Why I Do What I Do

I probably inherited the creative gene from my maternal grandfather. He was a writer, photographer and political dissident in the former Soviet Union. He wrote for an underground newspaper and spent time in prison because of his views. Every birthday and Christmas he would send me a card with a specially written poem. He encouraged me to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn at an early age. After his death in 1974 my grandmother gave me his camera which contained a roll of exposed black and white film. Years later I developed the film in my home darkroom and found images of myself as a young adolescent. It was a spine-tingling moment, alone in the dark watching the images slowly materialise and seeing myself the way my grandfather saw me. The images were faded and decomposed because of the length of time they’d spent inside his camera. They had aged, they had scars – like myself.

In the beginning was the word, according to the Gospel of John in the Bible. We experience and interpret the world through language. We write the words and the words write us. I’ve always associated writing with the desire to make the world a better place. It’s a way of getting inside someone else’s head, a chance to see life from another point of view. Writing has a therapeutic value but it’s much more than that…it leads to greater understanding and tolerance between people. It is a powerful tool for personal and social change. Writing can break down barriers, build bridges.

As a disabled woman I have been marginalised by a society that treats people as disposable commodities within the Capitalist machine. Throughout history disabled people have been ignored, silenced, treated as if we are stupid, useless. Alas, the ‘does she take sugar?’ attitude persists even in the 21st century. Disability is the last great taboo which feeds on society’s fear of death, illness and impairment. This is an issue which affects everyone, disabled and non-disabled, because we all age, sooner or later our bodies start to let us down and no-one is ever perfect. We live in a society obsessed with superficial appearances, it’s a kind of body fascism and it creates a lot of misery.

Creative writing and art have given me an equal voice. They have empowered me, helped to counter the negative stereotypes of disability that underpin mainstream culture. Visual arts and writing are two sides of the same coin for me. I often incorporate text in my artwork through collage and photography. I enjoy unexpected juxtapositions. I tend to use abstract and surreal imagery and a lot of colour in both poetry and art. They are just different ways of communicating my unique experience of the world. In recent years I’ve focused more on poetry as it feels purer, more precise. It satisfies my obsessive compulsive streak! Poetry works through the construction of images, as well as metaphor, rhythm and rhyme. And there is the important visual element of words typed on paper, black on white, the shape of the poem on the page. Concrete poems, ekphrastic poems, black-out poems, cut-up poems, acrostic poems all rely on our visual sense.

I am often asked about my working methods. Like many writers I keep a journal. I try to write every day even if it’s just a few words. Ideas and phrases frequently come to me at night and I record them on my phone otherwise they are lost. Sometimes the first line of a poem will take root in my mind and I can’t rest until I’ve put it down on paper. Once it gets a hold on me I can’t let go until it’s finished. Stephen King said that when he’s writing it’s as if he’s just a channel, a conduit for a story that already exists in a mysterious parallel universe. I agree. Like King I believe in what the psychologist Carl Jung named the collective unconscious. Creative people and mystics are able to tap into universal images and stories that we need in order to navigate our path through a complex and difficult life.

There have been many tines when creativity has literally saved my life. I survived several long hospital stays trapped in a bed alone in a small room because I had paper and pencils. I was able to make my mark on a world that seemed to have forgotten me. I have a vivid memory of drawing a vase of anemones on my bedside locker when I was in intensive care at the age of nine after spinal surgery that left me paralysed. Looking at those delicate flowers, the pastel colours, the shapes and recording them on paper reminded me of the beauty of the world beyond the horror and pain of the hospital.

We all need art, we all need stories, we all need to survive.

Photo by Angus Mackay

The Hill O’ Many Stanes

My third and final guest poet is Mandy Beattie. Here is her mysterious poem inspired by a local Scottish landmark of standing stones.

A pantry of organic nettle tea
and skeins of wild raspberries
tumble through the turnstile
between times
of concrete & standing-stanes
where sky sits
a duck-egg blue ceiling
on the Hill O’ Many Stanes

The Land O’ The Cat
where Hairy-Brottachs hatch
into Louded Yellow and
Green-Veined White butterflies
and dandelion clocks puff
among mosaics of standing-stanes

Kneeling at a silver stane-pew
palming ley-lines with my life-lines
I am litmus among lichen
waking-dreaming of way-back-when
the Wee Folk jigged
in amethyst heather and fairy rings
in The Land O’ the Cat
where the veil’s still thin between worlds.

Poem Copyright of Mandy Beattie

Note:- The Hill o’ Many Stanes consists of about 200 small stones arranged in rows running down a low hill in East Caithness, Northern Scotland. They were erected about 4,000 years ago, possibly for gatherings and religious ceremonies. Caithness was once known as the Land of the Cat People, a reference to an ancient legendary tribe of Picts who inhabited the area.

Mandy Beattie, is a feminist from Caithness, with an MA in Social Work Practice & Research. Her poetry is a tapestry of stories and imagery, rooted in people, place & the natural environment, set at home and abroad. 

Image created by Mandy Beattie

Island Woman

Here’s a sultry, sensuous poem from my guest poet for this post, the talented Meg Macleod.

I remember braiding her hair,
the woman who shared her island with me.
“I can’t reach it now,” she said to me.
Her hair, as soft as silk,
pale golden silk.
My fingers lifted it, brushed it out,
dividing it into three strands.
I slowly braided it
letting it fall down her back.
“So fine,”I said. “Beautiful.”
I walked out across the sun bleached porch
and stood looking out over the sea
while she wrapped salmon in seaweed
and baked it in a fire between the rocks on the shore.

