All posts by Ken Cockburn

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

Where are the birds taking me?

Where are the birds taking me?
Poems & prints by Ken Cockburn and Lisa Hooper
An exhibition for Wigtown Book Festival 2020

I met artist Lisa Hooper last year when I was writer-in-residence for Spring Fling & Wigtown Book Festival.

We put together a portfolio of poems and prints and approached the Book Festival about exhibiting them this year. And then Covid happened… so here they are online.

Although if you do make it to the WBF shop and gallery at 11 Main Street during the festival period (24 September to 4 October), you will be able see a set of Lisa’s prints.

There are nine prints, each featuring a different bird: blackbird, chough, corncrake, goldfinch, heron, herring gull, raven, snipe and wren. All feature in poems I wrote for last year’s WBF, and the prints were made by Lisa in response to the poems in early 2020.

All these birds have been present in Dumfries and Galloway, though corncrakes are now absent, and choughs the rarest of visitors. They, like most of the others, remain present as place-names, even if the languages spoken by those who coined these names are now also either absent or rare.

For example, Drumatrane and Cairnywellan (both from Gaelic) are ridge of the corncrake and rock of the gulls, while Cronkley (from Old English) is the heron’s clearing, and Penfran Burn (Old Welsh) flows down the raven’s hill.

The prints are in editions of 10 and available for sale framed (as singles or as a group of nine) and unframed. Unframed prints are also available by mail order. Please contact claire@wigtownbookfestival.com for details.

Where are the birds taking me?

More far than near
more guessed than known
more heard than seen

their flight
their calls
their plumage

bullfinch-red or siskin-yellow
black silk of a raven
salt-white of a herring gull
the blue flash of a magpie’s wing

as sudden as thought
as absent as forgetting

to apprehend them requires
a focus on stillness

an apprehensive stillness
opening all the elsewheres
the birds are taking us to.

Ken Cockburn, 2019

Poems that count

Screenshot 2020-05-13 at 18.16.21

‘Poems that count’ is a short film I’ve made  for Luminate Scotland.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/415642145

I was supposed to be working on a Luminate project at the moment, going into care homes and sharing poems and writing activities with residents and staff. Sadly that’s become impossible, so Luminate have been uploading films with ideas for creative activities to their website.

There are quite a few now, and ‘Poems that count’, which I made last week, has just been added. In it I offer 5 ways to write a poem, using the numbers 1 to 5 to get started:

1   a word to start a mesostic
2   opposites – love and hate
3   first person, second person, third person
4   the points of the compass
5   fingers

It was an interesting exercise, working out to present an activity to a person or persons unknown, without the usual opportunity for dialogue or any of the other ways we communicate face-to-face.

If you try any of the exercises, let me know how you get on!

 

the plastic debris of the oceans

Cramond foreshore 1I recently ran some secondary school workshops for the StAnza poetry festival.

This year’s StAnza artist-in-residence, Astrid Jaekel, chose two poems I’m very familiar with for her festival exhibition, Plastik (Kunst). One is by the German poet and artist Arne Rautenberg, which I’d translated as ‘i declare the plastic debris of the oceans’. The other is George Mackay Brown’s ‘Beachcomber’, a poem I’ve used many times in workshops. Astrid’s lasercuts of the poem can be seen along Rose Street in Edinburgh.

  • Before the school sessions, I combed beaches on either side of the Firth of Forth, gathering plastic debris. I also prepared a set of of about 80 cards featuring single words relating to the Scottish coast and beaches (pebble, pool, blue, grey, gull, seaweed, boat, wave and so on), and various ‘rules’ for writing a poem using three of these words, such as
  • write a poem in which the three words appear in alphabetical order
  • write a poem using one of the three words as the title of the poem, one as the first word, and one the last
  • write a three-line poem, with each line containing one of the three words; the first line should be about the sea, the second about the land, and the third about the air

In class pupils were dealt a ‘hand’ of three cards, plus a rule, and asked to write a poem or poems. They then wrote their poems on luggage-labels and tied these to pieces of jetsam. (Between sessions, the class and their teacher at Waid Academy, Anstruther, went out and gathered their own plastic debris.)

These poems+objects were exhibited during StAnza, upstairs in J.G. Innes, the bookshop and stationer’s on South Street.

StAnza 2020 display 2StAnza 2020 display 4StAnza 2020 display 1

My thanks to all involved at Madras Academy, Waid Academy and St Leonard’s School, and at StAnza.

