Monday, 30 November 2015


 ‘Beeswing!  There is a poetry of place here’ said Jane McKie, commenting on the names of the villages she had passed through on the way to Castle Douglas last week.   I have driven through Beeswing several times but the name never fails to surprise me – such an English word in the Dumfriesshire landscape.  I wondered what minute attention to detail would cause a place to be called Beeswing.  Was there an apiary there?  It could be a name from Tolkien.  I imagine an elfin queen with a cloak made from bees’ wings, like a benign version of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in her famous beetle wing dress.  Or was the name a strange mutation from the Scots?

A quick google put me right.  The village used to have the more prosaic name of Lochend (it is situated at the end of Loch Arthur – a contender for the Lady of the Lake, as the name suggests – more romance).  However it was renamed in honour of the racehorse, Beeswing (1833 – 1854), a phenomenal winner of 51 races out of 63, including the Preston Gold Cup seven times and the Newcastle Cup six times.  She was from the North East of England but her mother was called Ardrossan Mare so that at least is a Scottish connection, though rather distant.  I would like to know why it was this particular village that decided to rename itself after a racehorse. 
Another place name caught my attention last weekend – Kirkgunzeon.  It sounded like a mixture of Scots and Cornish.  I looked up the name and discovered that Gunzeon is a variant (or wayward) spelling of a saint’s name, Winnen (Gaelic Finnen).

All this week I have been reading Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks.  Each chapter is an encounter with a landscape writer.   A glossary of words associated with that landscape ends each chapter.  These glossaries are a medley of Scots, Gaelic, Welsh, Shetlandic, local dialect, scientific, official and meteorological words, etc. 

What I have noticed in these glossary lists is the way that languages and dialects seep into one another.  For example, MacFarlane includes the word ‘clarty’ (of earth: sticky, boot-clingy) as Scots.  Yet it is a frequently used dialect word in the north of Cumbria where I live.  There’s so much rain that our boots are clarty most of the year.  Did the word travel over the border on the shoes of the Border Reivers’ horses?  He cites ‘Foggagey’ as another Scots word meaning ‘rank, tufted, matted grass’, yet my father in Warwickshire, where I grew up, called such grass ‘foggage’.   ‘Sike’ is listed as Yorkshire for a small stream or ditch yet it is a common place name in Cumbria (eg, Greensyke) and is used by the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson in his poetry.  ‘Lode’ is a fen drain in East Anglia but its meaning of a water course must be echoed in the Cotswold river Evenlode.

These glossaries are both fascinating and frustrating.  It’s fun to know that an icicle is an ‘aquabob’ in Kent and a ‘clinkerbell’ in Dorset, but I do think MacFarlane is cheating to include some of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ neologisms, such as ‘twindle’ and ‘heavengravel’.  There are annoying omissions.  He includes several Shetland ‘simmer’ (summer) compounds but not the often used ‘simmer dim’ which describes the wonderful residual light of Shetland midsummer nights.  And some ubiquitous Welsh landscape words are missed out – such as cwm (valley) and afon (river).

MacFarlane admits that the glossaries are a reflection of ‘my own particular interests and affiliations’.  He points out that there are a large number of very localised landscape names which are now falling out of use.   I can see that such names can easily be lost when we travel by vehicle and not on foot, when fields are recorded by number and not by name, when language is mediated by the television or the internet.   He quotes Tim Dee, ‘Without a name made in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts.’   Yet a nineteenth century racehorse called Beeswing is immortalised in a small village in the South of Scotland.

Saturday, 21 November 2015


And colder.  Last Friday, on the coldest night of the year so far the Eden Poets, of which I am a member, had their debut reading at The Gathering in Penrith.  Who would come?  Would the weather (snow and ice forecast) and the dark night put people off?

We needn’t have worried.  The upstairs room of The Gathering was full to capacity and it was great to see some new faces as well as some respected Cumbrian poets in the audience, several of them gamely putting their names down to participate in the open mike.  The evening was started off by nine year old Annie with her poem about red apples (it reminded me of the blackbirds tucking into my ‘Discovery’ fallers in the back garden).  She should be our mascot, I think! 

Then the seven of us who are Eden Poets read a brief selection of our poems (we were allowed 7 minutes each).    There was a real buzz about the evening.  I enjoyed hearing poems which we had work-shopped in our monthly meetings being performed live as well as hearing new poems.  We are a diverse group and the form and content of our poems is very varied, but I think because we all know each other the chemistry worked well.  I’d not been to The Gathering before but they did us proud with ice creams in the interval (yes, even in November – it gave a theatre feel to the proceedings) and hot drinks and cakes available from the café downstairs.

