Pushing Out the Boat: Our Blog
- Donnie Ross: Perceiving things differently (POTB, posted 14 Oct 2017)
- An interview with Sheena Blackhall (POTB, posted 1 Sep 2017)
- An interview with Stephen Pacitti (POTB, posted 15 Aug 2017)
- An Interview with Heather Reid (POTB, posted 19 Jul 2017)
- Love to Write? Advice from John Bolland (POTB, posted 21 Jun 2017)
- An Interview with Martin Walsh (POTB, posted 31 May 2017)
- Reflections on the Launch of Pushing Out the Boat Issue 14 (Yani Georgieva & Harrison Abbott, posted 16 May 2017)
- An Interview with Tom Hammick (POTB, posted 7 May 2017)
- John Mackie: a recollection (Judith Taylor, posted 20 Apr 2017)
- Scottish PEN - defending the freedom of writers and readers (Ian Crockatt, posted 24 Mar 2017)
- Poems for Valentine's Day (Blog Editor, posted 14 Feb 2017)
- Curried Kisses (E E Chandler, from Issue 11 of POTB, posted 14 Feb 2017)
- The Love Calculations of the Gentleman Spider (Maureen Ross, from Issue 11 of POTB, posted 10 Feb 2017)
- Sexy Shoes (Kate Percival, from Issue 3 of POTB, posted 9 Feb 2017)
- Driving Back (Robert Ramsay, from Issue 5 of POTB, posted 7 Feb 2017)
- Welcome to the POTB Blog (POTB, posted 6 Feb 2017)
Donnie Ross: Perceiving things differently
posted on 14 October 2017
Dr Donnie Ross has been a contributor to Pushing Out the Boat for several years. An ex-medical director of the flagship hospital in the North East of Scotland turned well-renowned artist, he has also been Chairman of Grampian Hospitals Art Trust (GHAT).
How, and why did you decide to start painting?
I started painting when I was at school. I was brought up in Sandhaven, a small fishing village in the North East, and used to spend my spare time drawing boats on the old bits of wood washed up on the shore. This got me familiar with depicting textures in various art forms.
At that time, it was hard to imagine a career in anything creative. For various reasons, I was encouraged to become a Doctor and channelled (most of!) my energy into my professional career.
Actually, I was told off at medical school for drawing in my Anatomy exams! Nonetheless, I had a fulfilling 40-year career in the medical profession.
What inspired you to become a full-time artist?
I was drawing and painting sporadically throughout my medical career, but when I retired in 2003 I built a studio in my garden (it took three years!) and now it’s my full-time pursuit – along with writing, music, studying languages and fighting for justice for NHS whistle-blowers!
I’ve always been fascinated with the way in which we each perceive things differently. This is especially true of art as what one person sees in an image, may not be what another does.
I wanted to produce images which really got people looking and thinking to decipher in a way they hadn’t anticipated.
Although I love representational art, currently I work without any real plan of creating a specific thing – I’m trying to remain unaware of what is it I’m producing. It’s not until I’m finished, and hopefully find something meaningful in the frame, that I crop it to a satisfying point of completion. If I get to that point, it’s a success!
I rarely name my paintings because I don’t want to project what I see into the mind of the viewer. I’d rather encourage people to find their own meaning in the image based on their incoming perceptions and the painting’s ambiguity.
As your medical career was based on science, and facts – how have you shifted your mindset?
As a Doctor, I’ve spent my entire adult life carefully analysing each eventuality to eliminate ambiguity (and risk) as far as possible – which is the exact opposite of what I do whilst painting.
Science assumes that information comes into our brains and we interpret the incoming perceptions moment-to-moment. I don’t think this is always true. I believe we perceive three or four cardinal items in context-based frames of reference, and we project 98% of what we expect to see within that context. Hence the saying, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”.
Really, ambiguity is incredibly important to art. As an artist, I’ve had to put my previous reliance on scientific objectivity aside to develop my creative side.
When did you first become aware of POTB?
I actually bought a copy a few years ago, really enjoyed the quality content and submitted my work for consideration for the edition thereafter.
Thankfully, my work was accepted and I was thrilled. It was fantastic to have my work published because, above all else, it validated that others appreciated my art and writing – especially when all submissions are judged anonymously.
