Category Archives: poetry

Ghost print

My friend Jerry asked me if I’d like to do a piece for his blog, so I wrote and recorded a text and a poem.

(Plus – you know, he said nice things about me – you gotta take what you can get!)

If you click below to view the original post on Jerry’s blog, there is a Soundcloud of the whole thing as a sort of minipodcast.

My My Corona

My friend Steve Smart is one of those people who overflows with talent. He’s a photographer, filmmaker, poet and all around Mr Fix-it when it comes to media and tech things. You can see his work here. He’s brought together a number of his talents with a lovely reflective, poetic piece appropriate to our times. Feast on this (a script follows):

Ghost print

Last night I was listening to an excellent BBC podcast in which artist Norman Ackroyd talks with author Robert Macfarlane.

Both are people whose work I admire hugely, and the conversation was a treat which I recommend. Amongst many topics covered at some point they touched on a story about an ancient hand stencil. This piece of cave art, believed to be the oldest yet discovered had been dated to over 64,000 years ago. Something sparked, and I knew I would be writing a poem…

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TRAWL

TRAWL is a video poem made for Stanza 2020 (Scotland’s International Poetry Festival) as part of Scotland’s Year of Coasts & Waters 2020.

It’s a collaboration between myself, poet Matthew Caley, using text from his sixth collection Trawlerman’s Turquoise, musician and bioacoustician Alex South, and experts in marine science at the University of St Andrews.

You can see TRAWL on a screen at the Byre Theatre during the Festival, or you can watch it on my Vimeo channel, right here… (volume up to hear Alex’s amazing soundtrack!)

 

More about …

TRAWL at StAnza 2020
http://www.stanzapoetry.org/festival/events/trawl

‘Trawlerman’s Turquoise’ by Matthew Caley is published by Bloodaxe Books
https://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/product/trawlerman-s-turquoise-1218

Matthew Caley will be at Stanza 2020, for further details please see
http://www.stanzapoetry.org/festival/poets-artists/caley

Alex South is a composer, performer, and bioacoustician
https://alexsouth.org/

With thanks to marine scientists at the University of St Andrews, especially:
Richard Bates, Ellen Garland, Bernie McConnell, and Luke Rendell.

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Coast Lines

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I’m slightly intimidated that I’m going to be at a Poetry Café event with some writers who are well above my paygrade (!) on the morning of Friday 6th March at StAnza International Poetry Festival next week. It’s called Coast Lines.
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In case you can’t make it to the Byre in St Andrews for coffee, the craic is going to be webcast too, via https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/livevideo/one/ but not recorded so you have to watch it live, times and other event details are at http://www.stanzapoetry.org/festival/events/breakfast-poetry-caf-coast-lines
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Antarctic poems at Discovery Point

I’m delighted that the home of the RSS Discovery in Dundee has been able to arrange to borrow some of the materials from the 2019 Antarctic poetry competition, based in New Zealand. “The world’s first and only poetry exhibition in the Antarctic” aims to raise awareness of the role of Antarctica in our understanding of the climate crisis.

Discovery Point were very helpful with giving me access to the ship and to the collection in order to take photographs to accompany my submission for this unusual competition.  You can see eight of the poems and images from the competition, including my own shortlisted poem in the reception area – which is still accessible if you are only popping in for a poem and a coffee! The poems will be on display from now until sometime around March 2020.

More about the competition

More about my poem and images (with a reading)

More about Discovery Point

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The coffin road to Kilfinnan

Last month for Book Week Scotland, Stanza International Poetry Festival made postcards with short poems responding to work by a favourite poet. It was really nice to be asked to contribute. I enjoyed writing a poem for this so much, I made three. This is the one that ended up on a Stanzacard…

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Sea Symphonies

I don’t think I’ve written a poem inspired by a diagram before. This particular diagram came to my attention as part of my “day job” as a designer. Over the past couple of months I’ve been working on graphics and media for an exhibition at Dundee Science Centre about research studying the songs of humpback whales in the South Pacific. The study was undertaken by researchers from the Sea Mammal Research Unit of the University of St Andrews.

It’s fascinating work, and one piece of it is distilled in a diagram made by Dr Ellen Garland and her colleagues. It shows how humpback songs recorded by scientists over a 10 year period have not only travelled regularly in a west-to-east pattern over a 10,000km long stretch of the Pacific, but have changed year-on-year as humpback whales learn each new season’s “score” and sing it across the ocean. You can find out more about this remarkable, and as yet little understood observation of whale culture on Ellen’s website.

The more I thought about Ellen’s diagram, the more I came to feel how deceptively simple it was. I think that as you look more and gain a sense structure over time, you realise this is showing something genuinely astonishing, that had previously been so hard to see (or hear!) as to be effectively invisible.

