Burnedthumb on the Radio

I’ve had a very exciting week. Tuesday saw the launch of Jim Carruth’s Black Cart, published by Freight Books. Jim read several of the poems, dealing with farming and rural  life in Ayrshire. They are knowledgeable and unsentimental, and later in the year, when I hope to get back to thinking about Grounded Poetics, I’ll have a lot to say, but for now, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

But in the morning before that I had the pleasure of recording an interview with Shirley Whiteside of Barrhead’s Pulse Radio. This is a community radio, which receives a commendable amount of support from the local area, both in terms of advertising and help from the local authority, but also in active involvement from volunteers, including the local school.

I was recording for a programme called Booked, and talked about poetry at large, my poetry in particular, and encouraged people to read, write and participate in poetry events. I reviewed some recent poetry – Sheila Templeton’s Gaitherin, (published by Red Squirrel Press),Marion McCready’s Madame Ecosse, and the samplers from House of Three. And I read a few things.

It will be broadcast tomorrow (that is the 2nd April) at 2:00pm.

The Charm of Nine Herbs – 6 Chamomile

Remember now chamomile * what you made known

what you ordained * at Alford

That no-one should ever * lose his life because of infection

if he had chamomile * with his food.


I’ve struggled a bit with this one, as I can’t imagine cooking with chamomile, but chamomile tea is a great digestive herb, served afterwards as a tea, and has both anti-inflammatory and anti bacterial properties. I knew someone who said she cured an ulcer by drinking chamomile tea, too, so I can imagine it must have saved a few lives in those days.

The official translation of the herb mægðe is mayweed, a common wild plant, but checking with the herbal dictionaries on line, I discovered that, although it is similar to the true chamomile, its chemical components are so much harsher that it has been designated as a poison.I am going with the Roman (true) chamomile, anthemis nobilis, which Grieve identifies as the Saxon ‘maythen’.

The place name Alford is a bit of a puzzle too, though there is an apochryphal reference to the Decrees at Alford, alleged to be when Christ left his apostles significant teachings – including this. Pagans also claim that this is the lore of Woden; I am not sure that contemporary herbalists made much distinction between their sacred sources!


The Charm of Nine Herbs – 5 Burdock

A burdock plant photographed in June on the island of Seil.

Put to evil to flight, now burdock,* let the great be diminished

 the lesser be increased * until both are healed.

This, I admit, is a weird one, a flight of fancy, perhaps, but not without some thought and information behind it. I had even speculated that these two lines may simply belong to the lines about nettle, and ‘attorlaþe‘ (literally plague-defier’) might simply be a nickname. However, further research indicates otherwise.

Attorlaþe is usually translated as either cockspur grass,  or betony, but I haven’t found either option particularly convincing. Cockspur grass has very little use in medicine – the only recorded use is to shorten labour, as the grains often act as host for the fungus ergot. Otherwise it is regarded as poison to cattle and sheep, and an invasive pest. Betony has a long tradition of use as a wound herb, a nerve tonic, to relieve anxiety and calm the digestion, and this looked quite plausible until I found another text which referred to a remedy for coughs – a mixture of betony and ‘lesser attorlaþe’ – which tells me that there must also be a greater variety.

Then there is that rather magical incantatory ‘let the great be diminished, the lesser be increased’. I was baffled by this until I came across the term ‘alterative’ which is used for herbs which are used to restore and rebalance the system, particularly the digestion, liver and kidneys. I looked up native herbs which are used as alteratives, and dandelion and burdock topped the list – and there is both a greater and a lesser burdock used in traditional medicine. I’m not altogether satisfied with this identification; it is no more than a best guess. But it is a guess that does not make the assumption that the charm is no more than a superstitious curiosity, but is a genuine element of the history of herbal medicine.



StAnza 2017 Recurring Motifs

Poor internet connections have slowed the process of theses blog posts, but given me time to think over what to say – you are, of course also reading the in-house posts? you can find them here if you haven’t seen them already, and there are facebook and twitter feeds with photographs too.

I’ve talked a lot about how friendly StAnza is, and about how it is full of the meetings of friends. I love this aspect of the festival, because when you don’t live at the heart of poetry action, it is something to cherish, but it did make me wonder if I had created the impression of something rather cosy and inward-looking. Is it no more than the reunion of the same old faces?

The festival has a policy of not asking anyone back to do a similar event in less than five years, so the readers are always new, and you never get the same masterclass or workshop twice. And the regular features, Border Crossings and Past and Present, are designed to encourage more adventurous perspectives. Setting themes – this years were On the Road and The Heights of Poetry – encourages the planners to have a deliberate focus on something new every year, and there is an attempt to invite poets from a wide variety of countries, though this is inevitably limited by financial considerations. As a regular attendee, I’m constantly challenged by new ways of presenting poetry, new poetic forms, new writers.

