November 14, 2020

Today is Norman MacCaig’s birthday

I’ve loved Norman MacCaig since I was at school. His mice, squeaking small hosannahs in the byre, his ‘room size monster with a matchbox brain’ and his tiny, jewel like frogs opening the door to a love of language that has opened every other door for me since. He showed how language could reveal and subvert and celebrate and be joyful all at once; what a revelation – ha! – to see how prosaic things could be raised to holy levels just through words, or how in a handful of expressions we could time travel, shoggling back through the centuries… 

Theres a gorgeous interview with Mr MacCaig, with Jenny Brown (of course, who else?) here. https://bukowskiforum.com/threads/norman-maccaig-the-late.7429/

I love when the giants of Scottish literary history reach through into the almost present – amazing to think he was around, digging about in the National Library and drinking in Rose street not twenty five years ago. He talks in that video about how a poem comes knocking at the door, almost waiting to be written. I feel like that about projects sometimes, and this festival is knocking on the door too, a story waiting to be written. We’re keeping the narrative tension high by attempting to write it in the middle of an event-strangling pandemic, to be fair, but you can’t keep a good idea down and though we’ve tried to put this off a few times it keeps coming back. So, we’re just going ahead and getting into the boat. 

And it IS a good idea. Between us Kev and I have an absurdly long list of poets we want to work with, discussions we want to listen to, ideas we want to give voice to, ways we want to experience and present poetry and performance. There are pockets of poetry happening all over Scotland constantly, from tightly knit wee knots of reading and writing groups, to noisy nights and platforms (albeit confined to zoom for now), and brilliant writers with international networks reaching around the world. We’re a festival city, we love a party, we’ve got things to say. 

There’s been a few poetry beefs of late, of course. I don’t suppose it’s ever been any different. (Norman famously loved an argument, and he didn’t start the trend). But shared spaces and collective experiences help build trust, I hope, and we’d like to be part of creating something that allows for creative dialogue and disagreement about the poetry. Somebody tipping up the table for instance in dispute over the difference between a prose poem and a novel in verse, would be fully encouraged in our boat. 

I admit to a certain anxiety about claiming the cultural real estate of ‘Edinburgh’s international poetry festival’ up front. On one hand it can be read as pretty colossal privilege to hoover that up and claim it; I hope we are acknowledging that element, and that we’ll construct the festival in ways that share the space widely and democratically, and that we’ll ‘heize others up’ as much as we can. But I think there’s a gallus-ness in there too, which has fuelled other projects Kev and I have independently been part of, and which is a sort of creative arrogance that you need to get ambitious things off the ground. Rebel Inc would never have happened without it, The Bookworm festival in Beijing wouldn’t have either.  I think there’s something in there that Norman MacCaig, with his archness and his confidence, would have grudgingly admired. 

So, while 2020 serves up its last few weird plot twists – Scotland qualifying for the Euros? we’ll take that one, thanks – we’re busying away on working out what version of Push the Boat Out we can devise for the unknowable future of October 2021. We’d like you to think about getting on board this wee boat with us, and helping us set sail. Whether its just to share your favourite big Norm poem, or to pitch an idea to get involved with Push the Boat Out, we’d love to hear from you. Happy birthday Norman McCaig, we hope we’ll do you proud. 

November 14, 2020

Here We Go! Following In The Footsteps Of Norman MacCaig and Edwin Morgan

Today is Norman MacCaig's birthday. A teenager in ripped jeans and a PiL T-shirt stands curious at the poetry section in Thurso Library. Where to begin. John Cooper Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson had worked their magic on vinyl but the reading was another thing. He looks at the yellow and white cover of a slim volume, placed at the front, newly published. The title, The Equal Skies, grabs his attention, conjures something in his mind that he feels he knows, can relate to. The Caithness skies are vast and cathedral. He picks up the book and starts to read, unsure of this new thing that none of his friends ever speak about. He's only just moved to Edinburgh and the winter gone was bitterly cold. A couple of lines jump out on the first page

I think of the horrible marzipan,
in the streets of Edinburgh.

Something clicks. Was this an entry point to the world of metaphor? He takes the book home and begins a journey that has no end in sight.

When I chatted with Jenny about the idea for a festival of poetry, in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, home to MacCaig and countless others, we thought it was strange that such a city didn't have its own bespoke poetry festival. That's how these things start. Adding to what has gone before, adding to what's missing. Expanding what's possible.

And here we are. Running with an idea whose time, we both felt, has come. As Jenny indicates there is a presumptuousness in hammering a stake in the ground and saying, “Let's do it.” But that's how everything good in the arts begins. Not from the top down but through a passion to grow what is already here, from the grassroots up.

And here we are. Taking a line from Edwin Morgan's poem 'At Eighty' and using it to get away from the shore, out onto the high seas, where anything can happen.

2020 has been one bastard of a year. This year of Edwin Morgan's centenary. Who would've thought a tiny viral configuration, less than one millionth of the size of a mote of dust, would have the entire human race running for cover. Locked into homes. Social connections torn apart. Economies reeling. But it is what it is.

In some very subjective ways November has arrived like the most unlikeliest of months on horseback. The tyrant Trump has been slain and the greatest minds of science and medicine have announced that a vaccine is, at last, on its way to save us all. Let's run with it. Even the Scottish national football team has chipped in with some unlikely cheer.

So that's it. We've decided that the coast is clear. A new normal is on the way which in the bigger scheme of things will no doubt be every bit as abnormal as the normal now gone. More important in the here and now, events, gigs, theatre, festivals, arts, socialising, and connections are back on the edge of the horizon. Can ye imagine!

So here we are. Pushing the boat out for poetry. We know fine well that this virus is a tricky wee customer, mutations and vaccines etc, but we reckon the end is in sight now so we're going for it. A venue has been booked for next October. Podcasts and blogs will pave the way, as will plenty of dialogues and discussions we'd like you to be a part of.

We aren't so presumptuous to think we can do this all by ourselves. We'll need poets and fans of poetry and backers with resources to help us realise our dream, but when we get this up and running we can all enjoy the writing and the poets and the performances and the collaborations and the arguments and the debates, face-to-face. Not on Zoom or Skype but together in the flesh. Here in Edinburgh.

That's where we're at. It'll be a journey.

The last few lines of the final poem in The Equal Skies conclude MacCaig's book with thoughts of a bigger journey.

There are other bad journeys, to a bitter place
I can't get to – yet. I lean towards it,
tugging to get there, and thank God
I'm clogged with the world. It grips me,

I hold it.

It grips me too. Here's hoping Push The Boat Out might do likewise.

KEVIN WILLIAMSON
14 Nov 2020

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