Scottish Poetry News: October 2017

Caroline Bird of Flint & Pitch introduces her new collection, and we look ahead at a month of poetry events across Scotland

Feature by Clare Mulley | 10 Oct 2017
  • Book Highlights

Caroline Bird arrives to talk about her latest book, In These Days Of Prohibition, on a rather grey Friday. She is open-faced and utterly edgeless – certainly not possessed of the kind of self-awareness that people might assume such a successful artist her age would naturally radiate. The youngest ever British poet to publish a full collection (Looking Through Letterboxes was released when Bird was just 15 years old), this will be her fifth, and that’s not even counting the work she’s done for theatre and education. 

Bird and Rachel McCrum are currently teaming up to perform double bills across the UK. “[Rachel] is brilliant. We’ve done all the hotspots – Sheffield, Bristol, Hebden Bridge, Edinburgh, Dundee… Rachel’s first collection (The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate) is this amazingly raw, but hopeful kaleidoscope, and every time she performs I hear the poems as if they’re new. It’s been really lovely to perform together; it’s quite lonely up on stage, especially if you’re performing new material and doing long sets, so it’s nice to have a buddy.”

We go on to talk about her surrealist leanings. “The first poem I really read that gave me permission to think the way I think was when I was 13 years old and I picked up James Tate’s selected poems, opened it on to a random page, and it was a poem called I Take Back All My Kisses. The first line was 'They got me because if a forest has no end I’ll go naked.' I remember feeling like I understood what it meant, but I couldn’t tell you (out loud) what it meant. It was like a dream where you wake up thinking ‘OK that was crazy, but I understood why I dreamt it.’ It went straight for my subconscious.”

The new collection is her boldest yet, in that it is a more autobiographical exploration of how poetry can be used simultaneously as a tool for truth and subterfuge. “I actually wrote one of the poems in this collection ten years ago in my early 20s, in a rehab facility in the Arizona Desert. The first thing they do is give you a patient intake questionnaire, where they ask things like ‘Have you ever had suicidal thoughts or tried to commit suicide?’ So the first thing I did was go back to my room and translate my questionnaire into poetry, and it became: 'Do you think of waterfalls when lighting a match? Have you started to look at pigeons like they know something? Does your hair hurt?' 

"I told my counsellor I’d done this and he asked 'What did you do that for?' I said, 'Well, you know, I write surreal poetry – that’s kind of how I understand the world and everything.' He said 'Hmm yeah, but it also seems like you’re trying to evade answering or thinking about the questions.' I told myself he was talking bollocks, whatever… and then it wasn’t til the last few years when I felt secure in myself enough to start thinking about that again and go 'Well maybe there is an element of me using poetry to hide from myself.' The first poem in the book is about whether or not, as poets, we also use poetry to hide from ourselves. When we’re ‘telling it slant,’ as it were, and dealing with the unspoken because that sings louder… how does that affect you as a person, when you are constantly dealing with the unspoken.”

The psychological journey covered by the book is in three sections, moving from the state of denial to acknowledgement, through to the realisation (triggered by Bird observing a child gleefully drumming on a manhole cover) that life continues and still has potential for beauty. It ends, rather perfectly, on the words ‘brum brum brum’. No-one with experience of depression, denial or keeping silent can fail to find a bit of themselves in its pages.

Events news

Particular highlights this month, in association with the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, are two amazing nights of poetry, song and more from Flint & Pitch (at the Paisley Arts Centre on 18 Oct, and the Bongo Club in Edinburgh on 20 Oct), with acts responding creatively to the theme ‘Reclaim This Script’.

It’s also a busy month of talks, workshops and readings elsewhere. On 12 Oct, Jay Whittaker is launching her first collection Wristwatch at Summerhall. George Szirtes appears at the Scottish Poetry Library on 4 Oct, and Ron Butlin is in conversation at University Memorial Chapel, Glasgow on 9 Oct. In deference to Black History Month, Engender, the NUS Scotland Women's Campaign and the SPL will unite on 17 Oct for Black Women’s Voices: an evening of performance and discussion.

In These Days of Prohibition is out now, published by Carcanet Press, RRP £9.99