But every year there are  motifs which recur, in different contexts. This year it was so often the constraints on writing: on writing in this language rather than that, on finding the right kind of language  – Alice Oswald’s ‘winged words’, which evoke a response, create a buzz of communication between people, a ‘through-movement’ she called it, as opposed to ‘wingless words’ which fall into empty air and are disregarded – on writing if you are perceived as being too young, or if your national identity is perceived as complicated, on writing about ambivalent feelings towards your own country (or your own people), on writing to make contact, create lines of communication rather than barriers, on finding the right words to render another person’s insight, on writing in forms that other people don’t recognise as being ‘proper’ poetry, or crossing barriers between prose and poetry, literature and art or film.

I had the feeling that this year StAnza was a kind of breathing space where poets could speak or write or experiment with ways of communicating freely. A place where many people said, ‘It is okay to say this here’. This is more than a poetry party; it’s where art begins to take on its responsibility towards a whole culture. More power to its elbow!

StAnza, Day 2

On Friday I was at readings by three poets from House of Three – Marjorie Lotfi Gill, Nalini Paul and Iona Lee, and by Kayo Chingoni and Norman Bissell, and in the evening, the big centre stage event with extended readings from Jacques Darras and Kathleen Jamie. Stunning as they all were – and Iona Lee and Jacques Darras were especially noteworthy – full of energy and innovation – I want to write today about an event which I expected to find fully subscribed, but which was in the event, not really well attended.
It was called Making a Living as a Poet, and I really expected to find it full of people dreaming of giving up the day job, but no. Perhaps everyone in and around poetry has already realised the first and most important point that was made – that this is in fact an impossible dream.

No-one makes a living from poetry, and in fact, no-one ever has.
The speakers, Harry Giles, Ken Cockburn and Sarah Hesketh, reiterated this, Harry Giles in particular with facts figures and spreadsheets at his disposal to make the point that a life in poetry is only possible if you spend a large chunk of time doing the admin, form filling, funding applications, events management, and often, completely unrelated jobs, just to create time to make art. It is also often only possible if you set your standard of living very low.

It was fascinating to hear about the processes of getting money to make art. All three speakers were clear that it is vital to be available, be flexible to the point of what looks like reckless experimentation – and be reliable and attentive to the requirements of the commissioning body. They pointed out that funding applications are a separate skill, and are not simply a lottery, nor box-ticking exercises, and it was reassuring to hear that small scale projects are not so hamstrung by requirements for ‘outreach’ or utility as is often assumed (small scale is the key here – as Harry Giles points out, if you want a lot of public money, it is only right and proper for the benefits to be shared widely).

But what came out very strongly, and what is something you don’t always hear, is the enthusiasm of funding bodies to support the creation of as much art as is possible, curbed as it might be by lack of means; and the helpfulness of artists in supporting others in the learning process. Sarah Hesketh in particular recommended asking someone who has done it to give helpful tips, and says it is very rare for an artist to refuse.
However, the best quote of the morning came from poet and publisher Colin Will. ‘I couldn’t make a living from poetry, but I have made a life.’

StAnza Day 1

Thursday was a morning of frost and brilliant sunshine, just right for a drive through Fife. I arrived by twelve and checked in to receive my participants’ pack – a simple process made so much easier by the helpfulness of the volunteers who do most of the day to day chores of such a complicated event. I know some people have not found their experience quite so seamless, but the efforts of the staff to sort out and rectify mistakes were noteworthy. Director Eleanor Livingstone very properly gets a lot of recognition for her organising ability, but one of the most significant achievements of StAnza is the large team of helpers, so well- trained and efficient and kindly who steward events, collect the ubiquitous questionnaires, sell tickets, meet people, answer questions and generally make things easy.

I was at several events – the Poetry Cafe where Stephen Watts and Katherine McMahon gave excellent spoken word performances, the Past and Present Event where Neil McLennan talked about the upcoming celebration of war poets Sassoon and Owen in Edinburgh and Alice Oswald discussed translating Homer. I may have more to say about this later – I am picking up trends and themes as I go, and language and communication is one emerging strand. Then I was lucky enough to find a space for the Five O’Clock Verses, readings by AB Jackson and Catalan poet Joan Magarit, whose work was movingly translated by StAnza’s own Anna Crowe, and to hear a discussion about international poetry festivals. And finally, the unmissable Centre Stage event with Robert Crawford and Alice Oswald.