POTB is such a great publication – it really is a highly regarded and key medium for artists and writers on the North East’s rich literary and art scene. I’m always proud when I’m lucky enough to feature within its pages.
An interview with Sheena Blackhall
posted on 1 September 2017
Sheena Blackhall is a one of the most prolific writers in the North East – her writing collection is vast, and she’s appeared within several editions of POTB. Most recently she was revealed as one of the one hundred people to be paid tribute to at Aberdeen’s Hall of Heroes exhibition, which will highlight locals who have helped transform the world.
The POTB team spoke with Sheena to discuss all things writing (in Doric too!) and POTB.
How, and why did you begin writing?
My love of writing goes back to primary school – apparently, the teachers thought my writing was great! It gave me such a sense of satisfaction… Until one teacher gave me a ‘clout about the lug’ for switching tense in the middle of a story, so I stopped, for a while…
This passion was reignited whilst I was studying for my teaching diploma – which I only did because I failed my first year at Gray’s School of Art and could just get the funding for a three-year course! The diploma was three years, so that was that. During this time, I wrote children’s stories for BBC Radio Scotland – and I’ve never looked back!
You write many of your stories in Doric, why is that?
It was my first language, and the one everybody spoke. My Dad could only speak Doric, my Mum could speak English due to her work as a secretary during the war and my Grandmother spoke nothing but late 1880s Doric. I had little choice really, they wouldn’t understand my English!
As it’s my mother tongue, I always feel that when I write in Doric its straight from the heart.
Why did you submit stories to Pushing Out the Boat (POTB)?
I saw POTB at various venues and was drawn to it because of the artwork on the front pages – it was refreshing to see artwork featured alongside quality literature and I like the ‘blind judging’ process and concept – so I began to submit a mixture of short stories and poems.
I see POTB as a boost to the Doric language and the culture and heritage of the North East. People like and respect the journal. As it’s a ‘real’ book, it verifies Doric as a language – there’s very few outlets which keep Doric alive.
What work are you most proud of?
Apardion, A Leopard’s Quest! which was published by The Reading Bus and tells the story of a leopard spirit from the Northern Lights. In his quest to discover if Aberdeen should be his place of birth, he visits 14 heritage landmarks and discovers secrets from the past.
You’re incredibly passionate about the power of the written word, why is this?
Writing keeps me sane! It’s such a strong way to express yourself. I actually also hold writing therapy classes where participants can externalise thoughts, and deal with their emotions, their grief and the issues they carry.
Would you encourage young writers to submit work for literary publications, such as POTB?
Absolutely, putting pen to paper about anything is something I encourage in children of all ages – to have the ability to convey a story through a poem, or a short piece of work is such a skill.
POTB in particular is very supportive of young writers; a number of teenagers have featured within its editions, so if you submit quality work – regardless of age you’re in with a chance of being accepted.
To see your work published is such a fantastic thing. That said, it doesn’t always happen on the first, second or even eighth attempt, but when, and if, it does, it’s wonderful to know that people are reading, and enjoying your work.
An interview with Stephen Pacitti
posted on 15 August 2017
Stephen Pacitti has been writing for many years. A retired Church of Scotland minister, he is fluent in Doric and English and writes stories in both languages. We asked him about his writing influences, inspirations and what POTB means to him.
Where did you serve as a minister?
I was born in Aberdeen and educated at Causewayend Primary Shool and the Aberdeen Grammar School before going on to Aberdeen University to study arts and divinity.
My first charge was Dundonnell, Wester Ross, before I moved on to Pollokshields, Glencairn in Glasgow. When I returned from Taiwan I served in the linked charges of Coulter, Libberton & Quothquan and Blackmount.
You spent quite a bit of time in Tawian – how did that happen?
It was through the Church of Scotland Board of World Mission that I went to lecture at Yu Shan Theological College, Hualien, on the east coast of Taiwan. It took a year or two to get over the culture shock, let me tell you! But it was a really fulfilling and life changing experience.
In the early days, when you can’t speak the local language, especially one with the particular difficulties of Chinese, you return to being a child unable to communicate the simplest of things. But after some years there I was sufficiently fluent in Chinese to give my lectures in the language.
When did you begin writing?
