All posts by Ken Cockburn

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

Festival International de la Poésie, Trois-Rivières, Québec

I recently attended the 33rd Festival International de la Poésie at Trois-Rivières, Québec, Canada – my first time in that country. There were poets from countries around the world, including Mexico, Argentina, USA, France, Belgium, Russia, Morocco, Mauritania and China, as well as from Québec and other parts of Canada. Below are just a few of those I met and heard read; I felt a real sense of community among us.

As for myself, I read in restaurants, cafés, bars, a cinema, a church, a museum and the Maison de la Culture. All the readings were limited to 3 minutes for French-language poems, and 5 minutes for  poem in French translation plus the original; then another poet would do the same, either right away or after a pause of 5 or 10 minutes for conversation and eating. A new format for me, but one I came to appreciate – no-one outstayed their welcome, and there was time to talk and think about what you’d just heard. I liked the equality of the festival too; each reading featured several poets (between three and seven), who’d each read for the same amount of time (usually two ‘rounds’, with sometimes a quick-fire third one at the end, without pauses between the poems).

Trois-Rivières itself is a town about the size of Dundee on the banks of the St Lawrence and St Maurice Rivers, and lies about half-way between Montreal and Québec City. (There are in fact only two rivers; the three rivers of the town’s name come from the ways islands in the St Maurice River mean it has three mouths as it joins the St Lawrence.) It was pleasantly warm throughout the festival – unusually so, I was told – but by the time we left autumn was colouring the trees.

I came back with a selection of books, so this is what I’ll be reading over the next few weeks.

FIPTR_Books

My thanks to Philippe Démeron making French translations of my poems; to the Festival organisers Gaston Bellemare and Maryse Baribeau for the invitation and hospitality, and to them and everyone involved in the festival for making my stay such a pleasant and rewarding one.

 

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Haiku in Hamburg

I visited planten un blomen, Hamburg’s botanic gardens, in mid-September, and ran a haiku workshop in the Japanese garden, which has a teahouse beside a pond lined with maples, pines and bamboo.

I’d visited the garden before, in late spring, but it seemed to be more itself in autumn – leaves reddening, a few of which had dropped visible in the clear water; pine needles fallen onto rocks; a more muted light suggesting both distance and enclosure.

For the workshop I selected some lines from German versions of Japanese haiku, and we used these as starting points for our own work. Here are some the poems written on the day, with my English translations.

Teehaus_Gruppe

Bauschen die Wolken
lausche ich dem Herbstwind und
halte die Luft an.
[Christine]

Clouds pile up
I listen to the autumn wind and
hold my breath

*

Der Herbst beginnt schon
noch blühen die Sonnenblumen
welch ein schönes Gelb.
[Petra]

*

Autumn has begun
still the sunflowers bloom
a wonderful yellow

*

Plötzlich donnert es –
das Geräusch des Wassers bleibt
ununterbrochen
[KC]

Sudden thunder –
the sound of water continues
uninterrupted

*

Geräusch des Wassers
taube Ohren des Herbstes
nach dem Sonnenklang
[Simon]

The sound of water
autumn’s deaf ears
after sunchords

*

Zwei Ameisen sah’n
Altona Amerika
Erlangen Weisheit.
[Sidney]

Two ants saw
Altona America
Gained wisdom.

This is a playful take on an already playful poem, ‘Die Ameisen’ (’The Ants’) by Joachim Ringelnatz (1883-1934) known to anyone who lives in or grew up in Hamburg. I append a literal translation below. The district of Altona lies immediately west of central Hamburg.

In Hamburg lebten zwei Ameisen,
die wollten nach Australien reisen.
Bei Altona, auf der Chaussee,
da taten ihnen die Beine weh,
und da verzichteten sie weise
dann auf den letzten Teil der Reise.

In Hamburg there lived two ants,
who wanted to travel to Australia.
In Altona, on the street,
their legs started hurting,
so wisely they gave up
the last part of their journey.

