Interview with Valerie Gillies
Scottish poet Valerie Gillies was interviewed in the sitting room of her home in Edinburgh on Wednesday, May 28, 2008. She is the author of nine poetry collections, her most recent being The Lightning Tree (Polygon 2002) and The Spring Teller (Luath 2008). The interview below focuses on her three-year post as Edinburgh Makar, which ran from June 1, 2005 to May 31, 2008. The ancient position of Makar, dating back to the court poets of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was reinstated in Edinburgh in 2002. Valerie Gillies was preceded as Makar by Stewart Conn and is succeeded by Ron Butlin. As one of the first Edinburgh Makars, and one of the first women poet laureates in the U.K., her position has involved much reflection on what it means to occupy such a role, and what such a role means for the craft of poetry. In the interview below, Laura Severin is interested in how Gillies’s work, both as Makar and before, can be characterized as a feminist, rather than formalist, approach to art, in that it defines poetry as a social and political art form that is always embedded in daily life.
FV: Your three-year post as Edinburgh Makar ends in just a few days, on May 31, right?
FV: What has the position meant to you?
VG: Well, it is a post that I took over from the first-ever Edinburgh Makar, Stuart Conn, who is a wonderful poet and broadcaster. I think Edinburgh may have been the first city in Scotland to decide to have its own Makar. It was six years ago that the post began. Each Makar does it in his or her own way, in their own fields of interest, bringing their skills, their skill set into the “Makardom,” as I like to call it. (Gillies laughs.) We’re really taking up where the old Scots Makars left off. They were the court poets of the fifteenth and sixteenth century who were with the Scottish kings, and who were known as Makars for their technical skills. So, the word Makar means maker or creator, a person who has the technical skills to produce work on current issues, or whatever is of interest to them, or what seems important to them. The Makar should really be about that, I think, being able to produce a poem on any subject. The request from the Council is for one official poem each year. So, it’s a three-year post, and you have three official poems.
I was made Makar in 2005, and there were a couple of poems in 2005-2006, which really were, in my mind, official poems and appeared in the newspapers. One of them was for the Balm Well at Liberton, a well whose history goes back to around 1000 AD, with Queen Margaret of Scotland looking after it, caring for it, building a chapel there. It’s a very healing well, and, of course, it’s in the inner city now, as Edinburgh has spread. It’s become part of a beer and burger pub lawn. (Gillies and the interviewer laugh.) So, it’s one of these old wells with its own architectural canopy that’s of interest, and it’s own history, which was written about one thousand years ago in Scotland. It’s a wonderful place to try to preserve within Edinburgh. So, that was the first official poem. Also in that first year, one of the most important, if not the most important, events for me as Makar was to compose a poem for Marie Curie Hospice, here in Edinburgh. That became quite a challenge to think of a poem for their new quiet room, where every object in the room, or to do with the room, was specially made for that room. So, the table would be made, the glass of the windows would be made. Anything else in the room–the furniture–that was all created for that room, and so was the poem. So that was the first year of being Makar.
Then, in the second year, the Council opened the new Waverley Court buildings and moved all their employees, thousands of them, into this new area down near Waverley Station. I think the old city gas works had been there, and, before that, the great Trinity Chapel had been moved to make way for the railway line in the nineteenth century. So, it’s a historic site, but the new building is utterly modern and has all sorts of interesting recycling and eco-friendly aspects to it, which were interesting. They asked me to write a poem for the opening of the new building by Princess Anne, which was a very exciting event for the Council, and one which was eagerly looked forward to by all the people who worked in the building–to see Princess Anne being shown around all the new parts of the building, and to realize that it was formally opened. So, there was a public performance of the poem on that day, and a chat with HRH, who seemed to really listen to the poem and asked me questions about it. Really interesting questions like, “How did you ever choose anything to write about? You know, there’s so much in Edinburgh. How did you fix on something to write about?” So, there was a very attentive audience, and it was a fun day. It was really good.
FV: What was the name of that last poem?
VG: That poem’s called “To Edinburgh.”
[Stone above storms, you rear upon the ridge:
we live on your back, its crag-and-tail,
spires and tenements stacked on your spine,
the castle and the palace linked by one rope.
A spatchcocked town, the ribcage split open
like a skellie, a kipper, a guttit haddie.
We wander through your windy mazes,
all our voices are flags on the high street.
From the sky’s edge to the grey firth
we are the city, you are within us.
Each crooked close and wynd is a busy cut
on the crowded mile that takes us home
in eden Edinburgh, centred on the rock,
our city with your seven hills and heavens.]
