Writing the city: A proposal for an alternative writing retreat

I came across the slogan, “La beaute est dans la rue” (used on an iconic poster, produced by the Atelier Populaire during the May 1968 student uprisings in Paris) in Richard Vinen’s book, “The Long ’68: Radical Protest and Its Enemies“.  This chimed with an ongoing  preoccupation of mine which is that poetry ‘belongs’ as much, if not more to the city and the urban (and suburban) environment as it does to the countryside.

In my mind, I changed the quote to, “La poésie est dans la rue” – or, “Poetry is in the street” – which seems, to me, to be a excellent slogan for the kind of poetry I want to write (and read, and listen to). I was then only slightly mortified to find that a longer version of the same slogan, “La poésie est dans la rue en couleur pleine de vie” has been adopted by the band The 1975. (For example, it’s referenced at the end of the video for their song, “Chocolate”.) I don’t care. It’s a good line and it captures what I want to say very well.

Then, on Thursday of this week, I was in The Pleasance Cabaret Bar in Edinburgh, at an annual one day conference on creative writing and publishing (#TheCWBusiness), organised by Edinburgh University Writer-in-Residence, Claire Askew. It was a great day, you should definitely go next year if you have an interest in poetry in Scotland. One of the questions, to the fiction panel, was about writing courses (There was a specific reference to Arvon though, obviously, other providers and other courses are available). I confess, my hackles rose, a tad. I’ll explain why in a bit.

Before that, I should just say, that the majority of the panelists (who comprised an agent, a publisher, an event organiser, a bookseller and an author) made the point that – so far as they were concerned, they didn’t care one whit if the author had attended x writing course or had y qualification – all that mattered was the quality of their writing. And I believe they were being entirely  honest, in every case. The one exception was the author, who re-counted a story about a missed opportunity to follow up on an important contact after attending an Arvon course. The story had a happy ending – in that, ten years later, the contact didn’t follow up on is now her agent.

Full disclosure first – I have taken part in a variety of paid-for writing courses/tutorials/work-shops etc. But these have, mostly, been run by people I know, have been locally based and have been aimed at the local writing community. What I haven’t done (yet) is pay to take part in a residential course run by a national provider like Arvon. And there are reasons for that – which lead me to the point of this post, which is that I think there is a need for an urban-based writer’s retreat as a counter-offer to the inducement to spend a week in the (undoubtedly beautiful – assuming it’s not pouring with rain) countryside.

My beef with rural writing retreats is that – by their very nature – they emplace the idea of the ‘poetic’ as being inextricably linked with nature and ‘the natural’, which I think is a problem in the pursuit of a twenty-first century poetics. My view, for what it’s worth, is that poetry needs to site itself in the city as often (if not more often) as the countryside in order that it might better reflect the entirety of the lived experience of its audience. Scotland’s ‘non-rural’ population outnumbers its rural population by roughly 4 to 1. Surely, it follows, therefore, that siting a poetry retreat in an urban centre would be appropriate and would add value. Amongst other things, it would enable poets from marginalised communities to meet, learn and develop their practice in an environment that reflects (rather than erases) their lived experience.

On ‘poetics’ – my observation (based, I confess, mostly on anecdotal rather than hard evidence) is that rurally-sited retreats and courses encourage the mind-set that the ‘poetic’ (by which I mean the linguistic and imagistic currency of the poem) is found most readily in natural places. I disagree. I think this risks placing a barrier between poetry and a wider audience. In my view, the ‘poetic’ can be found as often and as easily on the street, in a bar or in a supermarket as it can by the side of a tranquil river or in Yeats’ “bee-loud glade“. You just need what Hunter S. Thompson described as “the right kind of eyes” (and ears).

This isn’t something I’m going to have time to go into, in detail, here – other than to make a couple of further observations. The first is that the recent stooshie over Rebecca Watt’s article in the PN Review might also be seen (particularly when looked at in the context of Watts’ own published work) as a battle between a (well-established and deeply-felt) school of thought which centres a rural ideal of the poetic and the work of three very different young, female poets (Hollie McNish, Rupi Kaur and Kate Tempest) – who all, I would argue, in their different ways, come at poetry from an urban perspective. The London Magazine’s review of Watts’ collection, “The Met Office Advises Caution” describes it as, “reinvent[ing] nature poetry for the 21st Century” – which is a laudable ambition but still one that locates poetry in a landscape which most people don’t inhabit.

My second observation (again, mostly anecdotal) – which follows, to an extent, from the first one – is about the kind of poetry most often taught on a rural retreat. I’d suggest that rural writing retreats pre-suppose (if not entirely, then certainly to an extent) that the poetry written on such retreats will be (for want of a better term) ‘page’ poetry – that is poetry which is intended to be read rather than performed. This creates a disconnect between such retreats and the ever-growing community of performance-poetry and spoken word artists in Scotland (and their audience) which thrives best in urban settings, where the poets and their audience can find each other and interact more easily.

So, what to do instead? Well, the title of this post is “A proposal for an alternative writing retreat” and that’s what I set out to produce, when I sat down at my lap-top this morning. So, without further ado, I think that – as well as (not – I should emphasise –  ‘instead of’) the more ‘traditional’ rural writing retreats – organisations (by which I mean any group or body with an interest in supporting poetry in Scotland) should fund and poets (who are, after all, the punters who (mostly, if not entirely) pay for these courses) should demand the provision of writing retreats which:-

  • are accessibly located in urban centres;
  • are based on the tenet that poetry is of the urban environment and should respond to the urban environment;
  • make use of the urban environment to support poets in their learning and development;
  • accept all forms of poetic practice (written, performative, visual etc.) as part of their core ‘syllabus’; and
  • foster links with the community of poets within the urban area in which they are located, in order to help both the wider community and the individuals taking part in each retreat to develop and grow.

