Monday, 23 November 2020

The Occasional Backroom: Chris Dolan

 Saraband's blurb for Chris Dolan's new book 'Everything Passes Everything Remains'  immediately attracted me. "It's a kind of travelogue, over time, and through some lesser-known parts...but mostly it's about how the past plays merry hell with the present." Chris' new book is a memoir of his times in Spain but it sounds like it's also a journey through his own memory and his own head, a wee bit like my own McMillan's Galloway. I believe these books should be twinned, especially as I'd be bound to sell more on Chris' coat-tails as he is a hugely wide ranging and successful writer, straddling a whole range of forms. 

Chris' books include Aliyyah (2015), Redlegs (2012), and Ascension Day (1999) which won the McKitterick Prize. His first collection of short stories, Poor Angels, was shortlisted for the Saltire Award and a story from it won the Scotland on Sunday prize. 

His stage plays include: The Pitiless Storm (2014) and The Cause of Thunder (2017), both for David Hayman. Sabina won a Fringe First in 1998. He has written over 70 hours of television, including popular series like  Taggart, and River City and drama-documentaries like An Anarchist’s Story (BBC 2007). He has written and presented TV docs including Barbado’ed: Scotland’s Sugar Slaves (BBC), and The Scots Who Fought Franco (STV). His films include The Ring (BBC), Poor Angels, and the Imax production, Mistgate. He has written over 20 radio plays, including adaptations of Stevenson’s classic Kidnapped and books by many authors including García Márquez, Umberto Eco, and Balzac. His original plays include 2014’s The Strange Case of Dr. Hyde.

He was Writing Fellow at the University of Strathclyde, 2011 -2012 and founded and taught the Taller de Escritura, Pamplona. He is currently Programme Leader of MATV, the only dedicated television scriptwriting masters in the UK. He is Honorary President of the Ullapool Book Festival and is active on the boards of both Aye Write (Glasgow) and Wordplay (Shetland) book festivals.

Just about the only thing we've got over him I hear you mutter is poetry, but unhappily he's good at that too. His poetry takes inspiration as it should from ordinary life and he's volunteered here a cheerful and accessible piece, particularly welcome at this drab and cheerless time when its hard to keep the spirits up. People have always turned to poetry when the emotional heat is on, and we look to it for consolation, ceremony and the boosting of morale. This poem 'Greedy Me' is just bursting with life:  


I want my choice on the menu. And I also want yours 
I love the disease, and seek out the cure. 
I wanna dance, dance, dance the whole night through. 
And go to bed early with an improving book. 

I’m going to train so hard for that perfect PB. 
And have myself a dram when I finish this beer. 
Gonna climb that mountain. And stay in my bed 
Have my cake and eat it, if even force-fed. 

I get up early and I like a long lie 
An independent mind, I take both sides. 
I’m a nature boy, and prowl the city at night. 
The Tay and the Tyne; Bonnie and Clyde. 

I’m hail-fellow-well-met, but leave me alone! 
Keep myself to myself, and yak all night on the phone. 
I talk to God, but proclaim that He’s gone. 
I’m a follower of Marx, a fan of Proudhon. 

Oh so many things I can be 
Professor of hermeneutical bibliology 
Fix your car, a molecular engineer 
Pen smash hits, or a slim volume of poetry. 

I’m perfectly suited for today. But also the jazz age. 
I want to stay as I am, and quickly turn the page. 
I see every point of view, but I’ve got my own crusade 
I say, hey Peace man, as I’m building the barricades. 

I’m teacher and learner, United and City 
I wanna be your lion, and your cuddly kitty. 
I lead from the outside, but I’m on the committee 
I’m self-possessed, but feel I deserve your pity. 

I want prizes and baubles, and I want to refuse them 
I’ll shout the odds, while in secret collusion. 
I want facts and figures, and believe nothing is proven 
I have no conclusions, but I know how to use ‘em. 

I’m an example to children, and a scandalous old rogue
I’m a Mod and a Rocker. I’ll be young when I’m old
Give me southern warmth – and the crystal north cold
I’ll be the dragon. And also St. George.

