Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

Page/Stage: a conversation about poetry in performance, diversity in poetry and how we bring the two together

Thursday, August 4th, 2016

Performance poet and promoter Freddie Alexander.  Photo credit Perry Jonsson Art.
Performance poet and promoter Freddie Alexander. Photo credit Perry Jonsson Art.

Hey friends,

So, back in April I saw that the juggernaut live poetry night Loud Poets were advertising an event where the performers were strictly forbidden to read off a piece of paper. This triggered a knee-jerk reaction in me, and I [sub]tweeted about it, expressing worry about the rule without naming the night — and without being desperately constructive either. Performance poet, live lit promoter and all-round perceptive individual Freddie Alexander called me out (via excellent use of Kermit The Frog meme), and helped me start a more productive online conversation about the whole thing. You can see some of the tweets from that initial conversation here, here, here and here. I’d advise you to have a look at these because they’re the thoughts of poets who live and work at intersections of oppression that I have never experienced — these are trans poets and disabled poets, speaking from perspectives which are (as the conversation below acknowledges) all too often ignored or erased in contemporary poetry.

Out of that Twitter conversation, Freddie and I decided to meet and chat properly. We had a vague idea that the resulting chat might be turned into a blogpost for public consumption — Scottish Book Trust had approached me about the possibility of creating an 800-word-or-so piece for them, for example — but in the end our conversation became too knotty to be easily edited down into one pithy blog. We decided we’d prefer to publish the unedited transcript of the entire conversation instead, knowing that probably no one but ourselves would ever willingly host this 3,000+ word beast! So here it finally is. We hope it’s thought provoking, and if you have comments we’d love to hear them, especially on Twitter, which promotes a more ‘living’ conversation than blog comments, I find. (I’m @onenightstanzas and Freddie is @fredralexander.) We’re especially keen to hear thoughts on this issue from poets of colour, disabled poets, and LGBTQIA+ poets — we’d like to know how performance works at a variety of intersections, not just the ones we personally experience.

Here’s the transcript, typed up verbatim from a digital recording (we didn’t release the audio simply because the background noise is awful and it’s fairly unbearable to listen to. Typical poets, choosing a busy coffee shop as their venue!) Enjoy!


Claire Askew: OK, the first thing I want to do is go on the record as saying – I’m really sorry for starting off this whole conversation with a subtweet…!

Freddie Alexander: That’s OK.

CA: It’s just – I say these things, I type these things – and I know this sounds really disingenuous, but I literally forget that I have nearly 4,000 followers, and then people respond and I’m like, ‘oh, people saw that? That was just me letting my gums rattle,’ as my gran would have said! So I really am sorry for the way the conversation was started!

FA: To be honest, I think that it’s the same on my side, it’s absolutely fine…

CA: Oh, I liked your response actually – good use of Kermit the Frog meme!

FA: I love it so much! And sometimes, I don’t know – people I follow – like Broderick Greer, who’s this big Anglican minister in the US – he subtweets like no one’s business. He’s very involved with politics and LGBT issues in Christian circles, and his subtweets are just perfect. So I highly recommend him if you want to read some good subtweeting.

CA: OK, Greer, subtweet minister, I’m writing down! I’ll check him out.

…OK, so I guess I kind of wanted to start with a question. And then – I don’t know, maybe I should figure out an answer first, but you might want to ask me why I’m so angry about this thing! This whole issue of setting up a system – or a night, or an event, or whatever – where the rule is you cannot read off paper – this is something I can’t get my head around. So my question is, what is the reasoning for that? I assume there have been people sitting down and saying, ‘right, we will impose this rule for a reason,’ so what’s the reason? Maybe when I understand…

FA: Yeah. I think that’s a really interesting one, because as far as my knowledge goes, there are two [events] in Scotland that have this rule: Sophia Walker’s BBC slam, and Loud Poets nights. Now, I don’t want to speak for either, because I am not the organiser of either, but I have lived with [one of the organisers of Loud Poets], and part of the reasoning behind it is, I guess – it is, I think, a discussion around how they want the aesthetics of their night to work. They have a particular vision in mind for what their audience is receiving – and I think maybe something that’s important and that’s going on in their head is that they structure their night from the perspective of trying to get an audience that is paying, and give them a product. So though it’s counter-intuitive from my perspective – because often I organise nights that are free, and largely for other artists, and if people come along that aren’t artists, that’s seen as good and exciting for us – but it’s different, organising an open mic night or whatever.

CA: That’s really interesting, I hadn’t thought of the onus being on the audience rather than the performers. I suppose that’s not something I’d ever really thought about – like, should your priority when organising a night be ‘how comfortable are your performers?’ or should your priority be ‘what’s the experience your audience is having?’ And I suppose the logical thing is that your audience are the people who’ve paid to come in the door, so actually…

FA: Well I think part of the difficulty around that conversation is probably twofold – it’s that if you’re cultivating an artistic community you have to make sure that your performers are still looked after and comfortable, so I think there’s definitely a thing with that. But also, at the same time, when you are paying your performers, how much is reasonable to expect of your performers?

CA: Right.

FA: If you – I mean, what kind of relationship is that? If you’re an organiser of a night that has a paying customer, and you’re paying your performer, is it then reasonable to ask your performer to provide a certain kind of performance? And how much pushback is reasonable within that relationship? I think that relationship is, necessarily, a thing that you have to be careful with, because within that you then would have the complicated relationship with other artists. But it is – I think it’s an interesting one.

CA: So, we’ve kind of just talked off the mic about a night like Shore Poets, and how it is becoming increasingly one of a kind to have an event like that, that’s still a traditional stand-up reading – the kind of reading where everyone reads off paper. But we talked about how that’s alright, upholding that tradition, because it caters to a certain audience who don’t maybe feel welcome at something more experimental. And similarly I think, nights where – the more experimental nights – they need to exist as well for that same reason – to create a variety of different types of events. So I kind of understand wanting to try new stuff and, like, ‘let’s impose this as a rule to try and separate ourselves out from the herd’. I don’t know if that’s part of the thinking behind it as well?

FA: Yeah, I think part of it is necessarily being new. Because there are a lot of nights within Edinburgh who often have the same performers, who have similar formats, and so how do you then have an audience come back to your night? I think the decision on Loud Poets‘ part was to say ‘let’s have this rule.’ And it’s not just that – they also have a live band, and they try to create a kind of high-energy fun experience for the audience. I think that’s what interesting is that from the perspective of people who organise that night, their viewpoint is that they feel like they’re the minority. Not like the in the political sense of the word…

CA: No, I know what you mean.

FA: But like, there are many nights in Edinburgh that – most nights in Edinburgh don’t impose this rule. And that’s almost the answer as to why they impose that. But I think that within that there’s almost a false distinction, because then we’re talking about the aesthetics of how this is influencing what we consider to be performance poetry.

Maybe I can ask a question of yourself?

CA: Go on then.

FA: How have you found the experience of going between different nights, as a poet who is comfortable with their relationship with their audience – in coming across this certain kind of structured night, what’s your response to them?

CA: Well, I mean I think part of the reason that I have quite a kneejerk reaction to seeing the no-paper rules is because I had a bad experience. At a night – I’ll name the night, I won’t name the person – it was at Colin McGuire’s Talking Heids night, which is sadly defunct now I think…

FA: Yes!

CA: That was a great night!

FA: It was really great.

CA: So Colin, start that night again! Yeah – anyway, I read, and then the next performer after me was a performance poet who I think is someone who is at the height of his powers, shall we say – someone who is doing very well and is very popular around the place. So I got up and I read my poems the way I usually do – this was before I had my book out, so I was reading off printed bits of paper, and – I mean I’m not someone who hides behind the bits of paper, it’s a sort of glancing-down-at sort of job, but I did my set and I thought I did pretty well. And I kind of noticed that the performance poet in question was in the back of the room texting all the way through my set, which I found mildly annoying, but I thought hey, well, you know – maybe there was an emergency or something! Anyway – at the break he got up and said, like into the crowd, ‘how unprofessional was that? That a poet like her got up and read off bits of paper.’ ‘That’s like’ – and I quote – ‘that’s like a comedian getting up on stage with a fucking joke sheet.’ End quote. So there was this attack on my professionalism – you know, the idea that reading off paper is unprofessional, and amateur, you know? And I thought – apart from anything else, respect your elders, you young whippersnapper! I was gobsmacked. [the recording was paused here at Freddie's request] So to pick up the thread, I suppose that has really coloured my feelings about that whole no-paper thing. Because it means I am coming at it with, in the back of my mind, the idea that it’s linked to your professionalism as a poet.

But I think I wanted to say before – I think there’s something about – it makes for – I imagine that absolutely no preambles, and no paper, must make for a very slick show. I mean, is that something that you think is…

FA: I think that is part of how [these nights] try to reflect their aesthetics, yeah – so even within that, the poets – they can rotate it so that the other poets go up and introduce the poet they’ve read before. So the poet can just come up on stage, do their piece, and leave, and not have to do any faffing. Now, I think what’s interesting about that is that – typically, I’m one of them – some poets aren’t very good at that [introductions and preambles]! I fumble – and actually, that way [of running a night] sometimes takes a bit of the stress off. I think on the contrary side to that, sometimes it’s difficult because when as a poet you design a set, there’s a story that you’re telling – you are taking poems that relate to each other and telling the relationship, and then to just remove that, come on stage, do one piece and leave – it can sometimes feel a bit clinical, as a performer. But I think it’s about the relationship that you have with your work. That’s definitely – within the slam circuit, that’s how your work is presented. Single piece, leave. But within a show, or Fringe show perspective, it’s very different.

CA: So I suppose it’s a melding of that kind of slam style, where they say ‘right, you’ve got two minutes, get on and do the necessary!’ And so, match that with the slightly more relaxed context of a night, you know –

FA: Yeah, without being judged, yes.

