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’.

Magical Thinking

In a recent post on the Dark Mountain blog, it was claimed that 2016 was the year that magic entered into politics. Perhaps that sounds weird, but read it and see – there’s a point here, that people resort to thinking in mythological terms when the prevailing culture doesn’t enable them to express ideas which are important to them, and I am sympathetic to that idea.

Whether on the right, cracking down on personal liberties and freedoms in the name of security and the growth economy, or the left, where liberals in favour of a more open society and individual choice in so many things, nonetheless appear to believe that large swathes of the population are too stupid, superstitious or  short-sighted to see beyond their own well-being, the most conspicuous effect of current politics has been the silencing of the poor.

Whether you are a community trying to protect access to your own countryside (nimbys, or greedy farmers, or philistines who don’t know enough to care for their own environment),  unionists trying to protect working conditions (luddites, unable to keep up with the real world), or families concerned about housing, work-life balance, their children’s education and prospects, their access to proper healthcare ( yummy mummies, sentimental  or self-indulgent)  – or any sort of political campaigning for anything apart from more money, more homes, more jobs for the favoured few – we are likely to be told we don’t know what we are talking about, real life is not like that, we haven’t the skills, the knowledge or the experience – and we’re all tired of experts, aren’t we? Keep to the point, can’t you, we all know you can’t buck the market.

Well, magical thinking or not, I think we can. People don’t always do what’s reasonable, or measure what’s reasonable in the strictly pragmatic terms we are told we should. Turkeys do vote for Christmas (more’s the pity, sometimes). People give up good jobs to be creative. People will pay more for their goods than the going rate out of ethical concerns. People do sacrifice a comfortable lifestyle from passion for the environment, religious convictions, compassion for their neighbours. People do take the risk of reaching out to strangers, welcoming refugees giving a convict a second chance, negotiating with the enemy.

There’s more to human life than a warm house, and a safe job, and it is the first sign of an oppressive political regime (political, industrial or domestic) to deny it. We are all entitled to friendship, beauty, ethics, creativity, a home, a history, a philosophy, a sense of purpose and meaning in the world. If it takes magical thinking and mythological metaphors to express it, so be it, let’s have a lot more of it.

My own personal act of ‘magical’ thinking is to join an organisation called Pax Christi,  which believes in peace through justice, reconciliation and non-violence. I have to say I am the lamest member on their books, as I don’t do anything but pay my subscription, but today has been designated Peace Sunday, and we have been asked to tell people why we joined. I think I can do that much!

I think that among the poor who have been silenced, spoken for or spoken over, are people who don’t conform to the ‘sheepul’ model of politics, who are already doing the work of peace and reconciliation, of welcome and compassion, and I want to honour them. I genuinely believe that people will begin to transcend their fears and hostilities if there is a climate of opinion where peace-making is respected and valued as much as ‘standing up for your principles’ has been. Among the ‘huldra-folk’ I want to allow to come into the light are the healers and the makers, the quiet comforters, the honest brokers, the truth-tellers. I would very much like to live in a society where they are our leaders, our celebrities, our heroes.

January Garden

Gloomy as it may look, this is the garden today – cold and damp in the rising wind, but livened by a pheasant I’ve just chased away from the bird feeder. In spite of the cold – and forecast of snow – there’s an air of expectation about it. Birds are significantly noisier than they were, and there seems to be some serious jockeying for territory. The leafy plant is angelica, poised and ready, and snowdrops are emerging from the leaf litter I cleared away yesterday. The woodland bed is looking as if it has come through the winter well so far, with primroses, violets, and cyclamen looking well, and this beauty

seems to be surviving, in spite of the everyone walking over it all last summer, to prune or cut hedges.

I wanted to post this picture, because betony is one of the candidates for the fifth herb  – attorlaðe the ‘plague-defier’, next one up in the posts about the Nine herbs charm. I am not happy with this identification, as I’ll discuss when we get there, and even less happy about the default option, cockspur grass. I had an alternative suggestion, but it will have to wait. Deadlines are catching up with me, and there won’t be another Charm post until after StAnza, which this year is very early in March. This may be a blessing in disguise, as someone has pointed me in the direction of an actual medical use for cockspur grass, so when I get a moment, I’m going to have to follow it up, along with a reference I heard on the radio to a healer of the benedicaria tradition from Sicily coming to England in the sixteenth century to study, only to find herself tried as a witch. (Who invited her? Where did she think she was going to study? There was mention of a university connection —) The herbal tradition is much more fascinating than the stereotypes would lead you to believe!

