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Aoife Lyall

Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks: A Review

 

(This review was oringally published in The Poet’s Republic, Issue 5)

Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks, Magi Gibson. ISBN9781910745861: Luath Press;
£7.99

Magi Gibson embodies and emboldens real women here, the ‘untouchables’ who live outside the strict codes of expected femininity.  Many of the poems in Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks speak to authority over the self, and the gall that accompanies such flagrant, unbecoming autonomy in a woman. Providing a refreshing and revitalising deluge of perspectives from which to appreciate both the complexity and simplicity of the female position, each poem nevertheless comes down to the same fundamental principle: that a woman’s right to represent and speak for her own body is, and should be recognised as, inalienable.

‘Woman Sunbathing in Bridgeton’ is thus fittingly and deliciously self-absorbed, its protagonist triumphantly refusing to even acknowledge the masculine tropes women have been taught to fear since childhood: the white van man, the angry dog, the drunk, the youths, even Death itself as it rolls by.  Instead, ‘Serenely she applies/ more lotion.’

We often forget the incredible significance and emblematic nature of the ordinary things in our lives. In Gibson’s hands, lipstick is elevated from spurious indulgence to social marker. In “Barflower”, ‘Her lipstick…/signals more warning than welcome’; in “Gift” it is as quintessential as the ‘toothpaste, tampons,/ shampoo, soap’ slipped into the Refugee Appeal bag.  “Lipstick” brings Gibson’s guilty conscience to the fore.  Seeing her own make-up ritual as ‘a daily act, a sacrament, a quiet solemnity’, she chides herself for the importance she ascribes to it:

But how can I think of shopping for lipstick

while food banks sprout like bindweed in our towns,

while refugees flee burnt-out homes, while bombs drop

on bathrooms just like this…

only to be reminded of its importance by a refugee on the news:

I’ve lost my home, my family,

She tells the camera.

I will not let them take my femininity.

 

Then she smiles. a lip-sticked smile.

A smile of scarlet defiance.

This sentiment is hauntingly echoed in ‘Liberation of Belsen’, where the freed women have been gifted lipstick and are seen ‘wandering/ like wraiths…/their lips, smiling, scarlet.’ No longer a frivolous expenditure, lipstick becomes the marker of friendship and danger, pride and despair, survival and political defiance. And above all else? Autonomy and control.

The collection’s eponymous poem is its penultimate one. ‘Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks’ is a message: do not judge what you do not understand. Struggling to survive:

Her mother and her aunts complain she’s saddled

With a man who’s not a man, who fails his wife and son;

The boy sobs hard so sad his father does not come.

The speaker is bewildered by the ‘Flame-haired fireball’ who ‘deign(s)/ to wash her absent husband’s socks’.  We, as contemporary readers, are called to arms, called to scorn and pity the broken-spirit of this once-fierce ‘virago’.  And yet we must be cautious; the actions of others are so often, and so easily prescribed convenient, negative, motivations.  Gibson delves deeper into the sentiment behind Valda Grieve’s ‘Send me your dirty linen’, using the poem to explore, not superficial wifely duty, but the intimate physicality and sexuality of a woman separated from her lover, a woman who perhaps:

…stripped

off her clothes, snipped the tangled twine, ripped off

the wrap, breathed in the distant, lonely smell of him…

Somehow this woman is all the women in this collection; suffering, yet suffering for a higher purpose.  She does not wash his socks because she is told to, because it is expected of her, as a woman, as a wife. No, ‘She washed his socks for love.’

Underpinning this narrative, several of Gibson’s personal poems reflect the sadness, if not regret, that comes with recognising a disconnect from one’s past. The divide is represented through the shift from the physical labour of her father, and his generation, to the intellectual pursuits of her ‘arty-farty glitterati’, who appear to have lost their grip on reality, ‘Nibbling crumb-sized canapés, not/ From silver trays or porcelain plates,/ But old roof slates’. These poems acknowledge with irreverent finesse a distinct sense of otherness and, through Gibson’s recognition of the ironic construction of her world, the reader gains a fresh, sharp perspective on the flimsy realities in which we are often so desperate to enshroud ourselves.

Magi Gibson’s latest collection is an effusive and vibrant celebration of womanhood.  Presented without apology or qualification, its poems are at times joyful, dignified, sorrowful, proud, and ridiculous. Some poems read more as interludes between riveting sequences, but this is a minor point in an otherwise enthralling collection.  To be read in the bath, or at the gym, or up a mountain; wherever it is that you are most yourself.

 

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The Growing Season: A Review

 

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The Growing Season, Helen Sedgwick’s second novel, does not set out to radically alter the reader’s world view. Its goal is neither to posit advances in medical science as something to be feared and abhorred; nor to euphorically postulate these advances as the inevitable, triumphant epitome of a species that has transcended itself.

