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An Illustrated Guide to the Ruins

Maybe you’ve read my poems, and you share some of my approach to the mundanities of life and / or the horrible shit that can happen.  Maybe, like me, you read or write poetry as a way to navigate, reimagine and attempt to make sense of the world.

An Illustrated Guide to the Ruins is a new offering for my readers. 

It’s also the title of a key poem in Wristwatch, one which ends the Risky breasts sequence about my cancer treatment, leading into the new-life-and-love part of the story.  It’s about rebuilding your life after disaster, and although it’s deliberately wry and self-deprecating, it’s ultimately positive.

An illustrated guide to the ruins

This bombed-out husk (established 1968),
roof sheared by the initial blast,
internal fittings razed by subsequent fire,
appears as derelict as a structure twice its age.
The shell remains serviceable.

Further excavations reveal pervasive rot
spreading through timbers.
An extensive course of damp proofing
reinstates the original look and feel,
but note: joists permanently weakened.

And of the future? The occupier,
once tempted to abandon to lichen,
ivy, has realised the space
(no longer fit for its former purpose)
has fabulous potential for parties.

All rights reserved. Jay Whittaker

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April round up

East Lothian river scene with lurcher

This is the second spring I’ve spent in the shadow of covid restrictions. At least this year I was able to smell the wild garlic. I have a canine poetry assistant (in the picture above). I’m grateful for my first vaccine. I’m planning to visit family for the first time in over a year. And I’m watching the news from India in horror, with a sense of desperate impotence.

It seems trivial, futile to type “and yet…”

And yet. An unexpected lifeline in 2020 was the emergence of the online literary event, and one of the first I encountered was the Stay-At-Home! Literary Festival. So I’m delighted that April ends with me reading in the 2021 festival. I’ve been working on the setlist this weekend, choosing poems from Sweet Anaesthetist, plus a few new and a few from Wristwatch.

On my reading pile: Claire Dyer’s heartfelt collection about transition, Yield; Scots-Yiddish fusion in David Bleiman’s Kilt of many colours, and Jen Hadfield’s exceptional new collection, The stone age. And I’ve island-hopped from Jen Hadfield’s Shetland to Orkney, rereading George Mackay Brown, getting into the zone as I write for an anthology celebrating his centenary this year. More of that another time …

February round up

Late February colour in the garden

I made the most of pandemic poetry life, joining online launches and readings far beyond my usual haunts. I caught a few events at the Kendal Poetry Festival, and particularly enjoyed Alison Brackenbury‘s supple, precise poems with a focus on the natural world, & Ian Humphries‘ engaging, lively and poignant poems about gay life. I appreciate the practice of screensharing poems during the Zoom reading – I certainly benefit from seeing the words on-screen. Other readings included Anthony Anaxagorou at the Grasmere Readings, and Joelle Taylor performing compelling poems about the 80s dyke scene from her new collection C*nto at Incite Poetry (London).

It was a privilege to read a very personal feature set as part of LGBT+ History month for the event I have a que(e)ry about LGBT+ Disabled representation.

Last but not least, I was thrilled to be interviewed about Sweet Anaesthetist, political poetry, feminism (and more!) for Lighthouse bookshop’s Life Raft …

Radical (for LGBT+ History month)

It’s February, so in recognition of and solidarity with LGBT+ History Month, I’m posting a link to me reading Radical, my poem about how a radical bookshop helped me work out who I was and how I might come out in the days before the internet and in a time of wholly negative disinformation about LGBT+ folx. It was first published in Shooter, and is republished in Sweet Anaesthetist.

I was a teenager in suburban Nottingham in the early 1980s, a few years younger than the characters in It’s a Sin, and remember the iceberg leaflets about AIDS landing on the doormat and the casual, pervasive homophobia that was usual at the time. In the papers, on the telly, at school, in the street, at home. My family wouldn’t tolerate racism but “nancy boys” and “mannish women” (chapwench was my Dad’s word) were fair game. At home, as at school, I shut down, kept my head down, played Bronski Beat’s Age of Consent on repeat, and took a long time to join the dots. A friend introduced me to Mushroom, Nottingham’s radical bookshop at that time. In a world before the internet a radical bookshop provided access to information otherwise unavailable, and my world began to open up.

Soundcloud link to Jay Whittaker reading Radical

January round up

Bird tracks in snow

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:

John Glenday’s Selected Poems / Jane McKie’s Quiet woman, stay / Staying human, ed Neil Astley / Jo Clement’s Moveable Type.

Looking forward, I’m looking forward to a couple of Poetry School courses to stretch me in new directions, to the continued (nourishing, stimulating, supportive) discipline brought by The Others.

Wishing everyone reading this health, strength and fortitude as we face into 2021.

To stand here and read … Vimeo of Sweet Anaesthetist launch

To stand here and read – / the act of standing, the act of reading / declaring who and what you are…

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

Jane McKie, Jay Whittaker and Sian Huges from Jan Fortune on Vimeo.

Sweet Anaesthetist – launch

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.

Hope to see some of you there!

Proof reading in lockdown

Snail with striped shell and body

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?

Pearl

I’m keeping vigil just now, and I remembered a poem I wrote many years ago. It was the title poem of my 2005 pamphlet Pearl, and although it wasn’t written about death, it’s fitting.

Pearl

What sends you over your brink –
A final shove or ceaseless prodding?
Are you hounded to it, coaxed,
Alarmed or caught off guard?

The end’s the same.
Flailing arms, sky, chasm –
You fall, a shell of significance
At your heart, a pearl.

Jay Whittaker, all rights reserved.

Cover uncovered

sweet anaesthetist (web)
Sweet Anaesthetist – cover

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.