Poems for the Scottish Feminist Judgments Project

“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.”

(Radical Art Review)

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Image of 2 people reading the poems on a gallery wall

In 2017-18 I was one of the creative collaborators on the Scottish Feminist Judgments Project (SFJP). The four poems I wrote in response to the project have taken on a life of their own. They will be published in a legal textbook and have been displayed, alongside other art created for SFJP, in the Scottish Parliament and in Edinburgh and Glasgow. One poem has been set to music. (If you’re in Edinburgh in August 2019, you can see the SFJP creative works on display for free).

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.

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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.

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.”

 

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!

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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.

 

Wristwatch – Edinburgh launch

Wristwatch is a poetry collection about transition and transformation – about being widowed at 44, then getting a cancer diagnosis at 45. It’s about coming through all that and what the world looks like on the other side. It’s moving, funny and true.

The Edinburgh launch of Wristwatch will be on 12 October at Summerhall. More information and (free!) tickets available here via Eventbrite. For every copy of Wristwatch sold at the launch, I’m donating a third of the cover price (£3) to Maggie’s Centre Edinburgh, a cause dear to my heart.

You can buy Wristwatch online from Cinnamon Press. Please do order direct from the publisher – rather than one of the big online booksellers – to support this indy press.

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Cover of Wristwatch, by Jay Whittaker, Cinnamon Press 2017

You are invited to the geo-location of Rob and Nigel

I was delighted when my poem You are invited to the wedding of Rob and Nigel was selected to be part of Echoes of the City, a project supported by the Bridge Awards and Edinburgh City of Literature. The brain child of Miriam Johnson, Echoes of the City selected 15 stories and poems rooted in central Edinburgh locations by emerging writers, arranged for them to be recorded by professional actors, and has made them available via Podwalk, a geo-locational, podcast app. If you don’t use iOS (like me!) you can read the poems and stories on the Echoes of the City website and listen to the audio via Soundcloud.

I wrote this poem after my friends Rob and Nigel married a couple of years ago, shortly after Scotland passed its equal marriage legislation. My poem describes the moments after the ceremony when grooms and wedding guests mingled with tourists in West Parliament Square.

Rob and Nigel brought down the cost-per-wear of their wedding outfits by donning them for the launch of Echoes of the City this week. As on the day of their wedding, a downpour was followed by well-timed sunshine, and a group of contributors and supporters strolled down the Royal Mile to the Parliament listening to some of the stories and poems, surrounded by the scenes and buildings that inspired the writers. It’s very engaging to experience Edinburgh by being read stories, gazing up and around. There’s a great selection of historical tales, a dash of spookiness,  and thought-provoking modern perspectives. I’m looking forward to seeking out the locations for the other stories and poems, and listening in situ.

There was a party afterwards in Hemma, where we chatted and shared a rather fabulous cake.  I’m proud to be part of this, and it was lovely to meet other contributors and the people behind the scenes.

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