Saturday, 25 July 2020

Lockdown Blues from dark to light

 At the start of the first lockdown (end March, 2020) I did not write about the pandemic or lockdown;  I found it hard to write at all. It was all too vast a subject and I was too ignorant. I was also filled with fury - at the unnecessary deaths of care-workers and their patients in care homes, and staff in hospitals all because they did not have the proper PPE.  

But eventually here is how I coped and I hope some ideas that will help others:

Tips for keeping your poetic flow going:

keeping your spirits up

but also cheering occupations outwith your usual:

For me, in July  it was an eco-poetry course with Jen Hadfield (online via Moniack Mhor, Scotland's writing centre) - a new way of looking and writing poetry - slow poetry, writing about your back garden, or your window box if that's all you have;

this echoed nicely the practice of Tai Chi and then Yoga (tutored online by my friend, and fellow poet, Trish (Patricia) Ace.  A way to keep flexible, calm and meditative.

 I  also studied Chinese art history and culture online via the City Lit and British Museum, picking up a bit of Mandarin, pinyin (spoken) and characters (traditional and Mao's simplified); one of the benefits of the internet, to 'go' to places I could never manage in life - the cost of a whole term in London out of the question.  The tutor also offered a one off workshop online in calligraphy which got me hooked; I wanted to do a full course but it made sense to find one in Edinburgh where I live, albeit still online so that when we can go live again I can meet everyone - impossible with a London class.  So I took further classes in calligraphy but also Chinese ink and wash painting with Chi Zhang at the Confucius Centre, Edinburgh. 

 This is also a calm and meditative practice and I had had no idea of how difficult it would be to paint a line, whether in calligraphy or painting, that is from the heart, perfect the first time (like the proverbial arrow straight to its target.) I have treated myself to a wooden brush holder with carved dragon heads either side of the frame, many brushes in wolf (though Chi says it's more likely weasel) and goat hair. I gather a new-born baby's hair is for the finest work, but I'm a few years off that standard.  Essential to have the right rice paper and Chinese inks.  

But poetry-writing returned, as I guess it was bound to. Some influenced by Daoist paintings. 

Friday, 10 July 2020

Pestilence series: Poems from the Back Room: Hugh McMillan's Blog

With thanks to Hugh McMillan for featuring me on his Blog.  You can read more of the Poets chosen for this series on

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Poems from the Backroom 115: Stephanie Green

Hugh Bryden is a ghost now and then in these pages, illustrating a book here, facilitating a project there. He nearly appeared earlier on the series talking about his latest collaboration with Donald S Murray but the pamphlet was coronavirused at the printers at the time and he wanted to show us the finished product. As he is coming up to a very important birthday soon I hope someone is putting together a chapbook of appreciation given that he has worked with some of the best poets around and is an international class artist and print maker in his own right.

One of Hugh’s great ideas was the 'Burns Windows' project. As you probably know Burns used to carry a diamond tipped pen around (the accessory of choice for all ploughboy poets) with which he would inscribe folks' windows with comments in verse about his experiences in the locality, a kind of 18th century Trip Advisor. I don’t know how he got away with it given when I wrote a pejorative essay on the toilet wall of the Globe Inn about another poet I was threatened with arrest. Anyway Shug’s idea was to cover all the windows of the Globe, Burns fave pub, with acetates bearing words from poets all over the world. He did this marvellous project several times in Dumfries and once in Dunfries’ twin town in Germany, Gifhorn. It was a marvellous effect, a glistening sea of words.

I think 'Burns Windows' is where I would have first come across Stephanie Green’s poetry although she was also involved in several projects in Dumfries including, as she is an expert in dance, the Dumfries troupe Oceanallover who can always be relied to come to arts events dressed as prawns. She's also the first poet we've had in the #plague who is a trained puppeteer. But it is her poetry we are concerned about here, and it is glorious indeed.

