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.
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 (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 (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
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
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.”
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.”
You dropped a purple ravelling in, You dropped an amber thread; And now you’ve littered all the East With duds of emerald!
We focused on works by Julie Brook, Caroline Dear, Linder and Sonia Delauney. Juliana read an original text written in response to the artworks, while I read a selection of poems on weaving and colour, including works by Emily Dickinson (above) and verses from the Carmina Gadelica.
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.
Adam Aitken (Australia)
Aïcha Bassry (Morocco)
Ken Cockburn (Scotland)
Stéphane Despatie, Québec
Bios Dialla (Mauritania)
Elena Dunaevskaya (Russia)
Olivia Elias (France / Palestine)
Jean-Claude Ettori (France)
Ian Ferrier (Canada)
Paula Giglio (Argentina)
Gustavo Iñiguez (Mexico)
Tom Konvyves (Canada)
Krystyna Lendowska (Poland)
María Rosa Lojo (Agentina)
Luis Armenta Malpica (Mexico)
Charles Sagalane (Québec)
Gerry Shitakani (Canada)
Umar Timol (Mauritius)
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.
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.
Curved Stream is an exhibition by seven artists and one writer (myself) at Traquair House, near Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders. Each of the artists has a work in one of the garden pavilions to the rear of the house, and a related work in the main house and / or in the gardens and grounds.
One of the pavilions has, as its centre-piece, an anonymous ceiling-painting depicting an episode in the story of Diana and Actaeon (told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses), just before the transformation of Actaeon into a stag. The survival, intact, of this beautiful artefact, embedded in the fabric of the building, exemplifies many of the special qualities of the site as a whole.
The work I’ve made is called DEA SILVARUM (Goddess of the Woods), as Ovid describes Diana, and is a walk with poems on the theme of hunting in the gardens and grounds of Traquair House. The poems include Ted Hughes’ version of Ovid, plus works by Robert Burns, Edna St Vincent Millay and the great Anon, among others. I led a first walk at the exhibition opening on 5 September, and will lead a second on Saturday 10 October at 2.30pm.
In the pavilion is a printed sheet listing the poems I selected for the walk, typeset by Barrie Tullett, with handwritten annotations featuring extracts from and reflections on the poems, as well as notes as to where I’d planned to read them. The sheet is in a drawer, so you have to open it to read the text – the idea for that was taken from a Victorian Game Book which was (but is not longer) on display in the house, in a glass below a window with a sheet of dark fabric draped over it to protect it from the light. I liked that ‘reveal’, and it seemed to echo the events in Actaeon’s story as well, so the text is hidden in the drawer, until its own ‘reveal’.
If you don’t know the story: Actaeon has been hunting deer with his friends in the woods. After a successful, bloody morning, they pause; Actaeon wanders off alone and stumbles upon a cavern where the goddess Diana, is bathing. Angry that he has seen her naked, she turns him into a stag, and he is hunted down and killed by his own dogs.)
The artists involved are Gordon Brennan, Mark Haddon, Jane Hyslop, Paul Keir, Deirdre Macleod, Andrew Mackenzie and Mary Morrison. There is more information about the exhibition and their work at the Curved Stream website and Facebook page.
Coinciding with the lunar eclipse on 4 April, and following the recent solar eclipse, David Faithfull’s ‘Moon draws Sun / Earth draws Moon’ has been projected onto the side of Castle Mill Works in Fountainbridge. As part of the Dark Matters project, we discussed in situ the installation and its connections with Enlightenment Edinburgh. (Thanks to Judith Liddle for the photos below.)
The Encyclopaedia Britannica was founded in Edinburgh in the 1760s, and early editions were printed in in Fountainbridge. The city at the time was just beginning to expand from the old town huddled for protection beneath the castle; and of its home city the EB states approvingly that “a plan of a new town to the north is fixed upon, and is actually carrying into execution with surprising rapidity, and with an elegance and taste that does honour to this country.”
