selected letters 2006 - 2010

Sunday November 5th ’06

Dear J

I meant to get this to you before now but here it is anyhow. Don’t know that it will all be to your interest but some of it may be. You’ve maybe seen it all on the net before.

Was watching a film of Sorley Maclean on the net last night. Brought back a lot of memories. He was the most wonderful reader of his poetry, you really felt you were just in the presence of something really great and absolutely unique: but at the same time totally representative of a people, a history and a person. His voice in reading moved me very deeply, the only other poet whose reading has had a similar effect or a different but very moving effect was W S Graham. I have a CD now at last of Graham reading. I would send you a copy but don’t know if you have a player to listen to it. He’s not stirring and uplifting in that astonishing bardic way that Sorley was: but his intimacy and precision, and sense of love and geometry in his voice, is very probing and memorable. In a way Sorley’s voice is like one crossing the centuries, a person speaking to generations: Graham’s is one voice in the here and now Present, crossing the infinity between the inside of one mind, and another.

I have not been writing much this past few months, though I am not bothered yet. I was just so glad to get this booklet behind me, and to have had the short run that it represented. Will try to be patient waiting on the next one.



Thursday, February 7, 2008

Dear L

That's really very helpful to have this burnt to DVD, I'm very grateful to you. I'll probably play it at three or so readings over the next few months then just go back to reading the poem straight as is whenever I do read it. It's the poem that counts, but I just like to kind of give it that added dimension for a few birls anyway, as much because it is images that are excluded here as anything else. I did in fact not include some images that I got that were more horrible in their gruesomeness than what I included, but I didn't want it to go down that road and could be accused of being sensational. One of a dead boy with a bullet hole in his stomach turned to the camera on a hospital trolley, and a number that came up recently of these so-called clinical targetted assassinations in the streets from the air, which in fact as the photos I downloaded show, are just ghastly to look at, the usual mess of people blown apart. But what was really horrible about these, that did make me almost incline to use them, was that in several photos showing the fragmented remains of a person, and one of a father picking up a bundle of rags with the top half still containing what was presumably his son, in each of these in the background a child in the street could be seen gazing at what was in front of him.

The look tended to go right through me in each of them, very difficult to describe, a look of almost musing perplexity or something: reminded me of when I was at a Celtic-Rangers match years ago at Parkhead and I was sitting just a wee bit along from the Rangers section. Rangers must have scored, at any rate there was the silence all round the park apart from the Rangers bit not far from us, which had broken out in a very militaristic thing, it was wierd it must have been some UVF chant or song or something, but they were banging in rhythm on the seats in a kind of march as they sung this really triumphalist thing. It was chilling actually, another of the reasons why a few years later I walked out of a Celtic Rangers match before half time and never went back. But anyhow at this game where I was sitting near the front at the Celtic end just along from the Rangers corner, I don't remember what the score was that day or who was playing. But I do remember that as that triumphalist thing was being done by all the Rangers fans, there was this ballboy behind the goal near us who was standing looking in the direction of the Rangers people doing their marching thing. And the expression on his face just got to me, I don't even remember the boy's face, I just know that I was suddenly shocked by his expression. He didn't look shocked, it was just something else.

Thinking about it and in relation to the Palestinian boys' at the side looking at the dismembered bodies, it's something to do with the stillness of them, and their expression. I think it's probably to do with dissociation, that the child being present at something that takes them into a different conscious state momentarily, something that they will always remember in their heads, so there's a slight questioning. And the whole business of dissociation and trauma is another can of worms that probably I was kind of recognising, that this was a moment out of the normal time of childhood. Anyway, it shook me up. And seeing the expression, not of horror or shock, but just a kind of stillness in those Palestinian children's faces was more of a shock to me than the sight of the bodies they were looking at.

Am in the Mono on Tuesday night where if they have the equipment I will give the DVD a birl thanks to yourself. If they don't have it I'll just read the poem. Another anti-war thing run by Naseef but I won't expect to see you there, though I hope to have the DVD definitely up for the Art School gig with Adrian Mitchell you said you will be at. Look forward to seeing you then.

