Author Event: Liz Lochhead

28 08 2011

Liz LochheadLiz Lochhead’s appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival had been eagerly anticipated since she was appointed Scottish Makar in January 2011, and she wasn’t about to disappoint.

Promoting her latest collection, A Choosing, but reading from a selection of other books she brought along, Lochhead showed just why the nation holds her so close to its heart.

Modest and unassuming, she is a woman with a huge heart and a massive amount of talent, and she thrilled the full house by revealing that although her new collection wasn’t published until next month, it was being made exclusively available to this book festival audience as a one-off from publisher Polygon.

A Choosing is largely a biographical collection, “that if it had been written on another day in another time would be entirely different,” she said. “Poets have a bad habit of singing the songs of themselves and I wanted to avoid that.”

Lochhead read some poems about the first things she ever wrote, which reminded her of her earliest memory when she was four years old. She had got her head trapped in her gran’s railings and had to listen terribly gloomy music being played on the radio while the adults tried to figure out how to free her. The music was only broken by the announcement: “The King is dead; Long live the Queen.”

Lochhead seemed unsure at times of her position in Scottish literature despite her accolades. “I’m more active since I became Makar,” she said. “But I don’t deserve the job. There are far better poets out there than me. The job is only for five years so at least the younger ones will get a chance to do this later.”

Her new set of commitments will see her travelling more and she indicated she wants to get a lot more involved in schools, but the only impact seems to be on her actual collection publication. “It’ll be the end of my Makarship before my next collection comes out.” And her playwriting? “Oh, that’s not affected in any way,” she assured us.

Lochhead told the audience how she had tried her hand at short story writing but was never any good. “They were all in first person so contained dramatic monologue anyway. I always get pulled towards how I can make something into a play or a poem.”

She hates the “poetry voice”, that drawl that poets often put in when they change the way they talk to deliver a poem. “I always think they sound like a vicar talking, trying to make something sound poetic that isn’t.”

Joyce McWilliam who chaired the event, summed up the nation’s thoughts to end the show with perhaps the loveliest tribute I’ve heard of Lochhead: “Language shapes our world and Liz Lochhead is a true shaper of words.”

Hear hear!


Author Event: Don Paterson

23 08 2011

Don PatersonDon Paterson’s latest work, Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, is a mammoth collection and tonight he read several, not in any organised pattern or flow (it seemed), but which I thought lended the evening to a more informal guide through Shakespeare’s work. It was rather like an audience with The Don as he talked about the poems he fancied reading to us at the time.

Paterson began by explaining what he thought a sonnet could be described as: “Sonnets are like Spock playing 3D chess with himself while on-board the Starship Enterprise.” No, that didn’t make it any clearer for me either.

His view of what literary criticism is though, was much more palatable: “Literary criticism is not like doing algebra; it should be fun.” And commenting on the scathing review he recently received, his only remark that hadn’t already been said in the strong letter of response he wrote, was that “the biggest surprise about ‘that’ review was when I found out the poor chap was still alive.”

“Poems are not perfect,” explained Paterson, “and it’s up often to the Gods. Take Shakespeare—the reason we’re all here—even his stinkers are still better stinkers than everyone elses.”

Rather bizarrely, Shakespeare sexuality also came into the discussion, with Paterson’s assertion that although it was widely thought he was bisexual, “personally I think he was predominantly homosexual,” which he then proceeded to prove through the reading of several male-oriented poems.

Wrapping up, Shakespeare’s misogynistic tendencies came under the spotlight, which also provided me with a fascinating titbit of information, when Paterson, on dissecting one particularly misogynistic verse, explained that the use of the word “hell” is actually Elizabethan slang for “vagina”.

Debate: The Poems of Czeslaw Milosz

23 08 2011

In this regular weekly event under the Legends of Modern Literature series at the book festival, participants are invited to analyse two poems by specified poets in a discussion that is aimed at dissecting the poets work in front of them, as well the broader issue invoked within the prose.

Hosted by Scottish Poetry Library Director Robyn Marsack, we heard two poems, first in Polish, read by Polish poet Agata Maslowska, and then in English, before a group discussion about the meanings of the poems and the issues the poet was attempting to throw open.

The best poems, it is often said, are those that are left open to interpretation and that is exactly what one gets with Milosz and the two poems we looked at: The Song on the End of the World and Dedication.

Not one for the casual poetry fan, these sessions are strictly for the dedicated poetry buff, and while one did not need to know about the poet being discussed, it definitely helped if you did.

Author Event: Robin Robertson

20 08 2011

Robin Robertson
I dashed off from talking with Paul to hear another poet read, this time in the Spiegeltent and the darker poems of Robin Robertson.

It was an astounding hour of poetry, so deep and beautiful and sad, that even the festival director Nick Barley tweeted after the event how he had been reduced to tears by Robertson’s reading of At Roane Head.

Robertson’s work is very dark, often with a cruel edge of humour, but always thoroughly gripping. One does not need to concentrate during a reading of his in order to appreciate the picture he is painting—it is crystal clear, as though one were standing within the very poem itself.