I recently completed a four-year stint as Edinburgh’s Makar, the Poet Laureate for the city. The original term was three years, extended by a year as the pandemic curtailed activity, with public events and commissioned work seriously cut back. Before that I did a fair bit of both, and I have to say I really enjoyed the ambassadorial aspect of the role – getting up in front of 400 folk at the Town Hall in Krakow, for instance, reading a poem I’d been asked to write to celebrate the city’s links with Edinburgh. Or taking part in a festival in Prague, like Edinburgh a UNESCO City of Literature, and inspiring them to appoint their own city poet, Sylva Fischerova. Heady times, being able to travel. Closer to home, I read another commissioned piece, an Edinburgh Come All Ye, at the Eurocities conference (again to a packed hall, this time at the International Conference Centre).
I recall one of my predecessors as Makar, Ron Butlin, saying he’d initially been apprehensive about making these commissioned works, these occasional verses. Would he be able, as it were, to write to order? He quickly discovered he could, and in fact he found the challenge quite stimulating.
My own experience was the same. It was an opportunity to push myself. From writing mainly short pieces – haiku and tanka, the odd sonnet – I stretched to longer, narrative pieces, gravitating towards traditional forms. (When I mentioned to Liz Lochhead I was writing these, she said, ‘I bet they rhyme!’)
Here’s a link to a podcast I did for SPL partway through my Makarship, reading and discussing some of what I’d written, celebrating the city’s parks and green spaces, its artists and the winners of the annual Edinburgh Award from the City Council (and singing a song of oneness and inclusivity!)
Then came covid, and the ‘interesting times’ we live in (and that’s a neat segue to the poem below!)
My last official commissioned poem as Makar was linked to the Edinburgh trams project. While work was being done on the new line to Leith, it was necessary to move – temporarily! – the statue of Burns at Constitution Street. Underneath was a time capsule, placed there in 1898 (It had also been opened and re-sealed in 1961). On completion of the work, new material would be added and once again buried for future generations to discover. I was thrilled to be asked to write a poem for inclusion. I loved the idea, for what’s a poem – what’s any work of art – but a time capsule?
Here’s the poem. below, with a link to a vlog where I introduce the poem and read it.
INTERESTING TIMES: 2021
Remember that ancient Chinese saying –
And may you live in interesting times?
It sounds like benediction, blessing,
but no, it’s contrary, not what it seems.
In fact it’s wry, ironic, it’s a curse,
backhanded, yes, a malediction,
a hope that things are bad and getting worse.
So here we are in 2021.
Year of the pandemic, plague, contagion,
of quarantine and sheltering in place.
Year of lockdown, shielding, isolation,
of sanitising, face-masks, track-and-trace.
Now, what to place here in this time capsule?
(This time, this place, the here and now of it).
We need the true, the real, the actual.
(History will tell the why and how of it).
A poem’s a time capsule, can hold it all –
the empty city streets, the quiet skies.
You’d walk a mile and hardly meet a soul.
then see it new with suddenly fresh eyes.
Graffiti told it straight: Hold to the light.
And this will pass. J’esiste, Keep safe. Hello.
And this, chalked up in yellow, bold and bright:
On the withered branch a new flower grows
And somehow we survive, get through, go on,
keep fighting extinction – we’re no deid yet.
The city re-awakens, the old stone
warmed by the sun. Hear the word on the street.
They’ll bury this poem at the crossroads
in Leith underneath that statue of Burns,
tapping his feet in their tackety boots
to the beat, the clang of the tram as it turns.
Do you still read Burns in the far future,
still sing his songs? Do they still break the heart?
(Who else would rhyme sever and forever,
remind us that we meet only to part?)
So here’s a hand across the years between
for a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns and auld lang syne.
Know only this – we were, we lived, we loved.
Remember this. We were, we lived, we loved.
This poem and the others I’ve written in my time as Makar will be published in July by Scotland Street Press. The collection will be called Edinburgh Come All Ye.