In the meantime I have just heard that the first two cantos of my long poem, The Wren in the Ash Tree, will be included in the next book from The Dark Mountain Project, The Ends of the World. It is due out in May, and if it is even half as good as their most recent volume, Poetics, it will be a wonderful thing to be involved with. This is a really exciting and encouraging way to start 2017.

New Year, New Website


My lovely web-designer, Naomi Rimmer, has built me this beautiful sleek new website, not much different on the surface, but cleaner and simpler – and incorporating the lovely wren motif.  It’s the ideal start to a new year in which I have a lot of exciting projects to dive into.

The first of these is my new book, Haggards, which I’m delighted to be able to tell you, is intended to come out early in 2018. There will be more news of this as I go on, but I’ll be focusing on finishing the manuscript before StAnza.

In the meantime, I wish everyone a very happy New Year.

The Darkest Day

It’s the winter solstice, and, apparently, the darkest in five hundred years, and frankly, it feels appropriate. On a public level, I don’t remember a time so full of anger, resentment, prejudice, greed and callous indifference to the suffering of others. There was Brexit, the shambles of politics in the US, terrorist atrocities, the horror of Aleppo, and don’t get me started on the looming disasters of climate change, the parlous state of the earth’s biodiversity, the return of unreconstructed sexism and racism, the indifference to truth, justice and compassion and the incredible viciousness of  social media trolls, some of whom were much nearer to home than I expected.

And yet. On an individual level, it was very different. So many people spoke up. So many people joined protests, gave money, rallied to support people they knew to be in difficulty. Twice during the year when life got to me, my facebook friends got me through it with kindness and encouragement. Real world friendships have been strengthened, and good work has been done. Some poets I’ve been rooting for have had great books out, and more are going to be published in the next year. Some friends who have found this year personally challenging have come through stronger and more wonderful than ever. And the two big medical situations in my family have reached a level of stability I’d given up expecting.

And so I’m going to share this rather odd poem, which pretty much expresses the odd, contradictory way I feel about this dark time.

The Revolution Will Not Be Crowd-Funded


The revolution will not be engineered.
Someone with a hammer will casually
construct the new homes out of the wreck
of burned-out shopping malls.


The revolution will not be forecast.
It will happen in small outbreaks
and daily resistance to the dull
and casual cruelties of power, to build
bulwarks of compassion.


The revolution will not be fertilised.
It will happen in despite
of good intentions, celandines
seeding through the cracks
in broken tarmac or the stillness
of abandoned airfields.


The revolution will not be smart,
specific, measurable or timed.
The heart will have its way and love
will be ineluctable as lightning
in a clear sky, arcing everywhere.

Whatever festival you are keeping this holiday, I hope you will have time to become reacquainted with peace, comfort and friendship. We’ll carry their light out with us next year.

Happy Christmas.

Speaking Beings

I’ve been to see Paterson, and I am frustrated, intrigued, and in the end fairly outraged by it. You may have seen it – or plan to see it, but in case you didn’t, the blurb reads:

A hardworking bus driver (Adam Driver) in Paterson, N.J., writes heartfelt poems every day before his shift begins.

In the first place, they aren’t ‘heart-felt’, if by that you mean the outpourings of a gifted but instinctive untutored genius. They are carefully crafted and highly accomplished poems in the style of William Carlos Williams (who gets a lot of references in the film), and I quite like them. The bus driver has obviously been very well educated and has chosen to live as a bus driver for unspecified reasons, which never quite become clear. He may even like it, or like the town where he lives, but we can’t be sure, as he spends most of the film looking morose and misunderstood. He lives with his wife, a woman who paints everything in black and white and dreams of being a country singer – although she can’t even play a guitar, and running her own cupcake business. She wants him to publish his poems, but he doesn’t even make copies of them, and they get eaten by their dog.

The denouement of the film comes when he is given a new notebook by a Japanese tourist and begins to write again. Poetry, it seems, is not for publication or reward. It is a private act of personal integrity – a quiet, unshowy keeping faith with oneself, and not for anyone else.