The pouch has long been accepted as the best way to have children, as it allows adults to circumnavigate the plethora of biological, socio-economical, political, and religious issues that dictate natural birth.

In a world that recognises pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood as society’s cornerstone (not its inconvenient truth), the pouch is the perfect, perfectly safe, perfectly equal way to have a family. Its parent company, FullLife, appears open, honest, and genuinely passionate about its work, offering care plans and payment options to suit every circumstance.

By the time the novel begins, the wonder and marvel of the pouch’s technology has been relegated, much like a smartphone, to its novelty features. Pouches are no longer just life-givers (and life-savers), they are fashion accessories: celebrity endorsements, sensory inputs, and seasonal covers have become the way to guarantee your unborn child is up-to-date with the latest trends on their Birth Day.

Indeed, it is the advent of smartphones, and Sedgwick’s light, meticulous touch that makes the pouch so palatable. Twenty years ago, this novel would have seemed fantastical, futuristic, and fundamentally untenable. Now, with a generation rising behind us who have never known a world without the internet, we can easily, if uneasily, appreciate how such paradigm-shifting technology has been so seamlessly integrated into everyday life. Who, now, would go to the library before reaching for their phone? Who, then, could possibly choose a natural birth, with its inherent and varied risks, over the pouch?

This is the challenge faced by Avigail and her daughter Eva. Working against the common belief that the pouch is without fault (even when they themselves have benefitted from its invention), Eva is forced to shut down her mother’s campaign for answers and accountability because people simply do not want to know. That is, until an unusual media silence and a chance connection stir Eva’s suspicions, and compel her to finish what her mother started.

Sedgwick successfully navigates the complex and multifaceted intricacies of The Growing Season by refusing to sensationalize the characters and events of her story. There are no social avengers, determined to destroy life as we know it; no evil corporation hell-bent on treachery and malicious deceit; no star-crossed lovers who can only live and die in absolutes.  That is not to say the novel is without loss, heartache, and pain. But the circumstances are human, and so, it follows, are their consequences. Replete with human efforts and error, The Growing Season beautifully captures a paradoxical but fundamental truth: the knowledge that perfection is unattainable does not diminish the worthiness of its pursuit.

(Harvill Secker, 320 p. ISBN-13: 978-1911215950, £12.99: Published 7th September 2017)

 

 

5 things I’ve learned since…

…I started submitting my work for publication.

1. Simultaneous submissions are a mixed bag

Simultaneous submissions feel good in the beginning when you don’t have a lot to submit and want to get your foot in the door. That said, they really only work when the rejections come first.  Last year, I had a particular poem submitted to three different journals. The first response was a shortlisting for publication, so I did the right thing and withdrew it from the other two.  In the end the shortlisting journal didn’t accept my poem, which meant I lost out on, not one, but three, potential opportunities to see it in print.

2. Always have more submission opportunities and deadlines lined up than you can keep track of…*

Starting out I could tell you every deadline and every turnaround time for every competition, grant and journal I submitted to.  It drove me (and my nearest and dearest) around the bend. I would wake up almost frantic every morning, check my phone, mope around all day, check, check and re-check my email.  When something eventually pinged up, I was instantly euphoric if it was an acceptance; devastated if it was a rejection. Either way, N&D were subjected to the extensive ‘I’m on my way’ or ‘The end is nigh’ monologue. It was just too intense and, ultimately, unsustainable.

Now I aim to have at between 5-7 submissions on the go at any one time, with turnaround times varying from 6 weeks to 6 months. It means I always know something is being considered somewhere, making it hard to fixate on one particular submission.

*…in your head.  Always, always, always keep track of submissions on paper or electronically.

3. Make it fun 

Submitting is a labour of love and at times the labour can outweigh the love, especially if you’ve had a string of rejections. So do something to take the edge off.

I recently created Submission/ Publication bingo cards for 2017 and stuck them to my fridge.  There is a different publication, competition, or award in each square. When I submit, I draw a blue circle around that publication.  Every time I’m succesful, it’s a red heart on the Publication card.  A line of blues and I’ll treat myself to a cd or new book; a line of reds, an extra subscription or a workshop.

A simple enough idea but it keeps my momentum going, and keeps it light.

4. Don’t be afraid to submit to the big names

Or to keep submitting to them if you’re not successful.  Three of my publications this year have come from journals I have been submitting to for several years now.  In each case I waited six months to a year between submissions, to give my writing a chance to get better.

