Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Party in the Backroom: Hugh Bryden at 70!!!

Hugh Bryden's in the Backroom today, or maybe he's not. Or maybe he is and he doesn't know it. I don't know: it's hard trying to arrange a secret party for folk in these pestilential times. One thing is for sure, and that is that Hugh Bryden is 70 today.

Hugh Bryden is a dynamo and creative genius whose own art work is exceptional but whose collaborations with a host of poets have received wide recognition and praise, well beyond Dumfries and well beyond Scotland.

Hugh Bryden was born in Dumfries on August 13th 1950. He was educated in Annan Academy and Edinburgh College of Art, where he was contemporary to an outstanding bunch of talents including Gordon Boyd and Billy Bunting. He graduated from Edinburgh in 1972 and moved back to Dumfries to teach the year after, as Staff tutor in Art for Dumfries and Galloway Region. Hugh had a succession of exhibitions and one man shows including ‘Paintings and Prints’ in Gracefield in 1990, ‘Prime Cuts’ in the Robert Burns Centre in 1993 and ‘Old Places, New Directions’ in the Otterburn Gallery in 1994. In 1996 he exhibited and held workshops in the Netherbow Theatre in Edinburgh, under the title ‘Hugh Bryden Print Makar’.

The poster for this exhibition included Bryden’s beautiful setting of my poem 'Ritual Roads, pictured on the right. I therefore claim precedence in his work with poets, Carafuego Press his innovative and beautiful collaboration with Tom Pow, beginning 3 years later in 1999. Hugh gave me a box of beautiful prints of these poems which I unfortunately left in a Dundee telephone box but I still have one, number 1 from 40.

His enthusiasm for Artists’ Book led him to lecture in the subject in Rochester New York in 2002, and in 2005 he founded Roncadora Press to pursue the form with a variety of different poets, including myself, and win several prizes. A short list of recent collaborators would be Hayden Murphy, Tom Pow, Graham Fulton, John Burns, Chrys Salt, Rab Wilson, Jean Atkin, Liz Niven, Andrew Forster, Donald Adamson, Willie Hershaw and Donald S Murray. Here are just a few choice testimonials from some of that motley crew.

What a fine artist you are, and what an honour to have collaborated with you on two limited edition collections – both small works of art in their own right. Both hand stitched, both sensitive responses to my poems, all sold out thanks to the high production values of Roncadora Press
- Chrys Salt

Such a generous man, his attention to detail legendary, his art and sensitivity to the words of others so surefooted.
- Jean Atkin

You’re also left in awe of his artistic skills. He’s incredibly generous with his time and talents and D & G are so lucky to have him in our midst.
- Liz Niven

Bryden is concerned with the artistic merit of a submission. Is it a voice that needs to be heard? Does it have something different and important to say? Does it meet with the publisher’s high artistic standards? These are the things that Hugh thinks about before he considers the writer’s reputation or how many yards of book shelves the work has the potential to shift
- Willie Hershaw

In honour of the man also here is a Tutu from Graham Fulton, a Tanka from Hayden Murphy and a Stonker from Donald S Murray.


           bearded seventy,
safely landed, ship shape. Sage,
       Thyme, Rosemary leafing.
Joy-riding with Heaney.     Jazz
in the garden of 2020.

Hayden Murphy

ACHANALT - for Hugh

You stepped where I - at that time - never stood,
on that station platform
to sketch memorial headstones,
water, moor and wood
and bring my verse to a different form of life.
Hugh, your drawings provide
return tickets to our inspirations,
a new way to arrive,
say, in that destination en route to Kyle
or Inverness. I marvel
at your artistry, the grace and skill
that makes observers stop and wonder,
shake their heads and smile.

Donald S Murray

As for me, I've always been in awe of his imagination and creative strength but I love his human qualities more. He drinks a bit, he's really generous and he's a good laugh. I suppose t the greatest strain this assemblage of virtues came under was during our great 'Doors' Collaboration in Dumfries. All Hugh's collaborations with poets amount, of course, to him doing all the work while the poets do eff all but actually building, painting and illustrating 8 life sized free standing doors while I sat and drank coffee or beer was, you would think, an imposition too much. It is to his huge credit that he didn't murder me, even though the strain of that entire operation is why he's 70 today rather than his true age, 55.

