Posts Tagged ‘edinburgh’

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.

Where is Claire? Readings & happenings in Spring 2016

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Me, reading at the Dark Horse 20th anniversary launch, Edinburgh

I have a book to promote, folks! So I guess that means I need to get out of my fluffy slippers and go forth into the world… here’s where to find me. (And yes, I’m counting late January as ’spring.’ I’m trying to be optimistic, OK?)

The Arts & Precarity: Forging New Solidarities (Cabaret)
Friday 22nd January 2016, 19:00, FREE
Kinning Park Complex, Glasgow
This cabaret, featuring a variety of writers, artists and musicians (including the brilliant Harry Giles) is part of a whole-weekend exploration of precarity in the arts. Most artists live precariously: they are precariously employed, precariously housed, surviving thanks to a precarious income, or some mixture of the lot. I’ll be reading poems from the point of view of individuals I have known whose lives might be called ‘precarious.’ There’s also a day of workshops on these themes the day following the cabaret.

Neu Reekie!: The Burns Belter
Saturday 23rd January 2016, 18:00, £16 / £14
Pilrig Church, Leith Walk, Edinburgh
Don’t panic! I won’t be reciting Burns! Burns will, of course, be recited… but not by a clueless Cumbrian bint like myself. I’ll be reading from ye olde collection. There’ll also be haggis and whisky and music and lots and lots of hip stuff. And it’s in the Republic of Leith!

This changes things: the launch (THIS IS MY BOOK LAUNCH BY THE WAY, JUST SAYIN’)
Friday 5th February, 18:00, FREE
Blackwells Bookshop, South Bridge, Edinburgh
Come and help me celebrate MY BOOK BEING OUT IN THE WORLD OMG!!!! There’ll be about a half-hour of free wine, cake, and book-buying, before my dear friend, the amazing poet Colin McGuire will entertain us with some great poems (because he’s ace and more people should know about his work, and also because I didn’t want it to be a solid hour of JUST ME TALKING). Then I’ll read some poems from the book and say some dorky things, most likely. Then there’ll be another half-hour of free wine, when I will be available to sign books, if you’re into the whole defacing of books thing. We all get kicked out by 8pm when the shop closes, so it should all be pretty painless. Come along?

World Book Day event with Scottish PEN - TBC!
Thursday 3rd March

University of Edinburgh George Square campus
The event’s TBC, so I can’t say much about it so far… but maybe pencil it into your diaries, because any event Scottish PEN does is worth going to.

Shore Poets APRIL: The Open Night, + little old me
Sunday 24th April, 19:00, £5 / £3

Oh! (The Outhouse), off Broughton Street, Edinburgh
I always really like reading alongside the Shore Poets open night. It is probably my favourite Shore Poets night of the year, because we welcome brand new voices to our stage and always hear such a great variety of diverse work. I’ll have a fifteen-or-so minute set in the midst of this, during which I will probably read poems from, you guessed it, This changes things. If you’re not sick of them by April, it’d be great if you wanted to come along! (Also, get in touch via publicity[at]shorepoets.org.uk if you’d like to be part of the open mic! But be warned — spaces fill FAST.)

Writing Poetry: Getting Started workshop
Friday 27th May, 15:00, £6

Dunbar Library, Bleachingfield, Dunbar
I’m really pleased to be delivering a workshop as part of the CoastWord Festival in Dunbar! For the past four months I’ve been working as the Creative Writing Fellow at Tyne and Esk Writers, and I’ve discovered that there’s a thriving and brilliant writing community all across Mid- and East Lothian. I hope you’ll come along to this workshop and meet some great local writers, and get started on a new poem with me.

NB: This is not an exhaustive list — more things will be added as they come up! So please check back!

*

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]onenightstanzas.com. You’ll get a fairly good sense of the kind of person I am by checking out my Tumblr.

My Top 10 Vegan Desserts of 2015: a Very Important Blogpost.

Monday, January 4th, 2016

I absolutely love year-end round-up posts! They help me to say thanks for all the great stuff that happened to me in each year, and clear out my head to look forward to what’s next. I’ve already done one for the books I read in 2015, and last year I listed my top 10 vegan restaurants and my top 10 indie bookstores of 2014. This year I wanted to cut through to the really important stuff of my life: the best cakes I ate in 2015. Here you go.

