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Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

Tessa Ransford (1938 – 2015)

Image by Andrea Cringean

Tessa Ransford, the founding director of the Scottish Poetry Library, has died of cancer aged 77.  Ken Cockburn, who worked at the Library 1996-2004, the Edinburgh Makar Christine De Luca , and Director of Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland Donald Smith have written these tributes to a creative spirit and outstanding cultural presence.

In the 1980s  I was living in Cardiff but returned regularly to Edinburgh, and on one of those visits I discovered Tessa and the Scottish Poetry Library, which she had established in Tweeddale Court in 1984. I attended some of the Courtyard readings, and enjoyed this new community. When I settled in Edinburgh in 1990, I started using the library on a more regular basis; I still remember fondly the sheer density of books, and occasionally people, in that small downstairs room. I attended meetings of the School of Poets, the group Tessa had founded before the SPL itself came into being; the meetings were both serious and convivial, like Tessa herself; and I submitted work to Lines Review, the magazine she edited from 1988 to 1998, published by her second husband, Callum Macdonald.

I became the SPL Fieldworker in 1996, by which time Tessa’s main focus was determinedly planning – and fundraising for – a new, custom-built library, designed by Malcolm Fraser Architects, which finally opened to great and general acclaim in spring 1999. When Tessa had an idea she believed in, whether for a building, an event or indeed a poem, she was dogged in its pursuit. To me as a colleague these pursuits sometimes appeared unrealistic, but had she been more realistic – more sensible – no doubt her achievements would have been less remarkable.

During the last years at Tweeddale Court, the library’s internationalism, which she had done so much to foster, manifested itself in the festival readings at St Cecilia’s Hall on Edinburgh’s Cowgate, an 18th-century concert hall, elegant without being opulent, and spacious while retaining intimacy, and a fine venue for spoken poetry; one of the few drawbacks of the new library was that it removed the need for the SPL to host events at St Cecilia’s. Poets from Denmark, Catalonia and Hungary came to read their work to festival audiences, and there was always a reception at which the audience could talk informally, and sometimes at length, to the poets.

Once the new premises had opened she retired from her role as SPL director, and from this new perspective outwith the organisation she had founded and led for over fifteen years, she did not always look on the SPL’s subsequent development with pleasure or approval. She involved herself in new literary ventures, particularly Scottish PEN, of which she was President 2003-06, and the promotion of poetry pamphlets – as with the SPL and Lines Review, ventures which aimed to engage with and support a broad swathe of the literary community, rather than individuals or groups within it. Characteristically, at the 2015 Callum Macdonald Memorial Award, she sent farewell remarks that included a plea for continuance of the award (which she had initiated) and for BBC Scotland to establish a regular poetry programme.

I visited her from time to time in her top-floor flat overlooking Holyrood Park. She always had a new enthusiasm – a recent one was Iain Galbraith’s Beredter Norden, a bilingual (German and English) anthology of 20th-century Scottish poetry. It included her own ‘In Praise of Libraries’, with a translation by Elmar Schenkel, a poet from Leipzig she had first met in 1990. In 2002 Tessa, together with the artist Joyce Gunn Cairns, visited that city, where she met Schenkel along with other poets who had lived and worked in East Germany; her translations of their work were published by Shearsman as The Nightingale Question in 2004.

In early 2009, shortly after her 70th birthday, Tessa chose sixteen poems of some significance to her and presented these, in conversation with me, as a ‘Selected Works’ event at the SPL. Her choices, together with her comments on the poems, shed light on her life and work, her character and philosophy.

Some had family connections: the excerpt from David Jones’s long prose poem 'In Parenthesis' (written from Jones’s own experience of the First World War) recalled her father, who had served as a ‘sapper’ in the Royal Engineers throughout the same conflict. As a child she knew by heart 'Silver' by Walter de la Mare; as did, later, her own three children, no doubt encouraged by the sixpence on offer if they could remember it! The inclusion of Alexander Hutchison’s 'Inchcolm' was personal; Hutchison married her eldest daughter, and the baby referred to in the poem was her first grandchild.