Gaelic Birdsong (1)

As Spring Fling x Wigtown Book Festival Writer-in-Residence for 2019, I’ve been creating new work exploring the links between birds, art and the landscape, inspired by my experiences during Spring Fling. The new work will be revealed at Wigtown Book Festival (27 September – 6 October) but in the meantime here are some insights and sneak peeks…

I’ve been researching place-names in Dumfries and Galloway which relate to birds. There are many, covering all sorts of ground, from coastal rocks to inland moors and up into the high hills. Many of these place-names are derived from Gaelic, spoken in Galloway until the 18th century.

Here are three, given with their English meanings, together with a description of the place taken from the Ordnance Survey place-name books compiled in the 1840s and 1850s. The map extracts are taken from OS maps published around the same time.

Benyellary OS Sheet 13

Benyellarie (N of Glentrool)

“A large lofty rocky heathy hill on the farms of Palgown… on its eastern side is a large precipice called “Scars of Benyellary.”
Benyellarie, from beinn iolaire, the eagle’s hill

Cairnywellan Head OS Sheet 31

Cairnywellan Head (by Port Logan, S of Portpatrick)
“A head land which terminates Port Nessock Bay on the South side. It is a Conspicuous object & well known to mariners.”
Cairnywellan, from cárn na bhfaoileann, cairn of the seagulls

Drumadryland OS Sheet 11

Drumadryland (E of Cairnryan)
“A Broad heathy hill on the North side of a large Moor or marsh, and on the farm of Delhabach”
Drumadryland, from druim na’ dreolan, ridge of the wrens

The OS information can be found at https://scotlandsplaces.gov.uk

Translation as Conversation

“I like the elements of ‘serious play’ in Arne’s work. ‘gingko leaf fairy tale’ links the Brothers Grimm and Hiroshima to suggest, touchingly, both a loss of innocence and a reconciliation with the past… ‘the forgotten dream’ makes succinct comedy from inarticulacy.”

“The conversation with Christine has been, like her readings, measured and occasional. Her work deals in nuance, glimpse, intuition, and part of its appeal for me is that I don’t always understand it entirely.”

Extending the Possibilities: Translation as Conversation is a piece I’ve written for the Year of Conversation website. It outlines my reflections on translating the work of Arne Rautenberg and Christine Marendon, over many years.

DSCF4965
Arne Rautenberg & Ken Cockburn, St Andrews, 2019

I was lucky enough to read with Arne at this year’s StAnza festival, and to hear Christine read at the Portico Library in Manchester.

Mail Attachment-1
Christine Marendon, Portico Library, May 2019

“A Year of Conversation 2019 is about us all celebrating, initiating and exploring conversation in our lives. There will be some events involving many people at places you might expect – festivals for example. But there will be many conversation events that are smaller and more intimate too. What is a ‘conversation event’? It’s simply something that’s been planned – that you might have planned – in which conversation plays a significant part or which gives rise to conversation. So it may be a performance of some kind or it may be a group of people (you have) chosen for a special reason to share a meal. There will be information about events on the website, but there will also be space for you to reflect on your own experiences of conversation.” Tom Pow, Creative Director, A Year of Conversation 2019

Primary Four’s Edinburgh

As last year, this spring I led another project at Leith Primary School with Lorna Irvine and Suzanne Butler, and supported by the church of St James the Less, Leith. We worked with the two P4 classes on poetry, drama and song, focussing on their impressions of Edinburgh, and keeping fit and healthy. My group wrote about the games and sports they play, visiting Holyrood Palace, and the food they like to eat, as well as saying hello and goodbye in several languages. They also created a series of individual letters, which I collaged together to create ‘headings’ which were projected during the performance.

My thanks to the school, and especially the class teachers, Mrs McDonald and Mrs Kinneil. Here are some extracts from the script.

Hi – sup – heya – yo –
Bonjour — Salaam aalekum – Nihau – Priviet –
In other words… Hello!

*

We’re going on the bus to Holyrood Palace.

Outside the palace we looked around and saw
a tower that was 500 years old,
shields that had a unicorn and an eagle,
a bath house and a flower garden,
the learning centre and Arthur’s Seat.

Inside the palace we saw
the room with all the jewelry,
the king’s gorgeous jewels and golden swords –
some swords had diamonds in the middle.