JapaneseGarden13

 

 

Buson by the Firth of Forth

HarbourOn a grey September morning, I walked to Newhaven harbour with the P5 class from Edinburgh’s Victoria Primary School. The earlier rain had stopped, and the tide was out, beaching the small boats moored there. We walked out to the lighthouse at the harbour mouth, and looked upriver to the three Forth bridges, and north over to Fife. The walk was a preliminary to reading and writing haiku, and looking at the work of Yosa Buson (1716–1783), one of the great haiku poets of Japan who was also a painter. As with last summer’s workshop at Jedburgh Grammar School I wanted the pupils to think about combining visual and verbal elements in their work.

Back at school we read these haiku by Buson (all taken from Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, trans. Merwin & Lento, 2013).

Half a day to myself
by the nettle tree
listening to the cicadas

Summer afternoon downpour
a flock of sparrows
hanging on the grass

There’s silver grass
I expect to find bush clover
not far away

We used some as models to write from. I retained their structure, and asked the pupils to fill them with their own content. We made some together, as I wrote down their suggestions, and then I asked them to write some on their own.

Buson VPS 02 Buson VPS 01

A couple of days later I did a second session. This time I asked them to choose one of their verses, and to present this on a postcard, together with a drawing of their choice. I showed them examples of other postcards which used text and image in different ways – sometimes as separate blocks, sometimes completely integrated.

Buson VPS 04 Buson VPS 05 Buson VPS 06
Buson VPS 08 Buson VPS 16 Buson VPS 17
Buson VPS 09 Buson VPS 20

Buson VPS 19  Buson VPS 18  Buson VPS 10

I also asked them to made folding cards, again thinking about the relationship between their words and images (though we didn’t have time to explore this fully).

Buson VPS 13 Buson VPS 11

With thanks to the teachers Mrs Gorrie, Miss Blyth and Mrs Sim at Victoria Primary School, and to the GB Sasakawa Foundation for funding the work.

Buson VPS 21 Buson VPS 15 Buson VPS 03

Kakimori Bunko

The exhibition Wordsworth and Basho : Walking Poets was shown at Kakimori Bunko, Osaka, Japan last autumn.

I contributed a sequence of seven short poems, taking as my starting point Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’. They were presented as prints, and as a booklet in the display case.

The photographs on the wall are by Tomohiko Ogawa, and show postcards of Scotland ‘matched’ with landscapes in Japan. Tomohiko also took these exhibition photographs.

Some of Alec Finlay’s word-mountains were also shown. There is a fine, informative catalogue; below is a page with Tomohiko’s photographs, including one we used on the cover of The Road North (middle left; on the book cover it’s reversed), and a page with background to my take on ‘The Solitary Reaper’.

Silence before Speech

sbs-bog-cotton-jm  sbs-im-neil-christie  sbs-time-and-tide-kc
Silence before Speech is a new publication in memory of Neil Christie, a friend who died on Christmas eve three years ago. It’s a boxed set of 16 poem-cards, each featuring a poem by myself or Jane MacKie, and a painting by Dina Campbell. The portfolio was designed by Mary Asiedu.

sbs-barra-kc

We all knew Neil; he had a gift for friendship, and for bringing people together. One of his favourite tricks was to arrange a meeting to which he invited people from different parts of his life, and then cry off at the last moment, leaving us to get to know each other.

sbs-coast-jm

He worked as a graphic designer, and occasional publisher; Reading the Streets was made for his Duende Press, when he linked myself and illustrator Libby Walker. Latterly he lived down by the river at Cramond, and I’ve fond memories of eating fish soup in his small cottage there, packed with books and CDs, before emerging for a riverside stroll.

sbs-winter-solstice-kc

Jane and I both wrote to Dina’s images, and their titles. My poems all came out as unpunctuated six-liners; Jane allowed herself more scope, in length and stanza form.

The cards measure 195 x 94 mm. A set costs £15 – please contact me if you’d like to buy a set.

