As an artist who has done a bit of shuffling between mediums, I’ve been fortunate. Quite a few different funders and artistic partners have trusted me to do a bit of exploring. Often this has involved travel by sea in the sloop El Vigo. This has come to mind as I do the fine-tuning of a book called ‘Transits’. The narrative is built on looking back along the tracks left on water. That all started from first taking charge of a slim but deep-drafted vessel when it was berthed in Kiel in 2002.
Two years later, StAnza poetry festival won support from Gavin Wallace, then head of literature, Scottish Arts Council, to commission me to be the first artist in residence at the festival. My proposal was to make an attempt to sail there at a not very favourable time of year. We reached as far as Burray, Watersound in Scapa Flow. Gale after gale came through. I scanned the weather maps in hope of a brief window that would let us continue through Pentland Firth in a degree of safety. That just did not happen. We were at anchor across from Longhope on Hoy. That name is a reminder of the tragedy that can occur when lifeboat crew go to the help of mariners in trouble. It would have been just plain irresponsible to take major risks for an arts project. I don’t think the project suffered by that decision. It did shift in focus.
The voyaging in the company of musician Norman Chalmers, artist Nicky Gear and her surgeon husband Adrian (skills not required that trip) resulted in images, video and words more than sufficient to form the basis of a body of work shown at the festival. For me the most lasting product was a sense of the poem as a log of your own passage. Workshops at StAnza brought memorable responses to this suggestion. I was reminded of these a few days ago when the poet and translator Anna Crowe, first met at that workshop, sent me a poem in progress. It was her response to an albumen print by William Carrick, a Scottish photographer working in Baltic ports at the time. Anna’s keen eye and ear for language worked together to make what seemed to me another form of translation.
Some years after my StAnza residency the singer Kirsty Law ( www.kirstylaw.com) set my poem on the wake (or track left behind you) to music. I hope we can perform the show or a version of it again some day. I still hear Kirsty’s voice in this especially as she’s just been presenting and sharing in a Facebook-assisted ceilidh.
It’s your track record,
How she leans to the cloth she carries,
how her forward sections dip
and the bounce of recovery.
The swither of that, if any,
in small turbulence astern.
It’s the hiss of the line of bubbles,
the ones you’re not often going to see
in the clutter of several waters
but you have to get the sniff of them.
For now I can’t resume the jobs needed to return El Vigo to the sea. But of course I can go voyaging through stories. Some of these are accounts of events which happened. I’ve just finished Craig Mair’s ‘A Star for Seamen’ (John Murray) on the Stevenson family of engineers (and authors). And some of them are fiction. I’ve been revisiting the stark but humane stories of George Mackay Brown in ‘A Calendar of Love.’
And then there are inherited narratives. Many are being shared on line now as a safe way of meeting. Linda Williamson is generously offering transcriptions of the stories heard from Duncan Williamson. These are widely shared but you can catch them on Facebook sites for The Society for Storytelling and Scottish Storytelling Forum. The Orcadian Tom Muir has also been sharing his powerful and entertaining versions of a trad story a day as ‘Tales for Troubled Times’.