Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Highland Lit, Kenneth Steven and Poetry

There was a Facebook post not so long ago from a poetry group I like. If you could only read the works of only one poet, it said, who would you choose? It was a no brainer as far as I was concerned. The fingers flew over the keyboard. “Me”. As quick anything, a friend responded. She thought it was a cheeky answer with more than a dash of arrogance. I felt the need to explain. I wasn’t saying I was a better poet than the greats out there. If I could only read the work of one poet, it would have to be mine. What’s the point of writing a poem if you can’t read it yourself? I know the place where my poems are birthed. I know the heart that they speak to. I understand them.

So, OK, you are allowed to read your own poems, but what other poet would you choose? I suppose the knee-jerk reaction is Billy Collins seeing as I have almost come to the end of his Masterclass online. Yesterday I was reminded of another poet I adore – Kenneth Steven.

Kenneth and I have a history. To him I was just a body sitting in a chair in the library at Millburn Academy some years ago at a book launch. The book that has got me there was not his poetry book. The at-the-time school deputy, who had been an English teacher in a previous life, had written a novel based on the Highland clearances. I believed perhaps I had a novel in me and thought to soak up his wisdom. I brought Kenneth’s poetry book “Island” because it felt unfair to buy one book and not the other. I read the novel once. I’ve read the poetry book endless times. It’s a favourite. My all-time favourite poem is “The Heron”.

Last night the Highland Lit hosted Kenneth. It was an absolute delight to hear new poems and to soak up his poetry wisdom.

We need a bit of scene setting though. I’d spent the afternoon painting. Although I had worn an apron I had, somehow, leaned on a splodge of white paint. I didn’t discover this until it was too late to go home and change tops. It had also been the last spit of white paint from the tube, and seeing as I was in town I bought new one. Bigger and heavier, it took up a lot of space in the bag. I imagined getting mugged and my bag torn from my shoulder and me shouting after the thief, “Please can I have my tube of white paint before you hurry off.” I amended the shout to include my hearing aids.

I sat down, the middle seat in the second row. I like my space and left a seat between me and a fellow attendee. The lady who came after me, also left a seat between me and her. We do like our isolation, don’t we?

I am a prompt person. I dislike arriving late. The start time had come and gone and a group of regulars were outside chatting. They were chivvied in and took up the back row. Another man came, long hair, leather jacket, smelling of tobacco and sat in the empty chair to my left. Two tall people sat in the front row. I could almost see the right side of Kenneth’s face. And the man’s phone went off, the man sitting on my left.

Kenneth introduced himself as a literary crofter, a full-time writer and a painter. My worries about the paint on my jumper eased. He writes because he has to – he has to pay the bills. The two books he brought with him were “West” and “The Spirit of the Hebrides”.

“West” was dedicated to his sister who had died suddenly. She had been fit and heathy. The book was about seeing the world and seeing Assynt through Helen’s eyes. The second book came about through a collaboration with a photographer. There was an exhibition of the photographs alongside Kenneth’s poems that were made into book form. The photographs lose something being reduced to A5 size, admitted Kenneth, not hyping anything up in his sales pitch.

He read a selection of poems from each of the books. Some poems spoke for themselves while others needed a bit of a backstory. Scattered throughout the commentary there were gems of wisdom, little nuggets of the how and why of poetry.

He talked about creative writing practice. Not everything a person writes needs to be worthy of a book or a novel – it’s just practice writing. It’s “keeping the pen sharp”. Pluck a word from a magazine article, or a book and see what comes. The more you practice writing, the more you are able to craft good writing.

He talked about cabin time. For him it was a cabin. Every writer needs a space that is beyond the living space. A place without the usual distractions. A place to think and to meditate. The back bedroom is my cabin. It’s not really part of the living space of our house. It has a desk, a lap top computer, a bookcase or two, everything that hasn’t yet found a home or is waiting to be moved on to recycling.

He talked about silence. He’d been on a retreat somewhere near the Rosslyn Chapel. Lunch was left outside the bedroom door. No one disturbed you and it was out of the silence that he wrote some of his poems. He talked of Iona as his spiritual home, a place he goes back to again and again.

Poems, he said, can’t be ordered. They just happen. They are like lightning strikes.

He talked about other projects he had been involved in. He spent a few days on St Kilda as part of a BBC programme. The remit was to write fresh poetry on the island. He read a little bit about the history of the place, but what he wrote was what stirred while they were there. Writing poems to order seems a real challenge to me. I like time to stew words and ideas. Give me a week.

I’m bound by bus times and decided not to stay for the second part of the meeting. I think he’d read all the poems he had planned to read, and the meeting was about to open up to a questions and answer session.  I’d had a great evening and was ready to go home.

I had a chance to talk to Kenneth. I reminded him of the book signing all those years ago. We talked a little about the poems in the book, “Island”, I’d bought then and cherish now. Some poems, like “The Otter” were written in a matter of minutes. I know how it feels to have someone touch you on the shoulder, tell you they bought your book and love the poems. It’s a special moment. It’s nice to be able to tell someone that too.

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