FV: Yes, I saw a copy of that in the Scottish Poetry Library.
VG: Yes, you might well have done. It’s appeared in the local papers, as well in the Evening News. I could show you, you know, a copy of it there. In fact, the poem was really, in my mind, made so that it could be used as an inscription. I asked the people who work at Waverley Court, via email, how they would like to see lines from the poem perpetuated in the building. How would it become a lasting memorial to the city, and to opening the building? We tried various ideas–the poem on the glass by the banisters, the poem in a print framed, the poem etched in stone in the courtyard that the staff use for their coffee times, or a couplet of the poem on a bench made by a Scottish furniture maker for people to use in the staff outdoor area. People voted for it going on the bench.
FV: Isn’t that interesting. I would think they would have preferred something more formal.
VG: So, that will happen. It hasn’t happened yet because these things happen slowly.
FV: So the poem isn’t displayed anywhere else?
VG: It doesn’t appear as an inscription anywhere else. It should be there by next summer, I hope. The Council will choose a furniture maker and a letter cutter. I hope I have some input into those choices, and into how it appears in the carving, because it should be something lovely and free, you know, free hand.
FV: Yes, I think of the benches at Melrose.
[The reference here is to Gillies’s poem “Ballad of Leaderfoot,” which was carved in gaelic freehand by the sculptor Garry Fay into a series of stone benches near the town of Melrose.]
VG: Yes, we might perhaps use the same letter cutter, although it would be in wood, so we’ll have to see if that’s possible. He has this lovely free style, and I think it would be good. So it may be a bench. There would be room for the lines running across the base, if it doesn’t have a back, or they may want it to have a back. The trouble with backs on benches is it tends to look a bit more like a memorial bench, whereas if the words are incorporated in the bench somehow, it just seems more naturally there for everyday. They have selected the couplet they want–which one the Council wants to go in. They could have used any couplet from the poem, though. The idea is similar to the Melrose one so that a person could sit on a bit of it, and it still makes some sense. You’ve got to picture these things in use. They could have picked any couplet really. So, there’s the hope that it actually might be visible, maybe, by next summer.
FV: That would be nice. I’ll have to come back and see it. And your third year poem?
VG: The third year really became a set of High Street haiku. They were performed at the opening of the exhibition by Anna King and myself. [Gillies and the fiber artist Anna King collaborated on a piece entitled “Close, Closer, Closest,” exhibited at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh from October 2007 to January 2008.] Our installation of memory sticks had to do with the High Street, and all the old closes and wynds. The haiku were written down in a notebook that Anna made for me. I walked down the High Street one morning, and down the Canongate in the afternoon. So, in the morning I started off at the castle, walking down, just composing haiku according to the things I saw on that morning, in that moment, in that season of the year. Some of them are snatches of conversation with people. Some of them are humorous because obviously funny things happen as you’re walking down the hill and you observe. They became a series of poems for reading aloud to audiences, and they obviously work as a printed set of haiku as well, but they were very much a single day down the High Street Royal Mile Canongate, between the castle and the palace.
FV: So where can I get a copy of those?
VG: Well, I could send you a copy of those, or I could perform some of them for you, but I think that you’ll probably see some various snatches of them in the books and papers that are part of that exhibition which we’ll have a look at this afternoon. [Gillies and the interviewer went to Anna King’s studio that afternoon to see the memory sticks that were the heart of the exhibition.]
VG: Good. Yes.
FV: So was “The Lady Victoria Colliery” poem part of your term?
[The Lady is the last of all her kind.
Headframe in the clouds, these pulley-whorls
Change with the light, a beacon to remind
Who fuelled Scotland, lit us, kept us warm.
The shaft was sunk to reach the deepest seams:
The Jewel, clear shining, the Splint, hard glinting,
The Parrot crackling with its bright papingo flame,
All the extent and take of the colliery workings
For miles underground below the valley of Esk.
Where a face opened, they cut the coal out
With pick and shovel. Deep mining mechanised
With ear-splitting shearers, self-advancing supports.
The miner was always listening to make sure
If he could hear the earth shift, the creak of props
Before roof-fall, the squeal of chocks under pressure.
Working underground gave him an edge.
Men and hutches shot up and down the shaft
In double-decker cages with a balance rope,
With brakes, jacketed cylinders, drop valves,
Steam-powered by winding-engine, lion rampant.
Steel-framed, arcaded, with sheet-metal roofs,
The red brick buildings are fit for purpose.
The endless rope, tub circuit, tipplers moved
Into the estuary of railway yards and sidings.
At washers and hoppers, at the jigger screens,
The shades that leant across the picking-tables
Never stopped the chutes of coal in a torrent,
Their teamwork controlling drum and cable.
Keep her headgear. The Lady burns out minds.
Without her wheels we could never know
How, in the miner’s eye, a coal glows.
The Lady is the last of all her kind.]
VG: There were so many events that happened during my time as Makar, and many of them came along because of the kind of poetry that I write. I would say that the Royal Commission poem came because I had written so much before about sites from the past, and how people are moved by them today, and what relationship they feel they have with them today. So they asked me, and it was rather lovely at the same time I was Makar so that they could say, you know, that the poem was written by the Edinburgh Makar. But the commission itself really came from the Royal Commission of Ancient Monuments, and had to do with their year of Treasured Places–the most treasured place in Scotland, where the public voted online for an image from their archive, from the Royal Commission’s archives, which are a most wonderful source. They are the real treasure– their photographs, their survey drawings, their host of images from all over Scotland of historic and archaeological sites. In the end the site was picked that had the biggest number of votes; you know, thousands of people voted for it, and it was a complete surprise to me. I didn’t know what was going to be voted for, and I’d had this picture of myself flying up to Orkney and writing a new poem about Skara Brae, or one of the famous prehistoric sites. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I realized that it was an industrial archaeological site that the most people voted for. But it stands to reason, really, because there is a whole community behind the mining museum and that community is all the people in different parts of Scotland who have mining in their background. Their fathers or grandfathers were miners. Their grandmothers worked on the surface of mines, so they would naturally vote when they saw that tremendously symbolic drawing of the pit wheels at the head of the mine that symbolized, you know, hundreds of years of Scottish coal mining to them. So they would vote for it.
FV: It must have been very difficult to come up with a poem . . . .
VG: Well, it was a great change from writing about wells, which is what I’d been doing mostly for three years. [Gillies’s most recent book of poems, The Spring Teller, focuses on her visits to wells in Scotland and Ireland.]
FV: But you are known for writing about nature. . . .
VG: And mostly in far flung places, where you’re only hearing the birds and to suddenly have to write about heavy machinery underground, which is the opposite kind of din from the song of the thrush. (Gillies laughs.) Someone asked me this very recently at a poetry reading. They said, “Must be an awful shock to your system to have to write about a mine when you’ve been writing about wells.” And I said actually it wasn’t really because mining engineers have so much to cope with in the way of underground water that I felt I understood part of what they were up against! (Gillies laughs again.) I did go off and research like mad during December and January. I was working with the head of industrial archaeology, Miles Oglethorpe, who has written a whole book on Scottish collieries. They all have disappeared or subsided. But the Lady Victoria is the one that the country has focused on trying to preserve–to let people see the machinery and how their ancestors worked in these places. Oglethorpe gave me a lot of technical help, and, at the end of the two months, I said, “Do you think you could give me my mining engineering exam this week, because I’ll have forgotten everything by next week.” There was a tremendous amount to learn about how the mine actually worked, in order to recapture what it must have felt like. Going there in November and December and cramming a hardhat on my head and going around with the head of the mining museum, it was so cold and so dusty and so tough. I kept thinking, “I don’t how people worked in these conditions,” and yet, I mean, it was obviously easier for me because I could go back and have a coffee and then start writing. I found it really hard to envisage the people. It was just as if you had a prehistoric site to work on; you couldn’t ask the hundreds of people who lived in it, and used it, because they were gone. But the one advantage I had was being able to interview one ex-miner. He brought it alive for me and actually took me to hear the machinery, which was absolutely ear splitting.
FV: And there probably wasn’t any ear protection in the days of the Lady Victoria Colliery?
VG: Exactly, yes.
FV: But I suppose their hearing was the least of their worries; it was probably their lungs…?
