Image: Alexander Hutchison accepting the Saltire Scottish Poetry Book of the Year Award 2014.
The poetry community was sad to learn this week of the death of Alexander Hutchison. 'Sandy' to friends, he was not only a poet of considerable talent – recognised last year when he won the Saltire Scottish Poetry Book of the Year Award in 2014 – he gave a great deal of encouragement to young poets. Earlier this week we published a personal tribute by his friend and fellow poet August Kleinzahler. Today we publish three more memories.
Jim Carruth, founder of St Mungo’s Mirrorball poetry network and currently Glasgow’s Poet Laureate
Sandy, what would you have me say today? Not some morbid reflections and musings; your passing is a challenge to us all to treasure every moment, every memory, as we all get on with living. You would have found some choice morsels of language in English or Scots that would have danced on your tongue as you shared them with us all in spoken word or song – for these were the common acts of a generous man.
I don’t remember when I first met Alexander Hutchison, but it was bound to have been at a St Mungo’s Mirrorball event around 2006. So I have known him less than a decade yet it seems so much longer, such was his involvement in all the lives of those who came in contact with him. He agreed to be a Clydebuilt Mentor and supported a number of our rising stars within the programme, but they were not the first to receive his guidance. August Kleinzahler recognised the debt owed to ‘A mentor, a bristling master and a total original’. Even in the last couple of months, without letting on how ill he was, he provided valuable feedback on a future collection. He was great stalwart of the Mirrorball and our unofficial bard. He also penned for our fifth anniversary the Mirrorball toast, which I’m sure we will repeat in his honour in the weeks ahead.
He was a wonderful poet, of that there is no doubt. Though his published work – starting with Deep-Tap Tree in 1978 – spans almost four decades, the output remains frustratingly sparse alongside younger poets who churn out new collections every two to three years. Every poem, every line is so carefully crafted. In terms of poetry success perhaps the pinnacle will now have to be his recent collection Bones & Breath, which won best poetry collection at the Saltire Awards last year.
It was not out of place amongst award-winning poets of the calibre of John Burnside, Jen Hadfield and Kei Miller, and fully deserved the prize. It continues to have a fizz of sharp wit, a keen intellect, a love and mastery of language, all grounded in the passion of the man.
The collection had so much life in it – he had so much more to tell us. We’ll remember his words and his songs, his humour and his stories, his warmth and his friendship…. and always that mischievous smile .
In his presence, hours flew by.
Larry Butler, poet
Although I’d heard Sandy at WordShare – a poetry & music evening I hosted in the late 1980s; and whenever he read I knew it would be a surprise, humorous and serious at the same time – I really got to know him and his family when we both joined a class for fathers run by Parent Network Scotland. There were seven fathers, and most of us have continued meeting regularly for over 20 years. In these groups I witnessed Sandy’s love, compassion and empathy in the way he listened with his whole body; how he leaned forward, tilted his head. We shared stories, posited solutions to family squabbles, and have followed each other’s children into adulthood. At each meeting we started by asking ourselves four questions:
1. How are you? (and we really want to know)
2. Is there anything preventing you from being here
3. How is your parenting going? Is there anything you need a hand with?
4. What have you been doing for yourself since we last met?
For many years Sandy’s answer to the first question included internal politics at the university where he taught. And the last question often included poetry & football – telling us about his latest hat trick. He continued playing football right into his 70s. And we were often graced with his singing. Our stories about parenting are never-ending; some of us now have grandchildren and are looking after our ageing parents. Sandy remembered the details from previous meetings, and picked up the threads with apt questions.
Our last dads’ group was at Sandy’s house a few weeks ago. We cooried in around his bed and answered the above questions. By this time he couldn’t walk and his arms were weak, so I helped him drink his coffee. Famous for his clarity and brevity, he told me: ‘You hold, I’ll steer.’ I was deeply moved by how well he listened; and when it was his turn to speak – he chose to go last – his voice was clear, his story about his cancer was matter-of-fact; his big concern was not for himself, but for his wife and children.
My last visit was only two days before he died. His latest publication – Gavia Stellata – had recently arrived.* He was pleased with it, and pleased to meet his translator, my friend Juana Adcock. Even though she lives in Glasgow, they did all the translating by internet. We brought kale and sweet potatoes for his wife Meg to make a soup. Juana read a few of the poems in Spanish as we sat on either side of the bed with our hands in his hands, Two days later, I sent a message to Meg ending with Sandy’s last words from his poem ‘Incantation’. I changed ‘it’ to ‘he’:
And may he lie in the star-blanket there to spread over us
And may he lie in the first light at the waking of day.
Our emails crossed in cyberspace. Meg wrote to me:
Dear Larry – Sandy died this morning just as dawn was filling the sky.
Sandy's poems live on, they are ‘a salve to bind us….’
*Gavia Stellata, a bilingual selection of Alexander Hutchison’s poems translated into Spanish by Juana Adcock and published by Mantis Editores, based in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Christie Williamson, poet
'Effortless Zen.' Sandy’s wife Meg attributed this quality to him last summer, towards the end of a trip we enjoyed together to Unst, where Sandy’s maternal grandfather ran a trading station in Baltasound harbour, in the days when small armies followed the herring from Coleraine to Great Yarmouth every summer.
It was a privilege to be there with him, where he took time to reconnect with friends he’d studied with at Aberdeen University. The first time I met Sandy, at a triple book launch in Glasgow School of Art’s dining room where St Mungo’s Mirrorball originally met, we spoke at great length and in great detail about the Spences, about the Herringopolis years, about the links between my native Shetland and his native Buckie.
At great length, and in great detail. It’s hard to think of a subject around which a conversation with Sandy could unfold in any other way, such was the breadth of his interests and knowledge. Throw in his humour, kindness and gentleness and you begin to get a picture. The second time I met Sandy, I’d popped in to the Bon Accord to distribute flyers for a play I was appearing in – I’d met a couple of footballing artists and knew they’d be in there after their game. And who was there but Sandy. Again, popping up in unexpected places was a speciality of his, garnering invitations to the most outlandish of places. Last year it was a festival of herring in East Anglia.
I knew a couple of the other people, but Sandy took the time to introduce me to everyone at the table as a poet from Shetland. The word poet is so loaded, so grand that there is a natural reluctance to apply it to ourselves. But here I was, having it applied to me by not just anyone, but by a professor who’d taught the very best in Pacific Canada and the US. These two encounters typify Sandy’s generosity, his interconnectedness, his ability to be at home in so many different spheres of life, leaving quiet happiness and confidence in his wake. And of course, the poems. Rich, sensitive and insightful, he leaves us with poems which elevate language to the realm of the truly universal. Right up to the end he explored a global vision of poetry. As well as circumnavigating Central and North America last year, he enjoyed a long and fruitful collaboration with Alessandro Valensizi, and just last week received copies of a bilingual collection of his poetry rendered into Spanish by Juana Adcock.
The world has been lucky to have a friend and mentor, and amongst the crushing sadness of his passing, through his great example each of the many of us touched by him have many memories, which can help us fulfill our final obligation to Sandy, to carry his abundant spirit deep inside us, far into the world – to laugh, to sing, to mend. To transcend.