5. A literary calendar can be a very useful thing

Something with nice pictures and lots of writing space for each date.  I use it to record deadlines, submissions, acceptances, publications, and launches, as well as workshops, readings, writing days, and other literary things I do.  It lets me plan my submissions, celebrate my successes, and appreciate just how far I have come.

The Write Relationship: Part 1

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Writing is not so much a job as it is a relationship.  Regardless of what you write, it is all romance in the beginning: a hedonistic blur of special pens and fancy notebooks, expertly poised to communicate your literary prowess to the world; each letter embossed with the weight of your literary expectation.

Perhaps you have informed your nearest and dearest, in grandiose fashion, that you have begun this relationship in earnest, that this is The One.  Or, perhaps you are the more cautious type; dropping hints into casual conversations, but quick to back away from anything approaching a declarative statement. “Not yet,” you say. “It’s too early, we’re not that serious.”  Or perhaps you say nothing to anyone, and the entire relationship simply flares and fades in your own imagination.

Many would-be writers don’t get beyond the first flush of romance: the first obstacle, fight, difference of opinion, or sense of doubt arrives and they break off the relationship, only to forget about it, lament it irrevocably, or lambaste it to anyone within earshot by saying “I spent all this time and money on this and this is what I get?!”

So how can you develop a healthy and long-lasting relationship with your writing? Here are four things I have learned over the past five years.

1. Do not turn your writing into the centre of your universe

Just as friends will stop calling after a dozen ‘No thanks- Not tonight!’ replies, ideas will stop coming if you do nothing but obsess over the blank page or screen. The brain needs often needs to step back from a problem in order to find a solution; after all, how often have you stopped looking for car keys only to remember exactly where they are as you finish getting dressed? This piece of advice works on two levels. The first: keep your other hobbies, routines, and exercises; they function both as sources of inspiration and conversation. The second: get involved in the literary world; go to workshops, book launches, and readings; volunteer for committees and festivals; support others through social media. Just as couples seek out other couples, so they can do coupley things, do not be afraid to befriend other literary types.

2. Do not keep all your literary eggs in one basket

Everyone knows that the first three weeks (or months) of a relationship are pretty intense: everything revolves around that one person, that first draft. And that’s understandable.  But if neglect yourself in order to fulfil their every need, you risk becoming a shadow of your former self; likewise, if you only read what you write, your writing will become insipid and stale. So diversify. So see family and friends. Read and write genres that aren’t necessarily ‘your thing’, join forums or writing groups.  Or, if you really are a stickler for your field, be it fiction, poetry, travel writing etc., write articles and reviews about things you have read or enjoyed in your sphere. Both will keep you interested and invested in your relationship; both will help you get through the rough patches.

3. Work at it

All too often we identify the problems but don’t explore the solutions. At a time when almost everything is made to be disposable, getting rid of something for being ‘broken’, be it an opening chapter or a relationship, is seen as the quick, sensible thing to do. But a relationship that works isn’t perfect; it’s a relationship that works. And in the instance of writing, you’re the one who has to do the work. That story just not coming together?  That poem’s last line haunting you in your sleep? Endings unsatisfying, rejections accumulating? Figure out what you need to do to fix it, be that running it by a friend, talking through your frustrations, taking a break from their source. It may well be, after all is said and done, that you walk away from a particular project, but there is a huge difference between walking away with a clear conscience, knowing you tried everything, and quitting enveloped in self-doubt, loathing, and regret: the first will make ultimately make you a better writer; the second will significantly diminish your motivation and, most likely, the quality of your work

4. Let the relationship grow

Those dozens of poems you wrote in the heady early days of first-draft literary perfections? Ditch them, and move on: saying you have written over a hundred poems, when not one has received so much as a second glance gives nothing more than a false sense of accomplishment; like the dusty teddies, flowers, wacky photos and general tat mandated by young love, they run the risk of stirring up dissension when things begin to ‘calm’ down. Let your writing change and be prepared to change with it.


 

So there it is.  It’s not a magic cure, or a fits-all solution; just a new way at looking at something familiar.  Which is, surely, one of the best things about being a writer?

The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping: A Review

With a title that speaks to alternative and unconsidered perspectives, it is fitting that many of the poems in Russell Jones’ first collection, The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping, challenge us to re-examine what are best described as everyday truths.

