Well, I’m sure it has been an extraordinary year for most of us, and for many of us a year of loss and sadness. For me, it has been, mostly, a year of isolation – wait and see, restricted for much of it to my home due to my high vulnerability to COVID-19. Unlike many of friends in the global South, I have had the benefit of vaccination and the support of a government (in Scotland, at least) somewhat more concerned with the lives and health of their population than others seem to have been in countries like Brazil and, until recently, the USA.
A year of isolation and retreat has, however, provided an opportunity to focus fairly on writing projects and some associated music and film-making ideas. It has also provided the opportunity to provide some online mentoring and editorial support for other writers and projects.
So, as we come out of lock-down (again and at least temporarily), it’s time to get the show on the road again on so many levels.
Over the last 12 months, with the help and support, in particular, of Mary Armour, I’ve produced (and re-produced and finally produced) Threads, a novel set in Angola, Scotland, the USA and South Korea between 2005 and 2011.
It is the product of first-hand experience, deep research and, perhaps most challenging of all, a determined empathy for all its diverse characters.
Working in Angolan oil & gas operations in 2005, I was struck by the fact that the ‘pilgrims’ depicted in Heart of Darkness (1899) were alive and well in the 21st Century. But any reprise of Conrad’s novella of the present age, has to offer a polyphonous, multivalent account, giving voice, especially, to indigenous perspectives. In Threads, Caliban’s much-maligned mother, Sycorax, confronts Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz with the consequences of his actions and demands a compensation greater than his death.
Adopting terms from Portuguese, Kimbundu, Calão and Scots, the tale challenges reader-expectations as the point-of-view switches between colonised and colonist, woman and man, living and ‘dead’, unfolding in a shatter-zone of experience and memory.
I’ll be posting more thoughts on the development of this really challenging project over the next few weeks.
Also ready to roll is Pibroch – my spoken word show and poetry collection exploring parallels between the Climate Emergency and the Piper Alpha disaster which occurred in the North Sea in 1988.
Pibroch was originally conceived a one-person spoken word performance with accompanying music and visuals. And it still is and can be! The pressures of the last year have, however, driven the piece to be far more digital that might otherwise have been the case and it will be suitable for streaming as an installation as well as a performance. This has been a great opportunity to learn new skills in film making and music production which have been integrated into my practice.
There is a complementary collection currently in preparation. Publication of Pibroch by Red Squirrel Press is expected in 2021.
More information on some of the themes and practical issues with the development of Pibroch will be appearing on A View from the Long Grass over the next few weeks. So watch this space!
Still a few copies of my first poetry collection – Fallen Stock – available. Signed copies can be bought direct from the Shop here or visit Red Squirrel Press for a wide range of great titles.
So, if someone in your life (or you) fancy a wee bit of “mixing the absurd with the sublime” (Maria Apichella) or “reality in all of its rough complexity.” (Katie Ailes) or even “blue collar muscularity”(Martin Malone)…or all three!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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’.
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
It is estimated that Thwaites Glacier could account for 0.4m
of mean sea-level rise.
What does 0.4m sea level rise mean? And when might that happen?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.