I know that I’m right, but welcome corrections
A happy lost soul who still hopes for redemption
I always hit deadlines but demand an extension.
Rub my tummy and head in different directions.

Fighter, lover
Bach and The Who
Tarkovsky and Corrie
Steak and tofu.
I wanna be me and I wanna be you.

I can be real, I can pretend
Save my pennies, and spend, spend, spend!
Not give a toss – and repent, repent!
Give me it straight, give me a blend
Stranger in your midst, and all things to all men.

I want to be useful. I want to be dreamy
I want to find everything that maybe is in me
It’s never ‘or’ but always ‘and’ with me
I want it all, the A to the Zee, so gimme, gimme, gimme!

More Info about Chris here:

An Interview with Chris here:

Everything Remains: a Song inspired by his Spanish journey and Memories

A Link to 'Everything Passes Everything Remains': 

Saturday, 14 November 2020

The Occasional Backroom: Mandy Haggith

In the midst of new lockdowns, we are well overdue a laugh. I have been long inclined to use humour in poetry to lever the door open for some important truths, and so does today's guest in the Backroom, Mandy Haggith. Her serious issues are ours' and will prevail long after Covid. Are we all really going to reboot our relationship with nature when all this is over, or was that all just lockdown wishful thinking to keep us whimsically occupied while we gear up top start again exactly as before? 

Mandy Haggith has been a passionate environmental campaigner all her life. She lives in Assynt and teaches Literature and Creative Writing at the University of the Highlands and Islands where she runs a project about tree poetry called A-B-Tree, inspired by the Gaelic tree alphabet. Her first novel won the Robin Jenkins Literary Award for environmental writing in 2009 and she has been poet in residence at the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens and Inverewe Gardens. Her books include four poetry collections, a poetry anthology, a non-fiction book and five novels. Her 'Stone Stories' trilogy are based on Iron Age history and published by Saraband. 

Here she reminds us why we should never take the piss out of a walrus. Great rhyming couplet at the end!

You wouldn’t want to wrestle with a walrus

Cos his head’s like a dustbin with three foot tusks
He’ll kiss you to bits with his suction lips
His whiskers’ll tickle till you lose your grip
His penis bone’s like a walking stick
And he won’t feel your punches, his skin’s so thick.
He is two tonnes of blubber and built like a bus,
No you wouldn’t want to wrestle with a walrus

He farts like a rocket and he belches pepper spray
He flaps his flippers like he’s practicing for flag day
He’ll scratch you with his nails if you try to pin him down
Or push you down the sandy beach and roll you till you drown
If you grab him by the flippers he will squash you with no fuss
No, you wouldn’t want to wrestle with a walrus.

He can hang out under water, he’s a deep sea diver
He’s like jaws with claws, has no sense of humour either
He looks kind of cuddly when he gives you a wave
But taking him on is neither big nor brave
He’s got 20 of his pals lying out there on the isthmus
No, you wouldn’t want to wrestle with a walrus.


in from the riverside
where the putter of boat engines dulls

you practise scales
by a low pool among trees

long slow notes climb up your flute
as rain drops ring

young sad notes
almost as still as the leaves

sweet green notes
tugging at the sleeves of ghosts

pulling over the water
like a kind of grieving

reeling us in
to stand in the rain


(From Castings (Ullapool: Two Ravens, 2007)

Monday, 2 November 2020

The Backroom Archive: Willie Neill Poet of Galloway

Willie Neill is probably the south of Scotland’s finest poet since Burns. He was unique in speaking fluently the three languages of Scotland, English, Scots and Gaelic. Although he was an adult when he learned Gaelic, he won the Gold Medal at the 1969 Mod. He was fiercely proud of the history and language of south west Scotland and unlike many writers from the region ‘stayed put’, an act through which his national reputation probably suffered. He was contemptuous of those who courted success in the poetry ‘centres of power’. He saw his poetry as ‘standing up for the small tongues against the big mouths’. He is really the poetic soul of Galloway, his poetry ranging through its history, its people and its language.

In this video, Neill is reading ‘Duilleagan’ in Gaelic, and the translation ‘Leaves’ is read by Gregor Ross. Linked at the foot of the page is a small program in which Neill reads more and is interviewed on his poetry and use of Gaelic and Scots. He makes a particularly impassioned defence of Scots as the living language of the common people.