VG: Yes, because they started to use these big machines, where before they’d used the pick and shovel, and hacked away. The machinery meant that the dust became incredibly fine and so it was a lot more dangerous. It was hugely more efficient, but ultimately it was much more deleterious to their health. Man and machine, as ever, are in a complicated relationship. But, you know, if you look at men and boys walking around the mine museum, when they see these huge machines, you see the rush of, “Yes, how do we work this.” It looks like something out of Jaws. It’s a whole process that I knew very little about, although I spent quite a lot of my girlhood in Lanarkshire, which is a very famous mining area. Where my grandparents lived was the farming edge of it, because there was a farming boundary and a mining boundary. We were near where the two areas met, and I used to see the miners. They would walk when they weren’t on shift. They would walk for hours with their greyhounds up over the moors to get the fresh air, and they always walked in bands, in groups of half a dozen or ten of them. So, you got that tremendous sense of community, because their lives depended on each other. I’d watch them from a distance as a child, and I suppose I thought a little bit about what their lives might be like. My grandfather, for example, really respected them because education was important to them. It was the miners’ children who used the local libraries, for example, and they were very keen on educating their children. Many of their children became engineers, for example. Whereas, the farmers didn’t bother; their children were going to work on the farm. In the mines very often, you know, you might lose your job if your son didn’t also go down in the mine, and you might lose your house, so there was a sinister side to the bosses there. But they did believe in education and that was interesting.
FV: So, when I asked you what the post and position meant to you, it was the writing itself?
VG: Yes, the official poems.
FV: It was the poems and the poetry?
VG: Yes. I think that the other side of being a Makar is the community side, of course, and that was really important to me because I was already working in the hospital arts area. I began to experience [the significance of the post] firsthand, if I was in a ward chatting away and reciting poems and seeing what people wanted to think about writing or reading. The patients would then say, “Oh, the Edinburgh Makar is in here today.” And then the nurses would say to me, “Oh they talked about it all week because the Makar was here.” I suddenly realized this is a real grassroots grasp of who a Makar might be. You know, it’s somebody who is actually there, and you meet them and they can recite to you, so that became very strong over the three years, in an area in which I was already working, and where the post of Makar might seem very real. Because often you get people saying, you know, “What’s the point of poetry? Nobody’s interested in it. Nobody reads it nowadays. People don’t want to hear it. They’ve had enough if it at school.” And you get this tremendous negative image of poetry from which some of the politicians and councilors are not exempt. Some of the councilors are very keen on poetry and see in what ways the use of poetry could make an issue come to the fore. I think they would be surprised though, probably, that the ordinary punter who has ended up in the hospital for a spell began to think poetry was important, or they knew which words they wanted to express, how they were feeling at the moment, and that it might be the words of a poet they wanted, if they could only just remember, or if I could find something for them that they would like to read, they’d already liked such and such an author. They got through that book and then there was the next book. You know, there was a time I was going around with the roving library in the Western General hospital and people were getting through books at a great rate. Other people had no interest in books and what they wanted was for you to recite poems standing there at the bed. So it could be anything.
FV: And you could do that, Valerie, recite at their beds?
VG: Well, it feels risky because sometimes I don’t know the poem they’re asking for. So what we did there, working with Artlink, was that we made up a little program. It went ahead of me so that people could look at a list of poems. Say, for Burns Day it would be a list of Burns poems and people could say, “That’s the one I want to hear.” So, I would be forearmed with a particular poem, and, often, I would do the first verse and the person would know the rest anyway. So they would continue on reciting, and I loved that because I love when people are reciting to me, and the poem is in their possession. They know it by heart, and, that, of course, especially happens with Burns. It becomes really important because it evokes a lifetime and life events for that person that they look back on. They’re thinking, “ I really need this poem at the moment because it’s telling me something about the meaning of my life and I remember that time.” One elderly lady talked about how she had been a champion Highland dancer. Here’s this tiny old lady in the bed, you know. She said she always remembered the poetry that was recited at certain events because she was also going onstage to dance. She was able to talk about her dancing, and you could see for a moment that she was dancing in her memory. She’s telling about this because it was the poetry that triggered it, because she remembered recitals by other people and, you know, her brother reciting, her son reciting. So it’s quite fascinating to see. There’s just so many thousands of examples, but that really is poetry out there as it should be. When it feels risky, you know, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also where it should be. Poetry’s not a frail little seedling; it’s quite a mighty tree.
FV: Okay, well, you answered a lot of my questions in that first question. Let’s see what else. This is something that is interesting me, and I might eventually write something more on this. Would you differentiate the Makar tradition and the poet laureate tradition and, if so, what do you see as the differences? How is it unique to be a Makar?
VG: Well, I think to be Makar for me is walking up or down the High Street, where William Dunbar and Robert Henryson and these poets, hundreds of years ago, went and feeling that there is this very strong Scottish tradition, although we no longer have our court poets. That’s what it feels like to me, that I’m walking in their footsteps, very literally. I’m walking on the same ridge, the same craggy bit that they wandered up and down. I’m going past the places that were their oyster bars and ale houses. I may be having a hot chocolate (she laughs), but there is a connection. It has to do with the great technical powers that they had and, which the modern poets, hopefully, are thinking they might inherit–you know, the ways of making.