CA: So it’s interesting – the more you’re talking to me, the more my anger about that bad experience is kind of ebbing away. Which is good! Because I’m also thinking about nights where you go and there’s someone who – I mean, there are really famous poets who are terrible for this, too – like, Liz Lochhead, I love you, but sometimes your preambles are longer than your poems! So, poets who talk for a really long time before the poem, and there’s this tendency to say, ‘this poem is about this, this and this,’ to the point where in the end you don’t even need to hear the poem! And then there are people who are going ‘oh, which one shall I read, which one shall I read?’ – and they’re flicking back and forth through their book – and nobody enjoys that! So I totally appreciate the logistical removal of that, and how that facilitates a much more slick product – and a much more enjoyable night, because nobody enjoys that period of silence while the poet tries to find the page!

FA: I think that’s definitely so part of the process of designing a night – I think a big part of this goes back to if we imagine how slam came to be created. Because slams didn’t really exist, and then they became this weird way of judging poetry, and I find that really hilarious, because all they really are is a way of structuring a night in such a way that it removes the faff, and is just concentrated poetry. It’s true that it’s more efficient, and that makes it more enjoyable for the audience – more so than the poets! I think that was the thought behind the best slams and behind things like Loud Poets – it’s trying to get an audience that doesn’t engage with poetry to engage with poetry. However, maybe to argue on your side, to be my own devil’s advocate, I think one of the problems is that there is this whole subliminal perception of professionalism. One of the things that I would bring up in particular – so for the last three years, the Scottish National Poetry Slam, all three finalists have been people that don’t read off paper. Now, that’s really interesting, because that’s drawing from a range of different performers, usually a range of different people each time, different audiences, and different judges – so is there a commonality when you’re looking and trying to judge the poems? Is that judgement – is your snap judgement to someone reading off paper to say, ‘that’s less impressive than someone who has memorised’? And is that a form of aesthetics that maybe we’re progressing?

CA: Yeah, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about one of the things that troubles me, which is – and I mean, I have absolutely no problem with one or two nights, which is kind of what’s happening in Edinburgh – having a bash at this kind of experimental thing to separate themselves out among these many, many, many poetry nights. And I mean, the point of experimenting is to see what it’s like, that’s how things change, and that’s interesting. But what troubles me is the idea that because the nights where this is happening are such a juggernaut, such a force – I’m now hearing poets saying to me things like, ‘oh you know, I’d be so much better if I memorised, that would make me a better poet…’

FA: And ‘that would make me get noticed,’ yeah.

CA: And you like of think well – I mean, the aforementioned Colin McGuire, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying this – he’s said that to me a few times. Like, you know ‘oh, I should really memorise my poems, that’s what everyone’s doing now, I should really memorise’ – and I’m like, Colin, you’re an absolutely brilliant performer!

FA: Oh god, yes!

CA: Right? I mean, you really don’t need to do any more! And – I mean, the way Colin brandishes a poetry book, that’s part of the whole thing! So yeah – that’s kind of troubling that it’s becoming – I mean, this sounds terribly pearl-clutching of me I know, but I’m kind of worried that it’s becoming a trend…

FA: I would agree. And what’s interesting within that trend is that the organisers – like, the organisers of Loud Poets – they’re seen to be the keepers of this, and yet like, Katie [Ailes] and Catherine [Wilson] will read off paper. Not because they’re trying to perform less professional things, but because it’s just about the night they’re going to. But I think this a complex thing, and also – it is a case of assessing what is your position within the scene, and what kind of people are coming to your night? I mean, if performers are coming to your night and they feel like they can’t engage with that because they find memorising difficult, for various different reasons, then that’s a real problem.

CA: Yeah. I also feel like this creeping trend, it kind of – there’s an extent to which, whether it’s intended or not, it sort of leads into this – and I hate even saying it! The ‘page stage divide’ – the perceived divide between page and stage. And for me, what’s interesting and unusual and original and exciting is when people try and be on both sides of that divide. So you’re saying that people like Katie and Catherine are doing both – memorising, and reading off paper. You know, that’s the kind of straddling of different styles which I think is interesting and exciting. What’s worrying is when people feel like they have to pick a side, like either ‘I am a poet who memorises things and therefore I am a performance poet,’ or ‘I am a poet who reads off paper and therefore I am a page poet.’ It’s not that simple, and I’m worried that people are reducing it to that kind of binary.

FA: Or even – I think also following on from that is, how much of a recognition is there that there are other types of events here, that will support people who have different styles and that are attuned to that problem. I think we can say all we like as organisers of night that, ‘oh, it’s OK, there are ten other nights where you can read a poem,’ but for some people, they don’t know – they know that the only poetry night they have, that they go to, is, say Loud Poets – and they don’t know that TenRed exists, or places like Shore Poets. And when we don’t go out of our way to emphasise that as organisers, we limit the ability of new people to enter and access the range of the Scottish live poetry scene.

CA: Yeah, I think it’s true that when you’re inside it – you know, you as a promoter, or a seasoned performer – you are aware – I mean, I’ve been doing this now for twelve years, so I’m at a point now where I can lament, sadly, nights that used to exist that now no longer do, like the Golden Hour – that was so good! You know – but when you are, like let’s say you’re a first year Uni student, and you’re coming here in September and you don’t know anyone, you’re going to go to the night that has the biggest posters, and not necessarily know what else is out there. So I think you’re right, there should be, possibly – I mean, I think there is also a thing where people say, ‘it’s so annoying, I’m trying to organise this night and there are like, two other nights on in Edinburgh on the same date,’ whereas I think that’s quite exciting, that’s good – and we should be promoting those nights as well, but it’s tricky, you feel like, I’m having to share my audience with these other people. So I also understand not promoting other nights. It’s a tricky balance!

FA: Especially when you’ve hit that perfect kind of double spot that Loud Poets and slams try to do, where they pitch themselves as poetry nights for people who don’t go to poetry nights. So a lot of people that don’t go to poetry night and don’t know about poetry nights go to these particular nights and think, ‘that is what poetry is,’ and that’s it. Now, part of that is intentional, because you want to create that positive reaction to poetry – but at the same time, there’s a case of how accessible is everything else? There’s a really difficult conversation there, that, as organisers – is it simply a case of promoting other nights? Maybe.

CA: Or is it about – I mean, we’ve talked about how certain nights are for certain audiences. You know, I mean – I’m soon no-longer-to-be-a Shore Poets organiser [note added by CA: I left Shore Poets in June 2016], but as a Shore Poets organiser I have been aware that people will say things like ‘oh, you know, Shore Poets is for x kind of person,’ which I think possibly fair and true – but that’s problematic, because that shows that as organisers we actually perhaps have not done enough to welcome people who do not fall into that perceived group. But is that a whole other conversation?

FA: Well, we’re discussing how this relates to audiences, but in regards to performers, I think there’s another interesting conversation that can happen – so, most promoters want to cultivate the scene, circulate and keep people updated about their different nights, but when you draw someone [a performer] from another night into your night, and then suddenly there are different rules imposed, that can be a very disorienting thing. It could be potentially alienating – and also, could give the poet a bad experience like yours. I mean, if this was the first time you had to memorise poetry, and you’re suddenly thrown into a scenario you don’t know, in an environment you don’t know, and then you fluff your line, that can be incredibly traumatising as a live performer.

CA: Oh yes, it’s the worst thing!

FA: It is the worst thing, it’s very unpleasant!

CA: I mean, I am not anti-memorising, I have memorised pieces before, and I know only too well that feeling when you get to the place in the poem where you’ve said the line about five thousand times, and yet for some reason, you just have the wrong thought at the wrong moment, and it’s all gone…

FA: That’s the nightmare, yes!

CA: And then it feels like you’re standing there in silence for about five hundred years, when it’s probably only a couple of seconds actually, but it feels like, ‘just say something, say anything!’ It is – it does rattle you, even if you’re a seasoned performer. But I mean, now that we’re talking about performers, I guess we get to the meat of the issue for me, which is diversity. And something that I’m aware of is – there are poets and promoters and a lot of people in the scene generally, who trumpet that Scotland has this wonderful, diverse poetry community, like ‘look at how diverse we are, look at all this wealth of diverse voices!’ And I kind of look round and think – ‘okay, but I’m trying to organise Grrrl Con! this summer, and I struggled to find women writers of colour.’ It was really hard to come up with a list of female poets of colour in Scotland! So just that, as one example, suggests to me that the scene is not as diverse as we like to think. And I mean, this is where we get into tricky territory, because I don’t want to hurl accusations at any particular night, but this is the reason, mainly, why I’m worried about – not the nights, but about this no-paper thing becoming A Thing. It’s because, for me, it appears to not only not encourage, but actively discourage certain voices – namely, disabled poets, who are already very much not in evidence in the Scottish poetry scene – and also poets whose first language is not English.

FA: Absolutely. I one hundred percent agree with this. And I think also on top of that one of the problems is that when the – and this is one of my own personal gripes – so I am involved with Inky Fingers. And I really love Inky Fingers – band the thing with Inky Fingers is that it’s a great night that new people enjoy, and it’s an important night because of those new people. So we have a few performers now who have disabilities, whose first language isn’t English, or maybe they aren’t performing in English, and we have a few people who are performing in Scots. That’s really incredible – they’re great performers. It’s like – the successful nights are the nights that orientate towards audiences, in the belief that in order to get an audience in you have to be slick, professional, often no paper. And all this draws all the funding, and the ability to organise successful nights away from the nights that provide the first steps.

CA: Funding is something I hadn’t thought about, but yes, actually…

FA: And I mean funding not just in the sense of funding from Creative Scotland, but funding that the audience pay for – if the only we can host a night is by having a raffle that people opt into, so maybe we can pay our feature performer and try to get enough money, and we’re still trying to pay a venue – it’s a very stressful situation! As opposed to being able to have a night that you can get people to pay to come into.

