It isn't every day you discover you have a published poem you didn't know existed, especially if you hesitate to call yourself a poet at all. In the midst of last year's first lockdown, a writer friend emailed me to say she had been rationalising her clutter and had come across an old anthology of poetry and prose. She didn't have anything in it and was about to throw it out when she noticed a poem of mine in it. Would I like her to send it to me?
Well, yes, I replied, intrigued. The anthology was called Fifth Column
and my poem, An Actor Prepares for the Publicity Shoot
. Neither title resonated. How on earth could there be a poem out there I couldn't recall ever having written? And what did I know about thespian publicity shoots that I could have written about one? Had my friend made a mistake, mixed me up with someone else, another Gillean/Gillian, of whom there are undoubtedly many?
But there was no mistake. The book duly arrived. A soft, bright orange cover from which a yellow sunburst cross shines through. Subtitled 'an anthology from library workshops', it was published by Edinburgh City Libraries and Information Services in 1999. Back in the old millennium. The pre-digital age. Edited by Ian Wright and Alison Stoddart, it draws on work written during a series of creative writing workshops in libraries across the city, run by Brian McCabe, Ron Butlin, Joy Hendry and Valerie Gillies. Gradually light dawned. In March of that year, I had attended four poetry writing workshops run by Valerie Gillies on Saturday mornings at Leith Library and the poem had been inspired by one of those.
The other day, still on my own slow, decluttering journey, I discovered a notebook containing my ticket for the course and my notes of Valerie's workshops in it. These were immaculately planned with exercises, support materials and extracts from well-known poets. One of the first exercises was to write a poetic monologue. I seem to recall she brought a pile of photographs in as stimuli. My poem owes something to the style of Robert Browning's poetic monologues I had loved at school, like My Last Duchess
, The Bishop Orders his Tomb in St Praxed's Church
and Fra Lippo Lippi
. Poems with a strong narrative and engaging, but far from cosy, characters.
It wasn't cutting edge in terms of concept, but I enjoyed the process. I even discovered another I had written in Scots, a humorous poem called Noah's Global Warming
. Maybe its time has come. I must have liked it because I typed it up, but I'd wholly forgotten about it. I never really rated my chances of getting published then, or indeed ever. And I'm more of a prosaic sort anyway. I like a story. The compressed sculpting of a perceptive reflection in words that linger on the mind is probably beyond me.
I dipped into the anthology and found two lovely short poems by another writer I know. She hadn't known about the anthology either. So there's an unresolved mystery here. She'd attended the same workshop, but we didn't know each other then, and in the days before social media we hadn't kept up as a group on Facebook, as we automatically might do now. Her children were small, so the workshop had given her a break from that commitment, as mine had from teaching. But we've both continued writing, as has the friend who passed on the anthology. I expect it's archived somewhere. My poem, unfortunately, contains three typographical errors on one page. Three? Definitely a hanging offence.
Writing groups and workshops have mushroomed since then. When I retired, I joined one in the National Gallery. We would be taken round exhibitions, introduced to the work of artists familiar and unknown, and then delegated to write something inspired by what we had seen. We were all excited to have samples of our work displayed in a published booklet together with the artists' work that had inspired them. Unfortunately, in my case, the painting accompanying my poem was not the painting that had inspired it, just another painting by the same artist. It was one of Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham's Swiss glacier paintings that had particularly struck me when I saw it in an exhibition of her work. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. All my careful attention to details of the original painting seemed wasted. There was no correspondence. But hey, as a mere amateur, I should be grateful I had my poem printed, shouldn't I?
My third published poem came about through a series of workshops run by Marjorie Lotfi Gill at the Scottish Poetry Library. Of Iranian-American origin, Marjorie is an accomplished poet, married to a Scot and settled in Edinburgh. Still only a child when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, she and her American mother flew out of Tehran with hastily packed suitcases on the last flight before the airport closed. She therefore has an abiding interest in issues around migration.
That also interested me – not only through migration issues affecting my husband and members of his Moroccan family in Europe, but also over a century ago in my own family. My Highland grandfather wanted to emigrate twice, first to manage an orange farm in South Africa, later to take on a sheep farm in South Island, New Zealand. In both instances, my grandmother decided she couldn't leave her widowed mother and so, to his immense disappointment, they never went. In my third and so far last published poem, I imagined she did go but with reluctance and anxiety and nostalgia for what she had left behind. It was published in a small Ross-shire based anthology called Nitrogen House Zine, N2 Journey
. I was delighted with that. No disfiguring typos, no mismatched illustration. However, the magazine has now gone digital and is currently closed for submissions.
Naturally, three published poems do not a poet make. The workshops I've attended have provided stimulus and food for thought, but the focus tends to be on peer feedback when what you really want is a professional critique. There never seems to be enough financial support to sustain them long-term and Masters degrees are prohibitively expensive. Likewise, literary magazines and small publishing ventures here tend to run into the ground eventually. There may be a great longing for literary expression but not enough support to nourish it effectively. Is that a particularly Scottish thing? Or are amateur writers simply crying for the moon?
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh