On the Value of Being Idle

I write this from the warm comfort of my bed. It is 16:03 (on Wednesday September 23), yet I have barely strayed from this position all day, and am unlikely to.

The Obvious Reason

I have a cold. My head feels heavy and sore, my throat stings, and my nose seems to have reinvented itself as a tap for congealing chili-oil with a washer problem. When rise I become shivery and achey, which makes my desk, with it’s cold hard surfaces, looks horribly inhospitable. So I return to bed. Though I’m not so ill I can’t function; I’m wide awake, and actually made a batch of scones earlier. It is, after all, just a cold.

The Reason Less Obvious

Learning to think creatively about politics
Some very thoughtful schoolers, and me. Photo credit: Katie Jo Anderson of The Stove.

Last week was the busiest I’ve had as freelance arts practitioner, ever: I had a thirteen hour event to run* (with help), two** other workshops to deliver, and a two day conference to help facilitate. The last few months have seen me writing, researching, and rewriting plans and material; marketing; organizing; discussing; negotiating; finding and engaging speakers/tutors, and all the other stuff that goes with such enterprises. The whole experience has been rather like crop farming: seeds were sown, followed by watering, pricking out, hardening off, planting out, thinning, feeding, weeding. There were the random problems that have one rushing out into the rain, or sun, to protect the delicate. Slugs, weevils, caterpillars et al had to be monitored and removed (no pesticides here). And then the harvest. I made the mistake of choosing crops that would all come at once, so had a week of frantic, near mind-breaking work, and now it’s all over. I should be free to get on with the next job.

I had intended this week to get straight back to my book, which has been lying in wait for me like a faithful lover since the beginning of August. But the last two days were taken up with domestic and administrative tidying, and today I feel too fogged for the problem solving a third draft requires. So I half lie, half sit, like a spoiled, sickly house-cat. Or so it seems.


The soil must rest before fresh seed can be sown, or the next crop will fail.

Even if I were feeling in the peak of health I probably still wouldn’t do much good to my book. Creatively, I’m spent. For two months I’ve been running like a Trabant in the Plymouth-Dakar rally: my oil’s congealed, my spark-plugs are burnt out, there’s a hole in my cooling system (apologies for the metaphor switch); I could probably run on a little longer, but at god knows what cost to the air quality.

Had the cold not materialized, by now I’d probably be accusing myself of procrastination, and whining that I’m not a real writer because real writers just get on with it. Didn’t Peter De Vries say something about ensuring he was ‘inspired at 9am every morning.’? And Bukowski, he said that thing about real writers needing only paper and a pencil to write. And don’t we hear all the time about writers, Stephen King for example, who churn out books like factories?

Yes. But there have been just as many real writers who speak of the need to take a break between books (e.g. Virginia Woolf), and others who argue that teaching robs one of creative energy. Ted Hughes’s letters are full of complaints about this, as is Sylvia Plath’s Journal. Both of them talk about the difficulties they faced trying to teach for a living and make good creative work at the same time, because teaching takes everything, and they needed to rest afterwards.

Just like a Trabant can’t run without petrol, or a potato can’t grow without nitrogen, a writer can’t write without, um…

Ideas? Knowledge? Experience? Imagination?

William Faulkner argued that a ‘writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others.’ I realize you don’t use up these things in the same way a car uses up petrol or a crop uses up nitrogen, but it does seem that there is a period between projects when you’ve used up the energy needed to access your imagination, observational skills, and experience. So you need to feed, and rest. Also, I find there’s a distinct space between one project and the next which needs to be negotiated.

The Process

Once I’ve emptied my art reserves they need to be refilled. I know lots of people who do this by getting out into the hills, and I do find that helps. But what I really need is to idly mooch in the artistic milieu. I need to look at paintings, and sculptures, and talk about such things as the emotional impact of colour. As I don’t live in 1930s Paris, or round the corner from Tate Modern, I read books, listen to my musician pals talk drunkenly about the virtues of dropped ds on Friday nights round our kitchen table, and wander the internet. It works pretty well.

