I spent Saturday at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. They were running their annual bookfair, By Leaves We Live, and it must have been one of the best attended ever. I was mostly at The Caseroom Press table with Barrie Tullett, who brought a small selection from his typewriter collection to display, and be used. They were joined by Edwin Morgan’s Blue Bell (part of his archive held by the SPL), and a red Olivetti Valentine, which Angus Reid had bought for his daughter in a Stockbridge charity shop for a tenner, but which drew admiring and even covetous looks from those that know about typewriters.
Barrie recently drew on the old Pepsi advert to write a text about LETTERPRESSIN’, which he letterpressed as a poster, and asked if I’d contribute something similar about POETRY. I obliged, and the result is above. It’s in an edition of 25, at £25.00 each, and copies are still available from the SPL.
A good day of conversations, rounded off with a party for Hamish Whyte’s Mariscat Press, now thirty years young and still going strong.
I recently spent a week in Moray with Angus Reid, writing and walking. We stayed above the River Fiddich in the house of Mary Bourne, the sculptor who co-ordinated the Mortlach Storywalks project. The house has views west towards Ben Rinnes, the highest top in the area.
It also looks across the glen to the ruins of Auchindoun Castle, set on a low hillock above the River Fiddich. It was from Auchindoun that Adam Gordon rode out to Corgraff Castle; his burning of the latter is told in the ballad ‘Edom o’ Gordon’. The revenge attack is told in the shorter and less well-known ballad, ‘Burning of Auchindoun’ (Child #183).
As I cam’ in by Fiddichside, on a May morning
I spied Willie MacIntosh an hour before the dawning
Turn agin, turn agin, turn agin, I bid ye
If ye burn Auchindoun, Huntly he will heid ye
Heid me or hang me, that shall never fear me
I’ll burn Auchindoun though the life leaves me
As I cam’ in by Auchindoun, on a May morning
Auchindoun was in a bleeze, an hour before the dawning
Crawing, crawing, for a’ your crouse crawin’
Ye brunt your crop an’ tint your wings an hour before the dawning.
I made a few label-poems there.
Near the castle there are some ruined farm buildings – some are being renovated, but we looked round a particularly delapidated house.
We drove a few miles into the Cabrach to Rhinturk Farmhouse, still standing, still productive.
After the drawing, Angus began a portrait in oils, which took several sittings. Again, I read my way through them – staying in the east with Pasternak and Herbert (Z), and going west with The New American Poetry 1945-1960, especially enjoying Gregory Corso’s ‘Marriage’. Above is the finished portrait, before the paint had even dried. Angus had been wondering about a title, and I wrote to him, ‘Lorna says it captures a lot of me and “it’s not going to be called Mr Fun” – ?! It was an interesting process for me too – to take that time for reading, the pleasure of reading aloud, and to observe your process, the struggle with the material, how that (relatively small) surface gradually became completed.’
Angus replied, ‘Reading Aloud is a very good title… that’s the point, and the thrill of it for me. It starts and anchors itself in the fact of your reading, and as such is a likeness of you and a kind of sketch; but it becomes an image when I began to be able to see that we were both involved (this was a shock, and perhaps the answer to a compositional dilemma). What interested me was to be able to see the exchange between us, the time it took and the process by which it was made… the daydreaming, the distraction, the concentration, the moments of frustration, the memorable line… all the points on the elastic scale of reading and listening…
‘So… whatever Lorna says, it’s the image of a special pleasure, and a celebration of it… And it’s good it’s two men I think. It’s not a parent and child (though it could be) and its not a younger person and an older person: just two men and a common ground we found to share. To me, that is something unusual and beautiful. Interesting too that it was the big expansive world of Milosz that offered the most space to stroll around.
‘I like it that you the sitter do all this active documentation and that there is the flavour of collaboration to it all. I hope other people can see that too…’
I have been sitting for a painted portrait recently. The artist is my friend Angus Reid, poet,film- and theatre-maker, architectural critic, composer… he painted years ago but has just taken it up again recently, when he persuaded his teenage son Mark to sit for him, guitar in hand. Now he’s taken a studio at the Arts Complex at Meadowbank, and I’m his first sitter.
We decide, I can’t quite remember how, that I’ll read poems aloud while he draws and paints. I think this is mainly to stop me getting bored, but it means he’s seeing me with eyes downcast. (One day I play music instead, but this is far less interesting for either of us – I catch myself dropping off on occasion.)
Reading poems aloud is a fine way of critiquing them – their strengths and weaknesses are thrown into relief. Neruda’s Book of Questions is a life-affirming delight despite its repeated interrogation of death (Neruda wrote it only months before his own death); W.S. Graham is harder work than I had imagined, abstract and angular, the specific setting of ‘Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons’ giving the most satisfaction; MacCaig keeps producing the most startling and exact images, often in otherwise imperfect poems; but it’s Milosz I most enjoy, the good company of his prosy, conversational, curious, wry, humorous tones, that open up further conversations once the poems return to silence.
I found Angus’s comments on the process revealing too:
“In the time we have spent together, the image has begun to reflect the pleasure we both take in spoken poetry. The work is still in progress, but one drawing was a break-through, coming after Neruda and Milosz and somewhere in the midst of W.S. Graham and MacCaig: in the face of a middle-aged man reading – a face I know well – there was suddenly a surprise, something unselfconscious, that I was able to observe: small flashes of patience, tenderness and appreciation. The image seemed to be able to go beyond likeness to capture something universal that is otherwise largely hidden by the Ego, and the everyday.”
At one level sitting seems an egotistical exercise, spending time having an image made of one’s transient, imperfect self; but at another, like many activities where you give in to time rather than trying to manage it, it’s a way of losing yourself, losing track of time, and finding what else there is.
After a morning of drizzle, it was fair at lunchtime, but the weather closed in atmospherically as we walked, all the shades of grey you could ever wish for.
Tweeddale Court, with its publishing connections past and present (Oliver & Boyd, Canongate, The List), and the former home of the Scottish Poetry Library, was very still, bolted doors and no sign of life. As I read my poem ‘Courtyard Reading’, about the open festival events the SPL used to run there, I felt like I was raising a few ghosts. From Jeffrey St the Old Royal High School, mentioned in Robert Garioch’s ‘Embro to the Ploy’, was invisible through the fog.
After a children’s rhyme in the spacious Chessel’s Court, and a tragic ballad in the vennel at John Street, we paid homage to Robert Fergusson at the Canongate Kirk. His sculpted image strides energetically downhill, while his gravestone bears a verse written by his great admirer Robert Burns.
Sadly Dunbar’s Close was locked, but we were able to glimpse the ornamental hedges through the gate.
We were lucky to have on the tour the poet Angus Reid, who read his sonnet about the Scottish parliament building, and the shapes that pattern its exterior. Inexplicable to many, they are to Reid a clear emblem of democracy:
not the fingers not even the palm but
the power of the right hand the hammer
the sign of assent the vote the demos
(That last word means in Greek ‘the people’, and is where the word ‘democracy’ comes from, government by the people.)
We concluded in Crichton’s Close at the new home of the Scottish Poetry Library, with another sonnet, by Iain Crichton Smith, part of which is inscribed in the fabric of the building: ‘this house, this poem… this fresh hypothesis’.
I’ll be running another poetry tour on 27th February – email firstname.lastname@example.org to book.
These events are part of the Carry a Poem programme.