Poem copyright of Meg Macleod

Meg was born in 1945 in England. She lived in America and Canada before moving to Scotland in 1974 where she now resides on the north coast in a house looking out over the sea towards Orkney Islands. Meg has a BA in Fine Arts. Her beautifully illustrated book of poems entitled Raven Songs is available to buy from Amazon.

Meg in her garden

Blue Poppies

For the first time on the Purple Hermit we have a poem from a guest poet, fellow Scottish writer and friend, Alastair Simmons. Enjoy!

Blue Poppies (In memory of Esther)

She took ages to answer the door
in the heavy summer rain.
Finally, she fumbled open the catch.
Her hand was bandaged, her eyes blackened, on a white face.
“Err, I’ve had a fall,” she said, her hands still shaking.
“Err, I’ve come about the garden, gardening,” I said.
Suddenly, her eyes sparked then ignited
ninety plus years held in darkening pupils,
the delicate filament in her blue iris illuminated.
“Did I tell you about trekking in the Himalayas?
Right over the pass for six days.
I remember now, the blue poppies, wonderful,” she said.
She began talking, as if she’d known me all of my relatively short life.
She took my arm and leaned hard on the old wooden stick,
“Now let me show you the roses.”
The summer rain pelted like an Asian monsoon.
We didn’t notice.

By Alastair Simmons 2012

Alastair lives on the Northeast Scottish coast, finding inspiration in the landscapes of Scotland and Northern England, and also it’s cities. And the gardens he creates,  working as a gardener. “Poetry is about finding connection and expressing that feeling, whether it’s people, nature or worlds we find ourselves in.”

photo by the Purple Hermit

Lockdown Pondering

Instead of writing my novel I am staring at a bunch of bananas, or more precisely at the juxtaposition of the fruit with a box of Gourmet cat food, a calendar, jars of pasta, a face flannel and a pack of hair grips. The randomness of this arrangement reflects the insanity of my life during these Covid months. If ever there was a plot I have truly lost it along with any desire to keep a tidy house. The absence of visitors due to the restrictions has eroded my inner hausfrau. Instead I have developed a taste for the creativity of chaos. I used to be one for everything in its place, now I think there is a place in everything.

I keep thinking about the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat. If no one speaks to me or sees me or hears me for several days there is the equal probability that I am both dead and alive at the same time. The reality of my existence is not validated by others. For ten months I’ve been living in a grainy gritty twilight zone like a scene from a movie shot on Super8. I need to keep looking in the mirror just to check I’m still here. There’s always a tingle of surprise when I see myself, relatively unscathed, looking back.

I am writing this with a yellow pen and therefore prone to optimism.

image created by the author

Zooming

Dutifully muted we wait in our bubbles, looking
at ourselves looking at ourselves smiling, looking
for clues in book shelves, potted plants, interiors.

Sid’s iPad is a shadow. Patrick props a stepladder.
Magi’s tablet belongs to a Ragdoll with blue eyes.
The third row shows bearded minimalists in grey.

The cool ones are sipping tea from chunky mugs.
The patient ones are still holding hands raised
while their rictus grins slip off screen to scream.

Three minutes to write a poem about the sea.
Try to recall how the sea looks, sounds, smells.
Time rubs out. One by one our bubbles turn black.

Photo by the author

Prelude

Something is wrong. A grey fog
stinking of wet wool hovers
above my bed when I wake.
I hit reset and instantly a citrus
glow permeates the Sense-o-Net.
Lemon scent cuts through the fug.
Bitter-sweet, my six naked limbs
dissolve like butter on hot toast.
I hit open and the view unreels;
a newborn sun rising from the sea,
a debonair yacht with a white sail,
a labrador chasing a beach ball.
Let’s get this show on the road,
I hit extraterrestrial to transcode.

Image created by the author

Translating the Unspeakable

The poet’s job is to translate unspeakable things on to the page…” 

“Poets don’t get into poetry for money, they do it for vocation – I feel like that anyway. Poets can touch hearts and minds; they can translate trauma into something people can face. Sometimes there’s a cost for the poet to do that as it takes looking at the trauma right in the face and then allowing others to bear the idea of trauma safely. That’s why I write poetry. Poems are empathy machines.

Racism is a system that keeps propagating itself. It wasn’t the bankers, millionaires or computer magnates we turned to in the crisis – it was the nurses, garbage cleaners, supermarket workers; I hope those people will be valued more.”

Words by Roger Robinson

Photo by the author

Down Below

She has never seen so many of them, diving
in ribbons, mercurial as the heart of a virgin.
She opens her mouth to cry out, joyful
her hot mouth expects a fierce Atlantic roar.

She taps an elegant rhythm as the rocks tease.
Not surprised, they reflect the enduring
equivalence of a human. Five liquid bodies
hurl into the waves. She’s eager to slip

a knot around her waist, slide into the silver
gaping mouth. She believes she will fly
underwater, melding like angler fish, one
into a luminous other. Love lingers

under the scalloped tongue and her smile
disappears into a cave. Words are the agony
of a different folly, wafer thin, hankering
for the heavenly parts of this world.

Photo by the author