In practice, I would see such a retreat being held over a period of around 5 days. Teaching would be carried out in an accessible venue in an urban centre. Students would be accommodated either in the venue or, if this isn’t manageable, as close near-by as possible, in order to foster a sense of community and to encourage brain-storming and collaboration both during and outside of ‘teaching hours’. The retreat would have access to a venue or performance space so that work produced on the retreat can be performed at the end – as a, kind-of, ‘end-of-term’ show. Teachers on the retreat would be drawn from a range of poetic and related-disciplines and would be able to offer an equality of teaching, criticism and support regardless of students’ background, community, experience, language and their chosen form or medium of poetic expression.

All of which begs the question – “Why a retreat and why not just a course or series of workshops like those offered by any number of providers in most cities?” My answer to that is that there are things that a retreat offers which you can’t get from something like a one-off, or even a series, of work-shops or classes or a weekly-writing group. The first is the deep immersion which only comes from spending a period of days talking, learning and thinking about poetry at the expense (literally) of all else.

The second is the opportunity that an urban-located retreat can offer, to connect students to the city in new and (hopefully) exciting and interesting ways. This could take the form of identifying and helping them to access resources in their local environment of which they may  not have been previously aware – library collections, local journals and magazines, and spoken-word open-mic nights, for example. It could also take the form of exercises to encourage students to connect the poetic with their lived-experience and their environment in new and different ways – for example, walking tours, treasure hunts and exercises carried out in public-spaces.

Finally, I think it would be helpful to the furtherance of a twenty-first century Scottish poetics which fully (rather than partially) reflects the lived-experience of the majority of the people of Scotland, if we were do something more to normalise the idea of poetry as being part of the urban fabric and take back the idea that to be ‘poetic’, you have to go off into the country-side and ‘find’ something that is not immediately and excitingly present on the streets and in the public and private spaces of our cities.

The end-goal is a much more-deeply embedded collective understanding that poetry born of cities and poetry located in rural-settings both seek, in Ms  Watts’ words “to strive, through innovation and engagement with tradition, to find new ways of making language meaningful and memorable” – and that the fact that they may do so in different ways, using different tools and different means, for different audiences – does not mean that either is any the greater or any the lesser for the way in which it seeks to achieve this goal.

[Author’s note: this article is my opinion based on two-years (so far) of immersion in the poetry and spoken-word community in central-Scotland (mostly, but by no means exclusively, in Glasgow.) It should not be taken as a disparagement of any of the excellent rural-writing retreats and opportunities offered around the country – it simply proposes an alternative as a complement, not a replacement. Nor should it be taken as a negation of any urban-located retreats that are currently being offered. If there are such, this article welcomes them. It doesn’t refer to them because I haven’t encountered them (yet) – but this may just be ignorance on my part and shouldn’t be taken as criticism.]


Rappers vs Poets

First thing, a little bit of housekeeping – I’ve changed the theme and updated the header image for this blog. The new image is a photo by a gentleman called Graeme Macintosh, of the Botanic Gardens railway station in Kelvinside, Glasgow. I’ve been trying to add a photo credit to the image but haven’t managed it yet – I think I’ll have to add it as text to the image itself. In the meantime – you can find Graeme’s post on the Lost Glasgow Group page on Facebook here. And more on the Botanic Gardens station here and here.

Next, a bit of a whinge.  I’m currently corresponding, in a fairly half-hearted way, with a promoter who’s running a ‘Rappers vs Poets’ show at the Edinburgh Fringe. I’d asked if he had any slots for poets left. He asked for videos of me performing. I sent him links to a couple of videos that I’ve posted on this blog. He responded with, “If you are still interested can you scribble a one-minute thing on one of our themes: poets v MCs; tories v lefties; scotland v england and post a quick phone vid of it. Big ask in little time, but… if you’re up for it…

Big ask – not so much because of the timescales – but because I don’t really understand what the fu*k it is that he’s asking for. How do you write a piece on ‘Rappers vs Poets’? I don’t see how this is a subject for a poem. Ditto ‘tories vs lefties’ and ‘scotland vs england’. I get that there are poems that may appeal more to people of a labour-voting persuasion and poems that might appeal to people who are more inclined to vote Tory – though, I struggle to think of many examples of the latter, unless you want to go back to Kipling, or Tennyson etc. Are there ‘Tory poets’ on the scene? I’ve never come across any – although, all the poets/spoken word artists I know are based in Scotland, so maybe that’s not surprising. Anyway, I sent him a desktop video of a poem with a loose, ‘austerity’ theme, to see what he made of it. He hasn’t been back in touch since.

On a more positive, Edinburgh fringe related topic – you should watch this year’s BBC Social Rappers vs Poets face-off, which you can find on their Facebook page here.  It’s fantastic. All of the poets involved – Iona Lee, Leyla Josephine, Jenny Lindsay, Colin McGuire and Calum Rodger were uniformly excellent. It’s an amazing showcase for the spoken word scene in Scotland and I found it genuinely inspiring.

What I particularly liked was the range of styles – from Iona Lee’s melancholy, magic-realist storytelling – Leyla’s direct self-examination – Jenny’s uniphonic (if that’s the right word) tour-de-force – a poem wrapped around the single vowel sound – ‘I’, that cleverly ends by calling-back to the idea of ‘I’ as well as the sound – Colin’s political barricade storming and Calum’s pre-historical romance, a genesis myth for the idea of love. Geniuses, one and all.

