Image: photographs of my new "Scotland the More" prints, which I will be launching for sale during my trip to Brussels this October for Transpoesie. Read the poem here (English/French and Dutch). Watch the poem here.
The room was on the ground floor and had a stunning view of Arthur's Seat. I remember looking out the window and thinking I wanted to write something that would sum up Scotland from my experience.
In my life, I've lived in Dunblane (Stirlingshire), Torphins and Lumphanan (Aberdeenshire) and Edinburgh. Most of my holidays in between were trips to the Orkney islands, Shetland or the train trips me and my mum would take down to her hometown of Glasgow. I wanted something that would mention all these fantastic places and articulate both our history and where we were now. It was a charged time: it was about 3 months after the Scottish referendum and I was still feeling a bit jaded about the "no" vote. So, I sat down and wrote a list poem - about what Scotland was and wasn't. Initially, it was clunky and over 5 minutes long.
First, I tackled the prints: initially, my plan was to work with photographs I had taken, but most of them weren't of a very good quality. Therefore, I searched through the internet for public domain art or old photographs.
It was a really difficult trawl: there are thousands of photographs and pieces of art of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but the tagging system is often difficult - lots of portraits of various barons, royalty or rich people were often tagged "Edinburgh" or "Orkney" for no discernible reason. I didn't want to use touristy photos - I wanted to use something old with modern fonts, to show the distinction between modern Scotland and older artwork. I went through about 9 different designs and drafts before I settled on what I've produced.
I ended up using three photographs of Edinburgh and Glasgow (Design 2, 3 and 5) and two pieces of artwork. The artwork is of the Orkney vole (Design 1): an animal totally unqiue to the Orkney isles I learned about as a child and a painting of Macbeth (Design 3): my middle name is MacBeath and my parents now live near the Macbeth stone - the stone that Macbeth was supposedly beheaded on.
So there you go! Here's how I wrote my favourite poem and put together accompanying prints. I'll be launching them for sale whilst I'm in Brussels. After I get back, I'll be putting them on sale on my website. It'll be £5 for a pack of 5, plus posting and packaging. I hope you like these prints. Use them to frame, send to a friend or put them on your fridge - it's up to you! Until then, if you've got any special requests send me a message.
The adventure does not end there however... if you want to find out even more then check out this map I made of all the inspirations behind the lines. If you're savvy enough you'll be able to find some mountains, lochs, shops, a nightclub, a sheep and a public loo. Good luck!
Image: two feet in front of a police tape that reads "SORRY". Taken by the author at Michael Dean's exhibition "Having You On" at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.
Today I bought a notebook: a normal occurrence for a writer, but it was a bit more than that. In a couple of weeks I'm headed to Belgium to do two performances over two days, after which I'm taking my first holiday in several months and my first ever holiday with my partner (we've been together over 2 years!). The notebook was to take on the trip so that together, as we travel, we could make a scrapbook of poems, drawings and writing to bring back. This is obviously a lovely way to document our first proper holiday - we're two writers who also love to draw and make things. However, I am conscious I also did this as a security blanket to keep my fears of non-productive time off at bay. If I come out of the holiday with a wee book, with poems I can put online or perform at a later date, I'll feel a lot more better about myself as an artist - and a person.
During my quest to read more this year, I read Maria Semple's Where'd You Go Bernadette? I highly recommend it, it's a fascinating study of character: from image-obsessed mothers, to a portrait of the inquisitive stage of childhood to the titular Bernadette - an architect who feels more and more depressed and anxious because she is unable to create. A line that rang clear off the page was:
"People like you must create. If you don't create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society."
I've been thinking about this a lot about that line ever since - it's lined my thoughts about my time on and my time off, as well as the way I see other artists I work with. I work three days a week for a charity as a project manager. Around this, for the last few months, I have also worked 1-2 days a week on being a writer. This time includes: performing, going to other events, meeting with other writers/poets/promoters, submitting my work for publications, the necessary admin behind each commission (e.g. emailing, organising travel, filming), working with other artists... oh yeah, and some actual writing now and then.
Freelance work has no end or start time or set days off a year, only a set number of hours a month. To me - "time off" is hard to define as I work for home. Very roughly, it's the time you have where you're don't have to be somewhere or doing something (not including the errands you do, like laundry or food-shopping, to keep yourself alive!). Therefore, when I'm writing with the goal of submission or taking photos for an Instagram post or meeting with a friend to create a video - even though I'm not paid for that directly, it's still work.