It should not be forgotten that Hugh is an accomplished poet, featuring in the seminal work of Dumfries and Galloway Scots poetry ‘Chuckies fir the Cairn’ published by Luath in 2009 and edited by Rab Wilson, and publishing his own pamphlet ‘If Ah could Talk tae the Artists’ which in 2008 was shortlisted for the Calum Macdonald Prize.

Hugh’s striking prints and linocuts grace many a wall in D and G and his generous discounting or delayed payments plans have enabled me over the years to make art lovers out of many relatives and friends. It will surprise no-one that Hugh has been spending the period of lock-down due to Coronavirus, on an ambitious project, painting 50 miniature icons and still-lives to exhibit as a celebration of his birthday. Hugh’s hands and brain are never still. He has more ingenuity and vim than anyone I’ve ever known. Let's celebrate a great Scottish Creative! Cheers Hugh!

Here he is reading some of his poems in the series 'If Ah Could Talk tae the Artists' outside the new Bazaar when he was still 69:

His Website Here:

From 'If Ah Could Talk Tae the Airtists'

‘Ear Vincent,
there youse were, luggin canvases
aboot the countryside,
lobbin paint ontae thum.
Ah could wax lyrical aboot yer talent,
beat the drum, blow the trumpet, pinball medal on ye.
Yet, maist fowk ken ye fur jist wan thing,
An ah wouldnae lower the conversation bi mentioning
that cartilaginous portion -
or lack o it.
-at least no one earshot!

Pablo Picasso, a wurd in yer eye.
If ye could see the state o BritArt,
yer nose wud be richt oot o place.
Pickled coos, in unmade beds,
an thets jist the hef o it.
Ah’m no joking, thon urinal o Marcel’s
opent the floodgates,
the stuff’s everywhere.
The Market’s Saatchi rated.

What’s the crack, Georges Braque,
Ye multifaceted nan?
Those thir never, valued you ever,
cannae hiv seen the sides Ah can

Egon Schiele, Ah get a feel a,
unease in ma hert.
Whin Ah keek at, aa the geeks that,
populate yer art.

Ca canny, Edouard Manet,
wi yer luncheons in the grass.
Alfresco dinin’s great, but fave it mate,
this wee lass will freeze hit arse.

His Faither’s Voice

Ah woke huntin fur ma deid faither’s
voice, siftin ma mind’s sound Giles

Ah could see him clearly, smile
tugged squint bi a cigarette

felt ma bairn’s face flinch
frae his stubble embrace

smelt the oil thick tobacco
slick o his workshop

tasted his salty porridge
texture tied aroon ma tongue.

Still Ah couldny find the sound o him.
Fa’in back tae slumber, tho, Ah heard

Boy, is it no aboot time you wir getting up


Hayden Murphy's lawyers have been in touch to make sure everyone knows that Hayden Murphy's association with Hugh Bryden, their excellent Bloomsday collaboration, began, in fact, in June 1992, yonks before everyone else's. I have settled out of court.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Back to the Backroom: The Extraordinary Carolyn Forché

How great to re-open the Backroom for Carolyn Forché who has sent us not just one video poem but two. A double delight and pleasure. Carolyn is one of the few modern poets who can tackle grand issues without sounding either angry or didactic. Instead she connects the personal to the political to create as she says a poetical language of witness designed to emphasise the poet's role in the "community rather than the individual ego."

The vision and range of her poems is vast- encompassing history, geography and philosophy- but it’s her language and lyrical skill I love, at times majestic, at times surprising but nearly always sublime. Have I called anyone in this series a Great Poet? I do think Carolyn is one of the greatest living writers in English.

Carolyn Forché was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1950, and has taught at several universities. She was Director of Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice, and held the Lannan Visiting Chair in Poetry at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, where she is now a University Professor. Her many honours include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts; the Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation Award, given in 1997 for using her poetry as a ‘means to attain understanding, reconciliation, and peace within communities and between communities’; and most recently, Yale University's Windham-Campbell Prize.

Her previous books include 'Gathering the Tribes'  in 1976 which was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets by Stanley Kunitz, 'The Country Between Us' in 1981 reissued from Bloodaxe in 2019, which drew on her experiences in El Salvador before and during the civil war, and won the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, and was the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. Her later collections have drawn upon work written over many years: 'The Angel of History' from HarperCollins, USA and Bloodaxe Books in 1994, 'Blue Hour', HarperCollins, USA and  Bloodaxe Books, 2003, and, her latest, 'In the Lateness of the World'  published by Penguin, USA and Bloodaxe Books a few months ago.

