All posts by Ken Cockburn

Ken Cockburn is an Edinburgh-based poet, translator, editor and writing tutor.

StAnza schools

In February and March I ran schools workshops for StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival. I worked with lower secondary pupils at Madras Academy, Waid Academy and St Leonard’s School, as well as with a group of home-schooled pupils from Lothian and Borders.

We looked at three poems as starting points: Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘Journey to Kraków’ (which I’d used with Edinburgh secondary schools last autumn), and two poems about birds – Alastair Reid’s ‘Daedalus’ and Alexander Hutchison’s ‘Gavia Stellata’. ‘Journey to Krakow’, written in the 1950s, describes a scene on a train in which ‘a boy / with a book on his knees’ responds to a stranger’s interest in his reading with brief comments on books he’s read, expressing both ‘rapture and condemnation’. I asked the pupils to reflect on their own reading – and watching and listening – preferences, and to present their work as bookmarks. The voice of ‘Daedalus’ is a father describing his son who ‘has birds in his head’, while ‘Gavia Stellata’ describes the red-throated diver by way of elaborate questions and simple answers. I used both poems to suggest ways the pupils could write about birds using both knowledge and imagination.

The sessions with the Madras pupils took place before StAnza, which took place in St Andrews from 6 to 10 March. During the festival their poems were displayed inside and outside the Byre Theatre, as well as in the garden of the Preservation Trust Museum.

I worked with the home-schooled group in the Japanese garden at Lauriston Castle. We read some haiku and mesostics, went for a walk, wrote poems on labels and made a temporary anthology on a small pine.

My thanks to all the teachers and pupils involved, and to StAnza for making the sessions possible.

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Trees for Life at Dundreggan

Dundreggan Jack Heath

Meet me,
On the slopes of Binnlidh Mhor.
Meet me,
Where the shielings were before.

Meet me,
By the bushy juniper.
Meet me,
Where the pinewoods once were.

Hamish Read, after Robin Robertson’s poem ‘Trysts’

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The landscapes we see around us today are simply a snapshot in time; they were, and will be, different from this. As part of the Trees for Life project Rewilding the Highlands, in June 2017 I ran walking and writing sessions for two groups of S3 pupils from Glen Urquhart High School in Drumnadrochit. We spent one day at the TfL estate at Dundreggan, and the following day at school. The aim was to teach pupils something about local habitats, especially in terms of flora and place-names, and to give them opportunities to respond to these landscapes.

At Dundreggan we followed the route of the Juniper Walk, stopping by the waterfall (loud and midgey); the drystone walls (lichen and wildflowers), and the burn (gorse, thistles, nettles and raspberry). After a break for lunch at the Lodge, we climbed the track towards Binnlidh Beag as far as the lazybeds, again stopping to reflect on what we noticed (sounds, creatures, vegetation) as we progressed. There were some complaints as we climbed, but they were soon overcome by a general euphoria when we reached our destination, beyond the current edge of the forest, as views south and west over Glenmoriston opened up.

The next day at school I led the pupils in a series of writing exercises drawing on their experiences of the previous day, extending that by looking at a selection of Gaelic place-names from across the Highlands (drawn from a larger collection made by Alec Finlay).

Gaelic Couplets Alistair Nicholson

The names referred to flora and fauna, once there, now absent, but which might return: rustling leaves at Leitir Beithe, Birch Face; or rooting trotters at Sgùrr an Tuirc, Boar Peak. Pupils wrote circle poems, acrostics and mesostics, simple walking narratives (comprising short verses about each stop we made on the hill-climb), and poems drawing on real and made-up place names.

From their feedback, what they most enjoyed was walking up the hill, and seeing the creatures we came across, especially a couple of slow-worms.

They appreciated how walking helped them write: “it gave us a lot more ideas and a varied vocabulary… it helped me describe what was there better.”

Through the place-names they glimpsed something of the history of the place: “Gaelic place-names tell us about what was there before and things that aren’t there any more.”

And they were pleased to discover that the name Drumnadrochit comes from Druim na Drochaid, meaning ridge of the bridge.

When asked if they’d like to return to Dundreggan, most said yes, and several had a specific aim in mind: “to climb up the higher hill”.

Teachers also saw benefits for the pupils: “the workshop was really effective in inspiring the majority of the pupils and they really enjoyed learning outdoors for a change.  It made many of them much more aware of what we have on our door step.”

