Archive | January, 2010

Report from Hidden Door

31 Jan

As my regular readers will know I appeared at Hidden Door this weekend.  An interdisciplinary arts festival.  I performed on Saturday, in the lounge area and the main performance space.

In my first set in the lounge I worked with novelist Hamish MacDonald.  Hamish was reading from his book Finitude, which is set in a world where climate change is further advanced than in this one.  Hamish read from a section that deals with “last flights day”.  As air travel is to be banned there is one last day when people are able to take flights, therefore having to decide where they will spend the rest of their lives.  Hamish ingeniously handed out boarding passes for these imaginary flights and the audience had to fill out their rest-of-life destination and their reason for choosing it.  Hamish will soon be posting the results on his website.

I read my numbered set.  The numbered set is basically a lazy way of avoiding the stress of having to create and arrange an actual set.  I have a folder, with my poems in and number them all.  I then ask the audience to shout out numbers between one and thirty-two (just happened that was the amount in my folder that day) and then read the corresponding poem.  I was very pleased some audience members asked me to re-read some poems because people enjoyed them and wanted to hear them again.  One of the benefits of increasing your audiences participation.

My second set was in the performance space in the middle of the maze.  Originally the idea had been to mic me up and I would read, luring people, siren like to the center.  However something technically went wrong and that was not possible.  I improvised.  The whole maze was full of artwork and therefore the people wandering through were looking at art, not expecting poetry.  So I wandered up to people, introduced myself, and asked them if they would like to hear a poem.  No one said no and some people stayed to hear more.

I found this an amazing performance experience.  When you perform on stage you are rather cut off and above your audience.  When you are face to face with them in a lit room it is possible to see their reaction, and work with them.  It was also lovely to enter dialog with audience members and get to know them.

In fact I enjoyed the experience so much I spent much of the night wander around asking complete strangers if they would like to hear some poetry, and hopefully enthusing them about the vibrancy of the poetry scene in Edinburgh at the moment.  However I did also take some time out to hear my fellow poets Rob A. Mackenzie, Andrew Philip, Colin Will and Kevin Cadwallender.

The Hidden Door experience was amazing, there was a genuine energy and buzz.  There were many opportunities to talk to other creative people from other disciplines.  I hope that we can see more interdisciplinary and collaborative work in the future in Edinburgh.


Poets on film: Henry Fool

27 Jan

Henry fool is directed by the legendary Hal Hartly who is know for his deadpan style.  In it we see a young, quite and obviously depressed bin man, Simon Grim, through coincidence befriend Henry Fool.

Fool is a drifter who settles in Henry’s basement and proceeds to encourage him to write, claiming to have written his magnum opus.  In his own words…

It’s a philosophy. A poetics. A politics, if you will. A literature of protest. A novel of ideas. A pornographic magazine of truly comic book proportions. It is, in the end, whatever the hell I want it to be. And when I’m through with it it’s going to blow a hole this wide straight through the world’s own idea of itself.

Henry encourages Simon to put down his feelings into words.  The result of Grim’s outpourings is a poetic masterpiece which has profound effects on all who read it.  After several verses are posted on the internet it inspires the sort of fandom usually reserved for sexually non-threatening boy bands .  Publishers who previously rejected the verse are now clamoring to publish.  Fool meanwhile, for all his magnetic personality begins a period of descent in his life.

The film is a kind of poetic Whilnail and I.  Henry is a Withnail character, intoxicated by his own self belief and supposed brilliance, while Grimm is the Marwood figure, quieter, less prone to trouble, and perhaps not more talented (as we never get to hear any of their work we will never know) but definitely more marketable.

Harltey’s characters don’t have the sort of arc that can be found in more mainstream film making.  Traditionally our hero’s and heroines should develop and learn, they should end up “better” people.  Better meaning whatever is most appealing and least offensive to mainstream society.  Hartley’s characters don’t change, it is their circumstances and the world around them that changes – rather like real life?

Henry’s Fool is incredibly layered.  It speaks about art, personality, commercialism, the public and private.  It is fantastical, yet at the same time routed in reality.  It is very funny.  So is Henry Fool about poetry – no, but cinematically it’s close.

Published and performing

22 Jan

I have had a pretty good start to the new year.  At the beginng of January I was wondering if there would be enough going on for a regular once-a-week post.  Now I find I am inundated.

Firstly I have had my first ever print publication.  It was in Poetry Scotland, a broadsheet edited by Sally Evans.  It was a very small contribution, but pleasing for me none-the-less.