I will review some events in more detail as we go on, but today I’d like to give a flavour of the StAnza experience as a whole. I’ve been to other festivals and enjoyed them, but StAnza is unique. First of all, the organisation and attention to detail is amazing. There is always someone there to help if you find yourself at a loss, and this should not be underestimated. Secondly, events are concentrated over a small area, which means that it is possible to go to many things, not just the big highlights. Ticket prices are reasonable too, so you don’t get so much of people coming for the big things – they come to several events, go to the exhibitions, hang about and meet people. The generosity of allowing participants to get into any event that isn’t sold out means that StAnza is very much a poets’ festival; you can easily discover a lot of different styles and techniques and genres that may be new to you without risking bankruptcy, and because you’re all hanging about, you get to meet lots of other poets, and the conversations become as valuable as some of the events ——

And this means that many Scottish poets come every year, and stay, providing a core of continuity, and a feeling of stability and tradition. And also one of the unexpected but fun things about the big events. As soon as booking opens, we book our individual tickets, and then we wait to see who we will find ourselves sitting with – it’s like the kind of folk dance where two circles move in opposite directions, leaving you to do the next set with a random partner. Yesterday I found myself with one friend on my left, another two places along on the right, several in the row in front and two more in the bar.

And the highlight of Thursday – well two of them. The first was the beautiful slow burn of Joan Magarit’s reading. And the second was walking into the Byre through the South Court at seven o’clock. They have a sound system there so you can hear poets reading. But this time there were two thrushes singing against each other in the twilight. Wonderful!

More than the Poetry

New haircut. Come and chat if you see me about at StAnza next week. From Thursday, I’ll be at everything I can get myself into, but there does come a time when you begin to suffer from poetry overload. Plus, now that StAnza has established itself as the place to be in March, there are obviously going to be times when you just want to take a break and talk to people. The Byre is a lovely central place to meet, with lots of seating, a good cafe and very helpful staff – if you are at a loose end, you’ll almost always find someone you know. And there are lots of places to have a coffee or a meal, so I won’t advertise (apart from the Tail End which has the most wonderful fish suppers you are ever likely to see in your life). And being as St Andrews is what it is, you can get your head around a takeaway menu that includes scallops, sea bass and smoked salmon. I always do the haddock, and it’s one of the best things I eat all week.

And then there’s the bookshops. Not just Waterstones and the official bookshop, JG Innes, who have all the books featured in the Festival, and where you will see the awesome spectacle of poetry collections actually sold out, but the relative newcomers Toppings (very well-stocked, and lovely staff), the very classy second hand shop Bouquiniste, and a lot of charity shops which have a much wider selection than the average. And the poet’s market where you can get books and magazines you’d otherwise have to buy on-line, and meet the poets and publishers. As you walk around you’ll find that several of the shops have got involved, and you’ll see poetry displays in the windows, too.

And there’s the sea. I have usually found the StAnza weekend to be cold, windy and often raining heavily, but the sea is always lovely.

Burnedthumb Goes to StAnza

StAnza is happening in St Andrews this year from 1-5 March, and I am lucky enough to be going from Thursday until the end. I have tickets for all sorts of good things, from spoken word, to discussions, to readings from the like of Alice Oswald and Kathleen Jamie. The themes this year are On the Road, and The Heights of Poetry, and there will be the usual heady mix of exhibitions, book launches, slams and open mic events and the poets’ market on Saturday. It’s a great opportunity to meet friends and make personal acquaintance with poets you’ve only met on Facebook, but this year, there’s an extra dimension to my being there.

I have the great pleasure and privilege of being this years blogger-in-residence. I’ll be writing about the events I’ve been to, the poets I’ve met, and the whole experience of participating in what I believe to be one of the very best poetry festivals on the planet. So if you see me in the Byre (I’ll be the one in the #derangedpoetess hoodie), come and talk!

You can find out more about StAnza, see what’s on the programme, and hopefully book tickets here:


Valiant Women: Extract from The Wren in the Ash Tree

Today I heard that Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced during a debate ; that the White House has said it will denounce anything it chooses as ‘fake news’ until media outlets realise that it is wrong to criticise the President; that the Dakota Pipeline is to go through after all; that the President has publicly threatened to break the career of a lawyer who opposed him.

There isn’t much I can do about any of this, and anyway there are plenty of Americans dealing with it (otherwise I wouldn’t even have heard about it). And Trump, although he is the comic-book coloured archetype of all the things that threaten decent human life on earth, is not the only villain, nor even the most dangerous. Our own government will bear close watching – a more polished demeanour and the trappings of an ancient parliament is a good camouflage for behaviour that is remarkably similar to the US colour-me-melodramatic destruction of the environment, social services, working conditions and respect for equality and diversity.