I’ve always enjoyed writing. Whilst at Grammar Lower School I was asked to read my three-part short story to the class. I then won third prize in the Debating Society short story competition when I was in third year at secondary, and in sixth year I won the prize for translating verse from Latin into English.
Whilst in Taiwan I started writing a novel, nearly 2000 words a night! I’d keep a journal of ideas and thoughts and transcribe that on to a PC. As my family was still living in Scotland at that stage it helped fill my leisure time.
You’ve featured in POTB on several occasions, what does it mean to you to have your work published in it?
I don’t suppose any author really writes in a vacuum – every writer needs an audience or a readership. For me the important thing is that a story has an effect on the reader, whether it entertains amuses, moves, challenges or informs and I’m very grateful to POTB for giving me the opportunity to be read.
It’s a fine, well-produced magazine with the highest standards. Its occasional gatherings, when works are read by their authors, provide an excellent platform for promoting writing in the North East.
What do you hope to achieve in the future through your writing?
Simply the satisfaction of creating and knowing that my writing has been of interest and has given pleasure to others.
I’m perhaps most proud of my short story Binary System about an elderly man losing his wife. I likened the relationship of the two to the relationship between two stars revolving round a common centre of gravity in what is called a binary system. Those characters just crawled onto the page; I’m told that the story has touched many people. It’s actually written in Doric, and could be quite a challenging read for a non-Doric speaker, but it’s such an emotive story that I feel it was best to write it in that language. English just doesn’t capture the mood in quite the same way.
I’m currently engaged in finishing a humorous novel in English which is about a rather eccentric missionary – many might say it’s semi-autobiographical!
If I can continue to strike emotion in the reader, then that’s what matters – making the reader feel. (That is ‘feel’ in its English meaning, not the Doric!)
An Interview with Heather Reid
posted on 19 July 2017
Pushing Out the Boat receives contributions not just from all over Scotland, but from around the world, showing the high regard for our quality content. One such contributor is Perthshire-based, Heather F. Reid. We spoke with Heather to find out more about her journey to becoming a published writer.
What inspired you to become a writer?
I’ve always enjoyed writing. I was actually first published in primary school when I was seven in the school magazine! It was a poem called ‘Red’ which I can still recite. My Mum was incredibly encouraging about my writing which helped too. I’m also an avid reader and the two, reading and writing, often go hand in hand.
On leaving university (I studied at Aberdeen), I moved with my young family to settle in Oban where I was a stay-at-home mum to my two children. At that point, my writing was a form of escapism – I spoke to adults on the page about things I couldn’t talk about during the day at home.
Which type of writing do you focus on?
I started writing poetry but switched to fiction. I’m quite a quiet person but I enjoy people-watching and making up stories about their lives in my head.
Much of my inspiration comes from things I’ve experienced first-hand and many of my stories are set in Oban or places I’ve holidayed. It’s incredibly therapeutic; it’s just finding the time and inspiration for it that’s the challenge!
Do you let others read your work before submitting to competitions and journals?
I’m a member of the Soutar Writers in Perthshire (and was also the group’s chair from 2010 – 2013), so usually I’d ask one of the group to read my work for feedback – it’s important to have another pair of eyes or set of ears!
I’d never let my close friends or family read my stories ahead of them being published. To me, writing is a very personal thing and I like the anonymity of it all.
When did you begin submitting work for the public domain?
I love that stories and poems can spark so much joy in others and I realised that my works could maybe do that too but that, whether or not they would, my poems were no use on my computer – so best to get them out there.
In 2004, I submitted a poem for an Ottakar’s book store competition of which, to much surprise, I was runner up! This boosted my confidence and I began to enter more competitions which also resulted in me being runner up in the National Galleries of Scotland competition in 2010 – the prize for that was a place on a course lead by Carol Ann Duffy.
How did you become aware of POTB?
A fellow Souter writer had been published in a previous edition and brought it to the group’s attention. I hadn’t had much of my work published at that time but loved the journal so thought I’d give it a try. Try I did, and four pieces of my work were selected (the first time that had ever happened, apparently!) – I was absolutely thrilled.
Having studied at the University of Aberdeen I feel such an affinity with the North East so it was even more special.
What does it mean to have your work featured in POTB’s pages?