 

Apples & Pears


This summer I visited Crailing Community Orchard, near Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders, and wrote a set of short poems about the apple and pear trees it contains. Each poem has the tree name as a title, and a verse of 3 lines. The poems were engraved on botanical labels (white text on a black background) by Sheen Botanical Labels, and the photos below were taken at Harestanes Countryside Visitor Centre, when the poems sat alongside their fruit as part of Apple Day in early October. Soon they will be attached to trees in the orchard, serving in part as practical identity labels, while also articulating something of the tree’s particularities.


CATHERINE is an apple first grown in Combs, Suffolk, outside a pub called Live and Let Live. — CATILLAC is an old pear variety which has been given many different names, including Monstreuse de Landes, Grand Monarque and Grand Mogol. Its current English name derives from the place-name Cadillac in the Gironde area of France.


DISCOVERY was raised c.1949 by a Mr Dummer of Essex, who raised several seedlings from Worcester Pearmain pips and decided to plant the best one in front garden. Having only one arm he needed his wife’s help, but she slipped and broke her ankle, so the unplanted tree remained outdoors during frosts. It survived, indeed thrived, and was later popularised by a Mr Matthews of Suffolk. — HESSLE is named for the Yorkshire village where it was first found. “It [succeeds] in almost every situation and part… the Hessle pear trees in Herefordshire were laden with fruit in the year 1880, when almost all other varieties failed.” (Herefordshire Pomona)


WHITE MELROSE was probably introduced to Scotland by the monks of Melrose Abbey, who as Cistercians wore white robes, to distinguish themselves from the black-robed Benedictines.

The poems were also printed as a set of cards, designed by Lise Bratton.

crailing-cards
GLOUCESTER MORCEAU is a pear originally raised by Abbé Nicolas Hardenpont in Wallonia in the 18th century, and named after him Beurré d’Hardenpont. However “in the environs of Mons… [it] was more often called the Glout Morceau, converted afterwards by the French, when M. Noisette brought it from Belgium in 1806, into Goulu Morceau. The word ‘glout’ in Walloon signifies dainty or delicate and thus ‘glou morceau’ means daintybit : ‘goulu’ on the contrary, signifies greedy, or great eater; the the Beurré d’Hardenpont has become, through this starnge alteration in name by the Fench, a gluttonous eater, instead of a fruit worthy of being eaten.” (HP) Presumably ‘Gloucester’ derives from a similar ‘translation’ of sound rather than meaning. — RED DEVIL is an apple variety which failed at Crailing.

I drew much of the poems’s content from information found in The New Book of Apples (ed. Richards and Morgan,1993), A Handbook of Hardy Fruits: Apples and Pears (EA Bunyard, 1920), and Herefordshire Pomona (Hogg and Bull,1876–85).

Art in Aden

I made What is a tree? for the Midsummer Arts Festival at Aden Country Park, near Mintlaw, Aberdeenshire, on Sunday 19 June. It’s a set of poems on botanical labels attached to trees around the park. The poems aim, as in a riddle, to provide an initially puzzling, but also recognisably accurate, description of the tree in question.

Below are some notes about the ideas behind the poems.

(1) Recognisable by its black buds, the ash is one of the last trees to leaf in spring.

(2) The beech’s smooth bark has made it a favourite for inscriptions over the centuries; these expand as the tree grows.

(3) Their branches used for besoms in the past, birches create an environment favoured by many plants, fungi, moths and birds.

(4) To encounter a cherry was considered auspicious and fateful.

(5) The elder’s branches don’t burn well; its flowers don’t have a very pleasant smell, but make a fine drink.

(6) The horse-chestnut is easily recognisable at different times of year.

(7) Lime flowers attract bees in numbers.

(8) Planted outside houses to fend off evil spirits, the rowan’s red berries worn as a necklace were considered protective.

(9) The water-resistant resin in the wood of the Scots pine makes it good for boat-building; rosin (a residue from pine wood) is used for treating the bows of stringed instruments.

