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 …

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.