The journal itself is a fantastic mix of art and writing and it’s lovely to feature alongside the other writers and in amongst their distinctive writing styles. Most importantly for me is the team involved with its production – each of them is so warm, welcoming and encouraging. It’s just wonderful to be part of It.
What do you hope to achieve with your writing in the future?
To finish the novel I’ve been writing for the past ten years!
Love to Write? Advice from John Bolland
posted on 21 June 2017
Our interviewers caught up with one of Issue 14’s contributors, John Bolland, to find out more about the skills required to have works published in the likes of POTB.
What skills and qualifications, if any, do you need?
The only qualification you need is to be able to put pen to paper and tell a story. Writers give readers a snippet of their thoughts – be that an experience or something entirely from imagination.
It’s true to say that if you never write anything you’ll never publish. Lots of people spend their time planning to write but never quite finishing a piece which is obviously the most important step.
Obviously, your writing has to be of a certain quality which captures a mix of style, voice, a distinctive point of view, interesting narrative and topicality but there’s no one formula. Each publication has different interests and values and it’s generally down to the editor or judging panel. Spelling and grammar helps!
There are many creative writing courses available, which can be useful in the provision of structure and deadlines as well as offering support in the creation of individual networks and some basic marketing skills.
Are there any groups you’d suggest joining?
The writing community in Scotland is supportive and welcoming to writers of all levels who are committed to their work and to helping others on a reciprocal basis.
There are several groups in Aberdeen and the North East and a thriving network of interlocking writing groups, including Lemon Tree Writers. For poets, there are also established and emerging events at venues such as Books and Beans and new spoken word events at Underdog and the Blue Lamp.
More widely, the Federation of Scottish Writers is a good online network and the Society of Authors provides a range of useful resources as well as the POTB website, which has a useful links section.
Creative Learning has also worked hard these past few years to develop and create opportunities for emerging and established writers.
How do you start contacting publishers?
There are a few steps:
• Buy, subscribe to or read magazines and publications you feel may feature your work.
• Think about how your work matches its submission guidelines: word count limits, typical length of poems, formats and subject matter. It’s not that editors aren’t on the lookout for compelling, original work, but each has a ‘house-style’ and you’ll waste less time by targeting.
• Read and comply with the submission guidelines – otherwise you’re likely to be filtered out at the first stage.
• Polish your piece before submission, then ask another to check it.
• Post or upload it alongside a polite, informative covering letter. Don’t hide your light under a bushel but don’t compare yourself to established literary superstars!
• Record when you think you’ll hear back, and wait.
• If you don’t hear back, or your work is rejected, look at the piece again. How could it be improved? If it can, edit accordingly.
What can you do to boost your presence in the writing community?
Participate in writing groups, attend festivals and readings – open mics too, if the opportunity arises! Be generous and supportive of other writers, review and promote their work if you feel it has merit – what goes around comes around.
Follow others and enhance your presence on platforms such as Twitter, it’s a fantastic way of finding out what’s going on.
Why are publications such as POTB so important for new, and experienced, writers alike?
It’s a stable, high quality outlet for writing which has an established profile and presence. POTB prides itself on its ‘blind’ selection process which ensures work is accepted on the quality of the submission rather than ‘who you are’, giving new writers the opportunity to have their work published on merit.
The team is dedicated to producing a widely promoted, high-quality magazine. Many pamphlets or transient magazines get ‘lost in the shelves’ whereas POTB has persisted as one of several key magazines on the Scottish literary scene, within which I’m immensely proud to feature.
An Interview with Martin Walsh
posted on 31 May 2017
An interview with Martin Walsh, writer and current Chairman of POTB.
Where are you from?
Originally from Kent, I’ve lived in Aberdeen since 1968.
What is your involvement with Pushing Out the Boat (POTB)?
I’m one of over 20 volunteers who produce the magazine – from seeking submissions, the blind selection process (to ensure total impartiality) then deciding the running order, through editing and design – to launching and selling the edition. Plus a fair amount of ‘business development!’
Why is the running order & design so important?
It’s one of the wonderful things about POTB – the juxtaposition of poems, stories and art; well-known writers and artists featured alongside the first-published. The simple, sophisticated layout allow each work to breathe on the page.
As a writer, have you ever been published in POTB?
Yes, I’ve had several stories and even a couple of poems featured; but the anonymous nature of the selection process means that I’ve also had work rejected!
