Category Archives: Visual Arts

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

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

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

Poets in Rome

I visited Rome for a few days earlier this year. These are some of the many poets, ancient and modern, I encountered there.

Homer Musei Vaticani

A herm of Homer in the Vatican Museums

Two versions of Sappho –
a herm in the Capitoline Museum, and a statue in the Vatican Museums

Goethe, with his feet up at home in the Via del Corso, c.1787; and his expenses book for his Roman stay, with regular entries for ‘ciocolatta’

Keats’ grave and memorial in the Cimitero Acattolico. The inscription on his grave reads,

This Grave
contains all that was Mortal,
of a
YOUNG ENGLISH POET,
Who,
on his Death Bed,
in the Bitterness of his Heart,
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies,
Desired
these Words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone

Here lies One
Whose Name was Writ in Water.
Feb 24th 1821

Shelley’s grave in the Cimitero Acattolico, with lines from The Tempest

Marinetti

Marinetti’s house on the Piazza Adriana

Corso Cimitero Acattolico 02

Gregory Corso’s grave in the Cimitero Acattolico

Finally, Raphael’s ‘Parnassus’, in the Room of the Segnatura in the Vatican museums,  painted between 1508 and 1511. Its central figure is the Apollo (playing the violin rather than the more traditional lyre), surrounded by the nine Muses. To the left, Homer is flanked by Dante and Virgil, while Sappho sits beneath them; to the right stand Ariosto and Boccaccio.

Sale di Raffaele Poets

 

Gleann Badraig

Earlier this year I wrote a sequence of poems about the Isle of Jura, for a book by the photographer Charles March. Charles contacted me out of the blue, thanks in part, I think, to a poem I’d written many years before about the island.

I visited Jura at the start of February, and was taken by boat to Glenbatrick on the west coast, where Charles had taken his photographs over the previous four or five years. Above the beach, and the rugged coastline either side of it, are a number of raised beaches, created by the land gradually rising after the glaciers melted. Looking inland, the Paps of Jura dominate the skyline – Beinn na Oir, Beinn Siantidh and Beinn Chaolias.

In May and June, Charles’ photographs were featured in an exhibition at the Palazzo Borghese in Rome, where a sample copy of the book was on display.

I received copies of the book just this week – I’d forgotten how large it was. The images are beautifully reproduced, catching the shifting and subtle colours of the Hebrides.

Gleann Badraig is published by Distanz Verlag, Berlin.
390 × 275 mm
96 pages, 60 color images, hardcover with linen
ISBN 978-3-95476-248-4
June 2018
€58.00

I have a few copies for sale – contact me if you’re interested in buying a copy.

Primary Four’s Doors


Over the past few years I’ve been involved with a performance project with Leith Primary School.

Organised by the church of St James the Less, Leith, this year Suzanne Butler, Lorna Irvine and I worked on the theme of ‘building’ with three classes.

Suzanne (of Fischy Music) wrote a song with P4/3, Lorna and P4B made a drama piece, ‘The Three Wee Leithers’ (based on the fable of ‘The Three Little Pigs’), while I helped P4A to write about life in Leith, and also in a realm of the imagination which they named ‘Minecraft Pugs’.

One of the poems I’d read to kick the project off was Holub’s ‘The Door’. During one of our sessions, I asked the pupils to imagine and draw their own door.

The plan was to show these during today’s performance, but we were in the brand new school hall, and no-one knew how to get the brand new projector to talk to a laptop.

I thought the doors deserved some sort of public display, so here they are, in ascending numerical order, from 3 to 1,000,000.

Thanks again to all the pupils for their imagination and enthusiasm!

Daughters of Penelope

These photos were taken at Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studios on 24 October 2017, during an event I created with Juliana Capes for the exhibition Daughters of Penelope (which runs till 20 January).

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.

Photographs courtesy of Dovecot Studios.

Kurt Schwitters

Schwitters_Collage

A Hanover bourgeois, Kurt Schwitters,
Grew tired of painting his sitters.
In sentences terse
He declared all art Merz
And made poems from sneezes and titters.

A limerick for Kurt Schwitters on 8 January 2018, the 70th anniversary of his death.

Below are some photos from a visit in 2014 to Cylinders in the Lake District, where Schwitters made his last Merzbau in the 1940s (the barn he made it was recently in the news again), and there is a bench with extracts from his ‘Ursonate’ (to hear an extract performed by Florian Kaplick click here).

Cylinders_Merzbarn