By Lisa Williams
Six years ago when I landed in Scotland, dragging my two reluctant children from their idyllic childhood on the white sand beaches of tiny Caribbean islands, we were hard pressed to find any community or events in Edinburgh that resembled anything they knew. Enjoying the novelty of our new community, we threw ourselves into traditional folk nights, attended ceilidhs, learned a couple of Scottish dances and even grew to appreciate bagpipes. But there was always a yearning for some Caribbean colour and vibrancy, to hear some bass played to the point where the walls shook, and to not always feel like an ‘exoticized or misunderstood minority’. We held parties where Scottish friends came, but turned the music down, or off, or put on the music that they were familiar with. There was the occasional reggae night in Edinburgh where I didn’t worry in the least about being the first or only person on the dance floor; the music was enough. Soca, the energetic, fast-paced, modern form of calypso that you hear at a Caribbean carnival, was nowhere to be heard, except for our Saturday mornings cleaning the kitchen at home. Scotland is only home to about 3,000 people of Caribbean descent. Glasgow has the lion’s share, even after the mass exodus of a Caribbean community in the late 1960’s after land was cleared for development of the railways. And yet, Scots role in the Caribbean has been huge over the centuries, ironically in this case, including a hefty contribution to the development of Scottish Rail by a Scottish plantation owner compensated for losing his ‘property’ after Emancipation. Yet, fairly rapidly, over the past five years or so, awareness of our shared cultural heritage is coming to the fore, across the spectrum of the arts.
There are some regular, well established reggae nights, mainly run by Scottish men, such as Steve Messenger with his monthly night at the Bongo Club. Reggae Got Soul is a mix of reggae and soul run by two Scottish guys, one of whom, Jeremiah, was part of the very first reggae soundsystem in Edinburgh; both sets collaborate with a Jamaican MC Ras Istallion to add some authentic Caribbean flavour. Jeremiah is a true lover of reggae, also being an artist whose work forms a tribute to reggae legends across the years. His Facebook page, Original Jeremiah, has a solid following across the world. The Gambian community in Edinburgh love their reggae too, and DJs such as DJ Gadda and DJ Jobiz are building their own following, most recently with a Thursday night at new club La Vida. Well known DJs occasionally make an appearance. Seani B, the best known dancehall DJ in the UK, with his weekly show on Radio 1 Xtra, threw the afterparty for the MOBO awards in Glasgow in 2016, hosted by Glasgow Reggae. David Rodigan, responsible for introducing reggae to a huge audience in the UK over the past few decades, is even making an appearance on November 3rd at Cabaret Voltaire.
The real power of reggae, however, is in live music shows, and the inspiration and feeling of togetherness and upliftment the singers give their followers. Glasgow, with its choice of venues and home to party lovers, at least, can pull some of the heavyweights from time to time. I’ve made pilgrimages to Glasgow to see various acts like Chronixx, Protoje, and sadly missed a few like Toots and the Maytals, Aswad, Misty in Roots and up and coming Raging Fyah. They are in small, intimate venues like the Rum Shack or the O2ABC, which means you can often get the chance to dance at the front of the stage or even go backstage and have a chat. In Edinburgh, it’s still a rare treat to get a well-known name, but the Wee Dub festival brings live acts like Macka B and soundsystems like Channel One out of London. Occasionally legends like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry drop into a sold out crowd, populated by Scottish diehards of all ages.
Soca, however, in the absence of a sizeable Caribbean community or an annual Carnival, is still very much a niche market. I stumbled across a fantastic soca fitness class in a church hall, run by Lee-I John from St.Lucia, with his carefully designed Caribbean counterpart to Zumba, that I am still koping that he will take nationwide. The Jazz and Blues Festival have brought Caribbean bands from Trinidad, the Bahamas and Martinique to take part in their street parade along Princes Street. I took great pleasure in joining in with the costume making and dance workshops, and dancing along Princes Street with the Junkanoo Commandos. It was truly a highlight of 2014! But there are few DJ’s around, like DJ Yemster of Dundee, who are masters at delivering a high-energy mix of soca, dancehall and conscious reggae in a perfect party blend. On November 2, DJ Yemster will deliver his set as part of an evening’s entertainment showcasing Grenada, with a screening of Vanishing Sail at the Granary in Leith. The crossover comes when you include arts from the Spanish Caribbean, namely Cuba and the Dominican Republic; not exactly shared heritage with Scotland, but definitely worth a mention as a growing presence of dance and music from these islands in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
However, this lack of awareness of contemporary Caribbean music and dance may be about to change. Project X is a network of dance teachers from the African-Caribbean community based in Glasgow. ‘Through workshops, performances, artistic opportunities, discussions, screenings, a symposium and more, they platform contemporary and traditional dance forms whilst broadening perceptions and representation.’ (www.projectxplatform.co.uk) Part of their work involves going into schools and working with the pupils. This autumn, as the founder of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association I was part of Claudius’ England’s Reclaimed Territory, bringing Caribbean culture into schools in Scotland with the aim of the pupils beginning to recognise the many historical links between the two regions. Claudius England, a Jamaican gospel-dancehall singer, collaborated with the rest of the Jamaican team; Heidi Bryce, an artist and dance teacher who works with Project X, and a ‘jerk specialist’ chef, Clive Birch, who, as a trio, immersed Portobello High School for two days in the sounds, scents and moves of the Caribbean’s most globally influential island. Although the S1 pupils were at first hesitant about moving to the unfamiliar rhythms of Jamaican music, by the time the two days were up, even the boys with a serious image to protect were up on stage, joyfully dancing along with their principal, in a way that the school had never seen or anticipated. Dance, music and food were used as a vehicle for the pupils to connect with Caribbean culture, and be encouraged to do their own research into the far-reaching historical links between Scotland and the Caribbean, learning about and ultimately moving past the ugly reality of centuries of slavery, of which the Scots played a huge role.
This legacy is now just coming to the forefront, as Scots acknowledge their hugely profitable role in the slave trade. The Empire Cafe, set up by Scottish writer Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber was a pop up cafe in the Briggait in Glasgow to form one of the cultural activities alongside the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Poetry, art, drama and music were all commissioned to explore the history of the Scottish role in the slave trade. One of the events that stood out was Emancipation Acts, produced by Graham Campbell (our first African-Caribbean councillor in Scotland) and his partner Anne McLaughlin, former SNP MP. Staged in four acts around Glasgow, it was a fabulous piece of theatre, staged in four areas of Glasgow connected with the slave trade, including a graveyard where many Glaswegian merchants lie, and finishing in a joyful celebration of African culture by the disaporic community in Glasgow outside the Museum of Modern Art, the former holiday residence of a wealthy plantation owner from Glasgow, tipped to be the future home of Scotland’s Museum of Slavery. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a Jamaican professor, historian and activist gives much of his time to educating the Scottish public on the history of slavery, and the response is invariably slightly shocked, but very positive. Scottish historians like Tom Devine and Stephen Mullen among others have also been doing some deep investigations over the past decade to bring this formerly hidden history to light.
