Summer News

peonies and rocket

The news should be that we have summer – a whole fortnight, it seems, of glorious sunshine, warmth, swallows and swifts scissoring up the sky. It’s only June and already we’ve had gazpacho four times – here:

garden furniture

But I haven’t been idle. There are some new poems, some of which are in exciting places. I hope to have news of an anthology of Edinburgh poems later in the year, but sooner than that, there will be  a pamphlet produced by Marjorie Lofti Gill of work by women responding to this dazzling beauty.dazzle ship MV Fingal

This is MV Fingal, a ‘dazzle ship’ painted by a group led by artist Chiara Phillips. There will be a community event as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival on the 19th June, which will include a reading of some of the poems we have written. I won’t be able to be there myself, unfortunately, but there are about twenty poets included in the project and all the poems I’ve seen so far are brilliant.

And then there’s this:Fed anthology

This is the cover for the new anthology from the Federation of Writers Scotland. It is currently with the printers and copies will be available by the end of June. There is a lot of outstanding work here of all kinds, and also includes my Stand in the Light, which so many people said kind things about when it was first published on And Other Poems.

The back cover reads:

This anthology, the seventh from the Federation of Writers (Scotland), has more than fifty percent greater content than any other year. A massive three hundred and twenty four pages of fascinating fiction, non-fiction and poetry from fifty contributors’ works, selected anonymously by our editorial board from members’ submissions, plus eighteen  prize-winners from six open international competitions run by the Federation. This reflects the exponential growth of our membership, now almost a thousand, from under two hundred when our first anthology, Catch the Tide, was published with only seventeen contributors’ works included.

Readers will find both new and established writers’ works within these pages and subjects as wide-ranging as classroom shenanigans and Native American pow wows. If you love a varied literary diet, you’ll love this book. It’s a veritable feast.

And if that doesn’t make you want a copy, I don’t know what will!


Merry is Maytime

culinary patchOr it was. The last few weeks have been delightful, warm and sunny. This week has been cooler and cloudy, and today the only word for it is dreich. But the garden has bulked out, and I’ve already harvested and dried sage and thyme for the winter. And I’ve achieved an ambition I’ve had for forty-five years, in that I’ve candied angelica stems.

angelicaTo be exact, I’ve cracked how to candy angelica stems, just not why. They smell fresh and sweet and inviting when you cut them, but the after-taste is definitely weird.

knot garden

Many birds have fledged in the last fortnight. One day there were blue tits everywhere, then the lawn was full of squawking starlings. There were robins and dunnocks hopping among the herbs and fruit bushes, and yesterday some new and shiny goldfinches on the greenhouse roof. And I’ve already seen  more butterflies this year than last, including orange tips, which are extending their range into Scotland as the earth gets warmer.

I haven’t been out and about as much this year as last. Some of this is down to family events – illness, house moves, a ballet exam and an escaped snake (don’t even ask, it’s been re-homed now) – but some of it has been actual poetry. I’ve had poems accepted for four anthologies and for the on-line journal Interlitq, which will be out shortly. I’ve written a couple of reviews, and there’s another in progress. The results for the Vernal Equinox Poetry Competition which I’ve been judging are in and will be made public as soon as the winners are notified. I’m very excited to find out who they are, because the standard of entries this year has been very high. And the Federation of Writers (Scotland) very kindly gave me this:


I am so honoured and so grateful.

Also, two new writers’ groups have been started in Stirling, one for writing poetry and one for supporting and promoting creative writing, which will meet some long-felt needs. After a long period of turbulence and transition, I’m beginning to feel that my writing life has some solid foundations, and it is such a satisfaction.

So, in spite of today’s drizzle and the wall to wall grey outside, I’m looking forward to the summer!

peonies and rocket

Federation of Writers (Scotland)

I’ve been a member of the Federation for several years. I’ve read at open mikes, I’ve been to meetings, I’ve engaged with the facebook page, and, as I’ve mentioned once or twice, I have the honour to be this year’s makar.

