This was the launch of Whaleback City, an anthology of poems inspired by the city of Dundee and its surroundings. The book, the last to be published by Dundee University Press, contains poems spanning five centuries – many of them written by poets from Dundee – and is dedicated to singer songwriter Michael Marra, a son of the city, who died last year.
The event – a beautifully paced and varied series of readings from some of the 60-plus poets represented in the book – was introduced jointly by the editors: W.N. Herbert, Dundee’s recently appointed first official poet, or Makar, and Andy Jackson. Herbert is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University. He has published eight volumes of verse, the most recent Omnesia and Murder Bear, and has won three Scottish Arts Council Book Awards. Jackson is a medical librarian at the University of Dundee, a winner of the Skye-based Baker prize and is currently working on his second full collection of poems.
Jackson gave the audience a brief “tour” of the book itself, explaining that the poems in Whaleback City are arranged not chronologically but under a quintet of headings – Tay, Town, Times, Types and Temper. He took us first to the Town, opening with a seventeenth century piece by Arthur Johnston, “Taodunum,” in a contemporary translation from Latin by Robert Crawford.
Only the ignorant pretend your name
Derives prosaically from Dun Tay;
Your true root’s far more nimbly classical;
Dundee, Dei Donum, God’s Gift.
“Let’s get McGonagall out of the way!” said Herbert. ”I’m glad he comes from Dundee. I’ve no beef with the great Topaz – no-one with a sense of humour, irony, possibly could.” His reading of William McGonagall’s “The Famous Tay Whale” came a little later, after performances from guest readers Douglas Dunn, Kate Armstrong and Lydia Robb, who in the course of this lunchtime event brought us examples both of their own work and of others in the collection. Lydia Robb went to the river for a poem by the “lyrical, mystical” Kathleen Jamie – “The Tay Moses.”
What can I fashion
for you but a woven
creel of river –
rashes, a golden
oriole’s nest, my gift
wrought from the Firth –
Kate Armstrong focused on visions of the city and its industrial heart, reading her own “Blackness Road:”
This uphill street’s a chimney for the town
A colour-chart of what was made and done
and Harvey Holton’s “Jute”, a staccato bite in his words echoing the rhythms of machinery in the textile mills:
In twistin yarns the present is biggit
in awe parts o this toon: the hert an harns
o fowk are richt riggit tae ken its boon
Douglas Dunn chose his elegiac “Leaving Dundee”, with its image of separation expressed through the migration of geese above the river.
Communal feathered scissors, cutting through
The grievous artifice that was my life
Herbert leapt back in time for a colourful piece of Middle Scots, part of the fifteenth century epic “The Wallace” written by Blind Harry. His reading of an extract where Wallace, pursued through Dundee, dives into a house disguised as a woman by the “gude wyff” and sits spinning merrily until his baffled enemies leave to hunt him elsewhere, was graphic, enlivening language which on the page might seem challenging.
To finish, the editors chose a recording of the great and lamented Michael Marra singing “Hermless”, his own anthem for the simple man.
I ging to the libry, I tak’ oot a book
And then I go hame for ma tea.
The audience left, warmed and rewarded by a poetic vision of Dundee, joined the queue to have five of the poets sign their copies of Whaleback City – and then went hame for their tea.