CA: That’s a really interesting point, actually. When you have funding, the pressure is off in many ways, and then you can think, ‘oh, let’s do something experimental with this night!’ because you can afford to.

FA: And then within that we can talk about how axes of privilege can operate in access to money. To me – and I don’t know what your opinion of this is, and I don’t want to – I mean, I know I am able bodied, and male for that matter – but I think that, to me, one of the problems is that we do trumpet this idea that the Scottish poetry scene is diverse – but by virtue of its performers. And one of the problems is that we then don’t examine ‘who are our organisers?’ Because when we have diversity of organisation, that is what leads to diversity full stop. We had a great performer, Taylor Johnson, at Loud Poets – but she was an exchange student from America. And she had this great, important, powerful voice, and is a woman of colour, who was able to be here for six months. And that’s diversity in inverted commas, of performers. But when we examine the organisation of a lot of nights in Scotland, what we have is predominantly white. There’s a reasonable split between men and women, maybe still skewing towards men a little bit – almost entirely able-bodied, and – I can maybe name one night in Scotland that is organised by a person of colour, and that’s Seeds of Thought in Glasgow. And that’s it.

CA: And that’s a bit of a sad state of affairs, really.

FA: But then, at the same time, it’s not enough to just simply turn around and say, ‘go organise a night!’

CA: Yeah – ‘organise your own night!’ No…

FA: Yes, because then we’re nor acknowledging the privilege that we have. Like, people who organise Soapbox can tap into that University space. And the people who organise Loud Poets can tap into that – Loud Poet space! You can’t just create that out of nothing.

CA: And we’ve talked about Shore Poets, and how Shore Poets is a very established committee, with very established names – Christine de Luca is on the committee, I mean – she’s the Makar! And again, that kind of thing comes with [inaudible] – it means Shore Poets can do things that a brand new person who doesn’t have a name like that on their committee can’t do. There’s certainly a power differential there which is really interesting. I hadn’t really thought about organisers, but that is a really good point.

And, I mean, I think we’re getting to the issue that I really want to talk about now, which is the wider scene, because – as you say, we are both able-bodied people, we have privilege, we both move with relative ease through the poetry scene, I think – and so I am aware that we’re not the ideal people to be discussing this. But I did have a chat with a couple of poets and promoters whose experiences are more aligned with this stuff. So, Markie Burnhope is a trans woman and also disabled, and she said that generally, there is not enough accommodation for, in particular, her disability within the poetry scene – I think what she said was that if your nights need to appear a certain way, like, impose a time limit, or be in a venue that’s really fancy but is inaccessible – she was saying, if you place this above her comfort and well being as a performer, then there’s a problem there.

FA: Absolutely.

CA: And Sandra Alland kind of expanded on that and said that the no paper thing is really irrelevant, and even – all this stuff, it’s all irrelevant, because changes are the event, whatever event, is in a venue that she can’t physically get into anyway, as a disabled person. And she said, you know, before you even get to the stage, and the rules that are imposed on performers on stage, there are already a bunch of hurdles that the performer might not have been able to get over. So that raises a question about the wider scene, and whether we are having conversations about how do we just start to encourage performers like Sandra and Markie, other disabled folk, trans women, trans men…

FA: I absolutely agree. One of the things that I’d like to address is that – it would be naive of me to say that ‘we’ll make our nights accessible, you can read off paper.’ That’s almost like the most superficial thing you can say! That’s not to say that it won’t help some poets, but I think it’s a very serious issue. Many venues in Edinburgh that are used by live poetry nights aren’t mobility accessible, that’s a fact. And that’s a real problem, because then we have to look at – Edinburgh doesn’t have many venues for live poetry nights. Should we as organisers be looking harder for those venues? Because it shouldn’t simply a case of what’s the cheapest venue that you can find!

CA: That’s often the priority, isn’t it? And that’s again where funding is power.

FA: And also you need to think about it from different angles. If you’re thinking, ‘we can invite trans folk,’ is the venue accessible to them? If we have poets – or people who are not organisers – introducing other performers by name, can we be absolutely sure that they’re going to introduce them in a way that isn’t demeaning or insulting? This is all maybe something that we don’t currently address.

CA: I think what you’re pointing out very eloquently is that in order to make an event fully accessible, you have to take into account so many variables – and I think a lot of promoters just don’t have the capacity to do that. And I think that comes back to funding. It’s really interesting, I didn’t think we were going to talk about funding this much, but actually – I mean, I’m thinking about a night that I went to just recently, which was an anti-austerity event at Kinning Park in Glasgow. It was organised by these great women Heather McLean and Ealasaid Munro, and actually Sandra Alland was performing there with her band, the They They Theys, Harry Giles was performing – and there was this huge list of all the ways that they had tried to make things accessible. So Kinning Park is a mobility accessible venue, it has unisex bathrooms, they had organised BSL intepretation, organised people to guide folk coming in in wheelchairs to an accessible seat with space around it, all that – they had obviously done so much work to be able to do that. And you kind of think, if you didn’t have funding and resources, how would you do even one of things? I mean, I can’t think of one venue in Edinburgh that offers all those things in one place, so how do you do that?

FA: Maybe, off the top of my head, some of the University of Edinburgh spaces might do all that, but then that’s a whole other kettle of fish because often, the University live literature spaces specifically aren’t mobility accessible.

CA: So then there’s the issue of – should we be starting our own venues, or petitioning for more venues? Should we be raising money to build a venue from scratch? Not necessarily from bricks and mortar, but to create an ideal space?

FA: I know this is something that Harry Giles and Kat McMahon are thinking about.

CA: This is the Workers’ Theatre.

FA: Yes. Because to have ownership over your own space means that you’re able to make decisions that you can’t make as a renter, going in. Those are decisions that relate to using the space, to begin with, for money – being able to charge a fee or not – but also in order to provide accessibility in any way you want. And that – I think it’s – I know that a lot of nights in Edinburgh do make very serious decisions regarding ensuring that their nights have performers with a range of voices. People will turn down applications to open mics, because they’ll say, okay, we’ve got too many performers coming from this perspective, we need some more from this perspective, let’s advertise for that. And that’s brilliant, that’s really good work. But I think when we reduce diversity in our scene to the question of…

CA: Of ‘have we got a black woman on the bill?’

FA: Yeah – or have we got fifty-fifty white, cis men and white, cis women. That’s diversity…

CA: By numbers.

FA: By numbers! Yeah.

CA: We keep coming back to funding, and the fact that funding gives you the power to do things like making a night more experimental – so what is the place of the funder? Is a question maybe, are funders not prioritising attempts to make things more accessible?

FA: No. Funders look at how successful a night is. And success for funders is how many numbers do you have through the door, how much money are you raising? A small night that is organised with BSL interpretation, for example, for a small audience for whom no other night will provide – that’s never going to be as “successful” as a slam night that has twice the capacity of people. And that’s a really sad situation. I think one of the things that I’ve – that’s become one of my personal gripes – is that when we as organisers look for funding from the same places. When we do that, we start creating nights that all do the same things. We’re not looking for funders who specifically ask this of us. We should be being challenged by our funders to provide this – and our audience. We should be in a position where our audience is asking this of us. As organisers we have a responsibility to go to other nights, and – gently – help people to recognise that there are ways to do more.

CA: It’s really interesting that you say we should have audiences that ask that of us – I’m kind of sitting here thinking, this is a really interesting conversation, we’re basically brainstorming ideas and coming up with ideas about venues, thinking about funders – and to me, these all sound like great ideas. But I’m also aware that I am not a member of any of the groups that are not currently adequately represented. So what I’m thinking is, actually, really this brainstorming has to be expanded to include disabled poets, trans poets, poets of colour, so they can say things to us like, ‘oh actually, that’s not my priority at all, my priority is this.’

But I’m really interested in this idea of success that you’ve hit on – that funders see the key to success as how many people came through the door. And there’s this whole idea about legacy as well, and to me legacy is an often misued word Is the legacy of my night that a Deaf poet got their first opportunity to perform, therefore went on to xyz exciting things? Whereas actually legacy is often too much like, ‘my night is able to keep going because we raised x amount of money last time.’ So there are these two words, success and legacy – and I wonder, do we need to change what success looks like, what legacy looks like. And we can’t do that – that needs to be funders. And that raises the question: are funding bodies diverse? Do funding bodies do enough? And then we get into a whole other conversation!

FA: Yeah, and I think we can then almost bring this back to what our first conversation was, about how we present our nights. How we try to introduce people to poetry.

CA: So I suppose basically, the nights that we’ve started out by talking about – and maybe all the Edinburgh nights – all they’re trying to do is, do what they can to set themselves apart and welcome as many people as they can. You know I certainly don’t think there are nights where people are going, ‘no we don’t really want this whole diversity thing’ – you know I think everyone cares about it, they’re just limited in what they do, or can do, about it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do more.

FA: I also think that a really serious consideration is that we have these – I don’t know what the term is, but these nights that continue on beyond just one event.

CA: Yeah, I know the ones you mean!

FA: When we think about legacy for these nights, and we are passing on the mantle of these nights to other people – how are we doing this? Are we passing it among our friends? Who are our friends? Are they people who are in the same place in the scene? Are we looking to create difference, or are we looking to create something that’s the same? How do we want to be seen as being successful? One of the real challenges for me – like, one of the things I really want to advertise is, I think there’s a real problem with lack of persons of colour in the scene, because the problem is, I know those poets are out there. I’ve heard those poets before, I’ve seen those poets before.

CA: And why don’t they get booked as much as other poets?

FA: Right, why don’t they get booked, when they’re great? Why is their voice being used as ‘the token diverse voice’? Why aren’t they being given the agency to have more ownership over nights where they appear? And that’s, I think, a very serious question. I really question, when I see another person in poetry setting up a night, who is male, white, able bodied – and they’re booking people who are male, white, able-bodied – it’s like, I can name ten other nights that do that!

