Sightlines at StAnza

This year’s StAnza Poetry Festival started for me before Aurélia Lassaque sang in Occitan at the  launch in the Byre, before I crossed the Forth on an auspiciously bright first morning of March. It may even have started a few years ago,  in exhibition venues around the town where poetry was combined with visual art, and I thought how it would be fantastic for  Words on Canvas to do that.  WoC are an ekphrastic group formed at the National Galleries of Scotland in 2008, who also respond to exhibitions by working artists, give readings and produce pamphlets.

Forward to the winter of 2016-17, and we started responding to linocuts by last year’s artist in residence Hilke MacIntyre as jpegs of them were emailed to us. In mid-Feb we sent fourteen new poems back to festival director Eleanor Livingstone, who combined them with their corresponding images (big shout-out to Eleanor here: it’s not like she doesn’t have enough to do two weeks before her festival starts). When I arrived  in Fife on the 1st, StAnza’s printers had turned them into rather lovely 30cm sq foam boards. Local WoC member  Susan Grant and I hung them in the room above the Public Library that is used for the StAnza workshops. Then I checked into my favourite B and B, quiet by the Kinness Burn, where the owner keeps his own hens – my marker for good holiday accommodation when not staying in a town.

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A wall from the Sightlines exhibition

The weather was stunning. Before going off to my first booked event on Thursday I  bought a selection of participants’ books from the StAnza bookseller JG Innes, before stocks ran low – I was too late to get everything I wanted last year – and sat in the sun for a couple of hours, sheltered from a still-cold wind in a south-facing  nook in the harbour wall, watching the tide come in.

And then into the flow of words. I’ve already gushed on Facebook, in my own post and on others’ feeds, about how Paul Stephenson gave a masterclass in the delivery of a poetry set, reading from his Happenstance pamphlet about living in Paris during the November 2015 attacks. How I thrilled to the sounds of Occitan, Catalan, Arabic and French (that my friend Tessa Berring was one of the four poets on a four-day residency devoted to translating each other’s work between English, French and Occitan, added another layer of interest). How Joan Margarit, Robert Crawford, Alice Oswald and Kathleen Jamie played to the strengths of their voices, personalities and material. How Jacque Darras’s homage in sound to Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculpture was one of the best examples of ekphrasis I’ve been privileged to experience. How stimulating I found the mix of poetry and themed discussion (& coffee!) in the breakfast panels on this year’s themes: the Heights of Poetry, and On The Road. And more.

The first time I attended StAnza I was struck by how it was like a mix of a Hebridean holiday and being back at university: you bump into the same people everywhere and you made new friends quickly. This year, most of the members of the two peer crit groups I belong to in Edinburgh where around at some point, as well as regulars from the Scottish poetry scene and guests from many parts of  Europe and beyond – more of a joy than ever in this post-brexit vote year. Before taking your seat in the Byre auditorium,  you can greet familiar faces on all four sides of you.

On Friday this sense of community was augmented by the arrival of the remaining members of WoC, who had made a very early start, from the Borders and East Lothian as well as Edinburgh. If they were tired by the time our Meet the Artist event started at 3.45pm in the Library, they didn’t show it. We’d hung the Sightlines boards randomly, because, after a bit of experimentation with grouping and ordering, we thought they looked best that way. The  reading proceeded thematically, however, in the spirit of  On the Road, beginning with poems inspired by  Hilke’s townscape (the one that’s on the front cover of the brochure), moving into a café scene, progressing to The Byre, and concluding – with sound and shape poems – with our responses to Hilke’s response to last year’s Jazz evening.

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Jean Taylor’s poem responding to linocut of St Andrews streetscape by Hilke MacIntyre

There’s a lot going on at StAnza, and you have to make difficult choices, so I had been a bit worried that the 11 of us might outnumber our audience, but we didn’t. They asked interested questions that enabled us to open up about our process, how we use artworks – or sometimes a small detail from them – to trigger a linguistic response. This could form a kind of poetic commentary on the image or be a ‘translation’ – a poetic equivalent – of it; or it could send the writer on a geographical or historical path or other associative journey well beyond it, or into personal memory. I’d become very familiar with this set of fourteen poems, as we considered constraints such as readability on a wall, and made decisions about fonts. Voiced by their authors, they took on fresh life. Like Hilke’s linocuts, they sang.