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In  ‘God Has Still Not Appeared to the Birds’, the speaker contrasts the nonchalance of breaking eggs with the urgency of tending a young bird injured by flying into his window, leaving the reader to consider at which point on the scale of life morality  influences our actions.  Meanwhile, ‘Sendai-shi’ is both a gentle and blunt reminder of how, as humans, we must learn to forget in order to progress, but that, in forgetting, we are often doomed to repeat past mistakes. The final line of the poem very much embodies this paradox.  In the wake of tragedy we are told ‘the city regrows, recovers, and learns to live on’; a celebration of human tenacity.  But it also shows us how unable or unwilling we are as a species to change in the face of adversity, that our strength is also our weakness.  Fittingly, ‘Gaze’ observes that, though we can witness light from a dead star millions of miles away, we are incapable of witnessing our own past.  By doing so, it demonstrates a recognisable feature of our daily lives; that is, our ability to recognise and solve any problem that is not our own.

Jones’ influences are varied and apparent throughout the collection.  ‘House plant’, in its fruitful bounty and neglect, invokes Seamus Heaney’s seminal ‘Blackberry-Picking’, while ‘Last Stop’ speaks in its way to Edwin Morgan’s ‘In the Snack-bar’.  Norman MacCaig’s influence is particularly felt in Jones’ poems ‘Nan, come from the water’ and ‘Hanging Out the Washing at Night’.  This intertextuality reads as a promise: I know where I am coming from; I know what I am doing.

This is apt as Jones is a poet who is not afraid to experiment with persona and structure, introducing the reader to a multiplicity of narrative voices and poetic forms. In this collection we are given blank verse, sonnets, haiku, concrete poetry, ghazals, found poems, list poems and even a table poem, from the mouths of cats, dogs, drunks, men, women, ghosts, and paintings, all clambering for their space between the pages, surrounded, as in life, by the complex matrix of global, local, and personal events that continuously harass and overwhelm us. T.S Eliot believed that ‘novelty is better than repetition’ and, for the most part, that is the case here.  Not all of Jones’ experiments with form are successful; ‘26 ONE WORD POEMS’ and ‘Star’, for instance, lack a strong relationship between form and content. The structure of ‘Tower’, in contrast, creates levels of depth and meaning that would otherwise be lost.  Written across two pages, the reader is instantly confronted with the two towers of 9/11.  While some sense may be gleaned from either ‘tower’, both are needed to fulfil the duty of communicating the poem.  Furthermore, the effort to cast your eyes back and forth across the pages without missing a line recreates the sense of bewilderment felt as millions looked to one tower and then the other, from first hit to final dust cloud.  This is a poem that could not be written in any other way.

Diverse, innovative, and brave, Jones has produced a collection that is introspective, observational, philosophical and conversational.  And just as ‘no slim telescope will show it all’, no single collection will fully encompass what Jones can offer as a poet.

 

The Emma Press Anthology of the Sea: A Review

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

-e.e cummings

 

The Emma Press Anthology of the sea is a captivating, diverse and perceptive collection that expertly plumbs the complex depths of our relationships with the sea.

 

The anthology has been divided into four, roughly equal, sections (Ashore, Adrift, Awash, and Avast), the multi-layered titles of which cleverly function as subtle buoys outlining, without enclosing, thematic links between the gathered poems.

Books that cross our path without warning or recommendation bring with them a sense of mystery: like objects washed up on the beach, they may prove to be treasure-troves of delight; a fright of worthless wreckage; or simple flotsam and jetsam that gather worth over time.  Beginning the anthology with our feet firmly on solid ground, it behoves us to consider both the intrinsic and relative values of each poem, and to decide for ourselves which poems we leave behind and which we slip into our pockets.

Ashore

To get a fuller sense of a poem’s worth, it is important to consider not just how it has been written but when; while we may consider some poems timeless, they are never written out of time.  ‘Distance’, by Yvonne Baker, is one such poem.  Narrative in style, it articulates an inexplicable but tangible fear of the sea through the eyes of a child, for whom ‘the water stretches to a distance so far it makes you cry.’ The poet skilfully entwines the child’s initial despair with the parent’s later sadness when the sea, once declared to be ‘too big’, stands between them at the close of the poem.  Given the significant and desperate migrations we have witnessed in the past decade, and particularly in the last eighteen months, the poem’s poignancy goes beyond its own story, speaking to our increasing awareness of the sea’s mass and menace.

‘To My Little Sister at the Shore’, by Jacqueline Saphra, is the singularly most powerful poem in the collection.  Raw, intense, urgent, and overwhelming, it is a post-apocalyptic Corinthians; portraying love, not as sweet or innocent but primal, instinctual, and sublime.  It also indirectly evokes the heart-rending images of innocent people desperately escaping, or succumbing to, the sea.  The final poem in this section, the pause that follows is as welcome as it necessary to fully absorb the impact of Saphra’s words.