My down-time is... varied. Since I started at university, my down-time has nearly always been made up of something that could be called more work. Whether this is organising an event, polishing up my Facebook or website or managing my emails. I saw a post online that said "Do what you love for a living and you'll never get any time off". It's feeling all too familiar.
And don't get me wrong! I am so so lucky and happy to be "working" as an artist, and occasionally get paid for what I do. It's fantastic.
But I also want to recognise that on a "day off" if I don't make something I start bouncing off the walls very quickly, and that probably isn't healthy. Somehow, I can turn anything I see into a way to judge myself. I can become a grumpy, restless menace to society unless I find some "project" to do that helps me feel satisfied. Currently, I manage this by setting something up that I can do that isn't necessarily just more writing work.
Whether it's making a loaf of bread, a film, or a poem, my brain is always on, but more than that - my brain is always creating more work than it really has to. It has to be the best, most innovative loaf of bread or poem or film.
And that sounds great! And creative! And productive! And sometimes it is. And sometimes, it's very much not. It's not just about wanting to make things, or my brain constantly seeking out some greater inspiration - it's feeling guilty if I'm not constantly switched on or if I make something that I judge isn't good enough. My Facebook is jam-packed with other artists getting really fantastic opportunities - which they very rightfully deserve! - but it means social media becomes more of a mental measuring stick where I'm constantly worried that I'm not doing quite enough because X, Y and Z are published/performing at that cool gig/winning an award which I'm not.
Many of my friends seem like their in the same boat. From keeping their phone firmly in their hand to check their bookings on a night out, to scrolling through their social media during a meet-up. It's not rudeness at all - it's keeping the worries at bay and ensuring you do that hard work that we're told it takes to get ahead in the arts.
We live in a world where you're very much measured by your "output". This makes working as a writer really, really tricky - as for many the end goal isn't always getting physically published, and even if it is, there's so much that goes into that that isn't always visible. I can spend a full day sorting out administration, filling out paperwork, booking travel, invoicing and feel totally cut off from my art. Or worse; like I've not achieved anything, because I don't have a physical book out in the world, or something I can capture to put online to prove - yes! Look at me! I'm an artist, I did something recognisable!
We also live in a world where working in the arts is seen as not "real" work. Mainly because most people only ever really interact with or see famous artists and see them get paid for (seemingly) not a lot of work. They don't realise the years of tiny gigs, self-promotion, networking and administration it took to get to that point: the total knock-backs and long evenings questioning if you're doing the right thing. This is all totally fair - we love an overnight success story - the ins and outs of her counting receipts are less interesting.
This attitude, however, means that when I talk about needing a holiday or an evening off, or I don't reply to an email as quickly as I "should" have, the response is very often one of confusion - because I'm doing what I want to do, and what I want to do is "just" writing poems - how can I want or even need a break?
You can see why I feel mixed up about non-productive time: both internally and within the culture we're living in. And speaking honestly, I do feel slightly worried about this holiday. I feel both scared asserting or asking for time off - and even sticking to it. I know that less than 2 hours in, I'll already be checking my emails (the thought of not checking my emails for more than 3 hours scares the pants off me, for fear of offending someone or not snapping up an opportunity). I know that if I do start a little bit of work, it normally all snowballs until it's the end of day 2 and I'm doing a bunch of admin.
Yet I think being switched off or even bored (though I doubt I'll be bored with all of Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp to explore) is a really crucial part of creating. It's when you store up your energy, get input from what's going on in the world, and make the memories that inspire you. So I'm going to set myself a task: I'm going to try and delete the social media apps on my phone, set up out of office replies, only check emails once a day and only respond to them if I absolutely have to. I'll let you know how I get on. And I encourage you to do the same.
My This is a bit of a change from my usual blogpost, which is often my more article/prose/reflective writing, but I wanted to write a bit more about this and didn't want to clog up my home-page too much.
My most-performed poem is "Scotland the More", an ode to a country that let me be an artist. I remember writing it when I was living in student halls (during a bit of a rough patch) and rehearsing it in the scratched up mirror. I ended up re-drafting it when I got to Prague, I'm so proud of where this poem has gone: it's taught in schools, and even on one course at Glasgow University. In October, I'll be representing Scotland at the Transpoesie Festival in Brussels, where the poem will be projected behind me in translation behind the performance (you can read it in Dutch and French here). A section of the poem will also be displayed on Brussels metro system, in a project inspired by Poems on the Underground.