For example, I spent most of this morning  going through my Pinterest account and either moving or copying pins to different boards. I use Pinterest to store images and links that inform my creative work, and my boards are named for the various categories I feel are key to this. But for a while now I’ve been finding particular images aren’t where I thought they should be. Too many categories overlap, and some pins need to be in more than one place, so reorganizing is something I’ve been meaning to do for months. Although it’s not a difficult task, it is time consuming, and until today I hadn’t got round to it. If I wasn’t taking an enforced break this simple but important job would be unlikely to get done, yet it will save me heaps of time when researching in the future. Just knowing I’ve begun it makes me feel lighter. And, by looking at images of art, design, and beautifully photographed nature all morning I’ve added to my creative reserves. I’m not sure any of this will have a direct impact on my book, but I can’t be positive about that, and it will definitely have an indirect impact by reminding me of such things as perspective, narrative devices, and framing. Not to mention the more quotidian choices people make every day. For example, as I was browsing I stumbled on a hashtag about dressing for work. I have no idea about that kind of thing, and my main character has to spend time in an office in a key scene, so, actually, it did have a direct impact. I haven’t written that scene yet, but I now have some idea about who populates it. All this was achieved while lying idle in bed.


There’s more to being a writer than writing. You don’t spontaneously generate an idea, write till you have a poem, story, or book, and then immediately start again with another idea. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Peter De Vries was getting at. Ideas grow in the soil of your observed experience, and imagination. That soil needs a fallow period. You can write only when you have taken in enough to work with. An idle spell allows your mind to feed, and rest.


How do you restore your creative spirit between projects?


*this was the only one that paid actual money.

**I didn’t make it to the last one, on Saturday, as I had a car problem which I’d probably have been able to solve if I hadn’t been so knackered.


On Learning By Doing

The Idea

Only one week to go until Poetry Club’s Autumn/Winter session, and I realised yesterday I had done no publicity. I needed a poster. The last was created by a founding member who is an artist. But she’s now moved to Glasgow. I asked myself who else I could call on, with no money to pay for their work, and all I could think of was me.

I love visual art, graphics, and design: my dream day would be to wander idly round Tate Modern until they kicked me out, my Pinterest account bulges with images of other people’s visual work, but I have no skills in that area. I can make a relatively solid photograph when everything goes right, but I’ve never learnt to draw or paint. I didn’t go to that kind of school, or grow up in that kind of family. I’ve been lucky to have now met lots of visual artists, and moving on the edge of that world I’ve found I do like to play with colour, line, and shape, but that’s rather different to making something to put out in the world.

My first idea was to go through my Pinterest boards, pick an image, and just add text. But as I looked at all the astonishing feats of artistry I began to feel a bit like a thief, and a cheat. And rather lazy. I have three workshops to finish writing for next week, an article to polish, and beetroot to harvest and pickle, another big task, I argued with myself, was asking too much. To use a Miró painting would harm no one, certainly not him. So I still don’t quite know why I got out my paints.

Play Time

The Process

The painting didn’t work: I wanted crisp lines and got runny, blurred edges.


So I resorted to chalk on a blackboard. Three lines and a dot:

Poetry MuseI photographed it with my phone, used Snapseed to make it look a bit more interesting, and uploaded it to my hard-drive. When I upload photos I automatically delete them from the device (phone or camera) to keep the space free. It’s never caused a problem before, but this time the Snapseed changes didn’t transfer, and I was left with three identical images. At this stage I went for more coffee, and tried to convince myself to use the Miró.

Starry Night, Joan MiróBut Myself still wasn’t buying my argument.