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Meet the Artist reading & discussion for Sightlines

 

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Cafés scenes: poem by Moira Scott, linocut by Hilke MacIntyre

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Text & Image, Writing & Surrealism

Two ekphrastic day workshops coming up in the next couple of months:

On 21 May I’ll be teaming up again with cartoonist Malcy Duff  for our Text & Image gig – but for the first time in a library setting. We’re thrilled to be doing this at the Scottish Poetry Library, where we’ll use the archive – including some amazing concrete poetry, and the text art in the building itself – as a starting point for practical and experimental exercises in writing and drawing. This will be the fifth, sixth even, time we’ve collaborated, since co-facilitating a comic book workshop at the Fruitmarket Gallery in 2007. We’ve run Text & Image as a six-week course and as one-day and two-day workshops at National Galleries Scotland, considering many ways in which words and pictures combine – including in illuminated manuscripts, political cartoons, calligraphy and pop art. We’ve worked in a variety of mediums, including collage and acetates, and with our non-dominant hands – and our vocal chords! We look forward to adapting the exercises we devised for this new setting.

For writers, and artists, and folk who identify as both, or neither.

More details and how to book here. Please book by 6 May.

 

Back at NGS, on 25 June I have a day workshop on writing and surrealism, in response to the Surrealist Encounters exhibition which runs from 4 June – 11 Sept. There will be time to look at and discuss aspects of the exhibition, try some innovative writing exercises, and develop your own piece of work. We’ll cover topics associated with the surrealists, including automatic writing and dreams, and explore  how the relationship between chance and conscious decision-making contributes to the creative process. Includes refreshments, and a day pass to the exhibition (normally £10/8).

Details and booking information here.

Writers of all levels of experience, and in all genres, welcome on both days.

GENERATION and regeneration

I spent a lot of time this summer and autumn at the GENERATION exhibitions celebrating art made in Scotland over the last 25 years. Sometimes I was working, as a freelancer in the NGS education department, sometimes working on my own material, and others being a tourist at other exhibitions in the series around the country.

In the RSA building on the Mound in Edinburgh there were seven rooms devoted to the work of seven different artists. To my own surprise, my personal favourite grew to be Martin Boyce’s installation of a park at dusk. This comprised skeletal steel benches, bed-frames and off-kilter bins in primary colours, was divided into sections by black mesh fences placed at oblique angles, and lit by fluorescent tubes representing trees. Originally designed for Glasgow’s Tramway, a larger, more industrial space than this, the biggest room in Robert Playfair’s RSA building, it appeared to be (re)creating a sense of urban decay and fostering a feeling of menace. I’d ask my tour groups how optiimistic it made them feel on  a scale of 1-10; most responses were between 3 and 5. The work’s apparently incongruous title,  Our Love is like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours is the chorus of the song ‘The Village’ in  New Order’s 1983 album  Power, Corruption & Lies.

Music, it strikes me,  is possibly more ‘generational’ than any other artform. Members of my tour groups tended to be either too young or too old to know  much about the post-punk and ‘industrial’ sounds, often emanating from Manchester, that became the soundtrack to the lives of students in another post-industrial city.  Boyce and a number of other artists in the exhibition studied on the Environmental Art course set up at Glasgow School of Art in the 80s. The course is credited, in the Generation Reader, a collection of essays published to  accompany the exhibition catalogue, and in a BBC documentary made about the exhibition, with being responsible for  the artist-led energy that produced such a diverse body of work during this time. Both stress how great emphasis was placed on socialising. I wondered what happened if you were an introvert with different tastes in music – what happened to the artist as outsider? – but maybe you just (just!) studied painting.

Anyway, after three months I’d settled on the Boyce room as the one most conducive to writing, low light levels notwithstanding, and I started to find it uplifting. At twenty-minute intervals, a  plangent soundtrack, specially composed for the installation, played as text slowly formed, then dissolved, on one of the walls. It was hard to read – Boyce devises his own fonts to blur the boundary between text and image – but seemed to say this place is dreaming. For a time I thought it read ‘this place is breathing’.

