‘Conviviality is the note of the weekend’ director Dr. Robyn Marsack said when she greeted the crowd on the second morning of SYMPOETRY – a three day conference held in the pleasantly cramped confines of the Scottish Poetry Library. The poets involved included American Thomas Lux, Maciej Woźniak who is a Polish poet in residence at the SPL, Fiona Sampson. Don Paterson, Tim Dee, Sasha Dugdale and Alan Gillis.
The conference topic was wide open: ‘Poetry: Who is Speaking, Who is Listening?’ Later in the day Alan Taylor (described in advance publicity as the ‘pugnacious’ editor of the Scottish Review of Books) added ‘Who cares?’’ in a wobbly Norman McCaig-like voice. But one of the encouraging messages to emerge from this sold-out conference was that there are many people who care.
An intriguing first session derived its title from Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’: ‘In the room women come and go: Women’s Voices in poetry’. It focused mainly on poetry reviewing, the role of women in the past and the relative absence of women role models in the present. Fiona Sampson of the University of Roehampton and formerly of Poetry Review was a sharp, intellectual presence. She seemed disappointed in some women who, she argued, avoided reviewing poetry because ‘they wanted to concentrate on their own work’. As a female critic, I asked whether women weren’t reviewing because they found it difficult to be seen as critical in public. This seemed to meet with general agreement but Sampson stuck to her guns.
The panel agreed that things are much better for women now. Dorothy McMillan, editor of Modern Scottish Women Poets and a lecturer at Glasgow University said: ‘Don’t let anyone talk about the good old days, women were very badly treated. There were men and clever girls…’ Women role models were soon at issue and it was agreed that women have very few compared to white Western males. Sasha Dugdale, Carcanet poet and editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, was particularly enlightening on this topic. She described being in love with Keats work, until she realised that, had she been born in his time, she would not have been Keats, but one of his girlfriends. There were men in the room but, prudently, none of them raised a hand to speak.
The sorority of the first session was followed by ‘How oft, when thou, my music, music play’st’. Don Paterson’s presentation was a scholarly tribute to the work of the late Michael Donaghy, a friend and fellow poet who died of an aneurysm in 2004. This year Picador published Donaghy’s Collected Poems and Paterson has also written the only critical text on Donaghy’s work. Poems such as ‘The Haunt’, ‘Angels’ and ‘The Classics’ were analysed for their inherent musicality, primarily seen in Donaghy’s use of rhyme and enjambment. Paterson also defined brown noise (unpleasant noise), white noise (static noise) and pink noise (pleasant noise) and analysed the ways in which Donaghy’s lyrical work embodied the latter. Though more direct examples of the correlation would have been helpful, Paterson’s wry and rapid delivery convinced his audience. ‘I talk quickly’, he said, ‘but I can always repeat myself’. Folk listened so closely he didn’t have to.
I was sorry to miss BBC presenter Tim Dee’s session on ‘What is popular in poetry’, but I was there to witness the Scottish Review of Books debate chaired by Alan Taylor. The panel consisted of Thomas Lux, Alan Gillis, Sasha Dugdale, Fiona Sampson, Tim Dee and Maciej Woźniak, and they discussed primarily a quote by Michael Robbins: ‘A largeness has vanished from poetic discourse and poetic authority’.This was a sprawling hour which included mentions of Kofi Annan, Neruda, Communism, Lady Gaga and more.
The panellists were invited to share what they thought about the conference theme. Alan Taylor made a comparison to the Scottish independence referendum and suggested that poets might only be talking and listening to themselves. Gillis, sporting his trademark Hawaiian shirt, argued that ‘largeness was not quite the right word’ and too much emphasis on discourse ‘puts the audience out of the room’ while maintaining that ‘poetry still needs fart jokes’. Taylor accused Lux of being ‘positive and sunny’ about the state of poetry but Lux maintained that this was ‘a good time to be a young poet’.
Tim Dee mentioned that he had attended a Forward Prize award ceremony and was distressed to see poems read by actors. Poets, he argued, should be allowed to speak for themselves even when they are notoriously bad readers. Wozniak was fascinating and not only because he wore a sweater of many colours and frayed threads. He sat between two translators – one to translate the words of the other panellists and another to translate his own words – and spoke of the relationship between the fall of communism and poetry in Poland.
The night ended on a rather strange and esoteric note in the University of Edinburgh’s Teviot Dining Room, under a portrait of someone who, according to Robyn Marsack, could have been Abraham Lincoln. MacGillivray filled the room with ethereal sounds by rubbing the edges of a wine glass before engaging the audience with her beautiful voice. From a few rows back there was a strong impression of Fleetwood Mac/meets Enya/plays autoharp but sadly MacGillivray’s haunting lyricism in song and verse (much of it from her debut collection The Last Wolf of Scotland) was somewhat undermined by a dodgy sound system.
The system didn’t do Don Paterson many favours either nor did his computerised backing music which refused to start or stop at his behest. He made light of the situation, however, by employing his (by now) trademark humour. He used a bodhran (which translates into English as ‘the last refuge of the untalented’) and then a guitar to produce a kind of tinny, muddy, free style jazz which was as interesting for its various inspirations (Jimmy Shand!) as it was for its sound. He read a series of poems which had the audience laughing one minute and close to tears the next and revealed his latest hobby which is the siesta – aka ‘falling asleep in the afternoon’.
All in all, a varied and interesting day and only one day of three.