Category Archives: Schools

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.

Falkland Labyrinth

Labyrinth symbol

In 2014 I was asked to write a poem for the orchard at Falkland Palace in Fife. Sonia, the palace’s head gardener, had just planted a willow labyrinth, with a circular area at its centre. There she planned to install a circular bench, with on it a poem.

Over the summer I ran various events in and around the palace, working with local residents, pupils from the village primary school and from Falkland School, as well as kids from the nursery just up the road. We explored the orchard in blossom time, and again when the branches were heavy with fruit; and a group of us did a circuit up Maspie Den, following the “Yad’s single thread” upstream. I climbed East Lomond, or Falkland Hill, which I’d last done as a teenager, and also West Lomond, a bit further out from the village, which I’d last done more recently as part of The Road North.

Pictish bull stone NMS

I read about the village’s history: the obscure origin of the name ‘Falkland’; the Pictish stone featuring the image of a bull, “spirited and naturalistically rendered”; the development of the palace as a hunting lodge with an enclosed park around it for the ‘sport’ of the Scottish royals; the locally grown flax which was woven into linen; the now ruined Temple of Decision; and the local flora and fauna, from white ramping fumitory to the soprano pipistrelle.

I was also thinking about the ‘release – receive – return’ principle of the labyrinth: you release what’s you’re carrying with you on the way in; at the centre, the point of stillness, you receive what’s there for you to receive; and as you return, you think how what you’ve received will impact on your life in the future. I knew readers would encounter the poem at the mid-point of their experience of the labyrinth, and at what feels like a central point within Falkland, from that part of the orchard you can see the palace, the town hall, the church and East Lomond.

And I’d to fit all that into a poem which, given the dimensions of the bench and the need to have legible letters, was limited to 185 characters – slightly longer than a single tweet.

Now your steps to here have led
sit within the woven shade

Just outside this pliant wall
crowstep clocktower steeple hill

In the future bear in mind
the twists of labyrinthine time

Willow leaves

Mine, Mayfield, Midlothian

Mine was a recent commission from Melville Housing Association for a new housing development at Langlaw Road, Mayfield, Midlothian. I worked on it with sculptor Susheila Jamieson, and P7 pupils from Lawfield Primary School. (This is a new building – the housing development is on the site of the old school.) The work was to be on the theme of mining, once the main industry in the area, and back in May Susheila and I visited the Scottish Mining Museum at nearby Newtongrange with the pupils.

Back at school we worked with the kids on drawings and texts, based on what they’d seen at the museum, especially some of the big pieces of equipment.

Stone : Four Elements (detail)

For the works, Susheila settled on five works in stone featuring texts I’d written, along with details from the drawings.

The texts were based either on work by the pupils, or on historical sources. Four of these were made using Caithness flagstone; three of these are laid flat on the ground, and one is a letter-day standing stone. ‘The wisp’ was a piece of lit straw, which at one time was the simplest way of letting those down below know their shift was over.

The fifth uses a boulder found on site, the top of which has been smoothed flat. It sits in an as yet unfinished playpark, with views across the estate to the Pentland Hills in the distance.


Susheila also made large metal panels to be hung on walls either side of the main entrance, and smaller panels for walls inside the estate, based on drawings of machine parts the kids had made at the museum.

Mine was opened on Tuesday 18 September by Margaret Burgess MSP, Minister for Housing and Welfare.

Bydand


I ran some workshops for P7 classes at the Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen last month. We gave the kids a tour of the museum, then I set them to writing about artefacts they’d been struck by. The Riverbank PS poem is a collective effort by the pupils of said school. ‘Bydand’ – staying or remaining, or ‘Perseverance’ as they have it in Leith – was the regimental motto, hence the evergreen ivy around the stag.

Miłosz 2011


30 June 2011 was the centenary of the birth of Czesław Miłosz. He’s a poet I’ve begun to read just in the past year, after the Krakow visit. I returned with a copy of his New & Collected Poems, bought on the last morning of the trip with the spare zlotys, and begun on the bus out to the airport.

Thumbing its pages, I made a couple of immediate connections: his appreciation of the Japanese haiku masters – Issa, rather than Basho, perhaps simply because he linked the coincidental link with the Issa Valley in his native Lithuania – and his ‘Notes’, a series of single sentences each under a short heading (‘The Perfect Republic’, ‘Epitaph’, ‘Mountains’), which are reminiscent of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s one-word-poems and monostichs, and Günter Eich’s (even briefer) ’17 Formeln’. Neither ‘Reading the Japanese Poet Issa (1762-1826)’ nor ‘Notes’ are entirely typical of his work, but they were useful landmarks I could start to navigate by.

I read him over the winter (in English, having no Polish). I read him aloud while sitting for my portrait, when Angus and I enjoyed enjoyed the discursive prose of ‘La Belle Epoque’, especially its closing section, ‘The Titanic’. When I proposed running sessions on his work for secondary schools, it became one of those rare and serendipitous projects everyone says ‘yes’ to.

In the summer term I visited schools in Edinburgh, East Lothian, Fife, Highland and South Lanarkshire, and will visit several more schools over the coming weeks. The poem I’ve come to focus on most is ‘The Dining Room’ (‘Jadalnia’) from the sequence ‘The World’ (‘Świat’), a seemingly straightforward description of an interior whose place and date of composition – Warsaw 1943 – soon open up deeper, darker layers of resonance.