Thanks again that's brilliant of you.

[A friend had copied to DVD for me "Occupation Times Three" my slideshow sequence of images mainly in the Occupied Territories and Iraq over which a recording of me reading my poem "The Proxy Badge of Victimhood" occurred three times.]




[Answers to questions sent to a series of interview questions sent from a Cambridge Literary Society who had invited me to read]

Oct 2008

Dear K

I was politicised in some ways by first writing my Six Glasgow Poems in 67 then having to work out why some people were actually saying I “shouldn’t write like that” and others hated or looked down on them so vehemently. I had to work out clearly over the years, through a series of essays, my feelings about the hierarchy of diction in British speech practice, ditto in relation to what in Britain, as distinct from America, was considered “suitable for poetry” and so on. Though in fact the things I later articulated were implicit from the start, which is why they annoyed some folk so much, from the start.

When I married and moved to London in 1972 for a year, I got involved in politics for the first time as I was angry that the landlord wouldn’t give us a rentbook and various things; also this was near the beginning of the Irish “troubles” consequent on 1969, and I found myself sucked into analysis of the language of reporting these, and its language variants in different media and the same media at different times of the day. I then got involved in analysing the shifts in power in the structures at the top of the Labour party and the TUC; so much of it for me was an analysis of language, getting angry at what I saw as the abuse and complicity of language. That has always been my way in, right through subsequent booklets against the Iraq war in 1991 and so on. It’s always at the level of language, which is where it impinges on me, I feel the bloody thing like bombs coming out of the electronic media and Press. I have I think remained fairly consistent though I do not think static: I have stayed outside of the party system, which in Glasgow where there is a one-party state which has been such for decades, staying distinct means you not only lose out on feedings from the cultural trough, but for any political criticism they never forgive you. Their resort is to stereotype the likes of Kelman and myself as “angry and unrepentant as ever” which is how the local "quality" paper dismissed a reading I gave a few days ago, despite its being very far from an angry reading indeed my having been thrown off my rhythm at one point by the audience laughing so much. But I stay outside the city’s tight wee cultural-political-journalistic circle of patronage, and of course one pays for that. It means I don't get their sweeties, but it's the only place with enough air to breathe.

The business of a so-called classless society is a difficult complex thing. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the shift of Labour to a monetarist economic policy, way to the Right of where Heath and the Conservatives were in the 1970's, has marginalised the Left from the supposed accepted narrative. It was inevitable that the Soviet Union, a state monolith rather than fluid socialism, should bring discredit with its record of oppression. But the global balance of power existing when the USSR was a global power meant that at least some genuinely socialist movements seeking freedom against Western colonisation got help instead of just being wiped out. That no longer holds, and now in sundry parts of the world the young see only fundamentalist Islam as a viable opposition presenting a native alternative to Western power and culture. That's a pity. Sorry if this is beginning to sound a bit lecturish one of the reasons I never could join a party was because of their awful monologues about hegemony and words like that which would have me glassy-eyed if not asleep.

The other within the West has been the fragmentation of mass-industrial movements with criticism that those movements that had spoken most volubly about class difference had in fact been riddled with sexism, homophobia, racism and other things bound up with narrow self-serving patriarchy. A lot of this criticism was justified, and remains so. The fallout from this is though that we are at a stage and have been for some time where any leftwing criticism or serious economic analyis will be dismissed in sundry quarters as “macho posturing” etc. New Labour is not alone in contemporary "socialist" parliamentary parties as apparently trying to get streetcred, or quota points, by maintaining that any black blind gay woman will be especially welcome—so long, that is, as they are not leftwing.

I’m not even hugely interested in “the class issue” myself to be honest. As long as I am true to my own roots and don’t abandon them I think I will stay ok. I won't betray the culture I come from, unlike the present parliamentarians who, like me having received free university education, now go to great lengths to point out how patently commensical it is that only loans can be given. In other words, they are happy to kick away the ladder they climbed up.

