Broadening the mind

is what travel is supposed to do, but does it? Unequivocally yes in my case, whether it’s been staying in gites in various parts of rural France, driving between guesthouses in the Black Forest and environs, or getting to know Italy on bus tours with friends or on our own. We’ve learned such a lot through being immersed in the life of the communities we’ve stayed in, however briefly. These places I’ve mentioned so far have been in Europe, our local patch (I am a confirmed and unrepentant citizen of Europe). Further afield, I’ve enjoyed poetic trips to Lithuania and Quebec. But I’ve also visited some more exotic destinations, where the cultures have been radically different from that in my home patch.

Experiencing these places – Japan, China, Tibet – really did open my eyes to different ways of living, although I was already steeped in Japanese art, culture and religion before we went there in 2003, having been a practising Zen Buddhist since I was a teenager.

I keep travel journals, always have done, and they’re invaluable for recreating journeys, being far more reliable than memory. This series of blog posts will be based on my travel notes, but the first one is developed from a haibun I wrote after our Japan trip. I called it Mountains and valleys, temples and gardens, and I’ll post daily segments from it. Here’s the first day:

Mountains and valleys, temples and gardens, Day 1.

After an uneventful early morning flight from Edinburgh to London we board the 747 to Tokyo. We fail to sleep while flying over Russia. It is extraordinary to look down from the plane’s nose camera at a frozen Siberian river – I believe the Amur. Overflying the mountains of Japan is very spectacular then, unexpectedly we get a view of the top of Mt Fuji as we descend towards Tokyo.

ice snake far below
grips the frozen ground –
television scenery

misty ridges
merge into clouds –
Fuji poking through

Narita Airport is 50km outside Tokyo city. After a very forbidding and stern passport control we retrieve our baggage and it is loaded onto a truck by porters wearing white gloves. Many workers in Japan wear white gloves – bus and taxi drivers most obviously. We meet our Tokyo guide, who said we should call him Smiley, and he entertains us on the two-hour bus journey to our hotel by explaining some facts and figures about Japan and the Japanese people. He’s a delightful guy, with a good sense of humour, but we don’t quite follow the commentary about the different prefectures we passed through on the way. The city is vast and sprawling – same traffic congestion problems as the rest of the world. We go over the Rainbow Bridge, and realise we’re high over the dockside area, but it’s too dark to see much. There are several artificial islands, made from landfill.

We check in to our hotel then walk out to look for a meal. On the way down the steps outside we hear cicadas in the trees. It is very warm compared to the Scotland we left behind that morning. We find a Yoshigawa restaurant (distinctive orange shop fronts identify this chain) and dine well and very cheaply on salmon, thinly-sliced beef, miso soup, pickles and rice. Then we stop at the convenience store next door to buy mochi cakes – gooey rice flour balls stuffed with sweet bean paste. They are tasty, more so than another local speciality (below).  The politeness of the shop assistants is wonderful.

soft rice-paste balls
on a stick –
sweet-glazed and soy-salty

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Prose, Prose Poems, Poetic Prose, Poetry

I’m writing this partly as a response to a StAnza discussion between Marie-Elsa Bragg and Don Paterson on the borderlines/boundaries (if such exist) between prose and poetry. My title may suggest a continuum, but is that so?

I’ve written elsewhere about my own reasons for switching from being primarily a writer of poetry to mainly writing prose – short stories and flash fiction. Here I want to focus on the differences in the way I approach the forms.

For me, poetry starts with a line, a group of words which comes into my head, a group of sounds I hear. My ideal way of writing a poem is similar to that which Norman MacCaig professed to follow. He said (I paraphrase) that he would follow that first line down the page and see where it led. That, more or less, is how I do it.

It starts with word sounds, but because I’ve been writing so long, unconsciously I bring in rhythm and many other techniques, such as assonance, alliteration, rhyme or half-rhyme, repetition, the ‘Rule of Three’, and knowing where to break a line for breath or emphasis.

These techniques, allied to knowledge of specific forms and shapes for poetry, characterise poetry as a literary entity. I’m not saying they define it, for that would be to limit its range of possibilities, but that’s what most poems look like.

Prose poetry would remove the discipline of line breaks, but could incorporate some or all of the other poetic techniques.

There’s one particular form which blurs the borderlines between prose and poetry, and that’s the haibun, a Japanese form made famous in the West through translations of Basho’s great work Oku no Hosomichi – Narrow Roads of the Interior.