I wrote about the Fed in March 2011 – you’ll find it here. That was a great night and summed up what this organisation has meant for me. Although I’ve been writing something or other most of my life, there was a long time when poetry wasn’t happening, and when even the live-the-dream self-help books tell you no-one will publish your poetry unless you have a ‘story’, you don’t have much hope it ever will. And yet —

Last time I started writing, I didn’t know what contemporary poetry was like. If I hadn’t found Kenneth White’s Bird Path, I wouldn’t have thought I could even write it. I certainly had no idea whether I was any good, or whether anyone would be interested. Three things happened. The first was the friendship of Sally Evans, who was my first publisher. Once you know Sally, you gradually get to know everyone, because she will invite you to everything that is happening (poetry writing group this morning!), and I began to realise that writing is a very live, active and diverse thing here in Scotland. Then there was Stirling Writers under the tuition of Chris Powici (now editor of Northwords Now). It didn’t matter how raw and unfinished your work was, he could find the three good words on the page, and help you to see why they were good, and what you could do with them to make something work.

And the third was the Federation. This organisation is FREE to join, and completely open access. Here you could meet writers of all genres and at all levels, from the people who had just joined their first writing group to people with several publications and prize-winning careers behind them. You’d get all the news, all the contacts, a chance to present and advertise your work, your events, your projects, and make some good friends. I found it was a safe place to try my wings,  a grounding, supporting and encouraging experience, and it was enormously helpful to me.

This year, as Makar, I’ve judged the poetry competition, and it has been a delight. We have so many good creative, truly inventive poets here, as well as a lot who are still perfecting their craft (but who will be pretty exciting in a year or two) and some who are still feeling their way.  There is so much to be proud of.

But the organisation is showing signs of strain. The newsletter, which goes out to over 1000 people, comes out every fortnight, and must take enormous amounts of work. The facebook page has over 2000 people engaged. There is a website which has to be maintained and updated, and there is a committee which has been holding the whole enterprise together, and which depends on members to keep it running. This year several committee members have to stand down, and volunteers are urgently needed. If you can give any time, any admin, financial or social media skills, please think about standing. The details of the AGM are here:

AGM and Open Mic Wednesday 25 May 7-9pm
McTurk Room
Waxy O’Connor’s
44 West George Street
Glasgow G1 1DQ
Please make a note of the AGM date. It’s really important to come along and have your say which this year you can do in two ways: by voting on issues raised and by reading a poem or two in the open mic slots we’re having this year. 
The McTurk function room is downstairs from the main bar. Anyone who cannot manage stairs please use the Buchanan St. Entrance and let a member of staff know that you require the lift. Someone will assist you on the staff lift.


Bookings for slots at the open mic should be made through Finola Scott.

 And I hope to see you there.

Settle by Theresa Munoz

This book, Theresa Munoz’ first full collection, is published by Vagabond Voices, and has been attracting a fair bit of attention in the wider media, because of its timely dealing with the theme of migration. Theresa Munoz was born in Canada, but became a British citizen in 2014, and the first section of the book focuses on the process of migration and commitment to a new country. There are poems about the process of becoming a British citizen – the interviews, the vetting procedures, the infamous citizenship test (after 62 years living here, I’m not convinced I would pass it, and honestly, does every good Brit know who discovered the DNA molecule?). But the ones that speak to me are more personal – the bond with her sister renewed on a visit to the zoo, or her changed relationship to her childhood home. The Way talks of the family values that provide a continuity you desperately need as you push into unknown territory,

            my Dad and I were never late,

never slept in —-


it was our way

back then, to measure our worth.

Her parents share memories of similar experiences – Twenty Two draws comparisons with her mother’s  experience of leaving the Philippines at the same age Theresa Munoz came to Scotland, in  Alma Mater she discovers that her father had attended the same college when he moved to Canada. And there are new connections to be made, discovering nuances in the Scottish use of language in For Me, or taking a gamble on a new home in On Arthur’s Seat,

                 what would happen

if I strode along stamped grass


peered over the edge

into emptiness


trusting myself to the town’s tiny lights.

