The Marks on the Map
I have been working on my new collection of poems since my pamphlet Juke Box Jeopardy came out in 2016. That publication put a long-held fascination with the pop music of my youth to bed and I was able to return to the more familiar haunts of my creativity. Nonetheless several aspects were carried over from that pamphlet, as they were from the anthology Scotia Extremis, which I edited with Andy Jackson. Narrative poems had now become a thing for me, and music poems more so. Several of these form lynch pins in this new collection of recent work.
The book gradually came together over 2019 and was accepted for publication by my regular poetry publishers, Arc Publications. It will not have escaped readers that this timescale leads directly into conflict with the pandemic, and the consequent lockdown restrictions. While discussions with Arc personnel at StAnza 2019 led to Arc deciding on a publication date later that year, it was subsequently decided to delay this in hopes that a live launch would be possible were the restrictions to be lifted. This was not to happen. With the pandemic dragging on, a virtual launch became inevitable.
Determined not to go down the communal zoom path, which has long struck me as inadequate, I decided to try something original. The launch would take the form of a film. With the sterling assistance of film-maker, poet & photographer – not to mention, technical wizard – Steve Smart, and, with original music specially composed by Stephen Gellatly, a plan was formed. Hosted by Andy Jackson, and with contributions from poets John Glenday and Rachael Boast, we were ready to go ahead. Tony Ward, Managing Editor of Arc, agreed to the plan and to record a contribution and the whole presentation was put together over spring 2021.
My pamphlet Juke Box Jeopardy finally saw the light of day in 2018, published by Red Squirrel Press. This pamphlet had long been a pet project of mine, my idea being to capture the spirit of the pop music I grew up with in the '50s and '60s in both the poems and prose poetry pieces included as well as in the degin and layout of the publication. Shiela Wakefield of Red Squirrel Press went several extra miles in order to ensure my vision was realised and Gerry Cambridge came up with the a truly evocative 'period' design again realising everything I imagined for this labour of love. I was delighted when Juke Box Jeopardy was shortlisted for the Calum McDonald Memorial Award in 2019. Sadly, it didn't win, but I feel it received the recognition it deserved.
Update: 15th March 2017
My new book - Double Exposure: a memoir - has now been well and tryly launched. The two book launches - one in the city of my birth, Edinburgh; the other in my home town of St Andrews - went very well, with great attendances and appreciative audiences. Each one was run on a different format. Edinburgh, in Blackwell's - James Thin's shop of old - took the form of an interview with Lorraine Fannin, former CEO of the Scottish Publishers Association. Lorraine's careful but incicive interrogation allowed me to expand on my thoughts in writing the memoir and drop several hints as to more of its content. The St Andrews launch, held in the wonderful new bookshop Toppings, was introduced by their Duncan Furness, but the event was a solo one with more readings and a bit of chat. Both launches, of course, included questions from the audience, readings from the book and concluded with signings. I was really delighted at the turn out for each and am sure that these have seen the book off to a good start.
The memoir has already received some press notice with early reviews by Candia McWilliam in the Scottish Review of Books and David Robinson in The National, together with local press coverage in The St Andrews Citizen and St Andrews In Focus. More, I'm told, is on the way. On top of that, one of the poems included in the memoir was Poem of the Week in The Scotsman on the weekend after the Edinburgh launch. Check out the SRB review here.
Next come the various festival, bookshop and literary salon events my publisher Sara Hunt of Saraband has lined up for me. Starting later this week, I will be speaking about the book at the Glasgow festival Aye Write, followed by appearances in Galloway, Inverness and Edinburgh - with more in the pipeline still to be confirmed. It certainly looks like 2017 will be my busiest yet in terms of events. But no problem - I'm looking forward to them all.
Update: 12th December 2016
Things are rapidly moving ahead on the memoir front. I now have bound proofs of Double Exposure, so it is at last an actual book. Very pleased with how it looks - thanks to Sara Hunt at Sarband for all her hard work on it. I am honoured to have endorsments by two very distinguished writers included on the front and back covers - I'll be saying more about those when I launch the memoir's own pages here on my website and on Facebook early in the new year.
Bookings for memoir events at various festivals are begining to firm up and I'll also be posting about those on the book's dedicated pages in due course. But more importantly, I am now able to announce the dates of the two book launches we have arranged. Double Exposure - much of which is set in the capital city - will have its main launch where else but in Edinburgh on February 22nd. This will be followed by a launch in what has been essentailly my home town for the past quarter century - with a St Andrews launch on March 9th. More details to follow soon. Watch - as they say - this space.
Update: 14th October 2016
I am happy to announce that the memoir I have been working on for several years has been accepted for publication by Saraband, the Glasgow-based independent publisher. Double Exposure will be published on Thursday 23rd February 2017.
Far from being the almost ubiquitous ‘misery memoir’, and equally not a quest memoir, the book is more a memoir of affectionate bafflement. Although this will be my first prose book, I'm not deserting poetry. Indeed, the whole enterprise started with a poem. And each chapter has a poem embedded in the narrative, including seven unpublished and five that have only appeared in journals.
I began planning this book as long ago as 2009, in my favourite writing retreat at the eastern end of Crete. It stayed very much in the planning stage as I completed my term as Festival Director of StAnza, but once I had stood down from that post I found I had enough time to begin writing at length.
A first draft was completed in 2013, handwritten initially in my usual approach to creativity, then typed up to be worked on. I then began the process of editing, redrafting and writing additional material. To those ends I was particularly fortunate that various friends and colleagues were able to read over successive versions and offer critical insight.
The book was finally completed in 2015 and accepted by two different publishers early in 2016. The offer I went for was the one from Saraband and the deal was sealed informally in March.
