Edinburgh-based poet, author of Wristwatch (Cinnamon Press, 2017). All rights reserved.
Edinburgh-based poet Jay Whittaker has poems published in various journals. Her first full-length collection, Wristwatch, was Scottish Poetry Book of the year in the 2018 Saltire Society Literary Awards. Her second collection, Sweet Anaesthetist, will be published by Cinnamon Press in autumn 2020.
We’re already almost halfway into January 2021. More pandemic restrictions, this time with extra cold. As I write, it’s the dark moon – and yet this afternoon I noticed there was usable light in Edinburgh until 1645. The nights are fair drawing out …
On New Year’s Day I had the pleasure of reading (virtually) at Utrecht’s Poetry Lit!, and our host, Milla van der Have, asked me to reflect a little on how 2020 had changed my writing process or my poetry. Well. I’ve continued to write my journal, essential for my sanity, but otherwise I’ve written less and submitted less than I usually do. Like many others, I’ve found everything in the pandemic more tiring than usual. My day job has shifted online, and I’m hugely grateful to still be in work. I notice my creative process is the same – though I have to make a conscious effort to prioritise creative work. But without a doubt, I find the the boundaries between my creative work and my day job much harder because everything takes place in the same space. (Clearly this is nothing compared to those who are juggling home schooling and / or caring along with everything else. I salute you.)
Like so many others, I find my attention span is less than it was – so it’s easier to read poems and short stories or essays than novels or long non-fiction.
Milla also asked what I would bring with me in 2021, poetically?
I love being able to take part in online events – watching Natalie Diaz & Ellen van Neerven in the Edinburgh Book Festival event Voices of Indigenous Resistance, or catching many excellent poets reading at the Stay At Home Literary Festival. And of course, reading in open mics all over the place, or being a featured poet for Poetry Lit! in Utrecht, for example, and knowing that friends living in other countries were able to join complete strangers in the audience. I do miss in-person events and the mingling, but there’s an intimacy about a Zoom or Crowdcast reading, and an immediacy in audience reaction to poems in the chat.
I also miss face-to-face meetings of The Other Writers, the poetry collective which usually meets in Fountainbridge Library, but many of us have continued to meet online fortnightly since March. That I have any poems written at all is because I wanted to bring something to workshop. Community remains, even in the imperfect on-screen environment.
I would also bring with me several books that have sustained me through 2020:
An online launch isn’t the same as one in front of an audience, with all the buzz and the mingling and chat afterwards … and yet. It was a pleasure and a privilege to launch online with my Cinnamon Press stablemates Sian Hughes, Jane McKie. We showcased our poems in front of about 70 folk, including many who would never have been able to attend in person. Thank you to all who joined the launch, in real time and afterwards.
Here’s a link to my set, cued up to where I read – if you have the time, please do watch Jane and Sian too. And if you are in a position to buy books, please do buy direct from Cinnamon, an indy press which continues to blaze a trail in difficult times.
Set list: At the new pool / Tank life / Scrabble deluxe / Radical / Sighting / Embark / Alarm / Return to Crovie / Water’s edge / Sweet anaesthetist / Intrinsic
I’m thrilled that my second collection of poems is almost out in the world.
There aren’t any pandemic / covid-19 poems, though there’s plenty of resonance. You’ll find poems about origins – what shapes us, in the womb, and in the world? Poems about how the politics of the outside world shape our daily lives. As with Wristwatch, my poems are rooted in the natural world, from the Hebrides to the ancient landscape of East Lothian. I’ve also been writing about the unnoticed creatures that share our homes; about words, the institutions that house them, and their loss. There are poems about mothers and mothering. My own mother died immediately before lockdown, and while we didn’t always have the easiest of relationships, she was proud of my writing and how I had I achieved a childhood goal (to be a writer) . And of course there are poems about the body, the medical system, and living with cancer. I’ve included a series of elegies for an eclectic range of folk. And finally, a prose poem sequence uniting much of the above, called ‘Egg case.’
Some of the poems in Sweet Anaesthetist were previously published or performed live – heartfelt thanks to all the small presses who published (and considered and rejected) them, and also to the Scottish poetry and spoken word events where I tried out and honed some (very) raw early versions.
Join Cinnamon Press for the launch via Zoom, in an online literary event where three award winning poets launch new collections . The event will begin at 7 p.m. BST on Thursday September 10 2020 and will include a Q&A session with the online audience after the readings. Cinnamon is asking attendees to pre-register – after registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining. There’s a small registration fee, which prevents spam bots and trolls joining, but everyone attending will also be given a discount code for books.
