A dozen people. At least. When Barbara Henderson asked me to put together a poetry session for the inaugural NessBookFest I thought of over a dozen people who would fit the bill perfectly. Until I read the bill:
NessBookFest: Emerging AND established artists getting equal billing. I cover some of the emerging quota, but who else can I find in the same boat, just starting out with something to say?
Local: Easy enough, you would think, but when the next town is twenty miles away you learn to stretch your definition of local. Local or locally-connected.
Poets: What kind of poet? Performance poets? Page poets? Musical poets? And what language? English? Gaelic? Scots?
Showcase: This was the clearest instruction for me-VARIETY. I wanted the audience leaving with a flavour of the variety of poetry on offer in Inverness.
With an hour to play with I decided on five ten minute slots: one for me, and one each for the range of poets I felt would work for this particular venture.
With only a few weeks from initial planning to actual event I whipped out an email to my intended poets; Matt McDonald, Eileen Carney Hulme, and Hamish MacDonald, with a speculative message to UHI to see if they knew of any undergraduates who might be interested in the opportunity. Lois Wappler was the obvious choice. As organising isn’t my strong point I was delighted when all four were free and eager to participate, and when I thought to ask for photos and biographies. Feather, meet Cap.
Though I have done several readings before, it was this one that allowed me rediscover an old editing technique: writing the poems out by hand. This was no ingenious ploy on my part- my printer is ignoring my laptop- but it turned out to be incredibly useful. Following Eileen’s advice, I planned on reading six poems, with another ten as alternatives or back-ups, to allow for repetition or complementary ideas. As I was writing them out, there were three I kept pushing to the back of the queue, and ultimately, just couldn’t be bothered transcribing. That told me to leave them out: they weren’t ready.
Saturday, 12th November: Leakey’s Bookshop, Inverness
We arrived at Leakey’s Bookshop with fifteen minutes to spare. There were some hiccoughs, mainly an absence of chairs and water for the readers (I was all out of feathers anyway) and the misunderstanding that people could simply show up and sit down (though the lack of seats at least made that easier to deal with). In all my wisdom I decided to bunch the poets up in the corner as we each took our turn, in the hope we would come across as wonderfully supportive and boheme, not just a bit squished.
And so it began.
Matt was up first, and opened the showcase with ’28 Ways To Make Grief Less Heavy’, a list poem of practical, whimsical and important things to do in the four weeks following a bereavement. It is fair to say that this poem set the tone for the afternoon: poems that were sweet, serious, funny, and significant. ‘Eyes’ followed, which beautifully captured the subtle colours and shades of meaning in the eyes of someone we love. Matt finished his set with ‘Packing Up’ and the deeply satisfying ‘The Silence of Good Ice Cream’ both of which are in his pamphlet, ‘Who Are Your People?‘
Eileen Carney Hulme
Eileen was wonderful in the run-up to the event: advising me about how many poems to read; to have a planned order, but be prepared to adapt; and to let people know what order they would be reading in. Little things that people good at organising would already know. Eileen has three collections published (and more prizes than I can wave a stick at) and read a selection from her second collection The Space Between Rain and her most recent collection The Stone Messenger, an evocative mix capturing the fascination of a mother’s previous life in ‘Thinking of my Mother as Lauren Bacall’, the sweetness of a father’s lessons in ‘How I learned to tell the time’, and the simultaneous mystery and sense of communion in a foreign place in ‘Scotland to Sarajevo’. These are collections for quiet fires, good whiskey, and warm blankets.
If you have not had the good fortune of physically standing in Leakey’s Bookshop, marvelling at its visual proximity to the library from Beauty and the Beast, and breathing in the heady scent of its central log burner, you can see from the pictures that it was an impressive, albeit intimidating, vista over which we were casting our words. But if Lois was nervous she never showed it (I was and can only hope I didn’t). Lois’ selection focused on poems she worked on under the tutelage of John Glenday as part of the Highland Young Writers’ Awards at Moniack Mhor. Her poems had a subtle poignancy and demonstrated the keen sense of someone who observes the world around her, honing in on the miraculous moments we take for granted, such as a bird emerging from its shell, in a world distracted with the instant gratification of YouTube and Netflix.
That’d be me. Rightly or wrongly I like to start with a couple of poems that have been published or placed in competitions, to settle my nerves (at what stage are you meant to be above such things? I’m looking forward to that…) before moving on to personal favourites. As such I read poems about moving away from Dublin and my initial impressions of Inverness, ‘For Sale‘, ‘In Verness‘ and ‘Hooks and Eyes‘; followed by poems from what will become my first collection, ‘Night Owl’, ‘Hermit Crab’, and ‘Caledonian sleeper’. There is always a fear that the untested poems will fall flat, that you’ll hear a line or word that is so fundamentally not welcome that it throws you off completely, but in this case the poems sounded out loud in Leakey’s as they sounded out loud in my kitchen and I was happy with that.
To round off the afternoon we had Hamish MacDonald waxing lyrical about nosy neighbours, nasty neighbours, and horrific NHS negligence, moving effortlessly between the light-hearted, the poignant, and the deeply disturbing like a concert pianist running scales. I admit that I deliberately asked Hamish to go last so that I could fully relax and take it what he had to say. Performing with a mixture of Scots and English, (and, at times, at a speed that would whip the breadcrumbs off your boiled egg), it’s not hard to see why Hamish was selected as Belladrum’s Slam Poetry champion back in August. Acting as our first and current Scots Scriever, I can’t do justice to the scope of Hamish’s current projects. Luckily, he has, as of yesterday, launched his own website and saved me a job- get yourself along to have a gander at the poems, the politics, the songs, the novels, and drama available there.
And then, all of a sudden, it was over. Not only did we start and finish on time, but members of the audience stayed back, some for a solid thirty minutes, to do exactly what NessBookFest hoped- they talked to the poets, asked questions, made suggestions for future events. That part, when the audience are allowed to leave, when they are able to have their say? The scariest part of any reading. But also the most rewarding.
Have an idea for an event for NessBookFest 2017? Perhaps you’d like to organise it, or participate? If so, head along to the NBF Facebook page and let them know!