Category Archives: Poetry

Mother Tongue: Collette Bryce and Jen Hadfield

This was a slightly unusual event for the Literary Festival in two respects. Firstly, it comprised two poets performing consecutively, with only a vague theme of “deliberations of home” to connect them, in the words of Peggy Hughes introducing. Secondly, there was no opportunity for questions after the readings, meaning the poets’ only interaction with their captive audience was through their works. Fortunately, they did not disappoint.

Colette Bryce, performing first, won the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition in 2003, and was Dundee University’s Poet-in-Residence between 2003 and 2005. She read from her most recent collection The Whole and Rain-domed Universe, but opened with a separate poem entitled “Dundee”, describing the train journey up the east coast past Edinburgh, Kirkcaldy and onwards, and the hay bales in fields like playing pieces in a “golden board game”.

The collection speaks a lot of her life and experiences growing up in Northern Ireland; the long poem “Derry” opens, describing a city of “suicides and riptides”, and schoolchildren hand in hand “like paper dolls”. “Re-entering the Egg” is “playing with scale” amid “childhood landscapes”; “the smallest breath knits round her like a shell”. Growing up, “the Brits” refers to the Army, and a beautiful image in one poem sees the narrator imagine dressing toy soldiers in dolls’ clothes, clearly evocative of the hostile environment that was her home country during the Troubles, and the yearning for peace among her family, friends and neighbours.

Other poems explore more domestic memories – “a giant’s hands might practice origami” with a gigantic paper road map, while “Magi” constructs the poignant image of a “mantelpiece nativity”, assigning biblical characters to the different liquor bottles arranged above a hearth in an array of “whisky, liberty and prayer”. The collection strays out of Ireland to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to lament the closure of half of the city’s libraries in “A Library Book”, and Bryce returns to Dundee again outside the collection, with memories of learning to drive in a piece entitled “Car Wash”. A vein of wry humour runs through many of the pieces too – “Derry” assures us that Jesus was a Derryman, given that He was unemployed and living with his mum at the age of 33.

After a warm round of applause following her performance at the “cabaret mic” (in her words), Bryce ceded the stage to Jen Hadfield. A winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2008, her collection’s title Byssus comes from the fibrous tissue that “connects mussels to rock”, and, as such, represents “how we make ourselves at home in the world – how we anchor ourselves”.

The coastal theme continues with the opening poem “Lichen” – their “black and golden ears” and bivalves and puffballs are all fruitful sources of inspiration for the Shetland-based Hadfield. One poem recalls taking children from a school in Birmingham on a trip to the Devonshire hills, and how, when their iPhones were returned to them in the evening, they were “cracked open like geodes” beneath the “hot perturbations of Sirius”.

Hadfield’s soft, dulcet tones were haunting as she presented remarkable pastoral images – “Hydra”, on planting a garden, talks of “spades hewn”, and “turned roots parching”. A daisy is “one little sun against the sky”, standing up to being pulled by the “thread of wind”; a mushroom resembles a “severed head”, the moon “a bashed swede”, and a gate swings “like the chapped mouth of the wind”. “Wind turns like a great water wheel”, and “these acts exceed themselves like trout mouthings”. Poems, she said, are “little machines to remember themselves” – “themselves” being “something precious”.

One of her strongest works is “The Plinky Boat”, containing striking lines like “the present is a fine line; a puff of air will destroy it”, “things meta-flower so readily into their present selves”, and it ends with  the profound observation, true of every piece of art: “the poem wouldn’t exist, but we couldn’t stay”. She ended her reading with the collection’s final piece “The Moult” – addressed to the animal in question, it instructs to “shelter in the hoodoos and pluck your fur”, and “scratch off your dream coat of silver  ”. Whilst Bryce’s verses tend to dwell in urban settings, and Hadfield’s in rural ones, they are united in their strength in capturing locations and their memories in words – a thoroughly entertaining revue.

