StAnza 2021 promises to be an exciting celebration of all things poetry – in a digital format! We are thrilled that the programme includes three #EdwinMorgan100 activities, including a podcast titled Past & Present: Edwin Morgan, on Tuesday 9 March, 18:00 – 18:45, a virtual exhibition titled Concrete Scotland, available to explore throughout the festival, and an event featuring Edwin Morgan Poetry Award 2020 shortlisted poet Michael Grieve.
We have taken the opportunity to chat with Scottish concrete poetry expert Greg Thomas and Annie Rutherford from StAnza about their events Concrete Scotland and the StAnza/Free Vers(e) podcast.
SM: Greg, you will be presenting an online exhibition titled Concrete Scotland, which gives a really interesting overview of Scottish writers and artists who engaged with the concrete poetry movement between the 1950’s-1970’s. What is it about Glasgow during this period that made Edwin Morgan so engaged in the concrete poetry movement?
GT: I think the answer to that is partly Glasgow-centric and partly about a wider cultural paradigm that connected Glasgow to the world in new ways at that time. Morgan was interested in the new media and consumer cultures that emerged across Europe and beyond in the post-war decades, particularly from the early 1960s onwards. He wrote of the poet’s duty to respond to the reality encountered through the television set and radio, not just the reality in-front of them. And of course, in the case of those technologies (which were not new but were increasingly ubiquitous) language was entwined with image and sound. So, I think he felt a need to respond to this new, multisensory way of encountering language, and concrete poetry allowed him to do that. He read Marshall McLuhan in the early 1960s and was very responsive to McLuhan’s idea of “simultaneity,” which summed up this type of interaction with language.
The more Glasgow-centric part of this answer is to do with the massive boom in social housing, much of it high-rise concrete tower blocks, in the city from the 1950s onwards. This was happening all over Britain, of course, but Glasgow was very much the epicentre of the post-war social housing revolution in the UK. Not to put too fine a point on it, the city was suddenly full of concrete. At some level these architectural projects expressed the same optimistic modernist aesthetics as the concrete poems by Brazilian and Portuguese poets that Morgan had started reading, and I think it was natural that he would feel that concrete poetry could express the cultural ambience of the city at that time.
SM: You speak about translation and concrete poetry in your exhibition. Could you explain how Edwin Morgan’s love of translation was realised in his concrete poems?
GT: I think initially Morgan’s amazing abilities as a linguist were practically important in allowing him to engage with concrete poetry, because they meant he could translate and understand poems by writers such as Augusto de Campos, with whom he was communicating from 1963. Morgan saw the Brazilian Noigandres group, of which De Campos was a member, as very much at the vanguard of an international socialist modernist tradition that he wanted to tap into and contribute to from a distinctly Scottish angle through his own forays into concrete poetry. Beyond that, I think that the amazing bank of words presumably stored in Morgan’s head on any given day must have helped him compose his concrete poems, which are full of puns and allusions and subtexts to do with phonetic and visual slippages between words. Being able to work across six or seven languages to generate those sorts of tricks must have helped! And also given him a kind of critical distance on language, that sense of estrangement from it which is often oddly creatively stimulating.
SM: Speaking of translation, Annie – can you share a little about the StAnza/Free Vers(e) podcast and how you will be exploring translation in this programme?
AR: I have to confess, we only touch briefly on Morgan’s translation, and the ways in which Morgan very much was a European poet. The podcast is partly about Morgan’s remarkable range – from the playful sound poetry of The Loch Ness Monster’s Song to the beautifully tender Strawberries – and in part also maps Morgan’s career against the timeline of gay rights in Scotland.
SM: You speak with Andrés Nicolás Ordorica, who has written three stunning video poems for the Edwin Morgan Centenary grants scheme, The Second Life. Andrés weaves language, memory and love through the poems that he has created in response to Edwin Morgan. What is important about these intergenerational overlaps? What can we learn from queer histories (both known and imagined?)