 

Zbigniew Herbert in Scotland, 1963

Herbert Collected Holy Iona

In Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems 1956–1998 I came across a single reference to Scotland, in the poem ‘The Prayer of the Traveler Mr. Cogito’ or, to give it its Polish title, ‘Modlitwa Pana Cogito – podróżnika’. Here is the relevant section in the Polish original, followed by Alissa Valles’s translation from Collected Poems.

a także Miss Helen z mglistej wysepki Mull na Hebrydach za to że przyjęła mnie po grecku i prosiła żeby w nocy zostawić w oknie wychodzącym na Holy Iona zapaloną lampę aby światła ziemi pozdrawiały się

and Miss Helen of the foggy island of Mull in the Hebrides for offering Greek hospitality and asking me to leave a lamp lit at night in the window facing Holy Iona so that the lights of earth would greet each other

The poem is taken from Herbert’s 1983 collection Raport z oblężonego Miasta / Report from a Besieged City. I was curious to know more about the time he spent in Scotland, which was in fact twenty years before this collection appeared, in autumn 1963. According to Andrzej Franaszek’s 2018 biography of Herbert, using public transport Herbert travelled north from London, stopping in Leeds, York and Durham before arriving in Scotland, where he visited Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, Oban, Mull and Glasgow, before returning via Carlisle to London.

Franaszek quotes from a postcard Herbert sent from Edinburgh on 18 October:

Wdrapałem się na górę koło Edynburga i oczywiście spadłem trochę (niegroźnie). Tak trzeba. Ziemio ty moja szkocka ukochana! Jutro jadę, ale dobrze nie wiem dokąd. Dziś w nocy narada sztabu z mapą. Jestem bardzo szczęśliwy, żeście mnie wypchnęli w świat. (…) Przede mną góry i skały, kozice i georginie. Naprzód! Hej!!!

I scrambled my way onto a mountain near Edinburgh and I fell down a little (not dangerously). Maybe a good thing. My beloved Scottish earth! I am leaving tomorrow, even though I’m not sure where I’m going. Tonight there will be a conference of the High Command over the map. I’m very glad that you pushed me out into the world. (…) Ahead of me mountains and cliffs, mountain goats and dahlias. Onwards! Hey!!!

In another postcard, sent from Inverness, he described his mixed feelings about the country: he was ‘exhausted but happy, head over heels in love with Scotland; its beauty exhilarates the tourist. But life without sex… one has to go back.’

He returned via the west coast and, finding himself in Oban, decided to cross to the nearby Isle of Mull and from cross there to Iona or, as he consistently called it, using the English adjective, Holy Iona. ‘Holy Iona, czyli kartka z podróży’ (‘Holy Iona, or a page of travel’) was written in 1966 for the West German radio station WDR, and published posthumously in the collection Mistrz z Delft (2008). Of his perspective of islands, he wrote:

Wyspy nie należą do krajobrazu mego dzieciństwa. Urodziłem się w środkowej Europie, w połowie drogi między Morzem Bałtyckim a Czarnym. Pejzaż mojej młodości to podlwowskie okolice: jary i łagodne pagórki porośnięte sosną, na której najpiękniej kwitnie pierwszy sypki śnieg. Morze było tam czymś niewyobrażalnym, a wyspy miały posmak baśni.

Islands were not part of the landscape of my childhood. I was born in Central Europe, halfway between the Baltic and the Black Sea. The landscape of my youth was the area near Lwów, crevices and gentles hills covered in pine on which the first dry snow bloomed beautifully. The sea was something unimaginable there, and islands had a scent of fairytales.

The crossing to Iona had something otherwordly about it. It was 29 October, his birthday, and the ferry was no longer sailing. The landlady of his B&B at Fionnphort phoned a local fisherman, who agreed to take Herbert on the short crossing. In his radio talk he described their meeting-place:

Zimny, wilgotny, siwy ranek. Stoję w pobliżu jetty, która jest po prostu betonową ścieżką wchodzącą w morze. Ocean jest wzburzony, wysokie fale rozbijają się na skałach urwistego brzegu. Nagle z mgły wyłania się mała łódka rybacka płynąca w moim kierunku. Było to jak podanie ręki marzeniu.

A cold, damp, gray morning. I am standing near a jetty, which is just a concrete path going into the sea… which was stormy, high waves crashing against a rocky coast. A small open boat appeared from out of the mist; it was like extending your hand to a dream.

Once on Iona, Herbert explored the recently rebuilt abbey complex. He was particularly struck by his encounter with a sculpture, Descent of the Spirit’, by the Lithuanian-born Jewish sculptor Jacques (Jacob) Lipschitz (1891–1973), who fled France for the USA in 1940.

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Photo: William Marnoch, Iona Abbey, 2008

Its inscription, in French, reads:

Jacob Lipchitz juif fidéle à la fonde ses ancêtres a fait cette vierge pour la bonne entente des hommes sur la terre afin que l’esprit régne

Jacob Lipschitz a Jew faithful to the heritage of his ancestors made this virgin for the accord of men on earth so the spirit might reign

Herbert, who had witnessed the destruction of Polish Jewry during the Second World War, appreciated the paradox of recovering signs of community in this, to him, remote place. He expressed gratitude to ‘the Jewish artist who had heard so many words of hatred and responded by reaching for the words of reconciliation’.