Adam Learmonth




“Heard It. Seen It. Done It” A Cultural Showcase

What’s next on my list of things to see at Dundee’s Literary Festival? Well, what better an event than a showcase of different art forms? Heard it. Seen it. Done it. was advertised in the Dundee Literary festival guidebook as a “One-off cultural showcase of live music, spoken word, animation […] conceived, curated and performed by voice hearers from the HaVeN, Dundee […]” The blurb went on to explain that the HaVeN charity based in the City was an organisation seeking acceptance of voice hearing being a valid experience. I was left a little puzzled in what was meant by ‘voice hearing’ and so I grabbed my coat and made for Bonar Hall.

Upon arriving, and after a quick detour to the downstairs bar, I had found a seat. Some chairs were placed around tables with pens and paper, other chairs lay dotted around the room bizarrely. Was it interactive? Did I need a pen and paper or a table to lean on? Were they reserved for specific people who did need pens and paper? I wasn’t sure and so I found a chair close enough to a table that I could shimmy to in the event it was needed, but far enough away in case it was indeed reserved. With reasons unknown, the showcase began forty minutes after its scheduled time. A man dressed in bright, patterned clothes jumped on stage and brought the spirits of the waiting crowd back to life. He told us he was part of NEU! REEKIE!, a duo who bring literary culture to the masses by holding events using technology and their bright enthusiasm for The Arts. He explained how they had given workshops at HaVen to inspire poetry among other mediums to express their experiences as either voice hearers or mental health issues. The informal chat was cheery and informative, although I was rather hoping the term “voice hearing” would be explained as he had obviously chosen to categorise it differently to that of mental health struggles.

He then introduced a short film directed, created and written by Ainslie Henderson portraying daily battles with mental health. The lights went down. The short was narrated by the main character, a man about to face a crowd and sing at an open mic. We watch as the character breaks down and his doubting inner voice materializes as a younger version of himself. The film’s subject matter talked about how childhood experiences may linger and cripple our self-confidence in future life and how we must fight it by finding peace with ourselves. The film ended as the character and his younger self walk on stage together and begin to sing. As the lights went up the sheer silence of the room before the roar of applause said everything. It had moved every single member of the audience to reflection and thought as well as appreciation of the beautiful and flawless stop motion.

The host, only known to us as NEU! REEKIE!, quickly brought on the second act of the night, three musicians under the names of Loki, Becci and Marissa. Loki seemed the foreman of the trio as he welcomed us in his broad Glaswegian accent. He spoke about how he too had run workshops with groups including HaVen, mental health support groups and nderprivileged teenagers. He spoke of vaguely of personal traumas as a younger man and how these experiences had caused a sense of depression and isolation within himself. Without further ado, Becci strapped her guitar round her chest whilst Marissa rested her violin under her chin and they began their first song. Fully expecting Loki to sing, my eyes widened in delight as the lyrics spilled from his mouth; he was a rapper! Each piece they performed sang of his dark experiences alone with his mind and his struggle with drug use. “Tell me something good to shout about, ’til then its mood swings and roundabouts”.

His elegant play on words, rhymes and rhythm accompanied by the sorrowful tones of the violin and constant strum of the guitar had successfully personified his struggles into sound. The group thanked the crowd at the end of their set and left us with a beautiful and comforting thought “some of you here might represent the mental health community, some of you might represent the literary community and others are part of the local community. Tonight, we ARE the community. One community together.” I found myself looking around the room at the crowd and no longer felt in limbo at my table-less, scattered chair.

The next performer was Kevin Swinyard, a member of HaVEn, who had prepared two of his own poems written in a workshop with Kevin McCabe, a spoken word artist. The poems described the poet’s face and repetition peppered the piece with “you have a boxer’s nose like me” giving an even and lulling rhythm and tempo. He spoke with passion and commitment for his work whilst giving a convincing performance of the words he spoke. His ode to Kevin McCabe suited the event perfectly as the poet himself was welcomed onstage to perform his own pieces.