I read parts of the ASTRONOMY ‘treatise’ from the first edition of the EB from 1768. While telescopes had given us a sense of the size of the universe, we had as yet no sense of geological time – that had to wait until James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, elaborated in the 1780s and published in book form in 1795. And the author’s belief in a benevolent deity led him to this, to our minds certainly, surprising conclusion:
[There is] no room to doubt, but that all the planets and moons in the [solar] system are designed as commodious habitations for creatures endued with capacities of knowing and adoring their beneficent Creator. (…) From what we know of our own system, it may be reasonably concluded, that all the rest are with equal wisdom contrived, situated and provided with accommodations for rational inhabitants.
This, the author contends, extends even to comets:
The extreme heat, the dense atmosphere, the gross vapours, the chaotic state of the comets seem at first sight to indicate them altogether unfit for the purposes of animal life, and a most miserable habitation for rational beings ; and therefore some are of the opinion that they are so many hells for tormenting the dammed with perpetual vicissitudes of heat and cold. But when we consider, on the other hand, the infinite power and goodness of the Deity, the latter inclining, and the former enabling him to make creatures suited to all states and circumstances ; that matter exists only for the sake of intelligent beings ; and that where-ever we find it, we always find it pregnant with life, or necessarily subservient thereto ; the numberless species, the astonishing diversity of animals in earth, air, water, and even on other animals ; every blade of grass, every leaf, every fluid swarming with life ; and every one of these enjoying such gratifications as the nature and state of each requires ; When we reflect moreover, that some centuries ago, till experience undeceived us, a great part of the earth was judged uninhabitable, the torrid zone by reason of excessive heat, and the frigid zones because of their intolerable cold ; it seems highly probable, that such numerous and large masses of durable matter as the comets are, however unlikely they be to our earth, are not destitute of beings capable of contemplating with wonder, and acknowledging with gratitude, the wisdom, symmetry, and beauty of the creation ; which is more plainly to be observed in their extensive tour through the heavens, than in our more confined circuit. If further conjecture is permitted, may we not suppose them instrumental in recruiting the expanded fuel of the sun, and supplying the exhausted moisture of the planets? However difficult it may be, circumstanced as we are, to find out their particular destination, this is an undoubted truth, that wherever the Deity exerts his power, there he also manifests his wisdom and goodness.
Reading this, I am surprised Edinburgh was not also the founding city of science fiction literature.
Come dusk, the generator was switched on, and David’s installation played over the wall of the Castle Mill Works, a former rubber factory, earmarked to become the new home of Edinburgh Printmakers Workshop in a few years time.
And come dusk, we were all feeling the cold, and were glad of a chance to warm ourselves around the bonfire.
Earlier this year with the help of Artlink I devised a performance at the National Library of Scotland for visually impaired and sighted visitors. ‘Some Bat-squeak Echo of Other Time’ took its title from a phrase in Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveller’s Wife, and the performance connected various spaces within the library building on George IV Bridge with extracts from fiction – so the grand staircase became the setting for a scene from James Joyce’s Dubliners story ‘The Dead’, while the reading rooms hosted the “stout, middled-aged man with enormous owl-eyed spectacles” (described as being “somewhat drunk”) from The Great Gatsby. I read the extracts along with Jenny Hulse and Lorna Irvine, and we were accompanied by Laure Paterson on fiddle and Sally Thomas on flute – before a four-strong choir closed proceedings with a wonderful rendition of ‘Let’s Do It’ on the staircase.
You can listen to a podcast which features extracts from the performance, and interviews with some of those involved, and there’s more information on the project on the Artlink website.
After a long hibernation, the days are getting longer and several events in the diary are getting closer.
First up is a launch event for Out of Books, with Alec Finlay, on Thursday 11 April at 6.30pm, at the Scottish Poetry Library, and a second event as part of the Boswell Book Festival at Auchinleck, Ayrshire, on Sunday 19 May. Out of Books is collaborative project inspired by Boswell and Johnson’s 1773 journey across the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Taking their texts as their guides, we’ll set out to revisit particular landscapes and recover particular views. Over the summer and along the route we will host a series of events inspired by their antecedents’ famous journey, with further events in and around Inverness, on the Isles of Skye, Coll and Mull, and in Inveraray.
And finally, a reading with Pierre Joris and Lila Matsumoto at Little Sparta on Sunday 26 May at 5.00pm, linked to the University of Glasgow’s Assembling Identities conference. Tickets are available here.
Perhaps the snow will have melted from the Pentlands by then.