Thursday, 12 December 2013

Kind of Blue

Back in the days of vinyl (where this year’s discussion of all things blue began) and of recording your favourite records onto cassette tape, wondering why you could never quite fit an LP onto one side of a C60, and a C90 left an annoying gap at the end, many years ago I recorded my Dad’s much-played copy of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I didn’t realise that a piece of fluff had got trapped under the needle. Playing it back, the final track (Flamenco Sketches) became more distorted as the stylus gradually gathered the detritus of the record deck. By the end, Miles’ plaintive trumpet could barely be heard beneath the crackle and fuzz.

I played it in that state again and again, wallowing in a sort of protracted misery. If you’re going to be blue, why not drown in the depths of it. Similarly, I liked the way my sister’s old, second-hand record player (we were a family of hand-me-downs) played Joni Mitchell (and, perversely, AC/DC et al) slightly slower than 33 1/3rpm. Whenever I play Hejira it feel as if the tempo is just a bit too fast, and I’m always waiting for the blip in ‘Refuge of the Roads,’ where someone jogged the needle during recording. Somewhere, I still have that tape.


                There’s comfort in melancholy
                When there’s no need to explain
                It’s just as natural as the weather
                In this moody sky today

It’s very easy to let music drag you into depression, or to exacerbate or validate your mental state. I used allow myself to fall into the trap of musical maudlinism, thinking my emotions were best played out in minor keys. It took a long time to make the cognitive shift that convinced me that being in pain wasn’t the only way of feeling truly alive. For me, depression wasn’t an acknowledged, diagnosable or recognisable illness. It was a way of life, a raison d’etre. And if miserable music provided a vicarious overture to my misery, all well and good. Or, as it turned out: bad.


                I almost closed the door
                Cancelled on everything we opened up for


For years I suffered from low-level, chronic depression which resulted in episodes, attitudes, and behaviours that I can now describe as black, not blue.  Although I was able to live and work a seemingly normal life, my sense of self-loathing, anger at living, and general hatred of the world and its inherent shittiness was debilitating. I saw it as part of the natural order: this is what it means to be an ‘artist.’ I suffer, therefore I am. It took a cataclysmic event to shake off that attitude, and the shock-waves reverberate to this day.


Tonight the shadows had their say
Their sad notions of the way
Things really are
Damn these blues!


This year’s sequence, twelve poems about the colour blue and its various connotations, was written at a time when I was trying to unravel the cognitive dissonance of my condition, and although I’m not sure it achieves this, I’m not unhappy with the poems. 2013 has been a mixed year for me as a writer, with some notable successes, but also with heavy disappointments and rejections. The books, websites, and tutors of creative writing encourage us to embrace those rejections, to see them as opportunities, not threats. Easier said than done, in more ways than one.


Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.


Often I think of my relationship with writing as a difficult marriage. (I feel a similar way about my adopted home, Edinburgh.) Sometimes love just isn’t enough: if the relationship has, through no fault of love, been undermined, eroded, or unpicked by the perils of the human condition, there is little can save it. Among the writers with whom I associate, even those who are way further up the ladder than me are plagued by self-doubt and blockage. But all writers have something to say; a story to tell, a song to sing.


The human condition amounts to nothing more than a song.


These days, I try not to listen to sad music for pure effect but rather, within a context; preferring to be uplifted or stimulated by what music means, rather than what it does. If that sounds a bit dry and academic, so be it. The 2nd Viennese School of composers in the 20th Century reduced music to the basic component of the twelve tones of the scale; called it dodecaphonic. J.S. Bach – arguably the greatest composer – was a mathematical genius whose music stimulated intellect, emotion, and gut in equal measure.


I cannot think of a better way of tackling life than balancing those three centres of being: head, heart and body. I’m not claiming to be completely on top of things mentally. If my assessment here sounds trite or simplistic, that is because mental health (I say health, not illness, on purpose) is a hugely complex subject, and the relationship with music is a minefield. I’ve never taken medication, and hope I’ll never have to. Sometimes, it is enough to clear ones head by going out for a brisk walk. Or failing that (possibly avoiding the Passions) just put on some Bach. And sing, of course.


Twelve Tones of Blue



All the factors of the poem-cycle, taken through a ramble of lines (the same shape as Cantos III, VI and IX) contrive to end where the cycle began, with the ink on a pin turning into a song: an act upon which our existence relies; the creative process and the reproduction in performance are only the beginning.