It occurs to me now that Boyce’s text could also be a reference to the phrase terribilis ist locus iste.  Originally from the Vulgate version of Genesis 28.17, and most often found inscribed on door lintels,  this was Jacob’s response to his vision of a ladder leading to heaven. Terribilis has been variously translated as ‘dreadful’ (King James) and ‘fearsome’ (New English); it means ‘awesome’ in the sense of sublime, terror-inducing.

This place is not terrible to me. I have partly measured out my adult life in the exhibitions I’ve seen in these rooms; sought them – and found comfort – in times of distress, shared memorable afternoons in them with friends, and been privileged to work in them.  This year, Boyce’s soundtrack and text and manufactured gloaming worked against the urban harshness of his physical materials in a way that allowed memories and imaginings to float free. This place was breathing and dreaming because it was immersive, real and unreal simultaneously, a creative and potential space. Also . . .  the portable gallery seats unintentionally referenced the steel and chain-link of the fencing and bed-frame components of the installation and, with a person seated on them,  became a temporary part of it. (These paragraphs are in the past tense because the exhibition closed on 2 November. Our Love was de-installed and returned to homes in various collections, including Tate.)

The open thresholds between the rooms gave sight-lines to works by other artists. From Our Love you could glimpse the gorgeous purples of Callum Innes‘ Exposed Painting series, or the black and white palate of a space made over to woodcut prints and ceramic works by David Shrigley that  playfully questioned the limits of black-and-white thinking. I’ve written in the company of Innes’ slow-burning paintings before, and it’s easy to find in them a meditative quality. More surprising was the  effect of sitting amidst Shrigley’s army (or pantomime cast?) of torso-less boots on plinths – boots that we are figuratively invited to fill, and that Shrigley will fill when his work is sited on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2016.

Over at the Portrait Gallery, Luke Fowler‘s 61- minute film The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott loosens the memory in a manner different to Boyce’s parkscape. Shot in 21st Century West Yorkshire, it features footage from the 1950s of Marxist historian E P Thompson, and an original soundtrack which includes a setting of Blake’s ‘London’. A voiceover (sterner in tone than that of the charismatic Thompson himself) reads from Thompson’s reports on the WEA classes in Social History and Literature in eleven West Riding towns. As well as a portrait of a man, he’s created on 16mm film a narrative of a place where industrial and rural landscapes are held in balance. Fowler’s image-assemblage maybe even works a bit like memory itself. He shows where habitation has spilled up hillsides, like a reverse landslide.  A lorry passes between gritstone walls at the pace of a horse and cart as smoke from a chimney in a field merges with cloud. Skies are punctuated with pylons and factory chimneys that look like Venetian campaniles.  Fields, olive from their gritstone underlay, are overlaid with snow. At night the moving lights of cars weave amongst the still ones from buildings, creating illuminated  townscapes where neon, sodium, street, factory and domestic lighting co-exist in a painterly fashion.  The time it takes a car to pass across the frame seems longer than if you were standing on the pavement yourself. Fowler cuts from the shot of a  factory, chimney and tower block warmed by a sunlight that makes of them a Mediterranean composition, to a close-up of the chimney’s top showing, not a cloud-capped tower, but one crowned with scaffolding. He revisits a frame from earlier in the film, but now the soundtrack has moved on.  And he dwells, too, on the details: the interiors of educational institutions, from stained-glass crests in windows opening onto more West Riding masonry, in both its hewn and unhewn states, to corridors and functional seating. (This paragraph is in the present tense because the film exists even when it isn’t being watched.)

I had a four-day interlude in the West Riding myself at half term. I visited the Hepworth Wakefield for the first time and Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the umpteenth, but  it retains its power to seep onto my soul. One of the other reasons for my visit was to look at and try to write about the horizon – the elongated concave  profile of Saddleworth Moor, the skyline as seen from the Calder valley. I was prevented from achieving this by a mist which pressed down into the valley, amplifying the hoot of the Transpennine train, and on the upland spur where I was staying accentuating underfoot textures – flag, cobble, pebble, brick, grit, leaf, mud – on by-ways with names like Beaumont’s Bolt and Pudding Lane. It insinuated itself round the midriff of Emley Moor television mast, and chilled through several layers of clothing in the  mornings, as I stood at an exposed hilltop bus stop where a big vista of high moor and industrial valley appears in clear weather. By midday sun had squeezed enough heat through the mist and onto the land for lunch to be taken outdoors at a village pub. It obfuscated plans, but it assisted memory – being up here on winter nights, high above the conurbation lights – and enabled the creation of new narratives, such as the fit between Luke Fowler’s vision of the location and my own experience if it.

