Category Archives: Poetry

An Evening With Ian McMillan

I love Eyemouth. I really do. It’s such a wonderful, picturesque town. My in-laws were up house-WP_20160603_20_35_52_Prohunting in the Borders last week, and when we brought them to Eyemouth at the weekend it looked like we weren’t leaving without at least a seaside bungalow added to our portfolio.

Of course, in this sunny spate of weather everything in the Borders is looking at its best. But Eyemouth is so often underappreciated and overlooked that it was particularly nice to see it on one of its prettier days, and especially to visit its new arts venue, the Hippodrome, gleaming by the side of the Maritime Museum down at the Harbour Road.

Ian and Paula Todd, whose brainchild the Hippodrome is, have done an incredible job in converting the former Fisherman’s Mission into one of the most impressive new arts venues I’ve seen in a long time. Not just that, but in the short time they’ve been up and running they’ve attracted some absolutely brilliant performers to the Borders, including – on Friday night – myself and none other than the amazing Ian McMillan.

Now, Ian is one of those rare, vital figures whose appeal cuts right across the artistic spectrum. Friends who I’d long assumed didn’t have a poetic bone in their body suddenly revealed themselves as raving verse-o-philes once they found out Ian McMillan was coming to the Borders. God knows how difficult it is to get folk out for anything nowadays, so to have a venue like the Hippodrome full to capacity for a poetry event, as it was on Friday night, is a wonderful thing.

I’m very glad that the convention is for opening acts rather than closing ones, because I would IanMcnot have wanted to follow the poetic force of nature that is Ian McMillan. The guy is just a phenomenon, a one-man masterclass in taking an audience wherever he wants to go. I don’t know how many calories laughing burns off, but there’s no doubt folk were coming out lighter in every way than when they went in. Wonderful audience, fantastic venue, and an amazing privilege to share a stage with… Well, they say you should never meet your own heroes, but then they probably never met Ian McMillan.

I was back at the Hippodrome on Saturday morning, this time with my wife, Sara, for our creative writing workshop “Eye Write”. Some absolutely fantastic writing came out of the workshop, as well as (hopefully!) some great new writers. It was particularly lovely to see a real range in terms of age and experience – our youngest writers were primary school age, and the work they produced was impressive to say the least. If the writing bug catches folk that early on, the sky really is the limit for what they can achieve.

I was genuinely gutted to have to finish up the workshop when it had overrun by almost half an hour. Ditto to leave Eyemouth a wee while after that, heavier by the weight of a 99 flake and two shoefuls of sand. Yet without venues like the Eyemouth Hippodrome to draw folk in, and funding from Borders Live Touring to make these events viable, there’s so much about places like Eyemouth that would go utterly unappreciated. The Hippodrome is providing a vital service, not just to artists and audiences but to the town as a whole. Long may that continue.

Kiss Bigotry Goodbye

I had a fantastic time at Nil By Mouth’s “Kiss Bigotry Goodbye” event at Yarrow Park last Saturday.IMG_1681

Historian Daniel Gray (author of “Stramash”, amongst many other fine volumes) and Nil By Mouth’s Dave Scott are on the road for the next few weeks as part of a ten date tour of Scottish football – and we were hugely fortunate that the guys chose Selkirk FC as one of the stopping-off points for an evening of free pies and football banter.

And the banter – facilitated by our very own David Knox as MC – was brilliant. Daniel’s readings really set the tone – lively, light-hearted, but at the same time keenly observant of the places and characters which make Scottish football what it is. I read a few poems of my own, to what was without a doubt one of the friendliest and most receptive audiences I’ve ever encountered. And then there was the football quiz – which I regret to admit my team finished second in, despite the fact that Paul Wheelhouse MSP came through for us with some truly inspired answers. Know which football team is nicknamed ‘The Brewers’, or who the Scottish League’s most-capped manager is? No? Our Minister for Community Safety does.

It was a great opportunity for Selkirk FC to showcase themselves as the fantastically friendly and hospitable club they are – but what’s particularly nice about the Nil by Mouth events is that they aren’t so much anti-bigotry as simply pro-football. There’s no finger-wagging, no pious lectures – just good crack and proper celebration of the beautiful game. And with plenty of dates still left on the tour, you would be crazy not to get along if you can. Check out the Nil By Mouth website for more details of the campaign and of the fabulous work they do:

http://nilbymouth.org/2016/selkirk-fans-help-clean-up-the-game/

New Signings

The Janice Forsyth Show did a wee feature on my residency at Selkirk last week. You can hear it here for the next month or so – it starts 1hr 30m into the show.