People often want to take this poem home with them, but I'm not published (yet!). Therefore, I decided to develop postcards and prints. As this poem tries to shake up Scotland's history, I found old prints and photographs in the public domain. These range from photographs of Edinburgh and Glasgow, to paintings of Macbeth in the Highlands and even some drawings of one of our unique animals: the Orkney vole!
I'm still developing them at the moment. My plan is to make them larger than normal postcards (all the better for writing down lots and lots on the back!) - this is so that they can be framed or displayed if people wish. I will still try to find a paper quality, however, that looks nice if framed but also lets people write on the back so they can be sent to friends. Prices will hopefully range from £5 to £7 for a packet of five, but if you're interested, send me an email. Until then, here's a sneak peek!
This August, I'll be one of the players at "Adventurer's Wanted: Rebellion", a live D&D show on August 3rd, 5th, 17th and 24th. Ahead of that, I thought I'd write a reflective piece on what D&D has done for me.
The first time I heard of D&D was probably the same way as most people: when I saw it being mercilessly mocked as a game for very boring sexless men on TV shows like The Big Bang Theory or IT Crowd. The first of which is liberally peppered with dorky misogyny across the spectrum, all the way from "ball and chain" to "your mum" jokes - just watch the clip (if you can you're stronger than I am). When I first saw people playing D&D it was a group of my male friends who seemed to spend five hours hitting things with swords and sticks (there was probably more there to it, but I would normally fall asleep halfway through, I've always found the storytelling aspect of D&D to be pretty soporific). The common denominator here was men. And so I counted myself out from the get - also because I wasn't really a fan of fantasy, save Game of Thrones which I mainly loved for Sansa Stark, and I didn't see much Sansa Starks about in this game.
When I tried to first get involved, I had a lot of performance anxiety - which was ironic as a poet whose career has centred around performance. I felt awkward doing the voices, or trying to commit to weird character choices. I was constantly worried I was doing things wrong. I got a bit better over time and at the end of 2017, I was asked to join an non-male D&D group.
My character was part Minerva McGonagall, part Lin Beifong but mostly your traditional Church of Scotland Presbyterian woman. She was stuck in a world filled with magic, tricks, drag musicians and all she wanted to do was go home. The most exciting thing for her was her cat, which she named "Grey" after her favourite colour. I would turn up with my glittery unicorn dice box and play someone who's favourite food was plain porridge. We couldn't be more different.
The D&D group itself was made up of our D.M. plus four other players - only two of whom I knew previously. On my way to the first game I was kicking myself the whole walk for signing up to something so preformative and charismatic in front of strangers. In reality, it turned out to be one of the best decisions I've made in years. The first couple games consisted of us all turning up, and playing pretty much straight away after everyone arrived. Now, we have a designated hour before each game to catch up. We have a group chat which we use to play Frisbee in the Meadows, talk about our day at work or complain about men. The group has been a way for the six of us to talk about our problems in a group separated from our normal friendship groups or lives. We went through final exams, break-ups, house moves, job stresses and annoying flatmates together. We checked up on each other constantly.
But it wasn't just outside the game - it was also part of it. Our characters looked after each other and reminded each other of important notes. I began to feel that some of us used our characters as a way to process things we were dealing with in life (and hey, maybe some of us were just setting fires or punching owl bears, but I think that's therapeutic too). I was playing Gertrude - someone who hates fun and extravagance. My D.M. said something very wise - that everyone's characters is little pieces of them that they exaggerate. I think of this dwarf I've created as mimicking the part of me that stubbornly wants to be logical, get my head down and push through work.
I have other characters in other campaigns too - a silent gnome, who I think reflects the lonely, reflective and introverted part of me; a Marry Berry-esque dragonborn, who mirrors my naivete and desire to look after people before myself; and a teenager from the 80s who probably reflects my young desire to be cool and have roller blades.