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During this period the wonderful Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival  was running, this year with the theme ‘The Power to Communicate’. South Side Writers generated the text for a great wee exhibition at the Southside Centre. I attended a screening of Regeneration at Craiglockhart campus, formerly the war hospital where Wilfred Owen met Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon, who acted as poetic mentor to the younger Owen, was treated by the psychiatrist WHR Rivers, pioneer of psychotherapeutic methods used with ptsd today, and surely one of the great heroes of WW1. Rivers also worked on the regeneration of damaged nerve tissue. In the film of Pat Barker’s novel, adapted to give more of a  narrative arc (I don’t recall having any problem with the book’s narrative geometry), he is shown to experience secondary trauma. In the novels, if my memory is accurate, his own neuroses are attributed to his experiences working as an anthropologist in Melanesia in the Pacific, and a relatively minor childhood worry – one doesn’t need to have been to war to be beset by hard to-shift-demons. If one has been to war. . . well, thank the goodness that remains for Rivers and his legacy.

Afterwards there was a panel discussion involving the screen writer Allan Scott, an Afghanistan veteran and two psychotherapists from the Rivers Centre for traumatic stress at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital – where, in addition to medication and talking therapies, it seems they offer art therapy but not creative writing. Of course, there are many situations where the non-linguistic nature of art, or music, is what is needed –  but wouldn’t it be a highly appropriate tribute to Rivers and his most famous patient if, as more research is conducted into the efficacy of the ‘writing cure’, this were to be adopted in the clinic named for him?

Pat Barker, unable to attend, sent a generous message, which included a phrase that went something like: ‘while you work on the material, the material works on you’. This is an excellent encapsulation of the therapeutic benefits of creative writing. To put it another way: you generate the material; it regenerates you.

Inspired? 2006-14

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.

mad march and invisible colours: could spring be far behind?

The closing lines of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, and a reflection that the poet didn’t live in Scotland and wasn’t factoring in climate change, formed an accompaniment to many of my March wanderings: to Fife for  StAnza; to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery  for a workshop on creative writing for undergraduates in English and journalism from Napier University; to Glasgow for a two-day training event; into the snowy hills, wafting my walking poles around like ski sticks. The month-long cold snap was ushered in at StAnza, where I  facilitated a workshop called ‘Different Viewpoints’ on the first morning. Sponsored by Lapidus Scotland, this undertook to examine through practical exercises the relationships between ‘personal’ or ‘therapeutic’ and ‘creative’ writing, and between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ stimuli. Against the backdrop of, and engaging closely with, an exhibition of poems and paintings about liminal spaces entitled Unmapped, the participants created poems that beautifully wove together personal experience, memory and present-moment response to real and imagined places.

Back in Edinburgh, facilitating a session for undergraduates, rather than the ‘adults’ I usually work with, set me thinking further about ekphrasis, or the use of visual art to inspire writing, and how and why we teach it. When the BP  Portrait exhibition was up earlier in the year, in the winter proper, I took to  reading Michael Longley in front of a wonderful portrait of the poet, The Dailects of Silence, by Colin Davidson  At the close of his most recent collection A Hundred Doors, Longley has an elegy, ‘White Farmhouse’, which concludes with a line that cites Marcel Duchamp’s claim   ‘titles are invisible colours’. Are they? I need to ponder some more, but titles (if not artist statements and gallery glosses) can be of abiding interest to those with a textual background who are looking at pictures. What are we to make, for example, of Ben Nicholson’s habit of supplementing a matter-of-fact dating or stating of medium with a descriptor, as in June 1961 (Green Goblet and Blue Square), or Painted Relief (Plover’s Egg Blue)?