So, here we are – a poem about a diagram… (who knows, maybe not the last.)

poem and reading by Steve Smart
original humpback whale photograph by Nicolas Job
original field recordings by Ellen Garland
montage by Steve Smart

 

Sea Symphonies

Ellen’s diagram is like a child’s quilt.
I turn her checkerboard about,
swap out strident Microsoft primaries
for shades that hurt me less,
and in handling the squares,
in redrafting with attention,
I accommodate their stories.

These colours are movements,
in many meanings of movement,
like impressionism, baroque, punk,
like skiffle,
shifting cribs of style from one mind there
to another even more far-out,
where we’re somewhere deep
in exotic waters,
for this all seems deeply exotic
to me.

The song square game is played
with cryptic southern ocean rules,
some tunes drawl short seasons,
just a few months drift afloat,
while others go pacific, spun for
a whole year swum on seaborne airtime.

She’s charting trends of alien voices,
the whales’ just discovered folksong,
sung to some purpose still unknown,
and sung untold, in all this time.
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The exhibition at Dundee Science Centre was supported by the Royal Society, the University of St Andrews, and Dundee Science Centre. It’s aimed at children, but there is lots for anyone to enjoy and find out. It launched on Saturday 28th September, and will be open for several months.


Place of Graves

I seem to be making more posts that I want to begin with “something a little different this time”. Hopefully that is a good thing. This time the different things are a short film, and that the poem is not my own. The short film is one that another poet asked me to make. The poet was acclaimed Scottish writer and Stanza founder, Brian Johnstone. Of course I was flattered to be asked, so, not really knowing what I was getting into, I said ‘OK!’

Brian sometimes performs with musicians Richard Ingham and Louise Major as ‘Trio Verso’, and he wanted to use improvisations Richard and Louise played around readings of his poem. Brian sent me an ad hoc recording he that he’d made already. I listened and decided I’d like to re-record it so I could make a new sound mix.

The problem I found was that the subject of Brian’s poem was both difficult, and something I knew very little about at all. This very short preface that he had written for the video explains the context:

“In the aftermath of the Holocaust a Jewish actress returns to her ancestral shtetl in Eastern Europe too seek evidence of her family’s former life.”

I didn’t even know what a ‘shetl’ was. I had to look it up. I learned that shtetls were small market towns in Eastern Europe with significant Jewish populations. The Yiddish word ‘shtetl’ means ‘little town’. They existed for hundreds of years, but by the 1930s they were in decline to some extent due to a variety of demographic and cultural changes. The Holocaust destroyed what remained of the way of life of the shetls. There is a great deal of excellent material available online. This is from a short piece by Joellyn Zollman:

“For American Jews, a majority of whom are of Ashkenazic (Eastern European) descent, the shtetl serves as a mythical point of origin. This simple, down-to-earth culture–guided by what seems to contemporary observers a colorful combination of religion and folk wisdom–is where we came from. And while shtetl life was inexorably changed by industrialization and modernization, it was destroyed by the Holocaust. Thus, shtetl life is sanctified with an aura of martyrdom.” [source]

I’ll be honest – this all seemed quite alien to me, and felt a long way from anything I knew. Brian had given me some cues about season, and winter. We also talked about an inscription in Hebrew I’d been surprised to discover in a rural church churchyard near where I live. These offered some possible points of visual access, but Brian had suggested the idea of the film to me at at point in the year where, even in driech old Scotia, the snows had mostly melted. On top of this, I wasn’t finding Trio Verso’s improvised musical take on the poem very immediately accessible. I needed something to help me connect. In the end this came from an odd place, an in-between place. Lost ground on the AM band of my car radio.

I’d noticed that when switching sources on the radio, there were places, not properly tuned in on AM where the radio produced odd rising and falling notes as I drove along: pops and crackles of radio frequency noise generated by machinery or power overheads, occasional radio echoes of distant voices or music, sometimes foreign, usually indistinct. In my own mind I’d called it ‘AM drift’. Sometimes now I just leave the radio there instead of tuning to a channel. It’s a strange sound, slightly ghostly. I find it oddly soothing. As the car moves through the outskirts of Dundee it feels as if the radio is picking through scratched layers of paint to older shades beneath. Like itching at an underskin of remote times and places, tuning in to vague shimmers of somewhere else.

I started bringing together samples of ‘AM drift’ with the recordings of Brian and Richard and Louise. The drifting static of forlorn radio noise, at once contemporary and remote, seemed to provide traction. Like the sensual roughness of surface that paper manufacturers call tooth, it offered to hold marks. I still didn’t find this an easy piece to make. I think that I felt I was an intruder in a place cherished by other people.

In retrospect I suppose the feeling was like when you enter an old cemetery as a tourist. You probably don’t know that much about the people who are buried there, or the people who might have come to mourn them. But you step quietly. You don’t want to behave poorly or give offence. It is a place that might be pastoral, perhaps even serene, but you know it is not a place that has been easy.

Place of Graves will be included in ‘Fields of War’ on Saturday September 7th at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.