Tom Pow was born in Edinburgh on 25 May 1950. His father was an artist influenced by surrealism, who taught at Moray House and Edinburgh College of Art, as well as in schools. Tom Pow studied Medieval History at the University of St Andrews, then taught for a number of years in Edinburgh, London and Madrid before settling in Dumfries, where he became an English teacher at Dumfries Academy. He went on to become Head of Creative and Cultural Studies at the University of Glasgow’s Crichton Campus, Dumfries, and was Honorary Senior Research Fellow there. Latterly he taught at Lancaster University on its Distance Learning MA in Creative Writing.
In 2000 he became Scotland’s first Virtual Writer in Residence for the Scottish Library Association. He was the first Writer in Residence at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (2001-03), and Poet in Residence at StAnza (St Andrews Poetry Festival) in 2005. With artist Hugh Bryden, he ran the art book press, Cacafuego Press. In 2019, he was Creative Director of A Year of Conversation and has been instrumental in establishing Wild Goose Festival – Nature, Creativity, Place – in Dumfries and surroundings. Married with two children, he lives in Dumfries.
Pow has travelled extensively, in Europe, Russia, North and South America and Africa. In 1992 he was holder of the Scottish Canadian Fellowship, based in the University of Alberta in Edmonton. In the same year he published In the Palace of Serpents – An Experience of Peru, describing a journey to that country via the Caribbean undertaken in 1989. Thanks to a Creative Scotland Award from the Scottish Arts Council in 2007, he has travelled across Europe to many (now) peripheral regions to research the project Dying Villages.
Primarily a poet, he is the author of twelve collections of poetry, including In the Becoming: New and Selected Poems (2009) and The Well of Love (Mariscat, 2016), poems written mostly while a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellow. Of his previous collections, four – Rough Seas, The Moth Trap, Landscapes and Legacies and Dear Alice: Narratives of Madness – won Scottish Arts Council Book Awards. Sparks! (2005) is the record of a correspondence with Diana Hendry, each setting the other poetic challenges.
He has also written three radio plays and a number of books for children, including Callum’s Big Day (2000), illustrated by Mairi Hedderwick, and Who is the World For? (2000), illustrated by Robert Ingpen, which won the Scottish Arts Council Children’s Book of the Year Award in 2001. Captives (2006) is a book for young adults set on a fictitious Caribbean island, and Sixteen String Jack and the Garden of Adventure is illustrated by Ian Andrew (BC Books, 2015).
Tom Pow writes on the Scottish Book Trust’s website:
Throughout my writing life I have explored and exploited the tensions between being, of necessity, in one place and desiring to be elsewhere. Elsewheres. Each of my poetry collections is distinguished by this fact, containing domestic or where-I-am poems and others that play against them. These elsewheres could be landscapes – New York, South America, the Arctic or Africa – or they could be timescapes – the historical depths of South West Scotland, the Highlands or the troubled history of Europe.
The ‘tensions’ are expressed as a yearning for the foreign from the perspective of what feels like a closed Scottish ‘home’ environment. In ‘The Ship’, ‘a bulk French carrier’ docks in an out-of-the-way Scottish port, opening up a ‘profligate world / of dreams and possibilities’. Yet the scenario also works in reverse – ‘I am sitting in Pitigliano… thinking about St Andrews’ (‘St Andrews’) – the ‘profligate world’ viewed through a Scottish prism; a necessary grounding, accepted as gravity is, rather than chafed against as a restriction.
‘Miss Killough’ develops this theme, portraying a Scottish tutor in Brazil, a subject suggested by one of poet Elizabeth Bishop’s letters, whose foreign here-and-now is framed by her distant homeland. The poem (a monologue by one her charges, Maria Cecelia) is an interrogation of the interplay between here and there, of how each deepens the knowledge of the other; ‘how could the edges / of her hard country blur with ours?’ Before her death Miss Killough comes to prefer the local communal comfort of Catholicism to her distant native Presbyterianism, while Maria Cecelia feels an affinity with Scotland, a place she has never been.
The tensions of here-and-elsewhere are extended by those of innocence and experience. ‘Simon in the Vegetable Patch’ suggests an underlying inherent order to the world, perceived by the child but often inaccessible to the adult mind. The human vanity of trying to impose order on the world (in this case the titular Simon’s brief, improvised and failed attempt to train unruly pea shoots) is here redeemed partly by Simon’s self-absorption and self-forgetfulness, and partly by his giving up and rejoining the family group; he enters an order already there which needs no adjustments, which the poet, prompted by the watching child, articulates. ‘The Father’ takes this process one step further; its speaker is an adult who allows a child the freedom to walk away from home and explore the world in his own terms, and who doesn’t impose adult norms of what’s sensible or acceptable. The curious child sets the pace, nonetheless watched over by his father who is aware of the world’s dangers. Perhaps this might serve as a metaphor for Pow’s own writing: the reflective and worldly adult mind gaining insights from the wonder, fearlessness and naïvety of a child encountering the new.
A further recurrent tension within the work is between family or community, and isolation. Pow’s inclination is to throw a bridge between the two – the ‘aged hill shepherd’ of ‘Galloway Tale’ who at the local market seeks and then finds a wife, before returning to ‘the bald hills’; or the douce Edinburgh widow of ‘Early Years’ formed by her teenage years in the wilds of Canada, where she met her future husband.
That bridge becomes literal in ‘To Kafka on my Wedding Anniversary’, set on Prague’s Charles Bridge, where lovers kiss in spring beneath statues of martyred saints. The poem is a reflection on what we commit our lives to – work (Kafka), spouse (the speaker), faith (the saints), love (the young couple). The poem ends with a wedding couple crossing the bridge, “the easiest of difficult things”, and, perhaps aptly for a poem set between places, draws no conclusions, shuttling between different, even contradictory, modes of being, and invoking (as the speaker says to Kafka) ‘the conundrums you’ll leave us with’. Pow’s poems enjoy that state of between-ness, seeking their equilibrium in the movement between here and there, staying and going, solitude and society.