CA: So it’s like, why do we need you?!

FA: Yeah, why do we need you! What’s different about you? Is it just an ego thing for you where you want to have your own night, or are you contributing something new to our scene?

CA: Maybe that’s the note to end this on, that’s quite a powerful question. What are we all contributing? How can we each contribute more? We probably all could, right?

FA: Right.


That’s where we stopped the tape, but this is a conversation that needs to continue. As you read above, we’re particularly keen for it to continue in a way that doesn’t just include, but actively prioritises the voices of poets of colour, disabled poets and LGBTQIA+ poets. Please do tell us what you think, discuss among yourselves, and take the discussion out to your networks and peers and friends.

On a personal note, I’d just like to thank Freddie for expanding my viewpoint and for correcting my knee-jerk reaction. I am now much more open to ideas like the ‘no paper’ rule, though I still think that meaningful intent and context is everything! Thanks Freddie, for being patient and thoughtful as always.

You can keep up with Freddie’s work at his Twitter, and make sure you also support Inky Fingers, the night he helps to run!

Thanks for reading.

How Many Wrongs Make A Mr Right? Debut novelist Stella Hervey Birrell on rejection, writing, and men jumping up and down in nightclubs…

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Hello friends! Remember me? I am indeed still alive, though my blog hardly shows it. Thankfully, I am lucky enough to know the brilliant Stella Hervey Birrell, and even luckier enough to be able to host one of the stops of her blog tour… so I am, rustily, back to blogging! (Thanks, Stella.) Stella’s debut novel is described as “chick lit with grit,” a slogan so great I wish I came up with it — and it’s called How Many Wrong Make A Mr Right? I managed to corner Stella for a small interview… you’re going to enjoy what she has to say, so grab a cuppa and get settled!

1.  I’m always interested to hear about how people started out writing.  I know that you’re also a singer-songwriter, and wonder — did that come first, then story-writing, or the other way around?  Or do you see them as being wholly unconnected?

Not wholly unconnected, no. I had to think really hard about this question: which did come first? It was terribly earnest poetry, really, as a child and then an angsty teenager. Songs have been part of the deal as an adult for a long time, and my husband normally writes the tunes, so it’s something we do together.
But when I gave up work, it wasn’t to write songs, it was so that I could write a commercial, full length novel. Songs are mostly written as gifts, or for my band, The Domestics, which isn’t a full time job.
I’d love to think that writing lyrics informs my prose, but actually I think they’re pretty different. Although it’s probably best that I don’t write in rhyming couplets!

Sam Burns Yard Domestics Pic
‘And now I will read you my full-length novel…’ Stella with her band, The Domestics. Picture by Caroline Pearson.

2.  Kind of related to that first question: what do you think, say, your sixteen-year-old self would make of the fact that you’ve published a novel? 

Oh my goodness she’d be delighted! She was so pretentious though, she’d have been super snooty about the fact that I don’t have a traditional, paper based publishing deal, or an agent.
She’d probably be more surprised that I’m a generally happy, settled person though, neither of us thought that would ever happen…

Correct cover!
Available on UK Amazon, US Amazon, Kobo, Nook and iBooks. (sorry, 16 year old Stella)

3.  What do you see as the major themes of your work?  What questions are you interested in exploring?  Not necessarily just in your novel, but in your writing in general, I mean.  I’m always nosy about the things folk want to drive at with their writing.

At root, I write for women. In my first book, the strongest theme is probably ‘loving yourself first.’
I’m also interested in writing about the female orgasm, in an educational way though – I don’t write erotica.
In other work, women’s empowerment, women’s support networks (good, bad and non-existent), and the whole parenting lark: things I’m experiencing now. For example, my youngest son started school last year, and the piece that came out of the devastation I felt was accepted by the Ropes Journal. Nothing is wasted, as they say.

Strident Feminist cropped
Melissa, How Many Wrongs Make a Mr Right?

4.  I know (*eyebrow-wiggle*) that you’re a member of at least one writer’s group.  Can you talk about the ways in which being part of writing community helps or influences your writing?  

When I started writing ‘seriously,’ my cousin advised me to join a writers group. I’m so glad she did. Being part of Tyne & Esk Writers means I have a place to read works in progress, the impetus to improve as a writer, a community of writers that I now consider friends, access to a ‘proper’ published author and mentoring from her, a beta-reader who surpasses all other beta-readers, the opportunity to read and comment on other people’s work, and somewhere I go every second Wednesday where I know I’ll have a laugh.

5.  If time, money, and lifestyle circumstances were not a factor, what would your writing career look like in 10 years’ time?

In ten years’ time I’d like a readership, not made up of my close family and friends, and a good few novels under my belt. Like about a million other people!

6.  I have to do it: what advice can you give to other writers?  What have you learned that you wished you knew before you started?

Oooh, advice. Er, no idea. Actually, there have been a few things I didn’t do, because I didn’t think to use Google. For example, I didn’t write a one-line pitch for my debut novel, and at first I didn’t write a good cover email either.
Having short works placed in journals really helps, as you have something to write about in said cover letter. All this advice is online, I wish I’d done my research before going out to agents and publishers! Or read ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. Especially as one agent emailed me the other day saying she doesn’t accept a second pass, once you’ve been rejected, she’s not interested in looking at future works.

Rejection email table
This is part of the deal folks. I love the smell of rejection on a Monday morning…

7.  I guess we should devote at least one question to your novel…!  What’s your favourite moment in the novel?  And was that moment the most fun part to write?

I really like the scene where the ‘gang’ all go dancing. I’m too old for clubbing now, but I used to go out a lot. It was fun, trying to get across the whole club atmosphere: how you lose all your friends but you don’t care, how obvious it is when a guy wants to snog you on the dancefloor, how, when a particular type of song comes on, all the men jump up and down a lot…

8.  Finally… what’s next for your writing?  Do you have a new novel in progress, or is there something else on the cards for you?

I have a work in progress (The Perfects) which is with my aforementioned beta-reader that surpasses all beta-readers. I am really excited about this second novel, and can’t wait to share it with other people. And I’ve got a sketchy plan for a third too (Having it All). My sisters are slightly nervous about it, because my main characters are two sisters. I’m still submitting short works as and when I can, and blogging twice-weekly.
For me, it’s about keeping going. Helen Fielding said ‘there’s always someone trying to tell you you’re not really a writer,’ and for a long time that person was myself. But with the support of my writing community and the validation of a publishing deal, I’m very nearly convinced.

17.11.2015. Stella Hervey Birrell.
Trying to act normal while getting your photograph taken, there’s another lifeskill I could do with learning… (Photo: Gordon Bell)

Stella says: “please come and say ‘hi’ in one or more of these places!
My blog space is
Twitter is @atinylife140
I have a page on Facebook here.
Email me at
I can also be found wandering the streets of various East Lothian villages.”

Thanks, Stella!


I wrote a book of poems! It’s called This changes things, and you can order it here!

You can now get more content from me — and help me pay the bills! — by supporting my Patreon. Get a monthly writing support pack for just $5 a month! It’s like buying me a pint.
You can also support me by checking out the many sweet and sparkly things at Edinburgh Vintage, my Etsy-based store for jewellery and small antiques.
If you just want to say hi, you can find me on Twitter, or email me via claire[at] You’ll get a fairly good sense of the kind of person I am by checking out my Tumblr.

In 2015, I…

Friday, January 1st, 2016

Happy New Year !
(Photo credit)

This is my eighth consecutive year of creating a year-end round-up post, which is fairly amazing stuff! You can see my previous years’ escapades here: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Not the easiest year, I will admit: my much-beloved grandfather (better known as Gampy) died in January. (My poetry collection is dedicated to his memory: he was the best and gentlest man who has ever lived.) The sequel project to Making It Home, which I was just starting to get excited about at the end of last year, was put on hold, as every member of our team suffered either a bereavement or a spell of serious illness during 2015 (it sucked!). And I spent most of the summer being very impoverished (but having lots of free time!) due to all the freelance work in the world apparently going dormant! I am including these details because I don’t want to give the impression that I lead some kind of charmed life where absolutely everything is rosy. THAT SAID, some freaking amazing things happened to me this year, and I am so grateful for every single one. Here’s the round up: in 2015, I…

* booked, and delivered, the first ever Write Like A Grrrl!: Edinburgh course. It sold out super fast, as did the March course, and the May course, and the September course. I’m now booking for a brand new January semester, and places are already being filled. Oh, there have also been two ‘Next Step’ courses to date, for WLAG! alumni who want to come back for more! Running WLAG! has been absolutely mind-blowing for me… I have met so many smart, talented women and felt privileged to be able to read their emerging fiction. At Christmas, we had a get-together where women from all four 2015 courses met up to drink prosecco and plot world domination. Rarely in my life have I felt such a warm glow as being at the centre of that room! Ladies, I love all of you. Thank you for a fantastic year.

* secured a small grant from Creative Scotland’s Open Project Fund to allow me to work on my second poetry collection. At the moment, it has the working title of How To Burn A Woman, and it’s shaping up to have two themes: eco poems, and poems about witches.

* delivered a poetry performance seminar as a Visiting Writer for the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in Creative Writing (Poetry). It was pretty great, five years after graduating from this course, to be back… teaching on it!

* went to see Frantic Assembly’s amazing physical-theatre-meets-dance mash-up of Othello in London. They re-imagined the play, chopping a load of it out (controversial!) and setting it in a contemporary Working Men’s Club in Yorkshire. It worked so well.

* went to see the Mark Lanegan Band play in Glasgow. I was chaperoning a friend and had heard not a note of his music before walking through the doors… yet I loved it.

* completed the “go on holiday with my brother” part of my 30 before 30 list, by spending a very lovely long weekend in our mutually beloved York… wandering around, thrifting, bookshopping, and drinking buckets of Yorkshire tea.

