All posts by Johnbolland

September…

Was a busy month. I haven’t been as attentive to this blog as I ‘should’ be…but, at my age, perhaps ‘should’ is a threadbare verb.

I’ve been very busy progressing two on-going projects.

Bass: a novel I started 12 years ago and, thanks to generous critical support from Martin Walsh, Mandy Haggith, Rae Cowie, Ashley Milne and especially Mary Armour, seems to be progressing towards a final-final draft.

Pibroch : a spoken word performance/ poetry collection for which I should acknowledge the support of Imogen Stirling, Hamish Napier, Aileen Ackland and Elizabeth Rimmer.

This has been a weird year (I am sure for all of us) but the opportunity to focus, at this point in my writing journey, on large and (I hope) important projects has been a blessing. As has the continuing support of such as rich and insightful variety of correspondents and critical friends.

Yes: perhaps these close ties would not have been forged in these unusual circumstances. But the power of these artistic friendships at this time has been invaluable.

Thank you all!

Some of the elements of Pibroch got their first ‘outing’ as part of the Geological Societies ‘Geopoetry 2020’ event this month. My thanks to Patrick Corbett, Norrie Bissell and all the other organisers. Sneak preview on @geolsoc YouTube channel 1hr 45m. Comments very welcome.

Return of WORD festival on the way.

Next week sees the return to the North East calendar of a dedicated literary festival with a great programme including some of my favourite contemporary writers including Eimear McBride, Leila Aboulela and Lemn Sissay.

Eimear McBride
Lemn Sissay

wayWORD runs from Wednesday 23rd September till Sunday, 27th, the new festival solves must of my ‘what will I do at the weekend?’ problems.

The festival has been devised and developed by students at Aberdeen University with support from festival director, Helen Lynch, but events are open to all, mirroring the style and emphasis of the annual WORD festivals hosted by the University until 2011. Great too to see the involvement of great local talent such as Mae Diansangu, Shane Strachan and Sheena Blackhall and space given to creative writing from across the region including work featured in Pushing Out the Boat and Leopard Arts.

Of course, in these times, most events are online so geography or lock-down status should be no issue. Register your interest in events at the site above and get it in your diary. Look forward to seeing you there.

P.S. Yes: I am reading in the Leopard Arts – Pushing Out the Boat event on Sunday evening.

May PodFest from Aberdeen University

Spread the word! University of Aberdeen’s May Festival couldn’t go ahead this year because…well, you know!
But fortunately there’s… PodFest – launching today. Don’t miss it! Kicking off with podcast by art/music/poetry combo Pete Stollery, Martin Malone & Bryan Angus. Full programme and access details below. Enjoy.

Thanks to Helen Lynch and the rest of the crew for keeping the show on the road.

Granite Noir 2020 – Locals in the Limelight

Space to read an excerpt of my novel-in-progress – Enchantment – as part of 2020 Granite Noir . The Locals in the Limelight strand in Granite Noir’s programming, steered by Lee Randall , provides an opportunity for emerging writers to share a stage (if only briefly) with writers like Anne Holt, Denise Mina, Sarah Paretsky & Ian Rankin. Book and poetry festivals everywhere should pick up on the tip…offering an encouraging platform for new writers and great experience. Thanks to all involved in developing and delivering the programme and to Alex Clark for hosting.

Photo Credit – Granite Noir 2020

Climate Science & Climate Change Poetry

Thwaites Glacier – West Antarctica, 28th Dec. 2019 – NASA Earth Observatory

Tomorrow night – 11th February 2020 – sees the inaugural event in STEM Poets programme of workshops and readings aimed at developing a coherent and effective body of poetry and other writing which can engage with and influence the outcomes of the ongoing Climate Emergency.

STEM Poets as a group was initiated by Eveline Pye in 2019 engaging a range of poets with a background, or special interest in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics. They support STEAM, a global initiative to introduce the arts within STEM education in order to encourage creativity and break down barriers between the arts and sciences. STEM poets believe it is important that readers are presented with factually correct and truthful STEM knowledge in works of imagination, specifically poems and short fiction, and wish to promote informed writing on climate change. They want to encourage more people to write about STEM subjects and will offer support and review of STEM content.  I am very pleased to count myself as one of their number.