I use Picasa to organise my image files, and it has cursory processing tools and filters, including the ability to add text, so I decided to see what I could do for my poster with it. And, thus, avoid the horrors of Photoshop. So, I added the ‘cross process’ filter, followed by the ‘1960s’ one, the ‘invert colours’ one, and the ‘posterize’ one. This made it yellow, which I didn’t like, so I played about with the colours until my eyes started to hurt, and settled on blue. Then I added text. I spent far too long moving the text boxes around before finally settling and printing it out, which revealed a minor typo. Back in Picasa I sorted that with a click, but was compelled to add a few more words, and change the angle. That dealt with I posted it to Facebook before I was tempted to mess any more.

Poster for Poetry Club.
Poster for Poetry Club.

It wasn’t till I started to write this post, and uploaded the image here, that I saw the text was still wrong: the line beginning ‘Mondays’ too high, and not informative enough; the outlining too yellow… I was still making changes after midnight.

The Result

Finished poster for the Moffat Poetry Club (I hope).
Finished poster for the Moffat Poetry Club (I hope).

I’m not sure this was productive use of my time: I barely left my desk all day yet achieved none of my scheduled tasks; my beetroot still sits in the ground, and the only thing I managed to eat were three scones at odd intervals. If I’d had to pay myself for the work, even at minimum wage I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. But I do think I learnt something that can be transferred to my own practice. And I really enjoyed the process; it’s like writing, but different.


Welcome September

September is set to be a very busy month.

At the beginning of August I received the commission to be Literary Animateur for Nithsdale from Wigtown Festival Company. This is rather splendid recognition for what I’ve been doing in the community, and support to continue over the next eight months. I’m delighted, if slightly trepidatious. I’ve not been asked to do anything more than I had planned, but it has conferred on me an internally generated need to be a little more organised. It’s made me up my game, shall we say.

Currently I’m in the throes of organising workshops, discussions, mentoring, and a poetry slam at The Stove on September 18. We’re calling it Brave New Words, and our theme is Democracy. During the day we’ll have workshops on how to use politics in creative writing and performance. This will include a rapper who will teach participants about such things as 4/4 rhythms; a philosopher to lead a discussion on democratic process; a performance poet who will lead a workshop called The Personal is Political, as well as me running a workshop on how to use political terminology, meaningfully, in creative writing. Plus two more from my colleagues in this venture, Sarah and Martin, the details of which I’ll give in a later post. Meanwhile here’s one of our call out posters for the slam.

Poster for the Brave New Words Slam. Designed by Martin O'Neil at The Stove.
Poster for the Brave New Words Slam. Designed by Martin O’Neil at The Stove.

Moffat Poetry Club resumes after the summer break on September 14, so I’m also working out a program for that. Earlier this month I sent an email to the group to ask what they’d like us to do, and gave some suggestions of my own, so I’m now working up all the ideas into some sort of cohesive plan. After which I’ll get on with finalising plans for the Creative Journalling course I’ve been asked to do for Moffat Book Events in October. Meanwhile, Moffat Book Events has their annual Russian Conference, also on the weekend of September 18/19/20. I’ll be lending them as much support as I can, including picking speakers up from the station, and helping out on the door. The Mr. and I have also been invited to the conference dinner on the 19th, with the proviso that he bring his guitar.

Moffat Book Events Tolstoy conference poster
This conference is held in collaboration with the Russian State Library for Foreign Literature (VGBIL).


On the morning of September 19 I’ll be in Annan for their Day of the Region shenanigans supporting colleague Vivien Jones, Literary Animateur for Annandale and Eskdale, who has organised it all. Before rushing back to Moffat to check conference delegate tickets in the afternoon.

And at some point in the next week I must finish polishing a guest post for another blog as part of the Luminate Festival that’s running throughout Scotland in October. I’ll tell you more about this once I know.

If all that’s not enough, I’ve been approached about what sounds like a fantastic performance project, also at The Stove, for which I may help with some aspect of the writing.

So it’s all very exciting indeed. Though I think I may need oxygen by the end of this month.

Thank goodness we had a marvellously relaxing holiday at the end of July. We stayed at the Ford Guesthouse in Argyll, by the shores of Loch Awe (sad I haven’t had time to write a review on Trip Advisor yet), in, or very close to, Kilmartin Glen.

