Archive | December, 2009

Expressing the inexpressible

16 Dec

As part of the exhibition and events program A Model of Order:  Concrete Poetry, the Scottish Poetry Library facilitated an afternoon of sound poetry at the end of November.  I was keen to attend, as this year I have learned a lot about concrete poetry through evening classes and various exhibitions and events, but still knew very little about sound poetry.

I was surprised to discover that the Dadaists were at the vanguard of sound poetry.  I first learned about Dadaism at school, but only in relation to visual arts.  Dadaism was primarily influenced by both World Wars.  The events of, and surrounding these wars were so horrifying that the Dadaist reacted by creating anti-cultural works.  They actively rejected what was considered worthwhile within an artistic context.  They tried to ridicule what they saw as the meaninglessness of the modern world by creating art without meaning.

The first recordings listened to during the afternoon of sound poetry appear to reflect this idea.  They appeared to be a bit of a joke, were very humorous, and one could even detect tones of the Goons or Monty Python in them.  However it was still difficult to reconcile these works with the idea that they could be poetry.  As with my introduction to concrete poetry I found that the definitions and boundaries that I had decided to place upon the way I experience culture were challenged, and it left me questioning if I was right to have such boundaries in the first place.

We were then played a piece called Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters.  Although Ursonte did in parts have the light-hearted touch that is found in other poems, it had further resonance.  Although these pieces are not means to have any discernable meaning in Ursonate I very clearly heard the voice of a woman who I had known when I worked in nursing homes.  She was at the very end of Alzheimer’s, and could no longer use language, but she could make one sound, ba – repeatedly.  Her predicament was horrendous, pathetic and chilling all at the same time, and in the meaningless babble of sound poetry I could hear it all again. 

So within this rather amazingly constructed piece of nonsense I could make sense.  Schwitters had been able to express something that I could never truly put into words.  By discarding the boundaries of language he expressed the inexpressible.  He has also illustrated, for me, one of the ideas which I hold as  fundamental truth about mankind.  It does not matter what we are confronted with – we can not help but find meaning within in, in fact, we have to.  This is the fundamental flaw in Dadaism – nothing can be meaningless.  The lack of meaning, which they tried so hard to invest their art, poetry and music with signifies so much more now we can look back over the times with hindsight.

You can find out more about the works of Kurt Schwitterz, at the Merz Barn Project, which hopes to further promote him and also restore his last work.


Poetry in unusual places: Part 6

11 Dec

Bill Wilson is fast becoming the most pro-poetry MSP in The Scottish Parliament, this week he quoted Burns and Voltaire during this weeks debate on climate change.

From Burns

“The billows on the ocean

The breezes idly roaming.”

from Deluded swain, the pleasure.  And from Voltaire…

“We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation”.

And the debate on climate change you ask?  Well, they all agreed it is a jolly bad thing.

The Next Issue is at the Printers

10 Dec

Sally Evans, esteemed editor of Poetry Scotland, explains the process of selecting poems and deciding what goes into the broadsheet.

The editor heaves a sigh of relief. The magazine has “gone to bed” as printers say and there is a pause before the mail-out. Every magazine is different, but there are constants whatever the set-up, whether the magazine has a committee, a single editor or changing editors.

Poetry Scotland is a broadsheet, and in the tradition of broadsheets you fill it with poems –which answers people who have sometimes criticised it for having too much poetry in it. There is always enough material collected in the few months between issues, but the first question is, what will make this issue interesting and give it character, what will be the main noticeable content? There may be longer poems or poems on themes, or work by a popular and high-profile poet. There are various languages to consider: I try to include Scots and Gaelic fairly often, and occasionally other languages or dialects. With Scots, there are several dialects and I have noticed people will usually only read their own dialect — I can tell this from the feedback I receive. Sometimes there are projects within poetry, such as the English Diaspora issue (the only study of this subject in Scottish Poetry that I know of) — or other special issues.

This time we have an inset on a Scottish Natural Heritage Project on Flanders Moss, a raised bog, and for the first time in Poetry Scotland’s history we are printing poems by school pupils in this inset. Their work is very exciting. You see, we have to develop, we have to move on and make sure the broadsheet does not become boringly repetitive. One result of this in terms of this particular Poetry Scotland is there was less space in the magazine proper.

I had an interesting long poem from a good poet who has contributed before, an account of how Zhou En-Lai came to Edinburgh in 1920, hoping to study at Edinburgh University. In the event he could not get in and hung around with Scottish communists before sailing back to China. It makes an interesting poem and takes just over a page of narrow columns inside, leaving about three pages for single poems or groups of poems.

Then something I really liked came along, a political ballad, but after very careful consideration I decided this ballad could not be printed for reasons to do with the content. Though I thought it an extremely good poem, I rejected it, explaining the problems to the poet. That left me rather without some oomph on the front page, for although we all like to read gentle poems and formal poems, we also like something grittier or more startling at times – you can’t produce a good magazine by marking poems out of ten and putting in all the top ones!

