Blog Our Sweet Old Etcetera
Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library
Don't lose hope
No, it hasn’t been a vintage year. I won’t go through the list of horrors we’ve witnessed – that’s what Charlie Brooker’s 2016 Wipe is for (Thursday, December 29 at 9pm on BBC Two, BTW). Instead, I thought I’d ask a selection of poets to name something that gave them hope this year or that they’re looking forward to in 2017. Here’s what Christine De Luca, Ryan Van Winkle, Claire Askew, Andrew McMillan, Jenny Lindsay, Niall Campbell and Vahni Capildeo had to say.
Christine De Luca, Edinburgh Makar
President Obama always manages to raise my spirits; for example his open-hearted visit to Cuba in March and his trip to Hiroshima in May. He is now planning a joint visit to Pearl Harbour with the Japanese Premier. These deeply symbolic visits are important and help to heal old enmities, replacing mistrust and resentment with friendship. Whatever role he plays in the future, I hope he will continue the good work of reconciliation, so much needed in our world today.
Listen to Christine De Luca’s SPL podcast here.
Ryan Van Winkle
I am not unrepentantly hopeful nor joyous at the best of times and this year has been very much the worst of times. So, with that in mind here's where I've been getting my hope from:
- Louis CK's Horace & Pete’s mere existence was inspiring to me, despite the fact that the show is pretty gloomy.
- Talented friends like Peter MacKay, Vicki Husband, Kathrine Sowerby and Tara Skurtu all published first collections (or committed to) this year.
- Hailey Beavis and I relaunched The Golden Hour. It wasn't a failure. Which gives us a little hope that maybe everything that dies someday comes back.
- I invested in a portable grill. I remain hopeful that it will be frequently grilling.
- Forest Fringe, which I helped found a decade ago, celebrated its tenth anniversary with a retrospective and capped the season with Total Theatre award for significant contribution to the Edinburgh Fringe. It gives us a little hope that the friends we've assemble and keep close to us and the small scrappy things we've done and continue to do might have more import and longevity than we imagine. So, collectively, we continue to roll up our sleeves, we keep our shoulders to the wheel.
I'm lucky: I work in a library. Craigmillar Library, to be specific. And I'd like to give a huge shout out and a great big thank you to all the folk – staff, locals and visitors – who've come into the library over 2016. Perhaps especially the teenagers (who I work with the most), and my adults' creative writing group, the Writing Champions (who created a comforting huddle the day after the US election result, complete with tea and cake). The wonderful wee library community is what has kept me getting out of bed every day this year, no matter what. Thank you, Craigmillar!
I was in America at the start of December, it's obviously a strange place to be at the moment; on my final night I went to a fundraiser in Oakland. The night before they'd lost what now looks like almost forty of their own artists and innovators in a devastating fire at a warehouse party. I went to a bar, carrying bags of winter clothes a friend had packed up for the event, and bought raffle tickets and ate food to raise money for the homeless in the city. Gentrification is destroying Oakland for the residents, often people of colour and the working class, who have lived their all their lives. Homelessness is on the rise. All this is cause for sadness, and yet the spirit of the people, not publicly-funded, not even a non-profit, just ordinary people doing what they can to help, filled me with hope. 'What's the call?' shouted the host, 'House them all' shouted back the audience. I wish their 2017 brings them shelter and success.
The water protectors of the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies won a major victory this month, with the Army Corps of Engineers denying, at least for now, a key permit for building the Dakota Access Pipeline on indigenous territory. It’s taken a months long protest, with one of the largest protest encampments of pan-North American (and some global) indigenous peoples in contemporary history, faced with the full brutality of the state and disregard of the media, but the #NoDAPL protesters are winning, even in these times. Their movement, mixing protection and sabotage, occupying for land rights and sprituality-led actions, offers guidance and ideas to all of us. And they will continue to need our active solidarity to secure victory in the months ahead.