As part of Africa in Motion film festival’s summer internship programme, ‘Reviving Scotland’s Black History’, I went on a Black History walk with St.Lucian historian Marenka Thompsom-Odlum https://www.africa-in-motion.org.uk/blog/from-grenada-to-glasgow-curating-with-own-experience-by-elizabeth-williams/ who shared a wealth of knowledge about where much of Glasgow’s wealthy merchant families had made their money, by showing us street names, paintings, sculptures and gravestones around the city. She has been on the lecture circuit during Black History Month, and along with other historians, is working hard for all this fascinating research to be known, and eventually be part of the school curriculum in Scotland. The undercelebrated history of soldiers from Caribbean ex-colonies who fought for Britain in both World Wars was brought to our attention by Selena Carty of Black Poppy Rose www.blackpoppyrose.org during a fundraiser I held for Haiti after hurricane Matthew in Glasgow in November 2016 with acts like Ladies of Midnight Blue, Hannabiell and Yillis, www.hannabiell.com a Jamaican-American and Dominican Afro-Latin percussion, brass and mbira duet. www.hannabiell.com Again, the members of the audience from Scotland were shocked not to know about this history, and keen for more information.
Sometimes this history has been brought to us through music and art. Brina is a world reggae artist currenly based in Stirling, who has brought the historic link with Scotland to us through her music project, Jamaica Sings Robert Burns, www.jamaicasingsburns.com. An album with covers of Robert Burns classic songs by top Jamaican artistes alongside Brina, including Ken Boothe and Addis Pablo, and she has sung several of the songs from the project at Celtic Connections and other platforms in Scotland. The project began after facts emerged about Burns trying several times to board a ship to Jamaica to work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. Most Scots I talk to about this now seem to know about it, which means the formerly hidden history is starting to ripple through the national consciousness. Graham Fagen, a Scottish artist, has used both genres to explore our shared heritage. Graeme has been working with Caribbean artists for the past few years, and recently the National Portrait Gallery held a video installation of a collaborative version of the Slave’s Lament by Burns with Sally Beamish, the Scottish Ensemble and reggae singer Ghetto Priest. www.grahamfagen.com
The fine and conceptual art scene in Scotland has a variety of artists of Caribbean background working and collaborating with each other. One of these hubs for artists of colour is Transmission Gallery, www.transmissiongallery.org an artist-run space in Glasgow that hosts some very fresh and interesting work from a range of young artists. One of the committee members is Alberta Whittle is a conceptual artist and curator from Barbados, based in Glasgow, doing some groundbreaking work with creative strategies employed to question the authority of postcolonial power. www.albertawhittle.com Eddie ….
Caribbean culture is tentatively beginning to become part of the mainstream arts programming in Scotland across the genres. Theatre, film and comedy are the areas that could still do with a boost, but as interest in and understanding of the Caribbean grows among Scottish audiences it will no doubt come in time. The Edinburgh Book Festival and poetry events and festivals have a growing platform for writers of Caribbean background, no doubt partly due to the recognition given to two poets from the Caribbean, both recent winners of the Forward Prize, Kei Miller and Vahni Capildeo from Jamaica and Trinidad respectively, both of whom taught at the University of Glasgow for several years. Neu Reekie put together a Jamaica-themed evening at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015 with Brina performing alongside Selena Godden and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, and the Scottish Poetry Library www.scottishpoetrylibraryh.org.uk under the directorship of Dundonian Asif Khan has expanded its repertoire to bring Caribbean poets such as Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison. The new Outreach Coordinator Hannah Lavery is of Jamaican-Scottish background, also runs the Coastword Literary Festival in Dunbar www.coastword.co.uk and will no doubt continue to diversify the programming content. This year’s Book Festival included writer Zadie Smith, and Guyanese poets Grace Nichols and John Agard. The Edinburgh International Festival in collaboration with the British Council put on a fantastic cross-genre event called Fire Down Below which had a cross-section of academics from literature, art, poetry and publishing to discuss modern pan-Caribbean identity in a post-colonial context. The day before had a lecture by Jamaican-British artist, curator and art historian Eddie Chambers www.eddiechambers.com at the National Portrait Gallery, and who is now living part-time in Edinburgh who will doubtless be an influence on Scottish cultural policy. He’s the author of numerous books on Black British identity as it relates to music and art, such as Roots and Culture: Cultural Politics in the Making of Black Britain.
Caribbean film is beginning to have a platform this year as part of Africa in Motion Film Festival, which is a ten day festival spanning a range of venues across Edinburgh and Glasgow, including the Filmhouse. www.africa-in-motion.org.uk Two events are part of the Reviving Scottish Black History Programme. On November 1, there will be a screening of two films, as part of an event The Transatlantic Slave Trade Acknowledged at St. John’s Church in Edinburgh; 1745 (Scotland) and the Crying Conch (Haiti) which explore slavery and its enduring legacy including a debate with historians Geoffrey Palmer and Stephen Mullen. However, important as slavery is to explore, Black History needs to expand the narrative with something more positive. This is why I chose to curate a screening of Vanishing Sail on November 2 in Leith, www.vanishingsail.com a documentary about the legacy that Glaswegian shipwrights left in the tiny island of Carriacou, which forms part of Grenada. It’s a beautiful story of a dying craft, kept alive mainly by a single family in the village of Windward, known in the area for its Scottish cultural connection through fiddle music and a dominance of Scottish surnames and ancestry. We are linked in so many ways, and I hope that the arts in Scotland can continue to explore the connections with the Caribbean as time goes on.
Tickets for Vanishing Sail here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/vanishing-sail-film-dj-yemster-after-party-tickets-38382083846
Hello Roger, when did you first realise you were a poet?
When I was still at school. Some sixth-formers started a magazine and asked for poems for it. I thought, “Oh, you’re allowed to write them too!” I thought all the poems had already been written, by people who were called poets. Looking back, the first poem I wrote was quite comical. On the morning of a school cross-country match I had butterflies in my stomach and started to try and describe the feeling:
The phrasing is ludicrously old-fashioned because I had yet to read any modern poetry but I had found a fast-running rhythm,
Friends are rivals
Spirit ‘gainst such
By the time I reached the changing room, the butterflies had gone and I had that rhythm in my head. I had discovered that writing a poem gave me a buzz.
I did not realise how essential it was to my equilibrium until I was in the upper sixth and studying for the Oxford entrance exam, studying so hard that the brain wouldn’t switch off and I couldn’t sleep. In my memoir, The Horseman’s Word, I tell the story of how the tension built up until
“I was shaken by tears, sudden, overwhelming, undeniable tears.
Sent to bed like a small child with the mumps or the whooping cough. I drifted in and out of half-sleep, a warm, absolved half-sleep, quite different from the tense vigil I had been keeping. And something was lulled awake, something at the back of my mind I had been saving for when I had time. Phrase by phrase, I began to try out lines for a poem.
One of the farm cats was an accomplished thief. On a Friday, when my mother was cooking fish, it would crouch by the garden shed, watching her movements through the kitchen window. If she went to the pantry, or into the hall to answer the phone, it would be in and out through the fanlight, leaving a flurry of paw marks up the windowpane as the only evidence. The idea for the poem had come when I thought of merging that cat with one I used to watch out of the corner of my eye during English lessons. Our prefab overlooked its backyard and, as Jack took us through the intricacies of ‘A Valediction forbidding mourning’,
If they be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin compasses are two,
It would be disposing itself in the sun, regal on its coal bunker.
I cannot remember much of the poem itself. Only that it opened with a colloquial flourish, a trick I had learned from e. e. cummings,
That there cat
‘s a darn nuisance
and the cat on the coal bunker came into focus later, sat upright with its tail neatly encircling its feet,
a pert, proletarian beauty.