FV: Do you think the Scottish tradition is a more communal tradition?
VG: Well, it obviously would have been for a court poet because we’re talking about a time when there were so few people compared to today. Nowadays, the High Street is so swamped with people, certainly for all the summer, but quite often, right around the year. There are thousands and thousands of people in the center of Edinburgh who are passing through. [It’s difficult to] try to think of how you might evoke the spirit of an old Scots poet who would probably know everyone, and be known by everybody that they encountered on that mile. It’s quite a challenge to think of that, but, as long as you have confidence in poetry, you’re going to be able to feel that it will open the door and it will reach people from, you know, wherever they’re coming from.
FV: I don’t know if you think this is right or not, but I think of the poet laureate tradition as one in which the poet is above the people, whereas the Makar tradition, to me, seems one in which the poet is more at the same level as the people. You are recognized for your skill, but you’re sort of one of them. Is that accurate or…?
VG: I think there is a sense of that at the moment with our new Scottish parliament and with our new Scottish government. We’re feeling much more of a sense of identity than we did even two or three years ago, so this is something that’s happening at the moment. You know, the Makar can go down to the parliament, as I did, and read a poem about teaching Scottish history, language, tradition in the schools, and make a plea in the form of a sonnet. And people feel that that is a way of putting across the whole reason for teaching things to do with Scotland. That suddenly comes alive for me, and I feel, “Yes, I’m actually talking to people who are listening.” So that’s, I think, increasing in its power–that we feel this sense of Scottishness. If I’m teaching poetry, I will say to school children, “You’re all Makars. You’re the young Makars. You’re going to be writing using your skills.” And there is a feeling that there could be a Makar in every classroom. I think that could spread out, you know, the ripples could go very far.
FV: It’s exciting. So you’ve basically already answered this question, but are there any other of the Makars who are important to you as a poet, or are there other Scottish poets who are important to you, and who you see as Makars, even though they might have not have that official title?
VG: Yes, I think Violet Jacob would be a poet whom I envy, I suppose, if we’re looking to a poet of the recent past or the fairly recent past. I think her song-like powers and her gift in Scots is something that I am absolutely inspired by. I love to recite her poetry for other people.
FV: I don’t know her work. . . .
VG: I’ve got a book right here actually. There was one that just came out a year or two ago, a collection of the poems of Marion Angus and Violet Jacob,which is wonderful. It’s a big, fat book, as you can see; it’s absolutely stacked with these little highlights. [Gillies had marked many pages with slips of paper.] [The poems], they’re very much of their time, as she’s writing mostly just after the first World War, in which her son was killed. I must let you hear one. I’m sure you’ll have no bother with the Scots. After the death of her son, she began to write laments, which I suppose were really laments for all the young men who were lost in the first World War, particularly from Angus. Because my grandfather came from Angus, and was a speaker of the most wonderful rich Scots dialect, I love to hear the sound of her poetry, and I can hear the way that they spoke at that time. This is an uncanny, eerie poem about whether we ever really meet our loved ones again, in this life, and it’s called “The Brig” which is Angus/Scots for the bridge.[Valerie Gillies reads “The Brig.”]
Click here to hear an audio recording of “The Brig”
FV: That’s absolutely beautiful.
VG: It’s from a book called Voices from their Ain Country. So they’re both writing in northeast Scots.
FV: I wish you could read them all to me.
VG: I love reading them. It’s that whole feeling of it being an inheritance to me. There is the fact that it’s Angus/Scots and it’s so melodic, and it’s also about a time that I know through my grandparents. I heard it as a little child, [and so I know] what it was like and how the people felt. So it strikes a chord.
FV: There is something else that I want to ask you about. I’m interested in all the women who have become poet laureates recently or, in your case, Makar. I was going to ask you if you felt that the Makar tradition was more amenable to women poets than the laureate tradition, or what do you think about so many women poets having this role, at this time?
VG: Well, as the first Edinburgh Makar who is a woman, it’s not been in any way something that people have remarked on. They haven’t even bothered to say, “The first woman Edinburgh Makar,” which I think is a very good sign.