A big thank you to Jacci for organising the evening and to everyone who took part or were good listeners or who helped behind the scenes (John and Daryl should be mentioned!).  More poetry evenings are planned for next year.

The dark days just got brighter too.  Next morning I woke to a blue sky, a hard frost and a light powdering of snow on the Lake District fells, the Pennines and the Scottish hills.  After last week’s deluge it was great to have the clarity of winter sunshine making everything seem nearer than it actually was.  I drove to Castle Douglas for the launch of new collections from Cinnamon Press – a great little press, based in North Wales, that is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.  Driving down the A75 was a pleasure.  It’s not a good idea to combine driving and ornithology but I couldn’t help noticing birds which crossed my field of vision – a dark cloud of starlings near the Solway (their winter roosts there are legendary), flocks of fieldfares on the move near Dumfries, and a buzzard which dropped to a kill (I assume) on the edge of a field bordering the main road.

I like Castle Douglas – its eclectic mix of independent shops lining the high street, its tea shops which all serve enormous slices of cake at ridiculously low prices and its shimmering Carlingwark Loch which comes right up to the edge of the town.  There’s another like to add to the list now – the Gordon Memorial Hall  (next to St Ninian’s church) where the launch took place.  What a lovely setting for reading poetry.  It is a modern, stylish building, full of light and space.  The seating was in a semi-circle with no stage so there was an intimate feel to the reading with each poet relating closely to the audience.    

Of all the poetry readings I have ever attended this one was unique – it started early.  I only just got there in time to take a seat at 1.20 (due to start at 1.30).  I’m not sure why – but the hall was full, the weather threatening and three of the poets had a long journey home.  It was a refreshing change to the hanging about  that usually heralds a poetry reading (I assume because no one likes to be interrupted in full flow by a latecomer banging the door and struggling to unhook a chair from the stack at the back). 

Jane McKie started off by reading poems from Kitsune with its memories and relationships.  Her work is delicate, detailed and surprising.  The title comes from the Japanese for ‘fox’, a common aspect of Japanese folklore.  Next came Robin Lindsay Wilson reading from Myself and Other Strangers.  He’s a writer who makes unusual and striking connections – wondering if terrorists sleep easy at night in clean white sheets, for example.  To be honest, the person I’d really come to hear was Islay resident, Mavis Gulliver (Waymarks), whose poems I’ve admired when I’ve read them in the pages of the poetry magazine, Envoi.  She is a contemporary writer who keeps faith with the natural world.  Her reading included ‘Owl’ and ‘Shearwaters’.  Finally we listened to David Mark Williams (The Odd Sock Exchange).  The dramatic Welsh timbre to his voice was perfect for his poems.  I particularly enjoyed the title poem.  Afterwards I bought two poetry books to add to the stack waiting to be read over Christmas.

On the way back I noticed that the gorse alongside the A75 was already showing clusters of yellow buds, lighting up the short days of winter.  When I got home I took the dog for a walk and the waxing moon, well past its first quarter, was bright enough for the trees to cast long shadows and to silver the soft pale brown hair on my dog’s feet.  I thought of the dog in Walter de la Mare’s poem, ‘with paws of silver’.  ‘The dark nights just got brighter.’

For more information about the Cinnamon poets go to
If you would like to catch them at another reading they are doing an Edinburgh launch at the Scottish Poetry Library on Saturday 28 November. 

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


‘I just knew I had to do something.  I wanted to be there to try and comfort, and offer a sign of hope.’ (Davide Martello)

I think many of us have been in a state of shock after hearing of the events in Paris last Friday.   But one piece of news caught my attention.  It was about the pianist who towed his portable grand piano (it does have big wheels) with a bicycle through the streets of Paris and played John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ outside the Bataclan hall.    ‘I can’t bring people back but I can inspire them with music and when people are inspired they can do anything.’  

The incident reminded me of the cellist of Sarajevo, and Pauline Stainer’s poem about him (‘After the Bread Queue Massacre’).  It also reminded me of the West Eastern Divan orchestra, made up of young musicians from several countries in the Middle East (including Israel).  It was set up originally as ‘a project against ignorance’ (Daniel Barenboim) to enable Palestinian and Israeli musicians to play together.  The orchestra’s unusual name is taken from a collection of poems by Goethe, West-östlicher Divan.  Goethe’s book is a dialogue with the Persian poet, Ḥāſeẓ.  (Divan just means ‘collection’.)