Her hugely important anthology 'Against Forgetting' collected the work of 145 poets in 30 different languages who had experienced warfare, military occupation, imprisonment, torture, forced exile, censorship, and/or house arrest. The anthology, composed of the work of one hundred and forty-five poets writing in English and translated from over thirty languages, begins with the Armenian Genocide and ends with the uprising of the pro-Democracy movement at Tiananmen Square.
Her memoir 'What You Have Heard Is True: a memoir of witness and resistance'  in 2019 was published by Penguin.

Her translations include Mahmoud Darwish's Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems (with Munir Akash, 2003), Claribel Alegría's Flowers from the Volcano (1983), and Robert Desnos's Selected Poetry (with William Kulik, 1991).

Here she is reading 'The Lightkeeper':

Here she is reading 'Museum of Stone':

5 poems in 'World Literature Today':

A conversation about her latest book

Profile and More poems on Poetry Foundation Website:

Buy 'In the Lateness of the World' here:

The Light Keeper

A night without ships. Foghorns calling into walled cloud, and you
still alive, drawn to the light as if it were a fire kept by monks,
darkness once crusted with stars, but now death-dark as you sail inward.
Through wild gorse and sea-wrack, through heather and torn wool
you ran, pulling me by the hand, so I might see this for once in my life:
the spin and spin of light, the whirring of it, light in search of the lost,
there since the era of fire, era of candles and hollow wick lamps,
whale oil and solid wick, colza and lard, kerosene and carbide,
the signal fires lighted on this perilous coast in the Tower of Hook.
You say to me stay awake, be like the lens maker who died with his
lungs full of glass, be the yew in blossom when bees swarm, be
their amber cathedral and even the ghosts of Cistercians will be kind to you.
In a certain light as after rain, in pearled clouds or the water beyond,
seen or sensed water, sea or lake, you would stop still and gaze out
for a long time. Also when fireflies opened and closed in the pines,
and a star appeared, our only heaven. You taught me to live like this.
That after death it would be as it was before we were born. Nothing
to be afraid. Nothing but happiness as unbearable as the dread
from which it comes. Go toward the light always, be without ships.

Museum of Stones

These are your stones, assembled in matchbox and tin,
collected from roadside, culvert, and viaduct,
battlefield, threshing floor, basilica, abattoir–
stones, loosened by tanks in the streets
from a city whose earliest map was drawn in ink on linen,
schoolyard stones in the hand of a corpse,
pebble from Apollinaire’s oui,
stone of the mind within us
carried from one silence to another,
stone of cromlech and cairn, schist and shale, horneblende,
agate, marble, millstones, ruins of choirs and shipyards,
chalk, marl, mudstone from temples and tombs,
stone from the tunnel lined with bones,
lava of a city’s entombment, stones
chipped from lighthouse, cell wall, scriptorium,
paving stones from the hands of those who rose against the army,
stones where the bells had fallen, where the bridges were blown,
those that had flown through windows, weighted petitions,
feldspar, rose quartz, blueschist, gneiss and chert,
fragments of an abbey at dusk, sandstone toe
of a Buddha mortared at Bamiyan,
stone from the hill of three crosses and a crypt,
from a chimney where storks cried like human children,
stones newly fallen from stars, a stillness of stones, a heart,
altar and boundary of stone, marker and vessel, first cast, lode and hail,
bridge stones and others to pave and shut up with,
stone apple, stone basil, beech, berry, stone brake,
stone bramble, stone fern, lichen, liverwort, pippin and root,
concretion of the body, as blind as cold as deaf,
all earth a quarry, all life a labor, stone-faced, stone-drunk
with hope that this assemblage of rubble, taken together, would become
a shrine or holy place, an ossuary, immoveable and sacred
like the stone that marked the path of the sun as it entered the human dawn.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Poems from the Backroom: Yuyutsu Sharma

Some good news about the #plague is that it is now going to be the focus of a weekly feature from Renfrew Libraries, dedicated to increasing interest in Scotland's poets and poetry, and I am hoping to perhaps spread this through other libraries too. The full catalogue of poets is available on the previous blog post and all poets- plus some bonus ones!- are available on #plagueopoems on YouTube. 