VG: I think it shouldn’t be remarkable; you know, girls and the boys are equally poetic. So I think that’s a good sign. [Valerie Gillies goes on to reflect on the outgoing poet laureate of Britain, Andrew Motion.] I met Andrew Motion in St. Andrews, you know, the poet laureate for Britain. He’s a lovely guy, and he’s done so much with the National Poetry Archives, the sound archive of poets reading their own work. Living poets, you know, capturing them before we all shuffle off our mortal coil. I’ve heard recordings there of poets I greatly admire, but I’d never heard them read. So it’s very exciting, and he’s been instrumental in setting all that up and getting people going out around the country, recording. I appeared in an anthology along with him when we were both young poets in our twenties, and I feel that he’s been a force for good in talking about not remaining poet laureate for the whole of his life, but passing it over to somebody else because he’s still young….ish. (Gillies laughs.) It’s an important stage to reach because he could quite easily have sat there as poet laureate forever, but he’s been so active, particularly in the teaching of poetry in the schools and in the National Poetry Archive that obviously it is very exhausting to do these posts even for a few years. If the poet is conscious of the community side of the post, they’re going to put a tremendous amount of energy into it, and therefore, I think something like three years is more than enough. Certainly, where the poet may end up, you know, not earning, and, therefore, subsidizing the post themselves, because it’s an honorary thing, that’s got a short life. There’s a very limited time that people can put that amount of their energies into something, because you’ve got to come back and earn a living somehow. You have to be teaching or doing something else.
FV: What kind of compensation are you given for being the Edinburgh Makar?
VG: What happens with the Edinburgh Makars is that the Council gives you a thousand pounds each year for the official poem. Hopefully, in the future, it will become a residency like other residencies, where the Makar will be paid a fee for each year, and their public events would take up half their time and their own writing would take up half their time.
FV: So you’ve done all these events just for free?
FV: Oh my goodness.
VG: That’s part of the setting up [of the post], you know, bringing the Makardom into public consciousness. Stuart Conn did it before me, and Ron Butlin will be doing the same. But I’ve done as much as I can to bring it to the Council’s attention that it’s lovely to have this post, but there has to be more of a commitment to the poet who is in the post.
FV: Yes, absolutely.
VG: [It would help to have] even secretarial support or public relations support or somebody to help keep our diary of events, when we’re asked to do things. Because the more people are in the post over several years, the more the public becomes aware of the Makar and asks the poet to come and do things. That is how it should be, but the poet can’t subsidize that forever, so that’s something for the future, but hopefully, you know, whoever is Makar will actually be supported.
FV: Yes, I would think it would be difficult to keep up this level of activity without appropriate support.
VG: Yes, [and each time there is a new Makar] it raises our game. You know, if we see what somebody’s just done, then the next person comes along and says, “Well I could do something different” but there’s a kind of benchmark to think of, right? My thing will be different, but [I will need to live up to the performance of the previous Makar.] Stuart, who was before me, was an absolutely wonderful Makar, a marvelous public speaker. He was part of the whole bid to make Edinburgh the City of Literature. That was successful, and each Makar is going to bring something different which is exciting. But I think the Council will need to rethink how they enable the Makar to do as much as is demanded, and keep it as exciting. Because at the moment I feel. . . . I used to run in these relay races as a teenager, and the whole thing of it is being able to pass the baton on at full speed, and then see the next person sprinting away with it. It’s a wonderful, exciting experience, and I do feel as if I’m running towards the next Makar at the moment, holding out this baton. I’m going to put it very firmly in their grasp and they can take it and do something entirely different with it, but I do hope that their support will increase.
FV: Yes, that’s not nearly enough support for all you’re doing. I read somewhere that you had done 140 appearances in the past three years. Which ones of those stand out to you?
VG: Let me get my list. It’s all going into a blur. I think they probably divide into two groups–readings and commissions for my own work and then, on the other side, the community things. Of the community things, this year’s Burns Day event with the fiddler, Laure Patterson, poetry and song performed live on the wards of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, was a very moving experience.
FV: So that’s part of your poetry and healing work.
VG: Yes, it is. That was a wonderful single day. Artlink made up our program for us, and circulated it around the wards in the days before we came in. So, when we arrived, we had our request sheet, and we could go to individual people in side rooms, or to a whole ward, depending on what people had asked for, and it was a real celebration….
FV: Was that recorded, Valerie?
VG: No, (she laughs), it was very much live! It was wonderful. People sang to us and recited to us as well.
FV: What day and year was that?
VG: That’s 25 of January, 2008. Actually Burns’s birthday. So it was a moveable feast, going around and around the wards. People got shortbread and treats, and it was lovely. That was set up by Artlink, who pay artists and writers to work with patients in hospital, and who I’ve worked for before.
