Carry A Poem

During February there will be poetry events happening all over Edinburgh as part of the City of Literature’s Carry a Poem campaign. There will be opportunities to share your favourite poems with others, to attend poetry writing workshops and to take part in a treasure hunt. I see that Mark Thomson will be performing his poetry in Leith Library next Wednesday. I had an amazing time at a workshop with him last April and I strongly recommend that you go along if you can.

From Monday 1000s of Carry a Poem Books will be given away for free in Edinburgh City Libraries. The book contains a selection of poems, each one accompanied by a story from the person who chose it to explain why that poem is significant to them. I’m desperate for a copy and am already planning the fastest route from work to the library on Monday afternoon.

I’m sure the campaign will not only encourage people to read poems but also to treasure them. Already it’s got me thinking about poems that have meant a lot to me.  I’ve never been a good one for memorising lines (I have friends who can carry on whole conversations quoting only from The Simpsons while the best I can manage is “Doh!”) and I’m not the sort of person who learns poems off by heart. I can’t claim to carry any one particular poem in my head, but there are some that still make me smile long after my memory of the words has faded.  

One of these is Fleur Adcock’s Illiterate, which I recently came across in a journal at the Scottish Poetry Library. The poem describes that confusing time in childhood before you can read or write. Without letters to pin down the words it’s so easy to get them wrong. Adcock recalls her mother offering her crayons and thinking she had said “crowns”. Learning to read brought her clarity but also sadness; all those words that had to be unlearned!

It reminded me that when I was a child I thought that my mum carried a ham-bag and my grandpa was in the Gravy. I spent about a year playing “shoders” at nursery until “shoulder” and “soldier” resolved into two distinct words. Although it’s been a  long time since I made those mistakes, my mum still clings onto my childhood words, offering me “noccit” when I visit home.


A Disappointing Day for Contemporary Poets

I was going to begin this post by wishing you all a happy National Poetry Day, I was even thinking of throwing in a jaunty little haiku, but I’ve just visited the BBC’s poetry season website (I blogged about it a while back) and read the results of the Nation’s Favourite Poet vote and now I don’t feel all that happy or jaunty at all (luckily for you; you’ve been spared my terrible haiku.)

Do you know, only four of the top ten poets were born in the 20th century? I was going to work out the average year of birth but I realised that John Donne in second place, born in 1572, would skew the results somewhat. Thank goodness for third favourite Benjamin Zephaniah, born in 1958, the only one of the nation’s top ten poets who is happily Not Dead Yet.

I certainly don’t wish to undermine the brilliance of the poets who made it into the top ten, I merely wish to point out that National Poetry Day seems not to have reached its goal of “bringing poetry to the public eye” if most of the poets on the shortlist were firmly in the public eye, or at least somewhere in the back of the public’s minds, already. Who has not come across the Nation’s Favourite Poet T.S. Eliot before?  Have we not all had William Blake, W.B. Yeats and John Keats forced down our throats at school? Where are all the contemporary poets?

Before voting took place, thirty poets were pre-selected by a panel of judges (including the Director of the Poetry Society and the Director of the Arts Council). Each of the thirty names on the list is accompanied by a head shot and if you scroll through all the photos, you will see that only seven of them are in colour. That’s right. Most of the pre-selected poets lived before colour photography either existed or became popular. Some of them, judging by the oil paintings and pencil sketches, were around before photography existed. What were you thinking, panel of judges? You have done a great disservice to contemporary poetry. Looking at this list of thirty poets, one might think that poetry was a dying art.

On the contrary, poetry is alive and well and evolving with the times: in the last decade or so with the advent of mobile phones we’ve seen poems written in text speak and condensed into 140 characters; there have been poetry slamming events popping up around the country and videos of poets performing their work are all over youtube. The list of stale poets in the top ten (with the exception of Benjamin Zephaniah) makes no reflection on the dynamic nature of poetry. There are poets writing now about current affairs, about troops in Afghanistan and knife crime in London, issues that people today feel strongly about and can identify with. I have never studied English literature and I don’t read poems critically, but for enjoyment. I don’t feel that I can engage with the writings of TS Eliot, no matter how popular his poems were at the time he was writing with them. I do feel something, a kind of pang of recognition, when I read the poems written by women in the New Writing section of Mslexia. (Another disappointing fact: not one woman features in the nation’s top ten).

After this rant you’re probably expecting me to recommend some contemporary poets. I’m not an expert at all but recently I’ve come across and liked poems by Mark Thomson, Liz Niven and Meirion Jordan.  Here are links to youtube videos of Mark Thomson and Meirion Jordan reading their own poetry. Enjoy!

Bard fae thi Buildin Site

Today was a jam-packed literary day. In the morning I paid a visit to my old high school to hear a very funny talk by Keith Gray. After chatting to the pupils, answering questions and signing books, he very generously sat down to talk to me for half an hour about his latest novel, Ostrich Boys. I will post the interview as soon as I have deciphered my notes and typed them up.

In the evening I went to a workshop with Mark Thomson, a performance poet from Dundee. He is a charismatic performer and I really enjoyed hearing him recite some poems from his debut collection, Bard fae thi Buildin Site. He writes and performs in his local Dundonian dialect and the pace and rhythm of the poems is thrilling. He told us that writing in dialect allows him to write closer to his own voice. He uses dialect words as “ammunition”; the richer the vocabulary he has to choose from, the more he can play with the sound and rhythm of the poem.

In the workshop Mark did an exercise with us where we had to write down our initials on a page, then come up with ten words that started with each letter. He suggested that we use dialect words where possible, but as I’ve mentioned, I am dialectically challenged so I just put English words in my list. Afterwards we were given about five minutes to write a paragraph using those words, and he assured us it was absolutely OK to write nonsense.

Mark explained that when you read poetry out loud, it often sounds different from the way it flows in your head, so we all took turns to read out our nonsense paragraphs. Lots of people had come up with some really funny stories and one person even managed to construct a rhyming poem from her words. All the pieces had a really nice natural rhythm, thanks to the alliteration.

I found the exercise very inspiring and I am planning to try it again to help me write a short story. I’ll keep you updated on how that works out. In the meantime, here is the paragraph I wrote in the workshop today for you to chew on:

She had huge curls of copper hair that she combed around her head in a halo. Sometimes she crimped and clipped them, or coiled them up under a hair net. She kept her kirbys in a clear glass jar on the hope chest; held her hair back, clawed it behind her ears, clipped the coppery strands in place – calm, collected, controlled. But at night she let her hair hang loose, howling around her face; her hard face, hot hair, cold face.