At the end of this month I will be performing at Hidden Door.  Hidden Door is an interdiscaplinary arts festival held in Edinburgh.  There will be musicians, artists, filmakers and poets.  I shall be performing on the Saturday at 4.00 – 4.30 in the lounge and then from 4.30 on the Main Stage – a bit scary but I’m sure the adrenaline rush from doing two slots back to back will leave me on a massive natural high for long afterward.  I shall also be helping poet Andrew Philip, and artist Geri Loup-Nolan with their planned raidal poem, which festival visitors can participate in.  Please come along and check things out.

Lastly I will also be performing next month at Poetry at the GRV.  As it is Valentines Day the organiser, Rob MacKenzie, has asked poets to write a response to a specific line from the Song of Songs, and ancient love poem.  The line I have been given is “Adjure, Oh daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved; tell him I am love-sick”.  So wether you celebrate Valentines Day or feel it is a load of rubbish drummed up to sell cards please come along, it will be a great night.

The newcomer reviews: Shout out

20 Jan

As part of our regular series A lump in the Throat sends a friend and poetry novice to poetry events and evenings to gain the perspective of a newcomer to the scene.  This week we attended Shout Out, a collaborative event between Edinburgh University Litrature and Feminist Societies at Middle Bar, Teviot.

Your last review was of your first ever poetry reading, what expectations do you have now?

Having really enjoyed the last event I wanted to have high expectations of enjoying this event as well but was also apprehensive of a student event – what if I was the oldest person in the room?

On reflection did it being a student event affect the experience?

The students were enthusiastic and that was infectious.  The event was quite well organised and it turned out there are some students even more “mature” than me so I was able to relax and listen.  The late finish wasn’t so good for us working oldies, we left early and missed the final set of poets and the open mike set.

What did you think of the venue?

A nicer room than any I remember in the students’ unions of my youth, proper architectural features instead of grubby concrete!  Good sound and a cheap bar as well but it would have been better without the herd of elephants doing an aerobics class upstairs!

What was your opinion of the readers?

There are so many readers I can’t possibly comment on them all individually so I shall restrict myself to general observations.  I loved the enthusiasm of the students and felt for the couple that were so nervous they could hardly read.  I did feel that most of the students haven’t found their “poetry voices” yet and were perhaps too influenced by how they think poetry should sound or perhaps held back by their limited experiences of life.  I wonder if maturity and life experience matter in becoming a good/well-developed poet?  Having said that most of the poets showed potential for the future and I really enjoyed a couple of them.  In particular an American chap (Nick Spengler?) who’s poem Anastasia about his sister caught my imagination.

The last poetry reading left you very enthused, do you still feel the same way?

Yes, I am still enthused.  It was great to see so many students at the event, the room was absolutely packed and everyone seemed to be enjoying it.  I think poetry in Scotland has a great future. I probably won’t go to any more student events though!

The Outstretched Hand

14 Jan

Continuing last weeks theme of poetry and healing, Colin Will, poet and editor of Calderwood Press talks about his work at Carstairs Hospital.

Many of the things I’ve done in my life have been the result of happenstance. I didn’t plan on being a staff welfare officer on top of my library job. I was asked to do it, and I said yes. I loved doing it, and it gave me an entry point into counselling, which I found extremely fulfilling. I didn’t plan on bringing poetry to the patients at the State Hospital, Carstairs either. I’d written a piece for a library journal on literacy in prisons, and the Carstairs librarian asked me to visit the library. That led to her asking me to read my poetry to their book group, and I’ve now been visiting for around seven years, running workshops and readings. I didn’t plan on developing an increasing interest in working with mental health groups and those with learning difficulties, but it has happened, and I’m very glad.

Letting poetry into your life is an enriching experience. Readers of this blog know that already, but taking poetry into environments where it’s not part of everyday life isn’t easy. Thanks to funding opportunities there are several residencies in workplaces and communities. Among these residencies is a network of poets who work in prisons, and I’m a member of that group. Strictly speaking, Carstairs isn’t a prison, although the level of security is necessarily very high. The patients have a variety of serious mental conditions, which have led some of them to commit serious crimes. Other patients are there for shorter periods, because they require the specialist treatments available there, together with a level of supervision which can’t be provided in the community or in standard mental health facilities.

I know, from personal experience, how effective poetry can be in situations of bereavement. I’ve seen at close hand poetry read and written by those affected by depression, cancer treatment, grief, dependency, domestic violence. I’ve seen the joy in the face of a teenager with learning difficulties who realises that she’s just written her first poem, and that her friends like it. But poetry isn’t in itself a magic wand. It won’t cure cancer; it can’t alter the mind of a psychotic; it isn’t a methadone substitute for a drug addict; it can’t fix a brain damaged at birth or later; it won’t stop a partner hitting you.

