All posts by Ken Cockburn

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

Bird Enthusiasts

‘Where are the birds taking me?’ was a writing workshop I ran recently for the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival.

I read a couple of my bird poems, and then asked folk to use their powers of memory, observation and imagination to write something about their own experiences of birds.

These are some of the texts that came out of the session.



The Spirit of Birds

Sometimes I am the sandpiper
 Sea loving, shore wading
  Searching, darting
   Watching for intruders
  Moving quickly and never
 getting stuck in the soft sand
or washed away by waves or tide

Sometimes I am the mute swan
 Pond floating, reed resting
  Bobbing, sweeping
   Ignoring all intruders
  Stretching calmly and never
 worrying about being seen,
flying away whenever I like

Sometimes I am the raven
 Gate guarding, tree swaying
  Hunting, calling
   Laughing at intruders
  Circling from up high and never
 getting lost in the city
or caught picking pocket or bin

Sometimes I am the songbird
 Feather dusting, hedge rustling
  Whistling, warbling
   Warning of intruders
  Calling in my kinfolk and never
 missing the sunrise,
weaving arias into the night

Linda Haggerstone

I finally finished my poem after walking home from shopping and hearing a large number of smallish birds calling to each other from tree and rooftops. I could not see what they were, but I had to stop and listen. I knew then what was missing from my poem: the songbird.

I’ve since sent the poem out in a homemade card (with birds) to another randomly chosen participant in the #KindnessByPost activity (my second) from the Mental Health Collective. I love reading it aloud.

Skylarks Easter hymn the Bonaly track
piccolo the cleugh head
Curlew calls thin the Capelawside air
flute the thermals to the source of the Leith

Helen Boden


Birds near me

I can hear birdsong from outside, there is a tree in front of my window.
Saw a few birds at Strathclyde Park but it is full of people there.
The swans take over Hogganfield Park in Glasgow, they are everywhere!

*

A dove can fly high up in the sky
Look down to the city centre
See all the people rushing along from above
Must find a crumb to survive

Antje Bothin


Heron

Attuned to Spring
I spend time
eavesdropping
console myself with embroideries
of fanned plumage
balanced on cream silk
stitching the wind
under the wide wingbeat
of a rising heron
into each fibre

MT Taylor
Wings 

Three stories up wide white-winged gulls possess the space
outside my human sanctuary

Swinging/swooping circumscribed by flight
bodies swift as steel torpedoes
slicing/relentlessly through liquid light.

Wild as the wind they ride
the upward drafts/Glasgow’s capricious turbulence,
pausing fleetingly/suspended 
on the apex of a wilful thought 
then streaming down 
towards the grey-green waters of the Clyde 
smacking its surface as they gather pace
and hurtle skywards once again
into the spaciousness they occupy
outside my timid time and place.

Annie Webster

swallow
 
I am a long-haul traveller
I see the world
no need for passports or papers
as I zig and zag to and fro
places you will only ever know
from stamps or on the news
but I am drawn   magnetic/navigated
by warmth and food and love
and from above I watch the climate change
the glaciers’ melt
the river beds dry
fly with locusts set on destruction
witness pollution
the rising seas
decline in bees
the refugees
strange animals you’ll never see
the greens   the blues   the desert yellows
but now I’m coming home to roost
to meet my mate
to warn you to take care
before it’s far too late

Kay Ritchie

Window Watching Bird Enthusiast

When the first lockdown started last year and we were asked to stay at home, the hyperactive energy that usually permeated the air was settling into a gentle simmer.  The streets and sky were quiet and clear of that dirty, stuffy invisible fog that suffocated our observations of the smaller life that was growing and surviving all around us. In having to stay indoors and with outdoor access shrunk to 5 miles, my local area became my own wider world.  That 1 hour of outside time took me through lanes and streets I was too anxious to explore, fearfully expecting the Neighbourhood Watch  to misinterpret my slow aimless wandering and casual glances through curtainless windows as scouting for a potential breaking and entering instead of human curiosity and inspiration for my own home decor.  It took me to plants and trees and patches of woodlands I’d passed on the bus that I promised I’d visit at the weekend only to forget a few minutes later as the bus pulls into my stop and I start thinking about all the possible dangers that are lurking in the shadowy corners of the 5 minute speed-walk home.  The less people were around and the more common daytime wandering had become, the dangers that had previously presented themselves were not quite as loud.  I still had anxiety that would hold me hostage for days at a time which, in hindsight, I now recognise as hyper-vigilance and actively living through a pretty stressful few years of uncertainty. 

Still, even amongst all that anxiety and trauma, I had found respite in the lockdown.  I didn’t feel as guilty for staying indoors and would sit at my living room window hidden from street view by a young blackthorn tree and a flourishing fuchsia bush.  In this guilt-free bliss, I started to notice things I hadn’t seen before.  Bumblebees were frequent visitors to the little ballet-dancer flowers of the fuchsia; their little striped bodies disappearing into the pink and purple nectar source.  The more I looked, the more I would see.  The bush was a packed out lunchtime buffet for these hungry little pollinators.  I listened more carefully to the sounds gliding through my open window.  With the sound of cars and planes infrequent, the songs and calls of birds and squirrels were accepting their solo in the urban orchestra of sound.  I wanted to meet these birds that I would see only as a blur dive-bombing into the massive rhododendron that  was taking up half of my front garden.  I’d installed an app to identify the chirps and melodies of these avian mysteries and could now recognise robins, blue tits, starlings and blackbirds by sound, but now I needed the visual component to realise these birds.  I set up bird feeders outside all 3 windows of my ground-floor flat, fat balls in coconut shells hung from sturdy branches, their delicious innards enticing them as close to the window as possible.  The first diners came a few hours later – a robin with its stout red chest instantly recognisable, and a blue tit with its yellow neck surprised me how much smaller it was than the other feasting birds.  The sparrows with their shades of brown favoured the feeder at the living room window, while a family of blue tits favoured the secluded shade of the bedroom window, much to the delight of my cat who would fall asleep watching one peck upside-down through the gaps in the mesh of the plastic feeder while others hop from branch to branch, side-stepping closer and closer, awaiting their turn to fill their bellies. 