When, and how did you first hear about POTB?
I became aware of POTB in 2002 and was encouraged to submit work. My first story was published in issue 4. It felt a little bit like first love.
Why did you want to get involved in the process?
Originally an Aberdeenshire Council initiative, supporting the North-East’s rich literary scene, the publication came under threat in 2006. We couldn’t let such a valuable resource lapse, so a group of volunteers stepped in. From then, our team has steadily grown, along with our website. Our aim is to become part of the local ‘literary firmament’. By including works in Doric, we also help keep the language alive!
Can you speak Doric?
Aye – mibee, bit nae as muckle as sim o the ither contributers!
Where do you get your inspiration for your stories?
As an ex-marine biologist, I’m lucky enough to have travelled and worked around the world, beginning as a volunteer in Sierra Leone. Being there in the 1960s – a unique time in the country’s history – I witnessed many incredible things. These kick-started my desire to both write and to reproduce some of the accents I encountered along the way.
Why should readers consider POTB?
We’re unique! With such a wonderfully varied collection of short stories, poems and artwork, both local and global, we feel POTB is a tribute to North-East Scotland.
Tell us an interesting fact about the latest edition
The artwork for this edition’s front cover was gifted to us by internationally acclaimed artist Tom Hammick. Having someone of such stature in the art world donate his print is an acknowledgment of the exceptional standard of work within POTB, and an honour to the team. And of course the wonderful Foreword by much loved and admired author, Wayne Price.
Martin, far right in the white shorts, in Africa.
Reflections on the Launch of Pushing Out the Boat Issue 14
posted on 16 May 2017
Reflections on the Launch of Pushing Out the Boat Issue 14 on 30 April 2017
An interview with poet Yani Georgieva by RGU student journalist Harrison Abbott.
1. How do you feel your reading went today?
Reading your own poetry is always slightly terrifying, no matter how many times you’ve done it before. When people read your poems off a page, they have the freedom to give them their own voice and meaning – which can sometimes be completely different from what you intended. I always worry that, when I read my poetry out loud, I intrude on that personal bubble: a bit like watching a film adaptation of your favourite book. The audience was very open and warm, so in that sense I think the reading went well – but there was a lot of talent in the room.
2. What did you like about the event?
Pushing Out the Boat feels like a collective more than a publication. To me, the event felt like being in a cosy weekend writing club. It was very calm and open, and reading aloud to the audience felt a bit like reading your poems to people you have been writing with for years. There was an incredible variety in the poems we heard as well – we jumped from squirrels, to death, then back to sheep – which made the event even more of a joy to be part of.
3. Which contributions did you particularly enjoy/admire?
I think there was a great variety in the pieces we heard, so there was something to admire in all of them. I loved Jim Conwell’s pieces, ‘Like a Fist’ and ‘My Sister is Dying’. His writing is so compact and concise, every word is indispensable and punches you in the right place. I also loved Gavin Gilmour’s prose and, of course, Martin Walsh’s skilful re-enactment of a dialogue between a Mexican humming bird and a New York squirrel. I’ll be thinking of that one for weeks.
4. What do you seek to produce in your writing? What inspires you most to write?
I write to help myself unpick and understand the things I am going through. Sometimes, for months, I find myself writing about the same idea over and over again until one day I put the pen down and think: Yes, this is it. I understand it now. I like the challenge of making vague concepts, like grief or nostalgia, very concrete, because that way we get a tiny glimpse at life through someone else’s eyes. I like poetry that’s accessible, blunt, and honest, so that is the kind of poetry I try to write.
An Interview with Tom Hammick
posted on 7 May 2017
An interview with acclaimed artist, Tom Hammick who recently donated the use of his print ‘Violetta and Alfredo’s Escape’ for the front cover of Issue 14 of Pushing Out the Boat.
Where are you based?
I live in East Sussex, which is where my painting studio is but I also have a print one in London. I travel quite a bit too, including to Aberdeen where I’m currently working on a new project called Lunar Voyage at Peacock Visual Arts. It’s a series of 14 or so woodcuts about a journey of self-discovery – my studio isn’t big enough to accommodate each woodcut but Peacock has the equipment required, and the skilled master printmakers to go with it! I also really enjoy spending time in the North East, so it works out well.
