It Would be Clichéd to Use the Title ‘Poetry In Motion’, so I Shan’t.

One of the best-known verses in the English language is I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, written more than 200 years ago. I can hardly compare myself to William Wordsworth, but a couple of days ago, I took my own walk with the aim of writing poetry.

Since 2017, I’ve been a member of the Wyverns poetry group, which has been meeting by e-mail rather than in person for most of the year. There are, of course, better solutions than e-mail, but that’s the way we’re stuck with for the moment. As such, I’d missed the theme for this month and I didn’t have much time to write it.

So I headed up the Law Hill in Dundee with the intention of writing in the forms of a tricube and a ghazal. Unsurprisingly, at 572 feet above sea level, the poems ended up being about a hill.

The connection between walking and writing has been known for centuries, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Wordsworth was so gushing about his daffodils.

And yet the other classic piece of advice to writers is the very opposite of going for a walk: to keep a pen and paper by your bed for ideas. Apparantly, the limboland between waking and sleeping is a good place for them to materialise, but that doesn’t work for me.

I need to be moving around, pencil and paper at the ready, just in case I spot golden daffodils.

The Geography of Biography

I wrote the first draft of this entry in Camperdown Park in Dundee.

It’s a place I visited many times when I was young, often for the playpark or the boating lake, or sometimes the zoo. Its 400 acres leaves plenty of room for a large expanse of grass and – until last year – a golf course. But I chose to sit beside the duck pond, tucked away between the trees.

It’s hard not to compare my memory of Camperdown from childhood to how it currently appears. On the whole, the whole area is recognisably the same, although some parts don’t appear quite as massive now. I do feel the playpark has suffered from the loss of the pirate-ship climbing frames, even if the new modern equipment is less of a death-trap.

The chances are that most people reading this won’t know where this park is or my connection with it, and frankly, won’t care. Yet memoir and biography are two genres that consistently sell well, so it must be possible to draw the reader into someone else’s nostalgia.

In my experience, the key is to give as much context and description as possible, and tell it as if it were a fiction story.

In this case, I might expand upon specific memories, like playing a golf game on my GameBoy near the duck pond or becoming annoyed with somebody who deliberately splashed me on the boating lake. I’d also look a little wider, perhaps that a school friend lived nearby or how we’d often visit the Little Chef while in the area.

Even when writing fiction, I find it useful to base made-up places on real ones, as it helps to keep the description consistent. If I ever need to set a story in a zoo or on a climbing frame shaped like a pirate ship, I know where I’ll use as a model.

My First Library

It came to my attention this week that Kirkton Community Centre in Dundee is on the market and there is a petition to stop the sale. The building also houses the local library. I haven’t been in for years, but only because it’s the wrong side of town for me.

My grandad lived around the corner and he would take me there every week. This was the first half of the 1990s, so I would have been aged between about seven and 12. As such, this was also before the Internet, so there were only books, newspapers and a small selection of video tapes.

I did read the occasional novel, especially those by Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, but I don’t recall borrowing any from Kirkton library.

Instead, I always headed for the non-fiction section, where I’d borrow books about any and all subjects: building models from cardboard, how the weather behaves, running a shop, the ancient Egyptian way of life, &c. It never occurred to me to look at the catalogue system. My literary kicks came from simply rummaging around the shelves.

I could even find enjoyment in pure reference books. My grandad owned a thick Chambers dictionary from the 1970s that also contained a wealth of other data: the etymology of given names, ready reckoners for unit conversion, a guide to musical terms, &c. I still posess a copy, although mine is dated 1990. Even the BT Phonebook occupied much of my attention, with its pages of crisis helplines, or instructions about how to call a ship at sea.

All of which reminds me it’s been the longest time since I’ve visited my nearest library, just five minutes’ walk away. That’s only partly because of the lockdown; I’d used it only a handful of times even when it was open.

My favourite feature is the separate reading room, making it an ideal spot to work without the distractions of home. It would be entirely possible to set aside regular time to visit and to take out some books there once it’s open again. I could brush up on my knowledge of ancient Egypt.

Change of Scene

I started writing this entry in a Dundee pub called the George Orwell, a cosy neuk not far from the art college. I was waiting to meet my pal Lydia, whom I’d first met there in 2015.

Appropriately, the Orwell had been a gathering spot for a social event called the Literary Lock-In. Despite that title, it was held during regular pub hours and was an opportunity for writers and readers to mingle and drink without attending a formal reading or performance.

At another venue, which varied from time to time, there also was a silent reading party where participants would bring their own novels, read them in each others’ company, then chat afterwards.

These events, and many others, were run or supported by the University of Dundee under the banner of Literary Dundee. However, the department closed when its head Peggy Hughes moved to Norwich Writers’ Centre. We were left with something of a vacuum to fill.

Five years on, the literary scene has morphed into a different creature.

Last year, a couple of street poets began performing at locations around the city centre, an event that became monthly, then moved into a café for the winter. We also have a playwrighting evening that frequently ties in with the exhibitions at the aforementioned art college. There is also an arts collective set up by self-described queer writers and artists that runs a number of workshops.

While it’s lamentable that the lock-in and the silent reading no longer exist, I’m glad that the scene as a whole is still as strong as ever, and I look forward to what the next five years bring us.

Time and Motion

I’ve recently been placing a lot of effort into my Fun a Day project, which I talked about last month. It’s now been dubbed Junkuary, as it makes use of recycled materials.

This means that my writing has taken a back seat as I’ve made an effort to step away from using words and focus on visual art. However, this is only temporary, and I’ll go back to writing shortly.

Head over to my Instagram page to see what’s happening, and I’ll catch you here next week for more talk of prose and poetry.