Words on Canvas were invited to write in response to paintings in the Royal Scottish Painters in Watercolour (RSW) annual exhibition. There were 252 works in the exhibition, and our deadline was just a week after we first got to see them. I had a couple of hours in the gallery beforehand, en route to the Portrait Gallery to have a look at Rousseau and Hume prior the Napier session. I quickly saw the work I wanted to write about, Gordon Mitchell’s Lasting Impressions, a painting of a sun lounger  against a sun-baked wall whose cracked plaster revealed the shapes of human silhouettes. I was reminded first of  the second paragraph of  The Wasteland, the lines about aridity, broken images and shadows, that lead up to ‘I will show you in fear a handful of dust’; and then, more optimistically, of a standing joke about the cost of hiring a sun lounger on the cote d’azur from last year’s summer holiday. Fine, but on Monday morning fifteen other writers (minus a couple I bumped into in the gallery who were already hard at work) would need to choose from the remaining 251. The usual WoC format is a Gallery tour, covering just  four or five works, followed by a writing critique session a fortnight later.  Feeling under some pressure, I started to jot down the titles of works that attracted me for one reason or another. Then I took up the catalogue, and noted down titles that themselves appealed (invisible colours if you like). Bingo, eureka, etcetera. Rousseau, Hume. On Monday I asked those writers who hadn’t already seen the exhibition and selected a work initially to choose a title that appealed, and write to that before seeing the picture to which it pertained. Then we paired up and did some writing exercises in front of the paintings, and a week later we had a pamphlet of stories and poems, and were ready to attend a reception where we were introduced to the painters of the works we’d selected. ‘Have you met your artist yet?’, we’d ask as we encountered each other circulating the exhibition, glasses of fizz in hand. Several writers reported uncanny correspondences between their thought processes and those of their painter-partner.  Gordon Mitchell told me his sun lounger was located near St Tropez. I had it not terribly far away, on the Cap d’Antibes, but then I don’t suppose it’d have been in Copenhagen or Anstruther.

Meanwhile, the South Side Writers concluded their term on fruit & veg with an attempt to break out of the tradition and make an original,  contemporary statement on the subject, accompanied by a very tasty and refreshing fruit salad. Mine felt very modernist, nearly a century past its sell-by date.

In Glasgow just before Easter I did the two-day training for Living Life To The Full (LLTTF). This is a CBT-based programme designed to be delivered in eight sessions in non-clinical settings, by professionals from different fields who season the basic template with their own personality, experience and knowledge. The target client or user is the individual with mild to moderate depression or anxiety, maybe near the bottom of a long waiting list for treatment,  but it could, I think, be really useful for helping anyone to problem-solve their way around the various obstacles they inevitably encounter. Writer’s block, relationship tensions, builders who don’t turn up. Well, maybe not the latter: it doesn’t promise miracles. The programme was on the periphery of my radar untilLapidus Scotland members were invited to learn more about it at a Bibliotherapy seminar at the National Library of Scotland in February. We heard some pretty inspiring presentations, by Drs Ann Wales, whose job title, Programme Director for Knowledge Management, doesn’t quite convey the extent of her humanity and intellectual curiosity; and Chris Williams, founder of LLTTF. Later we took part in  sessions which could be loosely categorised as either  ‘creative’ (poetry, storytelling, journalling) or ‘scientific’ (concerned with the transmission of knowledge and information).

After this I felt fairly sure that my place when working in healthcare settings was firmly in the creative camp, but I was curious to learn more about this method dedicated to transmitting health information (according to a social, rather than medical, model) in simplicity and clarity  in order to help individuals make positive changes in their lives. I signed up for the training. It turned out to be a truly inspiring couple of days. After an accelerated trip through the components of the programme, we were divided into small groups, with the task of preparing a small chunk of it to deliver to the rest. Oh no, I thought. I’m too tired. I haven’t slept properly the last few nights. I assimilate information slowly, with much reflection and walking around: I’m not ready to do this yet. I don’t want to look a numptie in front of esteemed Lapidus colleagues, or the lovely people from other fields I’ve only just met. Luckily, the extrovert part of me that enjoys a bit of a performance kicked in. I had fun, and, I hope, communicated my points effectively. More than that, hearing the others’ presentations really helped to reinforce everything we’d  learned in a short space of time, and I left with a sense of the possibilities that this new tool might afford.