Tomorrow night’s event will involve a discussion between Eveline and Colin Will, exploring some of the ideas and issues around Climate Change poetry, many of which have been outlined in Eveline’s recent essay published by Glasgow Review of Books.

The issues around STEM poetry and climate are, at even a cursory exploration, complex and fascinating.  How is the complexity of biophysical processes communicated clearly and coherently in ‘verse’ – as opposed to their natural vernacular of algebra and algorithms?  How do we as poets and scientists avoid bowdlerising reality in order to get an essentially political point across?

Eveline’s essay explores guidance of ‘effective communication’ on Climate Change from a number of government and academic sources which, in summary, propose that effective climate change poetry ‘should’:

i) be clear, relevant and coherent avoiding references which are unlikely to be understood by the general public;

ii) not rely on evoking fear either for the reader or the next generation but should evoke positive emotions which support people’s internal sense of agency – the feeling that their actions are meaningful;

iii) not be overly strident as this increases the likelihood that the message will be discounted or ignored, and should avoid highlighting the difference between the reader’s attitude and actions since this is more likely to change their attitude than their actions;

iv) focus on past loss and the restoration of what has been lost, near-term benefits and opportunities to avoid future losses rather than apocalyptic scenarios;

v) help overcome negative associations and poverty attributions associated with actions we want to encourage such as buying second-hand furniture and clothes, drinking tap water and using public transport.

Talk about squaring the circle!

Having been active and interested in this area over the last decade, I find these criteria challenging in the extreme in the context of a single poem or even collection.

How to express the complexity – and often counter-intuitive nature – of processes avoiding references ‘unlikely to be understood’?

How to avoid frightening or shaming individuals into apathy or denial?

How to avoid advocacy in a literature which is, no matter your perspective – whether a denier, a mitigator or an adaptor –  partial and political?

And how to present positive inducements in a situation which, ‘scientifically’, seems to forecast few upsides for human societies or the majority of other critters currently on the planet?

In this context, this project does not need individual poets but a community of poets – with diverse (precise but necessarily limited) STEM knowledge and a range of  political and aesthetic perspectives on this process.  There are those who see rewilding as a ‘good’…others, perhaps, the preservation of a material ‘civilisation’ (for some) at great cost to other creatures and fellow-human beings.  Some, in workshops and discussions, have been sanguine and of the view that a world without people would be a ‘good thing’…bring on the next mass extinction!  Let us start again.  The planet will recover…and it will (whatever that means?). (And who are ‘we’ in that ambition?)

All of the above are essentially political perspectives – not scientific – and should be expressed and explored clearly and coherently in an accessible literature – doing what poetry and fiction do best – exploring alternative personal perspectives and trajectories – but staying close to the topic.  That the climate IS changing and will have many complex ramifications for all living things and their social connection.

One of the areas I am working on, at the moment, concerns the Thwaites Glacier, part of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf which extends ‘into’ the Amundsen Sea.  Thwaites Glacier is melting AND calving at an accelerating pace due to complex hydrological and physical processes which, though perfectly ‘logical’ confound the simple notion that ‘ice melts’. 

https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146247/thwaites-glacier-transformed

Essentially, studies suggest, warm water (well… 1.5 degC) is being hosed towards the grounding line of the ice shelf by canyons in the seabed (themselves relics of earlier glaciation).  The warm water (Circumpolar Deep Water), which ‘flows’ out of the Northern hemisphere, undercuts and destabilises the ice, which is NOT floating but grounded on the sea bed hundreds, sometimes thousands of metres down.  Melting from below and subject to bending stresses it calves, releasing fragments to the open ocean which float north (and melt).

So…make a poem out of that (working on it!)  The episode highlights the gap between school-child physics (ice melts at 0 degC in some slow dripping process – like an ice-cube in a glass – as the global temperature inches up through 1.5 degC to 3 degC above pre-industrial levels) and the complexity of geophysical processes in the ‘real world’.  In fact, local geophysical processes are directing jets of warm water at the grounding line and the thinning ice is collapsing.  Think of a high-powered water jet rather than dripping meltwater.