Ready, Get Set, Stop

On this blog, I’ve been talking about Fun a Day Dundee, a project where artists and other creative sorts are encouraged to work on ‘something fun’ during January. For those who make a living from their art, this is traditionally a slow month after the chaos of Christmas.

For my previous two FADD projects, I’ve taken the opportunity to undertake writing projects. I’ve happily updated my Instagram page each day showing draft work, with a view to improving it at a later stage.

I’m at a point with writing where I don’t mind showing people half-done work. But I plan to use FADD to step away from writing and attempt something new, and I don’t want to reveal my pieces before I’m ready.

Nonetheless, there’s no requirement to show works in progress, and I will keep Instagram updated with something relevant to the project each day.

I also have a handwritten diary to log my process and progress, so when I’m ready to show my work, the details will be there.

Sailing By

Four weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry about warming up for Fun a Day Dundee in 2020.

I’m pleased to report that a version of that entry has been posted on the official website. Be sure to click around the menu at the top to read more stories and information about the project.

Note that the post is under my legal name of Gavin Cruickshank, which I don’t normally use for writing since few people can spell it correctly.

I haven’t had a great deal of time this week, so I’ll be back next week with a fuller entry.

Two Festivals

There are two major festivals happening concurrently this week.

The first is the popular Book Week Scotland, an annual festival of books and reading across the nation. The organisers produce a promotional paperback containing short stories from contemporary writers that are given away at literary events. As such, I ordered a box for my open-mike night Hotchpotch, and we had just enough for each member to take one.

What is less well-known is the Being Human festival, a commemoration of the humanities across the UK, and it’s that one I’d like to focus on in this entry. Until Saturday 23 November, there will be events held in Lincoln, London, Sheffield and Swansea – as well as in my native Dundee.

I’ve previously mentioned my poetry circle, the Wyverns. In 2018, we created our first booklet as part of Being Human. This was inspired by the 200th anniversary of the novel Frankenstein, all the more appropriate since Mary Shelley was living in Dundee when she started to write it. The booklet was then launched at the University of Dundee.

We’ve now been given an opportunity to do the same with this year’s theme: discoveries and secrets. Our circle took inspiration from the nearby River Tay, more than a mile and a half wide at its mouth, with plenty of physical and metaphorical space for secrets waiting to be discovered. Incidentally, only one poet wrote about the obvious connection with the RRS Discovery, which was built in Dundee and visited Antarctica in the early 20th century.

To me, it’s lamentable that Book Week Scotland tends to grab the headlines and overshadow Being Human, as there are so many potential connections to be made between the two that they deserve an equal footing.

For instance, my friends Erin Farley and James Barrowman have been temporarily resurrecting The Poets’ Box in the Wellgate shopping centre. The original Box opened in the 1870s and stayed open for more than 70 years, albeit in different locations around the city. It not only sold poetry and sheet music, but had a printing press on the premises to distribute work by local writers.

Despite the overshadowing, I’m looking forward to taking part in Being Human this year, and if all other factors remain equal, in years to come.

Looking Ahead to January

Although it’s not until next year, I’m already gearing up to take part in Fun a Day Dundee (FADD) for the third time. This is the local chapter of a global project that encourages participants to undertake something creative during the month of January. It happens at a time of year when professional artists and creators often struggle after the Christmas rush.

I first learnt of FADD in 2017, although the group has been running since 2011. A few of my artist friends were taking part, some working on a different piece every day for the 31 days, others concentrating on one or more larger projects during this time.

Those friends told me I should take part the following year, but I had some reservations: I’m not a painter, a model-maker, a jeweller, nor anything similar. Rather, my craft is writing words in pencil or pen on lined paper.

Rationally, I knew I was welcome, while still feeling like a misfit. As such, I hesitated in signing up, only registering my interest on the first day: 1 January 2018.

I started off with the intention of producing one piece of prose or poetry each day of the month, with provision to create side projects if something else occurred to me that I wanted to try out. Four days into FADD, I created my first such side project and something extraordinary happened.

In late December, I’d ordered a watch strap from Amazon, and it arrived in early January with six wasteful feet of brown paper cushioning stuffed into a needlessly large box. But inspired by the artists of FADD posting their work on Instagram and Twitter, I straightened out the paper and kept it aside for the public exhibition. I then planned to invite visitors to write down their own stories of corporate waste on that sheet of paper.

With the addition of that piece and my other side projects, the exhibition display looked so much more colourful and engaging than simply a folder full of black or blue ink on cream paper, and visitors did indeed fill the paper with anecdotes.

But more than that, this piece in particular gave me a direction for my 2019 project, where I still wrote words, but on recycled material. The surfaces used included used envelopes, expired tickets, and even the sole of a worn-out Dr Marten boot; anything except fresh lined paper.

In 2020, I have every intention of taking the recycling theme one stage further. The finer details will be worked out nearer the time, but the project will include actively destroying some of what I wrote in 2018 and 2019, and encouraging the public to do the same.

Whatever happens, however, I will make sure I have fun doing it, just as the name suggests.

Where We Go from Here

Further to last week’s entry about our Hotchpotch venue, I’m pleased to report we’ve at least found a stopgap venue for July. I was out of Dundee at the time, so a big thanks go to our core group of regulars for helping me to take swift action.

As we look to August, we need to find somewhere that’s quiet enough to hear unaccompanied speech and that can host the group in the long term. Our old venue allowed us to use the basement every month on a Monday as it pulled in customers on what is traditionally a quiet day in the licensed trade.

The other consideration is whether to start charging members. Until now, entry has been free because our venues have let us have the space in exchange for buying food and drink. We attract around 30 people, sometimes more, per event and a charge of – say – £2 apiece would cover a £50 hire charge.

Whatever happens, I’m keen to make sure the evening sticks to the same principles: to give people a platform for their work with no judgement and no criticism.