Like so many other people, for me the last couple of months have been well, weird. I attended my mother’s funeral via Zoom, while self-isolating with a covid-like illness (at a time when there was no testing to be had, and in the absence of an antibody test, who knows?).
In the first weeks of lockdown I didn’t have much energy or inclination to write anything other that my journal (daily safety valve that it is). It’s been a good distraction checking the proofs for Sweet Anaesthetist. I think we’ve nailed it this weekend with a third round of PDFs to and from my editor, Jan Fortune of Cinnamon Press. I’ve obtained the final permission I was waiting for, from the estate of W.S.Graham. I’m looking forward to sharing more about my new collection (publication date October 2020) very soon.
In recent weeks I’ve started writing poems again. I joined a virtual retreat led by the inspirational mentor and teacher Roselle Angwin. While it wasn’t a week on Iona, it did challenge me into writing new, raw notes and drafts, now composting in my notebook for later editing.
I’m struck how I’m coming back to many of the things I found helped me when I was having cancer treatment – journalling, staying in the moment, pacing myself, trying to eat well. The language is similar too – stay safe, are you keeping well? My world has slowed down and is as socially isolated almost as much as in chemo days, and if I’m honest, that’s a relief, as it gives me some space and time to absorb mother-loss. And if I feel anxious or upset or discombobulated by my new reality, well, aren’t we all having a strange time of it, in our different ways?
I’m thrilled about the cover for my second poetry collection, published by Cinnamon Press in October 2020.
The poems in Sweet Anaesthetist explore what shapes us, in the womb, and in the world. With one eye on how the politics of the outside world shape our daily lives, the poems are rooted in the natural world, from the Hebrides to the ancient landscape of East Lothian. There are poems in a wide variety of voices and forms. Themes include birds, in many times and places; the unnoticed creatures that share our homes; LGBT+ lives (including my own); mothers and mothering; unflinching poems about the body, the medical system, and living with cancer.
Here’s a brief round-up of my writing year’s end, which was unexpectedly busy.
In December I had a blast in Newcastle at the launch of Butcher’s Dog issue 12, which includes my poem Jam rags. I’ll maybe write that poem its own blog post another time … I appreciated the thoughtful editing of Jo Clements and Ian Humphreys, and it was lovely to meet the other contributors.
I was delighted that my elegy Birmingham, again found its ideal home in Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal. This relative newcomer on the litmag scene is a pleasure to read and the editors pay your work real attention. Thank you, Naush Sabah and Suna Afshan.
In early December, I swallowed hard and sent the manuscript for my 2nd collection to my editor, Jan Fortune at Cinnamon Press. Now I’m in the poetry waiting room (which is a lot more pleasant than the medical waiting rooms!) Sweet Anaesthetist will be published in late 2020. More about thatin a month or so.
I feel like I’ve been in editing mode for TOO LONG so it’s a treat to be writing new, raw rubbish with no expectations at all, and no immediate plans to edit. A poetry detox for January.
“At once I was viewing evidence; I was the victim’s relative; the victim of violence and legal agent. The four poems provide a thoughtful and well considered insight into lost perspectives – most importantly, that of the victim – permanently silenced.”
The Scottish Feminist Judgments Project is the Scottish incarnation of a global series reimagining key legal judgments from a feminist perspective, looking at how laws can be made and applied in a more gender equitable way. As recently explained in a feature in the Scotsman:
“…three academics – Sharon Cowan, professor of feminist and queer legal studies at Edinburgh University, Vanessa Munro, professor of law at Warwick University, and Chloë Kennedy, lecturer in criminal law at Edinburgh University – co-ordinated the Scottish Feminist Judgment Project, an initiative which involved re-examining 16 important legal judgments from a feminist perspective. They found the decisions the judges had reached were by no means inevitable, and that, in many cases, a feminist perspective would not only have altered the outcome, but taken the law in a different direction.
When I was asked to be part of SFJP I was interested, but not entirely sure what it entailed. I attended an early workshop with a large group of academic lawyers as they discussed the project. I admit I was struggling to see how I might make poems from the legal cases themselves, but I was intrigued by the dilemmas and debates of the lawyers and by the possibility for change. For their part, the academic lawyers were welcoming but clearly not certain what the artists would produce, or how the artworks would connect to the wider project (more of that later).