What I remember is how the cluster of words grew each time I surfaced. I began to drift purposefully, waiting for the pull of the next phrase…
As the poem took shape, the last four days seemed to re-form around it. The insomnia, the mania, the embarrassments, they all fell away. I was intent on my compressions, on making the cat scramble through the lines so fast they rattled in their frame. It was like being given another life.”
In the poetic spheres, who were your earliest influences & who inspires you today?
It was Keats who first awoke me to the power of language and then Hopkins. As I recall in the memoir, Ted Hughes came to read in my first term at Oxford and made a big impression. Ten years later, by which time I was reviewing for London Magazine, Seamus Heaney had an impact. I see some of my work, the long poem ‘Lower Lumb Mill’, for instance, as a development from the short-lined stanza Heaney was using in Wintering Out and North. I think Seamus himself recognised an affinity because ‘Lower Lumb Mill’ was one of the poems he particularly liked in Given Ground.
Hughes and Heaney remain my reference points. There are contemporary poets whose work I admire, Jorie Graham and Michael Symmons Roberts, but I wouldn’t call them an inspiration. It’s more a case of admire and do otherwise.
When do you know you have written a good poem?
When it takes me by surprise. I don’t have the makings of a poem until I find what I call ‘a tension’, a phrase or a rhythm that takes me by surprise and has a kind of necessity. Sometimes I have to work for days until I find that. And often there’s another surprise that comes two-thirds of the way through working on a poem, when it declares its own logic and accomplishes itself more swiftly than had seemed possible.
What does Roger Garfitt like to do when he’s not being, well, poetic?
I go for long walks. I live just under a Stone Age Ridgeway, so that’s easy. I listen to jazz and Latin American music and some World music – Yasmin Levy, Souad Massi, Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté. I listen to Radio 3 when I’m cooking and buy the occasional CD of contemporary classical music – Harrison Birtwistle, Simon Holt. I go to the occasional opening in a local art gallery and get the weekly Art Newsletter from The Guardian. I watch foreign films when I can – I came of age in the great age of European cinema, watching Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, the Russian War & Peace – but I can’t livestream, given the slow speed of rural broadband, and I’m desperately holding onto my LOVEFILM subscription.
Nothing, in other words, that would surprise my readers. My life is pretty much all of a piece.
You won the Gregory Award in 1974. Can we see one of your winning poems?
With pleasure. ‘Hares Boxing’ came from one of my lucky breaks when an old farmer who was living all alone in a big stone farmhouse rented me two rooms for two pounds a week. This enabled me to stop teaching and write full-time and his generosity is duly acknowledged in the front of my first book. I used to walk round the fields each morning before I started work and that’s when I saw the hares.
for Nigel Wells
This way and that
goes the runaway furrow.
Nose to tail
goes the tunnel
in the grass.
Now the leader
swivels, jerks up his heels.
The trick flickers
along the rope of hares:
heels over head they go, head over heels.
It’s the Saturday after Valentine:
in Florey’s Stores
the kids go
Oh! What did he put?
Go on, tell us! we promise
we won’t tell.
Did she send you one?
Over the winter nothing has changed
but the land. The hedgerows
are in heaps for burning.
The owl’s tree stands vacant
between the scars of smooth earth.
The sunlight falls on cleared spaces,
on the old lines. The hares meet
as they met before Enclosure, far out
in the drift of grasses, their fisticuffs
like tricks of the eye.
What catches the light, what the eye believes
is the rufous shoulder, the chest’s white blaze:
what it sees are up on their haunches
the blaze throw its guard up, the shoulder
slide in a punch: two pugs that duel
stripped to the waist by sunlight.
And the Fancy? They emerge
from the corners of the eye, low company
from the lie of the land, with guineas
in their stare, without visible means.
The purse is all he fancies. The generations
bunch in his arm.
Toora-li-ooral go the fifes in his blood.
As tall, as straight as a thistle,
Jack Hare squares up to Dancing Jack.
By the time the book came out, I was living in North Devon and I sent a copy to Ted Hughes. He wrote back, “Good to know where ‘Hares Boxing’ comes from. I came across it in a magazine somewhere and could never find it again. Very haunting poem.” That was all the endorsement I needed.
How has your poetic voice changed since the 1970s?
What happened towards the end of the 1970s is that the ideas started to open out and, whether I liked it or not, I found I was having to write long poems – something that came as quite a shock to someone who had always thought of the lyric as his natural medium. I had moved to North Wales to take up a writer’s fellowship at Bangor University and got to know the poet Tony Conran, the editor and translator of the Penguin Book of Welsh Verse. In Wales the communal tradition was still strong and the poet had a natural role in that. Many of Tony’s poems were written to celebrate a marriage or a christening or a life as it came to its end. When I set out to write a wedding poem for Tony himself, I came up against the fact that in the English tradition we no longer had a positive language in which to celebrate such moments, only a language of doubts and misgivings. That was the start of ‘Rites of Passage’, which appeared as work-in-progress in Given Ground and remained in suspension for another twenty-five years. Fittingly, it was a poem I wrote for another friend, the Irish harper Tristram Robson, that gave me the insight I needed to complete ‘Rites of Passage’ and Tony was able to see it in print before he died. It’s most easily found now in an anthology that came out from Bloomsbury last year, Building Jerusalem: Elegies for the Church of England.
The idea for ‘Lower Lumb Mill’ came as I was writing a report on a school course I had run at Lumb Bank, the Arvon Centre in Yorkshire, in 1979. The kids were from inner-city Manchester, a typical mixture of races and backgrounds, all brought together by the city’s history as the centre of the cotton-spinning industry in the hey-day of the British Empire. The beginnings of that history were all around them in the woods below Lumb Bank, in the mill chimneys, the dye-pits and the waggon-roads, but they were blind to it. They thought they were in the country and wrote poems about fields and cows. That blindness, that blindfold, if you like, of rural myth seemed to me very typical of English culture and I set out to strip it away and celebrate their real history, in all its persistence and difficulty. As I worked on the poem, I had to include my own history because I was coming to the end of a difficult relationship and had to decide which was the more loving course, to break off or to persist. It’s a long poem in four sections, beginning almost as a satire, an act of cultural dissidence, and ending as a love poem.
The relationship with Frances, which began in 1980, gave me, as it were, a ledge of stability from which I could look back at those earlier difficulties and Frances read the first two sections before she was diagnosed with cancer in 1982. It was 1985 before I was able to take the poem up again and I finally finished it in Bogotá in 1988.
It was while I was in Bogotá that I received the commission for the memoir, The Horseman’s Word, and for the next four years I worked on that. I did not come back to poetry again until my Colombian life ended in 1992 and I did a very free translation of a song by Atahualpa Yupanqui as a way of negotiating that loss. By then I was deep in debt and had to put the memoir to one side while I took on community writing projects. Then I had the commission for Border Songs, the first of three poetry commissions I used to subsidise the memoir, and it’s those three sequences, From the Ridge, In All My Holy Mountain and Border Songs, that form the final section of the Selected Poems. I wrote each of them in six months, From the Ridge and In All My Holy Mountain actually in the same six months, and that shows not only the advantage of having deadlines to work to but also the skills I had been forced to acquire when, to my consternation, poems insisted in turning into long poems.
Of all your collections, which contains the most of the real Roger Garfitt?
I wouldn’t want to choose between Given Ground and the Selected Poems. Fortunately, I don’t have to because almost the whole of Given Ground is in the Selected Poems. The poems in Given Ground are more personal but the Selected has the journal extracts, which are more detailed and every bit as personal.