Here are some photos, and you can find more on Flickr should you wish, though I have yet to upload them all.

Weeds in an Argyll loch.
The water is astoundingly clear in Argyll.


Standing stones at Kilmartin Glen.
Nether Largie Standing Stones, Kilmartin Glen.


Looking over to Seil Island.
The Mr looks over the Bridge over the Atlantic.

Now I’m going to try and write a proper, workable schedule so that I can build some novel writing time into my days, or weeks, or…

Langholm hen harrier ‘Annie’ found shot dead on Scottish grouse moor


This it too important not to share by any means possible. Driven grouse shooting is another element of the absurd struggle for power that also gives us: racism; sexism; the persecution of refugees and asylum seekers; the wars we can’t seem to stop ourselves starting; the non-wages of the working poor; the monarchy; the first past the post electoral system; the persecution of the unemployed, alternatively employed, disabled… The list goes on, all of it needs to be addressed as a whole entity, as well as individual parts. Please sign the petition (link below) to ban driven grouse shooting, and preserve our natural heritage.

Originally posted on Raptor Persecution Scotland:


A young hen harrier called ‘Annie’ from the 2014 Langholm cohort has been found shot dead on a Scottish grouse moor.

You may recall we blogged about her satellite tag going off the radar in March this year in an area of South Lanarkshire (see here).

Her corpse was retrieved at the end of April after an intensive search by RSPB Scotland Investigations staff and her remains were sent to the SAC Veterinary Lab for post mortem.

The post mortem results have now confirmed that she had been shot.

Stuart Housden, RSPB Scotland Director said: “This case shows very clearly what happens to some of our hen harriers when they leave protected nesting areas and move around the UK’s uplands. This is just the latest incident of criminal persecution of this species, following the confirmed shooting of birds in Aberdeenshire, Moray and Ayrshire in the last two years…

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A Clean Little Spot on the Earth Where the Sun Sometimes Shines∞

I think it was Sylvia Plath who said a writer’s diary shows only their problems, because when work is going well one has no need for a diary. Or something like it. I’m not sure my work has been going well, time will tell me that, but it has been going, as has life in general, so I haven’t had the impetus to stop and write a blog post. I’ve been too busy enjoying my clean little spot on the earth while the sun shines.

I have quite a few new poems, all of which need to be worked up, but the real heat emanates from the fact I’m performing major surgery on my novel. This because when I read it through again it seemed pretty boring, so asked myself why I want to tell this dull story. When I explained it to myself it didn’t sound dull at all, in fact it sounded like a story that needs to be told. So the story ain’t problem, I concluded. Thus began the third draft, aka a substantial rewrite: I’ve changed protagonists, so the story is now told from a completely different perspective. The original main protagonist is now ‘off page,’ though still absolutely central; she is the catalyst but not the focus. It’s coming together, slowly, slowly as I try to fit in its writing with the rest of life. As for that rest of life it would take more energy than I have to explain what’s been happening these (nearly) four months, so here are some photos to give some indication.

Birthday trip to Arran:

Goat Fell, Arran
The Mr took me to Arran for my birthday (in April), and this is Goat Fell from the public loo behind the Coop in Brodick.
Isle of Arran rock pool.
I can’t remember where on the island this is, but the Mr was fishing, and I was pootling.


Pebble stack near King's Cave, Arran.
On the way to King’s Cave from Blackwaterfoot we found a sea of these stacked pebble. That people take the trouble to do this gives me faith that all is not lost.


As part of the soft opening of The Stove, a gorgeous new arts space/community hub/life source in Dumfries, my colleague and collaborator in Spoken Word, Sindigo, and I ran a day of workshops and mentoring, followed by an evening open mic session, for would be performance poets/storytellers. We were supported in this by Wigtown Festival Company, another fantabulous arts resource in the region.