FV: What exactly is Artlink?
VG: You can see on their website that they’re a hospital arts organization. The arm of Artlink that I work for is involved in bringing the arts to hospitals, and mostly it’s the visual arts. The work is in psychiatric, general, and children’s hospitals, so you can find a visual artist holding a workshop or a musician, like Laure, going around for people or a writer coming in to help people with their writing. So we don’t always do performance events like this one.
FV: More often there are workshops?
VG: Yes, they’re often workshops from Artlink. I’ve really moved slightly to one side now with the creative writing workshops for the Maggie’s Cancer Care Centers in Dundee and in Edinburgh, and I helped set up the first-ever creative writing workshops in Maggie’s-Dundee with other writers who are members of Lapidus. Lapidus is a association of writers who work in the healing arts. Now I go every Monday to lead the creative writing workshop in Maggie’s-Edinburgh, and that’s ongoing. So that will continue, and I think that’s offering people quite a powerful tool in their writing to explore what’s been happening to them.
FV: So do any other performances stand out?
VG: Oh, yes. If I could talk a little bit about another community piece that happened at the same time, it would be the Wychl Elm Project. It doesn’t have anything to do with witches, it means bendy or pliant, wychl. This project was with the composer Savourna Stevenson, who I’d worked with before, and we went to work with a group of students at the Newbattle Abbey College, in a community arts project, to compose new songs about the elm trees. The idea behind it is that the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh have grown some new saplings which they hope will be resistant to the disease that killed most of the British elms, and so we’re performing the songs and recording them. The new young trees, we hope, will be brought to Newbattle Woods and planted there, so the students will see them going in and will sing their songs to them.
FV: That’s wonderful.
VG: It’s been fun.
FV: So how does doing an event as the Makar work? Somebody calls up and says, “We need the Makar” and you just say okay?
VG: Well, again, it was really a bonus for the Royal Botanical Gardens that I was already the Makar, because I had worked with the idea of the elm trees before this, when writing an elegy for Tim Stead, the sculptor, which was published there. The botanical gardens have had various exhibitions of his works. I think that’s why they asked me to get involved, and Savourna had done similar work before. So, they needed a musician and a writer to help the young people with their song writing, exploring their own instrument, their own musical setting, with their composing really. So that’s how it came about; it emerged and grew from previous work. It’s been fun that people felt they were working with the Makar so it works both ways. That’s another community one. I can always email you an update of these events.
FV: Oh, that’s okay. I just wanted to know the ones that stood out….
VG: Yes, well, I think these are the lovely ones. These, and reciting the Lady Victoria Colliery poem for the staff of the Royal Commission. We actually had to have two readings of the poem because so many people wanted into the room, so we had one performance after the other. That was lovely; that was great.
FV: So, in the past three years have you felt a tension between your public role as a poet and the need for privacy, which is essential for creation?
VG: Well, if I was a really kindly person, I would say, “ Oh, no.” (Gillies and the interviewer laugh.) But then I ask myself why I’m looking forward to returning to my hermitage for the next six months. I have to say it has been great fun and both things have fed each other, because I’ve been writing the book in exactly the same three years as I’ve been Makar. The two things have fed off each other, but it has meant a number of interruptions. [It’s been difficult] to be the kind of creative dog with a bone that I feel like being over my writing. I’ve been going “rrrr,” holding onto my bone and trying to concentrate. It’s definitely been difficult to get my head around doing one thing and then rushing back to doing another, because writing the book of springs and wells has been such a magnum opus. It’s on a big, big scale. It’s involved going to all different parts of Scotland and some parts of Ireland as well, so it’s been quite far flung, whereas the Makar role has really focused on Edinburgh, so there’s a sort of geographical tension there as well.
FV: The springs and wells book is coming out in the fall, right?
VG: Yes, I hope it’ll be out in time for the book festival. I’m handing it into the publisher on Monday.
FV: Oh, my. I’m not sure you should be talking with me right now!
VG: There’s been a lot of details to work on because there’s so much with the cartographer, with the different photographers who’ve contributed . . . .
FV: Is the name of it The Spring Teller?
VG: The Spring Teller is still the title. I think the publisher would have preferred it to be Healing and Holy Wells of Scotland, or something which would have sold a lot of books.
FV: That’s kind of boring.
VG: Well, I think it’s nice to keep it open so that people who’ve got various interests might read it.
FV: And who is publishing it?