Tell us about your career, how did it all begin?
My mother was a poet, now a novelist, and my Dad a bookseller who collected art. Both were very creative so we talked about art, literature and ideas a lot. Because of this, I’ve been aware and interested in it from an early age.
My Godmother Cathy Lee, who was married to Laurie Lee, used to take me to The National Gallery in London each holiday which really cultivated my passion for painting. I started to write about art for the school magazine and it was a natural progression for me to study and therefore graduate with a degree in Art History from the University of Manchester. Though, throughout my time as a student, I was always drawing.
After university, I got a job as a Stonemason which fulfilled a ‘romantic passion’, but probably little else! I still wanted to paint so I went back to study at Camberwell, this time as a mature student, in Fine Art and an MA in Printmaking. Whilst studying, I was lucky to secure an exchange placement in Nova Scotia in Canada. I completely fell in love with the outdoors and the edginess of wilderness. Canada is so epically vast – I find the wild and the sense of the unknown charged with wonderment. It’s with these experiences that I’ve since realised that my attachment to art comes, in part, from expressing what it is like to be human – a search for a way to make sense of living on Earth.
You also lecture in Fine Art, Painting and Printmaking – where do you find the time?
I love teaching; it’s incredibly important to me. It’s easy to get carried away with the ‘art world’ but lecturing keeps me grounded, it takes me back to the start of my own early life as an artist finding my way, finding my language, and keeps me in touch with what’s going on. It’s a privilege to teach. For many of my students it’s the first time they’ve been away from home and the whole experience – making new friends, finding where you fit and your own rhythm – can be quite jarring. I try, we all try as tutors, to give them stability & guidance & a bit of focus to support their individual visions.
As an artist who teaches art part time I think my role is to try and add fuel to the inner creative fire and give them what they need to grow throughout their three years at university before continuing their quest in the wider world.
Why did you donate your work to Pushing Out the Boat?
It’s such a fantastic magazine. Outlets such as POTB are incredibly important for supporting up-and-coming writers and artists, but above all else are essential for highlighting and enriching local culture. I’m a huge fan of literary publications and the work within POTB is of such high standard – it’s been a pleasure to be involved and work with the team.
What inspired the print?
I created Violetta and Alfredo’s Escape whilst I was in residency at ENO (English National Opera). It’s inspired by La Traviata, which is one of my favourite operas. In the scene, I’ve depicted a different ending from the tragic one we all know; the two lovers escaping the stringent morals of the bourgeois society which separated them to live a simple life.
In some ways life hasn’t changed much, especially in the UK, which is why art is so important. In a society that seems, once again, to be becoming socially rigid, art and the language of creative communication is essential in helping our young escape the trappings of their socio-economic backgrounds. Art is a great leveller.
~ ~ ~
John Mackie: a recollection
posted on 20 April 2017
To mark the death of John Mackie, one of the North-East Scotland’s most respected and loved poets, we asked POTB’s former editor and poet, Judith Taylor, to write a recollection of John and to select one of his poems for our readers to enjoy. John served briefly as a guest on our Poetry Selection Panel. More about John and his work, including a soulful photo of the young John in 1969, can be found on his web site.
John Mackie: a recollection by Judith Taylor
When I was still new to the monthly poetry nights at Books and Beans in Aberdeen, one evening in Open Mic a dude in a hat got up and read a poem about a Chinese kite. You can hear him read it, along with some of his other poems, here. And that was my introduction to John Mackie.
This is a personal reminiscence. When we remembered John at Books and Beans in January, after his death just before Christmas, I said I wasn’t going to say much about his life because, frankly, I didn’t know the half of it. Born in London, with roots in the North East and on Raasay (where he claimed Sorley MacLean as a distant relative), John was known to us as a poet and songwriter, but he had also been a musician, a playwright, a teacher, a management consultant, and a traveller through Europe and beyond.
He was, I said, the sort of person who passes into legend, and I think he wouldn’t have been displeased to do so. He liked nothing better than a good story. We still have his poetry and his songs, but we miss the voice that animated them – a voice as rich and gravelly as his beloved rivers – and we miss the stories that voice told, the glint in his eye belying his deadpan lead-up to some outrageous claim or appalling pun, the expansive conversation that made you feel you’d known him for years. Those who had known him for years recall he could be awkward, grouchy, demanding, and I don’t doubt it. But I cherish the memory of his wit, his conviviality, his engagement: his fearless ability to turn up, commandeer the nearest available musician, and improvise up a storm.