Falleadh foghair na mo chuinnean
cubhras eader beatha 's bas:
aodach sracte craobh an t-samhraidh
lar-bhrat iomchaidh do mo chas.

Duilleagan na h-oige 'r tuiteam
ranaig mo reis fhein gu foghair:
duilleagan nam bliadhna fodham
feadhainn dathte, feadhainn odhar.


The smell of Autumn in my nostrils
a scent between life and death;
the torn garments of summer
carpet fitting for my feet.

The leaves of youth have fallen
my own time reaches autumn;
the leaves of the years beneath me
some coloured, some plain. 

William Neill was born in Prestwick, Ayrshire in 1922. He joined the RAF on leaving school, and having seen many parts of the world, left the forces in the 1960s, and studied Celtic literatures as a mature student at the University of Edinburgh. He then taught English in Galloway, before retiring to the village of Crossmichael where he died in 2010.

His first collection of poems was published when he was in his fifties; Selected Poems 1969-1992 was issued by Canongate in 1994, and Caledonian Cramboclink by Luath Press in 2000. William Neill’s impressive body of work includes translations from various European languages, often exploring other ‘minority’ European languages and attitudes to them. He translated The Odyssey into Scots.

The footage in this small series of videos comes from 'Poets of the South West', an innovative series of 5 small programs supported by the Dumfries and Galloway Education Department for use in schools. These were filmed on VHS in 1984 and were the brainchild of two teachers, Pat Kirby and Gregor Ross, whose prescience meant that we now have unique footage of five regional poets. In the case of two of these, it is the only existing footage. In the case of one, Willie Neill, it comprises a large part of the existing primary visual material.

A Link to the whole program:


Monday, 26 October 2020

The Occasional Backroom: Sasha Dugdale

Photograph by Zima Zima

Great delight to see Sasha Dugdale in the Backroom today. There have been so many good poets in here, I've had to redecorate. I haven't seen Sasha since the time soon after the launch of 'Oxford Poets 2002' when she put me right on the spelling of Felix Dzerzhinsky. Since then she has gone from strength to strength. She is a wonderful, questioning and uneasy poet. Her latest book, 'Deformations' for instance includes a section of poems on Eric Gill, a wonderful artist who sexually abused his kids and his dog, and slept with his sister. The poems don't come to the obvious conclusions, or are even based on the obvious questions. Based on Gill's own notes and diaries the work is a kind of ghostly journey through his life and our own reactions to what we know. Because of that, every sentence and every scene, mundane, innocent or otherwise, takes on a resonance we put there ourselves. We help create the poetry in a sense. The book also contains a Homeric homage called 'The Pitysad' which sets the Odyssey in a contemporary landscape. 'Deformations' has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. There's a link to the Carcanet book below. And you should also put a fiver on her to win- I have. 

Sasha Dugdale has published five collections of poetry. She won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem for 'Joy' in 2016 and a Cholmondeley Award in 2017.  Most recently 'Deformations' (Carcanet, 2020) has been shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize. She is a translator of Russian poetry and prose and in 2020 she won a PEN Translate Award for her translation of poetry by the Russian poet Maria Stepanovathe. Sasha Dugdale is current writer-in-residence at St John’s College, Cambridge. 

Here she reads Dawn Chorus, a great antidote to all these poems about the romance of birds at dawn.

Dawn Chorus
March 29, 2010

Every morning since the time changed
I have woken to the dawn chorus
And even before it sounded, I dreamed of it
Loud, unbelievably loud, shameless, raucous

And once I rose and twitched the curtains apart
Expecting the birds to be pressing in fright
Against the pane like passengers
But the garden was empty and it was night

Not a slither of light at the horizon
Still the birds were bawling through the mists
Terrible, invisible
A million small evangelists

How they sing: as if each had pecked up a smouldering coal
Their throats singed and swollen with song
In dissonance as befits the dark world
Where only travellers and the sleepless belong.

Red House (Carcanet, 2011)


Waxy sporadic grass knitting the sand…

A loudspeaker on a car proceeds slowly up the far quay
and a wedge of sandpipers lifts in fright from the shore:
The circus king is back for one last stand!
Last performance of the season – tonight!

