Scottish poetry library: hitting the slow motion button

Article published on Aug. 5, 2012
community published
Article published on Aug. 5, 2012
If you ever visit Edinburgh, you will undoubtedly walk down the city high street. Or rather, you will push your way through crowds, dodge tourists posing for photos and brush off costumed students handing out flyers. Continue down the street and you will spot a sign to the Scottish poetry library.
Follow this and just seconds later you will find yourself far from the madding crowd in a place where poems have conversations.

The brainchild of Scottish poet Tessa Ransford, the Scottish poetry library was launched almost thirty years ago in 1984. What first consisted of 300 mainly donated books and a part time staff of two is now one of only three poetry libraries in the UK and the only one to be independently housed – it even has a specially commissioned building.

Scottish poetry library building What’s the relevance of the ‘Scottish’ in SPL? Colin Waters, the library’s communications manager, considers. ‘It’s as though it’s a family tree. This is the Scottish branch but we’re connected to the main great oak and we like to swing Tarzan-like from branch to branch, shouting poetry rather than jungle cries.’ He continues and his obvious enthusiasm for his place of work is infectious. ‘It’s like the poems have conversations with each other and you can have a conversation with the poetry too. We’re international looking but we’re also very confident in Scottish poetry’s worth. It’s a comfortable fit: you can find Sylvia Plath next to Carol Ann Duffy next to Homer…’ He grins. ‘Not literally, that would be a really badly organised library!’

An alternative map of the world

The SPL certainly embraces internationalism. My first contact with the library came in summer 2011 at a reading of Scottish, Lebanese and Syrian poets who had worked together to translate each other’s texts. More recently the SPL has gained attention for its Olympic project the Written World, run in partnership with the BBC. The SPL picked a poem for each country participating in the games and the poem was then read and broadcast by a citizen of that country living in Britain. I can’t help thinking of Christa Wolf’s concept of literature as providing an alternative map of the world.

The Written World is just part of the SPL’s remarkable presence online and in the media; the library disproves anyone who would accuse poets or librarians of being less than technology savvy. ‘People think of libraries as physical places which store books,’ explains Colin. ‘We are a physical library, but we’re also much more: we’re very much a presence online; we’re a hub for poets throughout Scotland; and we disseminate poetry through our website and social media. We basically try to cover the whole poetry beat with whatever tools are available to us.’

This is a particularly exciting task at the moment. ’If you look at the list of the TS Elliot poetry prize winners over the last ten years, Scots dominate it,’ Colin tells me. He points out that the current British poet laureate is Carol Ann Duffy, the first Scot to hold the post. ‘It’s a cycle: the seventies were a really strong poetry and playwriting moment but in the eighties novelists like Alistair Gray dominated. Right now it’s really exciting to be looking at Scottish poetry. That’s what we’re trying to reflect. We want to be a part of it and we want to record it for future generations.’

The Scottish poetry library Scotland is currently dominated by questions of identity, with an upcoming referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. ‘I don’t think it’s a coincidence that whenever there’s a lot of discussion about Scottish politics and identity, Scottish poetry comes to the fore,’ Colin tells me. ‘There’s something about poetry which is uniquely suited to discussing the times in which we live. Poetry is such a personal form and it’s so flexible. You can turn around a poem relatively quickly and get it out.’ In Scotland, this all has a certain historical basis: Scottish nationalism was first spearheaded by Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid in the 1920s. The Scottish national party seems aware of the potency of poetry, making sure they got national poet Liz Lochhead on board when they launched their campaign for independence.

The really really boring poetry event

Nonetheless, Colin laments that while Scots are quick to celebrate any celebrity’s connection with Scotland, Scottish poetry just doesn’t get the same attention. ‘I feel like saying, guys, you probably have the world’s leading poetry library and the world’s leading poets: aren’t you excited? Don’t you want to flag that up?’ This lack of attention is something the SPL has actively chosen to tackle: their newly launched autumn season is both a celebration of poetry and a self-deprecating look at why so many people are put off by poetry: from events centred around cutting up books to an evening entitled ‘The really really boring poetry event.’

I can’t help finding this tongue-in-cheek self-scrutiny impressive from people so passionate about what they do. I had arrived at the SPL expecting to be given a parroted portrait of an arts organisation. What I got was a passionate manifesto for the power of poetry. ‘One of the beautiful things about poetry is that it’s about moments,’ Colin enthuses. ‘Life’s made up of moments: we all lose people who are close to us; we all have moments of joy; we all see a beautiful bird in a hedgerow and stop for a second to look at it. In a world which is so busy and so hectic, we need poetry because it’s a great way of slowing the world down and thinking about things. It’s like hitting the slow motion button.’

Standing in the quiet of the sunlit library, the shelves humming with conversations between poems, this is amply demonstrated.

as the endlessly knuckle-headed world

caromed past, oblivious as ever

to the small miracles that make it worth

a damn. (August, Hugh McMillan)