Poster for the Open Mouth event.
Poster for the Open Mouth event.


Liz Lochhead is the Scots Makar, our equivalent of a Poet Laureate, and thanks to the joint efforts of Moffat Music Live, and Moffat Book Events, and the support of Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival we were able to see her perform in Moffat at the end of May.

Poster for our Arts Festival event.
Poster for our Arts Festival event.

The next day the Mr and I took Liz to the Grey Mares Tail which she remembers visiting as a child. After a good explore she took us to Tibbie Shiels inn for a pint, before we brought her back into town to catch her bus home.

Grey Mare's Tail, Moffat
As Liz sat and sketched, the Mr examined bugs and wildflowers, and I stared into the abyss to find a dead willow staring back.
Dying Mushroom
I love the way this mushroom is decaying, it looks like a tiny bronze helmet on a stick.


I have an ancient Peugeot road bike. I bought it second-hand at least 25 years ago so it’s a bit knackered: the chain falls off, the gears stick, only the front brake makes any attempt to slow the bike down, that kind of thing. So I’ve tended not to go very far on it, but there’s a new* bike fixer in town and the Mr dragged me along to confess my sins. And voila! it’s in full working order again. He worried he wouldn’t be able to make enough of a difference, it was that shit, but it’s like riding a new bike. Thus, we have been going out on little cycling excursions. However, we drove to these:

The Mr about to leave the frame as he tries to identify a moth.
The Mr about to leave the frame as he tries to identify a moth at the Loupin Stanes
The Girdle Stone Circle, Eskdalemuir.
Reduced from 45 to 26 stones by the river Esk’s irascibility, these are the Girdle Stanes. Apparently they’re much older than the Loupin Stanes above.


And we are up to date; now I can go back to my book/poems with a clear conscience.


∞Taken from a quotation from Kafka’s letter to his father, the full extent of which is: “It is, after all, not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but it is necessary to crawl to a clean little spot on the earth where the sun sometimes shines, and one can warm oneself a little.”

*to me, at least, he could have been here for years.

Hark! The Haiku

What is a haiku?

As far as I can see it’s a tiny nugget of enlightenment in the form of two (written) images juxtaposed in such a way as to form a meaningful connection. According to the Academy of American poets: the traditional Japanese haiku focuses on an association between images at a specific moment in time. Form wise it consists of a single line of 17 on, broken into 3 phrases of 5, 7, and 5, that contains a kireji and a kigo.

Sand surfer on St Andrews beach
 St Andrews beach, our 3rd anniversary, a sand surfer woos us.

Um, what?

The Japanese on is a unit of sound, and though they’re not the same the nearest thing we have is the syllable. And as we have to organise our haiku somehow it’s syllables we use, and generally, but not always, stick to the number 17, and the 5, 7, 5 format. We usually separate the phrases into three lines, but, again, not always: it’s a rare poet who rigidly sticks to a rule at the expense of meaning.

A kireji is a word that acts rather like the volta in a sonnet. It effects a turn, or change of tone, and connects, and adds meaning to, the two separate images. Again, we don’t have direct equivalents in English, so we tend to use punctuation and/or line breaks to do this job.

Finally, A kigo is a word that refers to something specific about a season. For example: the smell after a late spring shower. The Japanese have a whole stash of these, but as we don’t English language poets have found ways round this element of the haiku without eradicating its essential haikuness.

For a little clarification:

Here’s more from the Academy of American Poets:

Haiku was traditionally written in the present tense and focused on associations between images. There was a pause at the end of the first or second line, and a “season word,” or kigo, specified the time of year.

As the form has evolved, many of these rules—including the 5/7/5 practice—have been routinely broken. However, the philosophy of haiku has been preserved: the focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment and illumination.


Got it?

