Alan Spence is a poet, playwright and novelist, and in all of these genres is influenced by his deep knowledge of Zen and contemplative meditation.
Alan Spence is a poet, playwright and novelist. He is based in Edinburgh, where he runs the Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centre with his wife, Janani.
He was born in Glasgow to Glaswegian parents, Charlotte ('Nettie') Spence (née White), and Alexander (Alex) Spence, who was a sailmaker by trade, although he latterly worked as a storeman. His mother died when Spence was 11. He went to the University of Glasgow in 1966 and started a Law degree, then switched to English and Philosophy, completing his degree a few years later after spells of living in London. He spent 1972 living in Milan, and 1980 living in New York.
His longer writings include novels: Its Colours They Are Fine; The Stone Garden; The Magic Flute; Way to Go and The Pure Land. He has also written a number of plays: Sail Makers; Space Invaders and Changed Days. He became writer-in-residence at the University of Aberdeen in 1996, and has held a personal Chair in Creative Writing since 2001. He was also the artistic director of Aberdeen’s annual Word Festival 1999-2011.
Alan Spence is a difficult writer to characterise. Not only has he written across genres and covered many themes, his writing often falls somewhere between literature and philosophy. However, everything he writes is shot through with ideas of Zen and contemplative meditation. Spence began practicing contemplative meditation in his twenties. Coupled with long-distance running, these practices form the core of his interests and influence every facet of his writings.
His interest in Eastern philosophy and practice is most pronounced in his poetry.
He first came across haiku at school, when his head was full of Dylan Thomas’s poetry, but by the next year he was reading books about Zen and ‘was making the connection between haiku and a state of mind, a state of being – clear-eyed seeing into “the life of things”’ (Atoms of Delight). Spence writes in a variety of poetic forms borrowed from Eastern tradition, including haiku and tanka.
The eye and ear are equally important. What I’ve evolved towards is a three-line form, usually, not more than 17 syllables long (or short). The important thing is the content, catching those little existential moments of thought, what Basho [1644-94, one of Japan’s most famous Haiku poets] called the ah! of things. (Atoms of Delight)
This is certainly true of Spence’s quiet, shining revelations.
Spence’s first collection of Haiku was in fact called ah! (1975) and is dedicated to his guru. This was followed by Glasgow Zen, Seasons of the Heart and Clear Light, as well as various collaborative works including Morning Glory, with illustrations by Elizabeth Blackadder, and Still with Alison Watt.
Perhaps the best-known of these collections is Glasgow Zen (1981). It captures, says critic Liz Niven in Scottish Studies Review in September 2003: ‘the philosophical bent of much Glaswegian banter, the concise brevity of Glasgow speech and the incisive wit often found in a passing street conversation.’ It is an extremely amusing collection, investigating the fabric of speech:
‘On the oneness of self and the universe’
ITS AW WAN
The interpolation of Glaswegian dialect amid lofty Zen phrases produces an insightful book which lingers with the reader long after they have put it down. It is a book which, according to John Hudson, in Markings 15, ‘pops up just when you are about to pop out’ placing you ‘re-signed, pointed in the right direction, the here and now’.
In his collection Clear Light, Spence once again succeeds in ‘capturing a specific moment and elevating it to the universal’, as Sarah Crown writes in The Guardian of 1 October 2005. Each three-line poem sits on a page of its own - a decision which persists throughout Spence’s work, promoting a meditative pace of reading. Spence’s interest in the natural world is reflected in all of his works, and in Clear Light he is particularly interested in rain. Sarah Crown notes that ‘these poems cling to the pages like raindrops, tiny, perfect and crystal clear’.
Alan Spence is a keen collaborator and his haiku are often complemented by photographs or illustrations. In Morning Glory, Elizabeth Blackadder provides a visual response to Spence’s haiku and tanka. Blackadder’s illustrations focus the mind on some aspect of the poem, whether literal or symbolic. In The Scottish Review of Books 2010, no. 4, Alan Riach draws attention to the ‘sense of transience and beauty’, and the ‘unforced charm that precludes any sense of banality’ in this creative partnership. Riach calls Spence ‘as gifted on the page as he is unobtrusive.’ This sentence perfectly summarises Spence. His moments of insight come within the context of normal life. There is an immediate empathy with Spence’s spectrum of experience:
this cold winter night –
the sticky floor
of the chinese takeaway
By accessing meditative thought and insight through everyday tasks, Spence reveals a new world in the mundane.
But Spence is not solely inspired by the minutiae of daily life. On meeting Alison Watt, a painter, he was moved to write a meditative response to a painting she was commissioned to create for Old St Paul’s church in Jeffrey Street, Edinburgh. The work, Fold, is a huge four-part painting of draped fabric. Alan Spence’s response to it, alongside photographs of its creation and an interesting introduction, were featured in a book created to celebrate the work. In these poems, Spence investigates ideas of ‘pure being’, salvation and contemplative faith:
the dark chapel
white rose a chalice
Here, we see Spence’s writing elevated and contemplative, somewhat like a prayer.
ah! : 50 haiku (Jamaica, N.Y.: Agni Press,1975)
Glasgow Zen (Glasgow: Print Studio, 1981); (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2002)
Seasons of the Heart: haiku (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2000)
Still (Edinburgh: inglebygallery, 2004)
Clear Light: haiku (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2005)
Morning Glory: haiku and tanka (Edinburgh: Renaissance Press, 2010)
Selected Biography and Criticism
Isobel Murray, ‘Alan Spence’ in Scottish Writers Talking 2 (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2002)