It was difficult to choose one case to focus on, but in the end I felt driven to choose Drury v HM Advocate, 1998. The Scotsman article summarises it succinctly:
“Stuart Drury had been stalking his ex-partner Marilyn McKenna – there were interdicts against him – when he turned up at her house and found her with another man. He took a claw hammer and bludgeoned her multiple times … she died in hospital the following day. Drury insisted that, though they no longer lived together, they were still in a relationship, although his convictions for stalking make this unlikely. He was unanimously convicted of murder, but not before the judge had ruled that it would be appropriate for the jury to consider a defence of “provocation by sexual infidelity”. In England and Wales, provocation by sexual infidelity is not enough in itself to ground a defence, but it is enough in Scotland.”
How to write about it? What could poetry add?
It took me a while to find my approach. I’ve long admired poems by Muriel Ruykeyser, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and June Jordan which engage with political themes, so I reread some of their work. I was very conscious that my voice is not, cannot be, the victim’s voice. That would be appropriation of the crassest sort. I decided to focus on my reactions to the original judgment and the feminist judge’s report to the project group members in April 2018.
Four poems resulted.
Provocation: is a found poem. I sat with a 36 page printout of the original judgment and highlighted words and phrases that struck me. I felt that the appalling end of Marilyn McKenna was buried in the judgment, and using only words extracted from the original judgment, this short poem tries to cut through that.
The Institutional Writers: I was very struck by the comments of the feminist judge (Prof Claire McDiarmid) about the institutional writers (ancient legal authorities), in particular Hume, who looms over the argument in the original judgment. She asked, do you quote Hume, work with him, or shove him aside? (I should add this took place in the University of Edinburgh’s New College, in a room full of ornate, venerable furniture and under the watchful gaze of any number of portraits of white men in gowns and robes.)
Not here: describes how I started to think about the victim, who seemed to have been overwritten by the lengthy, arcane arguments.
Fragment is a short poem focusing attention on the absence of the victim in the lives of those who loved her. Ali Burns has written a very beautiful 4 part choral composition, Absentia, using my words. I’m absolutely thrilled, not least because it’s been sung at Law and Medical School graduations at the University of Edinburgh in 2019.
I’m very grateful to SFJP’s Sharon, Vanessa & Chloe for recruiting me to this project, not least for ensuring that the artistic contributors were paid for our work. Huge thanks too to textile artist Jill Kennedy-McNeill, the artists’ coordinator, who herded the cats – no mean feat, given we numbered a textile artist, two writers, a photographer, an illustrator, a composer and a theatre director. I found it fascinating to work alongside artists from other art forms, though we worked in tandem rather than collaboratively.
It’s gratifying to hear that my poems have been used to stimulate discussion and as teaching aids by the academic lawyers involved in the project. I hope they stand on their own, too.
The SFJP book, a hefty and expensive academic tome, is published in autumn 2019. The SFJP poems will be republished in my (rather more reasonably priced) next collection in autumn 2020.
I remain humbled by the gravity of this case. I’m proud to be part of a project that has created a new spark of connection and creativity between legal and creative worlds. Long may that flourish.
I’m just in from the Edinburgh launch of the new 404 Ink anthology We were always here – what a celebration of current queer writing in Scotland. Congratulations to the editors Ryan and Michael, and to all the contributors. I’m thrilled that my voice is one among many contained in the pink, faux animal print covers. Get yourself a copy if you haven’t already!
Anyway, it seemed a good excuse for one of my occasional posts on how I came to write the poems in We were always here.
Not this again was written in summer last year, in the wake of some homophobic yelling that I thought was long behind me at this age and in this age. Ha, if only. The incident played out pretty much as per the poem, though in the interest of brevity I left out the bit where we drove home rehearsing all the come-backs we should have made. I wish I’d gone back and bollocked them like naughty school boys but that didn’t occur to me until 20 minutes later. Ah, l’ésprit d’escalier.
I wrote Not this againin the immediate furious aftermath, let it rest, reworked it several times, took it to an open mic at the Fringe (the pic below shows me in full flow – possibly just after shouting “lezzies” at a surprised audience), and I’m delighted to see it in print.
A different take on power, Mausoleum, is the final poem in the anthology, and I wrote it after shivering through a long meeting in one of my employer’s hallowed portals, surrounded by white marble busts of dead white men. It’s my take on assimilation and still feeling at odds with (and within) the establishment, even though arguably I’ve been part of it myself for many years. Not that we should take our place at the table for granted in these times.
The judging panel said: “The unexpected vicissitudes of human life are grafted into the natural world – animate and inanimate – creating a deeply personal and moving collection. The poems are alert and humane, even humorous when least expected. For a first collection this is very assured, mature and coherent piece of work.”
I’m very grateful to the Saltire Society, to the panel of judges, to Cinnamon Press for taking a chance on an unknown, and to everyone on the Scottish scene (and beyond) who has supported me along the way.