Could you give us a sample poem?
Hard to choose. ‘The Hooded Gods’ has had the most critical response. As Sean O’Brien said, it’s clearly socialist in impulse and that’s carried through into Border Songs and In All My Holy Mountain and more recently into the political sonnets that have appeared in Stand and PN Review. ‘Skara Brae’, written as an oblique elegy for the life I shared with Frances and her son Adam, draws the most response from readers. But I’m going to choose ‘At Vanishing Point’, the first of the Colombian poems, which is more openly personal.
At Vanishing Point
para Eugenia en El Cántaro
This morning we talk again
under the bony plum,
whose fruit, like a stone
sucked in the mouth,
can outwit thirst. I sit
on the garden seat as on
the bench of the ship of souls,
lashed to my oar. Almost hear,
between the tick-birds and
the parakeets, a gull’s keen,
invoking solitude, the doom
of the Wanderer, who dreams
of a hearth and companions, and wakes
to the ice of the whale-road.
My salve for hard times
is to make them harder still.
You do that too. You will
when I leave. Lock yourself
in your painter’s attic
in Bogotá. Work to
the wry songs of Bola de Nieve.
Geni, you and I are two
of a kind. I find you
on the bench beside me.
Above us, like a daydream, like a thought
moored between two pillars of cloud,
El Cántaro, the house you built
out of stubbornness, out of shipwreck.
It is just pencilled in
against the sky. Just held
at the point of erasure.
Built of shadings, cross-hatchings,
a pencil sharpening the whiteness
of paper, constructing
a moebius strip of light,
endless galleries, rising
scales of roof, ascending
and descending stairs.
The pencil sketched, suffered
erasure, sketched again.
One by one the variants
emerged. Plumped onto the page
and sank without trace. Stepped out
on their spindleshanks
and crumpled into the pits
of erasure, the hubbub of forms
jostling for life. Then the pencil
took wing. Took from the swift’s wing
the long, honed line, that austere
primary glide. Took from the owl’s wing
the crossing of tenons, that secondary
softness of flight. Something lifted
that could fly. Now we live under its wing.
Watch the diamond lattice compose the light
and the stairs rise in counterpoint. Hear
the three-part harmony in the turn of the stair.
Geni, we came here already erased.
All that life we lived on paper,
all the ways and means we had sketched
in our letters. What precise negations,
what scar-white lines your ghost must have crossed
to find me. I was a blankness walking
on the white fires of that grid.
Now we talk. My fingers touch the blade
of your shoulder. And are fingers
on warm skin. We touch as only survivors
can touch. Butterflies like blue water
lap the air. The charcoal tree has blossomed
into featherdusters of flame. We could walk down
to the Sumapaz, the Peaceable River,
naming the white-humped cattle, the hawk
who is a call, a circling
shadowed by her young, the lizards
who are known only by their vanishing.
After the early loss of your wife, Frances Horovitz, how cathartic an experience was it to edit her Collected Poems?
I had yet to reach any possibility of catharsis. Rather, I was possessed by a fierce determination to justice to Frances’ work. I was rigorous in my editing because Frances’ reputation was by no means as secure then as it is now and I didn’t want to give any ammunition to the critics. But then Frances herself had been so exacting in what she allowed into print that there were very few poems I hesitated over and then only by the finest shades of judgement. What has been heartening in the years since is to see the respect that younger poets have for her use of space and the concentration of her language, for a free verse that is completely achieved, as durable as a border ballad.
I reprinted the dedications of each successive book in the Collected in order to acknowledge the contribution of her first husband, Michael Horovitz, who was an acute reader of her work, always able gently to point out when a poem was not quite finished, and to celebrate the inspiration of her son Adam, whose responses gave rise to a number of the poems. There’s one poem whose omission Adam regrets because it was prompted by a fairytale they read together and he remembers Frances working on it. I left it out because Frances felt it was a poem that didn’t really belong to her, that it didn’t have her voice. Adam will probably bring it back into print at the first opportunity and why not? The Collected has done its work now and there’s no reason not to move to a Complete Poems.
Where there was an element of catharsis was in seeing the design for the book come together, complete with Winifred Nicholson’s painting on the cover, and knowing that it looked just right, that Frances’ work was being sent out in the world, as it were, under her own colours.
Can you tell us about your life in Colombia?
Meeting the painter Eugenia Escobar in 1985 and spending long periods of time in Colombia was the saving of me in many ways. It didn’t just give me a new life, it gave me a new world. It was as if Frances had never died because Frances never lived there. The ground was still whole under my feet.
And in a very practical sense it saved me as a writer. In England I had to put together a living from all sorts of bits and pieces: giving readings, writing reviews, running poetry workshops in schools, judging poetry competitions. A friend once observed that the first requirement for a poet seemed to be a clean driving licence. Whereas in Colombia I could simply sit down and write. If the phone rang, it wasn’t for me. Hence I was able to finish ‘Lower Lumb Mill’ and assemble the collection that became Given Ground. And it was in order to earn my living simply from my desk that I found an agent, Jane Turnbull, who secured the commission for The Horseman’s Word.
There was an energy that came from watching Geni conceive and complete her paintings in a two-or-three-day storm. She painted a major series, El Condorpatrio, that took the Condor, the emblem of Colombia, through a series of transformations that reflected the violence the country was living through. And there was the music, the discovery of a whole continent of music that stretched from Mexico to Chile and took in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Music and dance are so much a part of life in Colombia that, when Granta commissioned an article on the Drug War, I was careful to offset the drama with a description of El Día del Amor y la Amistad, one of the fiestas where families gather and drink rum and aguardiente and dance through till dawn:
When South Americans dance, they do not leap about, striking the ground with their feet as
Europeans and North Americans do. They dance from the ground upwards. Their feet softly
paddle and their hips begin to sway. It’s the outbreak of a communal rhythm. Children wriggle like elvers in a spring tide. The old yield to it gravely like trees to the wind. And the young dance as angels might make love, their hips close, fluent and inexhaustible, their feet hardly touching the ground.
The only problem was that The Horseman’s Word was cutting a very deep furrow and it quickly became apparent that I would never be able to finish it in the year the advance had bought. Granta published an extract from Part One, which helped, and I had a grant from the Society of Authors. But the point finally came when I couldn’t raise another air fare and Geni and I had to part good friends, which we still are, witness her painting on the cover of the Selected Poems.
You seem to enjoy having music accompany your work. What is the reasoning and origin behind this?
Music has always been important to me. The school I went to, Tiffin Boys’ School, has a strong choral tradition and I grew up listening to Byrd and Palestrina. Then I discovered Jazz. The memoir has an account of my first visit to Ronnie Scott’s Club to hear Stan Getz play with the Stan Tracey Trio and I returned whenever I could to hear Stan Tracey play. His Jazz Suite to Under Milk Wood is a masterpiece, with an astonishing solo by Bobby Wellins on ‘Starless and Bible Black’. Poetry & Jazz was in the ascendant then and Christopher Logue’s Red Bird is another masterpiece, Logue’s voice interplaying with the Tony Kinsey Quintet as if it were another instrument.