Rather than tangling us up with more elaborate explanations, it’s probably best to show some haiku so you can see for yourself how they work. Look out for the two images, the ‘turn,’ and the sense of illumination. It seems only fair to start with a Japanese one, so this is by Matsu Bashö, and, according to Wikipedia where I took this from, is the best known Japanese haiku:

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water’s sound*

This one’s by Ezra Pound called ‘In a Station of the Metro’:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Here’s one by Seamus Heaney:

Dangerous pavements
but I face the ice this year
with my father’s stick.

And this is by Dag Hammarskjöld:

The boy in the forest
Throws off this best Sunday suit
And plays naked**

Poetry Clubbers have been asked to write as many haiku as they can for our next meeting. As it would seem wrong to ask this of them and not do any myself I’ve been stabbing away at it when time allows. It ain’t easy, but here’s one inspired by the photo above:

Pulled across beach sand
winter waves crash and rise;
boy, kite, wind: engage.

For those of you interested in the solutions to the Anglo Saxon riddles of the last post they are: 9: a cuckoo, and 30: a beam of wood


*Translating literature is difficult enough, translating poetry is virtually impossible, so here are another 30 English translations of Basho's haiku.
**Found in The New Yorker.

Poetry Club

I started a poetry group

Moffat Poetry Group
Poster design, Sara Indigo.

At that first gathering we decided to meet fortnightly, every alternate Monday, so have had two now, and the next is on Monday (March 9). At the last one we looked at Anglo Saxon riddles, and all had a go at writing one there and then. Homework, for those who wanted it, was to bring a poem made from either that riddle, or from another written at home later.

Anglo Saxon Riddles

What little I know about these I read in The Earliest English Poems, wonderfully translated by Michael Alexander who says:

The riddle is a sophisticated and harmless form of invocation by imitation: the essence of it is that the poet, by an act of imaginative identification to which Vernon Lee gave the name ’empathy’, assumes the personality of some created thing – an animal, a plant, a natural force. Some element of impersonation is involved in any creative act, but by performing this particular ventriloquism the poet extends and diversifies our understanding of – or at least our acquaintance with – the numenous natural world whose life, even existence, modern men are becoming progressively unaware. This operation is salutary, and may be said to have a religious value.

So, the idea is to think yourself into the character of your subject and try and write as it, rather than about it.

I like to use the riddle as a teaching aid because it forces students to focus their minds on the particular, and to be as specific as possible about their subject.  It’s a great exercise in fully imagining. Here are a couple of the riddles so you can see for yourself. They all come, originally, from the Exeter Book:


Abandoned unborn by my begetters
I was still dead a few spring days ago:
no beat in the breast, no breath in me.

A kinswoman covered me in the clothes she wore,
no kind but kind indeed. I was coddled & swaddled
as close as I had been a baby of her own,
until, as had been shaped, so shielded, though no kin,
the unguessed guest grew great with life.

She fended for me, fostered me, she fed me up,
till I was of a size to set my bounds
further afield. She had fewer dear
sons and daughters because she did so.

I am fire fretted and I flirt with Wind
and my limbs are light-freighted and I am lapped in flame
and I am storm-stacked and I strain to fly
and I am grove leaf-bearing and a glowing ember.

From hand to friend's hand about the hall I go,
so much do lords and ladies love to kiss me.
When I hold myself high, and the whole company
bow quiet before me, their blessedness
shall flourish skywards beneath my fostering shade.

Can you guess what they are (I know the first one, but not the second, and have been able to not look at the solution in the appendix so far)?

I’ve been trying to write a riddle a day for the last week or so, but rather than looking at natural entities I’ve been using the form to explore abstract concepts. I hope to be able to make poems of them at some point, but here is a rough one (don’t feel obliged to say it’s good, it takes me months of chiselling to get a poem right):

I am the great regulator of your
life, of all life, though it's only you and 
your kind who, out of sync with the world's
rhythms feel the need to measure me. I
am not money, you cannot save me, or 
batch me into manageable quantities.
You can only exist within my 
untouchable boundaries: dark; light;
hot; cold. My passing is felt in all your
procrastinations; at parties to mark 
marriages and deaths; anniversaries
and births. You rail against me when you pluck
at those grey hairs, but look kindly and see
it is me who brings the first strawberry.

