Image: Robyn Marsack on the day of the SPL’s reopening, October 2015 (by Camila Cavalcante)
It ‘stings a little but has gaiety’ – this line struck me as I heard Denise Riley reading at the SPL on 12 May: it felt like an encapsulation of this last month of my sixteen years as Director.
‘Unknown is best’ – that declaration was the title of my first (co-)publication from the SPL, a pamphlet with Mariscat for Edwin Morgan’s 80th birthday in April 2000. It was not my usual motto. But here we were, in a new century, and I was as much an unknown quantity to the SPL as it was to me. My first encounter with the Library was in Tweeddale Court, after I’d been sifting through books for review at The Scotsman, under Alan Taylor’s benevolent literary editorship. I’d come away with a bundle I thought I’d donate to the SPL. ‘We’re actually closed,’ I was told, forbiddingly, at five minutes to the opening hour. Opening this Library’s doors, physically and virtually, has been our desire this century, indeed opening the doors to poetry, and I’m very proud of what we’ve done so far.
Whenever I’ve told people what I do, the response has been ‘That must be a lovely job!’ And it really has been, but perhaps not the one they pictured: reading poetry all day? There have been difficult times, almost all connected with the building itself: rising water-table levels causing an expensive flood; heating problems; funding decisions; always wanting – trying – to do more than we can with our resources, financial and human, and the strain of that…
Yet of course these are far outweighed by the pleasures: the glorious days of our By Leaves We Live bookfairs and our first SymPoetry; Peggy collecting Seamus Heaney by taxi and he and I lunching together, then taking him to see Fergusson’s grave; the opening of the Edwin Morgan Archive with Eddie in his defiant Glasgow T-shirt, but not displeased with what he was shown in Edinburgh; the paper sculptures, one by one, and then thousands of people arriving on cold winter days to see them gathered at the SPL– every one of them emerging smiling at the beauty and generosity of those gifts; the thrill of the first anthology to spring from our inquiry service, Handfast: Scottish poems for weddings and affirmations, in 2005; the series of ‘Selected Works’ in which authors and artists read and spoke about poems they love – Alastair Reid at his most genial celebrating Neruda’s centenary; dazzling sessions with Marina Warner, Janice Galloway, Candia McWilliam; resonant sessions with Mark Doty, Michael Longley – and a disquieting one with John Byrne, when I looked at my watch and saw that we’d got through over half the poems in the first twenty minutes… and then he suddenly became expansive, and we had a fine hour.
That reminds me of chairing at the EIBF, many wonderful readings: the absolute stillness of 500 people listening to Seamus Heaney read from his last collection; 300 awestruck by Alice Oswald’s recitation of Memorial… and the surprise of Paul Muldoon’s deciding ten minutes before an event that he wouldn’t read any poems – ‘We can just talk…’ Memo: always have 5 questions up your sleeve. Luckily the audience had some good ones. A great panel discussion on Yeats with Robert Crawford, Paula Meehan and the Irish Ambassador Dan Mulhall in the anniversary year. A marvellous hour of Palestinian poetry with Liz Lochhead and Christine De Luca as translators, the place packed to the tent-pole.
Remembering the intensive weeks of the Literature Across Frontiers translation workshops at Moniack, on Shetland, at Crear with its divine view across to Jura, and the poets who met through those, as so memorably in 2011 when poetry was set to music, guided by the late, lamented Lise Sinclair. Importing the best New Zealand poets and books, of course. Travelling to Istanbul and Moscow, St Andrews and Orkney, New York and Berlin wearing my SPL badge, not to forget Dunblane, for the reading weekends facilitated with Richard Holloway; visiting a Perthshire care home for a Living Voices session when, with the help of Heaney’s poem, we all went blackberrying….
Oh and crossing the finishing line: relaunching our website and reeling in the first 10,000 Twitter followers; achieving the 204 poetry broadcasts with the BBC for London 2012; seeing the Burns banner raised in 2009, Douglas Dunn’s poem projected on Castle Rock, Kathleen Jamie’s poem incised on the Bannockburn rotunda; the finals of the first Poetry By Heart Scotland competition and the spellbinding rendition of a poem by Ginsberg, reprised for the re-opening of the SPL in 2015.
Witnessing the constant delight of visitors on entering – discovering – the Library; living among its books and periodicals, touching W.S. Graham’s table each day. Seeing special books arrive, our own publications unpacked; Norman McBeath coming in to show us new photographs, Gael Turnbull wandering in with a new contraption for poetry; Brigid Collins putting up her luminous exhibition; Gerry Loose and Donald Urquhart hanging up their apples; Thomas A Clark’s ‘delay of eight syllables’ appropriately lingering on our window; making good friends here, seeing friendships – and more – begin under this roof…Working with my dear colleagues – who would not enjoy the company of such a talented and creative group of people, past and present, and all of us devoted to the same end: bringing people and poems together.
It has been a huge responsibility, which I’m glad to lay down, but also a great joy and privilege, for which I’ll always be grateful. A heartfelt thank you to everyone. Please continue your support and spread the word: Scotland’s poetry library is here, and open, for you.