Vegan chocolate cake at the Secret Herb Garden

Vegan chocolate loaf at The Secret Herb Garden, Midlothian
TSHG is one of my absolute favourite places. My dream day is basically this: get the bus out there, wander down the road from the bus stop to the garden entrance, foraging elderberries as I go (no really, I am this whimsical). Mooch around the huge greenhouses, go and see the pigs, dogs and chickens, and visit the bee observatory. Then order a shabby enamel mug of their Duchess Grey tea, with a slice of this chocolate loaf on the side. Find one of the squishy sofas hidden among the plants in the greenhouse, and settle in with a book. Only leave when it’s kicking-out time, or when I have to run for the bus.

Vegan eats

Vegan pecan pie, Peter’s Yard, Stockbridge, Edinburgh
I used to avoid Peter’s Yard because I’d had bad experiences in the one on Middle Meadow Walk, which is always rammed with students. Then this year, my very wise friend Lucy came to visit, happened to mention the PY pecan pie, and asked what I thought of it. I demanded to go and hunt down a slice immediately, and we ended up having a very civilised time at the Stockbridge branch. It’s a bit pricey, but highly recommended.

Recent vegan eats

Rhubarb and almond loaf, Earthy, Canonmills, Edinburgh
Earthy have got so much better in the past year for providing vegan options — I salute them! These days you may find two or three tasty desserts to choose from. They rotate their vegan cakes, so this rhubarb one is not always on offer. Though this one is my favourite, I also recommend the chocolate/coffee/coconut cake they do.

Delicious cake at Shore Poets March!

Chocolate almond cake, Henderson’s, Edinburgh
I scoffed this cake at Henderson’s at St John’s, which has now — very sadly — shut down. But I am pretty sure it’ll make an appearance again in at least one of the other Henderson’s outlets around town. It was a really light cake, especially for a vegan offering, and it tasted just like Maltesers! If they don’t happen to have this one on the day you visit, check out the vegan cherry pie, which is more routinely on offer.

York March 15 (24)

Citrus drizzle cake, El Piano, York
I’ve waxed lyrical about El Piano before, but last time, I mentioned that the desserts were the one thing that could maybe improve. However, I visited again this year and was pleasantly surprised by this citrus-y fruit cake, which comes with a D-I-Y drizzle on the side. You should absolutely head to this place anyway… but now you can also enjoy dessert! Gold star for improvement, EP!

Vegan raspberry & chocolate sorbet at The Chocolate Tree!

Vegan fruit and chocolate sorbets, The Chocolate Tree, Bruntsfield, Edinburgh
Again, you may already know about my love affair with The Chocolate Tree — they love vegans almost as much as they love chocolate, and there are always vegan cake and drink options available. But in the summer a massive slab of chocolate cake is just not an option. Eat sorbet instead. It’s cold, for a start, and you can pretend it’s virtuous and healthy as well…

October adventures (6)

Peanut butter cookies, Sugar Daddy’s, Canonmills, Edinburgh
This place is brand new and ten minutes’ walk from my house, so it’s official: I will never be thin. SD’s offer gluten free and vegan treats, as well as options to accommodate other dietary requirements, e.g. nut free and lactose free. As well as choosing from a cabinet full of takeaway delights, you can also order large cakes for special occasions… they even do a line in intricately-iced all-vegan, all-GF Christmas cakes. Oh, and their logo is the coolest.

York March 15 (2)

Vegan fruit scones, Goji, York
Do you know how hard it is to find a good vegan scone? It’s hard. I had to go all the way to York. And that’s silly, because it’s really easy to veganise scones. Anyhoo, Goji — which is so good that it featured twice on my top ten last year — do a mean scone, alongside lots of other delicious things (vegan Sunday roast OMG)… and their staff are absolutely lovely. Worth going all the way to York for.

October adventures (3)

Pumpkin pie, Henderson’s Vegan, Edinburgh
Yes, Henderson’s again. They opened Edinburgh’s first ever all-vegan, all-the-time eatery, so they deserve special praise. And everything they cook is brilliant… it’s not just the desserts. Great service happens here, too. But book, because everyone wants to eat there and the place is super small!

Vegan peanut butter blondies (2)

Vegan peanut butter blondies, Lovely Boyfriend via The PPK
Yep, you can’t buy these blondies… you have to bake them yourself. Or better still, do what I did and have a cute Scotsman bake them for you. We were inspired to try making these by Sugar Daddy’s vegan PB blondies, and now we’ve tasted the home-cooked version we’re pretty sure SD’s use the same recipe. You’ll be pleased to hear that Saint Isa of The PPK makes all her recipes absolutely idiot-proof — if I can make every single one without any disasters, then anyone can! So have a bash. Next time you have vegan friends round, you’ll knock their socks off.

Know of any other good vegan cake places? Please do tell me where I can go for my next cruelty-free sugar fix!