It’s lyrical prose, written in the present tense, and is usually the record of a real or imaginary journey. It’s punctuated or end-stopped by a haiku. My 2014 collection – The Book of Ways – is a gathering of 112 haibun, published by Red Squirrel Press. I still explore the form from time to time.

And so to prose itself, and, because I’ve never written a novel, I’ll restrict myself to short forms – flash fiction and the short story.

For the most part, short fiction is a narrative which does not have the line structure of a poem, and nor does it (necessarily) embody poetic tricks and techniques. The conventional story is structured into a beginning, middle and end; or an opening, a development and a denouement.

The opening can be as short as the first two sentences. The first tempts the reader in; the second hooks them. Or you can go larger. The ending can be a full stop, or it can be more open-ended or ambiguous. I’ve found that the needs of the story itself dictate the type of ending. Sometimes the end is a question, requiring the reader to speculate on ‘What happens next?’ If character and plot have been sufficiently developed, there are probably enough clues to tease the reader into answering their own question.

That’s my personal take on these particular borderlines, but I’ve read and enjoyed, or written and enjoyed writing, examples which have transgressed these boundaries. Borders are made to be crossed.

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Word counts

There are a lot of short story competitions out there, and most of them are very different. Some are niche, and some are broad. One thing they all share is they have a word limit in the competition rules. One thing I’ve found in writing short stories is that each is as long as the story they have to tell. They don’t conform neatly to a word limit when I’m writing them.

So when I look at competition submission rules, it’s a rare and fortuitous event when a story I think is suitable for that particular competition fits within the word limit. If I’m lucky, they may be only slightly over the limit, and it’s usually a simple matter to knock out some of the superfluous words – there are always superfluous words, no matter how often I’ve revised them. Some stories seem to put on weight quite naturally, and it’s good for them to lose a bit. Cutting out usually leaves a story leaner, tighter, but of course there’s the risk of leaving words out that are essential to the plot, the character, or the arc of the narrative.

Limits can go from ‘less than 8,000 words’, through ‘not more than 5,000’, or ‘under 2,200’ to ‘a maximum of 1,500’. That last one’s really hard for me, because mine tend to average out at just over 2,000 words, and to get below 1,500 I’m sacrificing around a quarter of the story. That’s not worth it. I’d rather write a new story and deliberately keep it within the limit, which is what I’ve done a few times.

The issue with flash fiction is similar but less of a problem. My definition of flash fiction is between 500 and 1,000 words, but some competitions have 500 as the maximum. But that’s OK, really. I enjoy the challenge of creating a story which has a beginning, middle and end on a single side of A4, because that’s what it boils down to.

I’m just about ready to submit some stories to magazines and competitions, and I’ve read the rules and guidelines – you have to.

Good luck with yours.



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To blog, or not to blog

I haven’t been keeping the blog up to date recently – too many other pressing things on my mind. To be honest, I have thought of just stopping it. But in the hopes that I might have some more time to myself next year, I’ve decided to keep it going for the moment.

So what’s been happening? Quite a lot really. Most immediately, I’ve been putting together a funding application for CoastWord 2018; Dunbar’s Festival of Words. We have an excellent draft programme, thanks to Hannah Lavery; we now just need the funding to make it happen. I can’t say any more about it just now.

The other biggie is that I’ve been working on my short stories, putting together a manuscript for a full-length collection, to be published by Postbox Press in 2018. Now, as some of you will know, I am the Editor at Postbox Press, but Sheila Wakefield, who runs it and Red Squirrel Press, said some time ago that she wanted to publish my stories.

I like to think that I’m an impartial and objective editor when it comes to dealing with fiction submissions, but I know I couldn’t be objective about my own work, so I sent it out to The Literary Consultancy for an unbiased assessment. I’m so glad I did. I got a six-page report back, and I agreed with almost all of the points made, so I embarked on a huge editing job, substantially rewriting most of the stories, taking some out, and putting others in. It’s finished, and I’m due to hand the MS over to Sheila next Friday, with some trepidation and anxiety. I hope she likes them. This time, I am confident about them. Again, I won’t say any more at this point.

So, I’ve written a blog post. Also, I’ve changed the header image. It’s Fast Castle, in Berwickshire, or what’s left of the castle. The original is the one Sir Walter Scott wrote about in Bride of Lammermuir.

