Each year the Scottish Poetry Library sets a poor soul a Herculean task – read every poem published in the space of 12 months by a poet who is Scottish or who has made Scotland his home. The brave person who accepts this challenge must ramble far and wide, through collections published in books and pamphlets, as well as in journals and, increasingly, online.
Now, why would we do this to someone? It’s all in the service of poetry, specifically our online anthology series, Best Scottish Poems. Every spring since 2005, we publish on our website the best 20 Scottish poems published during the previous year. Past guest editors include Janice Galloway, Alan Spence, and the editor of the SRB too. This year we employed the talents of Catherine Lockerbie, former Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. As a young university graduate, she knew and was friends with poets such as Norman MacCaig and Sorley MacLean. More pertinently for the Library, she was a member of the SPL’s Board in its early years, when we were still based at Tweedale Court.
What sort of an anthology did she serve up for us? Well, one that mixes weel kent faces (Liz Lochhead, Michel Faber) with up-and-comers (William Letford, Claire Askew). What if anything can we say about Scotland based on Lockerbie’s selection?
Several poems deal with incomers, immigrants and what the country has made of them. Katie Ailes, originally a resident of Pennsylvania, writes in ‘Outwith’ of her experience of acclimatising to the Scottish way of expressing things – ‘Glasgow rolled itself under my tongue, / a grey marble lolling my mouth open with Os: / Glasgow, Kelvingrove, going to Tesco’ – while Pippa Little writes in ‘For Refuge’ of the trials of people fleeing foreign hellzones: ‘Trust the earth / with your bandaged feet, / the pockets sewn shut by your mother. / Carry only such things / as snowflakes, eyelashes, / for the future may not make you out.’ Meanwhile, Kate Tough’s ‘People Made Glasgow’ is an uneasy reminder of the riches Scotland accumulated through exploitation during the age of Empire.
There is scepticism of religion (‘The Conversion of Sheep’ by Hugh McMillan) and perhaps of science too (‘Physics for the Unwary Student’ by Pippa Goldschmidt and ‘We used to think the universe was made…’ by J.O. Morgan). There are also a fair number of poems about death: surviving a health scare (‘Reprieve’ by Alison Prince), watching a partner die from cancer (‘Don’t Hesitate to Ask’ by Michel Faber), and remembering long dead parents (‘At Hallan Cemetery’ by Angus Peter Campbell). Thank God, then, for Helena Nelson, whose tart ‘What Not to Write on the Back Jacket of Your Debut Collection’ offers, on that front, the imperishable advice, ‘Boris Johnson recommends this book.’
The final word must go to Andy Jackson whose ‘Enquiry Desk’ is a poem about the Scottish Poetry Library itself:
Do you have the one
– you must have it –
with that poem that is a Library in itself,
each leaf a life we might one day live?
I don’t know what it’s called
but it calls, it calls.
To browse the 20 poems that feature in Best Scottish Poems 2016, visit http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/best-scottish-poems/best-scottish-poems-2016