An Interview with Katharine Macfarlane

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THE MUMBLE : Hi Katharine, when did you first realise you were a poet

KATHERINE : Oh I’m quite wary of the word poet, as it’s not really a title I’d lay claim to. I’ve always loved the rhythm and flow of words and for as long as I can remember have had lines from poems, songs, stories intertwined with visuals – like a mini movie- running through my mind. I recently found a Spot the Dog Notebook from when I was in primary school that’s full of songs with a syllable count for each line so I was obviously interested in the rhythm and structure of pieces from an early age and I remember in P6 a headteacher from another school came to judge the Burns Federation competition; she’d told us a wee story and even as she was telling it I could hear it weaving into a poem, so I wrote it down & she sent me a lovely wee gift in exchange – I guess I learnt early that poetry pays!

That said, I stopped writing when I was 21 – a combination of lack of confidence and a feeling that it was time to ‘grow up’. I always felt like I’d Hartnett’s scars from his Necklace of Wrens tho and still thought in stories and poems. I only started sharing them again a few years ago. As I tend to construct pieces in my mind rather than on the page it’s been a total joy to be able to participate in a vibrant Scottish spoken word scene that has echoes of the traditional ceilidh house.


THE MUMBLE : Who were your earliest influences?

KATHERINE : Robert Burns. I struggled with the language but his metaphorical use of the natural world really chimed with me and then later, in secondary school, it was Gaelic songs and poems, Celtic and Norse myths and traditional ballads that influenced my thought process and in turn the content and style of writing. The first time I read Meg Bateman’s work was at school in a collection called An Aghaidh na Sìorraidheachd and I remember being struck by the clarity of her writing and the gentle delivery of multilayered, often challenging stories with so few words. There was a realness to her writing, it was passionate & strong without being over dramatic or angst-ridden and that appealed to me. John Glenday, Robin Robertson, George MacKay Brown, Norman Maccaig have all influenced the way I think about poetry as has landscape writer Robert Macfarlane. I’ve always been influenced by lyricists, most recently songwriters like Ross Wilson of Blue Rose Code & Georgia Ruth and now of course I’m influenced by the many amazing spoken word performers and poets that I hear reading at events across Scotland.

St. Andrews 
I held on to relics;
An arm turned to bone by my heart,
Pearls at my throat
The virtue of St Margaret
And scallop shells pressed to each palm:
Imprint stronger than divination
Replacing head,heart,life, fate.
Yet, when I see you on the road
I think that maybe
You have always been in my heart,
Even before it was beating.
The weight of the ancestors is at your back,
Their breath warm on my cheek.
I lay down arms
And smiles pour from my eyes.

THE MUMBLE : What motivates you to write?

KATHERINE : Short answer? Everything. There are always words drifting through my mind, usually rooted in the language of landscape and often sparked by minutiae of the natural world (I can be distracted by seaweed at low tide or the way sunlight glints on silver birches all too easily!) but they’re just as likely to be triggered by stories, place-names, historical events or individuals (particularly those not well represented in traditional historical accounts) and they’re always driven by an emotional response. But what motivates me to shape them into longer pieces and share them is very simple; connection.

I enjoy that feeling of connecting directly with the audience during performances, in longer sets there’s usually some audience participation as I enjoy creating something together and love to hear about the connections people make between the pieces and their own experiences. The pieces with a historical or geographic connection seem to spark these the most – there seems to be a real desire to talk about our history, culture and landscape, even if it’s just reminiscing about places people went to on childhood holidays or stories their granny used to tell. I love hearing other people’s stories.

THE MUMBLE : You are a top natch slam competitor, what are the fundamental differences between poetry on the page & poetry performed

KATHERINE : Oh I’m a Slam Baby! I only went to my first ever Slam in June last year and loved the quick change nature of the evening – hearing all those diverse voices in just a couple of hours was an exhilarating experience. I always come away from Slams with adrenaline flowing whether I’ve been competing or just listening. But we’re incredibly fortunate in Scotland and there are a wide range of poetry events out with Slams from open mics to regular shows like Loud Poets, Interrobang or Flint & Pitch and longer form sets from emerging and established artists both from Scotland and further afield. This is due to the hard work of the many dedicated poetry promoters here in Scotland – it’s an exciting place to work but they are working extremely hard on very limited ,or nonexistent funding to try to deliver entertaining events that also provide diverse, accessible opportunities for performers, I think they all deserve some kind of poetry sainthood for their patience & commitment!

I’m slightly dodging the question about the fundamental differences between poetry on the page & poetry performed? Sorry! I suppose that’s because I feel that fundamentally there isn’t really a difference between poetry on the page and poetry performed. Or at least that there is no real requirement to make a distinction between the two. Until recently, ok several hundred years ago (!), poetry was always performed and, for me personally, regardless of whether a piece is performed or written, what matters is that it is true to the author’s voice and that it connects or resonates in some way with the audience whether that’s through the content, clarity of observation, rhythm, or beauty or unexpectedness of the language.

Of course, in a slam style situation where you have 3 minutes to connect directly with the audience and where you know they will be hearing lots of poems in quick succession it makes sense to speak more directly than you might if your pieces were contextualised as part of a longer form set or, I guess, if you were writing for publication where your audience can revisit them time and again. So yes, my Slam material is different from some of my other work in that it’s much more direct – but as I always compose material in my head and rarely write any of it down, unless I’m sending it to someone, I never really consider how it works ‘on the page’ …so I’m probably the wrong person to answer this!