* went to see Stewart Lee at the Festival Theatre for Lovely Boyfriend’s 30th and my 29th birthdays. Laughed — and felt mildly uncomfortable — a lot.

* finished up my 18-month post as Adult Learning Project Co-Ordinator at Scottish Book Trust. This project absolutely flew by. Working with adults who struggle to read and write is incredibly humbling, very inspiring and really makes you check your own privilege. So many of the adult learners and tutors I met were an absolute riot, too! And I got to spend lots of my time creating bespoke educational resources from scratch… a thing I still miss from my FE college teaching days.

* was immediately taken on again at SBT as a freelance contractor! This year I travelled all over Scotland delivering bespoke training to adult literacy professionals, teaching them how to use a suite of adult literacy reading support materials which I designed. That was pretty damn cool. I went to — among other places — Ayr, Oban, Glasgow, Greenock, Dumfries, Stranraer, Aberdeen, and delivered a special session for folk who work with d/Deaf service users at Deaf Connections.

* went for posh afternoon tea at the legendary Midland Hotel twice in one year… one of the times was for my dad’s 60th birthday! Felt like an unwashed oik both times, but loved it all anyway.

* headlined the Inky Fingers Open Mic in April. Discovered the poetry of Oban-based Jamie Livingstone, who was also on the bill. That’s a name to look out for, trust me.

* had my poem ‘Bad Moon’ featured on the Scottish Poetry Library’s front page! I can now cross that one off the bucket list!!!

* performed at Aye Write! Festival for the second time. Those folks are so lovely. I got a goodie bag with beer and books in it, and I got to eat snacks a-plenty in the green room! (You can see where my priorities lie.)

* delivered an Open Workshop for the Poetry School entitled “Make New and Mend.” We read the poems of two of my all-time faves, Patricia Young and Dorianne Laux

* …and got hired as a proper tutor by the Poetry School, following that success! I was invited to create my own ten-week course from scratch, which I loved doing. It was called Creatrix: Women’s Poetries for the 21st Century, and it went so well. I worked with twelve inspiring and brilliant emerging female poets and felt awed that they allowed me to read and comment on their work.

* got a second half-sleeve tattooed — this time on my upper left arm. It’s a tattoo to remember my Gampy: as a young man, he was a Spitfire mechanic, and later did up and raced Aston Martins. He once raced against Jackie Stewart, no less! So the half-sleeve incorporated all those elements (you can see a photo later on in this post). As always, I went to my fav, Jim at Red Hot + Blue, and as always he did a bloody great job.

* demolished the crappy old shed in my back garden and erected a brand new potting shed, which I painted powder blue and white, like a beach hut. You may be wondering why the heck this is on this list, but let me tell you, my potting shed was one of the major highlights of my year. I grew so much tasty stuff… and I have big plans for 2016 shed activity!

* read at the official launch night of Hot Tub Astronaut on Election Night… to a wonderful, very disgruntled crowd of lefties.

* had a brand-spanking-new author portrait taken by the amazing Sally Jubb of Sally Jubb Photography. I hate having my photo taken but Sally really put me at ease, and I was so happy with the end result. If you’re a writer and you need one of these pesky photos of yourself, hire Sally!

* read at the launch of the Dark Horse: 20th Anniversary Edition, alongside Alasdair Gray, Vicki Feaver and Douglas Dunn. I sat next to Alasdair Gray all evening, which felt like sitting next to a massive rock-star (he was very sweet to me in my star-struck-ness!). Vicki and Douglas were also LOVELY people and really helped soothe my epic nerves. It was a night I think I’ll remember til I die.

* delivered a writing workshop with adult literacy learners at Crisis Skylight and reminded myself how much I love doing this sort of work!

* made a pilgrimage to Millom, home of one of my all-time favourite poets, Norman Nicholson. If you haven’t heard of Norman, seek him out. He’s great. He was writing eco poetry in the 1940s, way before Silent Spring. Check him out!

* spent a scorchingly hot summer week-or-so in Cornwall, where I have never been before, but which I loved… this was the cottage we stayed in, this was ten minutes’ walk from our front door, and the highlight of my trip was the utterly amazing Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft, which you should all visit.

* chaired the event ‘Women Writers Breaking Into Scottish Literature’ at Just Festival. Thank you to Theresa Munoz, Lucy Ribchester and Jenny Lindsay for being such excellent speakers… they made my job very easy!

* went to all sorts of amazing events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, but by far the best was Mark Doty & Naomi Shihab Nye. I met Mark Doty after the event, and he asked me if I was a poet. When I said yes, he asked if I had a book, and I told him my first one was coming shortly and I was terrified. Without hesitation, he immediately went into Wise Elder mode, telling me to take comfort, be brave and celebrate. We talked about how scary it is showing your confessional poems to the world, but he urged me to take heart and said all sorts of nice things about how I must be a good poet if Bloodaxe took me on, and I was in good hands. He was so nice to me (and I had been so nervous about meeting him as he is such a hero of mine) that afterwards I had to go and have a wee cry! Shoutout to my excellent friend Esa for being with me in that moment, getting it, and not judging me!

* recorded a special podcast for Scottish PEN: in conversation with Iranian poet in exile, Sepideh Jodeyri.

* went on holiday with my brother again, this time to this absolutely magical off-grid 16th century fieldhouse on the North Yorkshire moors. We spent a lot of time wandering, paddling in the sea, and doing off-grid things like collecting eggs and getting up at 6am to light our stove so we could take showers… and not much time writing, which is what the holiday was supposed to be for.

* I celebrated five years with my gorgeous bloke, and nearly three years in the house we bought together and are (still) slowly doing up. Steve was the best thing this year — he’s the best thing any year.

* was hired as the brand new Creative Writing Fellow at Tyne & Esk Writers! T&E is an organisation that exists to champion reading and writing across Mid- and East Lothian, especially in the more rural areas. My job is basically to be a peripatetic Writer in Residence, working with eight (soon to be nine — welcome to the fold, Pathhead!) rural T&E groups to support reading and writing, to critique and encourage the work of local writers, and to produce creative work of my own. I absolutely love driving around, meeting lots of new folk, and getting to work in a different library each day. Plus: two groups in Haddington! So I’ve been able to spend a lot of time in the excellent charity shops there!

* was also selected to become Edinburgh’s very first Reading Champion! I don’t start til March 2016, but I’m including it here as I spent a really enjoyable time at the end of 2015 working with librarian Susannah Leake, who works at the gorgeous Craigmillar Library (where I’ll be based). Susannah helped me to write the proposal that eventually landed me the gig, and I can’t wait to become her official partner in crime!

* set up a Patreon, to support the various bits and bats of work that I do now that I am 100% freelance. Did I mention that 2015 was the year I became A FULL TIME WRITER? It’s so amazing being your own boss and getting to land gigs like the two above… but you also don’t get a pension, so it’s not all rosy. The Patreon is designed to just be a little bit extra that I can squirrel away for hard times. If you fancy supporting me, incidentally, you can pledge $5 (about three quid) a month and get all sorts of support for your writing. Have a look!

* absolutely SMASHED my goal for Edinburgh Vintage, my wee side-business! I wanted to make it to 1,500 sales by my 30th birthday in March 2016, and I’m already at over 1,600. It’s been my best year yet… best of all, I can afford to hire an accountant to do all my EV taxes! O happy day!

* secured funding to host Grrrl Con!Write Like A Grrrl!’s summer festival of women’s writing! It’s coming to the Scottish Storytelling Centre on 11th and 12th June, and will feature amazing women writers like Lucy Ribchester, Jackie Kay and Kirsty Logan. You could also be on the bill! We’re looking for workshop leaders right now, so send us your pitch!

* spent most of December in Cumbria, being rained on a great deal and trying to help out flood-stricken neighbours. If you can, please donate a bit to the Cumbria flood relief crowdfunder and help out — especially for those folks who can’t afford insurance. They need you!

* AND FINALLY!!!! I took delivery of 200 copies of my brand spanking new debut poetry collection!!!!!!!!!!! In case you’ve been living under a rock and I haven’t already yelled this at you, ‘This changes things’ is published by Bloodaxe Books and will be officially available shortly. You can pre-order your copy right here!

A few final highlights…

York March 15 (10)
Hanging out in beautiful York.

Write Like A Grrrl! lunch outing
Just a few of my Write Like A Grrrl! alumni, enjoying a quick lunch before going to see Alison, one of our number, read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, no less!

I had a poem in Gutter!
I was published in Gutter and they called me “very hotly tipped”!

& yet more foragings... brambles and wild raspberries
I foraged tons and tons of tasty stuff this year.

Edinburgh Vintage at the Lou Lou's Vintage Fair, Sept 15, Edinburgh
Edinburgh Vintage had a great year.

Sepideh Jodeyri at Shore Poets October (9)Sepideh Jodeyri at Shore Poets October (9)
Sepideh Jodeyri read at Shore Poets and was wonderful.

Autumn memories from 2015
Living off-grid on the Yorkshire Moors…

Autumn memories from 2015
…with my brilliant brother Nick, who I love a million.

October adventures (12)
Another Write Like A Grrrl! highlight: a bespoke seminar on writing and publishing from the wonderful Helen Sedgwick!

My new tattoo!
The new tattoo! It looks less wonky in person, when my arm’s not bent!

October adventures (39)
With my handsome man <3

Christmas 2015!
I spent a lot of time with this handsome man in 2015, too!

My book!!!
First look at my book! I admit, I cried.

You can see all the books I read in 2015 here, and you can click here to see the various places where I had work published in 2015 (and read some poems!). You can also check out my To Read list for 2016!

What did YOU get up to this year?


I wrote a book of poems! It’s called This changes things, and you can order it here!

