I have been to, and continue to attend, many poetry events. When I started out, I wanted to read as many of my poems as possible. As time wore on I wanted to listen to as many poems, and poets, as possible. How can you write great poetry without hearing and reading it? On one level, poetry events can be very similar, on another, the mysterious alchemy of place, performer and subject matter make them all unique.
Almost exactly forty years ago, after sitting my O level examinations, I made my first, and until last weekend, only visit to Scotland. With the Schools Hebridean Expedition, I visited Harris for two weeks, under canvas. We stayed at Rhenigidale, before the road went in. By train from London to Inverness. By train again from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, by ferry to Kyleakin, by coach to Uig, by ferry to Tarbert, by coach along the road north to Lewis, and then a seven mile hike along the old postman’s track to Rhenigidale. It would be fair to describe it as some trek, and although it was August, it rained most days. A memorable adventure, my memories of magnificent scenery were tempered by the arduous journey and subsistence camping lifestyle, oh, and the rain.
Almost exactly forty years, and a couple of months ago, I also met Peter Kerr when we both attended the same sixth form in Bedford, England. We soon became friends, with a common interest in the Arts, and pop music in particular.
He was the best man at my wedding to my late first wife, and we have stayed in touch, on and off ever since. Latterly, Peter’s interest in the Arts has manifested itself in poetry dominated by the landscape that surrounds him on the islands. My interest in poetry has been shaped more by the seething cauldron of people and opinions that a big city like Birmingham produces.
And so fate drew us together once more. Peter was invited to be the headline poet at the inaugural Stornowords, in Stornoway, an event which he invited me to. By an odd combination of circumstance, I am sure to his surprise, it was an invitation I was able to accept. I could see an old friend who I had not seen for a decade, I could travel through a part of Great Britain unvisited by me, and I could catch and perform some poetry supporting a new venture. How could I say no?
The journey by car was more straight forwards this time, the journey no less great. 501 miles from Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, to Ullapool, another fifty miles across the Minch to Stornoway. We drove through the night on Thursday up the M6, allowing the darkest hours to swallow up the drab Midlands and North Western conurbations, the Lake District slipped by unseen, as did Glasgow, until we stopped at Stirling at around 3.15am. My conversation with the petrol kiosk attendant was surreal. I had no idea what he was saying, but my educated guesses that they involved pin numbers and loyalty cards seemed to work. A common language maybe, but his words appeared to have been processed by the sort of voice distortion device usually used by the BBC to disguise the voice of malevolent terrorists.
From here, our hard yards were rewarded. Although dawn was not due for another hour, the light grew on the horizon an hour before. The lush countryside past Perth, gave way to the grandeur of Inverness and the sparkling moonlit waters of the Moray Firth, then the rugged might of the Cairngorms. It was as if a film slowly changed from black and white to glorious technicolour as Ullapool drew closer.
That last fifty miles by sea is a reminder of how far north you really are, which is closer to the North Pole by latitude than Moscow. A calm crossing avoided the attention of the legendary Blue Men of the Minch.
The canvas of forty years ago was replaced by the somewhat more agreeable facilities of the Cabarfeidh Hotel, providing a convenient base for Stornoway Words at the Artizan Café, barely a mile away in Church Street where the staff made extraordinary efforts to make us welcome and ply me with Harris Gin ( highly recommended).
Arriving early with Peter I had the chance to become better acquainted with organiser Mathew Nicholson. I too run a poetry evening, so instinctively I knew what was going through his mind. Would the venue be open? Would the staff turn up? Would anyone turn up? Would the headliner turn up? Would they be good? Would there be enough open – micers? Would there be too many open -micers? Would they over run their slots? Would they have enough poems? Would the open- micers be any good? Would anyone perform anything grossly inappropriate? Would it all finish too early? Would it all finish too late? I felt your anguish Mathew!
But I knew the evening was in safe hands. Mathew’s easy going, but confident manner, combined with a good grasp of what poetry is about, is the perfect combination for a host, and the audience, and poets, duly rolled in at the appointed hour. His own poems , potent and contemporary, were offered sparingly, offering the limelight to the other poets. In turn their poems, uniformly of a high standard, delighted and impressed. My partner Jane was also pleased to be given the opportunity to share her meditative poem “Pathway”, but was less than pleased when she discovered she was first out of the hat to read!
What struck me was how the landscape and geography of the islands shaped so many of the open mic poems, from landscapes to the intensity of personal relationships in island communities. My favourite poem came from Magz Mcleod, “We are the Offspring of Warriors”. It combined a confidence of identity, a sense of place and history, and a bold premise which is absent from the more cosmopolitan, multicultural urban centres. A cracker which I wish I could hear and read again.
Headliner Peter Kerr with Jane (left) and Mairead (right)
Headliner Peter Kerr delivered a substantial set which focussed on the people, wildlife, landscape and practices of the Islands. His poems are short, sharp affairs. In wild juxtaposition to the panoramic sweep of the geography of the area, Peter takes poetic freeze frames, poems which may only be a handful of lines. In so doing he has to make every word count, but can examine his subjects in forensic detail. Confidently delivered, it was a performance which did the event, the subject matter, and himself, proud. The following illustrates his imaginative imagery:
A day when if the ferry
Pulled too hard
On leaving Tarbert
It would unplug
The sky to drain into
The waiting loch below
Peter Kerr 171/16
Then, some three hours later it was over. Mathew had kindly offered me two slots in which to read, my decision to start with a Gaelic phrase was a wise one, and my quirky English offerings about (amongst other things) adultery, pre decimal coinage and Cheryl Cole appeared to travel safely and soundly. Tapadh leibh.
The trip has inspired at least three poems, about my journey, the Blue Men of the Minch, and the Callanish Stones and taught me much, not least that the Outer Hebrides, far from being a population outpost was in Viking times a communications hub. Whilst debate and discourse is meat and drink to urban life, the towering silent mountains, the deep, eerie lochs, and the Atlantic weather are constant reminders that it is mother nature who always has the last word.
Mathew intends running this as an occasional event. If you are planning a visit to the islands do find out if it coincides with Stornowords, you will not be disappointed.