Now that April’s here – and yes, I would like to pop down to England, though my guess is that the spring isn’t much more advanced there this time – I’ve paced along the plateau of  Capelaw Hill and been to a stimulating workshop on poetry and place with Australian poet Mark Tredinnick at the Scottish Poetry Library. At the end of a UK tour where he too has written of ‘the winter / that did not want to end’, he appeared less tired than I, much closer to home. In an open-plan learning type format,  he interspersed his  own observations about the poetry of place with dialogue with the attendees about their approaches to the matter. The moment when  Mark asked me who I was reading at the moment – rather than when faced with delivering part of a LLTTF module at short notice after little sleep – was the one chosen for me to go blank. Michael Longley?  The many writers from and writing about these islands and beyond whom I encountered at StAnza? In truth I’d been thinking most recently about  influences further back in the tradition: the Anglo-Saxon poets, Wordsworth, Hopkins, sundry Modernisits, as well as relishing the challenge of how on earth, in the air or by the water  to make it new myself, now. I could have talked about some or all of these – or about prose writings on place by the likes of  Kathleen Jamie and Robert McFarlane; or innovations other Scottish writers and artists are making – some of them in a  global context. Or I could have engaged more with some of  the many things that resonated for me in the others’ words that afternoon . . . but eloquence had well and truly taken leave of me. It may take some sun and more visible colours to power up my brain again.

fruit and veg; and inside out

Each term the South Side Writers have a new theme. In Spring 2013 it’s Fruit & Veg. This is because

(i) there’s been a bit of a running joke about bananas in the group for a couple of years. I always eat one before the class starts. Some time ago member Olga Wojtas showed us her party piece, which involved turning a banana into the profile of a penguin by partly peeling it and taking one bite. Time seemed ripe, pun intended, to bring the subject to more conscious and literary attention.

(ii) Last term we did Borders, Boundaries and Edges and I felt it was time for something more concrete and less conceptual.

Before Christmas we discussed and wrote about different sorts of boundaries – geographical, political, personal – and literary, in the shape of stanzas and paragraphs. We looked at examples of visual art with clearly defined lines (Mondrian, for example), and with fuzzy ones (Whistler`), and some that combined both, such as a couple of my favourite paintings in the National Galleries Scotland collection: Cezanne’s  The Big Trees, and Klee’s Threatening Snowstorm.

Design
After Paul Klee

blueprint for rebuilding
out of the bruising

provisional etching
of the reconstruction of Dresden

prophetic minaret to a
cloud-capped ground zero

Valhalla in a new era
for post-conflagration gods

plans on the drawing board
prefigure each apocalypse

This poem first appeared in Words on Canvas (National Galleries of Scotland, 2009).

One week everyone brought in an object with an (accessible, usable) inside and outside. I asked a series of questions, to be answered first with respect to the object’s exterior, and then again about its interior, so that you ended up with two lists which could be used or combined in various ways as a writing prompt.

Fruit ( we haven’t really made it into veg yet) is proving to be a fascinating subject for a series of writing classes because of its range of usage, literal and metaphorical, throughout literary history from Virgil’s ‘The Salad’, through the various sorts of Christian-era symbolism, to an abundance of contemporary works. It too has insides and outsides, of course. We started the term  sniffing, feeling, peeling and tasting fruit and will end with a fruit & word salad. Each writer is now researching a different fruit and bringing in a textual  example of it. In response we’ve written about hybrids (nectarcot, anyone?), provenance and packaging, architectural pineapples  and still lifes, as well as addressing a species and defamiliarising the common-or-garden so that it becomes exotic. Oh, and a banana is a herb.

classes of 2012

The summer of 2012 saw, inter alia, the 25th anniversary of Edinburgh’s South Side Community Education Centre. As part of the celebrations, the writing and art groups mounted a joint exhibition in the centre cafe on the theme The South Side 1986-87. 

