While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Fern and The Thistle

This from the latest International Institute of Modern Letters’ newsletter:

A press release from the Scottish Poetry Library:

New Zealand is about as far as it’s possible to get from Scotland. Yet there are strong cultural links between the two nations, and a new initiative is bringing them together online.

Organised by the Scottish Poetry Library, The Fern and The Thistle will feature writers based in Scotland introducing their favourite New Zealand poets. The SPL hopes this will evolve into a poetry exchange, giving New Zealand readers the chance to discover Scottish poets in their turn.

As well as discovering New Zealand poetry online, Scottish readers will be able to borrow some of the best contemporary New Zealand poetry ­– the Scottish Poetry Library has recently acquired a new collection of over 60 books, thanks to funding from Creative New Zealand, and will be adding to this collection over the next few years.

The Fern and The Thistle will be launched with a live reading from Scottish and New Zealand poets Andrew Johnston and Gerrie Fellows, at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh (29 May) and New Zealand House in London (28 May).

There are probably only a handful of people who receive the Wellington-based IIML’s newsletter in a position to pop along to the Scottish Poetry Library on a Thursday evening in late May… and I’m one.


I have been dipping in and out of the Scottish version of Best Poems 2007 ever since I read and blogged about the NZ version.

The truth is, I wasn’t grabbed by any of the poems in Scotland’s 2007 edition. I think this is purely a reflection of the editor’s taste and mine not meshing. That’s fine. I’ve started going back through previous years (well, I’m halfway through ’06) and already I feel like I’ll be coming home from the Scottish Poetry Library with more than NZ writers.

One area I feel prepared to make a comparison (and the inevitable value judgement) in regards to NZ vs Scottish Best Poems is the additional material. When you click on a poem from the contents page of the NZ site you get the poem, plenty of space, and links to an ‘Author’s Note’ and ‘Sources’. The Author’s Notes are generally brief, incorporating a few lines from the poet regarding the chosen poem – a glimpse inside the process rather than a historiography.

This layout achieves two things. It puts the poems in pride of place. And it acknowledges that this is a jumping off point for readers hoping to discover more about NZ poetry and/or find a new favourite poet, and equips readers with the knowledge to find more by the author.

When you click on a poem on the Scottish site, you get it all on one page. First there’s the poem, then scroll down a little and there’s the source, then an ‘Author’s Note’ (which almost always exceeds the size of the poem itself). After more scrolling (some of these Author’s Notes are looong), there’s an ‘Editor’s Comment’, then ‘Biography’ (of the poet, not the editor), though if you scroll down some more… no, just some Related Links.


The problem with all this extra information is the poem invariably gets dwarfed by this other information. This is most pronounced on the page for Leonard McDermid’s poem, ‘Night River’. The poem is 21 words long. The Extras run to 693 words.

Too often information is repeated in the Author’s and Editor’s comments, and some of the poets – perhaps giddy at the freedom of prose and no word limit (?) – over-explain their own work. Rather than illuminate, these long notes threaten to extinguish the wonder and mystery of the poems.

Look back again at the NZ site. For the Author’s Note to my favourite poem of the bunch we geta one-line bio of Geoff Cochrane, then:

Cochrane comments: ‘The “Nigel” of the poem is the novelist Nigel Cox, author of Tarzan Presley.

New Zealand is a place of beaches and bays; Nigel did his dying within a stone’s throw of the sea, and I thought that sane and smart. His remarks about writing (his writer’s takes on writing) are also sane and smart – some of the smartest ever made.’

That’s what I mean by illuminating. That’s what I mean by not extinguishing wonder and mystery.

Perhaps this is overstating things.

What about: It's like the build up and post mortem of a football match: a little might be enlightening, but too much and it’s tedious.

I’m not bagging out the Scottish poems, just observing that the layout and peripherals of the NZ site do a better job of highlighting poems and poets worthy of further exploration.

The 2006 edition of the Best Scottish Poems shares the all-in-one-page format and includes editor’s comments, but it’s all a lot more succinct. I like the poems more in this edition (so far), but I think this is mostly due to my tastes being closer to Janice Galloway’s (2006 editor) than Alan Spence’s (2007 editor).

If I ever wind up unemployed in 2008 (and not shackled to my desk, chasing insane daily word count targets) I fancy holing myself up at the SPL and coming up with my own list for 2008.

The SPL also stocks NZ poetry, so I'll probably have two lists to compile. Before I started reading the Scottish edition, I thought I could maybe eek out a few generalisations about poetry in one or t’other country based on their 'Best' sites, but as Janice Galloway says in her 07 introduction:

On comparing these collections to draw national conculsions: In this age of ready translation, international web access and mass publication, poetry need have no nationality… Whatever the hell we like enters our thinking and motivation as writers, thinkers, believers. Our truest work is to say so. The poets here are too full of other things, wider things. More humane, more humble and yet more confident things. More thrawn things. Here's to that.

Yes, here’s to that.

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