Again, the spoken word was set to music, a Rhythm and Blues tribute from the lone guitarist as Kevin performed his pieces, inspired by Dundee, with elegant musicality. Unfortunately, it was here that I guesstimated the reasons for such a long wait for the show to begin. During the last of McCabe’s pieces the sound crackled with deafening screeches. I mention this in my review not as a negative point but to applaud both McCabe and the following performers as they continued with confidence and strength as the sound misbehaved intermittently throughout the rest of the night.

Margaret Mackay, another member of HaVen, was next up, reading her own poems also created in a workshop with NEU! REEKIE! What struck me most about her poems was not the content itself, but how her personality shone out of them, like the rainbow she spoke of in her first piece.

Last to perform were a duo named Panda Su, a singer songwriter and her drumming companion who stunned the crowd with her melancholic and unusual sound. Not for the first time during the evening, the crowd applauded with genuine appreciation and recognition of their talents.

I walked home that evening with a sense of wholeness and a new respect in humanity, something that is often lost in a bustling, busy City. No, I still wasn’t completely sure what the term “Hearing voices” meant, but it wasn’t the point of the evening. The showcase, as Loki had pointed out, had brought communities together to form a whole; to acknowledge talent and skills from every point of life – how you can put the worst and darkest nights of your life to use and turn them into a celebration in happier days.


Aileen Gilchrist

Literary Cooties: Publishing and Prejudice (11:30am)

The Bonar Hall had a very calming ambience this morning, with soft, dimmed lighting. As the (what turned out to be mainly female audience) gradually entered, everyone was warmly encouraged to sit near the front where the first two rows were made up of chairs around desks. I think this was to create a more relaxed atmosphere, breaking down the typical forward facing rigidity of the audience, and to encourage conversation amongst attendees. However, never being one to optionally sit at the front of a classroom, I sneaked into a seat in the row second from the back.

This discussion definitely had more of a panel like feel, rather than an interview talk show. Sasha de Buyl chaired the conversation with author Zoe Venditozzi, Claire Stewart (Co-Founder of Electric Bookshop and Board member of the Glasgow Women’s Library), and Chitra Ramaswamy who is an Edinburgh based columnist and freelance arts and features writer. These women were at the Dundee Literary Festival today to discuss the gender issues that unfortunately exist in today’s book industry. Sasha began by introducing each woman and then led the conversation by asking, what is the “core of the problem”?

The perception of women writers appears to be one of the answers. Zoe began to answer this question by reflecting on her own experience of writing about domestic settings and how work of this type is not deemed “exciting enough”. She joked about how she felt if she were to write a book titled, “Sparkly Golden Vagina” that it would become more widely recognised because it shocks. But, (and rightly so) Zoe doesn’t want to, and shouldn’t have to, change what it is she writes about or how she wants it presented just to fit into what apparently sells.

This led the conversation towards the issues of literary prizes and reviewing. These are the main avenues through which books gain recognition, and both areas, as pointed out by Claire and the other speakers, are dominated by males (both male writers and male reviewers). I found out something today that surprised me, as I didn’t realise that publishers are the ones who put books forward for prizes, (embarrassingly, I wasn’t sure how selection was organised) and so the lack of women writers and books about women being recognised this way is partly due to the publishing houses in this respect. Claire (only part jokingly) suggested a new prize, something like, “the Women’s Voice book prize”. Even though this initially seems like it would only encourage the division of the ‘woman writer’ and ‘the writer’ (the male, yet non gendered, title), Zoe commented how we need to “push it [women’s writing] forward so it becomes normalised” because unfortunately, as it stands, it is not.

Although around 70% (I’m sure Sasha noted) of the overall readership is female, there is still something that is seen to be icky about women writing about normative women’s experience. Chitra herself has actually written a collection of essays on pregnancy but she told us these have been deemed “too woman-y” to be good sellers – as she rightly put it, “you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”.

Today’s discussion on “Literary Cooties” (a term I believe to have been coined by Nicola Griffith) was a fascinating discussion that questioned the book industry and its norms, and attempted in offering solutions to the gender problems that exist within it. Although there is a long way to go before reaching equality, I feel that confronting the problem, and talking about it, making people face it, as these women have, is the first step towards some positive change. What we need now are more male attendees.