What’s been especially good about the residency so far is that it’s crossed the streams a bit in the way that we were all hoping it would. On one hand we’ve had artsy folks like The Janice Forsyth Show wanting to talk about the poetry side of things, and on the other hand there’s been Sky Sports and the like looking at the residency from a football fan’s point of view. That’s been great, and a nice wee challenge, in terms of trying to come up with poetry that’s both interesting and accessible – or at least only moderately boring.

I don’t know if I’ve actually succeeded in that, but what I have done is line up some fantastic poems to appear in the Selkirk match programmes this season, once our pitch recovers from its winter pounding. Transfer budgets are tight this weather, but a good loan signing or two can make all the difference, and I’m fair chuffed that Stephen Watt, Stuart Paterson, Andrew Blair, Lee Garratt, Chik J Duncan and Finola Scott will be amongst those making a guest appearance at Yarrow Park in 2016.

A few points would be nice in the coming months as well, and things seem to be moving in the right direction. We got beat up at Gala in our last outing, but looked a lot more dangerous after switching to a back four at half-time. Preston at home this weekend – it’s winnable. Onwards and upwards.

Call for Submissions – Selkirk Match Programmes.

As part of my residency at Selkirk FC, the club and I have been looking for ways to involve more poets with the team. We’ll be doing a few things over the course of the coming season, but to kick things off we’re starting up a section in our match programme just for poems relating to football.

Picture credit - Dave Scott
Photo credit – Dave Scott

I’ve always kind of felt like football programmes are the zenith of Western literature, and it’s been a huge thrill to see my poetry published in them this season. I know I’m not the only person who feels this way, and so every home programme for the rest of the season we’ll be publishing a different football-related poem from a guest poet.

We have a few guests already lined up, but we’re on the look-out for more, so if you have a poem you’d be interested in seeing published, please do send it in to tommy.clark[at]btinternet.com. In terms of length, 30 lines is probably about the limit of what we’ll have room for. Previously published poems are fine, and if your poem is relevant in any way to Selkirk, all the better. But the important thing (duh) is that it should be directly related to football.

Our next home game is on November 14th, so realistically that will be the deadline for submissions. We can’t offer any payment, but we will send a free copy of the programme to contributors! It’s a fine publication, which can hopefully only be made better by the inclusion of more poetry.

There’s nothing nicer than just happening across one of your own poems in a bookstore, or on a magazine rack. Unless it’s finding one of your own poems in a football memorabilia store. Well, here’s your chance to make that happen.

On Starting Out.

My first poetry pamplet, Intae the Snaw, comes out this month, and it seems like this is the point at which to start giving it the whole it’s-been-a-long-road shtick, talk about how deep into theIntaeTheSnaw fibre of my bones I’ve had to dig to excavate these poems, the editorial to-and-fro. But, in fact, the whole process has been relatively disappointing, as far as personal psychodramas go. From first contact to final product the entire business has taken nine months, and as far as editorial conflict enters into it, all that’s happened is that I’ve been very gently schooled by my editor, the fantastic Meirion Jordan, in the difference between putting together an actual collection and just jamming an armful of manuscripts in a tattered suitcase and jumping up and down on the lid.

So, in a sense, I’ve really got exactly zip to say about the process of putting together a pamphlet. I imagine the production of other collections in other places have been rather more fraught affairs, but that’s not my experience. My experience has been fun. Maybe Gatehouse Press are doing it wrong, or something. My suspicion is that I’ve been somehow short-changed, that there ought to have been more shoutings-at, more tears.

The main thing I’ve taken out of the process is the value of reading and submitting to poetry magazines. When you’re first starting out, you get this advice rammed down your throat, and it just seems like a pretext for other poets to bilk you out of your money whilst telling you how rubbish you are. Which it is. (No, not really.) There are a load of reasons, as a writer, to engage with the magazine scene – track record, peer feedback, yada yada – but the reason that many folk who are starting out submit to magazines is because they kind of hope something might come of it.

Which is not, by the way, an ignoble thing to wish for. It’s not even unrealistic, so long as you don’t expect anything to happen the first time you get into a magazine, or the fifth, or the five hundredth. If there’s something to what you’re writing, someone will notice, eventually. The problem is, you don’t know who or where those people are, never mind what magazines they edit and/or read.