Adrift

‘Adrift’ is a word for which context is particularly significant: at sea, being adrift is a matter of life and death; on land, it is often associated with freedom and opportunity.  Diana Whitney explores the interplay of these concepts in her engaging ‘Outer Heron’ diptych.  The first of these poems highlights the, ultimately absurd, notions of ownership and control we declare over nature; the second reveals just how little nature has to do to reassert its dominance, to remind the seasick traveller that everything changes, that nothing is ever truly in our control.

And yet, for the human spirit to endure, we must believe ourselves powerful when faced with the insurmountable.  ‘Missing’ by Rebecca Goss is testimony to the strength of human conviction, to our belief in our ability to move mountains and part seas; to command and cajole nature with the force of our will.  The poem adeptly captures the surreal nature of potential tragedy, the liminality of not knowing; who of us has not heard the midnight phone call or envisioned police officers at the door when a worried text goes unanswered, or the headlights refuse to light up the drive?

Awash

The sensations of being overwhelmed, overturned and overwrought are prevalent in Awash, and nowhere more light-heartedly than in ‘Play’ by Susan Richardson.  The lines of the poem seem to fall over and under each other, creating the melodic swash and backwash of a sea that is never at rest, with the rhythm and harmony of waves perpetually changing places.

When writing poetry the contemporary wisdom is that you should not use the poem to simply explain something to a reader.  [As Robert Frost said ‘No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’]  At the same time, the reader must be able to understand what you are saying; so the poem must balance somewhere between the obvious and the obscure.   ‘52 hertz’ by Ellie Danak is a poem that gets this balance spot-on; the subject of the poem is gradually, and satisfyingly, understood through apt metaphors and well-placed, well-known facts.

‘Whalesong’ by Sophie S. Wright reads as a delightful combination of Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) riddle and epic.  A strict pattern of I + verb is repeated twice in every line, and the poem’s vibrancy and energy surge to an ecstatic, stilling crescendo.  If this poem were a type of music it would be house music; a film it would be Fantasia.

Avast

In our technologically-driven world, Avast is most commonly associated with cyber security; its primary function is to stop bad things happening. In nautical terms, ‘avast’ is an instruction to stop what you are doing.

The final section of this anthology, Avast is both a warning, and a command.  There is a deeper sense of struggle and unease here, a greater sense of potential harm and damage, both being inflicted on, and by, the sea.

‘Halfway Home’, by Sara Nesbitt Gibbons, is a chilling reminder that the terrors of our past never leave us; that there is no such thing as a truly new beginning or fresh start.  The sea, we are being told, is not a place to forget things; the sea does not forget.

Brian Grant’s poem ‘Now all of us are closer to the sea’ is the perfect conclusion to this collection.  Its combination of rhythm and form, the ambiguity of the title, and the precise metaphors he employs come together to remind us that the sea has a life of its own, beyond our mere imaginings, and that it is a force to be reckoned with.  The sea will neither be controlled nor contained; rather it is we who must learn to control ourselves, to reign in the assumed power we foolishly believe we have over the majesty of the sea.  It bows to no one and no thing, and it will repay our abuses of nature tenfold.  It is a clear message that this anthology sends; if we do not take care of the sea, it will take care of us.  So read these poems, find yourself, and take care.

Book Week Scotland: A wee bunch of DAFTies, Banff Castle

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The great thing about Book Week Scotland is that is gives authors the confidence to host events all over the country, and audiences the confidence to attend them.

Hosted by Carmilla Vioez, the DAFT Writers’ event at Banff Castle, on 25th November 2016, was a well-attended, diverse, and engaging evening for all involved.  Vioez skilfully brought together a unique range of authors, from a variety of genres and disciplines; genre fiction, biography, poetry and the short story all came together, giving the audience a real flavour of contemporary Scottish writing.

With just a couple of spare seats, the Huntly Writers started us off with two of their members reading from the group’s anthology Open with Care.  The first story was cut short at a particularly tantalising moment, while the second steadily unnerved all present as we struggled to hang onto our sense of reality in a surreal world of hot dogs, chickens, and sweaters.

Up next was Carmilla herself who read an extract from, The Ballerina and Revolutionary, a sinister horror novel that grapples with the taboos that unknowingly blight the lives of so many innocent people. Interestingly, Carmilla’s works are also being turned into graphic novels.

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Kevin Steiner then took centre stage, speaking about his book Alexander Gardner: Visionary Photographer of the American Civil War, a candid exploration of the Scot’s photographic endeavours to document the conflict as it happened.  I particularly enjoyed Kevin’s use of modern-day photographs beside some of Gardner’s seminal works, emphasising just how easy it is to for areas of historical significance to be overlooked in our time.

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Following Kevin, I read a mixture of published and unpublished poems that explore moving, migration, and motherhood.  What struck me as I sat at the front of the room was just how friendly and receptive the audience were: a real sense of comradery and human warmth pervaded the room; each of us feeling privy to this great secret gathering while outside the castle walls unknowing people went about their ordinary lives.  Events don’t always feel that way, so it’s simply delicious when they do.

