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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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 …
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).
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.
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.
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.
“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.”