Sunday, 14 November 2010

Norman MacCaig Festival, Assynt, 2010

On the Alchmelvich road from Lochinver.


What a nice bit of serendipity. As you know, Norman MacCaig wrote lots and lots of frog poems,
so it was magic to find this sign by the road whilst up for the NMcC festival. (The sign above is a toad, not a frog, but never mind.) Here is one of his frog poems posted on his birthday centenary day:


Frogs sit more solid

than anything sits. In mid-leap they are

parachutists falling

in a free fall. They die on roads

with arms across their chests and

heads high.

I love frogs that sit

like Buddha, that fall without

parachutes, that die

like Italian tenors.

Above all, I love them because,

pursued in water, they never

panic so much that they fail

to make stylish triangles

with their ballet dancer's


At the festival main reading in Lochinver, Liz Lochhead read this poem amongst other MacCaig poems and as she said, ever after hearing this poem, you will never see a frog without thinking of Italian tenors and an Italian tenor without thinking of frogs. These were interspersed with some of her own including the poem (about a bull) she had read, with great nervousness at being on the same platform with him when she was starting out as a young poet. Liz recounted how as she writes mainly urban-inspired poems, MacCaig once said to her 'The trouble with you, Liz, is you were born in a laundrette.'

From Alan Taylor, we had reminiscences of MacCaig the 'two cigarette' poet, (how long it took him to write a poem), and MacCaig the man, the school teacher, the poet in residence at Stirling University (not quite fitting in with the academics), his love of whisky, holding forth in Edinburgh bars , his acerbic comments about other poets, but quiet and a listener up in Assynt in the company of fishermen and locals and further reminiscences from locals who had known him, ( a propos MacCaig acerbity, Wilma quoted 'a silver dirk' - mentioned in George Mackay Brown's poem re the poet), all this bandied about in bars, or up at the Lodge, or on poetic walks to the places MacCaig had written about, the vast tome of the Collected Poems passed round by Mandy Haggith for each of the walkers to read at strategic spots - all interspersed with ruminations about MacCaig's poetry and poetry writing in general.

For instance, how 'zen' like his poetry is - MacCaig's son, Ewan, apparently thinks not. I asked Colin Will, who is much inspired by zen poetry in his own work, to explain on the Glencanisp walk what zen poetry tries to do: write about Nature as itself, directly, not through anthropomorophism or through the poet's eye, he said. Much debate amongst us walkers as to how this applied to MacCaig and whether it is possible not to write through your own perception.
Rody Gorman, who is poet in residence at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the isle of Skye, strode around the room at the main reading, musing about whether there was a MacCaig link with Gaelic culture - his mother was from Scalpay, and tho MacCaig did not speak Gaelic, he had tried to learn it and must have had some knowledge - but the mother's inheritance was justification enough, he said to claim some influence. Rody read some of his own translations into Gaelic of MacCaig poems. Apparently, this has started a trend and others, such as Aonghais MacNeacail are busy writing translations now.

We also heard the first prize winner of the competition, Pippa Little's complex poem about the female perspective on Border Reivers (Scottish/Northumbria borders) and the second prize winner, Nancy Campbell's superb poem inspired by her writing residency up in Greenland.

I was privileged to get to read my commended poem too, inspired by my visits to Shetland. So what with Rody's Gaelic, Liz's Glaswegian, Northumbria, Greenland and Shetland, quite a variety of Scottish and Northern culture was celebrated. (The poems can be read on Top Left corner's website eventually - when they've recovered from clearing the hall, packing tables away, washing up from preparation of sandwiches, late nights, and maybe (no!) surfeit of poetry readings.)

Winning and commended poems can be read here: The winning poems are all at

So a wonderfully inspiring festival - with lots of other aspects - local involvement with school children writing MacCaig inspired poems and a wee booklet, 'Assynt's Casket' printed of their poems, illustrated by the children and the title poem read at the ceilidhe. An exhibition of local artists' work inspired by MacCaig and also an exhibition at 'An talladh solas' gallery in Ullapool. Great outreach - locals and visitors from all over involved. Well done, Mandy and all the other locals who worked tirelessly back stage.

Now, let's see, I've experienced Assynt in brilliant sunshine, autumn colours and mists in October, snow in January and now in November with gales and rain one day and the next snow-topped mountains, brilliant blue lochs, with snow falling on one mountain and the other graced by a rainbow simultaneously...hmm, let's look in the diary...Glencanisp Lodge/Top Left Corner has some writers' retreats coming up. And now they've put in central heating and double glazing, it's extremely cosy and beautifully redecorated, there's no excuse.

See Great blog from Nancy Campbell re MacCaig Festival but also about the itinerant librarian. ...and fascinating older posts re her residency in Greenland and Greenlandic words for snow, leaning on one elbow (fishing I presume) etc

Postscript: And if one can take yet more Norman MacCaig celebrations in Edinburgh tonight at the GRV, organized by Rob Mackenzie: many poets reading their favourite MacCaig poem and then one of their own MacCaig inspired.

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