[The photograph I forgot to ask anyone to take…]

Elizabeth Ball read next, from her novel Dodgy Dates and a Dinosaur, and had us all laughing at the absurd realities of dress codes and office etiquette that we so often accept without question.  I can only say that hope I never work anywhere with a ‘Skirt Day’ policy.

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At this point we had a short interval, during which time we were free to browse authors’ collections and the second-hand book sale put on in aid of Scottish Book Trust.  The evening resumed with Martin Malone making jazz with his poetry, tearing up his set list and instead reading poems that responded to what other authors had contributed to the evening.  World War One poems from his upcoming collections complemented Kevin’s talk of civil war, while poems about his experiences as a new father played to my talk of motherhood.

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Finishing the evening off was headline poet Brian Johnstone, who applauded Martin’s poetic dexterity while unashamedly sticking to his prepared list of poems, a diverse and diverting range of published and unpublished works.

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What I appreciated most about the event was the opportunity to watch Martin and Brian interacting with the audience between poems.  The curse of the new and emerging writer is the compulsion to self-deprecate, apologise, justify, over-explain, and rush.  I am still guilty of this at times, and have to regularly remind myself that the audience have chosen to sit and listen, that they actively want to hear what the readers and performers have to say, that I am not standing up in front of the class reading my essay because the teacher wants me to.  Brian and Martin don’t separate their poetry from themselves, or put on a poetic persona to read their works.  They look as comfortable performing as they would be making small talk on the train.  Because of this, the audience are also able to relax and properly enjoy the images and stories being conjured up for them as if by magic; they too can become part of the story.

What I love most about Book Week Scotland is that it also lets authors experience each other, learn from each other, and come together to create something new and unique.  These events exist only in the moment, and in a world that can increasingly be recorded, delayed and put on hold, it makes them all the more precious.  I can only hope that Book Week Scotland continues to stretch up into northern Scotland and next year sees more opportunities for authors and audiences to come together and celebrate a mutual love of language and stories, whatever form they take.  Who knows, with the dates for 2017 already in place, perhaps I’ll even host one myself!

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In This Maybe Best of All Possible Worlds: A Review

Originally posted on Jacar Press’s new online poetry review journal Browse.

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Everyone has an opinion about what poetry is, and should be, with definitions of poetry as plentiful as those for ‘love’, ‘friendship’, and ‘family’. These viewpoints often stem from educational, cultural, and societal influences and, in the case of poets, we are afforded the opportunity to see if these beliefs successfully manifest in their writing.

In this, William Page’s fifth collection of poetry, In This Maybe Best of All Possible Worlds, he considers his relationship with the art in ‘Ars Poetica’.

Ars Poetica

I know what poems are supposed to be,
a reflection of a snowbird in ice, not
the bird’s feathers and hollow bones
that lift it up into the invisible air.
Not wind, but the likeness of wind.
Not the fusillade of kneeling pistons raising
and lowering themselves in raving prayers,
their exhaust gases pushed like thunder
back into the chambers of silence. The hint
must be subtle as sound of an unseen wheel turning.
There must be a slight lean into the curve of words,
nothing like rubber’s concrete squeal; the hard road
must be traveled with the gentleness of a light breeze.
Speech cannot be louder than a clear whisper.
Movement must be a single ear of corn’s silken tassel
faintly touching the down of a young girl’s arm.
But I must speak bluntly. I must direct this to you
while you’re here, must tell you the world is not made
of cotton candy. Even the bird’s soft sky is hard
to traverse, requiring strong wings.
Art requires the hammer become the nail.

Page uses the poem to dismiss the intangible, and at times absent, nature of poetry. Poetry, he tells us, should not be a diluted reflection of an abstract experience, a medium of mere witness and record. Page wants to communicate, in so far as art can (and here Page is clearly stating that it can), the actual, the experienced. Even when speaking ‘bluntly’ Page uses metaphor to explain himself, drawing an important distinction between the purple prose of the ‘ear of corn’s silken tassel’ that lacks purpose and conviction, and the striking declaration for artistic embodiment in ‘Art requires the hammer become the nail’.

By placing ‘Ars Poetica’ halfway through the collection, Page leaves the reader free to experience his earlier poems without this ideological input. Once ‘Ars Poetica’ is read, the desire arises to re-visit these poems, to ensure Page’s words express his artistic standing. By actively inviting this added layer of scrutiny, which continues throughout the collection, Page demonstrates true confidence in his work, and creates an engaging experiential dialogue with the reader.