Canto XII



The winds twelve quarters, the apostolic hardships, the Trinity.

4 by 3 the math; the psychopath, the dodecahedral polymath.

The anima defenses, the menses, the melancholy senses.


The minor interval, the chordal progression, the scale.

Transblucency defined by Mingus, Miles, Jaco Pastorius.

Fish to flesh, feather to bone, clay to clod to dust.


Enamel slip, animal slype, a plant, a dye, a daub.

China spode, ancient wode, an heiroglyphic pin-print

sanskrit mandala, burden or mantra; ink on a pin. A song.



Wednesday, 27 November 2013

What's the Story?

Last week, as a contrast to the light relief of performing doggerel on a Tour Bus (my poetic contribution to the history festival, Previously...) I reviewed a play that was originally produced as part of the Just Festival, and subsequently found its way into Previously.... The review was published, appropriately, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the play was a bold exploration of the causes of domestic violence.
Pamela Shaw, Jacqueline Hannan and Deborah Whyte in Kiss, Cuddle Torture
Pamela Reid, Jacqueline Hannan and Deborah Whyte in Kiss, Cuddle Torture

This is an issue that resonates in my own writing, and lies beneath a deeper narrative. In former times, I was part of a group that was instrumental in instigating the predecessor of the Just Festival, the Festival of Spirituality and Peace. I was responsible for programming a great many innovative events throughout the year with the parent organisation, Creative Space, giving a platform to performers and artists who dared to challenge the status quo.

I was particularly proud of a year-long project that explored the themes of violence against women, and related, complex issues such as the injustice that exists in society borne out of prejudice, presumption and intolerance. Regrettably, we only scratched the surface of this uncomfortable subject. Then again, it was more than I could cope with to uncover truths too terrible to reveal.

As part of this project my own take on domestic violence was a radio-play, performed half on-stage, with off-stage sections leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions as to what was happening (or not.)  I also produced a triptych of short plays about a young daughter caught in a violent battle between her estranged parents. It was based on real experience, but I took the work on as a legitimate and well -crafted work of fiction.

Recently, I was shocked to hear that my friend, who wrote that piece, had died suddenly, unexpectedly earlier this month. I still do not know the cause of his death. The greatest tragedy is that he, as far as I know, was never reconciled with his daughter, the 'real' child at the centre of this dreadful imbroglio who had been so tenderly portrayed in his fictional account of the unfortunate tale. He will never know the end of the story, and neither will I.

We live in a cliff-hanger culture, yet we like to know how a film, a book, a play will end. The narrative of life is never guessable, straight-forward or conclusive.

What is Fiction?

This week, as part of Book Week Scotland, the Kalopsia Collective are exhibiting their Octavo Fika, on the theme of 'Narrative.' My work, displayed in photographs and a pamphlet, is a sequence of poems based on the Gormley installation, 6 Times, that runs along the Water of Leith, from the Modern Art Gallery to Ocean Terminal where the exhibition is being held.

The central poem of my sequence seeks to challenge the concept that I explored in my review of Jennifer Adam's play. What lies below the surface, beneath the skin, the bruises or the deeper narrative of our lives? When I was writing Walking on the Water, I stood near the sculptures, listening to the comments of on-lookers and passers-by. I spent a year taking photos, watching how the light changed the look of the work, the effect on the water, and the viewers' perceptions on each of the six statues.

For FIGURE IV, I had copious notes, scribbles and images floating around. In the end, it was an overheard remark of a young child that gave me the central premise of this piece. My sequence of poems is a reflection on 6 Times, a revelation of my interpretation, and - for those who dare to dig without prejudice - a glimpse of what lies beneath a complex narrative.

4.  Ecce Homo (Figure IV - RIGHT)

‘Is there a story,’ asked the infant,

nonchalantly pointing at my manhood.

There are, I figured, three dimensions:

my Shadow on the murky surface;

my Reflection in the water;

and above it all, my Self.

I hope that people will come and view the inspirational and intricate art-books that make up the Octavo Fika exhibition. And for those who like something a bit different, I'll be performing Walking on the Water at some point this Saturday, after giving a workshop on poetry performance. Poetry and plainchant in a shopping centre!