The second half is concerned with the way our lives are changed by the internet, emails, facebook, selfies, google. Our network of friendships may be preserved or extended by facebook or emails, but our loneliness is reinforced  – No emails from you when I check.  (Wait).  We have access to so much information, but also to a vast array of lies and fantasy. Our identities can be made more malleable, but perhaps less authentic. Or perhaps our laptops contain the ghosts of our real selves. These may seem bleak poems, but they have a quite humour, as in Junk, or How.

Some of these poems first appeared in the Happenstance pamphlet Close which I reviewed here. Some of them have been revised, (there are fewer very short lines) and they have gained a quiet serenity which brings their acute perception into focus. This is a mature first collection, and bodes well for Theres Munoz’ future.

April Already

chivesI have been slack this year, and the garden is only just beginning to get the attention it needs, but the chives are growing lush and strong.

knot garden

The knot garden is looking a bit battered – I lost four santolinas, which is a thing I never remember happening before, and I’ve already replaced two rosemary plants, but the big effort this summer is going to be taking cuttings, as insurance against the sort of disaster we had over the winter. I have planted the central triangles with early salad. Only two days later, the slugs have made their presence felt, but I hope that there will be something left for us! I have started plenty of seeds, including more vegetables – beans, welsh onions, cavolo nero and peppers, and some new herbs – anise hyssop and clary sage.

tadpolesThere was a lot of frogspawn, some of which was caught by frost, but you can just see that we have some tadpoles. Last summer very few of them grew up because of the cold and wet, but the weather is more promising – at least so far!

Nesting is in progress, and there is a lot of birdsong. Wrens usually seem rather late to the party compared with great tits, blackbirds and robins, but they are in full voice now, and there is a strong presence from chaffinches and dunnocks. More significant is the snip-snap noise of the chiffchaff, which seems to be the earliest of the summer migrants. There have been sightings of swallows even as close as Edinburgh, but we haven’t seen them yet. I have kept on topping up the bird feeders and we are getting visits from the kind of birds I thought we would only see in winter – reed buntings, yellowhammers, and greenfinches. The sparrows are doing well, and we seem to have a mixed colony of house sparrows and tree sparrows, which is encouraging, as sparrow numbers are causing concern.

The black-backed gull colony came back to find their usual nest site flattened and fenced off, but this didn’t hold them up. For three weeks they established their territories among the rubble, and there seemed to be more of them than ever. And then site investigations started. Now their numbers seem to have halved, but the survivors are occupying chimney pots and harassing the lives out of the buzzards. I’m not convinced that the house martins are going to be any happier when they get back in the next fortnight.


Grounded Poetry – On Being Local

There’s a song called All the Way from Tuam, by an Irish band called The Saw Doctors, which has a line that goes (roughly) ‘No matter where you’re from, everyone’s local’. They were a lot bigger then – 2009, I’d guess, and they were being interviewed about their music. They explained that they had found, when they sang about their home town, their audiences would identify with it, all over the world. Audiences had shared similar experiences and felt the same, often ambivalent emotions,  about their own home towns. This seems to me to be an important point when considering what I am calling ‘grounded poetry’, because the big criticism of local or rural poetry is that it is narrow or parochial, uneducated and ill-informed, and of no real interest to the wider, more cosmopolitan reading public.

There seemed to be a feeling at one time that, if you wrote about a particular place, landscape, event or custom, then it showed that you were only aware of that particular locality; that you expected your readers to attach an undue importance to that locality; or possibly even that you were restricting your attention to that locality for some cheap local popularity, because you knew that you didn’t have the talent or education to make it on the bigger stage. Class comes into this of course, as Clare soon discovered, but even Wordsworth suffered from it. To this day Liz Berry is often asked to justify writing in her local dialect, though I think myself her stunning collection, Black Country, should be justification in itself. Niall Campbell’s poems about his childhood home of South Uist do not create an romantic and exotic place to be sentimental about; they create the vivid sense of that locality because he is at home there, but they are as much about the experience of being at home anywhere as they are about that place. That is the root  of grounded poetry – no matter where you’re from, everyone’s local.

