A Walk in the Gardens

A couple of Saturdays ago, I visited the Botanic Gardens in Dundee, owned by the city’s university. Within its 21 acres, there are plants and trees from around the world and educational areas where you can learn more about them.

That day, the Gardens had been opened up specifically for writers, artists and photographers to respond in their chosen media for an upcoming anthology by the organisation who maintains them. A botanist even led us to many of the noteworthy spots, from tropical plants that change gender overnight to hardy shrubs that live on a limited water supply.

I’ve long believed that going for a walk helps to sort out any thoughts a writer has. In this case, there was a lot of input from the botanist’s talk, from discussions with other participants and indeed from my own observations.

English: Bean germination
English: Bean germination (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet there was so much input to process that it took several days to form any meaningful output. During these days, I was taken by the idea that some trees can survive forest fires while other trees actually rely on fire for their seeds to germinate. I made drafts in free verse with internal rhymes, but the narrative was ultimately going nowhere.

Some friends, also poets, were on the same tour. One of them writes poems around the length of a haiku, although he doesn’t use the haiku form itself. Looking at my own work, I realised I liked the opening line and the conclusion, and I felt that to include other details would simply be filler and distract from the message I wanted to impart. So, borrowing his style, I kept only those parts: two sentences enjambed over four lines.

After leaving it aside for another few days, I came back to my verse yesterday morning and decided to enter it for the anthology. For that reason, I’m unable to publish the finished product online, but you’ll be the first to know if it’s included.

Which brings me to an event happening this coming Thursday. I’m having a poem published in Dundee Writes, a pamphlet distributed by the University of Dundee. I’ll report back on the launch event next week.

Jack of All Words

For those of you who haven’t read it elsewhere, I’m pleased to report that I’ve now graduated with an MLitt in Writing Practice and Study. I’ve become a jack of all words, and master of letters.

The logistics of the ceremony has left me behind with my other work, so I’m afraid it’ll be another short entry.

The end.

Upcoming Gigs

Over the next couple of months, I’ve been asked to read poetry at a few events. Each one is free to attend. Here’s a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to them:

Livewire; Wednesday 19 October; Bonar Hall, Dundee. I’ve just finished an MLitt Writing Practice and Study course at the University of Dundee. This is one final showcase for our class, where I’ll be reading a piece called Sir Madam from my dissertation.

Launch of Seagate III; Sunday 23 October; Bonar Hall, Dundee. As part of the Dundee Literary Festival, Seagate III will be launched. I’ll be performing the two poems of mine that appeared in the anthology.

Launch of Aiblins; Saturday 29 October; Out Of the Blue Drill Hall, Edinburgh. I have a piece called Crossing the Road included in Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry. I’ll be performing along with some excellent contemporary poets as part of the 20th Edinburgh International Radical Book Fair.

Launch of Aiblins; Monday 21 November; Underdog, Castlegate, Aberdeen. This launch is for the same book discussed above, but in a different city. The event is still being finalised, and I’ll give you more information when I have it.

Publishing an Entire City

I’m pleased to report I’ll have two poems published in the forthcoming Seagate III anthology. The title is a reference to the oldest street in Dundee, Scotland, as each poet in the book has a connection with the city.

And what a line-up. I feel privileged to appear in the same volume as local poets that I know and admire. But what happened to Seagate I and Seagate II? The former was published in 1975 and the latter in 1985, so the trilogy has taken more than 40 years to complete. Yet in some ways, its timing couldn’t be better.

The Dundee waterfront is undergoing a major redevelopment that has brought in investment such as a new railway station, a five-star Malmaison, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. This sense of willingness has also seeped into other areas, including the literary scene.

2016 marks the tenth year of the Dundee Literary Festival, featuring poet Liz Lochhead, and X-Men actor Alan Cumming. But I believe you can have a richer experience at any festival by taking time to support less well-known authors and even taking a gamble on something you might not like. I can think of only two disappointments out of the dozens of events I attend each year, and neither of them were unknowns.

Most of the Dundee events take place in the Bonar Hall. No laughing at the back – it’s pronounced bonner. But an appropriate location can really bring out the flavour of the topic.

Yesterday, for instance, I was up a hill with a fantastic view of the city hearing poetry about the places we could see. And on Wednesday, Sandra Ireland went to Stockbridge in Edinburgh to launch her debut novel Beneath the Skin since that’s where it’s set.

's in the Antarctic
The RRS Discovery in the Antarctic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And on Friday, I attended the launch of The Voyage Out, containing narratives of journeys, and featuring some of the Seagate III poets. The event was held on board the RRS Discovery, the ship which took Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic.

But the most unusual event I’ve heard of is Wendy H Jones who signed her latest crime novel in a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Here’s where you can pre-order Seagate III, and here’s the Dundee Literary Festival programme.

Think globally, act locally.

As this blog is about fiction and poetry, my chosen title is a correction of the phrase Think global, act local. Since think and act are verbs, I’ve added -ly to the other two words to change them from adjectives to adverbs. Now both clauses are paired up nicely.