AR: For me, the heart of the podcast episode was really hearing about Andres Ordorica’s discovery of and connection with Morgan’s poetry and hearing how met he felt on finding his queer, consciously international voice. I think this is the really exciting thing about poetry – when we find someone from a different time and place who somehow manages to make us feel that we’re not alone.
Formally of course, it’s also just really exciting to see how younger poets are responding to Morgan’s work today – he was such a pioneering figure in so many different ways that I’m always intrigued to see poets pick up the tools that Morgan forged and use them in new ways.
I could write an essay on what we can learn from queer histories! But to keep it brief: I think queer histories are partly important simply to remind everyone that we were always here. I was 10 when Section 28 was repealed in Scotland, but those years of silence and censorship still informed my school years. Having a plurality and a diversity of stories, seeing yourself in the stories you’re told, but also hearing other voices and other perspectives: this is so vital.
SM: Greg, in your exhibition you also discuss the impact that communities of practice, mentorship and friendship had on the concrete poetry movement in Scotland. How do you see these ways of working being supported today?
The concrete poetry movement during the 1950s-70s was dependent on international channels of communication and circulation of materials. These linked up poets like Morgan and Ian Hamilton Finlay with poets and artists all over the world, from South America to the Far East. I think the transnationalism of concrete poetry communities is relevant, in the widest sense, to the present cultural moment in Britain. As for similar communities today, it’s an exciting time for concrete, visual, and object-based poetries in Scotland and internationally (‘bad times make for good poetry,’ as
Robert Sheppard puts it). The spaces of circulation that exist on the internet and social media have allowed, funnily enough, the shaping and sharing of an aesthetic that is often to do with the physical matter of language: how words look and feel. Digital technology allows the exploration of a post-digital aesthetic, if you like. My Twitter feed is full on a daily basis of text-art and visual poetry, lots of which is based on manual techniques of inscription, reproduction, etcetera (I’m thinking of the brilliant typewriter works of CDN Warren, for example). Some folks think that contemporary visual and concrete poetry is nostalgic when it utilises pre-digital technology, but I think its interesting in a new way in the current moment: there’s this layering of different ways of encountering text.
At the same time there’s a great small press network across Scotland, Britain, and worldwide. Relevant examples of these kinds of presses run into the hundreds, and it would be dull to reel them off, but I’ve worked a fair bit personally with Julie Johnstone’s Essence Press, which is an exemplary contemporary post-concrete press, with a very particular and meticulously realised aesthetic. Another project mentioned in the show that I’m enthused by is Astra Papachristodoulou’s Poem Atlas, based in Surrey, which showcases sculpture poetry, including Astra’s brilliant work.
SM: Finally, Greg and Annie – could you give me a verse (or extract) from your favourite Edwin Morgan poem and tell me why is has stuck with you?
AR: “Yield a little, little one. Lean where you can.” I came across Lean When You Can near the beginning of lockdown last year. It was the poem I needed in that moment, and I’ve continued to find comfort in it – and its reminder that being strong doesn’t need to mean being invulnerable – since then.
GT: One of my favourite lines is from one of Morgan’s ‘Emergent Poems’ (which he made from repeating and partially erasing lines of found text) based on a line of Brecht’s, ‘den alle kreatur braucht hilf von allen’ (‘all creatures need help from all’). I approve heartily of Brecht’s sentiment too, but Morgan manages to sculpt from repeated iterations of this
phrase the line: ‘be alive, leave all to life, leave death no art.’ It’s a typically wise and humane sentiment and one that I often find popping into my head when death and gloom seem to abound on all sides, as they often do just now. I find the sentiment brilliantly echoed in lines from Morgan’s ‘From a Nursing Home‘, written in the last year of his life, which might actually be my favourite Morgan poem, to get round to answering the question: “We are alive/ With whatever equanimity we can muster/ As time bites and burns along our veins.”