Grounded poetry, because it is rooted in home territory, need not restrict its attention to the narrow lives and concerns of that home territory; on the contrary, a sense of rootedness and connection gives a different and a valuable perspective to the more universal vision. Sorley MacLean’s integration of  the clearances on Skye into a survey of, and commentary on the world-wide proletarian struggle, is perhaps the best known example, or perhaps Michael Hartnett’s poems in Irish and English, heavily influenced by Lorca, which gave Irish poetry links to European Modernist writing, thus bypassing the habitual deference to the mainstream of writing in English. Christine de Luca does the same for Shetlandic, as I wrote at length in Northwords Now, and David Morley for Romani which he includes without apology or sweetening in his poems. There’s a place for the broader perspective, but attention to what Welsh poets call ‘your own quarter mile’ may give poetry a more intense focus and greater depth.


#Deranged Poetess

DPfilofaxThe #derangedpoetess debate seemed to me important on several levels. It wasn’t only that Oliver Thring seemed to me to be condescending to Sarah Howe as a poet and an academic, nor that he dismissed a lot of reasoned and specific criticism as the work of ‘deranged poetesses’. The very fact that such an interview of a prize-winning poet – the equivalent of a who made your dress to an Oscar winning actor – was deemed appropriate in a serious literary column is demeaning to poetry itself. It implies that the readers of The Times cannot be assumed to be interested in the actual poems, and have to be sweetened with discussions about the pretty girl’s nice house and family background.

If you would like an example of how I wish Thring had treated the subject, here is the equivalent column in The Honest Ulsterman.

The meme on twitter is a distant memory now, but the issues remain, and I know a lot of people are still engaged in the debate. Some of us wore paper stickers at StAnza, but I wanted something more permanent. So I asked my daughter NMRimmer to design me some artwork, and she has posted it on Redbubble so that it can be printed on demand, if anyone would like it –

You can get heavy duty stickers, dpstickerat reasonable prices, but also, redbubble being what it is, mugs and posters and laptop cases.

However, I have also had some button badges printed.

DPbadgeI got a hundred done, relatively cheaply, and I will take a pocketfull wherever I go, and give them to people, if they’d like one – at least until this batch runs out. This means Stirling, Edinburgh and Glasgow in the near future, but I’ll also give some to Sheila Wakefield so that Newcastle people can get some too. I’m willing to post them to people who will send me their address, but as it would cost about £1 even for a single one, perhaps you might request a few to pass around?

If there’s still demand when the first batch is done, I’d be willing to reorder, but would have to charge 30p for each of them

What You Should Know to be a Poet

This is a post I wrote back in 2011, but I’m re-posting, because both poets have been drawn to my attention today. David Morley has just won the Ted Hughes prize for his collected poems The Invisible Gift, and Matt Merritt has just published a prose book called A Sky Full of Birds.

I pinched this title from Gary Snyders poem What You Should Know to be a Poet
which is a poem I found very inspiring when I came back to poetry (for about the fifth time – I used to describe myself as a recidivist poet). The point Snyder was making was that poetry had to be grounded in a deep understanding of the world around us, firstly the material facts, but also the way other humans feel about it and relate to it. Snyder’s poems often read easy, but they are actually very scholarly in an extraverted way that is completely different from the narcissistic complaining or self-satisfaction that tempts those of us who spend a lot of time looking inside our own heads for stuff to work with.

But then we have to think of the kind of “knowing” we are looking for. I’ve been spending some time with geek poets, mostly bird-watchers. I’m interested in birds but I hate twitchers with their ticks on their life-lists and their macho competing to see some poor creature which is only here because it’s lost. Frankly I’m only interested in people who love what they’re doing, so the geek poets really give me pleasure even before I read the poems.

