Monday, 11 May 2020

Poems from the Backroom 57: Stewart Conn

"Stewart Conn stands among the indispensable poets of modern and contemporary Scotland" (Douglas Dunn). When I read plaudits like these, I am reminded of the words addressed to me over the years by memorable poets, like Norman MacCaig's moving "Get out of my way, I'm late" in Edinburgh University Library in 1973. I have been struggling for what seems to be a lifetime to assemble enough quotes to respectably clothe half a back cover of a poetry book and still haven't managed it, having to resort again and again to that dangerously ambiguous review in 'Scottish Farmer': 'This is one of a few good books about sheep in modern times."

Stewart Conn has deserved every accolade he's achieved, however, and he's achieved many. It is a great delight to have him in the backroom, which I have hoovered specially. He is a talented but very modest poet and his poem today, eloquently introduced by himself, is a good one for these days. 

Stewart was born in Glasgow, a son of the manse, but relocated when an infant to Kilmarnock. Graduating from Glasgow University, he worked for the BBC in the 60s and 70s and became Head of Radio Drama. Since 1977 he's lived in Edinburgh and became Edinburgh's first Makar in 2002. In 2006 he was awarded the inaugural Institute of Contemporary Scotland's 'Iain Crichton Smith Award' for services to literature. In 2010 he was made an honorary fellow of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies.

He has been a very accomplished playwright since the 1970s, winning two Edinburgh Festival Fringe Firsts. His dramatisation of George Mackay Brown's 'Greenvoe' (St. Magnus Festival, 1998) and 'Four Folk Tales' (performed by the LSO at St Luke's, Covent Garden in 2008), were set to music by Alasdair Nicolson. It is as a poet he is primarily known, however. In addition to editing or co-editing several anthologies he has authored several collections including 'An Ear to the Ground' (1972), a Poetry Book Society Choice; 'In the Blood' (1995); 'Stolen Light: Selected Poems' (1999), shortlisted for the 2000 Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award; 'Ghosts at Cockcrow' (2005); The 'Loving Cup' (2007); 'The Breakfast Room' (2010); and 'Estuary' (2012). His latest full collection is 'The Touch of Time: New and Selected Poetry' (2014). He has also had three pamphlet collections from Mariscat, the last being 'Against the Light'. Stewart had a Dumfries launch for this pamphlet along with Tom Pow's 'At the Well of Love' and I wish they would hurry back because both the poetry and the complementary drink were of the highest order.

Here Stewart reads 'Eclipse' from the collection 'Ghosts at Cockcrow'

Stewart's website and much information here:

Five recordings of Stewart's poems here:


Waking in the small hours the night
before you go into hospital, you press
the palm of my hand to your cheek
so that my wrist, following the line
of your neck, detects its pulse-beat,
making me aware as though we were
on the sandy foreshore of some vast
estuary of the tide's tug, and precious
grains slipping through my fingers.

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