His old gardening jacket hangs like a phantom behind the door
I have a febrile energy for undoing endings
tying the old twine to new twine, so when he came to me in a dream
and asked to come back I was surprised
to find myself rejecting him one last time

pouring myself a solitary drink of seawater
and reminding him of how we saw the old vessel of his body
and it was no longer fit-for-purpose
could not be recycled or rewound
like string, or green glass or driftwood.

The whole place reeks of him, who in life smelt of railways
sugar soap and the commuter tang. Sand, salt,
thrift and rotting wrack, and stubbornness:
a vast firewood stack, a few elderly tools revived
with rags and oily fingers to massage working parts,

string tied into rolls of barbed wire.
I am walking today on the hollow old dune
September chill, the children are off buying shoals
of pencils and the circus cut-outs on the sand bank
are blanketed up for the year.

What are years? They last no longer than the tide.
I read the tables, I pore over them and seem to find relief
in the mathematical appearance of water
and how by degrees it creeps upon us,
another ten metres to swill around the back gate.

Last performance of nostalgia out here, where it burns
with an acrid smell. Throw on an armful of regret, it fires up
odd-flamed like rubber or plastic flotsam
or household chemicals glugging themselves empty.
My fingers smell like his.

This poem, reprinted from the SPL website, was written as part of ‘The Blue Crevasse’ project, marking the centenary of W.S. Graham in 2018.

More poems here:

A Profile and interview of Sasha here:

Link to 'Deformations':

Monday, 19 October 2020

The Occasional Backroom: Jeanette Lynes

 I'm sure the last time I saw Jeanette Lynes was at a Burlesque show in Edmonton where we were both reading erotic poetry. I have so little erotic poetry that I had to borrow someone else's, but in the generally louche but febrile atmosphere I don't think anyone noticed.

Jeanette Lynes is deprecating about her work- as you can hear in the video- but she is a superb writer, edgy, opinionated and witty I was about to say, but her humour goes beyond cleverness to be a weapon to leaven, dilute or reangle our examination of some serious issues. It's a path I have always been drawn to myself: I think anything that makes poetry less boring, more affecting and more accessible in the process of delivering a message is ok by me. The poem she reads here, 'John Clare in Love' is a case in point. It's hilarious. But serious.

Jeanette Lynes is the author of seven books of poetry and two novels. Her third novel is forthcoming from HarperCollins Canada in 2021. Jeanette was recently a Visiting Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. She directs the Master of Fine Arts in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. She has won many accolades and awards. For instance her most recent novel, 'The Small Things That End The World', won the Muslims for Peace and Justice Fiction Award at the 2019 Saskatchewan Book Awards. Her most recent book of poetry, 'Bedlam Cowslip: The John Clare Poems', from which the featured poem here is taken, won the 2015 Saskatchewan Arts Board Poetry Award.

John Clare in Love

He first saw her from afar –
tramping across the field, a kind of moving statue,
a girl heavy in good places.

He scrambled up a pollarded tree to mark her shape
and direction. He’d fallen from trees before. This time
despite the ale, he hung on.

Even from a distance he knew she’d look
fine milking cows. Her sturdy form, those hands
would draw the milk, would work the teats.

High in the tree, he was more besotted than a bird,
and happier. His eyes followed her vanishing
over the grassed horizon. He climbed to earth,

penned two poems to her beauty. Anyone in love
will recognize this, the heart’s highest moment, this ledge
of clock before the beloved’s mouth

opens and awry things go and go until the end of time.
But there’d be buckets to fill with wildflowers,
the greensward to harvest, before that befell them,

her name to discover. Could she love a lime-burner?
Like any decent girl she’d send him away.
But he’d return. Until then, in his choking

shifts at the kiln she’d cross that pasture in his mind
a thousand times and what he began to think was,
she walked like someone who could read. 

