Thursday 10 October 2013

Imaginary landscapes – heading to Hawthornden Castle

Lynn Davidson reports from her recent literary travels

I’ve been to two writing festivals in the past month – the first was the Byron Bay Writers Festival which I went to with my son Elliot and his partner Cat, and then on my own among the throngs to the Edinburgh Festival(s) – International/Book/Fringe. At the Byron Bay Writers Festival you bought a ticket for a whole day and got a rubber wrist band to wear. With the sun shining on softly billowing marquees and silky rainbow flags you kind of felt like you were at a music festival – and then you were. We went to a love poetry session chaired by Mark Tredinnick who described poetry as ‘an architecture of utterance’. Performance poets read their own work: C J Bowerbird read a performance poem about the gritty side of love while raucous birds added some background screech. When Kelly-Lee Hickey read Cohen’s love poem ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ the white tent seemed to hold its breath until the end of the poem.

A session with M J Hyland was lively (she used the ‘c word’ about a reviewer who had been less than kind) and generously full of tips about her process. She not only gets friends who are good readers to read her work; she asks them after about a month what they remember of the novel and what they think the centre of the novel is. Personally I think it would be scary to get a surprise pop quiz by MJ a month down the track after reading her work … what if you’d forgotten the gist of it! Horrors. She also meditates for half an hour each morning, which includes slumping in a chair with cigarette and coffee before heading into her writing day. Generally I like hearing the Aussie writers talk, they have a certain appealing zest and irreverence.

Highlights for me of the busy, vast Edinburgh Book Fest (and I’ll add here I wasn’t there to hear Ellie Catton read – I heard she was wonderful) were Kay Ryan, Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie and the great story-teller Colm Toibin. Kay Ryan talked about the importance of ‘getting going’ with writing; she says if you can get going, something can happen. She often uses Ripley’s Believe it or Not and murder mysteries as inspiration. She was funny and wry and generous with her readings. Her asides – pre, mid and post poem reading – were almost poems in themselves. One memorable quote: ‘I like the texture and the sound of facts but I don’t care about them actually.’  How liberating.

Kathleen Jamie talked a bit about what she called the ‘hinterlands’ of poems  – I think she means the land you can’t see when you look at the landscape of a poem, but it’s there. She spoke about her recent breast cancer and how, during her recovery where she spent a long time relaxing in her garden, a friend sent her some rose-scented body moisturiser and how lovely the scent was, and then she talked about the scent of Damascus roses and she wove around to Rosa Luxemburg and I almost forget now, but maybe she was really talking about a prose poem, ‘Healings 2’, in her new collaborative book Frissure where artist Brigid Collins paints the line of Jamie’s mastectomy scar as a rose with a line of Robert Burns falling off the edges of the page: ‘You sieze the flo’er, the bloom is shed.’ The poem finishes ‘To be healed is not to be saved from mortality but rather, released back into it:/ we are returned to the wild, into possibilities for ageing and change.’

So since then I’ve been to County Kerry in Ireland and my ex-sister in law has taken me around peninsulas and onto islands. Back in Scotland I spent some days on the Isle of Islay, revisiting after 27 years. It’s as beautiful and strange and as full of eccentric characters as it ever was. I ate a memorable meal there called Hebridean chicken with black pudding, haggis and whisky sauce.

It was on Islay that I heard about the death of Seamus Heaney. It’s hard to imagine that he is gone. I was going to hear him read at the British and Irish Contemporary Poetry Conference next week. At least the poems are still with us – we can enter them at any time and hear their music.  

Now I’m resident (for a short, heady time a fellow) at Hawthornden Castle and hope to spend my month here writing poems and perhaps essays that may have some interesting hinterlands. We went beneath the castle the other day to explore the Pictish caves. Our host Hamish unlocked the heavy wood door to the caves with a large old key. We all (except me) bowed down a little to enter caves that are like large burrows, rounded at their edges. At one point a cave opened onto the side of a very deep well (Seamus would have found a poem there). In another cave carved into its walls was what looked like an extensive wine rack, but was a dove cote. For doves. In the caves. You heard me.

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