I have to say, if I’d been judging the rounds, the final score would have been a lot less equivocal. Although I like hip-hop as much as the next middle-aged, middle-class, cis-gender, white male – I think the poets on display here were streets ahead of their rapping rivals. Some of it may just have been their experience as performers – but most of it, I think, was down to them having a braver, wider and more imaginative creative vision. Anyway, enough sychophancy. ‘Twas good. Give it a watch.


Back in May I attended one of Lloyd Robinson and Matt Macdonald‘s God Damn Debut Slam, at the Banshee Labyrinth in Edinburgh. I won – first time that’s ever happened, tho the GDDS isn’t as cut-throatedly competitive as some of the other poetry slams I’ve been involved in – it’s more about the supportive than the competitive.

So, I got invited back and last night I did my first ever, paid feature slot. Big night for me. I read four poems called, respectively – “The Tree”, “The Batteries”, “These Words” and “Guantanamera”. The video above is of Guantanamera. My wife, Ann, filmed it on her iPhone so it’s not exactly cinema quality but I think it does the job.

I want to try, where possible, to get some more of my readings on video. This is for a couple of reasons – firstly, because it helps when you’re pestering people for gigs if you’ve got videos you can easily show them (i.e. on YouTube), so they can get an idea of what you’re like as a performer. Secondly, because the best way of assessing, critiquing and improving my own performance is for me to watch it back on video.

It’s not a terribly comfortable process. Like many people, I am no great lover of the sound of my own voice, when it’s been recorded and played back to me. I’m fine with the way my own voice sounds from inside my own head – it sounds like Gregory Peck from in here –  it’s just the way it sounds to the rest of the world that I don’t like. And I’m no great fan of looking at myself on video either.

But, if you don’t analyse and you don’t look for ways to improve, you’ll never get better. So I’ve been spending some time this afternoon looking at things like eye contact, body language/position, whether I was using the mic so that it was picking up properly etc. Of course, it helps that it’s been pis*ing it down outside – makes ‘working’ on something on the lap-top that much more appealing.

The poem is (yet) another attempt to write for performance rather than for the page. It seems to have been a moderately more successful exercise, in this instance, than it was with “The Future“. Leastways, the feedback people have been kind enough to give me, on the occasions when “Guantanamera” has been performed, has been pretty positive. I think “Guantanamera” is closer to being ‘finished’ finished that ‘The Future” is/was. It helps that it (sort of) has a point to make, whereas “The Future” is mostly a list of images (which could, potentially, go on and on.)

The poem focusses a lot on Cuba. Ann and I have visited the island 3 times now – 2007, 2013 and 2015. It’s changed since we first went – back in 2007 the effects of the Período Especial were clearly still being felt – while in 2017, the new economic liberalism was obviously paying dividends to someone, there were new buildings (a lot of them, hotels) going up in Havana everywhere you looked.  We also got married in Cuba, on 18 January, 2013.

P1010118So, Cuba has its place – in my affections and in my personal history. But the poem’s not about me (very few of my poems are). It focusses on Cuba because I believe that the Cuban Revolution was (past tense) about as close to a genuinely social revolution – i.e. a revolution rooted in the needs and interests of ordinary people – as anyone’s ever managed to get.

Which isn’t to say that everything about the Cuban revolution was good (in whatever subjective sense), it wasn’t. But – as Saul Landau writes – from 1959 through the to the ate 1980s,  the revolutionary government “accomplished its major goals: sovereignty and independence, equalizing income and fostering social justice. Thanks to the revolution, Cuba was transformed from an informal United States colony through 1958, into a proud nation.”

The poem uses the figure of a young girl (The word “guajira“, from the best known lyric to the song, “Guantanamera” means “country girl” in Spanish), to represent the need for popular change to be truly representative of the interests of everyone. It tries (a bit) to challenge  the “imperial’ reading of history – which says that the only actors that matter are the Kings, Generals, Admirals etc. – instead of the ordinary people (“Not just about those men in uniforms, driving in their jeeps along the road to Santiago”).

After the elections on 8 June this year, I updated the text to include some more UK-centric references – “New Labour”, “When Blair met Bush/Before Thatcher was elected” etc. We have an example of a (potentially) popular movement in the UK, right now, in the shape of the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn – though, sadly, much of the focus is still on Corbyn as a the leader, rather than his popular, mass of supporter as  =being the enablers. But that’s British politics and the British media for you.

The poem ends by saying that events in political history (for example, the opening and eventual closing of Camp X-Ray) come and go but unless changes are genuinely popular – i.e. driven by a mass movement of people, rather than political/ruling-class oligarchs – then they will, ultimately, fail. (Of course, popular change isn’t necessarily ‘good’ change, depending on your position and PoV. The Brexit vote, for example, might be a considered an example of popular or populist change – but that doesn’t make it any less of a potential disaster.)

I don’t think it’s a bad poem exactly. It’s gauche and it lacks subtleness. I think the main problem is the voice – “I want you to remember”, “because some things last” etc. It’s telling, not showing – which makes the whole thing seem preachy. It’s trying to wrestle with some fairly big, broad ideas and that, in and of itself, is probably part of the problem. I think poetry works better when it zooms in and focusses on the detail[s] and the individual[s], rather than trying to cover the entire canvas. But, I always believe, you have to tilt at the big windmills – life, death, revolution etc. And, in the event you don’t succeed, you just have to follow Beckett’s maxim from “worstward ho”  – “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Video the results. Learn from them.

The Future

I had another poem published, a little while ago. This one is called, “The Future” and it was published in a beautiful anthology called 404Ink, which is also the name of a new(‘ish) independent and alternative publishing house, based in Edinburgh and run by Laura Jones and Heather McDaid. You can find out more about 404 Ink here.

404Ink (the magazine) has themed issues and the theme for issue 2 was “The F-word“. You should buy a copy – it’s a lovely collection. Usually, I struggle to write poems with specific themes. My process relies on certain key stimuli (usually, though not always, something I’m reading) triggering the idea for a poem – and it’s hard to force the process or direct it towards a specific theme or idea. This time however, as luck would have it, I had a poem which fitted the theme already written and ready to go. This is it:-

The Future

The future is a ‘two for one’ deal when you

can’t afford to pay for one. It’s a discount card

for a store where you can get a third off as long

as you spend more than you can afford. The

future is an opportunity to consume the same

products you consume today, repackaged with

a new logo, and a heart-warming message from

an anime goldfish.


The future will let you be special in the same

way as everyone else is special and to stand out

by fitting in. You won’t dress differently, in the

future, but you will feel different about the way

you dress. There will be more youth cults for old

people, to deconstruct and de-contextualise and

remind us all that things were always better in the

old days.


In the future, facts will be rendered obsolete

and your opinions will be substantiated by the

number of ‘likes’ you are able to gather on social

media. Decisions about the future will be made,

based on the views of “so-called experts”, weighted

according to the brand of soft drink they promote

and their ability to succeed in a series of televised,

dance-off competitions. 


The future will provide an ironic commentary

on the future, as it unfolds, spooled out over

screens and streams and social-media feeds.

It will be re-mixed, re-formatted and re-imagined

in real-time, while a nation ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aah’s over

the latest display of interactive, artisan baked goods,

cooked up on a conveyor belt, in a factory, in



In the future, everyone will have a safe space,

and everyone will be confined to their safe space,

during curfew hours, this will be for your comfort

and protection, to ensure that, in the future, no-one

has to rub up against a dissenting voice or opinion,

which might otherwise challenge your deeply held

belief, that no-one understands you quite like you do. 


The future is an opportunity to opportunistically

re-frame your idea of the future, according to

whatever personal beliefs or ambitions you may

hold, and then to blame everyone else when your

vision of the future – just like everyone else’s vision

of the future – fails to come true.


(P.S. In the future, your voice will be a small voice,

assembled from found words in forgotten places

and broadcast over a dead channel and it will be

screaming, “Wake up, Wake up, Wake up!


My log tells me this was written on 24 January 2017. From memory, I wrote two or three verses at work one day, then finished it off the following morning. There was at least one other verse, which has since been deleted. I can’t remember what it said.

This is becoming a fairly typical part of the process – particularly with longer poems. I write a verse – usually towards the start of the poem – which I really like and which often sparks most of the rest of the poem. Then – after a while and after looking at the poem as a whole, with as objective an eye as I can manage to bring to bear – I realise that my much-loved, ‘special’ verse doesn’t actually fit with what the rest of the poem’s turned out to be and has to be cut.

I call these ‘Moses verses’ – destined to lead the poem to the promised land but never to actually enter themselves. If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to kill your darlings – to realise that, sometimes, the bits that you like the best and which mean the most to you won’t mean much to the reader. Even more importantly, you have to understand that serving your own likes and preferences isn’t the same as serving the poem. Of course, sometimes, the opposite also applies. Writing’s a capricious beast, is what I’m saying, There. Are. No. Rules. Or, if there are, they’re only there to be broken.

“The Future” was inspired, very loosely by William Burroughs’ “Thanksgiving Prayer” (which you can watch here). It’s more about the delivery than the content – if you imagine the word “future” being drawled in the same, stately sarcastic way as Burroughs drawls “Thanks” then you’ll have some idea of what was initially in my head when I started writing this.

It’s intended to be funny. Not many people seem to find it terribly funny but that’s how it was supposed to be. It plays on a number of themes, such as the awfulness of consumerism (in particular, the Ouroboran relationship between consumerism, mass consumption and mass media), those dreadful talking-head re-caps on TV (on the 80s or children’s TV or the Handsworth riots) – which are usually little more than a bunch of C-List ‘slebrities’ (who are often too young to actually remember the thing they’re talking about, at the time that it happened) opinions about other peoples’ opinions, that they’ve read or heard about or whatever, and the way that companies try to disguise mass-marked goods with packaging which suggests that things are ‘artisan’, ‘freshly roasted’, ‘limited edition’ or ‘designer’ – when, in actual fact, it’s mass-produced like all the the mass-produced stuff on all the other shelves. (In case you didn’t know already “Shenzen”, which appears at the end of the fourth verse, is where they make iPhones in China.)

It’s a list poem, which is to say that it’s a list of thoughts/ideas/jokes/images rather than a narrative with a clear start and a finish – like “The Chair“. I’m not convinced that it’s finished. There’s always been something that’s nagged at me, that suggests that there’s either more to be added to it or something more that needs to be taken away. Decisions as to whether a poem’s finished or not don’t have to be final, I suppose. This one’s been published – so it’ll always exist, to some extent, in its published form but I can see myself coming back and changing it some day.

It was also a poem that I wrote to try and build a (slightly) larger collection of poems that would work better as spoken-word pieces, rather than on the page. I’m not entirely sure that it works, though. The few times I’ve read, “The Future”, it goes okay but it rarely seems to excite an audience much. Maybe six or seven verses of relentless sarcasm isn’t what people want from a spoken word performance? One thing it has helped to do, though, is to teach me that I need to work on variations in my speaking voice – that different poems require different voices. I’m not saying that I try and sound like William Burroughs when I’m reading this poem – a) nobody sounds like William Burroughs anymore and b) it’s poetry not karaoke. But it does seem to work better when I try and shadow Burroughs’ nasal drawl.