As I said previously, some poems are still coming in from parts of the world and the parts don't come much higher than this! Yuyutsu Sharma is the Laureate of the Himalayas, a world renowned poet and translator. Kabir Das  the 15th Century Indian poet, mystic and saint, said an aspiring poet should first set fire to his house and since leaving his university job in Kathmandu twenty years ago, Yuyutsu has spent much of his life travelling and to many people in many countries, he is the literary face of Nepal and the Himalayas.

He is a recipient of fellowships from The Rockefeller Foundation, Ireland Literature Exchange, The Trubar Foundation, Slovenia, The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature and The Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature. His work has been translated into German, French, Italian, Slovenian, Hebrew, Spanish and Dutch. He was at the Poetry Parnassus Festival organised to celebrate London Olympics 2012 where he represented Nepal and India. He travels widely, reading and holding workshops. Currently, he is visiting poet at Columbia University.

He has published ten poetry collections including, 'The Second Buddha Walk', 'A Blizzard in my Bones: New York Poems', 'Quaking Cantos: Nepal Earthquake Poems', 'Nepal Trilogy', 'Space Cake, Amsterdam' and 'Annapurna Poems'. Three books of his poetry, 'Poemes de l’ Himalayas' (L’Harmattan, Paris), 'Poemas de Los Himalayas' (Cosmopoeticia, Cordoba, Spain) and 'Jezero Fewa & Konj' (Sodobnost International) have appeared in French, Spanish and Slovenian respectively. Yuyutsu edits, Pratik: A Quarterly Magazine of Contemporary Writing. 

Here he reads 'The Migrant Metaphor':

His Website and Blog:

A Selection of Poems:

An interview : 

A Link to 'Pratik':

The Migrant Metaphor

From my rooftop
I fear for their lives

these feral things
lying asleep for hours

as if turned into
a lump of sullen meat

crushed under
some gorilla tyres

of a wayward truck
or a supply vehicle.


smelly blurs

under empty flyovers
or vacant zebra crossings

warming their
damp lives

on the asphalt
of freshly pitched roads

for smooth
stately visits of dignitaries.

Exhausted after
restless sniffing for crumbs

dropped by
some wayward charity,

I see them
slumber into

a resigned voyage
to the netherworld

motionless with
the drooping inertia

not a limb moving
or an alert ear

to reassure life

unafraid of
surveillance trucks

or some emergency
ambulances hooting though

the fiendish silence
of highways that

might just crush
them into a squashed

little mound
of dead meat

their innocent,

stone soup
faith in the humanity

of this century’s
most eloquent


The Flowers in their Baskets

The flowers in their baskets
do not smell of crisp books
or rhymes that sing of flowers of freedom.

Pale as pulp of their wiped out eyes
these are stones of destiny
heavy from watery weight of their juvenile dreams

sharp and brash
as the stones of bleeding mule paths
tearing a wound with
face of a stifled cry
in murky skies of their fast fading infancy.

(From 'Drunken Boat', Translated from the Nepali)

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Poems from the Backroom: Catalogue

Catalogue for #plagueopoems

Blog Numbers

1-11, 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25 and 29 Videos by Hugh McMillan looking at various deceased poets

12. Marion McCready

14. Christie Williamson

16. Jean Atkin

18. Harry Smart

20. Em Strang

22. Brian Johnstone

24. Donald S Murray

26. Gordon Meade

27. Hugh McMillan

28. George Gunn

30. Magi Gibson

31. Joss Cameron

32. Des Dillon

33. Dilys Rose

34. JoAnne McKay

35. Bill Herbert

36. Andrew Greig

37. Gerda Stevenson

38. Jim Mackintosh

39. Eleanor Livingstone

40. Marcas Mac an Tuairneir

41. Willie Hershaw

42. Liz Niven

43. Jim Carruth

44. Finola Scott

45. Neil Young

46. Lesley Glaister

47. Shug Hanlan

48. Christina De Luca

49. Douglas Lipton

50. Zodwa Mtirara

51. Ross Wilson

52. Sheila Templeton

53. Andy Jackson

54. Alice Major

55. Kevin MacNeill

56. Eveline Pye

57. Stuart Conn

58. Jane Frank

59. Jim McGonigal

60. Selina Tusitala Marsh

61. Sam Tongue

62. Morag Anderson

63. Jessamine O Connor

64. Ross Donlon

65. Alison Flett

66. Skye Allan

67. Michael Dempster

68. Michele Seminara

69. Chris Kelso

70. Tom Pow

71. George T Watt

72. Tsosheletso Chidi

73. Kimberley Blaeser

74. Bob Beagrie

75. Tom Dewey

76. Chrys Salt

77. Chris Powici

78. Ali Whitelock

79. Gerry Loose

80. Marjorie Lofti Gill

81. Harry Owen

82. Lezlie Benzie

83. Charlie Gracie

84. Hannah Lavery

85. Attracta Fahy

86. Rachel Fox

87. Duncan McLean

88. Beth McDonough

89. Derek Ross

90. Holly Magill

91. Anne Casey

92. John W Sexton

93. Joy Hendry

94. Maoilios Caimbeul

95. Aoife Lyall

96. Haris Psarras

97. Nicola Black

98. Thomas Clark

99. Aileen Ballantyne

100. Graham Fulton

101. Bridget Khursheed

102. Scott Redmond

103. Jules Horne

104. Rab Wilson

105. Pippa Little

106. Colin McGuire

107. Katy Ewing

108. Colin Will

109. Renita Boyle

110. Chris Boyland

111. Angela Graham

112. Stewart Sanderson

113. Jean O Brien

114. Tom Murray

115. Stephanie Green

116. Russel Jones

117. Sharon Black

118. Ron Butlin

119. Graham Rae

120. Miriam Gamble

121. Vivien Jones

122. Brian Whittingham

123. Clare Phillips

124. Stuart Paterson

125. Lindy Barbour

126. Catherine Wilson

127. Ink Asher Hemp

128. Owen Gallagher

129. Ian Stephen

130. David Kinloch

131. Hugh McMillan

110 poets

Video + text of video poem +text of one other

Commentary + Bio + Links

Youtube Channel Videos Only - #plagueopoems

Friday, 24 July 2020

The Backroom Door Closes: Hugh McMillan

Beer gardens and shops are open, and it’s time for the #plague to end, after 130 daily posts from March 17th featuring home made readings from 110 different poets from all over the world. We’ve had in that time close to 40,000 views of the blog which is fantastic even if 15,000 of them were me going back in to fix mistakes I made. There are a few videos which had been promised but haven't yet turned up and I may add these, but as from now the daily service is closed and the door to the Backroom shut. Discussions are ongoing to archive the collection and make it available for study through libraries but in the meantime it is available here, always.

I’ve now - I think- got every poet YouTubed and available on a channel so folk can just dip into the videos if they want to by typing #plagueopoems into Youtube.

Thanks to everyone who participated and gave their services free of charge. Thanks to the readers! It was all miraculous and wonderful. I’m amazed at the strength and range and love of poetry out there and I've become acquainted or re-acquainted with some brilliant writers. Since I'm in charge, I'll leave you with a recent poem of mine on the subject of time standing still but moving, birds of all sizes leaving the nest. Goodbye, fare ye weel, mar sin leibh.

It’s not Sunday it’s Tuesday

The burn knows no days:
sometimes it bubbles with rain,
other times it shrugs slowly
through the neck of grass like some
teenager who’s slept till three.

When someone cycles
past I’ve never seen before,
it’s a moment. Where did
she come from, that one?
Some gap between worlds

she has slipped through,
Thornhill or Madagascar.
It will soon be the time for lambs
to be separated from ewes
and the glen will be filled

with weeping. Such sadness
does not rely on calendars
really but the cruelty of the sun
as we turn around.
I sit here in the glen

on this flat stone
and I can swear I am rooted
here like in some myth,
staring into the days,
as my stars leave the sky.

The Ballad of Bessie Bell
and Mary Gray

Bessie Bell and Mary Gray
isolated by the Burn Brae.
They were the most beautiful
girls in Scotland they say,
their faces held the luminosity
of the sun on fresh grass
but they had eyes only
for each other, theirs was
a passion rich and very diverse
for a 17th century ballad.