Page is not interested in telling his readers what to think. This is made abundantly clear in the collection’s first poem ‘This is not’:

This is not

This is not about sad mothers.
It’s not about a swirling Roman candle’s
orange and blue balls of fire bursting
in crimson waves in a startled sky.
The small-boned boy does not float easily
in the blue water lapping against the white
pool’s sides. You may think of a tall privet,
weeping among green foliage of others.
This could be one that holds a nest
of speckled eggs whose fate may be ours.
But this is not our concern.
This is not about fathers. It’s not
of rasping steel of roller skates,
the smell of oil on bearings
or the sun glancing from such
rapid turnings many years before.
The translucent skin shed by the bull snake
sheds no light on this.
Sons and daughters don’t figure
in this. This is not about a hard birth
or an easy death, not attesting
to the snow quietly melting under its surface.
Not showing the deliberate flowing
of candle wax under the tongue of flame.
This is to show us the still fly resting
on the window, its wings miraculously thin.

The range of topics Page dismisses in this poem means that a single definition of what the collection is going to be about is impossible to formulate; the reader must simply read on. Page clearly wants us to consider what is not discussed; the ratio of what this poem ‘is’ and ‘is not’ about demonstrates his belief in the expansive, and inclusive, nature of the unsaid in poetry.


Page’s expectations of poetry may also be applied to the role of the reader: it is not sufficient for us to simply read the poem; he wants us to discern, through our own experiences, what his poetry is for; for each reader to find individual meaning in each poem, and, from there, to discern the integral unity or unities that bind the collection together.

True to form, Page speaks ‘bluntly’ in the collection’s final poem:

Standing on Edge

Once you get used to the idea
the world is a terrible place,
it’s not so bad.
Pennyhenge, dimehenge—
I stand them in a circle
on the breakfast room table.
Copper and silver, little monoliths
of Mammon. Some days the world
looks so beautiful
I almost forget it’s only
a series of broken stones
standing on the boiling
lake of Earth’s core.
Every day is as precarious
as these pieces of change
I’ve stood on edge.
And we’ve no more
knowledge of the future
than falling coins’ prescience
of heads or tails. But dime
dumb or penny silly,
I count my life a fortune.

Throughout this collection, Page goes to great lengths to tell us what things are not; things that have not been thought or done, said or remembered. This concept becomes so ingrained that when Page declares ‘the world is a terrible place’, the reader’s first reaction is ‘No, it is not’. When he says that the world is nothing more than ‘a series of broken stones’, we think ‘No, it is not’. By the end of the collection the reader has learned, not to simply read the poems, but to read around them, to create conversations, to look for what is not being said. In that, this is a collection worth speaking with, and speaking about.

Book Week Scotland: ‘Putting yourself out there’, Highland Literary Salon

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Are writing competitions worth it?  Worth the effort, the expense, the restrictions, the inevitable nerves, the potential disappointment?

The Highland Literary Salon decided to tackle these questions head on, so on Tuesday 22nd November, in conjunction with Book Week Scotland, they hosted ‘Putting yourself out there’. Chaired by Caroline Deacon, the event involved two competition-winning authors, Mairi Wilson and Helen Sedgwick, and a representative from Scottish Book Trust, Lynsey Rogers.

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Mairi Wilson, winner of the 2015 Sunday Mail Fiction Competition with her commercial women’s fiction novel Ursula’s Secret, spoke first.  Mairi began with plenty of excellent advice about the best way to enter competitions:

Be Specific

The more focused the competition, the better your chances.  A competition with an ‘any form, any theme’ guideline may look appealing, but it means you are going up against a significant number of people and trying to guess what will appeal to the judges.  If, however, the focus of the competition is, for example, sonnets about trees, or a particular place, you know what the judges are looking for, and are only against other people writing on that same theme.

Be Ready

This especially applies to competitions that are looking for more than your original entry. In Mairi’s case that meant a finished manuscript (and a frantic all-nighter for Mairi).  For pamphlet or collection competitions it could mean producing another 20 poems or short stories by return email.  So remember: it can take years for someone to notice your work; don’t waste the opportunity by not being prepared.  After all, as my mum would say ‘Eventually, it all happens very quickly.’

Be clear about what you want

While your story or poetry is the most important thing in the world to you, to the publishing company it is one part of a finished product.  That means they decide the cover, and how to promote the book. You may be given the chance to chip in, and you may speak up if you have serious misgivings about the direction your book is being taken in (preferring sans serif font does not count as a crisis), but there is no guarantee your suggestions in these areas will be followed through.  If the thought of letting go like that makes your insides twist, considering self-publishing.