I do tend to see Britain as containing a population wherein the lower classes still have, in global terms, a higher standard of living compared with the average in many other parts of the world. The country is still largely existing on the residual benefits of its empire days, and cheap imports are continuing to keep for the moment things under control.  

Sorry I won’t be coming down to Cambridge. I will have another go at the final instalment of your questions in a wee while.




Thu, 11 Dec 2008

Dear Sandy [Hutchinson]

Thanks for what you sent. I am sitting up and bed typing this on my laptop as I have one of my regular winter chest infections; otherwise I would have sent you a letter to your home address.

It is interesting to see the letter from William Sharp. I knew all the details, I have them in my Places of the Mind book sourced from other letters of people who were there. There is a longish account of the whole episode when Thomson took ill in Marston's flat with Sharp in attendance. (Places of the Mind p 301 et seq) The Marston sonnet referred to is quite a good one, I used that in my book too.

I never felt warmth towards Sharp. Thomson on his deathbed tapped him for a shilling in hospital, at least asked him for one. But Sharp only visited Thomson because he happened to be in Marston's flat at the same time and had helped him to hospital as no one else in the flat was capable of doing so. And a malicious rumour that BV was the illegitimate son of Bulwer-Lytton was attributed to Sharp's disinclination to believe that he was the son of "an obscure ship's captain". I don't have the source to hand, it may be in my manuscripts in Glasgow University Library. It took me real research to disprove the feasibility of this nonsense which would have made BV turn in his grave. I thought it a poor show that this purveyor of so much middle-class wankery could only contribute a smear to the memory of a poet worth a thousand times more than himself in quality.

Sharp did indeed make it into Radical Renfrew where you can find him on page 340 et seq. I could never be bothered with his Celtic Mist nonsense, but I did find two fine imagist poems, or one could call them that, which he wrote early under his own name. [He later wrote Celtic fin-de-siecle works under the pseudonym Fiona MacLeod.] As I say in my biographical introduction to him, his main contribution to literature (in my opinion) was as editor of the fine series Canterbury Poets, a number of which I have obtained in secondhand shops and which can contain interesting selections.

Such an opinion would not please fans of Sharp which may include yourself. Fans in Paisley would include those belonging to his fan club the Wilfion Society, which published a small paperback of Sharp's poems. The poems were supposed to have been written by Sharp after he had died, and then communicated to a medium. I would have loved to have included some poems written posthumously by a contributor to Radical Renfrew, but unfortunately I deemed that death had not improved his creative abilities.

Thanks very much for “Setting the Time Aside”. You capture Graham's pace and sober candour uncannily; the only sections I am not so sure of are sections six and seven, where the focus and the voice seems to move away from Sydney's larynx and towards the personal narrator. But anyway despite my cavil there I think it's impressive the way you have captured delivering an address to the man without making it sound like parody.

I hope this email address for you is still working.

best wishes




Thu, 11 Dec 2008

Subject: Sky Blue Notebook

Dear Jayne [Wilding]

What a lovely book, and with such terrific poems in it. Gosh that has cheered me up, I'm sitting up in bed here with a lingering chest infection.

So rarely do I come on a poetry book, especially a Scottish or British poetry book, where I feel immediately at home in the prosody, where I do not feel somewhere at the back of my mind that I am doing a good deed for the day or "making an effort" in foreign territory. Well, yours is foreign territory subject-wise; but I feel so much at home in the eyes of the narrative pericipient, and in the lovely sparseness but exactness of the diction. What a terrific surprise.

I hope Alan Spence reads it amongst sundry others. Obviously you have philosophical mutual points of contact and Alan's haiku can connect with your own. But you do much more than haiku: I love the two facing poems the Pyrenees/ roll out below us, and at dusk/ we walk back down. Also transformed / by a night made of snow and the "blue sound" of that mountain lake. And the closing ten pages are tremendous.