So, that’s “The Future”. I’ve got a couple of other bits out for consideration and I’ve also been doing some more readings. I’ve got my first, ten-minute feature slot coming up this Friday – 14 July – as part of Lloyd Robinson’s The God Damn Debut Slam, in the Banshee Labyrinth which I’m really looking forward to. You should come. It’ll be a blast.

This is the distance

between Descartes and

my outstretched hand.


This is the space where

I live.


And that’s okay.



The Chair (and The Town)

I started this blog to keep track of some of the poetry related things I’ve been doing. However, thanks to my less-than stellar organisational skills, I’ve managed to leave at least one of my more significant achievements out. About six months ago – round about October last year – my friend Alex Mcsherry (with some help from his friend John) was good enough to direct, shoot and edit a couple of short films of two of my poems – The Chair and The Town.

These two poems were the first I ever had published – in the Anthology, “Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry”. (You can read all about it in my blog post below.) One of the films, which was posted on YouTube ahead of publication was this one:-

And this is the full-text of the poem-

The Chair

We came to bury the chair today.

There weren’t that many of us,

a small group of friends

and a gaggle of gossipy ladies,

who sat at the back and talked happily

about funerals and the price of steak mince.

They carried the chair down the aisle,

black crepe ribbons tied to its armrests,

vinyl cushions polished to a shine.

Everyone thought it looked so nice,

with its new rubber tyres and gleaming spokes.

The priest gave a eulogy for the chair.

How it had spent its days in the service of others,

tirelessly (if you’ll excuse the pun),

ever ready to bear its load, to follow its path

towards some higher purpose, blessed by God.

After the service, they took the chair away.

We went to eat sandwiches and drink tea,

and someone mentioned, as a passing thought,

this little girl who’d sat in the chair and

gone around in it, wherever it went.

But no-one could recall her face or ,

when we thought about it, who she was

or even if she’d really been there at all.

I keep two folders of poems on the desktop of my MacBook – ‘Publish’ and ‘Works in progress’. When a poem’s finished, it gets moved from the ‘WiP’ folder into the ‘Publish’ folder. Some poems never make it, and just languish in ‘WiP purgatory’ for ever. This is how it should be – writing poetry often means killing your first-born. The Chair is one of the older poems in my ‘Publish’ folder, it was written (I think) around 2011 – though it’s actual genesis is older still. There is a story behind ‘The Chair”, but I’m not getting into that just now.

But – the point of this blog entry is to say that we did make another video, for my second poem from “Aiblins” – The Town. A video which was never uploaded to YouTube and which has been gathering metaphorical/digital dust in my DropBox folder for the last six months. This video, in fact:-

And this is the full-text of The Town:-

The Town

They closed the

town today, took

the houses down in

sections, rolled our

gardens up like

carpets, loaded

them onto lorries

and we never

saw them again.

They packed all

our things in

boxes, labelled

children like parcels,

helped us onto

railway specials

and took us all away.

Now, we lie down

in strange beds,

wearing clothes

that don’t fit,

trying to fill

the empty shoes

of all the men

who never came home.

The Town was written in 2015, initially on a bench in Manchester Piccadilly railway station, when I was on my way home to Scotland after visiting my wife, who was on a contract in Manchester at the time. It’s one of a couple of ‘war’ poems I’ve written – although neither of them are about the actual experience of war or combat – as this is something I have little interest in writing about.

What I am more interested in is the experience of the civilian population and those either caught up in war or left behind when their husbands/sons/fathers are called away to war. In my head, ‘The Town’ is set in England and it was intended to reflect the experience of some post-WWI communities, which waned away after the armistice because there weren’t enough working men left to keep the community alive. I’ve since found out that most people who read it for the first time interpret it as being about the various refugee diasporas in recent times – Bosnia/Syria etc. – which is fine. I’m not the custodian of the ‘meaning’ of my poems, they mean whatever the reader wants them to mean.

But, anyway, that’s my published output to date – 3 poems and 2 videos. As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, I’m expecting to have something else in print later this month. In the meantime, I’ve also got a couple more performances coming up:- Poetry at Inn Deep on May 23, The Snap Extra Second on 1 June. I’m also planning to get along to the Loud Poets night at Broadcast on 18 May. Sure to be lots and lots of great performers at all of them.

In the meantime, more poems to write.

I want a viking funeral


Last night, my wife and I were at the CCA in Glasgow for Tawona, Tarneem and Niko’s monthly Seeds of Thought performance night. We saw and heard, amongst other things – Mbira music, an unexpected confession from Theresa May’s ex-boyfriend, poems, throat singing, more poems, a short story, set in Alabama, which revolved around a promise to complete the same jigsaw puzzle every day, heartfelt poems, political poems, part-sung poems – poems inspired by Scotland, Texas, Palestine and Iraq.

Although its laid-back approach occasionally teeters on the edge of outright chaos, Seeds is still one of the best poetry/spoken word nights in Glasgow.most nights tend to have a first half which ambles along in a lackadaisical, ‘take your time’ kind of way and a second half which whips past in a rush of performers jumping on stage, one after another, in a bid to fit everyone in.

The venue, the CCA Theatre, is easily the best equipped, regular venue for poetry in the city. For starters, it has an actual stage. Seeds is also one of the most friendly, open and welcoming nights I’ve been to. The hosts, Niko and Tawona are, by turns, cheeky and charming. Tawona’s one of the most inspiring performers I’ve ever heard in Glasgow and his poems are usually worth the visit all on their own.

No two Seeds nights are ever alike – performers vary from regulars, to wild cards, to visitors, to first-timers who just haven’t become regulars yet. There’s a blend of music, poetry and other forms of spoken word, the standard’s usually pretty high but – most importantly – the atmosphere is always cheerful, celebratory and good fun. Seeds usually happens on the last Friday of the month. Keep an eye on their website or their Facebook page and go along if you can.