But what I can do is share a bit of my long poem which deals with women’s resistance to injustice. I started it when I found stories of feminist activism that somehow got edited out of public history – especially here in Scotland. In the last week or two my list of valiant women has got longer, and I’m going to have to exert some control before it overwhelms the whole poem. It’s interesting how often women have found that issues which start as one thing rapidly become connected. The personal is political – and so is the environmental, and the economic and the historical.

I’ve put links to information about these women on this page, which is a nice thing this blog lets me do (might have to put a notes page in the book!)

The air is cold towards dusk, and
the quiet lanes and curtained homes
are haunted by grief, rage, isolation
poverty, loss and fear.
But in the gloom there are lights
shining as women kindle fires,
put lamps in windows, look out
for the lost, the returning family,
the friends in need of shelter.
Every writing, cooking, walking,
protesting woman is a signal tower,
creates a net to catch us when we fall.

The voices of the dark will say
A whistling woman and a crowing hen
Will drive the devil out of his den,
But still the signals go on. There are voices.
There are lights. ——

But who will now praise famous women?
Who will remember Joanna Macy,
Elizabeth Warren, Mhairi Black,
Kathy Ozer, Rachel Carson,
Josephine Bacon, Malala Yousafzai,
Dorothy Stang, Berta de Caceres
Wangari Maathai, Mary Barbour,
Big Mary Macpherson of the Songs,
or Mary Brooksbank of Dundee?
Women whose signals were sent
through poetry and politics, songs
and planted forests, women whose voices
cry out for the poor, for democracy,
for the life of women, for the earth.

And who will praise the women in their millions
Who walked in pink hats, under rainbow flags
on January twenty-first, on seven continents,
And not one arrest anywhere on earth?
Women from the CND, from Jeely Peace,
the greens,the ones who fought
for fair trade,for women’s refuges,
Equality,or welcome for the stranger,
All walked and sang, spoke out for truth.

This will probably have to be revised quite a bit, because you get to a point where people then start asking why this woman and not that, and I want a range of the different ways significant women have inspired me. But here’s a start. All the valiant women of the world, I salute you!

Women’s Work

sister march edinburgh

This is what we do with walls

I’m still processing what happened over the weekend. Global figures for those attending the women’s marches have reached an estimated 4.8 million, and there were 678 events world-wide. I don’t know if this includes the disability march which people who were unable to travel to a live event could sign up to participate on-line, but these figures are astonishing, as is the fact that I haven’t seen any record of any arrests. I’ve heard it said that this is because there were a lot of middle-class white women marching, and the police were merely protecting their own, but I’ve been on marches where the police outnumbered the mostly white, middle-class (and middle-aged, if I’m honest) women, and I can tell you that wasn’t the attitude! There was something very different about the police handling of these marches, and if I were in Trump’s staff right now, I would be seriously concerned about it.
There was something different about the march, too, and not because it was mostly women, nor because it was well-behaved. The marches I’ve been on have mostly been well-behaved, but they’ve often been tense, or angry, or full of machismo. This one was characterised by wit, courtesy, good humour and plain speaking – no minced words, no alternative facts, no bragging or threats. There were men there, but without white-knighting, or taking charge, and there was certainly no harassment.
I’ve heard of racist attitudes displayed at some marches, but in this country, anti-racist and green banners were as common as anti-sexist ones, and equality, welcome for refugees and international peace didn’t come far behind. Political changes in the last twelve months have struck at everything many of us hold dear, and Trump isn’t the only villain. He is just the most visible face of all the threats we have come to recognise, and his appalling election campaign has simply made us realise that we have to act now.
Later, I recognised the feeling I had about this march. When my father died, my mother was so strong, so resilient. My brothers all wanted to help with what had to be done, but they found her already on it. Later she said to me. ‘This is women’s work. Birth and death are women’s work.’I get the feeling that every woman involved had that same feeling – not a war to be fought, but a job of work to be done. Men are not excluded – far from it, but this is something that women are going to do.
This is a big thing and we are only at the start of it. News from the US is coming in, of lockdowns and rights removed, and also of some spirited resistance. The US is not going quietly into this bad night. But it isn’t only in the US. It’s going to take all of us. We will have to resolve to tell the truth, in spite of the lies and obfuscations of powerful people,to refuse injustice, and protect those who take the brunt of repression,and to come together to create something better.
If you know the Cherokee story of the two wolves, you’ll know what I mean when I say ‘let’s feed the good wolf’.