Priscilla Eckhard, to whom I was married when I wrote ‘Hares Boxing’ introduced me to the folk tradition and that was reinforced when I moved up to Bangor, which had a folk club and a folk festival for which musicians came over from Ireland. For three years I lived with a Welsh folksinger, the only problem there being that folk song sessions go on into the early hours of the morning, which isn’t the best thing if you want to get up and write the next day. When I moved up to the North East, I met another strong folk tradition and it was there that Frances and I began to work with Tristram Robson, the Irish harper, and with an Irish traditional band, Faun. The friendship with Tristram continued when we moved down to the Marches and Tristram gave the first performance of Border Songs with me in the Morden Tower.
Poetry is a very concentrated form of language and I found when I was running readings that interludes of music sharpened the audience’s attention, both for the poetry and the music. But the relationship goes much deeper than that, much further back. In an oral culture poets were singers and melody was one of the mnemonic devices they used to preserve and transmit their work, as much part of it as the other devices they used to bind their work together, whether they were rhythm and rhyme, or stress patterns, alliteration and assonance. Whatever freedoms free verse has opened up, I think rhythm is still at the heart of it. I remember Seamus Heaney once remarking of another poet, who shall remain nameless, “He doesn’t have much of beat, does he? In fact, I wonder does he know there’s a dance going on at all?”
Sometimes I fear that sense of the dance is being lost, which is why I called the CD label I’ve set up, Re-stringing the Lyre. If you are collaborating with a visual artist or a musician, you have to leave space for the other art form, which can have the effect of refining your own work. Simon Holt, who has done some striking settings of Emily Dickinson, told me that he had found it impossible to set anything by Dylan Thomas because there was no space left for him. He came to the conclusion that the poems were already set.
Border Songs began as a collaboration with the glass engraver, Janice Howe. The poems are etched into the glass of the Shropshire County Archives, into the screen that separates the Public Room, where anyone can go to consult their parish records, from the Rare Manuscript Room. It’s a security screen and we had to come with an engraving that left the glass clear. Hence the form of Border Songs, the history of the Marches distilled into twelve short lyrics, the lines themselves very short and using lots of line breaks. Janice found a classic font, so classic that it’s self-effacing, and when you first enter the Public Room, the screen does look clear. But as you walk across the room, there’s a shimmer and the poems rise up, so many ghosts on the glass.
It was that space on the glass that left room for the music in the performing version, with Sue Harris on the hammered dulcimer. Sue found a wonderful intro, a tune called ‘Under the King’s Hill’ by her son, Benjy Kirkpatrick, and created other interludes that come after every three songs: but there are places where she is actually playing under my voice and that wouldn’t have been possible without the spaces between the lines. The interplay between the voice and the dulcimer is even closer in From the Ridge, which the Poetry Society commissioned under their Poetry Places scheme. I said I wanted to write about the hard place, turning loss into a landscape and making a journey across it, a possibility I had glimpsed in the songs of Atahualpa Yupanqui and the tradition of the huella, the song you make as you ride along the path. The dulcimer becomes the audible expression of the journey, pacing it out note by note in a way that holds the audience rapt.
In All My Holy Mountain was an Arts Council commission, a celebration in Poetry & Jazz of the life and work of the Shropshire poet and novelist, Mary Webb. She was so adept at catching the changing colours of the landscape in such a rich verbal palette that I felt we would need an equally rich sound palette, in other words a full horn section with all three saxophones and a trumpet who could double, as Miles Davis did, on flugelhorn. John Williams assembled a Septet of top jazz musicians who could all double and even treble on other instruments and suggested a rising young jazz composer, Nikki Iles. But how to write In a way that would give them the space they needed?
For the opening section, ‘Westerly’, I came up with a four-line stanza, so brief that it’s virtually a four-line haiku:
It begins as a breath
a softness in the air
over the oakwoods
the first dustings of blue
There are four of those stanzas in all, following the changes of light down my own valley, which is the Clun Valley, as a westerly air system moves in. and each of them took me a week to get right. My reward came six months later when I walked into a rehearsal studio in London and heard a flute coming in over two bass clarinets whose sound deepens and broods under the next stanza:
brings a sea-change
the luminous shadow
of an Atlantic calm
close faraway light
And so it flows on, my sixteen brief lines giving rise to seven minutes of music of a richness that surpassed all my expectations.
As I always say before a live performance, the librettist is only the springboard. It’s the composer who has to do the back flips and double somersaults and Nikki Iles has done them wonderfully. Her score for In All My Holy Mountain is, in the words of John Fordham, The Guardian’s jazz critic, “an imaginative and illuminating addition to the genre” and I’m so glad that we’ve finally had the chance to bring it out on CD with Nikki herself on piano, turning it from a Septet to an Octet.
Can you tell us about your new collection & perhaps give us a sample?
It’s called The Action and it’s dedicated to my wife Margaret, who has been a warm and playful presence in my poetry ever since I was lucky enough to meet her in 1993. The Selected Poems has a sequence of ‘Valentines’, poems given to her on Valentine’s Day each year, and that flame is still burning in the new collection in poems such as ‘Vahine’ and ‘The Tap Shoes’, both of which appeared recently in Stand. But as we get older, we have to face up to darker realities and the title poem was written after we’d spent six months criss-crossing the country to visit Margaret’s brother as he was dying of cancer. That’s balanced by ‘The Calm’, which I wrote for Tristram Robson, the Irish harper, who played at Frances’ funeral and again at my wedding to Margaret. Tristram built the only copy of the Lawes Harp, an Irish double harp from the time of William Lawes, that can actually be played. It’s now in the National Harp Museum in Kilkenny. When Tristram was diagnosed with a brain tumour, he married his partner, Anne, and he set out to build another copy of the Lawes Harp because, as Anne said, the first copy was only 97% perfect.
For Tristram and Anne Robson
There is the tension of
the strings, bronze
braced against willow
until every note
and rings true,
and there is the calm
in the fingers,
time for every note
to find its feet in
the lordless dance
and be lost in the joy
of it. I remember
your calm, Tristram,
when all the joy in us
had died. You bent to
the harp as Brocard said,
‘May she rest in peace’,
and found a lament that
would lead us down to
the still waters – but not
to leave us there. One note
sprang on, as if spirit
alone could act as
a causeway. Another
leaped from it, as if the strings
were a strength in themselves.
Interval by interval, gleam
by nailed gleam, you brought us
out of the shadow,
binding the pulse back
into the body, tight
as the matador’s wraps
under his suit of lights,
setting our feet on the ground
as if they struck fire
in passing. And then the notes
lifted, not for joy
but for the possibility
of joy, and the dance stepped
through us, so defiant
that I wish you calm even
now, as the chemo silts up
the spirit, the calm
and the cunning to set
in place every string
of a double harp won back
from exile and silence.
What does the future hold for Roger Garfitt?
I’d like to bring out a CD of the work I’ve done with Sue Harris, not just on my own poems but on some of Frances’ too. We did a performance of The Woman’s Dream, a sequence of four of her poems, at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, in which Sue created a lovely flow of the dulcimer under the voice. Atahualpa Yupanqui has a long narrative song in which he rides into Monte Callado, the Silent Mountain, which I imagine is some kind of Bardo state because he talks of a friend who has died as having gone away por el silencio, ‘into the silence’. I’d like to do my own version of that, which should please Gareth Rees-Roberts, the guitarist I work with, who has really taken to Atahualpa’s music. I have one of Geni’s paintings stored in the attic, one of the Condor Heads she gave me because I thought I might be able to make a sequence from it, and I’d like to have a go at that.