Herbert returned to Mull, and the Fionnphort B&B, that same day. The evening brought him the image of light which he later incorporated into the ‘Prayer’:

Po kolacji gospodyni prosiła mnie, abym postawił małą lampkę w oknie wychodzącym na Holy Iona. Taki jest zwyczaj. Nocą światła obu wysp rozmawiają ze sobą. (…) Nie wiadomo, co przyniesie przyszłość i jak długo trwać będzie rozdarcie świata. Ale dopóki w jedną bodaj noc roku światła tej ziemi będą się pozdrawiały, niecała chyba nadzieja jest pogrzebana.

After supper the landlady asked me to put a small lamp in the window overlooking Holy Iona. That is the custom. At night the lights of both islands talk to each other. (…) It is not known what the future will bring and how long it might be until the world is torn apart, but as long as one night of the year, the lights of this land will offer greetings, hope is not buried.’

 

My thanks to Robin Connelly, Grażyna Fremi, Michał Kuźmiński, Basia Macmillan and Robert Macmillan for their help in sourcing and translating material on Herbert’s trip. As well as the books mentioned above, online there is, in Polish, a useful article from 2007 by Piotr Toczynski about Herbert and Iona, and a recording of Herbert talking about Scotland (scroll down to the heading ‘Szkocja’).

Poets in Rome

I visited Rome for a few days earlier this year. These are some of the many poets, ancient and modern, I encountered there.

Homer Musei Vaticani

A herm of Homer in the Vatican Museums

Two versions of Sappho –
a herm in the Capitoline Museum, and a statue in the Vatican Museums

Goethe, with his feet up at home in the Via del Corso, c.1787; and his expenses book for his Roman stay, with regular entries for ‘ciocolatta’

Keats’ grave and memorial in the Cimitero Acattolico. The inscription on his grave reads,

This Grave
contains all that was Mortal,
of a
YOUNG ENGLISH POET,
Who,
on his Death Bed,
in the Bitterness of his Heart,
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies,
Desired
these Words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone

Here lies One
Whose Name was Writ in Water.
Feb 24th 1821

Shelley’s grave in the Cimitero Acattolico, with lines from The Tempest

Marinetti

Marinetti’s house on the Piazza Adriana

Corso Cimitero Acattolico 02

Gregory Corso’s grave in the Cimitero Acattolico

Finally, Raphael’s ‘Parnassus’, in the Room of the Segnatura in the Vatican museums,  painted between 1508 and 1511. Its central figure is the Apollo (playing the violin rather than the more traditional lyre), surrounded by the nine Muses. To the left, Homer is flanked by Dante and Virgil, while Sappho sits beneath them; to the right stand Ariosto and Boccaccio.

Sale di Raffaele Poets

 

Gleann Badraig

Earlier this year I wrote a sequence of poems about the Isle of Jura, for a book by the photographer Charles March. Charles contacted me out of the blue, thanks in part, I think, to a poem I’d written many years before about the island.

I visited Jura at the start of February, and was taken by boat to Glenbatrick on the west coast, where Charles had taken his photographs over the previous four or five years. Above the beach, and the rugged coastline either side of it, are a number of raised beaches, created by the land gradually rising after the glaciers melted. Looking inland, the Paps of Jura dominate the skyline – Beinn na Oir, Beinn Siantidh and Beinn Chaolias.

In May and June, Charles’ photographs were featured in an exhibition at the Palazzo Borghese in Rome, where a sample copy of the book was on display.

I received copies of the book just this week – I’d forgotten how large it was. The images are beautifully reproduced, catching the shifting and subtle colours of the Hebrides.

Gleann Badraig is published by Distanz Verlag, Berlin.
390 × 275 mm
96 pages, 60 color images, hardcover with linen
ISBN 978-3-95476-248-4
June 2018
€58.00

I have a few copies for sale – contact me if you’re interested in buying a copy.

Does Poetry Pay?

RBS £1 note

“We are planning to put together a number of case studies on where authors and other creators get their income from and we’re inviting authors to be featured in blogs on the subject. Don’t be shy! These figures really help us in campaigning and negotiating.”

I’m a long-term member of the Society of Authors, which I’ve always found to be a supportive and smart organisation. When I saw this recent call for a blog post I decided to respond, partly to help with the SoA’s campaigning for a better deal for writers, and partly as a way of reflecting on my own situation now and over the past 14 years when I’ve worked freelance.

If you’re interested in how I’ve been making a living as a poet you can read my contribution here. The page gathering all the various authors’ case studies, which will be expanded in the coming weeks and months, is here.

