Blog Our Sweet Old Etcetera

Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

Flame On!

The_Olympic_Torch_2012_0524(080) by iveanidea, under a Creative Commons licence

The Olympic torch has arrived in Scotland. Time to wave our Written World flag! In case you are unaware - the Written World is the Scottish Poetry Library's London 2012 project. It involves choosing a poem written by someone from every country taking part in the Games. With over 200 countries competing, the Project involves a lot of reading. As one who lacks sporting prowess – aside from that brief brush with athletic greatness during the Mackie Academy sports day relay race in 1992 – I wondered at the start of the project how to reconcile sport with poetry. ‘Wait a minute,’ a friend said to me when I explained the concept, ‘aren’t poets supposed to be the ones sitting on the sidelines, coughing and wearing tweed?’

How rude! To start with, I told him to read Mick Imlah, a poet who loved rugby, cricket and running.  (If you haven’t come across Imlah’s work, read ‘London Scottish’, an elegy for a rugby team that fought and died in the Great War.) The SPL’s shelves hold anthology upon anthology themed around various sports. Yet the stereotype persists – sport is for the jocks, books for, well, bookworms who turn faint at the thought of a light jog. Not so.

London 2012 is about an international community coming together, meeting on the track and field, the swimming pool, the velodrome; the important thing is that they’re meeting in a context that doesn’t involve trade discussions or warfare. The longer I work on this project, the more I realise what we hold in common. The same themes keep coming up. Mothers. Home-cooked food. Rain storms. Childhood memories. The smell of a place. We are united by a common thread – love, broadly speaking, which manifests itself in different ways: longing, nostalgia, homesickness, euphoria. The language and landscape vary, but the sensations are universal. For isn’t poetry the ultimate relay race, where words and thoughts are passed from nation to nation, generation to generation, on and on?

Grace Nichols’s ‘Like a Beacon’ is one of the simplest but most arresting poems in the project – her ‘beacon’ is a bag containing ingredients to make food like her mother used to: 'I need this touch / of home / swinging my bag / like a beacon / against the cold.' When I read it, I’m reminded that there are many kinds of torch lighting our way. Sometimes memories of home are what keep us going. You can read ‘Like a Beacon’ in full here.

This is a good time to say thank you to everyone who has been kind enough to come into the studio and read for us – the recordings sound great! Some will make you laugh, cry, hungry; some will make you want to phone loved ones in faraway places. All are fascinating snapshots of different cultures around the globe.

Keep checking our map – each country, pleasingly, turns green when its poems is broadcast – and do check the BBC iplayer site to listen to the most recent recordings. Onwards!

Sarah Stewart
The Written World Project Manager