Last year I had the pleasure of being one of three Scottish poets selected to be part of an exchange project with three Innu writers from Canada. The Innu writers were Joséphine Bacon, Natasha Kanapé Fontaine and Naomi Fontaine and the Scottish writers (all of us resident in Scotland though none of us were born here) were Anna Crowe, Rachel McCrum and myself. The project was a collaboration between the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Maison de la poésie de Montréal and the British Council Canada. You can hear Rachel, Anna and me talking a little more about the project here:
or on Youtube link.
and you can see a video of our EIBF event here:
or, again, on Youtube link.
Following on from that rich exchange in which we were able to translate and share poems with one another about identity, homeland, womanhood, language and much more, Rachel, Anna and I were invited to Canada this year to be part of the 17e Festival de la poésie de Montréal. Unfortunately Anna could not make it, so the Gaelic poet Pàdraig MacAoidh / Peter Mackay kindly stepped in to make up our trio of Scottish poets at the festival. Our first event was a reading with two poets from Ontario — Daniel Dugas and Patrice Desbiens — at the uber-hip Drawn & Quarterly Bookshop in Mile End, one of Montreal’s coolest neighbourhoods. Most of the festival was in French, but in this event we read our poems in English while Daniel and Patrice read mostly in French. Sadly, since I only studied French up until high school, I don’t understand it well enough to take in much more than the rhythm and a word here or there, but even that was enough to enchant me amidst the gorgeous notebooks, graphic novels and volumes of poetry in French and English.
Next we read at the launch of the most recent issue of Exit, une revue de poésie québécoise edited by Jonathan Lamy who was also helping to manage the festival and is a powerful poet himself, in a charming old building owned by the Writers Union of Quebec. At that reading Rachel performed with Jonathan in French and English (sometimes simultaneously), Peter read poems in Gaelic and English and was accompanied by French speakers reading translations of his poems in French.
I performed with my music and poetry band Opul a.k.a. my partner James Iremonger. Samuel Mercier, a poet who has translated a number of my poems, also helped us out by reading one of my poems in French. We were delighted to be joined by other friends on that night as well, including the Scottish-American poet Ryan Van Winkle who happened to be in town, and dear Natasha Kanapé Fontaine who read some of her own beautiful poems as well as poems by Anna Crowe and Joséphine Bacon, ensuring that those women were in the room with us even if they were not present physically.
Finally we were lucky enough to be part of a celebratory reading involving all the guest poets at the festival. We each had just a few minutes to read and there were poets from many different countries reading in many different languages including Carmen Villoro and Mariana Perez-Villoro (Mexico), Antoni Clapès, Marc Romera and Odile Arque (Catalonia), Daniele Pieroni (Italy), Daniel Dugas and Patrice Desbiens (Ontario), Martine Audet, Paul Bélanger, Sonia Cotten and Phillipe Garon (Quebec). It was a delicious cornucopia of poetry and we were all astounded at the remarkable readings which kept us utterly captivated, even though we often could not understand the languages of the poems.
It is one of the marvels of poetry, that there is much to be enjoyed even if the literal and metaphorical meaning is not accessible. If you are lucky enough to hear poetry read out, especially as well as it was being read this warm night in Montreal, the musical power of poetry can embrace you and shake you. I would hope to pass this on to anyone who struggles with feeling that they cannot understand poetry — go to a reading, in English or any language, close your eyes and listen to the undulations of the voice, the many notes and tones, the rhythms and seductive pauses, and you will be rewarded with a key to experiencing poetry that is much closer to its heart than any other kind of understanding; an almost unconscious, sensual perception of the work that does not require intellectual unpicking in order to be enjoyed on the deepest of levels. When we listen like this, and it’s also what poets do when they write their best poems, it’s something more akin to dreaming.