Turkish author, Ece Temelkuran, was today announced as the winner of the 2017 Edinburgh International Book Festival’s First Book Award for her first novel translated into English, Women Who Blow on Knots, the story of four women on a journey from Tunisia to Lebanon. All 50 debut novels and short story collections for adults and young adults featured in the Book Festival public programme this year were eligible for the Award, which is voted for by readers and visitors to the Festival.
Ece Temelkuran told the Mumble “I am thrilled that the story I have written to survive the most difficult time of my life is now inspiring many and receiving such an award. I would like to thank my translator Alex Dawe, my editor Penny Thomas and Richard Davies from Parthian Books. And thank you Edinburgh International Book Festival. Many thanks to all the readers who chose to join the insane journey of Women Who Blow on Knots.”
Ece Temelkuran is one of Turkey’s best-known novelists and political commentators. She has been a regular guest on BBC Radio 4 and has also appeared on Channel 4 news while her journalism has featured in Der Spiegel, the Guardian and the New York Times. She currently lives in Zagreb, Croatia. Women Who Blow on Knots, her second novel and first to be translated into English, has been a phenomenon in Turkey selling over 120,000 copies. Full of political rhetoric and strong, atypically Muslim female characters, Temelkuran has woven an empowering tale that challenges the social perceptions of politics, religion and women in the Middle East as well as the universal bonds of sister and motherhood.
Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival said “Women Who Blow on Knots is a perfect winner for this year’s First Book Award. It’s a funny, pacey and above all life-affirming road movie of a novel which celebrates strength and sisterhood among a group of Arab women at the height of the Arab Spring uprisings. Ece Temelkuran is not only a great novelist: she’s a fearless journalist whose writing about Turkey and its neighbouring countries deserves to be read widely across the world. I’m proud that book lovers from across the world voted for Ece’s exuberant novel.”
Women Who Blow on Knots has been translated into English by Alex Dawe, and published in the UK by Parthian Books with the support of a PEN Translates Award. Richard Davies of Parthian Books said “Women Who Blow on Knots is a book that takes the reader on a road trip of the mind in the company of four remarkable women racing across the Middle East at the end of the Arab Spring. We are delighted that Ece’s words and ideas have had such a resonance with readers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She is novelist of daring and ambition in difficult times.”
The First Book Award, now in its eighth year, encourages people to discover the wealth of debut fiction from Scotland and around the world featured in the Edinburgh International Book Festival Programme each year and to vote for their favourite. Every adult and young adult writer whose debut novel, novella or short story collection featured in the public programme in Edinburgh in August, including those whose work was published in English for the first time, was eligible for the Award. Readers and Book Festival audiences were able to vote at the Festival or online and over 2,000 votes were received by the closing date. Every book eligible for the Award received at least one vote.
Continuing an occasional series of essays into the Art of Poetry
The poet must have an ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the leaves that strew the forest & the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child (ST Coleridge)
What of those champions of poetry, the poets themselves, or in Shelley’s words those, ‘ministers of a benificient power seated on the throne of their own souls.’ To these errant knights (& knightesses of course), the spirit of Poetry is a fire that burns within the psyche, sometimes fiercely, sometimes embers, but always there. Transmigrating mind-to-mind through the means of metempsychosis, Poetry is a symbiotic tutelary spirit which latches itself onto the soul & mind of a poet when, as Wordsworth said with perfection, these especial individuals ‘cannot chuse but feel.’ Imagine a tree reflected in a river… we all can see the image shimmering on the water, but the poet possesses an ability to reach into the water, pluck out a leaf & place it on a page. The elaborate & noble diction they have adopted to portray their inspirations affects a certain uniform & harmonious recurrence of sound that can at once be recognized only as poetry.‘I wanted not only height of fancy,’ said Dryden, ‘but dignity of words to set it off,’ & as the poets write they will instantly & innately know what is worthy of immortality & what is mere dross to be discarded at once.
On completing their poems, the creators are then propelled to sing their discoveries to the world, a driving spirit described by Shelley as the,‘essential attribute of poetry, the power of awakening in others sensations like those which animate my own bosom.’ Alas, as Don Marquis states with saccharine accuracy, ‘publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.’ Fortunately, some of these petals are whipped back over our heads on a wafting breeze, to enter the clouds of fame which float by high above us, waiting for those stressless moments whenever we feel at peace with the world enough to lie on our backs & gaze at the skies. These skyset works belong to all time, as when Roman poet, Horace, declared;
I have completed a monument, more lasting than bronze & loftier than the majestic plan for the pyramids
According to Indian poetics, the principle cause of poetood is Pratibha, or genius, a certain gift received at birth. ‘I have discovered I am a poet, it is not my fault at all,’ said the vernal Rimbaud, for to be a poet is not a vocation, but a life. ‘There’s no money in poetry,’ said Robert Graves, ‘but then there’s no poetry in money, either.’ With Poethood, there first comes a feeling of stupendous affinity to the art, a moment of high epiphany, when the young & fertile mind is, as Alexander Pope reports, ‘fired at first sight with what the muse imparts!” CS Lewis noted such a poetic awakening in his poem Dymer;
For nineteen years they worked upon his soul
Refining, chipping, moulding & adorning
Then came the moment that outdid the whole
The ripple of rude life without a warning!
In his Prelude William Wordsworth has excellently described the early energies of Poethood when he ‘wantoned in wild poesy… with fancy on the stir from day to day & all my young affection out of doors.‘ Other poets have remarked on the sensations of falling in love with poetry.
I am seventeen. The hopeful, dreamy age, as they say – & I have begun, a child touch’d by the muse, to express my beliefs, my hopes, my feelings, all those things proper to poets – this I call Spring. (Rimbaud)
In this poor body, composed of one hundred bones and nine openings, is something called spirit, a flimsy curtain swept this way and that by the slightest breeze. It is spirit, such as it is, which led me to poetry, at first little more than a pastime, then the full business of my life. (Basho)
Each poet is the inheritor of a great tradition, & also its interpretor. It is as if a mystical engraved baton is passed down from poet to poet, with each new acolyte making their own individual notches in the wood. TS Elliot has given us perhaps the greatest description of the Poetic Tradition;
Tradition… cannot be inherited, & if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; & the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer & within it the whole of the literature of his own country had a simultaneous existence & composes a simultaneous order
What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that proceeded it. The existing monuments are an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for the order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered
‘The first study for a man who wants to be poet,’ continued Rimbaud, ‘is the knowledge of himself, complete… as soon as he knows it he must cultivate it.’ A poet must then daily attend the University of Life in order to produce experiences to fill their memory banks, creating a stock of images to draw upon when their rhyming manua is aroused. Longinus connects poetry directly to the life of the poet, laying down the principle that nothing short of sublime living yields sublime poetry. The three pillars upon which the poet must stand are literature, travel & love. ‘I believe that every English poet should read the English classics,’ said Robert Graves, ‘master the rules of grammar before he attempts to bend or break them, travel abroad, experience the horrors of sordid passion, and – if he is lucky enough – know the love of an honest woman.’ As regards the literary pillar, Indian theory lays distinct emphasis on scholastic Vyutpatthi (training) and Abhyaasa (steadfast practice) to fortify and regulate the gift of genius. The poet must be both industrious & a master of technique, for only a natural spirit backed up by artful skill, exploration of new methods & learning of the solid type may produce a work to treasure for its, as Mary Shelley noted, ‘complete enginery of a poet.’