Their groceries were left
at the loan-end by the local
shop and the girls would
spend the afternoon washing
the tins of tuna and packets
of potato scones in the stream
which that spring flowed
clear and sweet from hills,
till but recently hooded in snow.
It was a season of rare

light and heat and birdsong
and periodically they would
skype their fathers for news.
Their weakness was poetry
however and because some
teacher had once told them girls
couldn’t write any, an itinerant
poet was drawn, with his man-bag
and bunnet, to their lustre
as though to fire, and came

every evening to recite
his tawdry verses and creep
closer and closer to the rush
strewn bothy. Because he had
a big twitter following
and a book out soon (he said)
from some Indie publisher
in Edinburgh they did not
shoot him with the Black Bess
they kept for water fowling

but gave in instead to entreaties
to receive his pamphlet,
the font and pagination
of which were award nominated
and a delight to the eye.
And that was that.
The grass grew over the graves
of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray,
the blackbirds sang, and the poet
never got further than a small

residency, even with this powerful
new material. But through
the ballads we still remember
them, their lips locked in love,
their hair crowned in light,
their potent and efficacious
message, that poetry
is an infectious and ultimately
fatal disease, resonant still
to this very day.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Poems from the Backroom 130: David Kinloch

It seems to me that our initial optimism for the time that the virus would give (for those of us luckily uninfected and unaffected) for a bloom of creativity has been tempered by the awful deadening effect that routine and boredom has on our brains. I mean I'm being creative, I suppose, sitting here typing this but I'm conscious of the rain streaking down the window in that familiar candelabra effect, that the bus is due to go by in a minute in a slow blur, and that the fish van comes the day after tomorrow. When have I ever been bothered about the fish van coming the day after tomorrow?

The cocktail of constraints and boredom is supposed to be a potent trigger for innovation, though of the five stages of boredom revealed in a recent study, two, 'searching' and 'reactant', are annoying but make you do something about it even if that's playing noughts and crosses with the budgie, and two, the more compelling ironically, 'indifferent' and 'apathetic' turn your brain to mush and make you count down the days to the fish van. I've always found stimulation in travel and movement and I find the continual search through the internal landscape for stimulation either a tired old journey, or a journey to places I'm leery of going.

David Kinloch captures some of these issues perfectly, I think, in today's poem about the tyranny of time and numbers in the age of the virus. It answers the question, doesn't it? It's possible to convert the raw data of boredom to a piece that is evocative, lyrical and elegiac.

David Kinloch was born and brought up in Glasgow. For many years a teacher of French and then of Creative Writing, he recently took early retirement from the University of Strathclyde where he is Emeritus Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing. His books of poetry are published by Carcanet, the latest being 'In Search of Dustie-Fute', released in August 2017. He is currently Chair of The Edwin Morgan Trust. His poetry is wide ranging, innovative and imaginative- the perfect poet, perhaps, for the perfect hyper-unreality of lockdown.

 David's Website:

Profile and recorded poems in 'The Poetry Archive':

An Interview with 'Mumble Words'

Welcome, wanderer

I know a bench that the sun strikes
at precisely 10am. At 10.02 I take my coffee
to the garden and sit for fifteen minutes.
these are my minutes. No-one else’s.

A neighbour may come down, stand
gravely hanging washing and comment
from his distance, acknowledging
my freehold of this space and time.

But that is all that he can do. By
10.18 I am back inside and the garden
fills to the sounds of a little girl
chattering to her Dad. New neighbours.

They will reign there for much longer
but I will not grudge this; the young
are made for light. Next, we measure
flour for cakes and feed three spoons

of honey to granola. Later, I walk
the flowering terrace for forty minutes
and wish a beast of trig and math,
a hovering bird with violet eyes

more accurate than mine. It
drinks me from these sums.
Honeysuckle floods the air
with wings. Indoors again,

a bumblebee bumps up
against the pane and we go
straight to bed at 10
to get our eight hours straight.

We dream the same dreams
every night, dreams the same
as days like these, although
there are no numbers;

just the immeasurable space of avenues
empty of cars and buses, people, hummingbirds.


From the window of the Hardie-Condie Café, I see the ghost of a rich friend
of my grandmother drive down Forfar’s Main Street in a Rolls- Royce I was 
sick in as a child. Behind me the watercolours of stick girls walking through 
trees are misted blobs percolating in coffee steam. Mother comes in like 
Scott of the Antarctic carrying tents of shopping. The garçon brings a 
cappucino and croissants on which she wields her knife with the off-frantic 
precision of violins in Hitchock’s shower scene.
Soon I will tell her. Show her dust in the sugar spoon. Her knife gouges craters 
in the dough like an ice-axe and she tells the story on nineteen Siberian 
ponies she queued behind in the supermarket. Of Captain Oates who boxed 
her fallen ‘Ariel’. The chocolate from the cappucino has gone all over her 
saucer. There is a scene and silence. Now tell her. Tell her above the coffee 
table which scrapes with the masked voice of a pier seeming to let in some 
waters, returning others to the sea, diverting the pack-ice which skirts 
around its legs. Tell her a fact about you she knows but does not know and 
which you will tell her except that the surviving ponies are killed and the food 
depot named Desolation Camp made from their carcasses keeps getting in 
the way. From this table we will write postcards, make wireless contact with 
home and I will tell her of King Edward VII Land, of how I have been with Dr 
Wilson and then alone, so alone, in day-blizzards just eleven miles short of 
the Pole and ask her to follow me. I am afraid she has been there already. She 
smiles like the Great Beardmore Glacier and goes out into the street with 
stick girls to the thirty-four sledgedogs and the motor-sledges. You are too 
late. Amundsen is in Forfar. She has an appointment. Behind me I can sense 
the canvases, the dried grasses pressed into their grain like eczema on an 
open palm. Later I will discover her diary and what I told her.