Steph is another Irish/Welsh meld, a Welsh speaker with an Irish parent though she now lives in Scotland. Her first poetry pamphlet, 'Glass Works'  from Cat's Pyjamas Publications in 2005 was short-listed for the Callum McDonald Award and her latest pamphlet 'Flout' was published by HappenStance and launched at StAnza in 2015. She has read at many poetry festivals in this country and beyond.  Stephanie's poetry is often born from history and in her hands it is not only a thing of beauty but work that holds a mirror to our contemporary hearts and souls. 

Here Stephanie is reading 'Hanmer's Agate', a poem about a tulip brought home from exile to a country torn by war, a symbol of peace and beauty born out of carnage, the kind of gift of/from nature we’re looking for to inspire and guide us out of all our current messes. Originally it was written as a counter to Brexit, a catastrophe still looming. It is transcribed below, along with the haunting 'I tell my husband I am pregnant and he sets out to make a tiny coffin (1891)', a poem inspired by the tetanus epidemic on St Kilda in the 19th century which is almost unbearable in its understated sadness.

Stephanie's Website:

Poetry Library Profile plus two poems:

Two Poems from 'And Other Poems':

Hanmer’s Agate: Experiments of a Tulip Fancier,
Sir Thomas Hanmer (1612-1678)

Returned from exile, he stands in a muddy field,
once his garden of formal parterres;
the trees are war-torn, storm-slashed; fireweed
rages through the grounds and the unhinged door

into the great hall; mice rampage,
bird shit weeps on the lace and lovelock
of his portrait as a young man; dung in the chapel
requisitioned for Parliamentarian horses.

Far from the Commonwealth’s courts, Sir Thomas
tends his garden, remembering the promise packed
in papery brown bulbs brought back from France
in the ship’s hold, his first wife left behind in her grave.

He plants the knot-garden they’d planned together: auriculas,
ranunculas, anemone and above all, tulips:
Belle Isabelle, Belle Susanne and Agates.
They rot in the wet Flintshire soil.

Should he sprinkle wine on the earth with incantations
to the moon? No. But after much experiment,
he shares his success with a fellow tulip-fancier,
Cromwell’s second-in-command.

To Major-General John Lambert,
From Sir Thomas Hanmer, Bart.

Plant them about the full moon in September,
in soil taken from mould from the fields or woodstacks
and mix with a 4th part or more of sand.

A gift of beauty, beyond faction: the mother-root
of the most exquisite and gallant, a tulip agotted
with scarlet, and gris de lin on pure white,
well parted, its base and stamens blue.

(First published in Magma: the European edition, April, 2018.)

I tell my husband I am pregnant and he sets out to make a tiny coffin (1891)

I choose a name: Mhairi or Callum.
He searches the tide-wrack daily for driftwood.

He forbids me to make clothes
But I make sheets for the coffin-crib.

There will be clean linen until the last
while I will rock and croon to my babe

for the few blessed days of its life.
It is God’s will. I shut out imaginings:

the fourth or fifth night,
when the babe gives up sucking;

the seventh, clenched gums,
even for my finger dipped in water.

I am knitting a shawl of such intricacy,
nothing so beautiful will have been seen before.

(Published in ‘Northwords Now.’)

Friday, 3 July 2020

Seamus Heaney Centre Summer School, Belfast


So delighted to have been accepted on the prestigious Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Summer School.
A week long of poetry critique, discussions and readings - but this year, due to Covid -  all online.  A fantastic way to hear and 'meet' poets of such talent and different approaches.  A bit of craic too, even though through the internet.  Our tutors were all brilliant: Nick Laird, Leontia Flynn, Simon Sexton.

TheBlackbird  is the emblem of the centre, named after a beautiful early Irish poem, translated by Seamus Heaney and many others.  'The Yellow Nib' is the SH Centre's poetry magazine.

A shame not to have been able to go to Belfast itself but certainly in the future I'll go in the flesh next time.

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