It is estimated that Thwaites Glacier could account for 0.4m of mean sea-level rise.

So,

  1. What does 0.4m sea level rise mean?  And when might that happen?
  2. How do I have agency in addressing this issue – reduce my GHG footprint? Throw up sea-defences? Both?

Does the poet addresses the consequences or the process – a nostalgic grieving over things I’ve never seen or experienced but are about to be ‘lost’?

I am drawn back to one of my creative touch-stones in this, advice attributed to the Chinese Song Dynasty poet and scholar, Wei T’ai.

‘Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing but reticent about the feeling. ‘

I am very much looking forward to tomorrow night’s event at the CCA in Glasgow and an ongoing collaboration with fellow writers and artists in this vital area.  Hope to see you there.

NEOS 2019 Exhibition

Only two days left in my NEOS 2019 exhibition at Leith Hall.

Really exciting and inspiring event this year, sharing a space with cally Smith, Fiona Leask and Roselyne O’Neill. Over the last week we’ve had almost two hundred visitors and lots of interesting discussions on practice covering the range from watercolour and acrylic painting through woodcuts & engraving to MIG and TIG welding…and the finer points (sorry!) of damascene steel.

Looking forward to getting back to writing and making next week but with two days left to go…do come and see. And…in this fine late September weather, the countryside and the grounds are fine. And in the meantime, I’m making good progress on a set of woodcuts to complement my First Winter sequence of haiku. really good to get a solid run at work in one form and the process of ‘translation’ from poem to wash to woodcut to print is fascinating.

It’s that time of year again…

That orbital thing that happens when mass encounters space and spins…September almost on us.

Personally, it has been a difficult summer and an ‘interesting’ year. I’ve survived cancer when others, very close to my heart, haven’t. I’ve kept on keeping on…writing, painting and printing…developing my music. Discovering my new ‘place’ hear in Huntly.

So..it’s NEOS season again. This year I’m exhibiting in Leith Hall in excellent company with artists Roselyne O’Neill, Fiona Leask and Cally Smith. We’ll be part of the Strathbogie Trail (map below).

I have a range of new work and, of course, copies of Fallen Stock will be on sale. So..whether you’re interested in painting, prints or poetry…or all 3…come along and chat.

Open from the 14th and 23rd September (Closed Wednesday to go see everyone else!). Check out the many other venues and artists in the NEOS catalogue and website.

That man again..

It is Spring here in the Northern Hemisphere of planet Earth.  Yesterday I heard a lark sing.  The daffodils here are almost done.  Tulips come. There are buds on all the trees…and blossom on the plum.

Six months of chemotherapy ended at the beginning of March.  A long winter after the dark autumn of illness.  I am feeling better. Tired but better.

And I have been busy.  Busy launching my debut collection – Fallen Stock. Busy reading and meeting friends.  Busy getting ready to flow. Again. So thank you – to everyone who has helped me on this journey out of winter – to my family and my friends, my fellow artists & collaborators (also friends) , those who have come to readings and generously bought the book, those who have viewed my paintings.  Thank you to all the nurses, doctors, helpers and volunteers at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary & Doctor Grays and Huntly.

Now for the good bad news…I’m back.

Let it flow. Let it flow. Let it flow.

5-4-3-2-1…

Launch day.

A beautiful morning here in St. Andrews. Cloudless sky and the wind that was promised seems to have taken itself elsewhere (for now at least).

Perfect conditions then.

Launch day. What am I…an astronaut?

And I notice the coincidence. My first publication…on the wall of Mrs. Thompson’s class in St. Paul’s Primary – a story about pyramids. I was 11. It was 1969. They hadn’t quite landed on the moon yet.

Launch day. I never wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be a writer – a poet, a novelists, a fabulator : (yes…a clype).

Archaeologist, explorer, big-game hunter even…before the blush came off that peach. Astronaut…not so much. Who takes a golf club to another planet? A man…I suppose. (Yes…I know…satellite! Words and meanings matter.)