We went into the gallery with 96 paintings
but barely any furniture
and our challenge was
to find a sword slash in one of the paintings
and a secret door that leads to the kitchen
and to count all the paintings

and we had to do all of that in 2 minutes!

*

In the evening we go home,
We’re hungry and want some food.
My mum’s banana split and coffee –
That sounds really good!

And when we go to the café
What we want to eat
Is toast or macaroni cheese –
What a delicious treat!

*

We hope you have enjoyed
Spending the day with us
In our Edinburgh.

Au revoir – Gudafis – Zytien – Papa –
So long – See you later – Cheerio – Missing you already –
In other words… goodbye!

Spring Fling x Wigtown Book Festival

Sellars birds
Urpu Sellars, Birds

I’m working as the Spring Fling x Wigtown Book Festival writer-in-residence 2019. My chosen theme for the residency is birds.

Gallant wrens
Jo Gallant, Wrens

Over the Spring Fling weekend (25–27 May) I visited artist studios across Dumfries and Galloway, from Gatelawbridge to Port William, speaking to artists and visitors. As well as seeing a fantastic range of bird-themed artworks, I spoke to lots of folk who shared their sightings and memories of birds.

Hooper Friends from the North
Lisa Hooper, Friends from the North

Over the next few weeks and I’ll be reflecting on my Spring Fling experiences, and writing a new piece of work to be presented at the Wigtown Book Festival in the autumn.

Sammons Arctic Terns
Amanda Simmons, Arctic Terns

In the meantime here’s a selection of birds from the weekend – some spotted during conversations and workshops, some glimpsed as I travelled, and some contemplated in  studios and galleries. My thanks to everyone involved.

Stewart origami bird
Sarah Stewart, origami birds

Conversations
I heard of an oystercatcher nesting on a roundabout, a crow that kept banging into the window, and jays burying acorns. I was told there are no magpies around Kirkcudbright and Wigtown – some say they were exterminated, others that they can’t co-exist beside carrion crows. I heard of swallow fledglings standing in a line on a beam, sometimes for three or four days, before they launch themselves, of thrushes littering the garden with broken snail-shells, and of a buzzard swooping to lift a frog from a pond, like an osprey takes fish. I was told of stock doves nesting in owl-boxes, and that there are more egrets now, but fewer lapwings and swallows. I heard from a member of a rowing club who enjoys seeing gulls, sandpipers and herons up close, and a member of a golf club who sees mostly magpies. I was told of a sound like someone in distress, which turned out to be a barn owl, and of green woodpeckers, red kites, small owls and bittern in Cambridgeshire. I heard of a heron which stands in the pond that’s not full of newts, and of a raptor which, falling on chaffinches gathered at the bird-feeder, misjudged its flight and crashed into the fence, before picking itself up and flying away embarrassed. I was told of a thrush singing at Carstairs Station, of blackbirds flying out from the bay tree, and of a hen pheasant which planned to nest in the field behind a house until the neighbour’s cat disturbed it. I heard of the bell in the County Buildings remaining silent when the ospreys didn’t return, and of sedge warblers which sound like techno and hiphop.

KG Goldfinch
Goldfinch, on a chair by Bill Johnston (1893–1974), in Kirkcudbright Galleries

Observations
From the car I notice a woodpecker land on the verge, its distinctive black-and-white striped head, while a large puddle in a lay-by that loops off the road has attracted a duck and several ducklings. The looping flight of siskins around a flowering laburnum tree, oystercatchers heard through an open door, the songs of a Galloway hedgerow in late May. At the Cairnholy stones, a blackbird flies from the nearby house to the far side of the valley in seconds. From within an evergreen a thrush emerges, stands speckled on the threshold a moment as if deciding where to, then off. A buzzard circles above the green slope at Port Castle Bay, now seen, now hidden.

Buzzard Port Castle Bay

Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize

I’m delighted that Heroines from Abroad is one of 8 books on the shortlist for this year’s Oxford-Weidenfeld PrizeThe prize is for book-length literary translations into English from any living European language. The winner will be announced at the prizegiving and dinner at St Anne’s College, Oxford on Saturday 15 June 2019.

Heroines from Abroad was published last summer by Carcanet. It’s a first collection of poems by Christine Marendon, with her poems in the original German alongside my translations.

HfA front hires

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.

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’

DSC08216

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.”