You can now get more content from me — and help me pay the bills! — by supporting my Patreon. Get a monthly writing support pack for just $5 a month! It’s like buying me a pint.
You can also support me by checking out the many sweet and sparkly things at Edinburgh Vintage, my Etsy-based store for jewellery and small antiques.
If you just want to say hi, you can find me on Twitter, or email me via claire[at] You’ll get a fairly good sense of the kind of person I am by checking out my Tumblr.

Edinburgh Vintage Christmas gift guide.. and Black Friday extended sale!

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

Hey friends!

If you haven’t noticed by now that I run a small business, then I strongly suspect you’ve been secretly living on the moon. Being a writer is great and all, but I am a firm believer that no self employed girl should be without a healthy side-business. Mine is Edinburgh Vintage, a small-but-perfectly-formed online shop that supplies vintage and antique jewellery and collectables to suit just about every taste.

I hate to tell you this, but it’s nearly December, which means that if you haven’t yet started your Christmas shopping, you should at least be planning it! And it just so happens that I am having an extended BLACK FRIDAY SALE (I know, like everyone in the world) over at Edinburgh Vintage. You get 20% off if you use the code SPARKLYTHINGS at checkout.

Here are just a few of the goodies on offer in the Edinburgh Vintage store:

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
Everyone likes coffee, right? Writers certainly do. This coffee bean pendant is hallmarked sterling silver and, I reckon, a good unisex gift.

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
Or, if you’re after something a little more classy, you could go for this art deco style pendant, which is also hallmarked sterling silver, and inlaid with three colours of amber, and a little triangle of Whitby jet.

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
This wee daisy ring is hallmarked sterling silver too, and inlaid with faceted amethysts.

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
Everyone needs a sterling silver charm bracelet: it’s a classic jewellery staple. I have a couple in the shop at the moment, but this one’s a particularly nice example.

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
And of course, once you’ve got the jewellery, you need to keep it tidy! Here’s a kitty

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
…or you could go for an elegant swan.

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
Maybe you’re more of an earrings person?

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
Or a sparkly brooch person? (Who isn’t a sparkly brooch person?)

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
I’m rather in love with the selection of cross stitch pieces I have in at the moment. They include this black one

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
…and this little tiny gold one.

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
Or for something completely different: something to keep your mince pies in?

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
Another one for the cat fans! (Sterling silver, natch!)

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
…and again!

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
…and again! (These are Italian hand-painted terracotta!)

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
Maybe you like the whole earring thing, but you need clip-ons? I have plenty of those, too!

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
Also clip ons, but with a bit more Christmas sparkle!

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
Or a little something nautical? This tiny pin can also be converted into a pendant!

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
I just really like this little commitment ring.

Christmas gift ideas at Edinburgh Vintage
And everyone needs a good show-stopper of a sparkly brooch at Christmas!

Happy shopping! And remember to use SPARKLYTHINGS at checkout!

In conversation with Sepideh Jodeyri

Monday, November 9th, 2015

Sepideh Jodeyri
Photo taken by Mehran Haddadi, used with permission from Sepideh Jodeyri.

A couple of weeks ago, I was very lucky to be invited to meet the Iranian poet Sepideh Jodeyri. You can read more about her remarkable life and work below, but the short version is, she’s an Iranian poet who’s been forced into exile in Europe. In order to keep writing poetry and literary criticism freely, and without censorship, she had to move to Italy, and then to Prague. Scottish PEN were able to invite her to Scotland for a brief visit at the end of October, to talk about her life in writing, and to perform at a few events, including Shore Poets October.

Sepideh Jodeyri at Shore Poets October (9)Sepideh Jodeyri at Shore Poets October (9)
Sepideh at Shore Poets.

As part of her visit, Sepideh kindly agreed to record a podcast with Scottish PEN, in which she talked about the tradition of reading and writing poetry in Iran, about her own experiences as a poet, contest judge and literary critic, and about some of the problems faced by writers living in exile. I feel privileged to have been invited to be part of this podcast, too — I spoke about the ways in which living in Scotland is a privilege for writers; but also about the ways in which we can still extend freedom of expression to include better opportunities for minority writers, especially transgender writers.

You can listen to the podcast, which was ably chaired by the brilliant Sasha de Buyl, here.

In the podcast, Sepideh mentions that very few of her poems are currently published in English. I offered to rectify this by featuring a translation of one of her pieces right here on ONS. Here’s the piece she sent me. At the bottom is a bit of biographical info, to provide just a snapshot of Sepideh’s amazing writing life so far. Enjoy… and if you want to support the work of Scottish PEN, you can start by following their Twitter, or you can become a member at their site.


Fire, take a step…
A poem by Sepideh Jodeyri
Translated by Sholeh Wolpe

The newspapers will read:
That day

you will put your letters

in front of a gun

and then,

fire; take a step.


It’s hot,

the sun

shoves us away

and we know by heart

the farthest color in the rainbow.

Fire; then a step. 


(The newspapers will read:)
It’s hot, 

and God

shoves us away.

It’s as if your letters 

see double;

as if

fourteen colors?!


It’s hot, 

the letters 

shove us away.
Fire; then a step
towards the war!


Sepideh Jodeyri is an Iranian poet, literary critic, translator and journalist. She has published numerous books in Iran, including five poetry collections, a collection of short stories and an anthology of poems. Her articles and interviews have been published in Iranian newspapers and magazines as well as European ones. She has also translated poetry books by Edgar Allan Poe and Jorge Luis Borges as well as the graphic novel, Blue is the warmest color by Julie Maroh into Persian.

In 2008, Sepideh founded the Khorshid Prize, a feminist literary prize for Iranian women writers. The award included prize money equivalent to around 1,050 euros. The Khorshid Prize ran for four years until it was declared banned after Jodeyri left the country in 2011. The chairwoman who took over the prize, and one of their sponsors, were subsequently interrogated by Iran’s intelligence service agents.

In the aftermath of the highly contested 2009 presidential election in Iran, which resulted in the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2009-2013), Sepideh spoke publicly in support of the Iranian pro-democracy movement (known as Iranian Green Movement). Shortly after, her works were banned in Iran, and some of her close friends put in prison, forcing her to leave the country and move to Italy in February 2011. She stayed for two years in Italy as the guest writer of ICORN. Sepideh, her husband and her son currently live in Prague, Czech Republic.

Sepideh Jodeyri at Shore Poets October (9)
Sepideh at Shore Poets.

My involvement in this podcast was made possible by Creative Scotland’s Open Project Fund, who have allocated a small grant to allow me to develop my work during the period January 2015 to February 2016. Thank you, Creative Scotland!

Zombie (vegan) pumpkin pie: the same recipe as last year, resurrected!

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Vegan pumpkin pie!
This post has appeared at One Night Stanzas every Halloween since 2012. It’s now a ONS tradition!. But it’s Halloween, so you need a pumpkin pie recipe… and if it’s vegan, EVEN BETTER.

Folks, Halloween is TOMORROW, and if you haven’t yet made yourself a pumpkin pie then U R DOIN IT WRONG. Happily, I am here to help you. I stitched together this recipe from bits and pieces of several other recipes I found online but didn’t like 100%. It results in a truly finger-lickin’ pie, even if I do say so myself.

Fiendish all-vegan pumpkin pie
(Serves 8-10.)

Pie crust base:
125g (half a pack) Lotus caramelised biscuits
A quarter of a cup of rapeseed or groundnut oil
A splash of sweetened soy milk

Pumpkin filling:
Half a cup of dark brown sugar
One third of a cup of icing (confectioner’s) sugar
Ground cinnamon
Ground nutmeg
Ground ginger
The zest of one lemon
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
Half a cup of sweetened soy milk
1 tsp cornflour
1 tbsp rapeseed or groundnut oil
250ml soya cream
1 tin of pumpkin puree
Half a tsp vanilla extract

Pre-heat your oven to 220°C, 425°F, or gas mark 8.

Vegan pumpkin pie!

OK, first — the base! Lotus caramelised biscuits are fantastic, because they’re totally vegan and extra super tasty. To make the base, the first thing you need to do is whizz up roughly 125 grams of these biscuits — or roughly half a pack — until they’re broken down into a fine, sandy powder.

Vegan pumpkin pie!

Tip the biscuit crumbs into a large bowl and stir in the rapeseed or groundnut oil (personally I prefer groundnut, but if you’re potentially feeding a person with a nut allergy as I often do, it’s good to have an alternative). Add your splash of soy milk and you should end up with a shiny, sticky, but not-too-wet paste. Press this into the bottom of your pie dish to form your crust base, and stick it in the fridge while you create the filling!

Vegan pumpkin pie!

In a large, clean mixing bowl, sieve and mix the brown sugar and icing sugar together, then add ground spices to taste. If you’re unsure, I’d say one teaspoon of cinnamon and one of ginger, and maybe half a teaspoon of nutmeg. But personally I like my pie spicy, so I’d up the cinnamon and nutmeg, personally! Once you’ve sorted your spices, grate in the lemon zest, and add the salt and baking powder. Mix everything thoroughly!

Vegan pumpkin pie!

OK, slightly tricky bit now: this pie is vegan, so no eggs allowed. But you can mimic the consistency of eggs! Grab your sweetened soy milk, stick it in a pan and put over a low heat. As the soy milk begins to warm, add to it the teaspoon of cornflour and continue to heat, stirring constantly. As the milk heats, it should thicken up. When it gets to roughly the consistency of beaten egg, remove from heat and pour into the dry mix. Add the tablespoon of oil and mix thoroughly. Once mixed, pour and mix in the soy cream, too.

Vegan pumpkin pie!

It’s finally time for the essential ingredient — pumpkin! Some recipes insist that you use actual hollowed-out pumpkin, and yes, if you’re hollowing a pumpkin anyway, it’s smart to make use of the flesh for this. But if, like me, you have three hours before your Halloween party starts and you need to get a move on, then reach for the canned stuff! I use Libby’s myself as it’s relatively easy to get hold of. Pour the can of pumpkin into the mix and add the dash of vanilla. Mix, mix, mix — once you have a thick, gloopy batter, your filling is done!