Becoming familiar and finding joy in these little creatures cemented my fondness and delight for birds and most definitely got me through the hardest moments during lockdown, so when scrolling through the SMHAF events, my heart fluttered when I saw the workshop ‘Where Are The Birds Taking Me?’  What better way to honour these magnificent creatures than to immortalize them through words.  We were first tasked with spending some time writing about places where we have seen birds and how they characterise those places.  Once I had gone through the usual suspects (seagulls, pigeons and crows), I was taken to a recent 2am wander where I had spotted a songthrush regaling stories of the local cityscape, singing songs of car alarms and owners calling for their dogs, filtering through the branches on the tree-lined walkway of the old Leith Railway line. 

We were then asked to write descriptions of comparisons of calls, plumage and flight.  David Attenborough’s narration of the Birds of Paradise in Papua New Guinea flashed into my mind.  Feathery works of art that have evolved elaborate and vibrant plumage make them the fashion icons of the jungle.  Our drab street pigeon has nothing on them.  I remember years ago being blown away by the Australian Lyrebird (again thanks to Sir Attenborough). It could mimic natural and artificial environmental sounds including chainsaws, the beeping of a reversing truck and camera shutters. I heard a blackbird mimic a seagull once.  If they are our equivalent of environmental indicators, there must be a healthy abundance of seagulls next to the Morrisons in Granton.

Our last quick bit of writing was to choose an area where the birds can access, but we cannot and tap into the bird’s eye view.  This activity was a little more challenging as my mind was filled with environments from the sky to the sea, under bridges to the space between mountain peaks.  I pictured a migratory bird sailing through the atmosphere, passing over landscapes uninhabitable and inaccessible to man.  With ease, they glide over changing seasons that we are only witness to on the ground.  How cold and beautiful it must be from up there.

The more we wrote and shared our experiences and observations of birds, the more I became aware of the diversity and expanse of the bird world.  I recently went on a small adventure not too far from home and spotted birds I hadn’t seen before.  I met 3 pheasants grazing on farmland and 2 male bullfinches just going about their business.  There are always new birds to identify and get to know locally and more widely.  Even the ones we already know have personalities and variations – one of the sparrows that visits my window feeder likes to dig for particular seeds and makes a mess on my windowsill.  It’s been more than a year since we first went in to lockdown and I am pleased that this is the hobby that has emerged from it. 

I leave with a short poem:

A mallard lazily breezes through reeds in the centre of a pond.
Hidden from view,
Like a predator in the savannah,
It sees you, but not you it.
Only the wiggle of the tips of the reeds give any indication of the life inside.
It navigates effortlessly through the jungle of stalks,
Unknown presences avoided silently.
How quiet and peaceful it must be,
To be invisible to the human eye.

Nic Saunders


With thanks to all those who took part, to Roisin Robertson at Renfrewshire Council for programming the event as part of the festival, and to all the birds who appeared to us on the day and subsequently.

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Stanza 2021

Where are the birds taking me?

I’m asking the question again, this time for StAnza 2021.

The birds – herring gull, goldfinch, heron, raven, wren, chough, corncrake snipe and blackbird – feature in a digital installation of nine prints by Lisa Hooper and nine poems by myself.

It’s available from 6 to 31 March.

The poems came out of a residency at the Wigtown Book Festival in 2019, and were first combined with Lisa’s prints as a presentation for the (online) Wigtown Book Festival in 2020.

For StAnza I’ve also made audio recordings of all the poems.

And Lisa’s prints are for sale, individually or as a set.

Wet grain

Wet Grain is a new, print-only poetry magazine published in Glasgow, and edited by Patrick Romero & Christian Lemay.

They describe it as “a new journal interested in the lyric grooves that channel and redirect our apprehension of the world and the ideas implacably fankling themselves within it.”

They were kind enough to include three new poems of mine, ‘Provenance’, ‘Muse’ and ‘Among Antiques’, alongside work by Eloise Birtwhistle, Richard Price, Elle Heedles, Colin Herd and many others. The cover art (and the photo above) is by Lorna Wade.

According to their Editorial, “taken together, then, these poems are germ, ferment and mulch, warm with a latent and malty potential for life and growth”.

Copies are available from the website at £5 plus postage.

F L Y

F L Y is a new large-format book book published by the municipal gallery in Delmenhorst, Lower Saxony. In it Arne Rautenberg pairs some of his own poems with selected works from the gallery’s collection of contemporary art. Some of the poems were written specially for the project, others are from his earlier collections.

Edited by Dr Annett Reckert, the book is based on an exhibition that ran from March until September. In a year when so much has been postponed and cancelled, or at best moved online, it’s a delight to realise that some real-life projects were still possible.

I’ve translated Arne’s works for many years now, and for the book contributed a translation of his poem ‘gebirgsbach irr’. In English it became ‘hill stream will’, as a way of catching the internal ryhme of the title, as well as the play of meaning around ‘… irr / lichternd’; at one level the phrase refers to the flitting movement of the ‘irr [i.e. the stream], while also suggesting ‘irrlicht’, the will o’the wisp.

I’m just sorry I wasn’t able to travel to see the show. Maybe next year such trips will be possible again.

F L Y (Städtische Galerie Delmenhorst & Muthesius Kunsthochschule, 2020), 284pp. ISBN 978-3-944683-31-7

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!