At last, someone who knows how really to use lower case and the precise articulated split of the line.

... many thanks for sending it. You should make sure a copy goes into the Calum McDonald pamphlet prize competition for 2009, though I doubt the quality of the prosody might be over the judges' heads.

[I was subsequently told a judge did indeed ask why was there “no punctuation”]


Friday January 23rd ’09

.....I’ve just looked back at my emails to see what was the phrase that intrigued you, I think it must have been my saying how pleased I was to find someone who really knew how to use lower case and “the precise articulated split of the line”.

Difficult to say precisely just now what I mean, I’m very tired having been doing things all day and am writing this before I go to bed. ...For me as I sometimes try to clarify to students when asked, I speak of the basis of poetry as the line, the basis of prose the paragraph—though of course nothing is so clearly hard-edged and there are umpteen exceptions. But that’s a reasonable basis. The line, again, can be a unit of semantic yield (meaning) a unit of breath (articulation) a unit of measure (number of syllables or stresses, formal structure). The lowercase tradition that I lean towards can combine both that unit of meaning (or partial meaning-unit released) and breath in one, occurring in the space which allows a double function, the visual space as place of eye-kinesis or movement, the visual space as occasion of breath or wordpause. The space is a place in which the words occur.

That’s as far as I can go just now. Will pick this up in further emails, and send you my new essay which is not all that good but has a few sentences I like, it’s a time-line as much as anything.

Bye for now.





July 31, 2010

Dear E

Just to say that that translation of Brecht I have sent you I have now revised the first verse to read

mother courage song for all the talk

The literal German of the last line reads "Instead of with cheese it is with lead", insofar as one can take a literal translation across. The problem with translating rhyme always throws up a lot of specific problems as to how far one posits a parallel figure of speech at best to catch rhyme. One often sees dire rhymed translations if the translator has no poetry in them. I in my first or previous attempt that I sent you had been picking up on the opening scene in which Mother Courage sings of selling boots on her waggon; but on reflection I had gone against the meaning by missing out the "lead" element as being the important one here.

Anyway you said you wanted to talk about translation with me, I'll be happy to do that though to be honest I just attack the proceedings by instinct and I hope intelligence, you get something felicitous which you are pleased with then perhaps, as has just happened with me, one has to alter it if the felicity is not appropriate to the central burden of the author's intention—as you try to surmise that intention in the language. I'm really enjoying this though, I hope you get some of this kind of pleasure with Beckett, and I'll certainly be glad to dialogue with you if you were working on it.

all the best




May 3rd 2010

Dear N

I was glad to be back home. There was plane trouble at the airport so a long dreary delay at Newquay on hard seats made so that people would not sit too long on them but move on once they had finished their machine-delivered tea.

An intriguing two days. Being by the edge of a sea which meant as much to me because I had been there with my children 25 years ago. The reading itself was ok, ok in that I was present with my poems when I was allowed to be, in the second half. So I could be with nora as I could be with the sea. There were a few people there who knew what was going on, or that something was going on. But too much the Art Club, which is what after all it is called. The one in Glasgow is even worse. Of course I am a challenge to these places, or rather somebody being in art is a challenge, perhaps even, put simply, art itself is a challenge. Art of any troubling kind, which is the kind St Ives very definitely does not want to hear about, like most upmarket seaside places of that type with artists wanting to get away from being troubled, to forget about "the world" and live sorting out their abstracts and god knows what in a Pretty, Changing World. The one thing which people can be sure of going somewhere like the Tate is that they will not be troubled. There is even a category for the "controversial" which is to say the Tracy Ermins etc.

Bob is great. The only art that can survive communally in this kind of place is through somebody like him; of the kind that Winnicott meant when he said It is play that is the universal. But you don't go to the seaside to have a journey within. People there are going to a moored cruise ship instead.

