On Wednesday, I saw one of my idols at The Mash House in Edinburgh. Andrea Gibson is a non-binary poet who uses the singular ‘they’ pronoun. This was the very city where I’d been introduced to their work.
It seemed to be the convention that the audience sat on the floor, so I was battling with needles and pins for much of the evening, not to mention a wet patch where someone had accidentally kicked over my wine.
But in spite of the setbacks, the gig itself was amazing. I enjoyed Gibson’s often dense wordplay and imagery, which engaged and touched us in equal measure. Many of the poems were accompanied by recorded music.
Just about everyone in the audience queued up to have merchandise signed after the gig. I didn’t, but I wanted to tell them how much their work had helped me write mine. From nowhere, I found myself ready to cry as I spoke. They seemed to be genuinely appreciative of the thought.
The support act was Suky Goodfellow. I’d heard of her before but this was the first time I’d encountered her poetry. She commanded the stage as she spoke about wealth creators and why swear words shouldn’t be rude.
If I have the opportunity to see Gibson and/or Goodfellow again, I shall definitely take it.
I feel as though I’m giving you a cop-out entry this week because it exists only to link to other posts.
This is partly because I haven’t had much time; I’ve spent a lot of it on a new long-form piece. And it’s partly because another poet has put together some excellent advice that I’d like to share.
A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Blair asked his friends what advice they wish they’d known before taking part in their first open-mike night. The advice he received – including mine – appear in his entry So…you want to do an open mic night.
My normal method of writing blogs is to pick one subject and write a few paragraphs about it. However, nothing major has happened over the last week so no single topic could be extended to a full entry. Instead, here’s a round-up of what’s been occurring.
At the end of last month, I spoke about the open-mike night I run for writers and that we’d found a new venue. I’m pleased to report we had a marvellous time, with a record 17 people reading stories and poetry, and many more eager ears in the audience. It would be great to see this sustained over the coming months.
Last week, I mentioned I was redrafting a one-woman play I originally wrote for my Masters dissertation. Since then, I’ve boosted the word count to 11,000 and it now lasts for an hour, even delivered at a reasonably fast pace. This means it can be stripped back if necessary.
In the same entry, I mentioned I was redrafting a short story. I haven’t had a chance to send this away yet, but I will soon. I have an annual target to submit 53 pieces to publishers – an average of one a week, plus one for good measure – and I’m nowhere near on par.
Yesterday, a friend reposted a short piece called Humans Are Adorable, written from the point of view of an alien looking at the human race. Number 12 is about reaching the moon, described as humanity having ‘made it to the end of their yard’. A mutual friend then quipped, ‘Thank [goodness] I don’t have to mow it.’ And this image stayed with me, so I simply had to make it into a poem:
Last week, I talked about an open-mike night that I run in Dundee. However, the majority of the events I attend happen in Glasgow or Edinburgh. These cities are not prohibitively far away; I can reach either one by bus or train.
The problem is that I have an office job and I’m generally required to work until 5pm. I’m often obliged to take the train to arrive on time, even though bus travel is almost always cheaper. Coming back on the same night poses other challenges: do I book a cheap late-night bus where I need to hang around after the event finishes, or do I spend more on a train ticket I can use at any time?
Many poets do make a point of stopping in Dundee, but it would be great to have more of a home-grown scene. There’s a well-established poetry circuit between Glasgow and Edinburgh where acts from one city will regularly perform in the other, and so it would be great to have Dundee contributing to that route as well as being an equal player.
Among other initiatives, a couple of folks I know want to host a cabaret night, and a third is proposing a regular playwriting evening, so I think there’s definitely an appetite for doing something right here. I don’t know much about the scene in other major Scottish cities, but the potential is enormous.
Regardless of the logistics, it’s often a rewarding experience to be at spoken-word events.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw the Jenny Lindsay show This Script & Other Drafts in Glasgow; on Friday just gone, I was back in the city for a trans and non-binary event. On both occasions, I had an excellent time and I caught up with people I haven’t seen for a while. Leyla Josephine’s Hopeless is on the cards for Friday coming.
For the last couple of years, we’ve been using a bar called the Tinsmith, who took us in when a previous venue closed. We’re indebted to them for allowing our group to keep going, and we made it clear that the move was on good terms.
They have a snug area that offers some degree of separation from the other customers. Over the last few months, however, our audience has grown beyond this area. As a result, it’s become difficult for everyone to hear, even with a PA system.
With help from another member, we scouted out a few locations, bearing in mind that any venue needs to benefit from our presence. Some didn’t have the privacy or the space we need, while others charged amounts that we wouldn’t be able to sustain in the long run. We found the Mayfly, who take a reasonable approach to space versus cost.
