Blog Our Sweet Old Etcetera

Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

Festival Poetry: True North

What a delight it was to be at this gathering of voices at Summerhall. Four Canadians and one Scottish voice treated us to an hour and a half of poetry spanning centuries, and dealing with life, death and literature. A cast of characters was invoked that by our recalling – to paraphrase A.F. Moritz, one of the poets reading – are with us again. Or, as another of the poets Ian Burgham put it, 'Here I am, shoplifting history'.

Joining Moritz and Burgham were Catherine Graham, Todd Swift, and our own Douglas Dunn. It is a mark of the pleasure each took in being present that the readings felt fresh. It was notable just how engaged each one was with the work of their fellow performers as well as poets from medieval times through to the present.

New work took priority: Catherine Graham dug into her forthcoming collection, Echo and Leave, a collection of glosses on the work of Irish poet Dorothy Molloy. Todd Swift read from his latest collection, When All My Disappointments Came at Once. Ian Burgham read from his most recent collection The Unquiet and a series of 35 postcard poems directed to abstract artist and collaborator Uno Hoffmann. He also treated us to a specially-written poem about Edinburgh.

The sense of community and warmth in the room was confirmed by Douglas Dunn's reading which was based on last year’s pamphlet Invisible Ink. He also read the poem he wrote for the Jubilee Lines collection, for which he was assigned the year 1956, as well as previewing unpublished work. He read ‘Retired’ – 'the title is in inverted commas' – for good reason: besides writing new poems, he has spent his “retirement” rereading, ploughing his way through the works of Greene, Maugham and Waugh so far. He’s onto Dickens now, we learnt.

The most serious of subjects - death, depression, divorce - and deep learning were worn lightly by all, particularly in the work of Todd Swift, who poked fun at national stereotypes while exploring the history of the settlement of Quebec and tackling English norms in 'England is Mine'. A recurring theme was poetry about poetry: for Todd Swift, 'it's not a poem if it isn't seen … It isn't wrong if you write it down'; for Douglas Dunn, 'Idleness' is 'a poem trapped in an empty fountain pen'; and A.F. Moritz asked us to 'Behold, I make things new again.' As the Q&A continued into the evening (and the bar), it was hard to disagree with Catherine Graham: 'Who says poetry makes nothing happen? No-one here believes that.'