And I honour, too, the way his work kept on flowering late in his life, in print and online: his publications in magazines like Clear Poetry and I am not a silent poet; his participation in the 52 group, and the online friendships that came from it, and that produced, after his death, such an outpouring of elegy and commemoration. Even in the last year of his life, despite the painful and debilitating illness that was to claim him, he refused to be curtailed, contributing poems of passion and indignation to causes he felt strongly about, and travelling all sorts of distances, fragile but undaunted, to take part in events. It seems fitting that almost the last time I heard him was at Books and Beans, reading his contribution to the Open Mic anthology.
After his death, in an online conversation, I used the word gallantry about him, but I think the word I was really looking for was panache, in the sense in which Cyrano de Bergerac used it: his plumed hat, that he flourished in the face of his enemies, even when the enemy was death itself. John’s hat had no plume, but by heck its owner had panache.
My favourite among John’s poems is “Hard Frost” (see below), from his sequence “Easter Tomloan Suite”, which was published in his collection Pearl Diving by Moonlight (Malfranteaux Concepts, 2012), and which I heard him perform with Anna Lavigne, one of his regular collaborators, as part of a Con Anima concert in December 2015.
Goodbye John. Fly free.
Easter Tomloan 4 – Hard Frost
frost has laid a hard bed
sprinkled here and there
with polished diamonds
in overt invitation to the sky
to let fall
the first feathering flakes
of a blanketing snow
alert to its imminence
the robin, finches
and the youngest crows
flicker from tree to table
and back to branch
small crumbs of warming
dull, ice-streaked, scuffed
and stained with wear
but not, yet, beyond repair
these battered boots will last
just long enough
to travel hard and rough
to that place
of driven snow where
there is only the sound of
a single heart beating
at walking pace
Scottish PEN - defending the freedom of writers and readers
posted on 24 March 2017
In a world in which having a point of view means body-swerving through an increasingly complex maze of table-thumping rhetoric, tweet-rage, fake news and, somewhere, evidence-based reason, it’s easy to fall foul of the power-brokers who want to control everything. Writers, whether of fiction, news, magazines columns and editorials, social comment, blogs, analytical essays, tweets, rants and whatever other forms are developing as I write, are, by the very fact of using words publicly, at risk of offending someone, somewhere. Where you are in the world determines just how much at risk, and what the consequences might be of getting it wrong. In some powerful watchers’ eyes – which are many because thousands are paid to be their eyes – consequences might include losing your job, or home, imprisonment, harassment of your family members, flogging, ‘disappearance’, death.
In Saudia Arabia, for example, Palestinian born poet Ashraf Fayadh is languishing in gaol following his conviction on a charge of apostasy. He was originally sentenced to death, but world-wide protest in January 2016, organised by PEN International, involving readings of his work at locations throughout the world including 3 in Scotland (one in Aberdeen), took place a week before his appeal and is widely viewed as influencing the dropping of the death sentence. This still leaves him facing 800 lashes, and an 8 year prison sentence. And in China internationally renowned artist and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo who stood up to the government by advocating freedom of expression has disappeared in the prison system there, and his wife is under house arrest, and again International PEN is one of many organizations and individuals actively trying to achieve his release.
Scottish PEN, as part of International PEN, is in its 90th year of fighting for freedom of expression for writers, and, therefore freedom of choice for readers too. As well as being involved in campaigns to highlight individual writers oppressed in many parts of the world, it is increasingly active in pressuring our own government on issues where freedom of speech is threatened. In recent months Scottish PEN has made formal written representations to government consultations re defamation law, and also the question of surveillance which is included in the 2015 Investigatory Powers Bill – which includes proposals, for example, giving the government powers to store all details of your internet connection records (ICRs), and in some circumstances to ‘interfere with’ equipment ie intelligence services to hack into your computer. A recent survey asks Scottish PEN members about the effects of this kind of surveillance on their own writing – do you, as a writer, hesitate about expressing some views for fear of how they might be viewed by your employer, or the government, and what consequences they could have for you? Is this kind of often unacknowledged self-censorship a significant damper on freedom of written expression already?