THE MUMBLE : Can you tell us about your first solo show, Home Words, you performed at last year’s the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

KATHERINE : Home Words:Waulking explored themes of identity, violence, loss, survival and belonging with my own writing both inspired by and performed woven amongst traditional Gaelic waulking songs. Waulking was a means of processing tweed by hand, it was undertaken only by women and the full process was accompanied by song- some of them traditional songs that were passed down orally, others extemporised at the waulking itself. The waulking songs that have been recorded provide an invaluable record of women’s experiences from a time when women, particularly women from lower social classes and remote geographic regions, are not represented in traditional historical accounts. Much of the material contained within the songs is directly relatable despite the passing of often hundreds of years since their composition with topics such as; family life, motherhood, love, loss, sexual and domestic violence, politics and feelings of disempowerment in a patriarchal society addressed at times with poetic beauty and at others with an almost heart-breaking bluntness. The fact that a Waulking was a women only ‘safe space’ I feel lends an added profundity to the material. And of course I invited the audience to join me in Waulking the cloth and singing some of the songs with me…it was great fun, there was probably more giggling than singing from all of us and my goodness it was hard work! Those women must’ve been very fit!

THE MUMBLE : So what does Katharine Macfarlane like to do when shes not being, well, poetic

I’m a children’s librarian and mum of 2 story and song obsessed children. So life really is just full of stories, songs and poems all the time! I spend as much time as possible on beaches or walking out by the Loch or in the woods as that’s where the words flow easiest. Nights in are usually spent reading stories & songs that spark the writing and nights out are usually spent at poetry events…oh good lord…turns out I’m never not being, well, poetic!


     Rising surf

   brings a song
that sings in veins
   once tuneless.
Long-forgotten melodies
    across my tongue
    as sea kisses shore
and lips, unused as they are
to these shapes,
form words of love
that fall
              like water
          deep brown.
     Eyes bring warmth
         of home fires
      burning in my soul –
   and a quickening below.


THE MUMBLE : Can you tell us about the Voices from Ashes project

KATHERINE : Voices from Ashes is a collaborative art project with the wonderful visual artist Karen Strang. It blends word and image to produce a creative reimagining of women‘s voices.

The project was inspired by a shared interest in both the Scottish witchcraft trials and in the representation of women in the written historical record and the work has always been inspired by site visits, shared reading and a discussion of historical analysis. But from the very beginning there’s been an almost spooky, organic development of shared symbolism. Some pieces of writing are inspired by the artwork and other pieces of artwork have been produced in response to the written word. This year Karen will exhibit in Crieff, Milingavie and Falkirk with each exhibition incorporating original poetry composed specifically for each exhibition and reflecting local events.


THE MUMBLE : What is it about the Scottish Witchcraft Trials which made you want to turn them into art?

KATHERINE : Initially my interest in the project was driven by an exploration of the impact of the long term marginalisation of a specific sector of society to distract attention from and/or legitimise the actions of a detached ruling elite that was orchestrated through the means of mass propaganda, scaremongering and the exploitation of an inherently skewed criminal justice system. The echoes of these actions are still with us and reverberate through the written pieces produced for the project.

I originally studied history at university. I love the way that history is like a magic mirror that reflects our past actions and decisions back to us and allows us to fast forward to see what the results of those actions were…and I know there are always immeasurable variables between historic conditions and current situations but well, people are still people and much of the drivers and motivators are the same as they ever were I’ve always been drawn to the human stories, the individuals, it’s these voices that I find running through my work time and again. In the traditional historical accounts of the Witchcraft Trials the women’s personal experiences, emotions, feelings are notably absent but it’s not hard to hear their voices if you listen and so Voices from Ashes aims to redress in some small way the injustices of the SWT by giving back the herstories of the victims in images and words based on an emotional response to the facts recorded at the time of the trials and also to serve as a memorial to the women cited. We hope to create pieces that generate discussion around the Witchcraft Trials and in a wider sense how we, as communities, respond in times of uncertainty or societal change.


THE MUMBLE : What does the rest of 2017 hold in store for Katharine Macfarlane, the poet?

KATHERINE : I ❤️2017! It’s been an amazing year so far and there’s plenty more excitement to come including; Some Gaelic songs and storytelling at the Flint & Pitch Revue 5 at the Bongo Club in Edinburgh on 21st April, a breakfast show at Coastword Festival in Dunbar on 21st May, a special appearance as my alter-ego Bird Girl at Freak Circus as part of the Hidden Door Festival on 27th May, a performance at the St Magnus Festival in Orkney in June with Enterprise Music Scotland Artists in Residence – Alison McNeill & Sasha Savaloni and of course another Bella Slam at the Belladrum Festival in August.

Voices from Ashes is mainly about the fine art exhibitions this year but we’re planning to run some workshops in conjunction with the exhibitions in Crieff and hopefully the project will grow to encompass creative writing & painting workshops in other communities touched by the Scottish Witchcraft Trials.




Give me the soft white sands and tiny shells of home,

Arms like an anchor around me.
And the sound of children playing in rock pools
At my back.
If you will not give me that
Give me a howling gale.
The kind that shrieks
And screams in your ears
And frightens birds
And flattens trees.
Let me meet it:
Teeth on.
Let it lift these flimsy thoughts from my mind
Tear asunder these feeble dreams
And take me, from this scree-clad hillside
Across the mighty, heaving, grey-green ocean
Through rain that comes at you sideways
And stings and slashes the skin
Until I am back,
Once more, in Shawbost
Standing on that grassy cliff top
Beside the hole in the sea
With its awesome, pounding roar
That takes hold of your ears and your heart
And, like love,
Fills you with fear and draws you close.

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