Of all the impending changes ahead, the format of Hotchpotch remains the same: for writers to read out their fiction or poetry with no judgement and no criticism. The next meeting is on Monday 14 May.
On Saturday, I made my annual trip to StAnza, the poetry festival in St Andrews. And what better way to start than Breakfast at the Poetry Café with a pastry and a panel of four poets, namely Sara Hirsch, Jan Baeke, Esther Mijers and Luke Pell. They talked about the inclusion or exclusion of the self in their work, with an extensive discussion on pronouns.
I then moved on to the 12 Showcase, featuring some of the women who collaborate and respond to each others’ poetry via a shared Google document. Dispensing with introductions or explanations, they formed an almost hypnotic chain of verse full of back references and tangents, infused with their individual styles.
Past & Present saw Oli Hazzard speaking about John Ashbery, then W.N. Herbert speaking about W.S. Graham. It’s often difficult to know what to leave out when speaking about a prolific figure, but in their respective 25 minutes, each poet gave a broad sense of their subjects to the packed audience.
StAnza’s theme this year was Going Dutch, ‘shining a spotlight on the poetry of Flanders and the Netherlands in Dutch and Frisian.’ There were Dutch poets peppered throughout the event, but Five O’Clock Verses was the first time I’d heard anyone speak Frisian, the language most closely related to English.
When Tsead Bruinja performed in the language, I was reminded of a childhood memory. In Scotland, there used to be five minutes of Gaelic news shown every evening, and I’d be able to pick out borrowed words such as helicopter. In Bruinja’s case, the most outstanding term was double-D, referring to the bra size. Although he set a high standard, Tara Bergin was able to match it with her absurdist poetry, all delivered in English.
Poetry Centre Stage is held in the main auditorium of the Byre Theatre and is always a must-see. I’ve heard a lot about William Letford, but I don’t recall seeing him before. Half of his 40-minute set was devoted to a story cycle about a family who go to live in the forest. It sounded a lot like prose, but it was written in a wonderfully poetic manner. I left before Liz Lochhead’s appearance because I wanted to prepare for my personal highlight.
The StAnza Slam gives two and a half minutes to 12 participants, all eager to impress a panel of judges. Four of them would then progress to a second knockout round, with three minutes allowed.
I’m pleased to report that I managed to enter the second round with a piece called Sir Madam that’s proved popular at previous events. However, Jo Gilbert deservedly walked away with the prize after a poem about cake.
Although slam competitions are by nature competitive, they tend not to be ego-driven – at least in my experience – and I think that’s great.
For the last decade or so, StAnza has complemented the Dundee Literary Festival, which has traditionally been held in October. While StAnza appears to be stable, there might not be a Dundee event this year as we’ve normally been given news by now. If it doesn’t happen, Dundee writers might just have to pull together and hold an unofficial one of our own.
In the middle of last week, the UK was hit by an exceptionally strong gust of snow. My area was given a rare Red Warning, and that led to some cancellations and closures.
On Thursday, for instance, my office was closed and I was excused from doing the ‘day job’. I instead used the time to send work to a publisher. On Friday, I was supposed to be exhibiting my Fun a Day pieces created during January, but that’s been postponed. In fact, the one event that went ahead as normal was partly outdoors.
So on Saturday, I visited the Botanic Gardens in Dundee, whose volunteers are compiling an anthology of written and visual work inspired by the grounds. To this end, they’ve organised Focus Days where writers, photographers and artists are given a tour of the trees and plants to generate ideas. In this instance, the tour was restricted to the heated glass houses, although the participants seemed willing to go out in the snow.
The tour was followed by a lively discussion about the work that should appear in the anthology and how it should be created. Some of us shared our existing work; I read a piece I’d already submitted for consideration and three of the other members inferred religious symbolism where there wasn’t intended to be any.
Frustratingly, no consensus was reached about the anthology as a whole, but we reconvene in three weeks and we’re looking to take it forward from there.
If any new work was generated by Saturday’s visit, it’ll probably be infused by the ambient conditions. Some writers use it almost as a character in its own right and, done well, it can enhance a scene without distracting the reader. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee invokes sticky summer heat; Kirsty Logan steeps The Gracekeepers with a cold sea chill.
Even when you’re trying to create a fictional universe, of course, nobody can escape the weather. Shooting began on the first Star Wars film 42 years ago this month in Tunisia, a location chosen for its desert landscape. On the second day, the country was hit by a rare winter rain that hadn’t been seen for 50 years, destroying sets and damaging equipment.