So, what’s it all about? Here’s a taste of it from the cover blurb:
“Two revelations, each coming to light twenty years apart following the deaths of his father and mother, prompt the author to turn a poet’s eye on his 1950s childhood in Edinburgh and explore the past his parents lived through before and during the Second World War. His twin discoveries lead him to encounter relatives both almost forgotten and completely unknown, to free an elderly cousin from the burden of a secret carried for over fifty years and to forge an enduring relationship with the half-sister he never knew he had. Why – the author wonders – was so much concealed from him in his youth; why was he never trusted with, at least, a version of the truth? But following the trails of each revelation results in a new empathy with lives lived under the pressures of wartime and the social constraints of the period. The author’s vivid evocation of a mid-20th-century upbringing, under whose conventional surface so much was hidden, brings him to a deeper understanding of the times and of actions taken by the characters brought so tellingly to life."
It is great to see the book accepted and scheduled to appear from such a renowned publisher. Not only has one of their books been shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize this year, two of their novels are on The Guardian’s alternative Not The Booker longlist. So my memoir will be in excellent company.
I am delighted and honoured to become part of the Saraband stable, under the benign wing of proprietor Sara Hunt and grateful to her for the understanding she has shown for my intentions in telling this story.
Burns Day 2016 saw the launch of Scotia Extremis, a new online poetry anthology I'm currently co-editing with Andy Jackson. With over 130 poets in all shapes and sizes of reputation, oeuvre, personality or style already signed up to take part, the project looks at that persistent duality that is so omnipresent in Scotland's culture and identity from very much a slanted, off-beam angle. The project is already attracting considerable attention on social media, all of which we hope will grow as it progresses through to the endgame in March 2017.
The online project eventually matured into a book, published by Luath Press in 2018. The printed version of Scotia Extremis is still available via this website. Just drop me a line via the contact page to order your signed copy post free.
Reviews of Dry Stone Work have been coming in steadily since its publication in May 2014. So far the collection has been reviewed by Dundee University Review of the Arts, Stride and Northwords Now; full texts of each review can be found by clicking on the links to each publication above (but open the magazine and scroll down to page 22 for the last one). However, first to review the book was the newspaper Scotland on Sunday; since that review isn't available online, I'm including the full text here.
Poetic Master's Building Blocks
A quotation from Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel acceptance speech opens Brian Johnstone’s new poetry collection: “The stones we writers use are words,” and stone provides the structure for this book. The section headings -Footings, Tracings, Heartings, Copings - all come from dry stone walling, and Johnstone, like a skilled builder, knows how to weigh his words and fit them together with care.
But these are not stony poems, they are made of a substance both warmer and more pliable, which retains the traces of the past. This is a theme to which Johnstone, the former director of the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, returns again and again, in the skeleton of the drowned village just visible through the surface of the loch, or the “pits and scores” on the covers of an old book.
Traces linger, haunt, disturb these pages: in a hotel in Switzerland, the skis of pre-war Europeans gather dust into the 1930s, waiting in vain for their owners to return; a ewe knows that the orphan clad in the pelt of her dead lamb is not her own.
The prevailing mood is sombre, from the old men of a past generation smoking at the bar, their lives slowly burning out like cigarettes, to more nostalgic memories of a now-demolished joke shop and Tom Baker as Doctor Who. Johnstone, who performs poetry with jazz musicians Trio Verso, writes particularly well about music, from Sonny Rollins playing his saxophone on Williamsburg Bridge to the portable Dansette at the defiant teenage beach party in a small Scottish town.
The best of his lyric poems have a clarity and crispness capable of carrying complex emotions, while elsewhere he experiments with more fragmented forms and fractured sounds. Many poems are infused with melancholy, some with a universal theme such as war, others highly specific, such as ‘Favour’, which tells of the finding of a lover’s auburn hair on the edge of a tea cup, a precious memory to be stored up “in case the light fades or the cup is broken”. Susan Mansfield
New Collection Published
The publication of my new collection with Arc, Dry Stone Work took place on 30th May 2014 and the book launches in Edinburgh, St Andrews and London were all a great success.
Here's what John Wedgewood Clarke, the editor at Arc had to say when he accepted the MS: The poems show a clear development from 'The Book of Belongings', and the clarity of your voice has strengthened, as has your sense of syntax, line and stanza form. I feel your poems tread the difficult line between nostalgia and loss with great care as they create a habitable past, full of ordinary transformations and historical resonance.
The collection is centred on a range of new poems, many dating from as recently as 2013, with a number of others written since my last collection in 2009, together with several older poems which have been waiting around for sympathetic companions with which to appear in a book. It includes a poem selected as one of the Best Scottish Poems 2011, another selected for 100 Favourite Scottish Poems 2006, the winning poem from the 2002 Writers’ Bureau Competition and a commended poem from the 2000 National Poetry Competition.
Many of the poems have been performed live with poetry & jazz group Trio Verso and one has been made into a filmpoem for the Absent Voices project. Subjects tackled in the collection range from Marilyn Monroe and Billie Holiday to The Bash Street Kids and Dr Who; from archaeology and the experience of war to circus life and jazz.
Once again I am honoured to have a cover image by the Scottish artist Will Maclean, whose work also appeared on the cover of my last book.
Poetry Archive Recording
In September 2013 I was delighted to be approached by the directors of the Poetry Archive website, former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and his colleague Richard Carrington, to make an hour's length recording of my poems for the Poetry Archive. The recording took place in July 2014 in London and featured poems from my new collection Dry Stone Work and from The Book of Belongings (2009). I'll post a link to the recording as soon as it is available on the Poetry Archive site.