EIBF 2015: Poetry and other Cultures

Luke Wright, Will Burns, Mike Garry and Deanna Rodger

Early on Saturday morning, those of us who had managed to get up in time had the treat of a gathering of poets as part of the this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival’s Babble On thread, curated by the wonderful Luke Wright.

The overarching theme was a sense of place in poetry: how poets react to their environment, and Wright launched the event with a journey with a sequence of poems that took us from London, via Hornchurch to his home in Bungay, Essex (“it’s where Brian Eno’s brother lives”), via Loughborough — where he went on an inadvisable date with a woman just because she was tall — and with a detour to Maidenhead, where he first realised he was Mondeo Man and learned to embrace it.

He’s a confident performer and is always worth watching, and his Fringe show, What I Learned from Johnny Bevan is getting good reviews.

His next two guests, although their poems were interesting enough, weren’t quite so assured.

Will Burns has recently has a Faber New Poets pamphlet published. His poems are inspired more by his surroundings in the Buckinghamshire commuter belt. He sounded fine and his delivery was clear, but he was so nervous he ran straight off the end of every poem into linking chat, so there was no time for applause, so he seemed to get into a vicious circle of panic, perhaps thinking we didn’t like him. I think we did. Just calm down a bit, Will, you’re doing fine.

Deanna Rodger was more comfortable, mainly reciting from memory her works about London. However, she ran all of them together, so that only after I noticed that the tone and imagery had changed, that a single line a few seconds ago might actually have been the title of a new poem. One part, possibly a poem on its own, about homelessness and the callousness of civic design — “the spikes are out tonight” — was particularly powerful, taking on bus stops and seats designed to make outdoor unwelcoming. Again, great work but more space, please, more time to reflect.

The final performer was Mike Garry who, Wright was chuffed to announce, was currently at the top of the vinyl singles chart with his tribute to Tony H Wilson, Saint Anthony. Before we got to that, though, he gave is a mix of different poems ” just messing about”. It moved from meditations on flowers by the Mersey to a lament for neglected and abused children, with a marching drum rhythm, through the tale of a farm dog gone wild, to stories of immigration and smuggling punctuated by the refrains “the sea is deep, the sea is cold, cold, cold” and “these things I do not know”.

It was a staccato burst of images and stories (one poem was slightly dated by a reference to the long-gone Victoria Wine) performed with a swagger. Saint Anthony itself is a treasure trove of references and a joyous celebration of all things Mancunian, and was a great way to finish the hour.

Poems of Iain Banks with Ken MacLeod

More poems on Sunday afternoon, with Ken MacLeod reading from his collection of Iain Banks’ poetry, chaired by Stuart Kelly. One thing that quickly became apparent was that the rest of the fairly small audience, like Kelly, were fans of his science fiction as well as his mainstream fiction. In fact, Kelly did the last interview with Iain before he died. This came in handy as there probably wouldn’t be many other people who would not only recognise Zakalwe’s Song but know what it why line “the bomb lives only as it is falling”  is so resonant.

The poems are, by and large, juvenilia, many written when Banks was at university. MacLeod, who was a friend of Banks throughout his life, explained why the poems were written: “He did it because he was a student of English literature and thought it was expected of him, like buying pints in the union bar and chatting up girls.”

He stopped writing poetry in 1981, MacLeod said, so that means he was about 27 at the time. “Some time in the 1980s he collected all his poems, and one day he presented me with a folder titled Poems Where the Heart Is. Iain had a terrible weakness for puns. This was all his poems handwritten, indexed, page numbered.”

A few years ago, somewhere around 2012, after chatting with MacLeod in the Ferry Tap in South Queensferry, Banks suggested they should collaborate on a collection of their poems. It should be both of their work, he suggested, mainly because it would look less “egomaniacal”. MacLeod didn’t take it seriously until he was emailed a file that was a transcription of the folder from the 1980s. “The only major poem that that’s missing from that collection is one called Feu de joie.”

Feu de joie, he explained, later became the basis for Song of Stone. “One of the strangest things he ever wrote and he turned it into one of the strangest novels he ever wrote.” Some of it also ended up in The Crow Road and Kelly later noted that Banks had once told him the original intention had been to interleave Feu de joie with chapters in The Crow Road.

The discussion ranged around Banks’ atheism and politics, with MacLeod saying: “what is technically called ameliorist, he believed things could be made better, and that they could be made better fairly slowly.”

This is reflected in his most enduring and loved creation, the anarcho-communist galactic power known as The Culture. “He was perhaps the only person in the whole of history to have written a utopia which most people who read it would love to live in,” said MacLeod.

There followed a couple of anecdotes about how although Banks was certainly of the Left, he didn’t trust the far Left too much, but would get stuck in to anti-fascist demonstrations, such as the Battle of Lewisham, and once helped sit watch in a radical bookshop that had been inexpertly firebombed, leading to him quipping: “MacLeod, I bet that’s the first time and last time you’ve ever had to say to a policeman, ‘Honestly officer I really am a left-wing extremist!'”

The discussion was punctuated by reading of some of the poems and I hesitate to say this, as I adore his novels, but there’s a reason they weren’t published sooner: they’re not that great, really. They’re cleverly constructed, and a couple, such as Metaphorphosis  (I think it was called) got a some big laughs, but most of the discussion focused on his other work, and I don’t think anyone minded. The slim volume of poems is important mainly as a chance to get another insight into a man so many of us miss so terribly.

One revelation that I thought was a nice touch was that Macleod has not yet read Surface Detail, as he wants to have one of his friend’s books to read afresh in the future.

One audience question raised a point that most of us have never really considered, given the epic scope of the Culture books: would they ever be filmed?

“I certainly hope so,” said MacLeod.”I think that some of the Culture novels, and also possibly some of the non-Culture SF space operas that aren’t in the Culture could make very good big-screen work … Iain got a bit of enjoyment out of almost counting down to when it would be possible to bring the Culture to the big screen as CGI improved.”

I think most fans would agree that the countdown probably still has a long way to run.

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