*

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]onenightstanzas.com. You’ll get a fairly good sense of the kind of person I am by checking out my Tumblr.

Things I Love Thursday 105: ALL OF AUTUMN edition

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

So it looks like TiLT has become seasonal, as the last one of these I did was summer! Oh well. Here are some things I’ve loved over the past few months…

Foraging!
This was in my 30-before-30 list, and I think I’ve done pretty well this autumn on the Free Food front!

Foraged hazelnuts

Foraged hazelnuts

^ Hazelnuts from Canonmills!

Foraged salmonberries, raspberries and brambles

& yet more foragings... brambles and wild raspberries

First bramble haul of the foraging season!  Plus a few hazelnuts I found.

October adventures (52)

^ Salmonberries from Canonmills, brambles from all manner of places (so many brambles this year!)

Vegan eats

Another one from my 30-before-30 list

October adventures (2)

October adventures (3)

^ Have you been to Henderson’s Vegan yet? Go!

October adventures (53)

^ Lovely Boyfriend’s very best autumn stew.

Vegan breakfast nachos

^ Vegan breakfast nachos (yes, yes you read that right), also made by Lovely Boyfriend, aka personal chef.

Halloween 2015 (5)

^ Here’s this year’s pumpkin pie. (Yes, this one.)

October adventures (51)

^ Best present I ever bought my man? Possibly the waffle iron. OK, definitely the waffle iron.

Vegan peanut butter blondies (1)

^ He also made me peanut butter blondies this autumn. Yeah… I’ll never be thin.

October adventures (6)

^ …especially not since Sugar Daddy’s Bakery has opened only about four blocks from my house!

Edinburgh

a.k.a the most excellent city ever.

October adventures (19)

October adventures (20)

October adventures (43)

October adventures (46)

^ The shops in my neighbourhood got well into Halloween!

October adventures (27)

October adventures (29)

October adventures (37)

October adventures (44)

October adventures (47)

October adventures (48)

October adventures (49)

^ I went for many a good autumnal walk in Edinburgh and its environs…

Botanic Lights (39)

Botanic Lights (36)

Botanic Lights (34)

Botanic Lights (24)

Botanic Lights (11)

^ …and that included the beautifully illuminated Botanics!

Cumbria

OK, I already spend tons of time there but you guys, I just want to live there. I’m sorry, Edinburgh… I’m starting to cheat on you! I mean, just look at the Gelt Woods (near Brampton):

Gelt Woods (2)

Gelt Woods (1)

Gelt Woods (3)

Gelt Woods (4)

Gelt Woods (7)

Gelt Woods (8)

^ IT’S LIKE LIVING INSIDE TUMBLR.

What have YOU been up to this autumn?

*

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]onenightstanzas.com. You’ll get a fairly good sense of the kind of person I am by checking out my Tumblr.

Yet more reasons to Write Like A Grrrl!: January 2016 semester now booking…

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

Audre Lorde
(Photo credit)

You all know by now that I teach on the innovative and exciting all-female writing course Write Like A Grrrl!, right? We had such a good year in 2015… up here in Edinburgh I ran four semesters and every single one sold out, and things were much the same in London and Manchester, too. This summer we also cooked up our Next Step course, for women who’ve completed ‘original’ WLAG! and fancy a new challenge. (That has also gone pretty excellently.) A lot of words have been read and written and a lot of barriers-to-writing have been overcome; a lot of tea has been drunk and a lot of cake (I mean a lot) has been eaten. And now I’m ready to start all over again in 2016!

WLAG! Edinburgh begins its new semester on Monday 18th January, and places are already getting booked up. There’s only space for twelve women on each course, so I suggest you get moving! If you click through to the booking site, you’ll see that you have the option to pay a deposit now and the rest later. Or you can also buy a space on WLAG! Edinburgh for a friend for Christmas.

Now convinced yet? Here are some (honest-to-god totally real and undoctored — really!) very nice testimonials from women who completed the most recent WLAG! course in September 2015:

What was most useful? Checking in every week even if [our writing] didn’t go well. That block-by-block approach is really good. And I like that you don’t have to share work yet.

Do it! Amazing value for money, really great to have a space for writing every week in your life, and a brilliant support network. Claire is a great tutor. Plus, I like that it’s variable: it can work for you whether you have small or big goals for [your writing].

I would highly recommend WLAG! It’s a very friendly environment and a great motivation to just start writing. Before, I’d started losing focus with my writing, but now I feel confident to keep going!