Vegan pumpkin pie!

To bake, pour the pumpkin batter over your refrigerated base and place in the top half of the oven at 220°C for fifteen minutes. Once that time has passed, and without opening the oven (however tempting!), turn the temperature down to 180°C and bake for another 50-60 minutes.

Vegan pumpkin pie!

Your pie should come out looking only ever-so-slightly wibbly, and golden brown right across the top. It should be allowed to refrigerate for several hours — ideally overnight — to firm up. Then you can carve up and dig in!

Happy Halloween!


Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

Guest Post by Sally Evans: “Elizabeth Burns, A Friendship.”

Monday, October 26th, 2015

Sally Evans and Elizabeth Burns
Eye to eye: Sally Evans and Elizabeth Burns, in Edinburgh in the 1990s.

I’m not sure whether I first met Lizzie Burns in Edinburgh at the First of May, Women Live, or the early School of Poets. Certainly I met her in all those milieus and whatever the circumstances we were soon good friends. It was the early 1980s.

Lizzie saw me as a feminist writer, while I saw her as one. She liked my young children and the way I tried to care for them, in addition to writing, and, I expect, my curiosity about what was going on. I was interested in her Scottish background, her poetry, and her feminist and bookselling friends. She was nearly twenty years younger than me, or I older, but that was never mentioned or indeed noticed. She was quiet and shy, quite the opposite of me, and with her quiet voice wouldn’t read her poems at events. She already had her characteristic grasp of phrase, together with a strong interest in people and their characters. We met in town and visited each other’s homes, and once I visited her parents’ home at Corstorphine. We shared new writing and gossip about our mutual friends, and went to cafes, Women Live events, School of Poets sessions in the Tweeddale Court building of the Poetry Library, etc. We were by no means exclusively friends with each other but we came to know each other very well.

The Poem for Peace was a joint project between us. Peace activists were prominent among the young people in Edinburgh and we capitalised on the number of poets one could then find lurking in Edinburgh places and pubs, by concocting a communal poem to be written by these poets on four rolls of plain wallpaper, which we lugged round from the Sandy Bells to Rose Street, the old Traverse building, and such places until we had 120 poets’ contributions, from the most eminent Edinburgh poets to the most casual, musicians, songwriters and more poets, all in holograph, scrawled on the wallpaper rolls. We laboriously typed out the MSS and submitted it to Canongate Publishers, then run by Stephanie Wolfe Murray, who kept it just long enough to send it up for a possible Arts Council grant, and then returned it, commenting that it was one of the few books of poetry that would actually sell. We considered publishing it ourselves but this was well before the days of diehard – I hadn’t met Ian then nor had Lizzie met Alan, though these events in our lives were to come very soon.

My marriage had been clearly unstable for a long time, although my children were young, and eventually my husband moved out of our house, at first into Lizzie’s old room in her flat in London Street – when she moved to her house in Tollcross.
A visit to the Lancaster area with my kids and Lizzie followed. My father, ill in old age, had vacated his house, at that point temporarily I think. We had a country holiday and Lizzie went off to visit Haworth on her own one day, coming back laden with research on the Brontës.
Changes happen fast in the cities and soon enough Ian and I had joined forces and were setting up Old Grindles Bookshop (which opened in 1987), while Lizzie’s interest the First of May, the left-wing co-operative bookshop, ran itself into the ground after ten successful years.

By 1997, when poems by Lizzie appeared in the first issues of Poetry Scotland, we were both much busier with other things and we saw less of each other, but were still in touch. Soon Lizzie and Alan Rice were calling into Grindles which was by now our Edinburgh daytime home. Lizzie next became a new mother, to her own and everyone’s delight. I went to a happy welcoming event for the baby in a hall near the Pleasance, where Hamish Henderson blessed the baby – no surprise that Alan and Lizzie knew Hamish well.

Next time I saw Lizzie, it was in Lancaster, where they had moved for Alan’s work, and where she now settled to a life of writing and bringing up her two daughters.
In 1999 we published her book The Gift of Light. (The Arts Council wanted us to call it Dragons in the Car Park, but we resisted.) Lizzie didn’t like Ian’s carefully chosen bold cover design, so we substituted a printed marbling design which filled the gap, but didn’t please anyone particularly well. Lizzie was an author who found working with publishers rather difficult. This was another effect of her retiring nature. Pamphlets, such as those she made with Galdragon Press, probably suited her better than working with any of her book publishers, Polygon, diehard, Shoestring and lastly again, Polygon
None the less, The Gift of Light showed Elizabeth’s progress, and the sustaining of her sensitive poetic style, and it undoubtedly filled its function as part of her oevre.

Alan and Elizabeth finally decided to get married and had a typically simple and happy wedding party on the beach at North Berwick, with her children in attendance and a private visit to her parents to follow. Here I met one of her potter friends, who was to play a part in her later poetry.
Because Elizabeth didn’t particularly like the internet – which fitted in with her shyness – our relationship had the old-fashioned characteristic of long intervals without being in touch at all. It was a major difference between us, that she was such a private and I such a public person. Yet determination and grit were not lacking in her make-up, for she always knew what she wanted and strove to achieve it.

We still met up after Ian and I moved on to Callander, when her family sometimes called during their trips to Scotland, and practically every year at StAnza where we both had many other friends, Elizabeth in fact being a St Andrews graduate. The first time they called at Callander, Lizzie’s daughters were joking that she couldn’t be called Elizabeth Burns Rice.

I have my own strong links with Lancaster – my family lived near there from my late teen years, my parents died there, & my brother recently bought back our home in Kirkby Lonsdale. Old memories include writing to enquire about a library job at the newly proposed Lancaster University, when the new Librarian, himself only just appointed, wrote back delighted that someone even knew he existed, though he at that time had no prospect of extra staff.

I was in Lancaster this summer when I had a phone call from my husband. Alan had telephoned to tell us of Lizzie’s death and the funeral. I was very shaken up. I had written to her a couple of months back – May or June – and had a small note in reply, which did not mention her illness. She knew I would now often be in Kirkby Lonsdale and the idea was we would meet up in Lancaster or Kirkby Lonsdale fairly soon. The occasion of my letter was her winning a prize in our Tinker’s Heart haibun competition, in which she wrote of her beloved Solway Firth. I had sent her a small card, hand printed by Gordon Chesterman, of Wordsworth’s Lucy poem. I have another copy of it in my kitchen and it’s a constant reminder of Lizzie.

It hadn’t been an active Edinburgh festival for us – the car was getting old, the traffic conditions less favourable within the city – parking had been suspended in some of my regularly used places, and we couldn’t get back to Callander without the car, particularly late at night. I knew she had an exhibition on but didn’t make it along. I did hear someone mention that Elizabeth was ill, but given my recent letter from her, I heard no alarm bells. Meanwhile her husband, daughters, sisters and mother had been supporting her through months of turmoil while she wrote, wrote and wrote.

I remember when John Cargill Thompson was very ill, I asked him, Can’t you write through it? And he replied, Don’t be silly! It struck me then, that the difference between a poet and other kinds of writers is that poets will write through experience, while other writers will not write while they are below par, though they may use their experience afterwards when they consider themselves in a fit state to write. Elizabeth wrote a whole booklet in her last months – Clay, and copies of it were available after her funeral, an event of light, garden flowers and youth, in the substantial Friends Meeting House in Lancaster.


Sally Evans is a poet, and publisher, editor and blogger of and about poetry. She has three collections of poetry, including The Bees (diehard, 2008). As a Gaelic learner, she has done translations from the Gaelic; she is the translator of the title poem in Christopher Whyte’s Bho Leabhar-Latha Maria Malibran/From the Diary of Maria Malibran (Acair, 2009). She is the editor of Poetry Scotland broadsheet, and lives in Callander, where she hosts the annual Callander Poetry Weekend.

Having spent much of her life in Scotland, Elizabeth Burns lived in Lancaster where she taught creative writing. She published four books and several pamphlets of poetry. Her publications inlcude Held (Polygon, 2010) and The Shortest Days (Galdragon Press, 2008), which won the inaugural Michael Marks Award for Poetry Pamphlets. Elizabeth passed away on 20th August this year.


Making a manuscript: A trip to Millom… and a poem for Norman Nicholson.

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

This post is the third of a series I’m writing about the creation of my second poetry collection (the second post is here). I am grateful to Creative Scotland for financial assistance from their Open Project Fund, which is allowing me to create this manuscript.


I don’t usually post my own poetry on this blog*. To do so would be considered ‘publication,’ and mean that any poem I posted here would be one less for me to send out to magazines, journals or contests. That’s not me being over-protective, I promise: I just write slowly. I need all the material I can get, if I am to successfully follow the Jo Bell Method!

However, I have been aware that new folks coming to this blog will easily get a sense of things like how much I love cake, what kind of books I read and how often my writing time is interrupted by procrastination… but they might not get a sense of the sort of poet I am. I ought to give people at least a few hints. Also, this weekend I wrote something I thought might especially suit this blog, which often acts as a place to recap my adventures. This poem is partly about a recent adventure, so… here it is!

This weekend I visited Millom for the first time. Cumbria is one of the places I call ‘home,’ yet I’ve spent very little time exploring anything west of Coniston Water (partly because I often rely on public transport). But West Cumbria — although geologically very different to the lake country, and much more industrial — has many charms, and I have been particularly keen to visit Millom as a pilgrimage to one of my now-favourite poets, Norman Nicholson. Norman was a self-identified ‘provincial poet,’ who fought his entire life to be recognised by a literary establishment that scoffed at him for staying in his little Cumbrian town and writing about the concerns of the working class people — mostly iron miners — who lived there. I find his life story, as well as his poetry, extremely inspiring, so went looking for him, and wrote this. Bear in mind… it’s still new!


