Last Thursday the presentations and public readings for the 2014 Inspired? Get Writing! competition, organised by National Galleries Scotland, the English Speaking Union and Scottish Poetry Library, took place at the National Gallery. Primary school winners in the morning, secondary afternoon, adults evening. The winning entries, up to ten in each category, are read by Suzanne Ensom, Lorna Irvine and John Duncan, with the artworks that inspired them shown on the big screen in the NG lecture theatre. This was the final time the competition would be run in its present format, and I went along for the whole day for the first time. It’s like a long theatre event: dramatic tension rises then relaxes, while momentum builds over the course of the day. The audience bonds during intervals, and feels it has achieved something worthwhile by the end.
In his introduction, Scottish National Gallery Director Michael Clarke said that reading the creative writing enabled those whose business is visual art to gain new insights about and perspectives on works with which they were familiar. I found it a joyous way too of re-considering the whole business of ekphrasis, or writing about art. And of discovering works in the NGS collection with which I’m unfamiliar. For there were no skating ministers this year (though previous ones have indeed afforded new insights into activities on Duddingston Loch in 1795). In addition to a pair of Titian Venuses and a shoal of Bellanys there were also two works by Scottish photographer David Williams in the line-up: dancer Michael Clark and fiddler Aly Bain. The blurry-blue print of Bain appears on the cover of his 1992 CD Lonely Bird. I have a copy of this, and had no idea the original photograph was in the NGS. It was mesmerising to listen to the synaesthetic poem about it by a Primary schoolgirl. I was sitting next to a member of the NGS writing group, Words on Canvas. She said to me afterwards that she could swear she had seen Bain’s knee moving.
Another Primary winner wrote a poem called ‘Untitled’ about a Jackson Pollock painting called Untitled, the doubled untitling allowing an unfettered imagination to be caught without compromise in accomplished form.
In the afternoon, the adolescents were predictably preoccupied with darker matters – to the extent that reader Lorna Irvine asked us to note how there appeared to be a collective trepidation about entering full adulthood. Or at least there was on the part of the narrators; as one of my WoC companions pointed out, the teenagers themselves seemed cheery and charming – on the surface at least. What interested me even more was that this age group was now regularly availing itself of the full 1,000 words permitted, something which, given some of the subject matter – racism, violence, loneliness – made things rather harder for the the listener. But I wanted to celebrate the fact that there were exploring their subjects at length and in depth. With further maturity will come the ability to modulate, to cut down, to realise when less is more. Some of them may learn to write humour well. Two wrote about video works, presented as stills on the lecture theatre screen, Bill Viola’s Catherine’s Room, and Dalziel + Scullion’s Water Falls Down. I’d like to see more creative textual explorations of film; both are narrative devices. Not much poetry in this category (let’s hear a 1,000 word lyric poem!); possibly this age group responds more to the genre in its spoken word or rap incarnations – though there’s absolutely no reason why visual art in museums shouldn’t inspire these too. By now I needed cake, and adjourned to discuss proceedings so far with the enthralled WoC contingent over afternoon tea.
Final session. Sir James Guthrie’s kailyard scene A Hind’s Daughter was re-imagined as a Dutch landscape. We laughed at comic writing worthy of a radio or TV script. I was temporarily diverted by the idea of the gallery shop selling Gut Your Own Herring kits to accompany a John Bellany exhibition. We were directed by an omniscient narrator to the eye, then hand, of Mary, Queen of Scots, in one of several pieces which directly addressed our ways of seeing.
Members of Words on Canvas and South Side Writers have done well in this competition over the years. I entered back in 2006 and was highly commended in the then ‘published adults’ category, the first of many to write about a John Bellany painting. In the groups I provide prompts or feedback and have no say in the way the writer perceives the artwork or the accomplishment with which they respond to it textually, so I’m not trying to claim any credit here. And I have nothing to do with the running of the competition, in which entrants are anyway anonymously judged. But of course I’m pleased when writers from groups I’m involved with win prizes or get work published. Many congratulations this time to Jean Taylor and Marjorie Lofti Gill.
My recollections are very selective. I don’t think that even means I’ve always remembered the best pieces of writing, though that will sometimes be the case. After forty-five poems and stories inspired by nearly as many images had been superbly performed by the three readers – and, in the case of the adults, some of the authors – between 10.30 am and 7.15pm, my ability to correlate author with picture was severely compromised. I am very pleased that NGS is moving towards the digitisation of the winning entries from all nine years of the competition: this will be a valuable, and inspiring, lasting resource.