The Scottish Poetry Library has produced a Miłosz 2011 poster, featuring the poem ‘Song on the End of the World’ (‘Piosenka o Końcu Świata’) in English and Polish, along with background information, weblinks, and a couple of photos of the poet in later life, craggy and bushy-eyebrowed. E-mail the Library at reception@spl.org.uk if you’d like a copy.

There is also a series of Polish Poems on the Underground at the moment, including Miłosz’s ‘And Yet the Books’ and ‘Blacksmith Shop’, as well as poems by Zbiginiew Herbert, Wisława Symborska and Adam Zagajeweski.
I’m also running an event this Saturday (10 September) at Macdonald Road Library, Edinburgh, for the Polish book group Zielony Balonik, focussing on Miłosz’s poems – more details here.

Mortlach Storywalks

P2 looking towards Dufftown from Meg's Widd

P7 returning from The Giant's Chair

Earlier this year I worked at Mortlach Primary School in Dufftown, mainly with the P2, P4 and P7 classes. We walked – in snow and sunshine – some of the paths around the town, which the kids had already explored with Wild things!, and I got them to write about their impressions of the ground we’d covered. I collated, edited and wrote up their material as stories, which have just been published as three leaflets, designed by Glasgow-based artist Janie Nicoll. P2 collectively describe Meg’s Widd, P4 become Jimbo, a local boy showing visitors round The Toon’s Widd, while P7 encounter a shape-shifter who opens up the history and ecology of The Giant’s Chair. The leaflets are available from Dufftown Tourist Information Centre, and other venues in the town.

The project was co-ordinated by Mary Bourne, sculptor, and a member of the School Council. Her carved stones using poems by children from all classes have been placed along the three walks.

the river meanders beneath the spider spinning its fragile web while the buzzard drifts overhead as the river…

sLender whIte Noisy watErfall, tumbliNg And imPatient, Rushes tOwards dullaN (LINEN APRON)

rocks under water shaded by trees the heron nests in and flies down to stand on rocks…

Works made by P1, P3 and P5 with Janie Nicoll have been installed in Dufftown’s Cottage Hospital, Tourist Information Centre and at the local library. Additional works are in the school itself.

The P6 class prepared an orienteering route around Meg’s Widd, making a map and contributing words for the stones which serve as control points.

The nursery children worked with Vivien Hendry and Mary Bourne, making peg-fairies which they took to Meg’s Widd. I ‘interviewed’ them about their fairies’ skills and adventures, and Vivien has made a limited-edition book, The Magic of Meg’s Widd.

The Magic of Meg's Widd (photo: Mary Bourne)

Mortlach Story Walks is a partnership project between Mortlach Primary School, Dufftown, Moray and the Speyside Paths Network Group to produce arts-based interpretation for the countryside around Dufftown. It is initiated and supported by the school’s Parent Council.

Hidden in Hilton

The Wildwood

Back in April I ran workshops with Year 5/6 pupils at Hilton Primary School in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as part of a project by Alec Finlay about habitat and outdoor learning. The focus was on exploring and redeveloping an overgrown garden known as ‘the wildwood’.
cHerry rIpening, pLum bursTing, Oak flamiNg

hawtHorn growIng, appLe fruiTing, cOtoneaster twistiNg

Poet-botanist Colin Will spoke to the children about what was growing there. The visit with Colin gave them a lot of stimuli, and they made notes as they went round. What helped them differentiate the plants was a memorable detail – the ash’s ‘black fingernails’, making it a ‘goth tree’, for example.
tHe fruIting pLum, The lOnely rowaN

sHaking wIllow, fLowering blackThorn, smOoth rowaN

I showed the kids different ways to write about the plants they’d discovered and observed. The mesostic poems have a central stem-word, while embedded poems have a word hidden within it, like a cryptic crossword clue. The two below include tree names.
A shivering twig and a shiny key (3)

Servant to a king (3)

The poems have now been installed in the garden, as labels, bird-boxes and on barrel-seats.

Lewis horizons

Stornoway

Stornoway harbour

Last month I spent ten days on Lewis and Harris, running schools workshops around the Artist Rooms exhibition Ian Hamilton Finlay: Sailing Dinghy at An Lanntair in Stornoway. The centrepiece of the show was a real dinghy given to Finlay, but it was too big for the lochans at Little Sparta. So it was never sailed, and it’s also unamed.
Jon Macleod

I worked alongside artist Jon Macleod, and as well as working in the gallery, we were able to take some groups out to the beach. Most of the pupils we worked with were familiar with boats, having sailed themselves or, if not, seeing the array of boats in Stornoway harbour or at other moorings around the island.
Bon voyage / child of the sea

The Gliding Water

Horizon poem

At the beach we said sad farewells to a dead dolphin beached after a high tide, named and drew boats, and wrote ‘horizon poems’ – the line in the middle is the horizon, and above it you write a few words describing what you see above the horizon; and below the line, what you see below.
Adam's lost poem

Sometimes the waves got the better of us. When I asked Adam what he written, he cried ‘I can’t remember!’ So he got on with writing a new poem.
Ian Stephen on El Vigo

Wake

While there I met writer and sailor Ian Stephen, and one afternoon he took me out on El Vigo across a sunny and becalmed Stornoway Bay.
Carloway broch

Signpost on Harris

I also managed a couple of stations for The Road North, Dun Carloway on the west coast of Lewis, and Rhenigidale on Harris; the blogs about these will appear soon on the website.