The day was saved by an international poet who I knew through an email list. I solicited a poem from her, and that poem sits on the front page, giving some bite to the issue. ‘Soliciting’ a poem of course means asking someone if they will contribute a poem, either because you know their work, or their name is such that everyone will be interested and they can be relied upon to be good.

What else goes in? There are always some poems I have definitely promised or even some left from the previous issue, so these go in and now we have to start looking at the subject matter and type of poem as well as their lengths and widths, which become vital at this secondary stage. I had a nice short but wide poem which I wasn’t sure if I would use: in the end it slotted in. You can’t use several poems on the same subject unless they are deliberately balanced against each other. I received two poems about a train crash once, (possibly the same train crash) and I had to more or less toss up. If they had been contrasting I could perhaps have used them both. Finally, good little short poems or haiku may well find their way into the corners of columns as I  finish the page layouts.

I have said that I will take good beginner work from Scotland but not from England, as I receive a lot of poems from England and I can only include them if they fit in the Scottish “cultural window” in some way. With beginners and younger writers who have not yet built up an image, I have to use my instinct for poems that I like. I think I look for fresh work, not samey work that has too much of a feel of  a “writing programme” about it. Over time, as long as their work is ok, co-operative and helpful writers will win out, those who don’t indulge in tricks, double submissions, conflicting pseudonyms, or negative gossip (all editors have a great ear to the ground).

I try to balance the genders reasonably over each issue. Having begun Poetry Scotland when women were not given a fair share of space, I firmly printed women authors and now have to very slightly discriminate against them to prevent this magazine looking heavily biased towards women. I have many women poet friends and am glad to give them all space from time to time. I have never believed in ghetto writing and I’ll go out of my way to include all kinds of writers, from Stanley Robertson the traveller/gypsy to beat poets, good disestablishment poets such as Steve Sneyd, out on a limb poets and the most literary people in the English speaking world that I can get.

On the whole I would call my approach poet-based rather than poem-based: I like to include many people as long as their work is good.
As well as editing Poetry Scotland Sally also blogs at, runs Kings Book Shop in Callander and the diehard poetry series.

Date for your diary

4 Dec

On the 17th December the new quote for The Scottish Parliament outside wall will be announced.   For those of you who have not seen the outside wall it is populated with quotes, some from poems and novels, and even one or two from the Bible. 

The quotes have a wide range, my two personal favorites are the now well known quote from Alasdair Gray “Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation” and from the book of Proverbs “Say but little and say it well” perhapse a reminder to those debating inside.

It is a delightful example of how poetry and words can be incorporated into architecture and life.  And with great wisdom many of the stones were left blank so that quotes could be added over time, reflecting that the parliament, our creative life and Scotland itself is a story yet to be completed.

I awaite the announcement with anticipation.

The newcomer reviews: Shore Poets

2 Dec

As part of a new series on A Lump in the Throat I shall be taking a friend, who is not at all interested in poetry around many of the poetry readings, or evening incorporating poetry in or around Edinburgh.  I wanted to get the point of view of a non-poet, the woman on the street, the every woman.  We have started at Shore Poets on the 29 November 2009.

What is your experience of poetry?

Like most people my only experience of poetry is being forced to read it at school for English exams.  Since then poetry has seemed irrelevant to my life.

What did you expect from a poetry reading before tonight?

I wasn’t even really aware that poetry readings went on so I had no expectations!

What were your thoughts on the venue?

I felt a bit like a naughty school girl in my seat in the back row!  I like The Lot as a venue, small and cosy and serves good cider.  The upstairs room is a good shape and size to be able to hear all the poets really well.

Did you enjoy the readings?

yes, I enjoyed all the readings.  Each poet brought something different giving a good balance to the evening.  I enjoyed the humour in Ellie Stewart’s poems and I like that she writes about everyday events that I can relate to and places that I know.  Ian McDonnough’s poetry was possibly more in the style I had been expecting and he forced me to think a bit deeper.  I did laugh at his poem in the style of a hotel TV welcome screen, perhaps my appreciation of poetry is rather shallow still!  Lastly Anne Frater read in Gaelic and then again in English, the Gaelic sounds so lyrical, I wish I understood.  Anne’s poems were very moving particularly the one she finished on about the death of her friend.

What stood out for you about the evening?

Without a doubt the poetry.  To be moved so much by just a few lines is magical.

Did the evening change any of your expectations?

Yes it did.  As you might expect of a librarian I read a lot (mainly novels) but now I understand that poetry is much better read aloud.  I need to take my nose out a book and listen sometimes.

Would you go to a poetry reading again?

Yes, when’s the next one?

Shore Poets is on the last Sunday of every month at The Lot, The Grassmarket, Edinburgh.

Our reviewer is loopy_lor (as she is known on twitter and flicker) and is a Scottish law librarian and believer in the Healing Power of the Star Jump