So does it do any good at all? I would argue that it does. We’ve evolved as social animals, communicating with each other by means of language and images. Poetry uses words and word-pictures to illuminate the world and ourselves. It can make people feel better, in themselves and about themselves; it can help to underpin the healing process by demonstrating the shared nature of our human experience – the stories told by others in this most intense form of language are not all that different from our own.

At Carstairs, because the staff and a proportion of the patients know me from previous visits, I start by talking about the things I’ve been doing – maybe I’ve been walking in the Highlands, or visiting family – and I’ll read them a recent poem I’ve written about that experience. That’s the ice-breaker, and it demonstrates how my experiences feed into my poetry, as it does with all poets. Then I’ll read a poem from one of the anthologies I’ve brought with me – maybe The Rattle Bag, Staying Alive, or The Edinburgh Book of 20th Century Scottish Poetry. I’ll choose a poem (in advance) for its potential for exploration by discussion. I make sure that these discussions are as inclusive as possible. There’s a considerable range of intellectual capacity around the table, but everyone is encouraged to express an opinion – the poetry is treated as a vehicle for self-expression. Often the discussion will throw up an idea which I can link to another poem, and so it goes for the first half of the session. In the second half I’ll try to get everyone writing. I discovered early on that some were used to writing on their own, while others didn’t (or couldn’t) write at all. So I introduced the group poem, in which everyone can participate, and it’s been successful. I’m told by the staff that the level of communication between patients is higher after my visits. I finish by reading a few of my own poems, which they seem to like.

Over the years, it’s become a personal relationship with the staff and patients. Although there is a turnover in attendees, I’ve known some of them over several years. Some will respond to treatment and return to their communities; others are there for the long term – some will die there.

There’s a new network for poets working in prisons, supported by the Scottish Poetry Library, and it’s a great forum for exchanging ideas and experience. And since Scottish Prison Service staff are part of the network, it’s a great way to get feedback. There are differences between the work in prisons and my work at Carstairs – in my case less turnover, no opportunities for one-to-one working, different funding arrangements, different management (Carstairs is part of the NHS), but there are important similarities. The most fundamental one is that they are all closed communities, isolated from the outside world, in large measure separated from families, but with the normal human needs for empathy and the mental stimulation outside contacts bring. In these situations poetry becomes an outstretched hand. It’s great when people take it.

Live Through This

8 Jan

For those of you are in need of some refreshment for your poetic soul I recommend reading Live through this:  on creativity and self-destruction.  A copy of which I picked up at the Edinburgh Independent and Radical Book Fair.

Live through this is an anthology of essays by American women about their creativity and how it has helped them in the various trials life has thrown at them.  The women in the volume have lived through drug addiction, domestic abuse, grief, chemotherapy and mental illness, and come from a variety of creative backgrounds.  Therefore although there are poets there are also illustrators, performance artists and graphic novelists.

One of the stories that struck me the most was by poet Nicole Blackman.  She recounts how although not suffering from an eating disorder she wrote a poem about anorexia.  Subsequently she received a deluge of correspondence from young women, and men, all of whom had recognised something of themselves in her work.  Impressively Blackman responded to everyone who wrote to her.  With some of them she began to enter into correspondence, and some of the unhappy, lonely and ultimately angry young people she talked to were able to take more control of their lives.

What ultimately impressed me about the book, and what Blackman encapsulates, was the strong sense that the creative impulse can help to save us, or heal us, from the destructive impulse.  Of course, not on it’s own.  You can not simply say “I write” or “I paint” and leave it at that hoping some magic will happen.  However for all these women their particular creativity was a major support in dealing with the various challenges their lives have thrown at them.

In the poetry world so much can appear to hinge on building a reputation.  The result of which can sometimes be an unhealthy preoccupation with the self.  Personally I found it a joy to discover that creating can be a healing process, not just for the creator, but for the audience too. 

Continuing on this theme next week poet and editor of Calderwood Press, Colin Will writes a guest post about his work at Carstairs Hospital.

Poetry in unusual places: Part 7

1 Jan

Over the festive period the Sharratt family usually decant to Norfolk, where much drinking and eating is to be had with other members of the extended clan.  We stay with my brother-in-law who is a house master at Greshams School, near Holt.  I was delighted to find out the WH Auden had been educated there.

All our meals were eaten in a diningroom surrounded by relics from old boys, Auden’s school photograph, a piece of music written by Benjamin Britten.  Strange though, there was nothing from Maclean and Philby, two of the Cambridge Five who were also educated there.