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The Bardo

I’ve started reading George Saunders’ Booker Prize-winning novel Lincoln at the Bardo, and it’s impressing me enormously. It concerns the afterlife of Lincoln’s son Willy, who died aged 11. Saunders imagines the afterlife as some form of the Tibetan Bardo Thodol, often incorrectly translated as the Book of the Dead.

So it got me thinking about my own trip to Tibet in 2007, and the poems which came out of it, later published in The floorshow at the Mad Yak Café (Red Squirrel Press, 2010). Here’s the Bardo Thodol poem from that book

Last Rites

We have four ways
to dispose of the dead,
she tells me.

Sky burial is still number one,
even since the Liberation.
The body is stripped. All flesh
is filleted from the bones
by the rogyapas, the body-breakers.

Then bones are broken with hammers,
sledged to splinters and mixed with tsampa.
Only after the rock platform is cleared of that
is the next course served.

Call it guts, internal organs, offal,
heart, lungs, liver, brain,
the slippery bits, glistening gobbets,
mad bellows that used to suck thin air,
all the pumps and pipes, intestines,
shrivelled sex parts, tumours,
empty blood vessels, the silent tongue.

Last the muscle, meat, the griffon’s favourite,
but these days a good hungry vulture
is hard to find. A potent medicine
used to relieve lameness in livestock,
gout in us, has poisoned the birds.

The fourth way is burial,
but ground deep enough to dig
is too valuable for corpses.
Only the minorities, I’m told
(with a significant glance),
choose this method.

Cremation is the third, but costly
in a land too high
for much wood to grow,
and as yet there are few
Western crematoria.

Water burial is an easy second.
It’s a long way from these headwaters
to the estuaries and oceans
where the rivers end. Mekong,
Brahmaputra, Yangtze, all rise here
under different names,
carry their disintegrating cargos
south and east. That’s why, she says,
we don’t eat fish – maybe they’re
our ancestors?

Maybe they are. What is a body
when no longer alive?
No sepulchre, we would have it;
but a lump, a thing of no further use.
What was us has left the building
to swim with the fishes
or soar with the circling birds.

Om Mani Padme Hum

Colin Will

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While I’ve been away…

Uath Lochan 2

Uath Lochan, Glen Feshie, Cairngorms.

It seems an age, so much has happened in between, but I just don’t seem to have had the time to sit down and write anything bloggable. So this is by way of a catch-up.

‘Maya’ came out on my birthday, celebrating with a launch in the Scottish Poetry Library. I played tenor sax solo before and after reading the poems, to match the cover image. Lots of friends came, including several I wasn’t expecting to see. It was a lovely day.

Since then I’ve read from it at Dunbar Craft Studio, Vibrant Musselburgh, and the Callander Poetry Weekend, as well as doing an Edinburgh reading for Christine De Luca at the Edinburgh City Museum in the Royal Mile.

I took in a little bit of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but I gave the Book Festival a miss this year – I went to a lot there last year.

Jane got her second cataract operation, and it went very well. We also had a disastrous experience with double glazing, and they’re coming back today to fix the messes they made last time. So I’m deskbound at the moment. Monday morning would normally be one of my gym sessions, but I’ll go tomorrow instead.

We got back from a short break at Feshiebridge, in the Cairngorms. It’s our only real break this year, mainly because of the uncertainties over Jane’s operation date. We may try to have a city break later. I could fancy Durham, but anywhere really.

On the writing side, I’m editing a lot of my short stories, in preparation for putting together a book for next year. And I’ve been reading fiction submissions for Postbox Press.

Altogether, keeping busy, so nothing really changes.


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Sequencing the collection

When I was publishing poetry collections under the Calder Wood Press imprint I always took a great deal of care placing poems in a sequence I thought made sense. It was one of the things I enjoyed most about publishing. I also tried to do it with my own poetry books.

Now there’s the new one:


I can honestly say I took more care and expended more thought over the sequence of poems here than in any other collection I’ve written. Why? I think that having a structure, even an implied structure rather than an explicit one, makes a collection easier to read. There are many themes in this, my ninth and largest poetry book, and I’ve tried to ensure that the themes are linked, possibly through ideas, more often through words in one poem reflected in the next, even if the themes are different. I don’t suppose many readers, other than possibly some critics, will notice the connections, but I know they’re there.

I hope that readers will enjoy the poems as much as I did writing them, because I strongly believe that poetry is an act of communication between people. My late friend Brian Osborne, in his address to the Scottish Library Association awarding me Honorary Membership said that I was all about communication. It was true then. It is true now.

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