David Morley  is an ecologist by background, and it shows. His poems are full of exact species names (not always Latin) and technical terms, and he avoids romantic and anthropomorphic responses to the fish, dragonflies and birds he writes about. Observations are detailed
“head-butting the surface to see
at eyelash-level the whiphands of Common Backswimmers surge
and sprint, each footing a tiny dazzle to prism.”(Dragonflies)

but delighted (a perfect combination in my book). But it’s not all about the creatures. There’s a balanced debate about the conservation movement in Proserpina, and a reminder that climate change is not a new thing to the earth, however cataclysmic it feels to us, in The Lucy Poem.

This section of the book “Fresh Water” is only the first; there re two other sections dealing with Romany tales including Hedgehurst which reminds me a lot of Tim Atkins‘ Folklore, and with poems about the circus. I think I may say more about them when I’ve got into Morley’s earlier books. They deal with alienation and estrangement and take me into territory I’d like to know more about.

Matt Merritt, however, feels to be on very familiar ground. The poems are intensely visual, and his detailed knowledge and love of birds is obvious – Loons, Ringing Redstarts, and Knots, and it’s not only birds, there’s a lovely one called Hares in December – but most of the poems are about love death, memory and the mutability of human relationships. They are powerful and moving at that level, but there’s also something else going on that emerges as you see the book as a whole. There’s a lot of stuff written just now about the fallacy of humans seeing themselves as detached or separate from nature and how we need to recognise ourselves as one with it. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for Matt Merritt. There seems very little distinction between the act of living and writing  – love is “written” on the sky, lives are drawn in, revised or erased across a landscape, as if humans are poems written by the earth. I like this. His writing is not just understanding but connecting.

Troy Town is an earlier book. Matt Merritt has since published a new collection called hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica,  and you can see some of his more recent work at his blog Polyolbion.

Two Readings and a Review

As part of the Red Squirrel Tenth Anniversary celebrations, there will be a launch event for four poets – Anne Connolly, Andy Jackson Chris Powici and myself – on the 12th April in the Scottish Writers Centre, CCA, Sauchiehall Street Glasgow, from 7-9 pm. You can find full details here.

And there will be a batch of squirrel cookies. Lemon, possibly, or maybe maple spice. I’m open to suggestions!

On Monday April 25th, the Federation of Writers group in Edinburgh will be holding an event called Meet the Makar at the Merlin in Morningside. I’ll be there, but there will also be three previous Makars of the Federation – AC Clarke, Sheila Templeton and Anne Connolly, as well as poet, story writer and harpist Rita Bradd – it is shaping up to be a wonderful evening.

The latest issue of Northwords Now is on-line. It has some truly wonderful work in it this time, so much that I don’t want to pick out individual authors, because I would forget someone. But I do want to highlight a project that has been running in Glasgow for a while. AC Clarke, Maggie Rabatski and Sheila Templeton have got together to write  poems in three versions – English Gaelic and Scots. One of these poems is published here in its three manifestations. I’ve been fascinated by this project ever since I heard about it – how each of the poets and each of the languages strike resonances from each other, and I am delighted to see it here.

However, vanity compels me to add that there is a review of The Territory of Rain by Stuart B Campbell on page 30. I can only say I am honoured and very grateful that my work should have received such generous and perceptive attention.


I first came across the photographer and eco-campaigner Ginny Battson on twitter, where I was fascinated by her beautiful photographs, and her well thought out campaigns for preserving natural habitats and teaching eco-literacy as a standard element in education. Her blog Seasonalight has inspired and stimulated a lot of my own thinking about ecology, permaculture and philosophy, and we connected more deeply when, at a particularly difficult period of my life, she generously shared her own experience and insights into my situation. Her kindness at that time is something I will never forget.

I wrote her a poem, which she was kind enough to share on her blog here, but please do go on to explore the whole site. There’s a new post there about tourism and our attitude to wild country which I can’t recommend highly enough.