Frances Kelly

First Writes

First Writes

Poetry Workshop with Lindsay MacGregor and Eddie Small

22nd October, 10 am

After some introductions and an enthusiastic welcome from Lindsay and Eddie, we were asked to write down an answer to the question: “What brought you here?”

As someone who has tried to write poetry in the past, this was an easy question to answer – I love reading poetry, I especially love hearing it read aloud, and it would make me happy, if at any time I could manage to write a poem that I would be content to read to an audience, without feeling that it was not quite right, or not quite good enough.

Eddie Small  began the workshop by reading a poem in Scots’ dialect by Harvey Holton, which described a once industrious area of the Dundee docks.  Perhaps some of us took inspiration or absorbed some nugget from that reading.  Lindsay then challenged us to think about what makes a poem, and what we all expect from the poetry we read or listen to; of course this produced a number of different thoughts and answers, which gave us more to think on.

Things moved on apace (90 minutes is all too brief!).  We were presented with a set of four images; as each one was displayed, we were given time to free-write on anything which came to mind, and this was followed by another wonderful poem reading from Eddie, this time by local poet John Glenday, which provided further inspiration

Now it was time for us to start writing our poems. Lindsay asked us to scrutinize all the writing we had produced  in the last hour, then to use the  lines which gave us something that we could form our final piece of writing from.  After a while we were asked to begin polishing our work, firstly by looking at the verbs – were they working hard enough? –then the nouns – were they the right ones;did they convey the right meaning?

So all of us had now written a poem, which nearly all of us felt brave enough to read out to the audience of our workshop peers , with Eddie and Lindsay’s encouragement.  Some of those poems will live on, exactly as they were when we read them out, some will be rewritten or edited into new life, and some will be discarded; perhaps new thoughts and poems will replace them.  That’s the heart and the joy of writing poetry, it evolves, or it stays the same, it swells or it shrinks, but in a very short time you have something complete which lives with you, or something incomplete which grows with you.

Lindsay and Eddie had skilfully organised the event to make best use of the all-too-brief time, and with their infectious enthusiasm, considerate support and shared wisdom, they certainly inspired me to believe that one day I will write a poem which I think is good enough; I do hope that day will be soon!

Lorna Hanlon



Word into Art, Art on Words: Graham Domke & Beth McDonough (DCA) and Kirsty Gunn (3pm)

The Word into Art event was set up a little like a talk show, if we imagine Kirsty Gunn as the host and Beth McDonough and Graham Domke as the guest speakers. Kirsty, a lecturer at the University of Dundee and a well-known author, began by introducing herself, and commented that as a writer she “like[s] to think of other media”. She then introduced her guests, namely Beth who is both an artist and a poet, as well as the DCA’s (Dundee Contemporary Arts) writer in residence and Graham, the curator of the DCA.

Kirsty prompted discussion about the relationship between words and art – what is it? How do we explain it? In response, Graham, who described himself as an “avid reader” and “inhaler of culture”, talked of his own experience of writing catalogues for exhibitions, and used his work on Thomas Hirschhorn’s It’s Burning Everywhere (shown at the DCA in 2009) as an example of how he writes what the artist creates. He read a little excerpt from the piece and Kirsty noted how it was an excellent example of the coming together of formal and creative writing. That is, even though the piece was communicating information, it was done so in a creative and thought provoking way. This example highlighted a form of relationship between the written word and art in that it was a written piece about art but also written in an artful manner.

“Poetic work is informed by visual work and vice versa”, noted Beth. That is the reason, she told us, that she was drawn to poetry, having initially started out in the ‘art world’ as an art teacher and jewellery designer (I’m not sure in what order). The incredible attention to detail, she commented, is something that written and visual works share. However, Beth also interestingly noted how there appears to be a boundary of some form that surrounds places such as the DCA (The McManus Galleries not so much) in that people feel they are unable to, or incapable of, relating to the work there. Her work recently, alongside Graham, has involved attempts at “dissolving [those] boundaries” and I found this a rather fascinating project. How to get people to engage with, and (as I’m sure it was Kirsty who commented) ask “normal” questions about art.