I think that any kind of performing, storytelling or just talking for an extended period of time necessarily leads us to talk about ourselves and reflect upon who we are. When you add in the extra layers of D&D: that the characters are self-created and the game a collaborative effort, I think it becomes even more reflective. When this was added into a supportive environment of non-male people, who are socialised into communicating through problems, a little game of D&D ended up helping me think more about who I am and deal with the problems I was facing (namely: moving house, changing jobs, and starting new medication). This Friday marks the last game of this campaign - one of our members is moving away, some are changing jobs and others are entering more commitments at work. Some of us will still play together, but with new characters and a different story line. I feel emotional leaving this little world behind, but also like it has taught me so much.
So I owe a thank you. Not only to the people who got me into this fun and silly game, but also to the non-male group of friends - whom helped me process and talk through things. And lastly, thanks to a grumpy stubborn dwarf who seems to know me better than I do.
I remember discovering meringues. They're soft and sticky but simultaneously hard. They stick to your tongue whilst breaking into a soft powder in your mouth. My mother told me how hard they are to bake: they require the perfect temperature for the perfect amount of time. If one of these elements goes off they burn or wilt. However, the thing about meringues is that after making them a couple times it becomes easy. Like learning a second language, similar to the paths we learn and walk on auto-pilot without even thinking.
Recently, I've been faced with moving for the sixth time in four and a half years in this city. I'm getting tired of cardboard boxes and filling in seven address boxes on official forms. I realised I've never made the choice to move, it's always been taken out of my hands: leases ending, abusive flatmates, circumstances changing (and the one time my flatmate moved in her aggressive Japanese grandmother without so much as a heads up).
Me and my partner currently live in an unusual flat. Our main attraction was the price tag: it was cheap but getting to the centre of town on foot was still manageable. It's near a bus stop, a supermarket and a train station. It's an odd layout: the bedroom is also the living room... which is also the dining room... which is also the only room with storage. The bed is a loft bed which is too small. It's dusty and damp and freezing in winter, but we couldn't afford the heating. The shower can manage about six minutes a day before giving up the ghost. Panelling and windows and the toilet are broken, things fall over all the time and people can peep in the window.
But it was still a home. I lived with all these things and was happy. It was only when I visited other people I realised our situation was unusual. This was our home: I decorated it our books and with free postcards and photographs of us at the museum. I went on a trip to IKEA and budgeted. We had weekly planners and laundry to do and fresh sheets. We made a more comfortable bed under the loft bed and put up animal shaped lamps. We were nesting.
I looked forward to coming back to a flat in the first time... ever. I used to stay out every night: at poetry slams, at the pub, at the cinema, in the library or the nightclub I never came home and just relaxed. I sofa (or more accurately: floor) surfed at least four nights a week. Now, I was becoming a homebody: looking forward to reading books in bed or clean the kitchen or watch films on the sofa under a blanket. I liked being in my space: I had a place where I could feel safe.
Enter stage left: our neighbour.
At first, it was just knocking on the door quite persistently. Then he caught me off-guard and verbally sexually harassed me. And just like that. The house had been thrown off the perfect language we'd made. We tried to fill it with double-checking the door lock, making sure we came home together, that I was never home alone. But it was downhill from there: he tried to break into the flat one night, throwing his entire body weight at the front door. Then he started playing music all night (literally, a few times it started at 10:30pm and finished twelve hours later).
When I go to flat viewings, I get the thrill of snooping through other people's houses: confirming what the boxes inside the buildings look like. I also, now, question what's the one odd part that could jeopardise the balance. The lack of washing machine? The broken shower? The slow internet? I always try to spot the one weird flaw that will make life slightly off, tallying in my head the difference between something unusual and something unlivable. I can't stand being picky; feel guilty too quickly for trying not to just make do.
In one night of disaster, out of hundreds of happiness, we decided we had to abandon ship. I've got friends who have lived in this city for 2 years, already snug in their homes. I've had friends stay in the same place for six years. I'd like to learn that language of spotting the perfect living home.
I walk into a flat. It's the top floor, away from the noise. It's light and has space and a separate bedroom that isn't the living room. It smells like meringue.
This year, I decided to record every book I read. As the end of April marks a third of the way through 2018, I thought I'd reflect on all the books I've read cover-to-cover so far this year.