Should you wish to have a go at writing one I’d be delighted if you shared it in the comments section.





Speech Impediment

Free Raif
I joined the Twitter campaign to raise awareness of Raif Badawi’s case, and, perhaps, get him out. I know it’s not enough.

Like most westerners I believe strongly in freedom of speech.

By which I don’t mean the ‘right’ to hurt others with words, as the term seems so often to be interpreted; but freedom to challenge beliefs, certainties, assumptions, values, the government and other powers? yes, I mean that. We can’t flourish without it. As individuals; as families; as groups; as cultures; as states, we all need our ideas to be challenged or we stagnate. We’d still be sending children down mines if speaking out against it got you imprisoned and tortured.

So how is it ok to eulogise about freedom of speech (and human rights) at home, but to snuggle up with a blind eye turned to another whom we know practises abuse of both?

I’m talking, of course, about Raif Badawi, currently imprisoned with a flogging sentence hanging over him in Saudi Arabia. For blogging.

And all the while our government is happy to do business with Saudi. We sell them the weapons they use to spread their particular, violent form of fundamentalism throughout the middle east. The type that thinks it’s fine to strap bombs to ten year olds and send them into market places.

And Nabeel Rajab awaiting trial in Bahrain for tweeting this:

“Many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator.”

Bahrain, a state that tortures doctors for treating pro-democracy protestors. And we have just done a deal with them for a naval base in the Gulf. 

How can we live with ourselves? And if we can’t, what can we realistically do?


Reading: A How

How to read  poems
Dead? How?

How do you read poetry?

I ask because I’ve made a discovery, I think. I have always read poems as individual entities. I read them one at a time, out loud, and interrogate them until I feel I have a grip and can move on to the next. This makes reading a new book of poems, or a new poet, very slow, not least because I get weary, and can end up reading a whole novel between each poem as solace. Or, I can have several books of poems on the go at one time, dipping in and out of each as my nerve allows. I’d never thought of reading a book of poems in the way I’d read a novel or a text book.

About half way through university I discovered that reading a text book quickly, without puzzling over every little thing actually aided my understanding. I’d read them as if I was doing so just for the fun of it, right to the end, stopping only to look up the meaning of ‘teleology’ for the umpteenth time. I’d then take a break and start again for a ‘close’ reading a couple of days later. It made the most enormous difference to my student life because second time around it was like having a conversation with an old friend. I read cookery books the same way: the whole book, often in one sitting, before attempting the recipes which, miraculously, feel like a breeze. But it took an interview with Louise Glück on her book Faithful and Virtuous Night to make me even consider the possibility of using the same technique with poems.

“I thought I’d never resolve the issue of this structure, never be able to give shape to these poems,”

she said. And went on: “which usually means there’s a piece missing, as was true here. […] I had thought that the long poem would be a whole that moved roughly chronologically from section to section, but it seemed lifeless when I put it together that way. I tried rearranging the sequence but that wasn’t the answer. [… the] shape didn’t really find itself until the end – when I wrote prose poems, which I’d never done before – they were written in a tide of exhilaration at the thought that maybe I could finally finish the book.”

This intrigued me so much I bought Faithful and Virtuous Night. Yet I still tried to read it in my usual way, labouring over every poem. And I didn’t get it.

The first thing about a poem that makes sense is, usually, the sound:

‘I ordered this, this clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it’*


‘The spinner fluchters,
but falters not
in its bee-line for the shore,’**

Both these have strong rhythms (read them aloud), and imagery (second sense maker), but I couldn’t hear Glück’s rhythms, or see her vision. For example:

‘It came to me one night as I was falling asleep
that I had finished with those amorous adventures
to which I had long been a slave. Finished with love?
my heart murmured. To which I responded that many profound
awaited us, hoping, at the same time, I would not be asked
to name them. For I could not name them. But the belief that they
surely counted for something?’

