As a grownup, I can’t say I’m fond of nettles – even their roots sting and nettle soup is awful. But as a child I had a love-hate relationship with them. Could you catch hold of a nettle and not get stung? (yes, if you pinch the middle of a leaf); was there a dock leaf nearby to ease a sting? (yes! amazingly, they do like to grow together); was there a nearby parent to make a dock bandage? (yes, definitely); did the sting hurt? (yes, always). But it’s the dead nettle that I have remained attached to – the harmless, flowering variety in white or purple – easy to miss, easy to mistake. It was one of the first flowers my dad taught me to identify and although, unlike him, I’ve never been able to remember its latin name (lamium album and lamium purpureum – not even in the same family as the stinging sort) I still like to pick it for a table-top vase of wild flowers. I like its square hollow stem, its star-shaped sepals, its flowers like open mouths.
This drawing is in pen and ink – my art teacher banned me from using an actual pen, so this is drawn with a broken cocktail stick! Very hard to control, but then I think that was her aim. The paper is made of layers of tissue and paint, which I’ve then scored like school writing paper. The printer objected strongly to printing a poem on this thick, lumpy excuse of a sheet of paper. But eventually it did oblige.
The poem? Well, that’s trying to hold my ambivalent feelings about both nettles and families. Love, with a bit of a sting.
Yeats in Ayrshire
Amazingly, my reading workshop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, is sold out. I’m sure it’s Yeats who’s lured people, rather than me. But I also wonder if visitors to the Book Festival are a little tired of listening and want to join in. The Book Festival are running a number of reading workshops this year, and my bet is that they’ll all be sold out.
As I’ve encountered a number of disappointed fans of Yeats’ work, I’ve joined forces with Crossroads Lifelong Learning Partnership to run another reading workshop. This one will be at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, in Ayr, on August 1st.
Join us to read aloud some of Yeats best-loved poems and for an accessible and stimulating discussion of Yeats’ life and work. This event is suitable for those new to poetry, as well as more experienced readers. You can find out how to book here
I’ve been going to a drawing class at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh for the last year, learning to use pencil and charcoal. This term, my wonderful teacher, Helen Jackson, asked if I’d like to make an artist’s book, combining my poems and drawings. I was uncertain. I don’t often enjoy text combined with visual art – the text seems to serve as an inadequate translation of, or comment on, the art. I’m usually left aware of the inadequacies of language.
But I was drawn to the idea of a picking a particular subject which I could respond to both poetically and artistically. I wondered how my drawing might affect my writing, and vice versa. As the class is at the Botanics, I have been drawing a lot of flowers already. And they have much personal resonance. My father is a botanist and taught me (or tried to) the names of many trees and wild flowers.
So I picked four flowers to study – white dead nettle, plantain, ivy-leaved toadflax and dandelion. All plants I associate with my childhood. I drew each plant in pencil, charcoal and pen and ink. I also used carbon paper to make monoprints. I worked fast – these were sketches which I hoped would capture feeling rather than visual accuracy.
This is the cover, which is made up of sketches which I cut up and stitched together.
I’m delighted that the Scottish Poetry Library has asked me to run a reading workshop at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. It’ll be on Yeats, on August 16th, to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth. I’ll be following on from Robert Crawford’s talk on Yeat’s that same morning – Celebrating Yeats – which I’ll also be going to. I want to hear Crawford’s persepective on Yeats, but I will also be hoovering up titbits on Yeats’ life and works to help me answer the many questions that will come my way a few hours later.
My session part of a series of reading workshops called Nothing But the Poem. I’ve been running a number of these sessions in Edinburgh this year and the aim is to encourage folk who haven’t read much poetry to come along. No homework is required and we don’t delve into any literary or cultural criticism. Only that is quite hard with Yeats. In fact, a reading workshop on Yeats could very easily turn into Everything But the Poem. How can we read ‘Easter 1916′ without discussing the events of the Easter Rising in Dublin? It is particularly hard to stick to the poem when reading Yeats’ political poems – Irish history, and Yeats’ complex relationship with it is just so fascinating. Other poems are easier – ‘Wild Swans at Coole’, for example. It’s a beautiful and moving poem even if one knows nothing about Lady Gregory or Maude Gonne.
The trouble is, I know folk will ask. I’ve two biographies by my bed already…
I’m really pleased that my poem has been chosen to join a wonderful series of poets writing in response to last months general election. My poem, ‘What Nicola Knows,’ is day 34 of a new blog called New Boots and Pantisocracies, which aims to ‘chart the responses of those unacknowledged legislators, the poets, over the first 100 days of the new dispensation.’
Read my poem here and sign up for a daily political poem!