It would be safe to say that 2016 has been trying as hell. In times of uncertainty, we humans tend to do one of three things, and sometimes these things overlap: we seek out comforting authority and bow to it; we seek out escapism and try to ignore the wee jabs of doom; we face the doom straight in its puss and jab at it in whatever way we can, and sometimes that breaks us, and sometimes it emboldens us to keep jabbing.... As a programmer, I have been overwhelmed by the pitches I have received this year, all of which, in their way, freshly address these inherently human conditions and contradictions, and I'm relishing the thought of putting this work on the stage - from the surreal and fantasy-laden, to the hard-hitting and realist, to the inherently personal and overwhelmingly political. That we’re in uncertain times is a given, and has been for ages in all honesty. It'd be anachronistic and false to say, as Shelley did, that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the state’, but lordy, are there a lot of folks in Scotland kicking against everything that is wrong with the new status quo, and they're doing it from many different angles. I am truly excited about showcasing this work, and also looking forward to staging my own new stage show, which I hope to take to the stage in September 2017. Poets to look out for in 2017: Harry Giles, Colin McGuire, Hannah Lavery, Michelle Fisher, Luke Wright's new theatre show The Toll (which you can see exclusively in Scotland at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Fri 3 Feb), and the debut full length collection from Rachel McCrum, due from Freight in late Spring.
Jenny Lindsay is a poet, writer and promoter whose latest venture is Flint & Pitch, whose next revue – featuring Rachel McCrum, Ross Sutherland and Catherine Wilson – is on Friday 20 January at the Bongo Club. More information here.
Listen to Jenny Lindsay's SPL podcast here.
I know the line is that prizes and prize culture diminishes the writing world – but… one of my highlights of the year was being in the audience at this year’s Saltire Literary Awards. From books about being on death row in Pakistan to a book of poetry marking the year of the Independence referendum, from a ‘Bloody Project’ to a book about a same-sex couple raising a mixed-race child – the night was a statement about the breadth, depth and quality of the Scottish Literary scene – and quite a statement it was too.
Delving into Pandora's box for a glint of hope in a dark world I came up with Opera North's recent touring production of Billy Budd which despite flaws in setting and presentation, I found deeply moving – and its full impact heartbreaking. The instinctive response to the Iago-like destruction of good by the evil in Claggart is one of grief. Yet at the final curtain there was a communal release of complex emotions stemming from the anguish expressed in Vere's closing speech (“I could have saved him – oh what have I done?”). Despite the awful events we have seen unfold, the strength he takes from Billy's ballad, so tenderly sung, and from finding “a cadence of comfort”, provide a message not of disillusion but of confidence, if not necessarily in Good itself, then in Man's capacity to understand … but leaving it, alas, unspoken whether this, and the elevation of the human spirit through Britten's glorious music, is the least or most we can ourselves hope for.
Stewart Conn's latest collection Against the Light can be read at the SPL or bought from here.
The Dogs of Others
A notation for happiness could be devised from the movements of dogs’ tails. Dogs’ tails conduct happiness; not everybody is willing to play, but enough are. Perhaps spatial awareness of the tip of one’s tail takes time to develop. Humans change direction not because they have snuffed a pie or the binding of a particularly tasty book, but for written and unwritten reasons that have nothing to do with curiosity or appetite. Inanimate objects loom in human habitats; but so many are manufactured to hurtle about, even some of those that deceive with appearances of stillness.
How is the sensibility that quivers into and around the sweeping-space of a tail supposed to deduce how to respond? What about a dog that is too young to have learnt its own name? What about a puppy that does not know what to do with its tail? Can you even think about that, or is he…too cute? Nothing is wrong with ‘cute’. It is not clever to make misery and absurdity the necessary modes or subjects for ‘truthful’ writers ‘today’, now that tomorrow is getting worse.
It is language that lacks vocabulary, making ‘ginger’ and ‘satin’ and ‘velvet’ the descriptors of lipsticks and biscuits. If we reach for such words while petting the coat of a dog, they are not silly; they stop being syllables, and are simply sounds to be crooned.
A Hungarian Vizsla puppy made me feel supremely hopeful, one bitter winter night in an East Anglian railway station. Why? Because in order to pet him, people unfroze from their harassed commuter crouch, their eyes and his sheeny with love? No. Because he was so young that he had not grown into his skin, which rumpled his neck and over his collar, and anything so young is like hope itself? No. Because of the relation between him and his owner. Oh, love? Again, no. Because she folded his tail.
It was the funniest tail in the world, long and thin like an animal cavorting in medieval marginalia and interrupting the swirls of the official script. It was the funniest thing in the world, to see Owner fold Puppy’s tail. It is a real peril, to be unaware of the whereabouts of the finer end of one’s tail, in a heavy world. She did it sternly and maternally, an unconscious act of tidying; keeping the little one safe and stroking him into a sense of his bounds. What made me hopeful? Not love as a fuzzy feeling. The care that comes from the observant practice of love, and the possibilities that unfurl from that, more widely.
Vahni Capildeo’s latest collection Measures of Expatriation can be borrowed from the Library or bought here.
The SPL website will host a podcast with Vahni Capildeo in January.