The Viennese woman was interesting, some of her poems. But so fucking rude. She came "to collect me" from the place without breakfast, and kept time after time walking ahead of me then stopping looking up sideways while I caught up, like a dog. She stood there as if waiting on the fucking dog to catch up. Because I had been to Vienna I wanted to talk to her about Ruhm and Jandl. What was amusing was that she said she always wanted to get away from Vienna to England where she thought the people were wonderful. She is somebody again who has "fallen in love with the place" St Ives. But she wanted to get away from Vienna because it troubled her there; and I felt instantly at home in Vienna, daft though that can sound. A similarity of architecture to Glasgow, another northern European city. She had been taken with what I was doing last night, I could see that. But there was no room for comfort.

.......The most interesting person I met was --'s son. Open and searching, and troubled in the right way. Not going about or joining a community to be "open and searching"; he had thought he was, by doing creative writing at some university. But it has displeased him, and for the right reasons. I don't know what he will do with himself, but at least he has not stopped being himself in order to find out. He has not taken the option of the professional searcher. So much can be gained just from eye contact. The little bit that is silent says so much in the midst of all the St Ives talk talk talk.

..... My mind is never far from Mother Courage which I am working on now. Am really enjoying it, Brecht's anger and humour and insight into that always present and always hidden narrative, the arms trade. At last a vehicle, literally, to foreground it.


To finish about St Ives. Have had a bit of migraine since returning.

When finally alone in Newquay Airport facing a long delay, a horrible raw wave of depression engulfed me of a type I have not experienced for years. Very physical. Just had to hang on.

It lifted on the plane when I listened on my ipod to some Irish pipe music I happened to have by a piper called Willie Clancy. I love the slow air played on the Irish pipes. As I love the Scottish pibroch lament, in a different, almost Bach related way, that logic and emotion. The Clancy brought me back into an art in the world of ordinary people like my dad. Which is to say the extraordinary.

Of course there will be really good art in the Tate building there, and I like Hepworth for instance. People of integrity. But it felt like a temple of the culture industry, a horrible looking temple hidden high on the hill. Maybe Black people and tin miners should climb the ascending wheelramp on their knees. Not that I saw any Black people in St Ives.

P---, who went out of her way for me and was very helpful, spoke of doing a map of the Cornwall repossessions to fight the tourist crap. She said someone had already done that somewhere else. I said to her, maybe it still needs to be done here. Or some such. She knew I think what I was feeling. P----- and some friends she had at the gallery were warm and outgoing.

What got me about the Art Club reading, looking back, was how it was set up: not as a workshop, but as a kind of intimate restaurant with everyone given a nice bottle of wine and a glass on their table. It was a setting that I think exemplifies much of what passes for poetry on the BBC: half afterdinner speech, half nice cheese that goes with the biscuits. That's why the stiffnecked character in the front row under my chin (who never spoke to his wife the whole evening) murmured a snide putdown about my poem for Lucy and Stephen. I was "getting a bit serious" in the wrong way, ie the detail of ordinary life way. That's why I told him to fuck off, and was really left on my own, with my poems. If you do not open up, what is the point? But that is the most subversive thing of all, to open up. That is why the whole "educational" structure in relation to poetry is about closing down, shutting the door of category in anticipation to anything that might at all open up, to what is beside you and through you, and of which you might assume the right of dignity in itself. I just cannot deal with these people. I never could, never will, but long ago I realised that what used to worry me as an incapacity I recognised as a strength. It had been handed down to me by people who would be shut from the doors of the temple on the hill—but who probably built it.

Bob would get beyond the wine and cheese because he probably has in mind a kind of jazz club. He is like George Melly, I felt as soon as I saw him, and instantly liked him very much. Fuck you to the behaviour pattern, he has in his eyes. Anyway. Enough of my rambling, for which forgive me. I wanted to get this out to get back seriously to my Brecht. But my rumbling headache persists. It is a nuisance. Regarding what I said about your own performances, I hope you are not in the huff. Your performance at the Arnolfini was the best I have seen you do, and it was there that a kind of erotic sensuality came over in the sort of waves of words....




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