Stepping down

Last weekend I stepped down from my second 3-year term chairing the Boast of Trustees of StAnza: Scotland’s International Poetry Festival. My involvement with StAnza goes back to 2003, and I first joined the Board the year after that. So I have had a long and very personal relationship with the Festival, and I have hugely enjoyed working with successive Directors Brian Johnstone and Eleanor Livingstone, and with Trustees past and present.

But for the past couple of years I’ve gradually been cutting down on my commitments, especially those involving committees. I’ll be 75 in July, and it feels like a good time to concentrate on my own writing.

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Past and Present

ColininChair.JPG

That’s the title we give to the sessions at StAnza: Scotland’s international poetry festival where a present writer talks about a poet from the past. These events have been a regular feature of the Festival for several years now, and I’ve been involved since the start, chairing and introducing three of the first four events, as I recall. I’ve continued to be involved, but as I step down next month from chairing StAnza’s Board of Trustees, I realise it may be the last time for a while that I sit in the Provost’s Throne in the Cooncil Chambers. I always feel somewhat ridiculous in that chair, and, frankly, it’s rather uncomfortable, but the quality of the speakers always makes up for that.

I chaired two sessions this year, both memorable, and both sell-out events. First was one featuring Neil McLennan on the war poets in Edinburgh, and the second was Alice Oswald on Homer. Both very different, but utterly fascinating. Neil talked about Craiglockhart, a hospital in WWI, then a Catholic convent and student teacher training establishment, and now a part of Napier University. When I was growing up in Colinton Mains, I passed it every day on my way to Craiglockhart Primary School. Neil spoke about Owen and others walking in the Pentland Hills, as I often did as a wee boy. And when he mentioned Owen teaching English at Tynecastle High School I almost couldn’t believe it, because my late brother Graeme attended the same school. Then to Alice Oswald. I found her talk riveting and entirely believable. I want to read the versions of Homer she mentioned, and ‘to hear the wind blowing through the words.’  I also want to re-read her own re-interpretation of the Iliad, a book I completely enjoyed on first reading. She was wonderful.

My second session in the chair was very different. Emmanuelle Lacore-Martin spoke on the poetry of Mary, Queen of Scots, and my old friend Stewart Conn on the poetry of Muriel Spark. I have to confess that I hadn’t previously considered Mary as a poet, but on this evidence she certainly was. Also, familiar as I am with the novels of Muriel Spark, I hadn’t read her poetry. And yet, according to Stewart, she always considered herself primarily as a poet.

The outcome of these sessions, I always hope, will be to make listeners seek out and enjoy the poetry of the subjects, and that’s definitely something I have been encouraged to do this year.

 

 

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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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