In a snug, lamp-lit, yellow-stoned vault underneath St. John’s House, StAnza hosts a series of poetry readings under the title, “Border Crossings”. These events, in which two poets read consecutively, stage not only the boundaries between poetic practices, but the national and cultural boundaries that many of the poets have crossed in order to be present.
The first to read at Sunday’s event is Sharon Black, author of To Know Bedrock (2011) and The Art of Egg (2015), and winner of Ilkley Literature Festival Poetry Competition and the Sentinel Annual poetry prize. Glasgow born and raised, she now lives in the Cévennes mountains of southern France, where there are “more goats than people”. But this distance, she tells us, allows her to view her home nation through a “narrower aperture”, and many of her poems address memories of her Glaswegian past – meals at Stravaigin restaurant, journeys on the 8:15 train to Oban – as poetic terrain available for her to “wander aimlessly with intent”.
An extended poem dedicated to Jackie Kay reveals Black’s suppressed fondness for Kay’s characteristic pronunciation of the word “poem” as something like “poy-im”. When cosmopolitan friends tease her for this “provincialism”, Black confides that the “Marseillesian rrrrrr” gives her a pleasantly illicit sense of home on her tongue.
Black reads extremely smoothly, contextualizing each poem with just the right amount of personal detail, occasionally breaking her apparent reserve with self-reminders not to accidently say “syphilis” instead of “Sisyphus”, when reading a work of that name. She dedicates one poem, entitled “The Problem with Good Looking Oncologists”, to an audience member, with whom it has evidently touched a chord. In it she humorously navigates the awkward combination of anxiety and sexual tension she experiences during a breast exam. Never confessional, but never abstract or bodiless, her poems balance emotional expression with a studied and analytical distance from their subject matter.
Following her is Canadian-American poet, James Arthur, whose relationship to home seems more problematic. In a poem addressing “Utopia” as happy-place and as no-place, Arthur describes his impulsive travelling in search of the city that would fulfil his sense of self, and in another imagines his own identity as mere companion to that of his shadow. He explains that “Distracted by and Ergonomic Bicycle” reflects on a bout of depression in Seattle.
With the publication of his first collection, Charms Against Lightning in 2012, he has certainly moved about. He has received the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, completed a residency at the Amy Clampitt House, Massachusetts, taught at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Creative Writing at Queen’s University, Belfast.
It seems that recently acquired fatherhood has gone some way to alleviating his sense of aimlessness. “Goodnight Moon” is a lullaby to his “giddy, violent elf” of a son, and to an earlier unborn child. But also an affectionate satirization of Margaret Wise Brown’s ubiquitous children’s book, and the accessories of modern American parenting: “Goodnight, fair trade coffee. Goodnight, Prada shoes”. The more lyrical of the two poets, he does not read from books or papers, and acknowledges with a smile the audible snoring of one audience member who, evidently lulled by his performance, has dozed off.
Where Black says she rarely writes from the point of view of mythical characters, Arthur imagines Cain’s wandering after the murder of Abel, and inhabits the voices of Frankenstein’s creature, newly retired in a luxury condo, and the wolf of “Little Red Riding Hood”, complaining of his domestication in fairy-tale.
The contrast between these two poets does justice to both styles, and to the premise of the Border Crossings series, which brings together the Scottish and international poetry communities, followers of individual writers and the simply curious.