The land’s wild magic

St-Euny's-Well
Looking into St Euny’s Well

Earlier this month I had the great privilege of attending Roselle Angwin‘s retreat in Cape Cornwall, The land’s wild magic. As with her Iona retreats, I found this a rich and productive week of reflection, writing, walking in silence, and convivial company in liminal places and ancient sites.

Roselle set out to create a week where we could explore our inner and outer life and where they meet – through a mix of slowing down, observation using all senses, free writing, silence, walking. I went hoping to immerse myself in an ancient landscape to see what new writing might emerge. I filled pages of my notebook with raw material, which is now composting. Batteries recharged, I’m back in the fray in Edinburgh. A few poems from Cornwall have already found their way onto my laptop…

notebook-wildflowers
Notebook and wildflowers at Boscawenun Circle

INTERROBANG: Live And Let Die‽

I’m delighted to be part of INTERROBANG: Live And Let Die‽ at Summerhall on 14 May 2018, which is part of Good Death Week, 14 – 20 May 2018. The aim of Good Death Week is to promote the positives of living in a society where people can be open about dying, death and bereavement. How could I resist? I’m appearing with Stuart Kenny and Rachel Rankin, and I’ll be reading a range of poems from Wristwatch (appropriately enough). There’ll be some new material too – I’ve written three new poems on the theme of (in)famous deaths. I chat with Ricky from Interrobang in a Death Cafe kinda way here.

Tickets here…

 

Platform @ Off the Rails Arthouse

What a lovely evening Platform Poetry is. The Platform attendants are so attentive, the venue is intimate (with an open fire!) and it feels more like a conversation when you’re up doing your turn.

It was an absolute pleasure to be part of the evening, along with fellow Cinnamon poet Jane McKie, reading precise, delicate, thought-provoking poems from Kitsune and From the Wonder Book of Would You Believe It? and Platform’s own poet Steve Smart, who read from his ‘Drawing Breath’  collaboration with Edinburgh based artist Tansy Lee Moir. All that and flamenco music! A great night’s entertainment, expertly hosted by Lindsay McGregor.

Putting it out there – reflections on launching Wristwatch

I’ve written a guest blog over at Cinnamon Press about the Wristwatch launch back in October …

“I had written a collection of poems wrung from personal experience, many in response to the death of my late partner and my own subsequent treatment for cancer. Even as I celebrated the news that Cinnamon Press would publish Wristwatch, back in January 2016, I had a classic post-cancer reaction — will I live long enough to see it in print? … Even though many of these poems were previously published, and I’ve read many of them at open mic or at readings, this was a very public statement of what happened to me and the sense I tried to make of it. A celebration of resilience (mine and others) and of life. With bonus nuns and a selkie.”

 

Oh Hippopotamus

utility_piece

Utility Piece is a poem addressed to an ugly sideboard that was part of my life for years. I’m not talking about a mid-century modern sideboard, the sort you see in lifestyle mags or boutiques in Leith or Bruntsfield. This sideboard was utility furniture, and belonged to my late partner’s parents.

I wrote it when I realised (some years after Morag had died) that there was no need for this piece of furniture to stay in my life. I sat down with my notebook aiming to write a letter to the sideboard (yes, I love all such self-therapy) and ended up with a poem instead. The early drafts were pure invective, but later versions calmed down somewhat, and it’s become a meditation on my relationship to the stuff I inherited – and the shared history bound up in said stuff.

Utility piece

It’s time to rehome you,
Hippopotamus,
squat in the corner
scuffed veneer
the colour of the eighty a day
you absorbed for decades.

I never liked you.
I can say that now.
You came when I married
the youngest daughter.

No-one else had room for you
so we took you home,
fed you a terrible diet —
crammed you with board games
a tangle of connectors, adapters, chargers.

You belch booze-reek when I open your doors.

And now I’m widowed.
I wonder why I tend you,
oxpecker-busy.
You were part of her childhood, not mine,
yet you’ve outstayed flat-pack and two sofas.

Oh Hippopotamus, handles chipped,
bulbous gnarly legs, too heavy to lift –
do you remember
after her funeral, in our home for the first time,
her brother said, outraged
How did YOU get that?

And I, the unhappy inheritor,
retold our story.

 

I enjoy reading Utility Piece at open mic and readings, and I’m delighted people respond so positively – it’s fun to find myself at the bar having chats about other legendary, sometimes resented items of furniture.

Reading at Maggie’s Edinburgh

I’m joining my fellow Other Writer Angus Ogilvy in a reading at Edinburgh’s Maggie’s Centre on Thursday 16 November, 1800-1930. I’m planning to read the whole Risky Breasts sequence – not something I usually do, but it seems appropriate in the safe, welcoming place where I went on courses, retreated to wait for appointments and results, and where I’ve met so many other people affected by cancer.  Do join us!

maggies

 

To absent friends

I’m looking forward to the To absent friends festival on 7 November, when I join other poets and storytellers taking part in the Marie Curie event Telling stories to keep memories alive. I’ll be reading some of my poems written in response to the death of my late partner (there’s a whole sequence in Wristwatch) and more importantly, I’ll be chatting to people about writing to celebrate and commemorate their dead.

To absent friends sets out to be a Scottish version of the Mexican Day of the Dead – I love this idea! As the website says, “People who have died remain a part of our lives – their stories are our stories…” Which is exactly what my poem Utility piece is trying to say.

 

Risky breasts

It has not escaped my notice that my debut collection Wristwatch, which contains a sequence of 16 poems about my breast cancer treatment, launches in #BreastCancerAwareness month (October).
 

Risky breasts is the title poem of the sequence. I wrote it because I was told that my family history and a few personal factors mean I have what’s known in the medical profession as “risky breasts.” The phrase tickled me, and a poem followed.

 

There is no pink in this post. It’s really not my colour. But please, everyone, including men, keep an eye on all your dangly, wobbly bits. Be breast aware. 

 

 

Baring all – writing poems about breast cancer

There are three sequences of poems in Wristwatch, and the central sequence, Risky breasts, contains sixteen poems about my treatment for breast cancer in 2013-14. As I’ve written elsewhere, my cancer diagnosis followed the death of my late partner Morag with brutal speed. I was reeling.

Some of these poems were written at the time. I’m a compulsive journal-keeper, so I was writing daily for my own sanity and this spilled into my creative writing. I realised I wanted to write honest, unsentimental poems about what was happening to me and how I was changed by it. I was too feeble to do much else. So I wrote about waiting for pathology results, about guidewire insertion, my first chemo, hair loss, anaphylactic shock, hormone treatment – and all the long hours in-between. It proved to be strangely uplifting. That was the unexpected thing about incapacitating illness. I came to appreciate the simplest things. The title poem of the collection, Wristwatch, is about exactly that.

I honed these poems in the months of recovery that followed. I wrote other poems long after treatment ended, drawing on my diaries and also my changing perspective as time passed.

I know some people must think “But don’t you want to just put all that behind you? Why keep raking it up?” Ah, I’m one of those people who works things out by writing. And I wanted to transmute this awful, rich experience into something else. To quote Audre Lorde, whose Cancer Journals were an inspiration to me during treatment, “I had known the pain and survived it. It only remained for me to give it voice, to share it for use, that the pain not be wasted.”

As I prepared the sequence for publication, I realised these poems are simultaneously mine, of me, and a sign I have achieved some detachment from that terrible, revelatory time. Although I wish these things had never happened, I would never want to unknow what I learned. I want to retain this knowledge, the insights I gained. After all, one day I may well find myself in treatment again.