These examples are only a snippet of the conversation today as part of the Dundee Literary Festival, and they show only a glimpse of the possibilities of such a conversation. I am sure the discussion could have continued for a number of hours if time had allowed. The relationship between the written word and art is one that is not particularly easy to define, but is definitely a significant one. The key seems to be, as suggested today, to get rid of some of the preconceptions of both genres and allow the imagination to do the talking whilst remembering that “what holds us together is greater than what separates us”.

Frances Kelly

‘Weaving a Poem’ : Poetry Workshop with Lindsay MacGregor

Having never attended the Dundee Literary Festival before, I was curious as what to expect from a poetry workshop, especially one held inside an old Jute Mill museum. After fingering the edges of the Mill gate assuming it was the only way in, I noted a modest sign on a door a little to the right of the gate “Lindsay MacGregor ‘Weaving a poem’Workshop – Please ring the bell!”Feeling a little foolish for my attempted break-in I rang the bell timidly to the surprising sound of a whistle blowing.

Lindsay herself welcomed me warmly and directed me towards the ‘Red Box’, a modern little room built within the Mill and inviting me to help myself to any of the refreshments. The room was set out in tables of five, clad with clipboards and paper, photographs and poems. Being 10 minutes early I assumed I would be the first in, but the room was already half full with eager poet weavers with more people still shuffling in around me so I quickly claimed a seat and waited for the workshop to begin.

Lindsay introduced herself and gave a little history about the Mill: built in 1833, it was named The Verdant Works because it was once surrounded by beautiful green pastures. She gave a summary of the people who worked there, the majority of whom were women and children . She then threw what could be seen as an horrifically enigmatic question to the floor: “What is poetry?”. Oh no, I panicked, my total lack of poetic knowledge is going to rumble me as a litfest newbie! However a relaxed conversation began between us as a group and we managed to come up with an answer by process of elimination with the aid of Lindsay’s suggestions.

The sense of team work was comfortable and of a genuine nature as everyone present had been engaged by Lindsay’s gentle guidance. Once we had all seemed to enter the flow of writing, we took a quick tour of the Jute Museum itself with a member of staff to inspire us further in our potential poem. Once back in the Red Box we were given ten minutes to write continuously – anything that came to mind whilst touring the building. Lindsay then announced that there were ten more minutes to create the work into a poem, giving helpful hints towards structure and language, advising that the last word of each line was the most important to think about.

I couldn’t believe it. I’d written a poem! Lindsay invited each of us to read the poem aloud, stressing that we did not have to if we didn’t feel comfortable doing so and that the work was our own piece to do with it as we pleased. Each read piece reflected a special part of the museum in mind.

“Weaving a poem” was a thoroughly enjoyable workshop and educational on both a historical and poetic level, with the chance to meet others in the community with a shared love of both the City and celebrating it in such a beautiful form. Definitely an event to keep an eye out for next year!

Aileen Gilchrist

Festwatch 2015 Introductions



AileenHello Everyone!

I’m Aileen and I’m currently studying Mlitt Writing Practice and Study at University of Dundee. If you’re like me and you’re a newcomer to the Dundee literary festival, that’s alright, you’re not alone!

There are some amazing events this year as the City welcomes big names from every medium from poetry to novels, plays to workshops and much more. The festival is not only used as a platform to boast a wide range of excellent works, it is a chance for us to meet the creators in person, to get those questions we’ve always wanted to ask an author answered and inspire us to create something ourselves!

The first event I will be attending is a workshop on Wednesday 21st, “Weaving a poem” run by Scottish Book Trust New Writer Awardee Lindsay MacGregor. This workshop cleverly entwines Dundonian history of Jute mills to encourage us to write a poem based around the Verdant Works Jute museum. Events such as these give us the chance to find our own creative flare, meet others in the community with similar interests and perhaps enjoy a glass of vino to boot!

Check out the Dundee literary festival website below for more exciting events such as these, they are opportunities not to be missed.

See you all there!