In the beginning it’s easy to have the feeling that the whole of “writing” is one vast cohesive bloc which is leagued entirely against newcomers, i.e. you. Conversely, when you do manage to get something published somewhere, it’s very difficult to understand why news of your success hasn’t spread like wildfire across the entire literary scene. Once you’re in, you’re in, surely? But somehow, The X Journal don’t care that you were in the most recent edition of Y Quarterly. As in Kafka, the door that you were trying to get through, and the doorman you were wheedling your way past – they just lead to another door, another doorman. The party that’s happening somewhere within sounds just as distant as ever.

And all of the above, by the way, being best case scenario – which is to say, that you’re committed to writing and to improving as a writer. If you already think you’re the finished article, you probably gave up on reading this a few paragraphs back. You didn’t like hearing that your inevitable fame might take time or hard work.

For time and hard work will certainly be involved. Even if you one-hundred-per-cent enjoy writing one-hundred-per-cent of the time, you’d have to be some kind of masochist to enjoy submitting to magazines, and being rejected; sometimes kindly, more often facelessly, occasionally even, in a bizarre Hitchcockian nightmare, under the wrong name, for stuff you never even did. And yet submit you must, widely and often, to have any hope of finding readers who get what you’re on about.

I had no particularly good reason to send my stuff to Lighthouse, Gatehouse’s literary journal. Scots translations of Chinese poetry; that’s pretty niche, and not necessarily what you would expect to go over well with a relatively new literary journal based in Norwich. But it was a really good magazine – I enjoyed what they were publishing – and it was worth a spin that if their editors and I liked the same kind of poetry, my poetry might also be the kind that they liked. Without reading Lighthouse, I would never have submitted there, never have been published there, and never have wound up with a pamphlet being produced there.

Which is to say, reading magazines shouldn’t be a chore. No matter how disenchanted you might think you are with the poetry scene, there are magazines out there whose editors are on your wavelength. Finding them, submitting to them, hopefully being published by them – these are hugely exciting things. Reading a magazine you don’t enjoy – well, that bites, but it’s better than submitting to that magazine blind, getting back an impersonal rejection letter, and then being furious at being turned down by a magazine you now realise you don’t even like.

Submitting to magazines can feel like going to them cap in hand, but it needn’t. Sending something you wrote to a journal is the sincerest form of flattery you can give what are (no doubt) its hard-working and underappreciated editors. I like what you are doing and I want to be part of it. And it’s in your power to give. Whether your writing is ready yet or not, your support and interest is worth a lot to any magazine. Just make sure and give it to the right ones.

Sky Sports.

The final score was not what we hoped for, but there was some good publicity for poetry and for the club this morning, when Sky Sports News profiled Selkirk FC ahead of our Scottish Cup tie against Nairn. I read out some of my poetry, and talked a wee bit about the cup – cheers to Lawrie Dunn for catching a photo of it! Link to full video below: http://www.skysports.com/watch/video/sports/10006295/scottish-cup-kicks-off

skysports

30 Days Later – The Poetry Residency So Far

So, that’s the first month of my poetry residency at Selkirk FC done with. Lessons learned:

  1. Writing poems is by far the easiest and least time-consuming aspect of the whole business. I’ve written about half-a-dozen so far, ranging from elegiac poems about past glories and figures like Bob Mercer, to freestyle disses of upcoming opponents. Most of these (so far) have been written to go with a newspaper article or media piece. Sky Sports News, for example, asked me to write a poem for their feature about our Scottish Cup game at Nairn. Now, how many folk are ever going to get to read their poetry on Sky bloody Sports? None, that’s how many. None.
  2. BUT. It’s very challenging to combine writing the poetry, doing the publicity, working in an ordinary nine-to-five job, and doing other writing of your own on the side. Your own writing seems to be the thing that’s most easily neglected.
  3. Still, because of those pressures, a residency is very good at forcing you to identify what you actually want to get out of writing.
  4. Being continually fresh and spontaneous is a lot harder than it looks. I’m the first person to give it the big eye-roll when someone trots out the same old anecdote more than once, but when you’re speaking to a lot of different people who are all asking basically the same questions, it’s really difficult not to just give out an answer by rote. Even as you’re talking, you can feel your silent inner critic sarcastically mouthing your trite little speech along with you and making a yap-yap gesture with its hand. You feel like such a dad.

