Category Archives: Poetry

Breakfast with Burns

There we were, a roomful of foreigners, invited by the Scottish Government to a Burns Breakfast. I looked around and found we all appeared boringly normal. With the exception of one splendid looking man wearing what I will call a Bavarian style outfit, there was nothing to point to our foreign-ness. And I suppose that’s the whole point. We are all the same, give or take the odd thing.

Nicola Sturgeon at StayInScotland

The presence of quite so many press photographers became clear when Nicola Sturgeon entered the room. I should have guessed. After all, the venue was only divulged after registering. Ben Macpherson, Minister for Europe, Migration & International Development, kicked off with an introduction, and then it was time for the First Minister. It struck me that this was the first time I’d heard her speak, after so many encounters at the book festival. Basically, Scotland wants us here. We are welcome.

Thank you.

Nicola pointed out that Scots are good at having fun, even in deepest, darkest January. So before the first half ended, a young actor whose name I didn’t catch, talked about Robert Burns, and Robert’s strong belief in his own greatness, but thought the great poet might have been surprised to learn of the existence of vegan haggis. There was a most professional address to a haggis, followed by the piping in of a plateful of haggis canapés…

In the interval there was music, and Nicola Sturgeon walked round the room chatting to anyone who wanted to chat. I daresay she’d even have talked to me if I’d been able to come up with something sensible to say. She’s the mistress of selfies, and many many selfies were taken. (Daughter – via WhatsApp – demanded one of me with the FM, but I wriggled out of that by borrowing someone else’s big moment.) The thing about our First Minister is that she talks to people as though she’s a normal person. Not all politicians can.

Nicola Sturgeon at StayInScotland

As we started the second half, Nicola was spirited away, and the rest of us were treated to more music by the trio from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. They play very well, and the singer has the most beautiful voice. Starting with Auld Lang Syne, the audience perhaps displayed more of a foreign disposition by merely humming cautiously along, but I’d say that’s because we didn’t want to inflict our voices over that of the singer’s.

After several more wonderful songs, by the Burns chap again, Minister Macpherson thanked us, while apologising for the things Westminster is putting us through.

I had a final look at the information stalls, and helped myself to a blue and white pen. Very grip-friendly for elderly fingers, so one simply has to steal where one can.

And I never needed that book I’d brought.

All the Dear Little Animals

How could I not love Ulf Nilsson’s All the Dear Little Animals? To begin with, anything illustrated by Eva Eriksson is automatically extremely loveable. And the story of three children who hunt out dead animals so they can bury them is also rather sweet, don’t you think?

Ulf Nilsson and Eva Eriksson, All the Dear Little Animals

It starts with a bumblebee, which died of natural causes, and its death causes the poetic narrator and his friend Esther to arrange a funeral for it. Our narrator is good at coming up with poems for the ceremony.

And then Esther’s little brother Puttie discovers what they are up to, and he cries. He cries so well that he becomes their official crier. Puttie – unlike his older sister – finds death rather upsetting. He can see that when he dies, their parents will be very distraught.

Esther, on the other hand, avoids telling him that the most likely scenario might be the other way round. This, presumably, is for the adult who reads with their young child to decide to discuss. Mortality, and how it makes you feel.

Once they have hunted out a good many corpses, dug graves, read poems and cried, they are satisfied.

Tomorrow they will do something else.

(Translated by Julia Marshall, this is not a new book. Not even in translation. I would have liked the original title to be mentioned, so I didn’t have to Google it; Alla döda små djur.)

Lost verse

‘I can’t find the Oxford Book of English Verse,’ the Resident IT Consultant said one evening.

‘Well, I don’t know. It must be there, somewhere,’ I replied.

We searched. ‘Could it be we don’t actually have a copy?’ he asked.

While we do seem to own a fair few copies of these large, worthy, Oxfordy type tomes, I concluded this was a possible explanation.

Because it wasn’t upstairs with the other poetry. And not downstairs with the large books.

‘What did you want it for?’ I thought to ask.

‘I wanted to read Paradise Lost,’ the Resident IT Consultant said. ‘I suppose it’s lost, heh heh.’

‘Which part?’

‘The first two.’

‘Well, I have those. It was set reading at university. I don’t remember culling my copy, so it’s probably still here. Upstairs with the rest of the poetry.’

Turned out I was right. It was. And Bookwitch had saved the evening. She, who doesn’t do verse much.

I guessed the whole thing was set off by letting the Resident IT Consultant read The Secret Commonwealth when I was away for a few days. And he got to watch the first episode of His Dark Materials on television, also without me. Goes without saying that Paradise Lost is his next port of call.

Whereas when I got to the Smyrna bit in Philip Pullman’s second Book of Dust, I couldn’t help thinking of Giles Milton’s Paradise Lost…

Attaboy!

She even has a temporary flamingo. That’s Daughter, with the flamingo. And it’s only temporary because it’s not hers and it’s going to stay in the temporary place when she moves on. Otherwise I’d like to think it’s very much a permanent flamingo. If only for its sake.

I’m mentioning the flamingo because there were several of them in her last place as well. One wonders if she attracts them.

It’s pink. Pink-ish, anyway.

Dean Atta

Whereas the flamingo that brought this on is black, as in the book title The Black Flamingo. By Dean Atta. You might recall Daughter and I went to hear him talk at the Edinburgh book festival in August, and she ‘just had to’ have the book.

I mentioned taking Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust instead of drugs, last week. Well, Daughter did too. Her own copy, I might add. When life is stressful, it really does help.