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ODYSSEY by Iain Matheson

She comes to a standstill at the corner of Hill Street. The bus had been prompt, she had been late. By the timetable there’s not another due for half-an-hour – too long to wait when she has just this one day to see the Edinburgh sights. She wants to walk but doesn’t know the way. She picks a boy to ask but he’s already gone, poking furiously at a screen in his hand. An old man passes, bent double, his life’s belongings in a dozen plastic bags, his momentum unstoppable. She flags down another man carrying a banjo.

‘Excuse me please, I’m looking for Blackford Hill, do you know if I can walk there?’

Banjoman stops, stares into space. Finally his eyes close; his head makes a slow rotation, once to the left, once to the right, back to the centre. His eyes reopen and meet hers.

‘No such place.’

Banjoman’s voice resonates as from the foot of a mineshaft.

‘Oh dear, are you quite sure? I saw it on a map and thought I’d like to go there.’

‘Tourist maps. This is the only map you need.’

Banjoman props his instrument against the marbled wall at the corner of Hill Street and unbuckles a rucksack. He labours inside for almost a minute till he produces a coloured, crumpled sheet. He stretches it loudly between his hands to flatten it, then beckons her. At the top, florid green letters declare,’The Southside’. She looks for a moment and says,

‘Yes, I’ve visited some of these places today, McEwan Hall… and the birthplace

of Harry Potter. Now, if you could show me which road to take for Blackford Hill…’

‘No such place.’

Banjoman’s phrase, repeated, combines fate and triumph. He points to the map.

‘That’s all the places there are. It’s a map of the world.’

She looks at him, bewildered, she says, Sorry? although she knows she has heard correctly. A map of the whole world.

‘But what about the castle?’ Once more the slowly shaken head.

‘Or Princes Street – I’ve been there!’ A raised eyebrow joins in the motion.

‘What about the roads at the edge of this map – they can’t just stop?’

Banjoman’s head changes tack; now it nods, the same, slow, reptile’s move, once up, once down.

‘But what happens when people leave The Southside?’

‘They don’t leave.’

‘And how do other people get here?’

‘There’s no other people.’

‘What about travelling to work, going on holiday, buses – where do the buses go?’

‘All in people’s heads.’ The nodding head now comes with a smile, lips closed.

‘So – so there’s really nowhere else? Just  – The Southside?’

Banjoman becomes animated, he raises an eyebrow and smiles and nods, all at once.

‘This is quite a shock. Do you think I could keep this map please?’

‘Take it, take it, I’ve plenty more.’

Banjoman nods twice to settle the matter. He struggles back into his rucksack, picks up his banjo and rejoins the flow of Southsiders on Nicolson Street. She stares at the map in her hands, appalled and secretly thrilled. Bowmont Place, Bernard Terrace, Middle Meadow Walk… singing inside she sets off to explore, the whole world at her feet.

*       *        *       *      *     *     *

As usual there were many creative writing activities at National Galleries Scotland. Shortly after the re-opening of the splendid Portrait Gallery I ran a five-week creative writing course on portraiture and character, which was repeated in the autumn.  In August cartoonist Malcy Duff and I collaborated for the third time on Text & Image, a course that looks at the history of combining words and pictures, then introduces practical exercises on interpreting writing as drawing and drawing as writing; illustrating writing and captioning images, and presenting text as image. Experimentation is encouraged, and we also include some sound poetry, creative reading and performance.

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This time we were based out at the modern art galleries for two full days, and able to use the wonderful resources of their archive, including artist’s books by key figures of twentieth-century art, as well as the temporary Picasso and Modern British Art and Munch exhibitions.

It is always a delight to work with Words on Canvas, a group of very talented writers that meet fortnightly at the Galleries. This year some of us also participated in a collaboration between poets and craft makers on an exhibition for the Pittenweem Festival, Fife.

In August Southsiders and WoCers  joined to give a well-received reading at the Captain’s Bar, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

In the summer I was invited to lead a series of four monthly workshops at the Hermitage of Braid, to produce textual art for its newly-reclaimed walled garden. Given the sort of summer we had, or rather didn’t have, we were incredibly lucky to be able to work outside on all four occasions, three of them in pretty good weather.

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Juliet Wilson, who blogs as Crafty Green Poet, wrote a haiku which can be read by clicking the link.