But the reaction has been fantastic. Ross Anderson, the chairman at Selkirk, told me that more publicity has been generated for the club by the residency than even the signing of ex-Scotland striker Garry O’Connor. Hopefully, there will be more to come, but in the meantime, tune into Sky Sports News HQ on Saturday, when a Scottish Cup segment about Selkirk will be airing throughout the day.

The Stowed Out Festival

So it’s the day of the first ever spoken word stage at the Stowed Out Festival, the first ever event of this sort that I’ve organised, and I’m looking out the window that morning at the bucketing rain and I’m thinking to myself Is this good? Is this bad?

Because I have no idea what to expect, or what omens to hope for. In disaster movies, there’s at least a few ominous warning shots – a straining girder, a meter’s pointer edging towards red – but what are the key indicators that a poetry event is about to go all Towering Inferno? Silence, and space, and strangers, perhaps, as Larkin wrote – but when we get to the festival and the first face we see is Rab Wilson’s (“Just writin a wee poem,” he says, arising from a bench) we know there’s only so badly things can go. One by one, our poets arrive hours ahead of schedule – Colin Will and his wife Jane, with an assortment of dark luggage which, over the course of the afternoon, will miraculously unfold into a tenor sax set – and within half an hour there is the quorum of a festival, eight, nine, ten performers flattening out folded bits of paper and pacing around from tent to tent.

The organisers are up first – Bridget Khursheed gets things going with a flawless “no paper” performance, and by the time I get up we’ve already been joined by the first members of a continual thoroughfare of audience. Sara Clark finishes off the first set with some superb readings from her book “How to Destroy”, and although the rain beats briefly against the plastic squares of windows in the tent, everything seems to be turning out quite bright.

Anita John and Dorothy Alexander are next, with some brilliant pieces inspired by their work on various collaborative projects, chiefly “Scott’s Treasures” and “The Written Image”. Then it’s Pat Miller and David Holmes, two of the competitors in the Stowed Out Poetry Slam. We originally only had room on the timetable for the slam’s top three, but the standard was so high that we were delighted when the vagaries of music festival organisation opened up another slot, and we were able to fit in another couple of our slammers. Both Pat and David give performances at the festival even more impressive than they had at the slam, and as more and more people turn up to the festival the audience numbers continue to swell.

After the break, it’s the first of our three headliners, Rab Wilson. Rab starts off with a few works from his upcoming book “Zero Hours”, which bids fair to be his best collection yet, if these poems are anything to go by. Rab is just such a superb performer, really accomplished at taking audiences with him wherever he goes, and the emotional journey his readings take the listener upon make it seem impossible that only twenty-five minutes have passed when he finishes with a couple of ribald reflections on MacDiarmid and the status of the Scots language.

Colin Will, who has probably single-handedly boosted our audience numbers by 33% just by the presence of his sax, performs next. His sequence of sea poems, separated by some improvisational sax, are both haunting and beautiful. Colin tells us it’s something he hasn’t tried before, and it’s to be hoped that he adds it to his permanent repertoire, if only for the benefit of everyone who wasn’t there. It’s certainly the most powerful combination of poetry and music that I’ve encountered in a long time.

By now the tent is filling rapidly, and the biggest crowd of the festival is in attendance for the performances by our slam winners. Stuart Jones gives maybe the best performances of his career, and has passers-by stopping by in their droves to witness his lively and hilarious set. David Hendry’s quiet and reflective imagery brings a hush to the assembled and appreciative crowd, before Calum Bannerman unveils a new work of real imagination and intimacy, a superb way to bring the curtain down on this year’s spoken word stage. There is still more to come, of course, but it will be on the main stage, where Harry Giles, fresh from Fringe success, gives the kind of performance which makes it a privilege for anyone else to have shared a bill with him.

Poetry, performance poetry – they’re tough rackets, especially here in the Borders, where the support networks, if they exist at all, aren’t always apparent. Workshops and writing groups and the like are fine, but unless they’re very carefully managed they can still result in people being left out. We’re really chuffed at the way the Stowed Out Festival gave so many people a chance to be involved – over the course of the festival we had thirteen people perform, ranging from old hands to veritable first-timers. We had folk who’ve only performed once or twice in their life before alongside people who make a living out of it. And we had the start of an event which can surely only go on to be bigger and better as the years go by.

