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Caledonia Dreamin’: Exploring Scotland’s Poetry

On the cut-glass if of the day,
this chancer then, already in deep,
headfirst among the holly leaves

– Fiona Wilson, from “A Magpie, by chance” in A Clearance (2015)

The feathered creatures have a talismanic presence across the work of the contemporary Scottish poet Fiona Wilson. Birds are marvels in themselves in her poetry but there is a pointed identification with them, too —personal I think and poetic. The magpie, Wilson continues, is “pleasing herself and tricky as a die”.

I am not sure if I would have come across Wilson’s poetry if, as a Scottish poet myself, I hadn’t been sensitive to what comes out of the country. And by ‘out of the country’ I very much include the poems of the diaspora. I’m a Londoner now: I’ve lived away from Scotland more than half my life (as, in New York, I know Wilson has) but I still identify with the home country and I look out for new work by Scottish poets. Seeing myself as a life-long student, I continue to learn about Scotland’s literary history, too. Teaching at the Poetry School and using examples from across the Anglophone (and translated) world I’ve been struck how, in particular, Scottish poems are not especially well-known beyond Scotland. I think that’s a shame: once introduced they tend to be well-received – and even a revelation – helping poets find new themes and ways of writing.

This is the advantage of what I call ‘slight strangeness’: Scotland shares some linguistic and cultural assumptions with England and the other territories in the archipelago but there are details, formal approaches and even mindsets which are arguably different. Approachable difference is fertile ground for any poet looking to refresh their way of working, the purpose of the course, and Scottish poetry has many examples whose ‘slight strangeness’ will stimulate new writing for anyone well beyond Scotland itself.

Perhaps counter-intuitively the two-session course will not focus on poems about Scotland. There are such poems, and thinking about place in new ways will be part of it, but the emphasis will be very much on using poems which happen to be Scottish to help writers think anew about universal topics. Learning about a different culture will be a bonus.

In designing the two half-days of the course I quickly decided that a chronological skip through Scottish poetry would not be the best way to stimulate writing. Rather, I would take a thematic approach and, within themes, range across time and form in the examples I choose. I expect there will be some last-minute changes, but at the moment there are strong strands planned for nature and the environment, imagining better futures (and worse ones), poems concerning parents and children, and the many configurations of love. Problems and miracles in language itself, a ‘meta’ and yet so human concern to poets such as W.S. Graham and Robin Fulton Macpherson, will be a topic, too.

Why are words like stepping-stones
not there when I step on them?
I remember my passwords
but forget the word “password”.
Synomyms and antonyms
change places behind my back

–Robin Fulton Macpherson, from “Language” in Arrivals of Light (2020)

I expect the final choices in the course to be far from any settled definition of ‘Scottish’: rather, the poems will probably be productively ‘beside the point’, and so always thought- and poem-provoking. Nisha Ramayya’s poem, Ritual Steps for a Tantric Poetics, captures what I hope is the advantage of presenting poems in this way, with difference and contradiction built in to the framing of the course:

Book here for Richard Prices’s course Caledonia Dreamin’: Exploring Scotland’s Poetry running on Saturday 12 June & 3 July, 10:30 – 1 pm via Zoom.

Image Credit: Esteban

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