Yuri Gagarin had a better label. And all those earnest statues, plaques, memorials in Russia still there when I visited…up there with Vladmir Ilych…up there and beyond. Even Pixar knew Buzz was a made-up name.

Launch day. I have waited 50 years for this. There are other books…still born or waiting – books in limbo : but that’s a whole other (meta)physics. But this one…now…on the table in J & G Innes window on South St., St. Andrews.

Yes…you can always write. You can! I’ve been a writer since I was at least 11 years old & Maurice Lindsay (bless him) published me and paid (handsomely) when was just 18. I have always written, scrievit, flyted, fabulated, clyped.

But no matter how much math and simulator hours and pretending to be weightless while your jumbo jet plummets thousands of feet and rehearsals and sleepless nights and number one haircuts…are you really an astronaut till blast off?

Launch day. My thanks to everyone in Mission Control and all the vast hinterland of Fallen Stock – a circumfusa half a century deep. Now…

5-4-3-2-1…we have ignition…


On a personal note.

2018 was an interesting year here in the long grass.

In the course of those 12 months I…

  • Moved out of our marital and family home of over 20 years
  • Finally found a place of my own in a place of my choosing
  • Built myself a working studio – almost single-handedly (though my sons had to rescue me now and then!)
  • Allowed myself to be diagnosed with small-cell lymphocytic lymphoma
  • Attended the wedding of one of my sons and his amazing partner.
  • Exhibited my paintings & prints both in my own studio (NEOS19) and in other venues (WorM, Moray Arts Centre)
  • Had some poems published and agreed a publication date for my collection – Fallen Stock
  • Embarked on 6 cycles of chemotherapy.

So…much is changed.  I could reflect on what I didn’t do – or maunder on about the works in progress (there are several) – but those seem important milestones for me.  As you can imagine, it was a year of slow ascents and sudden falls.

I had known about the ‘lump’ in my neck before all of this.  It was sitting there – swelling – but I was busy and besides, stuck as I have been for so many years, the burgeoning lump seemed like a bit of a get out clause.  Maybe it would all end and I’d be free?

But I was also sleeping 15 hours a day and the night-sweats were getting tedious.  I decided these symptoms were probably related to my mental health or my on-going struggle to control addiction.

Eventually, however, professional advice (a very astute dentist) prodded me to see a doctor.  The doctor assured me I did NOT have Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma but referred me to the hospital anyway.  The maxillo-facial consultants at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary very quickly assured me I DID have Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma – an indolent form known as Small-Cell Lymphocytic Lymphoma (SLL) or Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia (the terms are interchangeable).

For a while I thought I was going to die.

I was a bit miffed that my cancer was indolent – I hated the idea that anything to do with me could be seen as indolent!  It is currently incurable.  It’s a slow burn thing that will weaken me over years and then, like any ailing creature, something else will kill me.  But, for now at least, it is not painful or disfiguring.  And I realised, as I began to navigate through waiting rooms and day-units, that that was a blessing compared to many others.

I am not going to die – for a while.

Thanks to modern medical technology and the excellent health-care at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and Dr. Grays Hospital in Elgin – both NHS and free at the point of delivery – I will, they assure me, get better for a while. Be better.

After five cycles of Fludarabine-Cyclophosphamide-Rituximab chemotherapy, my many ‘lumps’ have shrunk and two weeks out of four I feel quite well.  My hair has NOT fallen out and I haven’t caught any secondary infections.  The anti-emetics I have been prescribed seem to manage the nausea of the first week of each cycle.  Again, I have had a fairly easy time compared to many others I now meet on a monthly basis.

That camaraderie – which is not much more than a nod, a smile and, often, a ‘Good luck!’- is important.  Just as with addiction recovery groups, I think it’s important to be there – to acknowledge to yourself and others, “I am one of us.  I am like you.  I am mortal.  I am suffering.  We persevere.”

How we laughed when hospital radio played Don’t Fear the Reaper last month!

So where is this moment of disclosure going – this brief glimpse of me as I cross the path between two thickets? 

This Spring I will be reborn and there will be things to do – things of my choosing, in this place of my choosing.

“I am one of us.  I am like you.  I am mortal.  I am suffering.  We persevere.”