It’s amazing being able to talk and share stuff with other women who have a lot of the same experiences, it’s been so productive. Definitely do it! I was totally new to creative writing before, and I had a bit of anxiety about being a bit of a fraud. But I’ve found everything to be so inclusive, totally without judgement, and so as a result I’ve been able to learn and develop — and most importantly, to actually start a writing habit. Also: Claire! Best ever.

It was useful hearing about what everyone is doing and that everyone faces common challenges — [writing] doesn’t come totally naturally to everyone and there is comfort in that. I feel optimistic, energised, and more knowledgeable now.

Join! I think it’s a great course, and unique in its approach to creative writing. There’s loads of practical and very helpful advice to apply to existing work, as well as helping to generate new ideas.

Absolutely do it! Claire is a brilliant, inspiring, encouraging tutor. In only 6 weeks, I feel that my confidence has really increased. The things I’ve learned have made me feel excited about taking on my next project(s)!

What more do you need? Get over there and book already! All women — and I mean all women — are welcome!

*

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]onenightstanzas.com. 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!

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.

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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.

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Things I Love Thursday #104: Summer 2015

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Hello there, friends! You may have noticed I haven’t been blogging much… that’s because I’ve been off enjoying the summertime! It might not have been the scorchiest summer, but it’s been a good one. Here are a few highlights…

Cumbrian Adventures

A trip to Askham

I’ve been dividing my time pretty evenly between Edinburgh and North Cumbria this summer, and have loved being in the Eden Valley and surrounding area. I basically feel like I live here now.

A trip to Askham

North Cumbria weekend

North Cumbria weekend

North Cumbria weekend

A ditter in Cartmel

A ditter in Cartmel

A ditter in Cartmel

Greenery

A trip to Askham

One of the things that depresses me about the endless-seeming winter is the lack of greenery, especially the bare trees. So while everything’s green, I’m doing my best to record it!

A trip to Talkin Tarn

A trip to Askham

A trip to Askham

East Lothian weekend

East Lothian weekend

North Cumbria weekend

Gardening

Secret Herb Garden again

Secret Herb Garden again

Secret Herb Garden again

It’s official: I’ve been bitten by the gardening bug. I’ll admit, when people told me that gardening was this revolutionary thing that would make me super calm, I was mildly sceptical… but it turns out it’s entirely true. I’m a convert: I now get that no matter how vexed I’m feeling, a bit of violent weeding will sort me right out. Oh, and The Secret Herb Garden (above) is basically my favourite place in the world these days.

Garden update!

Garden in Julyy (1)

Starting to harvest my herbs!

Garden update!

Hydrangeas from my front garden :)

^ My little garden is only in its very early stages, but I’ve already managed to harvest some herbs and other bits and pieces. Already looking forward to next year.

Paddling

East Lothian weekend

There’s a very small window in the year when the North Sea is actually warm enough to put your feet into, so you need to take advantage of it!

East Lothian weekend

Longniddry

Vintage-ing

Edinburgh Vintage!

Edinburgh Vintage at Askham Country Market!

Edinburgh Vintage has had a slow summer, as always… folk don’t buy jewels when they’re saving up for their holidays! But that hasn’t stopped me from doing my favourite things… particularly, scuffing round salvage yards to see what treasure I can find!

Salvage yard-ing at Low Newton

Salvage yard-ing at Low Newton

Salvage yard-ing at Low Newton

Salvage!

Salvage!

Warwick Tower vintage!

Happy summer!

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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]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Where is Claire? Readings & events for Summer 2015

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Poet Claire Askew
^ Yeah, that’s me! From a photoshoot for the Herald Newspaper, photo by Julie Howden!

Still not sick of me after my various Spring 2015 outings? No? In which case…

The Dark Horse: 20th Anniversary Issue Launch
Thursday 4th June, 7pm, The Voodoo Rooms (Edinburgh)
I am so excited to have poetry featured in The Dark Horse once again, and this time in the sure-to-be-amazing 20th Anniversary issue! I’ll be reading alongside literary GIANTS Alasdair Gray (yes, really), Douglas Dunn (OMG) and Vicki Feaver (I am not worthy) at the Edinburgh launch.
UPDATE: sorry, it’s now SOLD OUT!

10Red (or TenRed… I am never quite sure!) July
Wednesday 1st July, 8pm, Persevere Function Rooms (Edinburgh)
UPDATE: After a bit of a last-minute diary reshuffle, I am no longer reading at 10Red June, but 10Red July! My feelings about 10Red, below, have of course not changed in the slightest!
I am always happy to be invited to read at 10Red, one of Edinburgh’s most reliably excellent live literature nights. I don’t yet know who else is on the bill, but please do come along to see me, and doubtless 9 other bloody excellent people. There’s also the increasingly famous mega book raffle, and entry is a very reasonable three quid.

