Hello Christine, when did you first realise you were a poet?
I suppose I started writing poems when I was about 30, when I realised that there was little chance of returning permanently to Shetland, where I was born and brought up. That realisation was probably part of my ‘need’ to write. However, 40 years later, I don’t really think of myself as a poet as I’ve had a full working life in education and several roles besides. Writing a poem – while sometimes difficult and prone to failure – is for me a wonderful engagement with the business of living and thinking.
Can you tell us more about your ‘busy working life’?
I taught geography in a comprehensive school for 10 happy years then, partly because of my mother’s illness, decided to take a year out and do an MEd degree, specialising in educational research. That led to jobs in that field and latterly I was Head of Assessment Research and Development for the Scottish examinations. It was at a time of significant change in educational and assessment policy within Scotland but vital to maintain standards within and across subjects and levels as they developed, while keeping an eye on assessment systems across the rest of the UK. I very enjoyed working with a talented team.
What’s in a name?
If and when I have mislaid my name
and stare at you disconcertingly
let me spend a day parked by Suilven,
perplexed by broken water. Turn
my calendar to the mountain’s season,
and set my watch by shadows on the loch.
Forgive me if I lose the reason that we came
or my gaze clouds in a cod-fish kind of way
or if the name I chose for you eludes me.
I’ll still sense mountain, water, love.
In ‘Dat Trickster Sun’, Mariscat Press, Edinburgh, 2014
In the poetic spheres, who were your earliest influences & who inspires you today?
I have always had a very eclectic taste in poetry from ‘bairn rhymes’ to serious poetry. I was encouraged by the fact that we had a few published poets who wrote in our mother tongue (Shetlandic) as well as in English: T A Robertson, Emily Milne and Stella Sutherland come to mind. I was lucky always to have teachers who had a love of poetry and was introduced to a wide range of poets including the likes of Keats, Wordsworth, T S Eliot and Burns. The Scottish ballads too were seminal. I also started to read more Scottish poets like MacCaig, George MacKay Brown and Iain Crichton Smith. Gradually the female voice appeared – we had our own Liz Lochhead and Valerie Gillies although it was mostly English and American voices that were at the forefront. Today I read quite widely (but forget quite quickly!) I love the work of Irish poets such as Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney and Ciaran Carson. There are so many wonderful Scottish poets of all ages – I couldn’t begin to list them! Many of them are now my friends. And I have friends who are poets in other countries whose work I admire too.
You write in both English and Shetlandic. Can you tell us more about your mother tongue & your work with it?
If you compare Shetlandic to Standard English, it is arguably the most distinctively different version of Scots. My Scandinavian friends tend to see it as a ‘cousin language’ – somewhere in the middle between English and their own languages. It is an older form of Scots blended with Norn, a former Norse language spoken in the Northern Isles. You’ d notice different vowel sounds (particularly ö and æ); and while vowels tend to be long, consonants tend to be percursive (with ‘d’ replacing ‘th’). And we use the familiar form of you (du, dee, dy, dine). There is a wide vocabulary as well; most words are very onomatopoeic. My mother tongue is a passion and I work to help other volunteers sustain the spoken and written forms.
This has led me to writing stories for children and working with others in a small not-for-profit cooperative (www.hanselcooperativepress.co.uk).
However, I suppose my main focus is on writing poems in Shetlandic. My aim is to write in a way which allows these ‘dialect’ poems to stand up to scrutiny and to be the equal of poems I write in English. And to help extend the small literature we have.
Glints of origin
I savoured your early words as they came,
whenever they surprised your mouth;
helped shape them with you, gather them.
How many generations of children
have quarried those same words, found
all needful sounds around them?
And sea-farers who landed here
threw in, from unfamiliar places, words
carried on ocean’s shifting tides;
wave-worn, wind-riven words,
their edges hacked aff, making
a blend; a tongue fit for saga
and for psalm. Rummage in it,
dig away, and you’ll find veins
in the stone, bright glints of origin!
Glims o origin
I savoured dy aerly wirds as dey cam,
whinivver dey surprised dy mooth;
helpit shape dem wi dee, hent dem.
Foo mony generations o bairns
is quarried dat sam wirds, fun
aa needfu soonds aroond dem?
An sea-farers at laanded here
höved in, fae uncan erts, wirds
kjerried on ocean’s shiftin tides;
wave-worn, wind-riven wirds,
der aedges shaaved aff, makkin
a meld; a tongue fit fur saga
an fur psalm. Rumse ithin hit,
hock awa, an du’ll fin veins
i da steyn, bricht glims o origin!
In ‘Parallel Worlds’ Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2005
glims: gleams; dy: your (familiar); dey: they; du, dee: you (familiar); hent: collect; foo: how; fun: found; höved: heaved, threw; uncan erts: unfamiliar places; kjerried: carried; der: their; shaaved: hacked; meld: blend; rumse: rummage; hit: it; hock: dig; fin: find; steyn: stone
Your work has been translated into a number of languages. What is the sensory experience like of hearing/reading your work in foreign tongue?
It’s a delight to hear a version of one of my poems read in a different language. It’s also humbling to consider that someone has spent time getting to know the original and to dig down into its meaning, sound, rhythm and emotion. It’s very different to have a poem translated into a ‘sister’ language like Icelandic or Norwegian than into a Romance language like French or Italian. They have very different sound patterns. Part of the joy of bi-lingualism is the interaction it encourages in translation. I consider myself very fortunate to have Selected collections published in French and Italian and, within the next twelve months, in Norwegian and in Icelandic. I also enjoy translating poems – mainly from the Scandinavian languages – often with the help of an English bridge version. One particular satisfaction has been translating Finnish folk tales from the Kalevala and creating a performance with Catriona Macdonald, a Shetland traditional fiddler. Another wonderful collaboration was with Tommy Smith, jazz composer and saxophonist. Music is another family of languages! Poetry has taken me to many countries, but almost entirely beyond the UK. I hope that my recent inclusion in the wonderful Poetry Archive, may help break down the poetry barrier that seems to exist within the UK, a bit like Hadrian’s Wall.
What does Christine De Luca like to do when she’s not being, well, literary?
Besides being with family and friends, I love walking in quiet places and, being a geographer, have a deep love of landscape and natural history. I would like to be able to paint, but know I don’t have the talent. But I visit lots of art exhibitions. Living in Edinburgh offers wonderful opportunities to go to the theatre, concerts, ballet, opera. I attend church regularly and sing in our choir – that’s a joyful experience and a way of practising thankfulness. I read when I have the time and energy.
When do you know & what does it feel like to have written a good poem?
That’s a difficult question. Sometimes I know when a particular line is working well, or a particular word, or when I’ve improved a poem – all good feelings – but it genuinely takes me by surprise when people say ‘I like that poem’. As I get older I get less sure of my poems and my writing. I hope it’s because one expects more of oneself rather than the absolute loss of critical faculty! (I can still read poems by others and say ‘that’s a good one’.)
Today you see far down a mountainside,
out over islands to a sure horizon.
Your sight is sharp, your goal clear, and tides
of love lap round all your desiring.
Two sets of footprints you will make, but true
companions on this journey you’ll become.
When you slip out of step, think of today;
relive again its close embrace of freedom.
May truest feelings stir you as the wind
disturbs the loch, or smirr on cotton grass.
May you find bliss in ordinariness
and joy forever in its present tense.
In ‘Parallel Worlds’ Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2005
In 2014 you were invited to be Edinburgh’s poet laureate (Makar). What does the role entail?
I was surprised and delighted by the invitation. (www.edinburghmakar.org.uk). It is not an onerous role – you’re expected to be an ambassador for poetry in the city and to respond to occasional commissions. To a large extent one can shape the role to suit one’s strengths. I’ve tried to demystify poetry a little: to write about topics which are sometimes ignored. Having a poem paying tribute to the people who work in our Waste Water (sewage) service printed in the Scottish Sun was surely a high point! I’ve also enjoyed working with lots of other local poets. But writing ‘civic’ poetry has required me to discipline my writing somewhat! I finish my term at the end of September 2017 and have thoroughly enjoyed it.
What is the poetical future of Christine De Luca?
When I feel I’ve finished a poem, I never know if I will ever write another one. That’s a bit scary when people think of you as a poet. Maybe writing is an act of faith, in the way love can feel like an act of faith. We just go on, living in hope.