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Beyond the Azure Plain of Blue

Recently I’ve been writing a series of blog-articles about the Spoken Word scene for the All Edinburgh Theatre website. I’ve written about some of the groups, organisations and events on my blog before, but since I’ve been invited to do a more comprehensive round-up (more comprehensive, perhaps, than has been done previously) elsewhere, I’ll use my blog to shamelessly promote some of the Edinburgh Events that I am involved in.
Besides the usual run of open-mic, and poetry-slam events run by the likes of Inky Fingers and Blind Poetics, I have read (or performed) my work at the Antihoot Open Stage, the Percy Poets, and Musselburgh Hot Pot. I also had my name pulled out of the hat for an impromptu poem at the last Shore Poets (I went prepared as always with a poem in my head) but I have yet to win the coveted Lemon drizzle cake.
At the end of this month, KALOPSIA COLLECTIVE are holding an exhibition of art books. I have been invited to ‘display’ a pamphlet of my poems and photos titled Walking on the Water. I won’t be reading it, but many people will have seen me perform the piece at Caesura and 10Red, interspersing the pictures and poems with sung Gregorian plainchant. Needless to say, the pamphlet will be available for purchase.
Another poetry performance may turn out strangely memorable due to the location. Inky Fingers have teamed up with Edinburgh Tours and, as part of the Previously... history festival, have commissioned poets to write pieces to be performed to unsuspecting tourists. It’s called “Poets on a Tour Bus” – and, yes, I’m one of them. Writing to a remit is not particularly easy; I’m not sure my poems will last more than a single journey.
When I submitted a wee story last year to Monster Zine, produced by an elusive group called the Antisocial Writers Club, I was invited (as a grateful contributor) to what was one of the best launch parties I’ve attended. Now I have become more involved (on a purely anti-social level) and so will be performing (ironically) someone else’s work at the coming launch. This year’s theme is Circus. It will be entertaining, theatrical, and memorable.  And there will be an elephant in the room. Perhaps.
This brings me to the real reason for today’s bloggage. It is the 12th, and time for the next of my Twelve Tones of Blue poems. How do I tie this in with the Spoken Word scene? That’s easy! At the last Rally & Broad spoken-word Cabaret, amid the mayhem of music, dance, and wordsmithery, the audience threw paper aeroplanes at each other. As you do.
Canto XI is all about regretting those things we never did, and nostalgia for the paper planes we used to throw.

Twelve Tones of Blue


Canto XI


She made a paper plane to

remind herself of you,

that puerile time you both flew

planes from the landing on New

Year’s Day – as children do.


She tested it. It sailed through

the air. And landed too.

Then the cold wind blew.


Inside, the words she drew

said simply, “I love you.”

Concealing this with glue

she stuck the wings and threw

the thing. As if you knew,


The damn thing crashed. So

she painted it blue.

“Room for 2?”

Join the Q.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Like a Black Crow Flying in a Blue Sky

Joni Mitchell must like the word Blue. Throughout her early albums, the word appears (as a colour or a concept, blue or blues) with extraordinary frequency.

On Clouds (1969) there is a song, ‘Roses Blue;’ Ladies of the Canyon (1970) has ‘Blue Boy;’ For the Roses (1972) another song, ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire;’ and on Hejira (1976) there is ‘Furry Sings the Blues,’ and ‘Blue Motel Room’ – not to mention that ominous Black Crow.

But I have missed out one crucial album. Many fans consider Blue (1971) to be her masterpiece, although others would argue that the more cerebral album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns better deserves the accolade. Blue is an intimate album, not least in its pared-down style, minimal instrumentation and close-miked vocals.

The four songs with piano accompaniment alone, when played back-to-back, make a pretty depressing set. In the more up-beat ‘My Old Man’ the lonesome blues collide; a bluesy rendition of Jingle Bells is the basis of ‘River,’ and a nihilistic dark cocoon ends the album, and the song, ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard.

The intimate lyrics convey an artist’s vulnerability in a way that became a blueprint in the canon of confessional female, singer-songwriting. At the time, Melody Maker described it as ‘vicarious heartache,’ and Joni later described herself as being ‘like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.’

The word ‘blue’ appears some 15 times over seven songs.

For Joni, ‘blue’ is deeper than mere melancholy, or mawkish autobiography; it’s a condition to which we all relate. She says, ‘If I sing in the first-person, they think it’s all about me, but many of the characters I write about … have nothing to do with my own life in the intimate sense.’ As we know, art is a lie, an artifice.

I’m often keen to claim or emphasise that my own writing, especially poetry, is not autobiographical, although I draw heavily from everything I experience around me. To describe the 10th poem of this year’s sequence as ‘a personal response’ suggests exactly that.