Heroines from Abroad

HfA front hires   HfA back

Heroines from Abroad, newly published by Carcanet, is a bilingual (German / English) edition of poems by Christine Marendon, alongside my translations.

Heroines-from-abroad

Christine will be in Scotland this summer, and we are launching the book on 13 July at 8pm at Lighthouse in Edinburgh.

I discovered Christine’s poems via a mutual friend, the poet Arne Rautenberg. Christine had been invited to a festival in Slovenia, and needed English versions of six poems – could I make the translations? I enjoyed their enigmatic imagery and shifts in tone, and made the translations, helped by a correspondence with her.

Several years elapsed, when I always had in the back of my mind that I’d like to return to her work. I came across poems online, and have been translating her slowly but steadily since 2011; translations have appeared in Shearsman, Modern Poetry in Translation, New Books in German, and online at www.no-mans-land.org.

We met for the first time in March 2014, in Hamburg where she lives; shortly afterwards we were invited to read together in London by Sasha Dugdale, then the editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, and it was a pleasure to hear her measured reading voice.

From Bavaria, she grew up speaking both German and Italian, and only began writing in her poetry in her thirties, after attending a reading by the poet Hilde Domin (1909–2006). In Germany her work is published online, and in magazines and anthologies, but she still awaits a first collection. As a translator, she has made German versions of poems by James Wright.

Marendon’s work may bridge for English-language readers the perceived chasm between avant-garde and mainstream poetry. It’s not obscure, it’s not banally ‘accessible’. The voice and the language of Cockburn’s translations feel freshly rinsed.’ Carol Rumens

Primary Four’s Doors


Over the past few years I’ve been involved with a performance project with Leith Primary School.

Organised by the church of St James the Less, Leith, this year Suzanne Butler, Lorna Irvine and I worked on the theme of ‘building’ with three classes.

Suzanne (of Fischy Music) wrote a song with P4/3, Lorna and P4B made a drama piece, ‘The Three Wee Leithers’ (based on the fable of ‘The Three Little Pigs’), while I helped P4A to write about life in Leith, and also in a realm of the imagination which they named ‘Minecraft Pugs’.

One of the poems I’d read to kick the project off was Holub’s ‘The Door’. During one of our sessions, I asked the pupils to imagine and draw their own door.

The plan was to show these during today’s performance, but we were in the brand new school hall, and no-one knew how to get the brand new projector to talk to a laptop.

I thought the doors deserved some sort of public display, so here they are, in ascending numerical order, from 3 to 1,000,000.

Thanks again to all the pupils for their imagination and enthusiasm!

New from The Caseroom Press

The Caseroom Press recently published two books which I had a hand in.

O | O 3: Word Disco is the third in an unintended trilogy of found poems, and follows Overheard Overlooked (2011) and Overlooked Overheard (2015). Visually it departs from the previous books, with the texts being typeset, distorted on photocopiers and then edited and composed in Photoshop. Barrie Tullett again designed it, and as with Overlooked Overheard his students at the University of Lincoln found the poems it contains. It’s available via The Caseroom Press website.

Woodland Orienteering presents six six-letter word-pairs composed in 2011 for an orienteering circuit in Dufftown, Moray, but never used (a seventh word-pair was, and remains in situ). If you’d like to buy a copy please contact me directly.

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Floating the Woods

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Last week I had my first sighting of Floating the Woods, a new collection of poems published by and available from Luath Press, and launched on Thursday 29 March at the Scottish Poetry Library.

The cover blurb reads, “the places in Floating the Woods are mainly Scottish, stretching from the Borders to Orkney, taking in Edinburgh, the Tay estuary and the River Ness. Through these landscapes move figures from the past – real, legendary and imagined – as the routes of Romans, Vikings and Celtic saints are followed by later figures such as Wordsworth, James Hogg and John Muir. Further afield the First World War casts a long, dark shadow over otherwise idyllic English and Belgian scenes. There are alphabet, calendar, list and found poems, dealing with imaginary shades of blue and the imponderables of etiquette.”

Floating the Woods 03

I am grateful to Jen Webb, editor of the Australian journal Meniscus, for her text which also appears on the cover. “List the things that matter, and what is likely to appear are stories, and buildings, the birds that fly between them, the hills and streams and skies that surround them, the ordinary stuff of everyday life lived alongside the felt presence of ancient recent history. Ken Cockburn’s new collection captures all this, in the lyrical lists, shape poems and sound poems filled with sharp yet tender observations of the world through which he moves. In a gloriously demotic voice that remains deeply immersed in the long traditions of poetry, he paints space, and place; and in his hands, language finds a mouth.”

Cockburn FtW 2018 2