I read three poems. One of them was this one:

I want a viking funeral

I want a viking funeral. Dress me in my Sunday

best and lay me out in a longboat, with a dragon

prow and crimson sail – not a full-size longboat,

you understand (I’m realistic about these things),

but something bigger than a rowing boat and smaller

than a yacht.

I want a viking funeral, I want you – you who

used to be my lover, you who were my friends,

you who are strangers and not quite sure what

you’re doing here but – what the hell? – I want you

to lay firewood beneath me and plenty of paper, the

books I loved, the poems I wrote, crumple them up

and stuff them beneath and between the planks

and lengths of two by four and douse the lot in

paraffin so it’s sure to burn.

I want a viking funeral. Do it how you want, just

light the fire and launch the boat and let the river

catch me, carry me, while the flames leap and laugh

and my pyre blazes up a rope of angry smoke into

the sky. I don’t want ceremony or words, words,

words – some Minister I’ve never met muttering the

grace over my coffin, while wondering what he’ll

have for tea – I want this to be my eulogy.

I want a viking funeral. I have never spilled my

guts, I am not Mishima, I have never lit up rooms,

or blazed with righteous love or passionate  anger

or truth so evident you can see it for miles, like the

refinery at Grangemouth, spewing oily fire into the

sky. I want to die like I have never lived in candesences

of dancing flames, in one wholly selfish holy act. In

my end, I  want to be what I have never been in life –

rebellious, spontaneous, a little mad and wholly free.

There are a couple of things to say about this poem. First, it’s been published – you can find it on page 24 of the latest issue (#33, Spring 2017) of the excellent, free literary magazine, “Northwords Now”. This takes the number of poems I’ve had published up to a grand total of three – though I’m expecting a fourth to appear in print next month and I have others out for consideration as I write.

I write mostly for the page. Some of my poems work okay as performance pieces. Some, less so. “I want a viking funeral’ is one of the few pieces that I deliberately wrote to be performed, rather than read – so it’s slightly ironic that it’s appeared in print before it was ever performed in public – but, there you are – God laughs at our plans etc.

It’s partly a ‘place’ poem, in that I had a very strong sense of its location when I wrote it – the ‘scene’, if you like, is the stretch of Forth River between the Stirling Rowing Club and the footbridge between Riverside and Cambuskenneth. It doesn’t appear in the poem itself, as there’s no reference to the actual location, but that stretch of river and its attendant footpaths, trees and dogwalkers was at the forefront of my mind when I wrote it. The reference to a chimney, ‘spewing oily fire in the sky’ has ended up as a reference to the Grangemouth but was inspired by the smoke that can usually be seen rising from the Superglass factory in Springkerse, Stirling. ‘Mishima’ is a reference to the pen name adopted by the Japanese author and poet Kimitake Hiraoka.

It’s also a ‘me’ poem. While the subject matter is Prufrockian, the narrative voice is (mostly) my own.The vast majority of my poems are character pieces – the voice that speaks through the poem is someone else’s, usually a character that I’ve made up. This one is more me than it is anyone else. (While Eliot, at 22 going on til 27, imagined his J. Alfred into being.) For the record, I would quite like a Viking funeral, though I suspect there are probably bye-laws or whatever that would prohibit it from ever taking place.

But that can wait. In the meantime – there’s more poetry to be written and, hopefully, more of it will also make it into print.

“Here are words. You might like to read them”

So – you read poetry, you write poetry, you acquire poetry magazines. Mostly because they’re good to read. Occasionally because your work is being published in one and you get sent a free copy. The photo below shows a random sample, rounded up from the book shelves in our living room. From top left, they are:-

  1. Issue 4: Winter 2016/2017 of The Poets’ Republic
  2. Issue 33: Spring 2017 of Northwords Now
  3. Issue 2 of Spam
  4. Issues 14: Autumn 2016 and 15: Spring 2017 of Gutter
  5. Issue 1: Error of 404 Ink
  6. Volume 1, Issue 3: Summer 2016 of Raum


What I was thinking, when I sat down to write this post, was that I could write something about the design of these various magazines/journals. There are some obvious differences:- Three of them (Gutter, Raum, Northwords Now) go for a cooler, more contemplative design – lots of white, plenty of room for the type and main image/graphics to breathe. None of them would look particularly out of place alongside a copy of Frieze magazine, in some art gallery bookshop.

The other three go with more of what I’d call a ‘cut and paste’/Jamie Reid aesthetic – though, obviously, the effects are all realised digitally, rather than being the product of actual cutting and actual copydexing. (Eddie Gibbons, in particular, has done some lovely work on the Poets’ Republic cover, remixing Eugene Delacroix’s famous painting “Liberty Leading the People”).

So, which is better? Dunno. Does it matter? Well, maybe. After all (as this article says), we are predominantly visual creatures, and books (or journals) whose covers draw our attention, will create an expectation that excites us, and suggest a certain quality of writing.

For me, there’s something charming about Denise Bonetti (and others’) frenetic visual mash-ups for Spam that I don’t get from the self-consciously tasteful graphic abstractions on the covers of Gutter. I’m not saying the one’s better than the other. I am saying, I respond to one more positively than then other. (For me, the two Gutter covers might as well be blank/white for all the impact they have.)

It’s probably my age – I’m old enough to remember the days when the editors of magazines like Boy’s Own had to get their Mum to take their copy to work and type it up for them. So, I get nostalgic when I see things that remind me of Sniffin’ Glue style DIY punk aesthetics. (Am now vaguely concerned that saying, “I like this stuff because I’m old” may come across as a bit of a backhanded compliment. But only vaguely.)