BRAIDBURN SYMPHONY by Olga Wojtas

I take my seat and listen

To my left, the bass throb of the waterfall

To my right, the soft rippling through rocks

Stereophonic streaming

The pizzicato of jogging shoes

A scherzo of children’s giggles

The faintest fluttering of leaves

A yap

A yap

A yap

Fortissimo barking

Chorus of apologies

The faintest fluttering of leaves

The bass throb of the waterfall

The soft rippling through rocks

I wrote the following poem to mark the occasion.

Braid

On the Occasion of the Writing Workshops for the Walled Garden, Summer 2012

June’s birdsong is all but washed away
by the shout of the Braid in July
in a hurry through the Hermitage today
on its course along the lower side of the garden wall
to the shore of a firth making scarce more noise.
Out in the North Sea it mingles  via the Humber
with the waters of  Spen and Calder which  return
to the burn that stitches the Pentlands to Portobello.

This is not the Water of Leith but of remembrance.
Above it all this sort-of summer sits a new Parnassus
on  the top-most terrace  where we are  inspired
by  coast-bound stream and   breeze along the Braid,
whose water, like the brook Derwent at the bottom
of  Wordsworth’s childhood garden, is ‘boxed’  but not here
‘stripped of his voice’, two centuries and thirty  steps  below
along the  southern edge of  an Edinburgh plot.

And if like that, could this not also be
the forest pool by which a goddess bathed
as a bewildered hunter chanced upon her and gawped;
or the bank where a visitor from across the Pond
planted lily of the valley with her betrothed
in memory of their first meeting here;
and  a perpetual memorial to the  woman  who tried
to rescue her dog in a spate like this and was drowned?

The rest of the work produced is available to read in a folder at the Hermitage Visitor Centre, and some of it will find a permanent home in the garden, alongside sculpture and other artworks.

I always enjoy participating in others’ workshops. In March I joined a session led by Ken Cockburn to mark World Heritage Day. To tie in with this year’s theme, the Roman legacy in Scotland, Ken devised a series of writing walks on the seven hills of Edinburgh. I went on the one on Salisbury Crags. Ken’s account, and poems by myself and other participants,  can be read here.

Elsewhere in 2012, I had wonderful holidays walking and writing in Swaledale, Yorkshire; and sea-bathing and eating in the south of France.

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Scar

On the slant of Kisdon Hill
the song of a robin sears the whole air
substantial as the drystone walls
that   brand the fields of Thwaite austere
and  project their shadow on the meadow
– here  angular, rectilinear, there
in  a random,  crazed geometry –
while underground levels invisibly divide
the land’s inside into seams and veins
directed at the artery
of this damaged country.

Yet along the inroads to the moor
stones from smelt-mill and lead-mine
crumble and return to screes
on the sides of  Surrender’s* shallow valley
and in  the steep ravine of Gunnerside Ghyll
where land formed from human hand
and the structures carved by nature
resolve in mutual cohabitation.

* The Surrender Mining Company is one of several that operated commercially  in Swaledale in the eighteenth century. ‘Surrender’ is also a legal term internationally associated with the handing over of mining rights and land.

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The former trip took place in the mini-heatwave at the end of March and the latter in the season of Alpine storms. In between the two, I watched more sport on TV than I ever thought imaginable. It started with the Tour de France, which I discovered on ITV 4 for the first time. Cycling + scenery = my kind of sport. Catching the mountain stages live in the afternoons was what I imagine playing a video game is like. Vicarious thrills, vicarious holiday, vicarious summer. The Tour was, of course, followed by the Olympics and Paralympics.  I overcame my initial cynicism to treasure the winning smiles of Nicola Adams, the first woman to win an Olympic medal for boxing; Katherine Grainger,  the rower who finally took gold after three games’ worth  of silver, and Adam Hills on Channel 4’s The Last Leg. The night after it was all over, Will Self, interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, remained unconverted: ‘the Selfs are not welcome at the court of King Coe’. Airing that, then, was maybe an editorial misjudgment on the part of Newsnight.

On t’medals table
if Yorkshire wer a country
it’d ‘a come twelfth.