What Editors Don’t Want

She gazed out the window. She was an astute gazer.
She smiled with dazzling teeth into the day’s
drizzle which stirred within her a vague
premonition some dire event would soon befall them.
‘Foreshadowing’, she thought, suddenly. She smiled,
pleased with her own window-gazing acuity.
She stared more probingly into the yard
cluttered with rusted racing cars.
Rickenstock had not cut the grass all summer,
obvious from the tall insolence of the weeds.
Metaphor! She laughed. Metaphors made her laugh.
(Tall insolence of the weeds, not bad,
she thought). She was a quirky, intelligent woman
with a enduring reverence for tropes.
The yard was rampant with neglect & falling action.
She raised her arm & flicked her blonde bangs. She smiled.
She lit a slender menthol cigarette. Suddenly she knew –
Rickenstock! Rickenstock was the killer!
‘Climax’, she thought! Denouement. She smiled.

Jeanette's Website Here, with examples of poems, reviews etc:

More biographical information, poetry, videos and reference:

Thursday, 1 October 2020

The Occasional Backroom: Aurélia Lassaque

Delighted to feature Aurélia Lassaque in the Backroom today. Aurélia is a poet who writes in Occitan, the language of the medieval troubadours, spoken in the south of France, Monaco, Val D'Aran in Spain, and the Guardia Piemontese in Italy. Collectively, these regions are sometimes referred to as Occitania. Occitan is an ancient romance language with a connection to Catalan. Like Scots with English, Occitan is often thought of as a dialect of Catalan, though, like Scots, the language has the historical and linguistic right to be thought of as at least the equal to its neighbour. Occitan is hampered by the fact that less than 10,000 still speak it, and that it lacks a standardised vocabulary. It is beautiful, though, isnt it? 

Aurélia Lassaque (b. 1983) is a bilingual poet and performer who writes in French and Occitan. She is interested in the interaction between various forms of art, and often cooperates with visual artists, videomakers, dancers and particularly musicians. She accompanies her readings with short songs from the Occitan folklore tradition. She has performed all over the world, in Europe, Northern and Latin America, Africa, Scandinavian countries, Indonesia, India and China.

Her work has been translated into over twenty languages including Asturian, Catalan, Chinese, Dutch, English, Finnish, Hebrew, Italian, Norwegian, Polish and Spanish. Her collection 'Pour que chantent les salamandres' (Editions Bruno Doucey, 2013) has been translated in many different languages and received critical attention from, among others,  Her second French/Occitan collection, 'En quête d’un visage', a prescient dialogue between Ulysses and Elle/Ela (She), was published in France by Editions Bruno Doucey (May 2017). She has also collaborated as a screenwriter for the cinema with director Giuseppe Schillaci: Transhumance (co-screenwriter, actress), a short film poem, presented at the 76th Venice Film Festival (MaTerre 2019, Cantiere Cinepoetico Euromediterraneo).

Here she reads an excerpt from 'En quête d’un visage', a dialogue between 'She' and Ulysses. The English translation is supplied by Madeleine Campbell, a Canadian writer, researcher and translator who teaches at the University of Edinburgh.


Dona-me un nom, Ulisses

dona-me un nom que te posquèsse esperar
serai aquí, i aurà lo miralh
e parlarem de tu, ieu e l’autra al dedins del miralh
la rejonharai aquí, sempre de galís, al ras d’una cadièra, al biais dels aucèls
amb la dolor dins ma cuèissa per me pas perdre d’aquel costat del miralh

lo matin portarai mos pendents d’aurelhas
los servarai emai benlèu al lièch se me deviás susprene al mitan de la nuèch

mas s’ai pas de nom cossi saupre quala d’entre ela o ieu velha ?


Give me a name, Ulysses

give me a name so that i can wait for you
i’ll be here, the mirror, there
and we’ll speak of you, i and the other in the mirror
i’ll join her there, a little slant, on the edge of a chair, the way birds do
the ache in my thigh keeps me from losing myself to that side of the mirror

in the morning i’ll wear my earrings
i may even wear them to bed should you surprise me in the night

but if i have no name how will i know which of us, her or me, is waiting?


Te donar un nom ?

Te donar un nom quand balas dins lo negre dins de carrièras desèrtosas amb de grands gosses ?

Te donar un nom quand vas a la rivièra en tenguda de nuèch jos lo naut solelh en ignorar los òmes que se son perduts en te cresent sasir ?

