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.
14 Nov 2020