But then she went and finished the book. And in temporary places, even those with flamingoes, there are not so many books to choose from when you want to read. But I urged her to pick one of her other two (!) works of fiction, for her continued drug-taking.

Once she’d started she couldn’t stop, and it ended with her sheepishly calling me to say that she had, erm, read the whole flamingo.

So that leaves one book. Plus the Kindle, which apparently has now been fed, so it can dispense fiction, hopefully on demand. Because what’s the point of me having forced her to buy ebooks if the Kindle is hungry?

Kiss and Part

I’d never heard of the Hosking Houses Trust, or the village of Clifford Chambers, and I’m guessing neither have you. The trust provides women writers with a “room of one’s own” where they can write in peace. And as such places require funding, they have commissioned a short story collection from past incumbents, and that’s Kiss and Part.

This is great fun to read and not in the slightest as worthy as it might sound. The introduction is by Margaret Drabble, and the list of authors has some names more famous than others on it, and all have contributed something original, something that connects with the cottage and the village.

Kiss and Part

We meet Shakespeare. After all, it’s more or less in his backyard. There is poetry. There are long stories and shorter ones, and they are all interesting in their own way.

I especially enjoyed The Incumbent by Elizabeth Speller, where I was at first annoyed by the seemingly narrow-minded narrator, but grew to understand her and to sympathise, and the ending is a masterpiece.

The stories are all different, as are their authors, and the fascinating aspect is how they all connect to the same place, while still being so diverse. They mirror literature today, showing us quality while proving this doesn’t have to be in just the one style.

Too tired to haiku

You know how it is with those subject lines in your inbox? Whatever it was you started discussing, it follows you around, even when you’ve moved onto something quite different.

I emailed Theresa Breslin about something, and then back, and back again, we went. Until she declared she was ‘tired’ of me being ‘tired’ in the subject line, and she was going to write a poem. As you do.

Since I don’t go on Twitter as often as others, it was pure chance that I discovered Theresa’s Haiku.

Theresa Breslin haiku

I have absolutely no idea what it is about. Am I dead? Or is there bird poo?

But I’m impressed that I could ‘inspire’ some inbox poetry.

Writing Rhythm

It’s odd. First, I don’t read that much poetry, or go to poetry events. And then in quick succession I found myself in the Spark theatre for poetry, two events running. Also, out of five poets, three are American. But they explained that poetry is big in the US, in a way it’s not in the UK.

Jason Reynolds and Amy McKay

Chaired by Amy McKay, whose flamingo skirt I couldn’t help noticing at the first event (about flamingos), she’d moved on to an equally stunning daisy skirt. And as she said in her introduction of Sarah Crossan, Kwame Alexander and Jason Reynolds; ‘we are really spoiling you this afternoon.’ They really were. She also knew not to waste time on listing all the great stuff the three have done.

Kwame Alexander

For some reason I’d not realised Kwame wasn’t British, but he’d just moved to London six days earlier, so I was almost right. Brixton has changed in 28 years, apparently. He read his new ‘picture book’ The Undefeated to us, showing the audience the illustrations while he recited his own poems by heart.

This impressed Sarah Crossan, the current Irish Laureate na nÓg, because she can’t remember hers. Maybe it depends on which side of the Atlantic you’re from. She chose to read about Marla and Toffee, the young and the old, and no one listens to either.

Sarah Crossan

And I finally got to ‘meet’ Jason Reynolds, whom I’d not heard of two years ago when I met someone who enthused about him a great deal. At first he gave a fair impression of a sullen teenager while the other two spoke, but once it was his turn,  he sprang to life and you could see why people admire him so much. He mentioned the weather [in the tent], before moving on to gun violence, and talking about how we ‘strap monikers to children so we won’t have to call them children.’

Jason Reynolds

So, anyway, poems are cool in America. Sarah was in luck, writing her first novel while living in the US. According to Kwame poetry is big, but he reckons the publishers don’t know much. He mentioned the impact of Walter Dean Myers, the hero in Love That Dog. Verse novels is quite a new thing, but ‘the kids were already there.’

Sarah is ‘impressed by myself’ and keeps anything she’s written, but edited out, in case she can slot poems in where they are needed. Kwame had many nice poems, but they didn’t go together, so he rewrote.

Jason said ‘it’s my job to keep the rhythm,’ and according to Kwame ‘when it works, the reader forgets it is poetry.’ And he told Sarah that she needs to learn to ‘own her own work.’ She felt that sounded like therapy, and very American.

Sarah Crossan

Kwame went on to mention the American ‘call and response’ to poetry, which is clearly what Elizabeth Acevedo was busy doing a couple of days before, when Dean Atta read from his book. Sarah doesn’t want to manipulate the readers, but Kwame is ‘totally into manipulating’ them… You need to make the world better, and it’s his responsibility to make you feel something. Jason said he’s somewhere between the other two, and manipulation is a dangerous word. ‘I just wanna bear witness.’

Someone in the audience mentioned that with verse novels you don’t have to write the boring bits, which made Kwame quote a secondary school pupil who had described it as ‘the right words in the right order.’

Jason Reynolds

Jason pointed out that writing poetry is like painting with only half a palette, which is harder; ‘really difficult.’ Sarah feels that writing is very democratic, and you only need pen and paper. And it helps if you don’t go to the cinema, don’t have any friends and if you work hard.

Kwame, ‘I steal a lot. Mature writers steal.’

And that was it. The main problem with the event was that it was too short. We could have done with at least another hour. Maybe two. It’s all that poetry, with so few words.