It says a lot for this film that I can understand that this might be a credible outcome. The fault may be in the direction or the acting, but I came out of it raging. A little bit of humour, contentment or openness might have made the whole proposition seem more plausible, but the inflated reverence for the central character raises some ugly issues. The other residents of the town are presented as harmless but self-deluding fantasists, playing at love, or politics or careers; Paterson doesn’t share or even talk about his work with them, and we feel we are being told they are unworthy of it. His indulgence of his wife’s whims looks patronising (her interior designs are actually stunning  – think less Cruella de Ville, more Bridget Riley, and her cupcake business is a success), and his refusal to read her his poems  – which she obviously loves, and understands – is hurtful, especially as he spends a lot of time by himself writing them. And leaving his book about is probably the most passive-aggressive thing I’ve seen on film, calculated to show her that her appreciation doesn’t matter to him at all. And his assertion at the end that he is a bus driver, not a poet, is a lie.

Now I do buy the possibility of poetry as a spiritual practice. And I do buy that you don’t actually have to publish poetry if you write it. But then you can’t use it as your way of being in the world. I am very taken with Julia Kristeva’s idea that humans are ‘speaking beings’ – which implies that we not only have something we need to express, but also that we need an experience that something will listen and respond. Our lives are a constant dialogue, not only with the people we live with, but with the weather and our environment, the news we listen to, the work we do, the things we work on. If you write poetry for yourself only, it might help you focus on the conversations you most need to have – but your conversation with the world has to have something else in it, not just a sullen with-holding silence.

Over the years I’ve seen many conversations about who can be called a poet, and I like to keep the term as inclusive as possible, without issues of quality or relevance or recognition. I don’t like to see it as a status, especially not an elevated elitist one,and I really don’t like to see the kind of debate that inhibits anyone from presuming to write. But I think the difference between ‘someone who writes poetry’ and ‘a poet’, is that a poet sees her work as her way of engaging with the world – as a part of her conversation with the world that she is accountable for. Publication, recognition or reward may not be relevant. But communication, listening, responding, making a gift of your work that is of some worth – that’s the point.

Today I hand over to the next Makar of the Federation of Writers (Scotland) – Andy Jackson. He has two collections published by Red Squirrel Press, and has edited the anthologies Split Screen and Double Bill, which have given so much joy, both on the page and in performance. He also writes Otwituaries, tweet-length obituaries of significant people – you aren’t properly dead until Andy has recorded the fact! I would like to take the occasion to thank the Federation for a wonderful year, and hope that Andy has as much fun as I did!

The Charm of Nine Herbs (4) Nettle


Nettle this is called * powerful against sickness.

It drives out pain * it is powerful against sickness.

This is the herb * that fought with the serpent,

It has might against poison, * might against infection,

might against the evil one * who wanders the land.

No controversy about this one – everyone agrees that ‘stiÞe’ is nettle, and all the herbal traditions agree that it is powerful against fevers and inflammation – notoriously used against rheumatism by Roman soldiers – good for the kidneys, and a very useful antihistamine. In many countries the fibres from nettles were used to make a thread that could be woven like linen, ropes, or fishing nets. I have not found any reference to a herb that ‘fought with the serpent’ anywhere, so I can’t account for that, but Grieve says that nettles planted around beehives will deter frogs. I can’t say I ever thought frogs might be a problem, but there you go.

The Charm of Nine Herbs (3) Houseleek


This is probably not what you were expecting, if you know the charm. The usual translation is ‘lambs cress’, or hairy bittercress – cardamine hirsuta. I’ve even seen watercress. There are other candidates too, which we’ll discuss, but this is the one I’ve settled on. First, the translation:

This plant is called ‘thunder’ * it thrives upon stone.

It halts a fever * it is powerful against aching.

The word in inverted commas is a translation of ‘stune’ and the nearest I can get to it is ‘stunaþ’ – ‘it crashes’. Geoffrey Grigson says that the Cumbrian name for houseleek is ‘thunder plant’ and that, for me, is the clincher. Again, there is actual botany here. This plant ‘thrives on stone’ – unlike the hairy bittercress, which likes its soil wet, but will grow anywhere, as I know to my cost. Grigson says it could not have been native, but has been planted in Britain from very early times, presumably because it was so valuable medicinally, unlike hairy bittercress, which is edible, but hasn’t much recorded in the way of medicinal uses.  As well as being good for fevers and rheumatism, houseleek is, like aloe vera, good for burns, and had a reputation for protection from thunder, which is why it was so often planted on roofs.

There are alternatives – the stonecrop


which does thrive on stone, but is not so well-regarded medicinally. Culpepper says it’s more likely to provoke a fever than cure it. And there is biting stonecrop, (sedum acre) which is small and yellow and related to the houseleek. This does have a medicinal history, especially in Scotland, and even Culpepper thought it was ‘so harmless you can scarce use it amiss’, but mostly it was used when you couldn’t get houseleek, so that’s the one I’ve gone with.