She chose Elizabeth Jennings’s 'Against the dark' for the way it links religion and literature, confidence and self-sacrifice, commenting that, while editing Lines Review, she had often felt women were writing too formlessly, and not taking responsibility for their work, as if the act of writing as a woman were enough. And despite its ‘very male’ view, she described Gerard Manley Hopkins’s 'When Kingfishers Catch Fire' as her ‘creed’: an affirmative poem which articulates the ability, and the responsibility, each being has for its own fulfillment.

She chose a sonnet by Iain Crichton Smith which includes the words ‘this house, this poem… this fresh hypothesis’, which are etched onto the glass balustrade within the SPL, and which I still find a moving welcome and statement of intent. Stephen Watts’s ‘Praise Poem for North Uist' she described as ‘a living stream among the desert’. Her championing of Watts – also a prolific translator – reflected her wide reading and willingness to support poets whose work exists outwith the mainstream but which she believed deserve a wider readership.

Recently I was struck by the line ‘our destiny, our bliss’ in her poem ‘A Tryst’, from the anthology Scotia Nova which she edited with Alastair Findlay, published a month before the referendum in 2014. I wrote to her commenting on the line, and she replied: ‘Joseph Campbell, the myth man, talks about “following our bliss”, and if we don’t, things don’t work out, so it is also our destiny. Our destiny is not handed out to us; it is something we have to choose and circumstances will force us to choose it whether we want to or no!’

For all her energetic public life, we should give the final word to her as a poet, to the craft which she developed through those busy years of raising a family and developing the literary culture of Scotland. These lines are from her poem ‘Sacred City’; they describe Edinburgh, the city of ‘shadow and sidelong sun’ which she made her home, and capture something of her qualities of determination, opposition and equilibrium:

We make our sacred sites by our daily work
and money cannot turn them upsides for profit…

No need to shout and label and publicise;
no need to claim top prizes and new awards,
   compete and count and measure matter:
      rather continue in thought and wonder.

Ken Cockburn

Tessa’s commitment to making poetry (as she would describe the process) was steadfast. Her first collection was published in 1976 and since then another twenty collections have emerged. Sadly her most recent collection, A Good Cause, had to be launched without her, due to increasing frailty.

Her themes emerged out of her abiding interests and loves: her family; mankind’s relationship to our planet; social justice, a one-world perspective and support for cultural minorities; and writing itself.  Her poems were almost always a blend of thought and emotion, of intellect and heart; creating a ‘poetry that matters’ as Catherine Lockerbie described Tessa’s work in a review. Tessa was an avid reader of poetry and aware of our heritage, of how we stand on the shoulders of earlier writers. She felt an intimate engagement between her life and her poetry; a complementarity, a wholeness.

In the early 1980s I well remember discovering not just the Poetry Library but the School of Poets – a monthly workshop which Tessa ran in the library, after the doors were closed. She wasn’t paid to do it, but was keen to encourage anyone who was interested in writing poems. She always brought along a draft poem of her own and subjected herself to the same criticism as all the rest of us, despite the fact that she had had several collections published by this stage and was the editor of Lines Review, a prestigious poetry journal. Towards the end of the evening she insisted we each read a poem we felt was ready for public consumption, and she would give feedback on that too.  I learned a lot from these sessions and was grateful for them. It is a tribute to Tessa and the SPL that the School of Poets is still going strong. 

Tessa truly lived her life – as she consciously intended – in the service of poetry. 

Christine De Luca, Edinburgh Makar

Tessa Ransford was a visionary poet determined to turn creative vision into practical reality. She realised this not only in her founding leadership of the Scottish Poetry Library but in her impact on the role of women in the Scottish arts, and in her championing of a revived, outward looking Scottish identity. For Tessa principle was a passionate personal reality, so she ruffled many feathers, and sometimes gave no quarter in artistic dispute. Tessa was a dear friend, fellow worker and provocateur of mine for forty years, and I know that her spirit and influence will continue in many lives, including my own.

Donald Smith, Director of Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland

For an account of Tessa’s life and work, see her entry on our A to Z of poets. There will be a memorial event in the autumn.

Category: obituary