is take you places. I mean real geographical places.

I’ve never been to the Shetland Islands but in the last few months I’ve published two pamphlets that took me there.

First there was Laurna Robertson’s Praise Song. Laurna was born and brought up in Lerwick, the capital and main port of the islands, and the most northerly and easterly town in Scotland.

Praise Song evokes both places and people: it reaches into the Viking past. It calls up Quarff and Fladdabister, Cunningsburgh Hill and Gunnister Hill, the Holm of Melby, the Bridge of Walls and Foula, ‘the edge of the world’. There’s something deliciously, exotically enticing when a person writes with love about a place they love and know – and you find yourself suddenly there, in the title poem, giving praise

                                    For red
granite cliffs lit by sunset.

For stretches of rust pink thrift,
eyebright, wild orchis and lady’s smock,
honey sweet clover and bird’s-foot trefoil.

For puffins skimming under water; for dark caves
glowing with gannets . . . Song also conjures human beings, and—dead or alive—they live. The Misses Angus, for example. Great-grandmother Elizabeth, and great-grandmother Fanny. Mackie ‘who played Mikado on the Lerwick stage; / Donnie—his twin—who half a world away in Adelaide / felt his death twinges; Peter, pilot out of the port of Leith.’

And how I love the moment of arrival, the ship docking:

Bells sound from the bridge. Anchors rattle.
Cables are thrown. Dockers warp the vessel
alongside. Families fill the pier.

Two figures, huddled against morning cold,
search for the sight of your face at a porthole.

No, I have never been there. But I have been. And again in Stephanie Green’s Flout, I am back. No wonder people are drawn to the Shetlands, as Stephanie has been, a non-Shetlander: half Irish, half English, living in Edinburgh, but drawn to the islands again and again, their landscapes, their language, their gale-force winds

Veering up the voe, swirling round the salmon-rings,
ripping out the mussel strings,
         rock-wrenching gale.

Imaginary, mythic characters, larger than life, attractive and scary, loom eerily (the Njuggle and the Trowie, for example). But most of the all it’s the lonely landscapes that call, the far northern places where the poet encounters herself. In Steekit Stimna ‘Only the intense blue / of lochs, the long voes, / skies so pale they are transparent.’ And in the Keen of Hamar, at her feet, mysterious tiny plants, ‘a galaxy / of frog orchids, mouse ears, / moonwort, sandwort, sea plantain’.

Where else but the Shetlands could you juggle with place names like ‘the Peerie, the Muckle, / the Mid Heads o’ Yesness’, ‘the Kirn o’ Scroo’, and ‘the jagged fins of the Slithers’?

But all countries have that mystery of names, their curious rootedness. Something in place names calls to you, even when you have no idea where you really are, even when you’re just visiting on a poetry page. And so in Peter Jarvis’s Nights of a Shining Moon I am in another continent, and it is Africa.

Peter was born in Zimbabwe. He’s a white African who has travelled and lived in different African countries, and now lives in Scotland. So Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Lesotho also find their way into these poems, as do human characters and ways of life far from familiar. There are the San, for example, who believe ‘all birds are endpoints of the wind’, and whose hunters, if they want to go home with their kill, must not look at the moon:

Lower your head, hunter,
keep your eyes down
lest the moon’s water
settle like liquid honey
on the grass of the pan.

Stephanie Green’s Shetland poems often feature Shetlandic words. In Peter Jarvis, it’s African words that trickle in. In ‘Aubade’, for example, the sounds of Setswana mingle unapologetically with English: ‘The crescent ngwedi is low; in the sky / dinaledi phatsima still illumine the scene.’ There is comedy here, and ancient ritual, and tragedy.

I will not forget what happened to little Shindingeni. His fate encapsulates the terror of children mangled by violence they can’t understand.

Beauty and terror. Peter Jarvis’s poems do both. I am lingering in another continent, under a moon brilliant and strange. I have seen it in the night sky before, but not like this.



This is cheating. I am really thinking about StAnza.

And this morning it’s snowing and around me all the trees are white and I’m not even there. I’m working. But this is a space between yesterday (when I was there) and today when I’m working.Snow in the garden

When I went to bed last night my head was full of the space between the stanzas, which for me was the space between the events at StAnza. The events are many, marvelous and magical, of course, and you can read about them elsewhere.

The spaces between the events are just as remarkable, and somewhat more mysterious because completely unpredictable, and not on the programme. When you run an arts festival, you create spaces for unexpected concatenations, correspondences and coalescences. I know that’s just alliteration, but how do you describe it?

On your way to hear a poet read, someone you may never have heard of, perhaps even in a language you don’t know, you stop for a coffee and fall into conversation with  Michel (?) from Belgium, there to present a film poem event, and whose job it is to co-ordinate and run literary events in  Antwerp – such a charming and interesting young (to me) man. And then we are joined by poet Paula Jennings and Jenny Elliott. Jenny is an old friend (we were once StAnza trustees together) and also a poet and originator of the Shed Press (in her garden shed). Together we sorted out European politics and then moved on to discuss our mothers, over soup and sandwiches (it’s not just poetry). As the table filled up with friends, I moved the flowers onto the floor. Out of the corner of my eye I could see people I knew and wanted to speak to, and others I dimly recognized from their dusty photos on book jackets.

Then an event and then the poetry book fair and then more chats with Tony Lawrence, who has redefined poetry according to laws of mathematics, and the man from Monifieth whose name I can’t remember but who has come to the festival every year for eleven years, and D A Prince, and Karin Koller, and Robyn Marsack and Sheila Wakefield and Stephanie Green and a long conversation – the longest we have ever had, (a GREAT conversation about the late David Tipton and his wife Ena Hollis, taking in John Lucas, Tony Ward and Alan Hill) – with Martin Bates; and another with the lady at the second hand book stall – shop in Newport – I forget her name but it will come back to me; and of course Gerry Cambridge and briefly Rob Mackenzie.

And Richie McCaffery and Stef, and Sally Evans and how lovely to see Ann Drysdale, who has written a whole book about Newport and thus a long conversation about W H Davies and other matters, and briefly (hug interval) Lyn Moir, and Lydia Harris (well met, for the first time) and Christine Webb, and Robert Minhinnick on Dylan Thomas, and Joy Howard and Alan Gay.

And many more. Many more, and some sought for but just missed. Deus ex machina (I’ve just realised that’s a double dactyl) Eleanor Livingstone slipping in and out carying strange objects and messages and inspirations. And others glimpsed in the distance or pausing to share treasure, or say ‘see you later’.


The sun has come out and lit up the snow.

And now back to work.