What matters, in the end, is whether there are good poems in each of them. And there are. So, this isn’t the Peter Saville/Mark Farrow vs Jamie Reid, good design/bad design, lip-sync battle I thought it would be when I sat down to write this article.

What it is is, perhaps, a bit of a statement of the obvious and a reassertion of the old adage, not to judge a book (or a poetry magazine) by its cover. They come in different shapes and sizes. That’s fine. Some of them will tick all of the right boxes, in the eyes of budding Paula Scher‘s everywhere. Some of them will make old farts like me chuckle. That’s fine also. Some of them, like the 404 Ink cover, just get on with the job of announcing, “Here are words. You might like to read them”, and will (mostly) leave it at that. The important thing, is just to pick them up and have a read.


The right kind of eyes

I thought it was worth following on from my last post with a couple of things. Firstly – a Guardian article (from October 2016), which talks about the different ways in which cities have inspired a whole range of poets – from Alexander Pope to Eminem.

Secondly, this more recent article in the Guardian, about the Disappear Here project, in which nine artists and nine filmmakers celebrate “the overt orbicular oddness” of Coventry’s ring road and its nine junctions.

Why do these things matter? Well, the first article speaks (I think, better than I managed) to some of the points I was trying to make (Starting to make? Trying to work out?) in my earlier blog post. In particular, it makes the point that:-

Many people’s first formal interaction with poetry – beyond nursery rhymes, at least – tends to be centred on the Romantic-era poets such as Blake, Keats, Wordsworth or Shelley.

It goes on to acknowledge, that having been exposed to poets like the Romantics first, many people go on to found their future understanding and appreciation of poetry on ideas of the ‘natural’ and ‘beautiful’. There’s probably something about the way poetry is taught in schools here – but I’m not an educator and, being half-teacher on my mother’s side, I know better than to try and tell teachers what to do. But the article quotes East-London based poet, Tom Chivers, as saying:-

“The city resists nostalgic forms of poetry that have been handed down to us in various traditions”.

which I think is very true – and, in many ways, this is the point – in the twenty-first century, if/when/where poetry moves forward, it is more likely to do so in an evolving urban environment driven by constant renewal and change. In my recent reading, I’ve been learning about the Post-World War Two abstract expressionist movement in the USA and its links to the New York School of poets from the 1950s onward. It’s no great surprise, to me, that this group which David Lehman called, “The Last Avant-Garde” came together in an urban environment – indeed, that’s the only environment that I can imagine them in.

Having said all that, one thing I disagree with slightly is Chiver’s contention that “There is this energy and aggression and speed in a city that lends itself to poetry“. I’m not convinced that urban poetry has to be built solely on aggression and speed. A lot of it is – and there are obvious links to hip-hop here and slam poetry, both forms which favour pace and dexterity over reflection and contemplation. But my contention will always be that it is just as possible to find moments of quiet beauty in the city as it is in the countryside – you just need to be mindful and possess what Hunter S Thompson would call, “the right kind of eyes“.

Hence, my linking to the article on Coventry’s ring-road. Full disclosure, I was born and raised in Coventry, though all of my family have long since moved away and I haven’t been back to the city for years. So, there is some nostalgia here, for me – which may run slightly counter to ‘proper’ urban poetical practice. But, for me, the work collected in “Disappear Here” reflects, in some ways, the kind of approach and consideration that I’d like to take. It’s a poetry of landscapes and peoples’ relationships with the landscape, of details – in particular, the shared often peripheral details that go one around people in cities – traffic, street signs, advertisements, graffiti – that form as much a part of the environment that plants do on a hillside (but rarely receive the same sort of attention and affection). Somewhere in amongst all of this, there’s a definable, recognisable, co-produced and collective understanding of urban poetics, waiting to be found.

I’ll keep looking.

Poetry should go where the people are

Last Thursday night, I read some poems at Robert Kerr’s monthly night, “Outside the Narrative“, at Tchai Ovna, House of Tea, hidden away at the bottom of Otago Lane in Glasgow’s West End. It’s a lovely little place – sitting there, it’s easy to feel as though you’ve been transported into a tent in the Green Fields at Glastonbury or somewhere even more otherworldly, one of the ‘Soft Places‘ from Neil Gaiman’s  ‘Sandman’.

I had time to spare between finishing work and the start of the evening’s event so I indulged myself in a couple of things – gyros and retsina at the Yiamas Taverna and a wee wander round the West End. Walking’s such a good way to collect your thoughts and find inspiration. If you’ve got a poem on the go, you may often find that the solution to that tricky ending or the two so-so lines that won’t quite knit together will appear, unbidden, in the course of a walk.

On Thursday night, I was thinking about ‘my’ approach to poetry. I wrote a poem once called ‘The Rules’. It was a sort of facetious manifesto for life. (Rule 12, and the last line, was “Make your own rules and obey only those”.) Sadly, it was written on an old iMac G3 and I lost it when that machine gave up its ghost about 10 years ago. I occasionally think I should have a go at re-writing it. Either that, or get the iMac fixed.

Anyway, what was going round in my head on Thursday night, was a version of ‘The Rules’ that set out a personal manifesto, if you like, for writing poetry. As I say, this is my approach and it’s entirely personal to me. Other manifestos are available – write your own, if you want to  – but this is mine, for whatever it’s worth. I’m not going to try and set the whole thing out here because that would probably take more time/space than a single post allows – but I’ll make a start.

Rule 1 – Poetry should go where the people are.