On Saturday I read in The Guardian about Chava Rosenfarb, who was freed from Bergen-Belsen when the camp was liberated by the British Army in 1945.  The article was about her lifelong friendship with one of the British soldiers.  But it also mentioned that she wrote poetry, even in the hideous environment of the concentration camp: ‘I am lying in the bed and with stiff fingers I am writing my poem.  I’m no more in prison, I am no more a girl of a poor, humiliated, insulted nation.   I am a victorious free soul.  Happy moments!’  In 1948 her first collection of poetry was published.  She went on to become one of the most important and renowned Yiddish writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

The Greek poet, Yannis Ritsos, was a political prisoner under the Papadopouos military dictatorship.  He was forbidden to write in prison, but he wrote anyway – short poems which he hid in empty tins and buried in the prison compound. 

Poetry and music as peaceful resistance, peaceful defiance.   

Saturday, 7 November 2015


Those words form the opening line of 'Spiral' by the late Elizabeth Burns.  On Friday I saw the whole poem on a huge canvas 25 metres by 8 metres, masking the redevelopment of the old Sailors' Ark building on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.  What a lovely idea.

Not far away is the Scottish Poetry Library, now re-opened after its recent refurbishment.  I loved the building before and I wondered how successful it would be in its revamped form.  I'm pleased to say it's even better!  It's lighter (even on a grey November day), more spacious and more flexible.  It has more comfy chairs and it's good to see that children haven't been forgotten - there's a children's seating area with soft toys and picture books.

The main borrowing collection used to be housed in a dark cave under the mezzanine.  But extending outwards and new windows has made its shelves much less claustrophobic now.  The current
magazines have been moved downstairs and are more accessible and there's a slimline cafe-bar style table along the window wall with high stools to perch on - fun for browsing poetry mags.

Upstairs there are relaxed seating areas, CDs and a recording space, general books about poetry and the extensive pamphlet collection.  The shelves are moveable and in the summer there's scope to overflow onto the balcony.

But some things stay the same: the care, attention to detail, patience and enthusiasm shown by the library staff, the wonderful collection of books and, of course, W S Graham's colourful battered table.  That writing table still gives off its inspiring poetic vibes!
Lots of photos of the re-opening of the library on Our Sweet Old Etcetera blog, in the post 'Re-open the doors'.

Walk down the Royal Mile to read 'Spiral' by Elizabeth Burns, or see a photograph of the poem in situ at
(search under Sailors Ark and it should take you to the article beginning 'Giant poem').

Sunday, 1 November 2015


Two years ago I won a poetry prize.

Imagine that, after I had been awarded the prize, I had been expected to pay a considerable amount of extra money.  It seems unthinkable doesn't it?  Yet, this is what goes on behind the scenes at prestigious literary awards.  In my innocence I expected that the big names in literary awards - the Costa and The Guardian for example - sponsored literary prizes as feel-good self-promotion or at least to offset tax.  Entry fees, I assumed, helped towards the cost of running a prize.

Yes, there is of course a difference between winning a single poem prize and winning a collection award.  But I was shocked to read about what actually goes on behind the scenes at prestigious poetry book awards in Fiona Moore's post 'Small Publishers and Poetry Prizes' on her Displacement poetry blog this week.  *Please do read it.

Publishers are not only expected to 'hurl numerous free copies into the abyss of prizes, review copies and competitions" (some of the surplus must end up on Amazon I think, so someone is making some money out of them) but also, if a book is shortlisted or wins, several thousand pounds is extorted from already hard-pressed poetry publishers for 'promotional purposes'.  Different awards have different regulations but, as Fiona Moore points out, these rules make if impossible for a lot of small presses to participate, however good their publications.  She also says 'It is sensible to print cheaply ... so the unit cost is small.'  Unfortunately that mitigates against producing beautiful high-quality books, perhaps including illustrations, and entering for them for the big prizes.

I was particularly disillusioned to read that a fee was levied per poet on the Next Generation list of poets (not a prize but an important award).

Then there is the situation where small poetry publishers receive Arts Council grants which help them enter for literary awards run by organisations who receive Arts Council grants.  But, at a time when less and less public money is available, small presses have lost out on grants and either soldier on without them or fold (my own publisher, the much lamented Flambard, closed down when it lost its grant).

I hope the organisers behind the literary prizes listed by Fiona will respond to her comments.  It's also high time that financial accounts for literary prizes were made more transparent.

*  See Fiona Moore's post for 26 October 2015 on her blog

Despite the above CONGRATULATIONS to Claudia Rankine for winning this year's Forward Best Collection Prize for Citizen.