The 'truth' is in the possession of the beholder.

Twelve Tones of Blue


Recalling the heartfelt yet emotionally intelligent naïveté of the album, as a personal reaction and interpretation, the poet journeys through each of the ten songs of Joni’s Blue.

Canto X



All I Want

You wanted a world –

I gave you a life:

The blood poured free,



My Old Man

You wanted a ring

to bind us true;

I played a warm chord,



Little Green

The child pretending

was lost to you;

Imagined spring turned




You ran away: laughed

with the bright red devil

as the moon appeared




I sang you to sleep;

you sank deep into a

fuggy, drug-induced





In dreams your shadow

yearned for home:

calling ergo ego



This Flight Tonight

Flying from the myth:

Regret, the deadliest sin,

Turned envy-green




You cried a river

of frozen tears to

skate away into



A Case of You


Drawn to my escape

I poured out my soul,

bled the bitterness



The Last Time I Saw Richard


The empty tomb,

the dark cocoon,

the jewel you lost.


Thursday, 12 September 2013

Shadows and Shades of Blue

Someone I know recently had to do one of those tedious staff team-building days that businesses, corporations and church-groups are so fond of. Having been supposedly psycho-analysed (or rather, psycho-assessed) by colleagues, he discovered something he already knew: that he is an extrovert.

I suspect the methodology used was similar to the Myers Briggs system of character-analysis, in which you discover where you are placed in four categories of personality trait. There are two options in each category, and through various tests, discussions, and self-discovery, a person not only gets to understand themself but also, in a rather Jungian sense, is able to access their ‘shadow.’

For years I have struggled to work out where I sit on the second of these categories: introvert/extrovert.  The general understanding of these terms is based on behaviour: he/she is such an extrovert (ie, showy) or an introvert (ie, shy.) But in Jungian typology, it is about where a person finds ‘energy.’ Are you energised by having other people around, or do you re-charge your batteries when alone? There has been quite a lot said lately about ‘quiet types,’ and an attempt to re-assess the notion that there are, indeed, perks of being a wallflower. (An aside: what a great film!)

For a creative person – a writer, an artist, performer or whatever – the need to shut oneself in a room and create stuff may be at odds with the desire to ‘get out there.’ Conversely, the prospect of having to ‘strut one’s stuff’ in public is daunting for an artist who would rather hide in his or her turret.  As a performer in one field of the arts (ie, singing), I am glad to share my voice in public. But performing my writing is a terrifying experience that deeply challenges my extrovert nature since, as a writer, I would describe myself as an introvert.

Last week I was relieved to find an article that has finally resolved this issue, at least in terms of being pigeonholed. It seems that artists, or ‘creative types’ as we tend to get called, can be both introvert and extrovert. Simultaneously! We are smart and naïve, humble and proud, rebellious iconoclasts and somehow traditional and conservative. It may sound (or feel) schizophrenic or paradoxical, but how else can we be passionate about our work yet at the same time, objective?

The article also said that creative people alternate between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality.How true. What’s more, it said creative people's openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment.Not every artist buys into the ‘no pain, no gain’ idea, but I fail to see how anyone can create or perform a work of art without giving something of their soul away in the process.

No two people are the same, and artists hate being put into boxes. For this reason, I prefer to use the nine-fold system of character-analysis which I have alluded to before. (see Monday, 12 August 2013 – Canto VIII)  The ‘Enneagram’ comes from the Sufi religion, and divides the character into three groups of three: three body-centred types who tend towards gut-instinct; three heart-centred, with a developed emotive response, and three head-centred who rely more on cognitive processes.

People discover for themselves (rather than being told) which of the nine types fits their personality best. Being plotted on a circle, they are then able to access the other eight points, or travel around the circumference to understand and empathise with those who may seem distant from their own way of thinking, behaving, or feeling. The film, The Wizard of Oz, advocates a clockwise walk around the circle in order to come to terms with one’s buried function – for example, the Tin Man, who sings, ‘If I only had a heart,’ must also reflect on his thoughts and behaviour to control his emotions.

This is a long-winded way of introducing the ninth of my Twelve Tones of Blue sequence. Having spent many years trying to write novels that explore this nine-fold typology, I can only present here a nine-line poem that attempts to summarise the points of the enneagram. Were life, and people, so simple as to sum up the complexities of character in a mere poem, we wouldn’t need creative people, with all their foibles, to try and make sense of it. This is why we all, naturally, fail. And thrive.