VG: Luath. Luath Press.
FV: Okay, just two more questions then, but this one is a long question. You know that I have frequently quoted a review of The Lightning Tree in which critic John Hudson has said of your installation pieces that “poems in stone and bronze will hardly ever challenge.” He’s basically saying public art and great art are incompatible. It’s a statement that I, of course, disagree with, but do you feel that it’s difficult to create a public art that’s also aesthetically challenging?
VG: I think anything for inscription is going to be the most challenging line that you’re ever asked to compose because it has to be very terse. It has to encapsulate everything you feel about the site, but are not going to dwell on in a great, prosy way. It’s some perception of that place which is also going to move other people when they arrive there. I mean, obviously, the answer to the whole question is just the name Ian Hamilton- Findlay, whose work is so moving and so much of the place. So, the first thing to say is it’s really challenging for its creator. It is not really meant to be in a book, so, in one sense, I agree with him that you’re reading it on the page and you’re thinking, “Hmm, I’m not sure. . . .” But then there are a lot of inscriptions which have been printed in books and people still seem to get something out of them, so there’s a big question there. The challenge is also to reach the person who comes to read it who’s maybe not used to reading any poetry at all, and that’s one of the exciting things about it. It’s going to be in a place like the front window of Coffee Republic, where people who never ever read any poetry are going to say, “What is that!” So, it will also be available as a text somehow, the complete text. There’s the whole feeling of poetry existing anywhere and in any form which interests me, and which I would say is extremely current. It’s something people are beginning to recognize, to understand, to say, “Oh yes, that’s what I feel when I stand here” or “That’s what I think about this city.”
I had a phone call, I think, two or three days ago from two young sculptors who are carving in flagstones in the center of Inverness, and they’d wanted an inscription which has to do with the river Ness, which flows right through the city. They said, “We’ve picked two lines of yours,” which I had sent them as a possible inscription. I’d sent them a number of possible inscriptions, and they said, “We’ve picked two lines of yours; they’re going outside the Hootenanny pub, where there’s live music between that pub and the river.” Now the river Ness can swell up hugely and flood. It’s a mighty powerful river a few feet outside this pub and the two lines they’d chosen were, “When we play live / you drown us out.” I said to them, “Well I hope it doesn’t happen!” (Gillies laughs.) They said, “Oh no, but we still want that inscription.” I thought, well, they’re really working on the edge in their lives as young sculptors, so they’re going to pick something which has to do with this. This pub and the live music and the river, and it was exciting to think, “They found something. . . . “ If you’d asked me to do the inscription, I would have chosen something else for the place, which is a well from the past and in Inverness. I’d sent them various ones to choose from, but, no, this is the one they wanted to execute. So, I think if you walk out of that pub and it’s playing live music and then you see river Ness looking pretty swollen and treacherous you’re going to think, “Hmm, this is a fairly edgy inscription.” But if I tell it to you just now, you understand it.
VG: With my speaking it, it can exist in different forms.
FV: The last question has to do with what you think will happen to the role of Edinburgh Makar in the future, what do you think it’ll do for Edinburgh?
VG: Well, I think that ties up with hoping that the future Makars will receive a lot of support from the Council and Edinburgh will build on the relationship that the city of Edinburgh has had with poets in the past, as the nurturing ground for a great poet like Robert Ferguson, who was being quoted today. And yesterday I saw the Lord Provost and other people reciting alongside Ferguson’s statue in the Canongate. There’s that tremendous link with the past and with Robert Burns, having wandered through the oyster bars and other dens of the Old Town, and Robert Louis Stevenson in both the New Town and the Old Town. You know, there’s so many poets; it is a city of poets, as well as novelists, so hopefully the Makar will embody that in the future and there’s certainly so much still to write about.
FV: Thank you for your time, Valerie.
Interviewer: Laura Severin
“To Edinburgh” was published in the Herald: May 2, 2007.
“Lady Victoria Colliery” was published on the website of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. They commissioned the poem as part of their Treasured Places public vote.
Thanks to Malcolm Hutton for granting permission to Free Verse to use the audio clip of Violet Jacobs’ poem “The Brig.”
Laura Severin is a professor of English and Women’s Studies at North Carolina State University, where she teaches twentieth-century British poetry and women’s literature. She is the author of Stevie Smith’s Resistant Antics (U of Wisconsin 1997) and Poetry off the Page: Twentieth-Century British Women Poets in Performance (Ashgate 2004). She currently works on contemporary Scottish women poets and multimedia art.