The Running Order
For reference, those books are:
"Molly's Game" by Molly Bloom
"Grief is the Thing with Feathers" by Max Porter
"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathon Safran-Foer
"Pure Toilet" by Sam Small
"Everyday" by David Leviathan
"The Keeper of Lost Things" by Ruth Hogan
"Room" by Emma Donoghue
"On Balance" by Sinead Morrissey
"The Dressmaker" by Rosalie Ham
"Milk and Vine" by Adam Gasiewski and Emily Beck
"The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx" by Tara Bergin
"How to Stop Time" by Matt Haig
"Carol" by Patricia Highsmith
"Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman
The Main Contenders
So far my favourite books have definitely been:
1. "Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine"
3. "The Dressmaker"
All three of these books have somewhat similar themes. Honeyman's novel is an award-winning look at loneliness and isolation in modern Glasgow. "Room" is Donoghue's depiction of a young kidnapped boy, able only to explore one small "room". "The Dressmaker" is by Australian novel-writer Rosalie Haim, and follows outcast protagonist Tilly Dunnage as she returns to Dungatar, from which she was sent away at a young age for an unspeakable crime. Whilst all of these novels were unique, they each painted a picture of what it to feel on the outskirts, whether that is because of situation, mental health, class or literal imprisonment. I would strongly recommend all of these novels!
The Back-Up Dancers
The books I also really enjoyed were:
1. "Molly's Game"
2. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
3. "On Balance"
These are three totally different books. "Molly's Game" follows the real life story of Molly Bloom, a self-made entrepreneur who made millions by running high class poker games for Hollywood A-listers. It's definitely an interesting read, which you almost won't believe is true - and will make you think totally differently about Tobey Maguire. However, it's ending was rather abrupt and, as was later revealed, a lot of the true story was left out so that Bloom would not damage certain individuals' reputations. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is a novel narrated by 9-year-old Oskar Schell, who navigates modern New York after his father is killed in 9/11. Whilst totally unique and bold in how it blends images with texts, it left me unsatisfied. It's hard to describe, but it felt as if there was a total lack of redemption - maybe this is apt for a novel dealing with the aftermath of such a famous tragedy, but it means the novel leaves you feeling hollow. "On Balance" is a collection of poetry from Sinead Morrissey which explores instances of balance: from flight, architecture and the circus to gender inequality. I really enjoyed this and thought the concept was incredibly strong - my favourite poem was definitely "My Life According to You". I was very close to putting this in the Main Contenders list, but it very closely missed out!
The Cutting Room Floor
Some books I didn't enjoy so much. They were as follows.
1. "The Keeper of Lost Things"
2. "Every Day"
I wanted to make this list 3 books long, but honestly, I don't really finish books unless I'm somewhat enjoying them. "The Keeper of Lost Things" was recommended to me both by my mother and by Waterstone's. It follows Laura, the assistant to an infamous short story writer, tasked with returning his collection of lost things to their original owners. I was excited for this book to follow Laura's quest and the backstories of these items - similar to a book I love: "Behind the Scenes at the Museum" by Kate Atkinson. Instead the novel focused on Laura moving into her boss's house, making friends, finding love and possibly seeing a ghost? I felt the blurb of this novel mis-sold itself and I kept wanting it to take off the ground, even as I reached the last few pages. "Every Day" by David Leviathan was a romp into the trashy teenage books I miss. It follows "A": a supernatural protagonist who wakes up everyday in a different teenagers' body but (shock horror!) he ends up falling in love with Rhiannon and the two try to navigate this unique relationship. I got what I paid for with this one and to a certain extent I knew what I was in for. However, this book contained some very very fatphobic passages, where "A" finds himself in the body of a fat teenager and is perpetually disgusted/horrified/ashamed and every negative verb under the sun. I wish Leviathan had considered his words and how damaging they'd be for the young readers picking up this book!
It's Gonna Be May!
Now that we're into May, I'm re-reading one of my favourite books: "The Trick is to Keep Breathing" by Janice Galloway. Also on my to-read list are:
"The Rental Heart" by Kirsty Logan
"Hera Lindsay Bird" by Hera Linday Bird
"The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate" by Rachel McCrum
"The History of Bees" by Maja Lunde
and "Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaarder.
Some of these are because of the recommendations of friends (Logan, Lunde), others are poets I've been meaning to read for ages (McCrum, Bird) and "Sophie's World" is to try and re-step into my old philosophy degree.
Thanks for reading everyone, keep up to date with the books I read on my Instagram! And please tell me: what should I read next?