A friend described the shortlist for the Saltire Society’s Prize for Poetry 2016 as ‘the group of death’, a description that was once inevitably used for whichever World Cup first round group the Scottish football team found itself dropped into (remember when we used to qualify for the World Cup?). In this instance, my friend was referring to the highly competitive nature of the shortlist. Every name on it was golden, nada no-hopers, from seasoned voices Don Paterson (with 40 Sonnets) and John Glenday (The Golden Mean) to exciting new voices such as Vicki Husband (This Far Back Everything Shimmers) and J.O. Morgan (Pattern Interference), while Padraig MacAoidh’s Gu Leor Galore was no token Gaelic pick. As it was, the title was bagged by Kathleen Jamie’s The Bonniest Companie, the fruit of an attempt to write a poem a week during 2014, the year of the Independence referendum. Jamie went onto win the Saltire Prize overall too, no mean feat.
(Disclaimer: yes, we know that three of the books on the shortlist were published last year. Take it up with the Saltire Society).
In 2016, we welcomed a new Makar, Jackie Kay, who has gone about establishing herself as our National Poet with aplomb. She had a high bar to reach coming following Liz Lochhead, who signalled she had no intention of shuffling into retirement by publishing her first collection for some years, Fugitive Colours. Readers will recall the unbearably poignant ‘Favourite Place’ (included in our anthology Best Scottish Poems 2012), which begins as a memory of a holiday home before breaking the reader’s heart with a naked cry of grief for a partner no longer there to enjoy it with the poet. Michel Faber’s Undying: A Love Story also explored grief and dying, transforming its author’s experience of his wife’s death into a sequence of poems as brave as they are memorable.
Young poets had their say. Theresa Munoz’s Settle was a collection of two halves: the first exploring her life as an immigrant to Scotland, the second, life as a digital native: a nice contrast. Claire Askew’s This Changes Things was equally at home critiquing privilege as it was declaring love for a departed grandmother and her idiosyncratic way of expressing herself. In The Dead Queen of Bohemia, Jenni Fagan channelled Bukowski and the Beats as she travelled through a night-time world of clubs and drugs. Vicki Husband located the cosmic in the ordinary and the quotidian in the universe-spanning with This Far Back Everything Shimmers. Harry Giles got a deserved Forward Prize nomination for his inventive, politically engaged debut Tonguit. And William Letford brought out his second collection Dirt, a title which could also have applied to Nick Brook’s filthy Sexy Haiku.
The pamphlet scene proved vibrant once more this year with a number of eye-catchers. Stewart Conn’s Against the Light was an icy delight, a chronicle of Edinburgh in winter. The late Elizabeth Burns reminded us of why she is so missed with Plum. And SIGNAL collected a number of poems by different authors responding to Turner Prize-nominated artist Ciara Phillips’ ‘Every Woman’ project for 14-18 NOW.
Finally, two anthologies worth your time. The Umbrellas of Edinburgh (edited by Claire Askew and Russell Jones) commissioned a raft of poets to write about Edinburgh, a unique map of the capital drawn in words. And Lizzie McGregor’s Whatever the Sea – Scottish Poems for Getting Older, tackled a thorny subject with humour and fortitude. I also have to say that I loved Gerry Cambridge’s account of his years as the editor of The Dark Horse. Anyone with pretensions to editing a magazine or indeed is interested in poetry should read The Dark Horse: The Making of a Little Magazine: Sundry Divagations on Poets, Poetry, Criticism and Poetry Culture. Cambridge comes off as committed, fiery and funny. Scottish poetry is lucky to have such a champion.