T’ofrirai d’iranges
e per las pelar un cotèl pas mai grand que lo poce
un cotèl d’ivòri qu’aurai raubat aprèp la batalha
lo present d’un defunt a una autra femna
e te caldrà pensar a ela, a sos lençòls freds, al trauc dins sa pòcha a la plaça del cotèl

t’ofrirai de brots d’èrbas qu’aurai servats longtemps jos ma sòla
que creisson aquí ont repausan los còsses
e se quilhan coma de sentinelas al quite punt ont s’acaba la fugida


Give you a name?

Give you a name when you dance in the dark with great hounds in empty streets?

Give you a name when you stroll to the river dressed for night in the glaring sun, spurning
the men who were doomed the moment they thought they possessed you?

I’ll offer you oranges
and to peel them a knife no bigger than a thumb
an ivory knife I’ll steal when the battle is over
a dead man’s gift to another woman
and you’ll be bound to think of her, of her cold sheets, of the hole in her pocket
traded for the knife

I’ll offer you blades of grass that cling to the soles of my feet
from shoots that grow there, where the bodies lie
standing tall as sentinels at the precise point their retreat ended

More Information on her Work here:

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Poems from the Backroom: Gerry McGrath

One lesson of the #plagueopoems is that Scotland seems jam packed with poets. There are loud poets and there are douce poets, poets who have a big social media presence and poets who just work at writing poetry.  I think Gerry McGrath is an example of an outstanding poet who just gets on with stuff and leaves the shouting about it to others. There are others, Angus Martin for instance, who let the poems do the talking. Poems often talk quietly, however, it is their persistent power, so Gerry is not as weel kent as he should be, despite his impressive body of work.

Gerry McGrath was born and raised in Helensburgh, Scotland. He attended Strathclyde and Glasgow universities in the 1980s and worked for several years as a teacher before quitting for reasons of ill health in 2000. To date, he has published two full collections of poetry, both by the ever impressive Carcanet, 'A to B' published in 2008 and 'Rooster' four years afterwards, which was shortlisted for the Scottish Book of the Year in 2013. His poems have appeared in numerous publications, including 'Being Alive' from Bloodaxe and 'New Poetries IV' from Carcanet, 2007. His reviews (mainly of contemporary poetry in translation) have appeared in PN Review. He has published several essays on important figures of global modernism, including Szymborska, Brodsky, Montale & Transtromer. He helped edit 'The Novel: a biography' published by Harvard in 2014. In 2004 He was a winner of the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial award. In 2007 he was awarded a New Writers’ Bursary by the Scottish Arts Council. He continues to write: has completed a third collection, 'Sparkle Horse', and is working on a fourth.

The poem he reads here 'Belvedere', takes a beautiful dreamy oblique view of a life that no-one's ever quite sure is real.  It talks of permanence and transience, our twin controls. Is beauty sustainable? In this poem, at least, it is.

Gerry's Website Here;

His author page with Carcanet:


So they were sitting beside the belvedere, in shade.
And they were drinking, barely exchanging a word.
The sun was shining and words were beyond them.

Past the low stone wall lay the river. Further off,
lost in the thin blue air, were the island’s three peaks
yet to exist, as if they existed.

A breeze got up; the world tilted and water, seen
slopping up the side of a glass, pushed the air ahead,
carrying birds, the clink of ice, notes of lemon.

On the lawn children ran like small dogs, yelping
with a mix of terror and joy, and occasionally
a mother or father appeared to gather them in.

He thought there must have been days
when people forgot even that they had gone to sleep
and woken, re-born.

That they had flowed, like the river behind
the wall flowed, huge and still and countless,
grey as all rivers are grey.

The sun continued to shine and the breeze blew fresher
and he drank again and thought
in the eyes of small dogs days like this will come again.

Among the Blue

Somehow I wish I could say
it was indifference not love
that found the co-ordinates
for cormorants among the blue
the blue-white gulls

tell you that we have lived once
and will not come this way again

say to you that as long as art
teaches language of recovery
eternal reminders of morning
will grow on our sweat, spume,
tick softly on our lips, on our lips.