The phrase has been around for decades, however you choose to word it, but it gained new currency at the dawn of the 21st century as more and more people had access to the Internet. For the first time, ordinary individuals could type a message and potentially have it seen instantly by a worldwide audience.

One problem this throws up is relevance. Unless I’m writing only for local folks, I somehow have to make my blog relevant to an audience much further afield, and that often means overlooking what’s happening in my own city to concentrate on our shared mass culture.

Photograph of Desperate Dan statue in Dundee c...
Photograph of Desperate Dan statue in Dundee city centre; behind it is City Square, the Caird Hall (straight ahead) and Dundee City Chambers (to the right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, however, I’ll be turning the camera on my own city of Dundee in Scotland, with a population of around 148,000. This place has made its mark on the wider world in several ways. Grand Theft Auto was coded here, James Chalmers introduced the adhesive postage stamp, and the Beano is printed five minutes from my house.

From a literary standpoint, a number of notable works have been produced by its citizens, from William McGonagall’s terrible verse in the 19th century right up to Oliver Langmead’s 2015 novel Dark Star.

Mondays are a particular bottleneck for reading and writing events, with the Literary Lock-In at the end of each month, my own group Hotchpotch near the middle of the month, and a Silent Reading Party fitting in between the two. Literary Dundee helps to coordinate these, plus the regular author visits, not forgetting the major Literary Festival in October.

Altogether, Dundee is one of the best places for a writer to be at the moment, with a more active literary scene than its population figure might suggest. Later this year, two of my poems are also scheduled to appear in Seagate III, continuing from volumes I and II published in the 1970s and 1980s respectively. You can bet I’ll be telling you all about that when it happens.

Review of the week.

Recently, I’ve been trying my hand at book reviews. It’s markedly different from ordinary reading and from fiction writing, as you’ve to make notes as you go along. From these notes, you then have to identify themes and techniques, and explain why the author has or hasn’t delivered a successful product.

The first volume I reviewed was In the Catacombs by Chris McCabe, which appears on the website of Dundee University Review of the Arts (DURA). I had some difficulty writing it, not only because this was one of my first pieces, but because I found the author’s research to be less focused than I would have expected. That point is reflected in the final piece.

One of the DURA editors then handed me Play with Me by Michael Pedersen, which I duly opined about. I found this one so much easier as I enjoyed his writing and the themes that emerged from it. It turned out after I’d submitted the review that the editor had given it to me purely for personal interest, but it was accepted anyway. I’ve heard the book publishers liked it as well.

Scrymgeour Building, University of Dundee
Scrymgeour Building, University of Dundee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There will also be a third review published in a few weeks, as each one goes through a rigorous edit. By that time, I’ll have returned to the MLitt Writing Study & Practice course at the University of Dundee. Part of your final mark depends upon carrying out a review of a live event, so this is prime practice. It also gives me an insight into how editors think and how to resolve any disputes that might arise.

A secondary benefit of writing reviews is exposure. The more publications in which you can place your name, the higher the chance that someone will have heard of you; like Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, I’m always pleased when this happens to me. Last week, I was recognised by an art student who had heard me at an event in May and enjoyed the two poems I read. I was especially pleased because I also enjoyed her Masters art installation so much.

That said, I forgot to ask DURA whether these reviews could be published under my pen name, as my real one is harder to spell, but I’m not bothered by it. It never hurt Peter Serafinowicz’s career.

The Finish Line.

Every April, there’s a contest called Camp NaNoWriMo, an offshoot of November’s National Novel Writing Month. In November, the aim is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Camp, by contrast, allows participants to choose a word goal starting at 10,000 and to work on any type of writing.

I intended to do more work on one of my unpublished novels, which is mostly written but needed extra scenes. I did write a few thousand words of it, but I didn’t feel the same enthusiasm as I did when I edited it a couple of months ago. Rather than bore myself stupid with it, I changed focus.

A piece of advice often given to new writers is Finish what you start. It’s rare that I don’t finish work, but I did have a few short stories that had gone nowhere. I therefore used the opportunity to finish two of them.

One had started off as a little self-indulgence but rereading it after this time allowed me to work out and deliver the message I was trying to convey. The other one should have been written in one session, but I was interrupted and never went back to it. I now have a satisfactory ending for both pieces and they’re ready for a second redraft – and a ruthless reduction in their word counts. As for the novel, I will redraft it when my enthusiasm returns.

Camp NaNo is traditionally done without a group leader and without meet ups in person. In Dundee, however,  we’ve been fortunate enough to have active members who have met up every Tuesday in April to work on their respective pieces. I set my own target at 10,000 words as I also had a university paper to hand in around the same time, but thanks to these meetings, I managed to reach the goal.

If you’re also in Dundee, by the way, there’s a new monthly Literary Lock-in at the George Orwell up the Perth Road. There are no speeches or readings, just an opportunity for writers to mingle and speak with each other. The next one is on 25 May.