The one thing that a poet should make the greatest relevance during their studies is a sense of the historuical nature & patterns of the art.‘What is to be insisted upon,’ stated TS Elliot ‘is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past & that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.’ Theis sense of the past constitutes the living fibre of all proper poetry, a light of direction with which ‘poets of genius,’ as Voltaire so prosaically stated, ‘make a completely new path thro’ Parnassus that never existed before, into a region where no man has yet trodden, & there seeks out & explores the unknown.’ Eventually, the new poet will find an untouched spot beside the streams of Parnassus & begin to brew their mead. ‘You must,’ wrtote the German poet Rilke ‘require a great deal of talent & maturity before contributing something of your own.’ Adding the ambrosia of their inspirations & the herbs of their own artistry, the new poets produce a new & unique manna, when they become, in Shelley’s words, ‘a portion of the loveliness which they make more lovely!’
A larger portion of the poet’s task is directed to the assimilation of poetic experience, the accumulation of which inevitably increases the poetical ability. To define the true poetic experience one must perceive it as a moment of exultation, the drawing together of aspects of existence in an epiphany of feeling. How was Spenser as he laid the Faerie Queene scrolls at the feet of Queen Elizabeth… how was Keats as he wrote a sonnet at the summit of Ben Nevis… how was Owen as he composed to the roar of the Kaiser’s shellfire… how was Byron as he swam the tantalising waters of the Hellespont betwixt Asia & Europe… how was Wordsworth as he took a first walk beside Rydal Water with his sister Dorothy… how was Dante as wrote ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here,‘ a moment before entering the cantos of his Inferno. These moments, & the effect they have on a poet, have been perfectly summarized by Shelley when he declared;
I have been familiar from boyhood with mountains & lakes & the sea, & the solitude of forests: Danger, which sports upon the brink of the precipices, has been my playmate. I have trodden the glaciers of the Alps, & lived under the eye of Mont Blanc. I have been a wanderer among distant fields. I have sail’d down mighty rivers & seen the sun rise & set, & the stars come forth, whilst I have sail’d night & day down a rapid stream among mountains. I have seen populous cities, & watched the passions which rise & spread, & sink & change, amongst assembled multitudes of men. I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages of tyranny & war; cities & villages reduced to scattered groups of black & roofless houses, & the naked inhabitants sitting famished upon their desolated thresholds. I have conversed with living men of genius
The majestic spirit of Poetry contains a spark of divine fire, & when placed upon a page woven into a line of true poetry, the fire should glimmer before the eye, & upon intonation enrapture the mind. This is known as analeptic mimesis & the poet should be able to recognize these moments which drive the art. When following a course of study in which these scattered divine moments are identified, appreciated & thus absorbed, the divine spark shall settle in the poets themselves. If you feel yourself a poet, when composing you should find or invent forms you feel most comfortable with, through which you may continue your personal conversation with the muse. You will see in these future works of art your own precious & appropriate inheritance, a piece of you which speaks with your own voice, & for the lucky few a voice that can speak down the ages. Most will find it difficult to be married to one’s muse for a lifetime, & there shall inevitably come a time when, following a gradual estrangement & diminishing of power, the muse abandons the poet. Sir Walter Scott perfectly captures the sensation of losing his inspiration with;
Receding now the dying numbers ring
Fainter & fainter down the rugged dell
& now the mountain breezes scarcely bring
A wandering witch-note of a distant spell
& now tis silent all…
When Byron noted, ‘my task is done, my song hath ceas’d, my theme has died into an echo!’ we may observe how a poet’s life & words are intrinsically connected, that being a poet is akin to writing a poem itself. The first onrush of poetry in youth matches a poem’s initial burst of life. This is followed by the calm & mature thought of a poem’s polishing, which mirrors the mature poet happy in their creative work. Then, when the poem is finally set in stone, the reign of fancy over, it hovers like an epitaph above a dead poet’s grave.
Eventually a poet’s work shall be concluded, thro’ retirement or death, or as Robert Graves opined, ‘something dies in the poet. Perhaps he has compromised his poetic integrity by valuing some range of experience or other – literary, religious, philosophical, dramatic, political or social – above the poetic.’ It is now that the true Parnassian prize awaits – a slow-moving posthumous accession into the eternal pantheon by the mutual agreement of futurity. Even Shakespeare was slow to permeate into society, for the court of posterity is measured in centuries & not years. The Bard himself wrote;
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
As the poet becomes dust & words & memories, time begins to sit in judgement upon their contributions to the art. As the years pass by, their posthumous fame becomes more solid, until they have earn’d a place in the Immortal Arena, upon the slopes of Parnassus where the pantheon of poets are gather’d. For posterity, their essence is contain’d in more than just the poetry they left behind. Minds & souls are reflected in their prefaces, letters, influences, life, libraries & those pencil-mark’d footnotes that litter the books therein, for poets comment upon their role even as they perform it.
I’ve only ever seen Dundee from across the Firth of Tay on the northern coast of Fife, a bedazzling apparition of tall buildings & hill-slopes linked to Fife by magnificent works of bridgeneering. So, it was with much enthusiasm that when the Dundee Literary Festival dropped into my inbox, I’m like to the wife, lets go darling. She was like, ‘I’ve heard the Malmaison is a really nice hotel, & that Broughty Ferry’s got a gorgeous beach.’ Parking up by the Agacan on Perth Road on an unusually balmy October day, I was met with a tiny city with gigantic ambition, architecturally & of course, culturally. We would be experiencing two slices of the pie; a rendition of The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, & a talk on a recent book-publishing sensation, Nasty Women, by three of its authors.
The Raven is one of my favorite poems, first published in January 1845, which by 1909 had attracted the attentions of Arthur Bergh, who created a popular-at-the-time but long-forgotten ‘melodrama,’ synchronising piano to Poe’s words. The performance was duly presented by Ken Murray (recital) & the University of Dundee’s Director of Music Graeme Stevenson on piano. Murray is a trained singer, & at times you could hear the lucid creak of him wanting to break out into melody – like a captive lion sticking its nose out of a cage – but managed to tame this natural beast & deliver an ambrosia-spurting, vowel-booming rendition of the Raven in his thick Scots accent. The music is charming & intelligent, opening at a pensive pace then keeping up with the more dazzling moments of Poe’s astonishing wordplay as the reciter descends into madness. As a performance, it was unquestionably excellent, but I couldn’t help feel that Arthur Bergh had tainted somewhat Poe’s original poetic chaunt. There is a certain hypnotic & thunderous rhythm to the poem’s mechanics which were all but wiped out by Bergh, as if he was painting over an original classic with art decor blocks of paint.
It was now time for a potter around Dundee, checking into the luxuriant Malmaison, our room looking out high over a busy Dundee street. Back in the city we wandered about for a bit, finding an atmosphere full of stress-free geniality. I also rather enjoyed getting my photo taken with a Desperate Dan statue. My grandmother used to get me the Dandy & the Beano every week, published & printed here in the city by D.C. Thompson. I remember the day as a 13 year-old when I said to my gran could I now get Roy of The Rovers & 2000AD instead, as I felt I’d grown out of the Beano. But still, for many years, I kept those paper relics of my youth in the bottom of my wardrobe at my grandmas, & would occasionally flick through them for nostalgic pleasure. Back in Dundee 2017, after Perth Road’s Braes for a beer & then The Tonic for nachos, me & the wife returned quite giddily to nearby Bonar Hall, the heartbeat of the Literary Festival on the University campus.