Launching “Shoreline of Infinity“, a brand new Scottish sci-fi magazine
Thursday 2nd July, time + venue TBC (Edinburgh)
Remember the brilliant science fiction anthology Where Rockets Burn Through: Contemporary Science Fiction Poems from the UK? I had a couple of silly poems in it, and wrote about the launch here? Well, the editor of that publication, the esteemed Dr Russell Jones, has set up his own science fiction journal, Shoreline Of Infinity, and is holding a summer shindig to introduce it to the world! I’ll be reading at it, alongside Ryan Van Winkle, and probably Russell himself, as well as some other fine folks TBC. More information when I get it, but for now, put the date in your diaries!

Just Festival: contemporary women’s writing event (chaired by me!)
Thursday 20th August, 4pm, St John’s Church
This is all very TBC… I can’t tell you yet which women writers are going to be involved but, like anything that’s part of Just Festival, it’s going to be good. And I am going to be chairing it! Make sure you reserve this particular Thursday afternoon because you’ll want to be at this event, I promise!

My appearances at these events were in part 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!

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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]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Things I Love Thursday #103: springtime days out in Edinburgh edition

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

Recent Edinburgh adventures...

Hi Spring! Last time it was York… here’s what I’ve been up to in Edinburgh lately.

The Botanics

Recent Edinburgh adventures...

Recent Edinburgh adventures...

Recent Edinburgh adventures...

Recent Edinburgh adventures...

Is there a better day out on a fine day in spring in Edinburgh than a stroll around the Royal Botanic Gardens? I am pretty sure there isn’t, and I am super lucky to live less than five minutes away from the Botanics’ East Gate. My sister and I went on the perfect day… within a week, the rhododendrons in pic one had already started to drop their flowers. The Kazakh pear, which is the frothy white blossomed tree in pic three, has since had all its flowers blown off and its now focussed on fruiting. And the big tree with the white buds in the last pic is in full leaf! I love wandering the same paths throughout spring and seeing the rapid growth.

The Secret Herb Garden

Secret Herb Garden, Old Pentland

Secret Herb Garden, Old Pentland

Secret Herb Garden, Old Pentland

Secret Herb Garden, Old Pentland

Yes, I have written about The Secret Herb Garden (one of Edinburgh’s best-kept secrets!) before, but when I went last time it was October, and a lot of the stock was starting to be taken into the polytunnels for the winter. Going back in spring was always on the cards and it really is very different when all the plants are back outside, beginning to grow and stretch and bud and smell amazing!

Secret Herb Garden, Old Pentland

Secret Herb Garden, Old Pentland

Secret Herb Garden, Old Pentland

Recent Edinburgh adventures...

I don’t know if I mentioned everything last time… like, they sell garden tools and supplies! I really wanted this vintage chair from the greenhouse! And of course, we returned to scratch the ears of their resident pigs!

The best part was finding a comfy, sunny seat in the greenhouse and settling down with Mark Doty’s brand new collection, Deep Lane. It’s his best yet and that’s coming from someone who thought he literally could not get any better. Buy it, buy it, I command you. It’s especially perfect for garden reading, as many of the poems are about Doty’s own garden.

Recent Edinburgh adventures...

Lovely local adventures

I keep passing the window of Maison de Moggy and spotting the kitties sunning themselves, which always makes me smile (according to the website, the two cute kitties pictured above are brothers, named Marcel and Phillipe!). Speaking of smiling…

Recent Edinburgh adventures...

Recent Edinburgh adventures...

Recent Edinburgh adventures...

There’s someone in my neighbourhood — Inverleith, Canonmills area — who’s been going around chalking positive, inspiring messages all over the place. I love it. My favourite is “ignore the boos, they come from the cheap seats.” I’ve been carrying that phrase with me. Other things they’ve chalked include “Smile!” and “Be kind to strangers.”

I don’t know what you think about graffiti, but I generally love it… and I love that someone has livened up one of the benches in Inverleith Park by scratching a stanza from this anti-war poem into it. The refrain is, “I am a hero, I am a hero.”

…and the last photo is not from Edinburgh, but it’s also wordy and made me smile. I was in Penrith recently, having a cup of tea in the lovely Wordsworth Bookshop and Coffee House. There was an exhibition of calligraphy going on, and this hand-lettered paper plate was one of the exhibits! This is an expression I associate with my gran and her many pearls of wisdom, and I was so impressed by the handwriting I had to get a photo.

What are YOU loving this week?

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]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!