Alongside these campaigns, and contributions to thinking about the route legislation is taking regarding individuals’ freedoms of expression, Scottish PEN is taking a proactive approach to encouraging those who are generally unheard to speak out. The new MANY VOICES project will link people in minority groups – women in prisons, refugees, troubled teenagers – with both locally based and international writers to encourage the development of writing and performance skills, and the confidence that all writers gain from being taken seriously and achieving. Women in HMP Grampian prison are amongst those taking part.
So, Scottish PEN’s activities are a kind of bridge spanning the whole gamut of efforts to protect and encourage freedom of expression in writing, from local action groups through national events to co-ordinated international campaigns on behalf of oppressed writers, and from the under-valued and represented through well-known national writers to internationally famous artists. The huge majority of those doing this work are volunteers, writers who are passionate about the freedoms of their fellow writers when these are abused, as well as about protecting their own. If you’re a writer yourself, it’s pretty much an essential part of raising your own writerly awareness of the social context in which you and others are writing. If you’re a reader, knowing what pressures many writers face from their own governments and others in order to bring their words to you is itself an essential part of appreciating the work. OK, in this country, now, the consequences of writing the ‘wrong’ thing might not yet include “losing your job, or home, imprisonment, harassment of your family members, flogging, ‘disappearance’, death”, but with government by tweet no longer some crazy fiction, who knows what’s next?
Both writers and readers can be members of Scottish PEN. Find out more on scottishpen.org/
Poems for Valentine's Day
posted on 14 February 2017
To celebrate Valentine’s day 2017, we have chosen a small collection of pithy and contrasting poems from previous volumes of POTB.
posted on 14 February 2017
In a late night club
As she orders at the bar,
A cliché joins her:
A tall, dark, handsome stranger;
Catches her eye,
Pays for her drinks
Before there is time to protest.
Can I kiss you?
I don’t know you. I’ve eaten curry
What type of curry?
I like Biryani.
She likes him
And cannot think why not.
For how long should we kiss?
Make it seven and a half.
There’s a tremour in hands
Still holding iced glasses.
She holds her garlic breath,
He smells of salt and sweet.
It is over too soon.
Ten seconds – you tricked me!
The curry was good.
The Love Calculations of the Gentleman Spider
posted on 10 February 2017
knowing he may be utterly consumed by his great love
he prepares the food thoughtfully
and in serving, stands well back
observing her replete, relaxed
he sets out cautiously
drawn along the twin-tight, steel-eyed gossamers of
lust and fear
plucking love songs as he goes
in heart-stop hopes
his identity (lover rather than dessert)
is unequivocally clear
only then he begins
to tip-tongue his way
past her teeth
posted on 9 February 2017
I saved the shoes
I wore that night.
Sexy shoes you said
And I agreed.
You led me down the garden path
‘Let’s sow some seeds.’
I thought it quaint,
The way you spoke.
I saved the shoes.
I saved a seed.
I left you for another bloke,
It’s what I do—
You’d call it need.
He moans a bit,
He’s not so cute.
He can’t stand the kids.
He likes the shoes.
posted on 7 February 2017
Driving back from the dance, in the old Morris Minor, with you
whoever you were, spilling out of your long party frock
so white skinned and cheerful and sleepy; the nearly breaking
dawn bringing a cool damp to your young lips and your nose;
and me bursting for a piss.
We were never in love, but,
my! were you adorable, and fun; and was I scared.
So we played at it and got nowhere and felt relieved
and glowed in the certainty we were desirable, each
to each; so we grabbed some kitchen snack and off
to our separate beds, alive with the knowledge of what
could have been.
And now you have gone, all of you,
and I, in a threadbare jersey, hanging onto
my own teeth and some of my hair, have a sudden
frisson of panic that I let it away – blew it.
If I could re-run time now, would I gorge,
like a pig at your trough, without any remorse? What
of the magnetic field of innocence? This
I can’t answer, only to shut my eyes and smell
once more your hair …
Welcome to the POTB Blog
posted on 6 February 2017
Welcome to the POTB Blog. Here we plan to post extracts from our magazines, author profiles, commentaries and more.
And, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, we’ll start with some romantic poems from earlier editions …