The audience for the day’s second installment had swapped a tad elderly bunch of appreciatives with a mainly female group, where shocks of pink hair flashed by ladies of demure countenance. They had gathered for an hour or so with Becca Inglis, Jen McGregor & Alice Tarbuck; who like Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia presided over our gathering, relaying their essays cooked up to order by virgin publisher 404 Ink in order to respond – through intelligent & therapeutic literature – to the brutally nonsensical & inane sexism of Donald Trump. Beginning as a tweet, the rise of a book called Nasty Women to prominence has been a 21st century, social-media wonder, & was already a cleverly hyped sensation before it was launched on International Women’s Day this year. By August it was the biggest selling book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Chaired ably by Zoe Venditozzi, the three authors we were presented (out of a dozen or so in the book) all read extracts of high quality writing, followed by Venditozzi’s mutual dissemination of their work & some interesting audience forum questions. A classic example of the brightness of Venditozzi’s intelligent moment-melding came during Jen’s explanation of how she learnt more about what was happening to her body from internet forums rather than underfunded gynecologists. ‘When I was a teenager you had to write to Jackie,’ chirped in Venditozzi.
It is true that we live in a world of sexual inequality, & Nasty Women seems to have given a voice to much of the brush-under-the-carpet stuff of femininity; the embarrassment of depression, the disempowerment of natural instinct, the bone-density decreasing risks of contraceptive injections, & so on. The high point was identifying the disratification of the female ability to give birth, but not to have the choice of sterilisation until they were 30, to deny private agency over one’s own body. The low point was when the words ‘most men aren’t rapists‘ came out, suggesting something like an 80-20 split – rather than the 96 percent of all likelihood given figures of rapeline calls & those that go unreported. I think ‘vast majority’ would have been more accurate. Overall, however, a fine & emotion-provoking hour & the production of Nasty Women holds an especially important relevance to the age, when in a recent interview with The Mumble, Alice Tarbuck stated, ‘it’s more important than ever to hold the truth to account in the midst of sensationalism and international political turmoil.’
Reviewer : Damian Beeson Bullen
Main Photography : Matthew O’Donnell
One of the seminal essays by Langston Hughes
Which first appeared in THE NATION (1926)
One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.
But let us look at the immediate background of this young poet. His family is of what I suppose one would call the Negro middle class: people who are by no means rich yet never uncomfortable nor hungry–smug, contented, respectable folk, members of the Baptist church. The father goes to work every morning. He is a chief steward at a large white club. The mother sometimes does fancy sewing or supervises parties for the rich families of the town. The children go to a mixed school. In the home they read white papers and magazines. And the mother often says “Don’t be like niggers” when the children are bad. A frequent phrase from the father is, “Look how well a white man does things.” And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues. It holds for the children beauty, morality, and money. The whisper of “I want to be white” runs silently through their minds. This young poet’s home is, I believe, a fairly typical home of the colored middle class. One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people. He is never taught to see that beauty. He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns.
For racial culture the home of a self-styled “high-class” Negro has nothing better to offer. Instead there will perhaps be more aping of things white than in a less cultured or less wealthy home. The father is perhaps a doctor, lawyer, landowner, or politician. The mother may be a social worker, or a teacher, or she may do nothing and have a maid. Father is often dark but he has usually married the lightest woman he could find. The family attend a fashionable church where few really colored faces are to be found. And they themselves draw a color line. In the North they go to white theaters and white movies. And in the South they have at least two cars and house “like white folks.” Nordic manners, Nordic faces, Nordic hair, Nordic art (if any), and an Episcopal heaven. A very high mountain indeed for the would-be racial artist to climb in order to discover himself and his people.
But then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority—may the Lord be praised! The people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round. They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. 0, let’s dance! These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations. And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself. Whereas the better-class Negro would tell the artist what to do, the people at least let him alone when he does appear. And they are not ashamed of him–if they know he exists at all. And they accept what beauty is their own without question.
Certainly there is, for the American Negro artist who can escape the restrictions the more advanced among his own group would put upon him, a great field of unused material ready for his art. Without going outside his race, and even among the better classes with their “white” culture and conscious American manners, but still Negro enough to be different, there is sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work. And when he chooses to touch on the relations between Negroes and whites in this country, with their innumerable overtones and undertones surely, and especially for literature and the drama, there is an inexhaustible supply of themes at hand. To these the Negro artist can give his racial individuality, his heritage of rhythm and warmth, and his incongruous humor that so often, as in the Blues, becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears. But let us look again at the mountain.
A prominent Negro clubwoman in Philadelphia paid eleven dollars to hear Raquel Meller sing Andalusian popular songs. But she told me a few weeks before she would not think of going to hear “that woman,” Clara Smith, a great black artist, sing Negro folksongs. And many an upper -class Negro church, even now, would not dream of employing a spiritual in its services. The drab melodies in white folks’ hymnbooks are much to be preferred. “We want to worship the Lord correctly and quietly. We don’t believe in ‘shouting.’ Let’s be dull like the Nordics,” they say, in effect.
The road for the serious black artist, then, who would produce a racial art is most certainly rocky and the mountain is high. Until recently he received almost no encouragement for his work from either white or colored people. The fine novels of Chesnutt’ go out of print with neither race noticing their passing. The quaint charm and humor of Dunbar’s’ dialect verse brought to him, in his day, largely the same kind of encouragement one would give a sideshow freak (A colored man writing poetry! How odd!) or a clown (How amusing!).
The present vogue in things Negro, although it may do as much harm as good for the budding artist, has at least done this: it has brought him forcibly to the attention of his own people among whom for so long, unless the other race had noticed him beforehand, he was a prophet with little honor.
The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. “Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,” say the Negroes. “Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously. We will pay you,” say the whites. Both would have told Jean Toomer not to write Cane. The colored people did not praise it. The white people did not buy it. Most of the colored people who did read Cane hate it. They are afraid of it. Although the critics gave it good reviews the public remained indifferent. Yet (excepting the work of Du Bois) Cane contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America. And like the singing of Robeson, it is truly racial.
But in spite of the Nordicized Negro intelligentsia and the desires of some white editors we have an honest American Negro literature already with us. Now I await the rise of the Negro theater. Our folk music, having achieved world-wide fame, offers itself to the genius of the great individual American composer who is to come. And within the next decade I expect to see the work of a growing school of colored artists who paint and model the beauty of dark faces and create with new technique the expressions of their own soul-world. And the Negro dancers who will dance like flame and the singers who will continue to carry our songs to all who listen-they will be with us in even greater numbers tomorrow.
Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz. I am as sincere as I know how to be in these poems and yet after every reading I answer questions like these from my own people: Do you think Negroes should always write about Negroes? I wish you wouldn’t read some of your poems to white folks. How do you find anything interesting in a place like a cabaret? Why do you write about black people? You aren’t black. What makes you do so many jazz poems?
But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile. Yet the Philadelphia clubwoman is ashamed to say that her race created it and she does not like me to write about it, The old subconscious “white is best” runs through her mind. Years of study under white teachers, a lifetime of white books, pictures, and papers, and white manners, morals, and Puritan standards made her dislike the spirituals. And now she turns up her nose at jazz and all its manifestations–likewise almost everything else distinctly racial. She doesn’t care for the Winold Reiss’ portraits of Negroes because they are “too Negro.” She does not want a true picture of herself from anybody. She wants the artist to flatter her, to make the white world believe that all negroes are as smug and as near white in soul as she wants to be. But, to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro–and beautiful”?
So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.
Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing “Water Boy,” and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas’s drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.