Twelve Tones of Blue

Canto IX

The arbiter, who'll gently, gently persuade;

The governor, who'll quickly come to your aid;

The stickler, who beats himself with his own tirade.

The lust for life who lives to give and gives of Self;

The trust who strives to achieve and stays alive by stealth;

The gust of creative beauty, who survives by Art, not wealth.

Picasso painted violins and grapes: the ultimate epicurist;

Rodin sculpted a figure whose thought was masked by avarice;

Joni constructed a palette of indigo: governed by loyal cowardice.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

After the Festivity

Before the Fireworks finish off the month of Festivity and the Burghers of Edinburgh claim back their City, further down the East Coast, there will be sadness and, perhaps, celebration for a life of an artist whose work enjoyed a major retrospective exhibition on The Mound this year.

John Bellany was a maverick, a complex and extraordinary character for whom Life and Art were inextricably bound. I cannot start to describe how moving I find his paintings and his life-story. As a writer, I can only offer my poetic reaction to the portrait of his father, before which I have spent many hours contemplating the intensity of this expression of deep humanity.

This poem takes the form of the Lord's Prayer, and weaves it into a eulogy, not only for the artist's father, but also for all fathers, indeed, all parents. And, for that matter, all humanity, since we are all recipients of Art's legacy. In the case of John Bellany, we are truly gifted.

His Father


meditating upon John Bellany’s portrait of his father at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art


My Father, who is now in Heaven,

how we hallowed your name.

Your kingdom was the seas, but you

drifted into dry dock.  Earthed, your

cigarette incense lifted up like prayer.


Our Mother baked our daily bread

while you dredged manna

from the unforgiving oceans, fed

five thousand hungry mouths, then

trespassed upon those depths


no more. Weren’t you ever tempted

to return? Your uxorious duty led

You to ink a blue tattoo; anchor your

devotion in a permanent inscription,

while you sat, marooned – Regal, yet


stripped of your omnipotent rigging –

to glory in a love that isn’t puffed up:

reflecting what you were, and all that He

instructed us to do; who sits at your right

hand on high and fished for all humanity.


Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Utterly Untrue

Michael Haneke is one of my favourite film directors. His film, The White Ribbon would be in my top ten films – if I had such a list. It opens with a voice-over by an elderly-sounding narrator:

I do not know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it, I know only by hearsay. After so many years, a lot of it is still obscure, and many questions remain unanswered.

As the film unfolds, and indeed, ends, the strange events that are acted and narrated are left unexplained. The audience is left to draw its own conclusions, if they are able.

If I say that everything I write is “utterly untrue,” I would be lying. According to one of the characters in my Phone-Box Tales, writing poetry is ‘a process, a craft, a sculpting of language.’  And it certainly isn’t auto-biographical, even though much poetry uses a 1st-person perspective, or a “persona.”

The same can be said for fiction. Writers cannot simply rely on undiluted imagination, romantic inspiration or plain perspiration. Instead, they beg, steal or burrow ideas; transpose, translate and transform them into lies that tell the reader, performer, or listener about the truth. Therefore, when I say that all my Phone-Box Tales are based on my own experiences, observations, overheard conversations, stolen snippets and scavenged stories; this is the truth. But the result?

Let others judge. Not with opinions, criticism, scepticism or malicious vitriol. Nor with that ridiculous star-rating that seems to plague reviewers and performers alike: at the Edinburgh Fringe, anything less than ★★★★ is hardly worth the cost of a staple to attach a scrap of paper to a flyer. But let the audience, when they hear my writing performed, decide how it moves them. Is what they hear believable, if not entirely credible? Does it generate laughter, anger, disgust, or guilty pleasure?

Hopefully, it will leave them with more unanswered questions. Such as: who reviewed this show as: ‘Utterly untrue’- ★★★★★ in ? Well, me, of course, just now. I challenge my audience to award stars according to their conscience. Meanwhile, I must go and buy some staples.

Tales of unrequited love, jealousy, and abandonment, all set in, featuring, or mentioning that symbol of severed communication: the Phone-Box.
Not suitable for children.
Nor adults, really.
Nor pets.

Venue 71, No. 4, Picardy Place, aka ‘The Fiddler’s Elbow,’ somewhere between Greenside Place and Broughton St.