No matter how swift Usain Bolt was on the track, he can’t compete with time itself. Is it really four years since Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games? Four years since the dancing teacakes of the opening ceremony? Four years, more importantly, since our project Commonwealth Poets United, which was a significant contribution to an artistic response to the Commonwealth Games’ return to Scotland?
Commonwealth Poets United, for those who need a refresher, was our poet-exchange programme. Twelve poets made 12 visits to six Commonwealth countries, including Salma (India), Louise B. Halfe (Canada), Tanya Shirley (Jamaica), Toni Stuart (South Africa), Tolu Ogunlesi (Nigeria) and Glenn Colquhoun (New Zealand), with the Scotland-based poets involved including Rachel McCrum, Rab Wilson, Tom Pow, William Letford (pictured below with Salma), Ian Stephen and Jen Hadfield. During exchanges, each visiting poet spent time with their poetic partner, giving readings, visiting schools, and taking part in a variety of events, forging collaborations and friendships.
It was a magical time for the SPL and the poets participating. Not only did we record podcasts with the poets visiting Scotland (which are still available to listen to on our website), it was enlightening to meet and speak with the poets and to hear them read their work. Salma, the Tamil poet from India, is extraordinary, a writer who has fought for women’s rights under incredibly difficult circumstance. Glenn Colquhoun is a doctor as well as a poet, his insights formed by his profession. And Tolu Ogunlesi, a journalist and poet, arrived in Scotland shortly after Boko Haram kidnapped 200 Nigerian girls. He arrived to discover residents of Dumfries had gathered one Saturday to put out shoes for the girls – the idea was to have each missing girl represented by a shoe; he blogged about it for our Commonwealth Poets United website (sadly defunct now).
The poets from Scotland had just as interesting trips abroad. Rab Wilson not only went down a storm at a Jamaican literary festival, he ran into Salman Rushdie (pictured together)! Rachel McCrum performed at a Johannesburg spoken word night. And Tolu told Tom Pow to read Oliver Twist before he arrived, because it ‘paints the backdrop to contemporary Lagos and many other mega cities: 'long after [the direst contrasts between wealth and extreme poverty] dropped out of Western literature, they became the stuff of ordinary life elsewhere, in places where modernity is arriving but hasn’t begun to solve the problems of people thrown together in the urban cauldron.’
The BBC also brought poetry from the Commonwealth to our shores, with a little help from the SPL. They launched their Commonwealth Poetry Postcards, which can still be heard online: a poet from each of the 71 countries took part, reading a poem of their own that captured something of the character of their birthplace.
The Poet Laureate of Glasgow Jim Carruth edited a collection of poems, The Laws of the Game, featuring 17 new sport-themed poems by Glasgow poets. Several of the poems are still available to read on our website. We also supported, with the University of Glasgow, the publication of a reprint of excerpts of Gavin Douglas’s Scots version of Virgil’s Aeneid, to coincide with the 2014 Commonwealth Games; The Games can still be purchased from our online shop.
Finally, Jim Carruth and the then-Makar Liz Lochhead collaborated on a poem that celebrated the Glasgow Games and looked forward to the 2018 Games on the Gold Coast, ‘Scotland to Queensland, Glasgow to Gold Coast’:
Friendship is a real boat,
Clydebuilt like the best of them,
pride and strength in every rivet and spot weld.
A vessel to last lifetimes, to carry a bond
not severed ever by distance.
Here’s hoping the Gold Coast Games, which begin this week, are as much of a success as Glasgow’s were.