When I read poetry the question: “What makes this a poem?” is always in the back of my mind, but here the question started wailing at me like a starving hyena. And I couldn’t begin to answer it. I kept reading: another, then another, always trying to make sense of one before moving on to the next, until I wanted to throw the damn book out the window. But I had ordered this, this clean cool book, paid for it out of my ever diminishing bank account, and Glück is a prize winning poet, I needed to work it out.

I gave it a break.

Then I remembered the problems she’d had putting it together, and that it was more than just one poem after another, so I tried reading it as if it were a novel. And by the time I came to the end I felt it. I heard her rhythms, and, thus, had some purchase. By the end of my second reading I was faintly in love with the poems’ personae, and Glück’s writing.

Trying just now to find an example to show how unrhythmic the poems were I struggled. So from now on I will read any new book of poems like a book, not just a bunch of random verses, without trying too hard to make sense of its individual elements.

So, I ask again: how do you read poetry (if at all)?

On reading poetry
Leadhills: desolate, but lovely.


*From ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ in Ariel by Sylvia Plath (my favourite poem ever).

** From ‘Fishing at Spiggie’ in Nigh-No-Place by Jen Hadfield.

Poet's workspace 2015

Year of the Poet

Hello 2015!

Three days into the year and I am fit for nothing, except, perhaps, keeping tissue manufacturers afloat. I can neither read nor write, because my glasses irritate my nose and make it run all the more, so I have to stop every thirty seconds to grab at another tissue. Which makes concentrating so difficult I gain little or nothing from from the endeavour. So, instead, I’ve been filling up my Pinterest board, How to be a POet (the capital O was a typing error, but I quite like it) with images of fantasy poets’ book filled rooms, and wondering in the idle way of the faintly ill if I’m capable of giving up the idea of a whole room of my own yet. Probably not.

However, a recent trip to Ikea and a little manoeuvring has made my space at the top of the stairs about as perfect as its limitations allow.

Poet's workspace 2015
Ready for action?

Yes, it’s cluttered, and there are hideous wires hanging about, but the addition of a second bookcase has allowed me to have almost all the books I feel I need to hand, and given me an off-desk space for work in progress. I find if I don’t have my work visible at all times I forget about its existence, and poems do benefit from being idly picked up and tampered with over a long period of time, so I need to see everything I’ve got. A glance at my work in progress shelf shows me that’s not quite the case at the moment. Pinking shears; camera; a scarf; last year’s diary; two notebooks; a ribbon, and a mass of other papers all combine to obscure my poems, somewhat. But tomorrow I should be done with website designing and teaching is already over, so I’ll be able to devote the space to my writing alone. I know it will never be this:

Reader's chair
It’s the chair that does it for me, I’d go without cake for a year to have one like it.

Or this:

A room for readers
Oh god…

but it feels like it could work.

The Year Ahead

Thus I go into the new year with a feeling of optimism. No resolutions except to keep on going. I feel I got to grips with how to go about becoming the poet I am last year, and just want to keep hold of that. Yes, I’d like to travel a little further afield. Yes, I’d like to see more of my inspiring best friend. Yes, I’d like to spend more time in the city. But I don’t suppose any of those things are necessary for me to make good work. After all, there is a school of thought that proposes one’s most profound discoveries are invariably to be had close to home. I may be about to test that theory to the limit.

Here is a photo from last Monday. I knew the hill had been recently harvested of its pointy trees, but had no idea how war zone it would look.

Gallow Hill, Moffat, in fog.
Gallow Hill, on the edge of Moffat . I went for a wander up it in Monday’s fog, and was arrested by the decimation caused by recent clear-felling. It was like being an extra in a film about the battle of the Somme after the crew had packed up and gone.

Happy 2015 to all of you. If you have any new year’s resolutions do let me know in the comments, and if you don’t perhaps you’d like to explain yourself.