(10) Spruce wood was used in early aircraft construction, including the Wright Brother’s Kitty Hawk.

(11) A non-native tree, it’s unclear when the sycamore first arrived in Scotland. Its wood produces much heat when burned, while trees that show a ‘flame’ patterning in the wood are favoured by violin makers.

(12) Yews are often found in churchyards. The middle two lines are taken from Wordsworth’s poem ‘Yew Trees’.

With thanks to the Friends of Aden Country Park for commissioning this work.

 

Buson 2016 : Jedburgh

Snowclad_houses_in_the_nightI’m running several events this year under the heading ‘Buson 2016’, celebrating the birth 300 years ago of the great Japanese painter and haiku master Yosa Buson (1716–1783).

This week Andrew Mackenzie and I visited Jedburgh Grammar School, where we worked with S5 and S6 pupils. Andrew and I collaborated on Into Ettrick a couple of years ago, but this is the first time we’ve worked together with a school group. The idea was to create a piece which integrated image and text, as Buson did in many of his works.

We sketched and took notes at two spots by the Jed Water, near the Abbey Bridge opposite the abbey, and by the Canongate Bridge. Andrew showed them how to sketch with pencil and charcoal, while I encouraged them to be attentive to what has happening as we were there, using Norman MacCaig’s poem ‘Notations of Ten Summer Minutes’ as a model.

Back in school I guided the pupils into writing haiku based on their notes – snapshots capturing when, where and what happened – while Andrew led them in working with watercolour and pen-and-ink to develop sketches made earlier. Then we put the two together – some of the results are below.

David Blake, PT English who organised the school’s side of the session, commented:

Blank space! If there is one thing which I will always remember from the Yosa Buson workshop which I took part in, along with 35 Higher and Advanced Higher English pupils, it is the importance of blank space. As both artist and poet Buson would have instinctively understood the relationship between the visual and the written – something that we often forget.

Our day began somewhat greyer than I had hoped and the pupils’ initial enthusiasm reflected that sombre sky but as the first part of the day proceeded they quickly began to respond to what they saw in both visual and written mediums. Pupils who claimed that they could not draw were working hard to create images of what they saw, within minutes of being given a writing task they were enthusiastically coming up with ideas that I would struggle to draw out of them in the classroom. By the afternoon, armed with the sketchbooks in which we had drawn what we had seen and written down our thoughts, we were ready to embark on the production of ink illustrations and haiku poems. The quality of some of the work that the pupils produced was well beyond their expectations and despite their many claims that their work was rubbish you could see they were secretly pleased with how well their paintings and poems had turned out; one or two even confided that they had gone home that night and made further use of their sketchbooks!

This was one of the most enjoyable workshops that I have experienced in my teaching career and one which I believe that, as well as the wonderful creative experience of producing the visual art, the pupils got a lot out of in terms of their understanding of how to write effectively: in writing, as in art, it is as much about what you leave out as that which you put in – blank space.

With thanks to Jedburgh Grammar School, and to the GB Sasakawa Foundation for funding the work.

River Connections, Inverness

lost tongue

At the end of September I was in Inverness, where I saw a batch of poems I wrote last year about the River Ness and its vast catchment area being installed on the new flood wall. I’d been asked by Mary Bourne to produce the work, which she intended to carve directly onto the wall, but it turned out the stone wasn’t good for carving (a soft sandstone, with hard bits of quartz spread erratically through it), so she had most of the poems etched onto steel and set into the wall. The masons were at work setting them into the coping as we walked along the riverbank in unseasonably warm sunshine.

The poems are mostly on Bank Street, between the Young Street Bridge and the pedestrian bridge, though there are a few beyond that, along Douglas Row towards the Friars Bridge. A further group of texts will be installed on the west bank of the river in the new year, and stones featuring circle poems written by local writers are to be installed at Kessock Road near the mouth of the river shortly.

Seven Miles
Uillte
Loch nan Oighreagan
never freeze
Loch Ness, Columba
immigrants and emigrants