Be prepared to edit

Don’t assume the editor will do all the work.  Many writers, including Mairi herself, expect that they will work very closely with an editor, that they will move in together and spend weeks joyfully arguing about verbs and syntax over hearty food and bracing walks on the beach but, sadly, this is rarely the case.  An editor will do what they can for you but they are not privy to the doubts inside your head; if you assume the editor will change something, be proactive and change it yourself.

So what happens when you actually go and win the thing?  For Mairi it made it real- a validation of her efforts, not just for this competition but for her writing in general.  Though it was her first novel that won the competition, Mairi also entered poetry and short story competitions in the past.  One of her poems was rejected 30 times before winning a competition, meaning Mairi has experienced both sides of the coin; ‘quick, easy’ victory and the ‘slow, hard-won’ victory.  The lesson here?  Take your best work and just keep submitting it until it is has a home.

Mairi did, however, also offer a valuable word of caution. A huge number of competitions are geared towards unpublished writers, and, if successful, these opportunities are closed to you; so make sure understand what a competition win will give you, and potentially take away from you, before you enter.

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Helen Sedgwick spoke next, detailing her experience of winning a coveted Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award.

Helen started out writing short stories, and it was her short story about comets that won her the New Writers’ Award for fiction in 2012.  This story eventually became her first published novel The Comet Seekers, which came out earlier this year.

Helen was wonderfully upfront about the work involved in winning for her.  Helen had three previous applications to the New Writers’ Awards that were unsuccessful, and two novels before The Comet Seekers that are hiding in bottom drawers in her house.  Helen’s message was perseverance above all things, and, in her case something in her head told her to focus all her efforts on the Scottish Book Trust.  The idea of long lists of submissions, rejections, and publications to organise and keep track of just didn’t appeal to her.  (A note on this: if you are submitting poems or stories it is a very good idea to keep a spreadsheet record: you don’t want to annoy a publication by sending them something they have already rejected twice; or to have them accept a story or poem only to discover it has already been published elsewhere.)

‘Apply!  Apply! Apply!’

The Award package is an impressive one.  It’s not just a one-off reward for a good piece of writing; Scottish Book Trust are interested in developing your skills, supporting you as a writer, and bringing your writing goals to fruition.  For Helen, the best part of the year was having a year to really, truly, properly think about her goals as a writer surrounded by dozens of people waiting to listen and wanting to help.

Helen’s advice, apart from ‘Apply! Apply! Apply!’ focused on the relationships writers have with agents and publishers.  She emphasised the importance of taking feedback and being willing to act of it, but also of knowing when they are trying to change the crux of what your story is about.  As difficult as it may be (and it is difficult), if you feel the finished product is too far removed from your original goal or intent, then consider walking away.  No matter who the agent or publisher, their view is subjective but it is not personal: Helen is still great friends with a previous agent who couldn’t figure out how to pitch The Comet Seekers.

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The final speaker was Lynsey Rogers, Writer Development Co-Ordinator at the Scottish Book Trust.  Lynsey was keen to emphasise that the judging panels for each section changes every year and reiterated Helen’s statement that it is incredibly rare to win the first time.  To support this, Lynsey presented the simple logic that most of the awardees have some sort of track record which demonstrates their commitment to writing; so the more times you apply, the more comprehensive your application should become.

I am never sure how best to word a statement of application and Lynsey provided some excellent advice on this:

Don’t be generic 

You are not a school student applying for work experience, so do not blanket bomb every competition, grant, bursary, or residency application with the same letter.  Comment on what they are specifically offering and why it is specifically suited to you.

Don’t be ‘quirky’

You need to be focused and professional.  Avoid out-and-out crazy/quirky/eccentric as judges may just find it off-putting.  Personalise your application with meaningful and honest information and insights about your work.

Don’t ramble

Attention to detail is important. The Scottish Book Trust want to give their time, money, and energy to the most deserving people.  They want to know what you are working on now; that you are not just going to take the money and run into the shadows; they want to invest in you, after all.  So tell them how this award will actually benefit you, don’t just fill a half page with vague suggestions.  Will it pay for workshops? Train tickets to attend festivals?  Paid leave from work?  Let them know.

Or, as Helen succinctly summed up:

Why you?  Why me?  Why now?

To round off the evening, Mairi and Helen both treated the audience to extracts of their work, and answered questions, while we were all invited to help ourselves to a copies of the New Writers’ Sample, Secrets and Confessions, and decidedly jazzy Book Week Scotland bookmarks.


The evening was a great success.  With every chair filled and all eyes and ears focused on our guests, the event reaffirmed the importance of the Highland Literary Salon as a hub for writers.  With a new committee ready and rearing to go, I can’t wait to be part of its next exciting chapter.

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