Pedalling Poetry IV: Stanza 2016

As an avid pedalestrian, I would have loved the idea of cycling all the way up the east coast from Suffolk to St Andrews. However, that would have taken days I don’t have since I went back to my former trade of Librarianship, so it was the train and bike again for Scotland’s poetry festival, StAnza, where I have some work in an exhibition. I had a morning community forum in Stowmarket for Suffolk Libraries Monday (where we enjoyed great presentations on Our Year of Reading and Chatterbooks, an initiative to help improve Suffolk’s dire literacy rates by making books the centre of a series of fun activities for kids, in our case pirate bingo and a short story vividly performed by Literacy Ambassador Matt Shenton: ‘a pirate’s favourite country? Aaaargentina!’). I therefore got the bike to Stowmarket the day before and booked the train from there.

My brilliant plan went haywire though when I realised that in my change from very luminous scruffy cyclist to briefcased power dressing librarian I had lost the key to my bike lock! A typical McAteer moment ensued when I dashed from taxi rank to car garage around the station with an hour till my train asking if anyone had a bolt cutter or a hacksaw (‘Wot do I look like love?’ ‘I don’t need to get arrested, cheers!’) Finally Econorent Van Hire came to my rescue with a disk cutter and, braving the security cameras at the station, their mechanic sliced through my cheap D-Lock scarily quickly, refusing my offer of a tenner for a drink on me (‘Have a drink on me when you get there, you nutter!’) Suitably chastised and confirmed yet again as an eccentric I jumped the 2.11 to Peterborough, changing trains twice more bike, bags, books and all before sliding in to Leuchars at 9.37pm. An extra special shout out here goes to Max, the owner of the beautiful Inn at Kingsbarns, who came to meet me, got me bike and all into his white van (first time I’ve ever been glad to see one of those on a bike!) and drove the 20 miles through diversions, snow and rain. That would have been quite a cycle to end the night with.

The Inn at Kingsbarns’ Annette does a beautiful breakfast that will last you all day (it would in fact last most poets a week). I took a break from cycling yesterday and walked to John Burnside’s workshop Machines for Belonging, which addressed the subject of home, a painful one for this London-born English-voiced Scotswoman who left Glasgow’s warm and radical poetry community for an English institution she didn’t fit with at all. A rich vein then, naturally, which John unusually for him forced us all to tap by building in writing time and making us read aloud. I have never known him do that in a workshop before, but I was glad of it, for the poems it gave me, and for the chance to hear some words from the other participants – quite stunning ones for a mere hour’s work in some cases. I spent the time in between walking Cambo’s snowdrop-encrusted woods and the sea path, delighted to discover a series of memorials to Sadako Sasaki, the child who lived through the Hiroshima bombings, in the form of strings of paper cranes with the #bairnsnotbombs hashtag, as well as willow sculpture playhouses and a mirror buried in the bracken wearing the legend ‘what do you see?’ (A sad surprised self in the woods, surrounded by snowdrops and paper cranes, with her back to the sea.) Here was a sort of home after all, because in fact I’d walked those very same woods on a family holiday once as a child. It’s amazing where poetry takes you.

This morning I cycled the 7 miles in from Kingsbarns to talk to the pupils at St Leonard’s School about poetry. My commission was ‘to make poetry a bit less scary.’ They are in the middle of exam angst, but a blast of Gil Scott Heron, a couple of poetry comics, and some Edna St Vincent Millay later, everyone was smiling (some derisively, they are teenagers after all.) All power to their teacher Mr Crisswell, whose passion for poetry is clear, and who interviewed me with the skill of a television host. Looking forward to seeing lots of old friends and meeting many new at StAnza’s launch tonight. Honey I’m home! I’ll leave the last word to the marvellously named Paisley Rekdal, in a poem that John Burnside introduced us to:

From ‘Happiness’

…. Does it offend them to watch me
not mourning with them but working
fitfully, fruitlessly, working
the way the bees work, which is to say
by instinct alone, which looks like pleasure?
I can stand for hours among the sweet
narcissus, silent as a point of bone.
I can wait longer than sadness. I can wait longer
than your grief. It is such a small thing
to be proud of, a garden…

There is no end to ego,
with its museum of disappointments.
I want to take my neighbours into the garden
and show them: Here is consolation.
Here is your pity. Look how much seed it drops
around the sparrows as they fight.
It lives alongside their misery.
It glows each evening with a violent light.

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About Pedalling Poetry

Writer Ellen McAteer is founder of Tell It Slant poetry bookshop in Glasgow, and a visiting lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art. She was a mentee of the Clydebuilt Verse Apprenticeship Scheme, under Alexander Hutchison, and a singer with the band Stone Tape, as well as a solo singer who won a BBC Radio competition with her song Blue Valentine. She was Director of the Poetry Trust, which ran the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, a director of the Scottish Writers’ Centre, a visiting lecturer at Oxford University's MSt in creative writing, and a member of the core group of performers at the Hammer and Tongue spoken word collective in Oxford. She is a qualified Librarian.
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One Response to Pedalling Poetry IV: Stanza 2016

  1. alisonbr says:

    Very much enjoyed this, Ellen! I do sympathise about the bike key! I lost mine on my first Monday at university. Now I have a combination lock, which only requires me to find a number in my memory. As you are so much younger, I am sure this would not be a problem, so heartily recommend combination locks! Very best wishes! Alison (Brackenbury)

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