Poetry residency at Selkirk F.C.

My wife asked me the other day how often I think about football.

“Oh, about once every ten minutes,” I said.

It didn’t strike me as an excessive amount of time, but Sara could not get over it. Every ten minutes! Naturally the science is inexact, but if anything, every ten minutes is an underestimate. I don’t see myself at all as being obsessive, but to have been brought up in a certain place at a certain time (a west of Scotland council estate in the Eighties) is to have been raised in a church of questionable faiths, the primary of which is football. You can shake off your inherited religion, divest yourself of the prejudice of peers; but you can no more start at the front page of a newspaper than you can levitate from off the ground.

And, of course, I write a lot about football. I would go so far as to say that anything I write in which football does not figure feels to me like weird, fantastical sci-fi. So I’m absolutely thrilled to have been appointed poet-in-residence at Selkirk FC for the coming season.

Selkirk are a fantastic, forward-thinking club with huge ambitions and a very real commitment to doing things the right way. Not coincidentally, they’re also a great team to watch, and I’m hugely excited to be working with them.

What that will actually entail is something I’ll be discovering as I go along. Right now, the plan is to write some poems and so forth for the match programmes (I’ve already written a couple, published in today’s Scotsman) but bearing in mind what a unique opportunity this is to write about something I really love writing about, I’m sure I’ll have ideas aplenty.

In the meantime, if you’re local to the area and you haven’t been down to Yarrow Park yet, do stop by. You won’t regret it.

The Stowed Out Poetry Slam.

I’ve been bitten by that dog many times before. No sooner have you proudly announced that X is the first event of its kind to happen in the Borders than you are swamped by an angry deluge of letters to the editor informing you in no uncertain terms that the first X was held in Morebattle in 1972. Nevertheless, I’m going to put my neck on the line and assert that the Stowed Out Poetry Slam in Gala yesterday was the first poetry slam ever to be held in the Borders. Which, when you think about the popularity of performance poetry (even in the Borders) is amazing, and something for all involved with the slam to be incredibly proud about.

Trying out something new down here is always a nerve-wracking proposition, because you never have any idea at all whether it’s going to take. It’s about fifty-fifty whether the place will be jammed to the rafters or nobody will show up at all, and there’s no reliable indication whatsoever which one of those things will occur. So it takes a certain amount of faith as a performer, too, to turn out for these events. Eight was the number of entrants we were hoping for, and eight was exactly what we got, though we could never have banked on the variety and quality we actually ended up with.

meslam

What’s particularly interesting about poetry slams is how different they are from any other kind of spoken word performance. A little experience goes a long way, and it was obvious to me that the standard of the performances actually improved as the slam went on, as poets grew in confidence within the slam setting and the supportive environment. The variety of poets resulted in performances which really played off each other, showed participants actively influencing and being influenced by each other’s styles. It was amazing to see.

The major downside, of course, is that there have to be winners, particularly when the field is as close as it was yesterday. There were only a few points in it from top to bottom, but we wound up with three hugely deserving winners.

In third place was David Hendry, a Hawick-based poet and novelist. David’s performances were controlled and nuanced, perfectly pitched to the miraculously rich imagery of his poetry. Poetry slams are not usually associated with quietness, but when David read his poems against the remarkable stained-glass backdrop of the Mac Arts Centre, you could have heard a pin drop.

In second place was Stuart Jones, a performance poet from Selkirk well known to those in the creative communities of the Borders and beyond. Poetry slams really reward the combination of strong poetry with entertaining performance, and Stuart was able to get this balance absolutely right. He demonstrated huge commitment and confidence throughout the three rounds, and was an extremely worthy runner-up.

But our winner on the day was Calum Bannerman, who blew the audience away with his smart, edgy, and ultimately touching reflections on life and love. Calum’s incredible performances were evidence that a huge amount of work has gone into not just his poetry but his own individual style, which formed a perfect, emotionally-honest conduit between the content of his work and the listeners in the audience. A fantastic champion for our first ever slam.

My co-conspirators (Sara Clark and Bridget Khursheed) and I are also particularly delighted that all three of our winners have agreed to perform again at the Stowed Out Festival itself on August 29th. Our spoken word headline acts will include the fantastic Harry Giles, Rab Wilson and Colin Will. Don’t miss it!