Cities are signifiers, in the Saussurian sense and the things that are signified by every city are the people. So, for me – just as Lowry said, about his matchstick men, that they were – “part of a private beauty that haunted me. I loved them and the houses in the same way: as part of a vision.” – it’s people that inspire poetry. For me, this (mostly) means that poetry should have its roots in towns and cities – i.e. the landscapes and the environment in which most people actually live. Commuter poetry. Poetry that recognises that most peoples’ days take them from estates to stations to offices (schools/Unis/other places of employment are also available) and back again.

I have nothing against nature poetry – when it’s done well. (When it’s done badly, I think it becomes the poetic equivalent of the kind of twee, ‘scenic’ watercolour painting that you find in galleries up and down the country.) But I do disagree, strongly, that there is something inherently ‘poetic’ in the description of nature. (Who says there is? Well, I do but also – check out any list of favourite poems and see how many, like Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud‘ or Frost’s ‘Stopping by woods on a snowy evening‘ are set in countryside/natural landscapes rather than urban scenes.)

Yes, poetry should also be a form of escape. Yes, there is value in poetry that transports the reader from one landscape into another. Yes, it’s possible to use the scenery of the countryside to say something about the lived experience of the city and vice versa. All of these things are true. Equally, in this day and age, it’s important to foreground the environmentalist narrative of ‘Green’ politics, which takes as its founding principle, the fact that whatever happens in the countryside impacts on those who live in cities and, again, vice versa.

But to me, there’s nothing that makes a sunrise over Applecross Bay more beautiful than a sunrise over the Kingston Bridge. It’s about the poet’s ability to capture a moment and unlock the magic in the image/vision/idea. Equally, to try and take an egalitarian view – most people don’t spend much of their time soaking up beautiful scenery on the hills and in the countryside. They do, however, spend a lot of time in cars/on trains/on buses on their way to/from work – and I think poetry should acknowledge this, rather than ignoring it.

And this, to me, is the key. Poetry should go where the people are. Poems need people to read them so, by extension, poems need to be interested in people – where they are, where they’re going, what they’re doing. Which is why, I think, the best walks for a poet are ones that wind through city streets, not hillside footpaths. Wander lonely as a cloud. Wander lonely as a recent divorcee, it’s up to you. But, I think, what connects you to the landscape is as much the  experience of others who share it – of being part of that number, of recognising the commonality and the things that binds us and/or separate us – as it is any observation of the landscape itself. And that is where the poetry comes from.

Last Monday at Rio

In Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’, the protagonist – Richard Mayhew – after playing Good Samaritan and rescuing a young girl in distress, finds himself drawn out of his safe, familiar, mundane life and into a strange new world . In some ways, Glasgow’s poetry scene is a bit like ‘London Below’ – only without the overly-loquacious assassins and psychotic angels.

I’m not being entirely serious – but, in the ten months or so that I’ve been exploring Glasgow’s poetry underground, most of the nights I’ve been at have been in venues I never knew existed before (including an upstairs room at the Mitchell Library which even the staff couldn’t find).

I suppose what gives poetry nights their faint sense of ‘otherworldliness’ is their complete absence from anything you might call ‘the mainstream’. They seem, mostly, to happen in slightly hidden, slightly out of the way places. (Except Seeds of Thought, at the CCA on Sauchiehall Street – which is about as obvious and not-hidden a venue for live poetry as you can imagine.)  And, unlike Richard Mayhew, I didn’t find out about this other world by accident – I had to go and look for it. Facebook’s been great for that, there’s an excellent public group – Poetry & Spoken Word in Scotland – which lists pretty much every night that’s on, certainly in the central belt and often further afield as well.

And one of those nights (Maybe ‘the night’) is ‘Last Monday at Rio‘, hosted by Robin Cairns at the Rio Cafe, on Hyndland Street in Partick, just round the corner from Kelvinhall Underground station.


For what it’s worth – I used to work not far away, in the Library of the Western Infirmary, but to get there, I came out of the underground and turned left and then left, onto Byres Road. I never once turned right (or widdershins?) along Dumbarton Road. If I had, I might have happened on the Rio sooner. Or not. Honestly, who the fu*k knows? This isn’t Sliding Doors.

But now I’m down the rabbit hole (or across the Knight’s Bridge, if you want to keep battering away at those ‘Neverwhere’ analogies), I was in the Rio Cafe last Monday night, listening and reading a couple of my poems.

And, it was a great night. Mr Cairns is an excellent and welcoming host, it’s free, there’s usually a feature poet to round things off, it’s free, the food/booze/coffee is decent, it’s free, the regular crowd is lovely (Folk stay for the whole night, they don’t just come along to support their pals, then pi*s off as soon as said pals have been up on-stage.) and there’s a nice mix of styles (older poets, younger poets) and material.

In fact, one of the other things that reminded me of ‘Neverwhere’ was this mixture of older/younger, funny/serious (There was a lot of Trump inspired material on Monday, which delivered both the funny and the serious). An observation – may be born out in future, may not be – that the Glasgow poetry scene isn’t always a unified, singular – there’s an ‘older poets’ scene and a ‘younger poets’ scene. The former maybe focuses more on writing groups and societies, the latter is built more around slam competitions. Not saying one’s any better than the other, mind.

But ‘Last Monday at Rio’ seems to bring both scenes/groups together. Again with the ‘Neverwhere’ references, it’s like the Floating Market. (Or the Continental Hotel, if you happen to have seen ‘John Wick recently, like I have.) Some of this may be down to its being one of the longer and better established nights in the city – a lot of its probably down to the host.

Open mic’ers on Monday (that I recognised) included Gayle Smith and Stephen Watt. The feature poet was Anna Crow. All in all, now that I’ve been a couple of times, I’m starting to understand why so many people I met, in my (very) early days exploring the scene kept telling me to go along. I will be back.