A day’s work
for Norman Nicholson

I drive through villages
called The Hill and The Green,
by the prison, follow
the sandbagged, tidal river

and arrive in Millom.
From owert top in a hot
May, Black Combe was not
the Mordor you’d described.

The estuary lopped off the land
in a big V. My mother had warned,
it’s still a bit spit
and sawdust out that way.

My ancestors, the not-all-that-
long-ago Coles, lived locally
for the ironworks your poem
dismantled famously.

From the pavement, I see
the brickwork in your window’s
shot; the cafe now living
in your shopfront is shut;

your blue plaque a bit gubbed
with rust and gull shit;
the library’s Norman Nicholson Room
one shelf and a sign.

This is Cumbria, like you
always said: keep your daffs,
your Windermere, your slim
white boats and Londoners,

this is it. The women
in the churchyard say
he never did a day’s
work in his life
, when I

mention your name, their town’s
most famous son. I looked
for your grave so I could say
Norman, nothing’s changed —

the Coles all died young,
and pattern this hillside
like earthworks, stubborn
old roots — but the women

don’t know exactly where
you are. Just that you’re off
up the top somewhere,
in a plain spot, looking out.


Some of the Nicholson-related things I saw on my Millom trip…

Norman Nicholson pilgrimage

Norman Nicholson pilgrimage

As well as being ill-received by some in the literary establishment, Norman also pissed off council officials and local hob-nobbers by writing candidly about things like the Windscale disaster and the closing of the Millom ironworks. As a result, a posthumous campaign to name the Millom Reading Rooms after him was repeatedly denied… but a compromise was reached in the form of the Norman Nicholson Room, which is inside.

Norman Nicholson pilgrimage

Iron mining was hard, horrible work that killed a lot of people. This monument in Millom’s town square recognises this fact… and includes a plaque to Norman Nicholson, too, though the townspeople do (or at least, did) think he was a layabout who needed to do a day’s work! (Probably true of most poets, right?)

Norman Nicholson pilgrimage

I really did fail to find Norman’s grave, in spite of the vague directions given to me by a gaggle of local ladies who were manning a flower display in the churchyard! However, I did get to see his memorial window, which is absolutely stunning and includes lines from his poems.

Norman Nicholson pilgrimage

Here’s the house Norman lived in from his birth until his death. He wrote all his poems in the little stick-up room at the top. The blue plaque describes him as ‘a man of Millom.’

*you can see a list of my poems in other places, though, by clicking here.

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Five lost Edinburgh bookstores that I wish still existed.

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Dangerous Ladders
(Photo credit)

OK, so I was reading this post on Buzzfeed about Edinburgh’s great array of charming bookstores (and newsflash: this aint even all of them!), and although the post is really lovely, it got me thinking wistfully of the Edinburgh bookstores of yesteryear that are no more. I thought that they merited a photoblog of their own and so, here are five. If you have more to add, please do let me know!

the Haynes Nano Stage 01
(Photo credit)

Jim Haynes’ Paperback Bookshop
Did you know that Edinburgh had its own (small) Beat movement? It’s a true fact: and it’s largely down to Jim Haynes and his iconic Paperback Bookshop. The shop was opened in 1959 in Bristo Square, next to the University, and it famously had a rhino head mounted on the wall outside (here’s a gorgeous photo of a wee girl posing next to it!). Haynes claims to this day that his was the UK’s first ever paperback-only bookshop. It was also a mecca for Beat enthusiasts… and trouble. In 1960, a woman famously staged a protest outside the shop by burning one of its copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Sadly, the University decided to redevelop Bristo Square in 1966, and rather shortsightedly kicked the Paperback Bookshop out of its premises. They’ve since realised the error of their ways and created a memorial — which includes the book sculpture pictured above, and a brand new rhino head — to this lost cultural site.

Student reading in the Hub, Main Library.
(Photo credit)

Pickerings Books
Sad fact: I cannot find a single photograph of Pickerings Books online, and yet it was a gorgeous bookstore that sat right on the corner of Buccleuch Place, only yards from where the aforementioned Paperback Bookshop once stood. Were it still in existence, it would have been just about visible behind the totes cool dude in the photo above. Pickerings was a wee place, but it was full of gems. As an English Literature undergraduate/not-yet-fully-formed-human, I used to spend hours in there digging through the badly-organised shelves and random piles of second hand books. One day, I found what I thought was a scruffy old book of Edwin Morgan poems for two quid. It turned out to be a first edition of The Second Life that was signed in the front by Angus Calder. ONLY IN PICKERINGS could such treasure be unearthed.

The new town paperback
(Photo credit)

The New Town Paperback
I’ll admit: this place always seemed a little creepy… but in a good way, if that makes sense? I don’t think I ever met anyone else in it, I was always the lone browser, and I never saw anyone else go in or out. The books in the window display all had really sun-faded covers, like they’d been there decades. And yet, I took huge comfort from seeing this place was still there, in spite of everything, whenever I passed on the bus. It’s now a trendy wine shop, where I will never shop, simply because they covered up that amazingly retro shopfront. Sorry not sorry! (PS: here’s a photo of me, posing horribly, outside the New Town Paperback when it was still a going concern…)

Pulp Fiction
(Photo credit)

Pulp Fiction
Tollcross is my favourite area of Edinburgh, and I loved the couple of years that I spent living in a fifth-floor walk up right on Tollcross Junction (noisy as it was). Pulp Fiction was my local bookstore then, as it was only yards from my front door. It was a sci fi/fantasy specialist store and seemed to have literally every sci fi title in the world, no matter how obscure… plus seriously dedicated and knowledgable staff. It was also a really cool literary events venue. I still have no idea why it closed down and my heart is sad whenever I pass by the shopfront it once occupied. RIP, Pulp Fiction!

Happy Birthday, Allen Ginsberg!
(Photo credit)

Old Hat Books at the Old Forest
I know that the Forest Cafe still lives, and I am super pleased that it moved to its New Forest location in Tollcross (see above). However, I miss EVERYTHING about the Old Forest on Bristo Place. It was just the perfect space for a burgeoning DIY arts co-operative, with little nooks and crannies containing everything from a hairdressers to a darkroom, from the amazing Free Shop to a recording studio. And there was also Old Hat Books! A kind of independent bookstore/library/book club mash-up. Like everything about Forest, there was and is really nothing else like Old Hat Books in Edinburgh, if not the world. Hopefully it will eventually make a comeback at New Forest, and maybe become New Hat Books…?


Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

You should read this: The Naming Of Cancer by Tracey S Rosenberg

Monday, January 19th, 2015


The Naming of Cancer by Tracey S Rosenberg
Neon Books, 2014

I’m going to do a Dave Poems style disclaimer here and say that Tracey is someone I know well – she’s a fellow SBT New Writers Awards alumna and a fellow Shore Poet! I have also been following her work for a good few years now, since her novel, The Girl In The Bunker, was published by Cargo in 2011. Since then, she’s also published a debut poetry collection with Stewed Rhubarb, who specialise in giving performance poets a space on the page (that collection was called Lipstick Is Always A Plus – it was published in 2012 and comes highly recommended by me). She and I see each other pretty regularly at poetry events – usually, Tracey is kicking butt onstage and I am in the rapt audience. But I promise I did try to read The Naming Of Cancer (a slim pamphlet published in November last year by Neon) with an open mind and a critical eye.

This is a skinny wee collection weighing in at just fourteen poems, none of which go over a page – but they’re poems that really pack a punch. The book follows the myriad journeys that people go on when their lives are affected by cancer – I say affected, because there are poems in here from the point of view of partners, offspring, friends and doctors as well as poems more directly about the patient herself. This is one of the pamphlet’s great strengths. By looking at this devastating subject from many different angles, it avoids many of the potential pitfalls that come with writing about sickness and human mortality: it avoids melodrama and sentimentality, and steers also steers clear of motivational, life-is-short cliché. It’s a poetry collection that says it like it is.

Take, for example, ‘The Oncologist’s Nightmare,’ a poem that pops up to mess with your expectations just as you’re feeling “settled in.” This poem – in which the oncologist replays all of the frightened and angry questions that have been thrown at them that day – is a stark reminder that doctors’ lives are also affected by exposure to terrible illness, albeit in a slightly different way.

A couple of pages later, ‘Touch’ examines the strange and intimate relationship between doctor and patient. This small poem of only seventeen lines pulls into its clever web the doctor, who must work with extreme care as he invades the patient’s privacy; the patient’s lover, recalling his own worries that “she might find him intrusive” when he touches her; and finally the patient herself, waiting for “the blade: it will remove her.”

Several of these poems deal with the more mundane aspects of living with and alongside cancer: the fearful boredom of waiting around in hospitals is captured beautifully by repeated references to hospital trappings: “a six-bed ward,” vending machines and posters in faceless corridors. This sense of constant and perhaps doomed repetition is also captured in the form of several of the poems: the opening poem is a villanelle in which “needles plunge” in almost every stanza, and elsewhere, echoes and refrains abound.

The book opens with a snippet from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets (“East Coker,” to be precise), and there’s something rather Eliotean about the whole thing – I don’t think it’s a coincidence that “Cancer Vilanelle,” the opening poem, comes hot on the heels of that epigraph with its refrain, “consultants come and go.” Certainly, many of these poems exist in a space of isolation, fear and decay that calls to mind the anguish of Prufrock.

The Naming Of Cancer is not a cheery read, but it is by no means depressing or hopeless. Rather, this is a collection in which hope is faint and distant, but not gone. For example, in the final poem, “Bait,” the scraps of a dead body are used as bait on a fisherman’s hook. It’s a stark and violent image, but there is the promise of goodness in it: the body is not only still useful, not only luring a new, live catch. It is also being “restore[d] to the ravenous sea” – a thought that, after the long, grey corridor of illness, seems truly comforting.

The Naming Of Cancer is available from for the bargainous price of just £4.

(Photo credit)


Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!