(Reprinted from David's entry in the Scottish Poetry Library Site

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Poems from the Backroom 129: Ian Stephen

Ian Stephen here, live from Vatisker in the Island of Lewis, giving us a tour of his Lewis blanket, and his poem from 'Scotia Extremis' on Jack Bruce, the Bishopriggs lad who became the world's greatest bass guitarist and wore out two livers in the process, the  'master-mariner/when all the breezes/were out/of the ministry of bag". Ian Stephen is a nimble poet, not just in the agility and fluidity of his words, but because he's all action, a sailor, a rock climber and photographer. Check out 'Blue Bonnets' below, where he is hanging off a cliff like a monkey. I was hoping trick photography was involved but I fear not. Ian Stephen is fit as a fiddle and what a writer!

After 15 years in the coastguard, Ian Stephen became a full-time writer of poetry, prose and drama in 1995. He was the inaugural winner of the Christian Salvesen/Robert Louis Stevenson award in 1995, and in 2004, he was the first artist in residence at StAnza, Scotland’s annual poetry festival. In 2002-3, he navigated the sea-route, suggested by a traditional story, connecting Sweden and the north of Scotland and the story was sent as instalments by satellite-phone to a computer at the 50th Venice Biennale.

Among his earlier poetry publications are 'Malin, Hebrides, Minches', with photos by Sam Maynard from Dangaroo Press and 'Varying States of Grace' from Polygon. 'It’s about this' published by Nomad/ Survivors Press, from a poem-log of a voyage to Orkney, was commissioned by StAnza. A bilingual edition of his poetry, 'Adrift / Napospas vlnám', was published in Czech in 2007. In 2016 Saraband published his selection from 35 years of making poetry from observing seaways and shorelines as 'Maritime'. He is also an accomplished playwright and novelist, his most acclaimed novel 'A Book of Death and Fish' being published by Saraband.

Here he reads 'Tales of Brave Ulysses':

Ian's Website

An Interview with Ian Stephen plus Ferry footage!

'Blue Bonnets', a poem recorded half way up a cliff

Tales of Brave Ulysses

The cellist came out of the academy
to lay down his melodies
when rhythm was on the line,
only one of his crimes
delivered at a pace
on the upright bass
not all that tender
on the six string fender.

The baker walked out of the jam
till the cake was cut with Cream
How many rope-ladders
over the bearded rainbow
would it take
to touch the moon
sure as Armstrong?
Only one –
if it was long enough
and it was.

The lyrics of fate
over four strings
sounding like eight
the pounding heat
from the baker back on the job,
so no-one was robbed.
A guitarist just in the lead
by a narrow neck.

The three-piece
gone off the rails
but in the groove
of spinning vinyl –
in technicolour.
Shipwrecks of
wailing bluesmen.
A stumble ashore
rolling and tumbling
casting out chords
like shining barley
on a slick of honey.
A parley with the shadows
of bottle-neck heroes
and music-hall maestros.

The set of wheels
went on fire
but your covered wagon
stitched its way
across its prairie
to elegy.
A fabric
picked and unpicked
by the pricking apostrophes
of Penelope
and the tailor
you had to sing to
so his paraffin
in the hurricane.

Many’s the riff went
over the cliff.
Jack, one hell of a lad,
a banshee mourner,
tall-story teller
but a master-mariner
when all the breezes
were out
of the ministry of bag.

In Breton

In Breton, they say
there’s a word that weaves between
green and blue, allowing for
haze, precipitation,
the burr of distance,
the welcome shock
of escaping light
warming your shoulders.

(From 'Oxford Poets' 2013)