Lands of the Cathars. English version 1994
William of Tudela and Anon: Song of the Cathar Wars, Parts 1 and 2. 1213 and ~1275. English version published 1996.

The title? The word for “yes” in Occitan, the langue d’oc, is “oc”. There was no ‘France’ at that time, and the land was a collection of feudal estates originally settled by Frankish tribes, but in most of them, apart from those belonging to the Counts of Toulouse and Foix, the word for “yes” was “oïl”, which became “oui” in modern French. The whole region, southern ‘France’, the ‘kingdom of Aragon’, northeast ‘Spain’, ‘Catalunya’ was flexible, except that allegiances were to specific fiefdoms, which in turn were nominally or actually in vassalage to higher authorities.

Colin Will

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