Fairytale of New York in the dock for Homophobia

It’s Christmas! And this year, among my circle friends and those I hang out with in the arts scene, there have been discussions around that hardiest perennial of Christmas songs, the Pogues’/Kirsty MacColl’s Fairytale of New York. The conversation has been in regard to accusations of homophobia in the lyrics and against the backdrop of the recently altered landscape of Irish society in terms of equal marriage, repeal of the 8th amendment, LGBTQ and gender rights, it seems obvious that the inclusion of the word ‘faggot’ in the list of traded insults between the straight couple at the song’s bursting heart is problematic, right?

So I wondered, paying attention to LGBTQ friends who have obviously been hurt by the term’s co-option, why I hadn’t particularly felt insulted by the term in that song before, and whether I had been tone-deaf to something while perhaps falsely hearing some excusing subtlety that wasn’t there.


These are the explanations for the offence having passed me by that I considered.


– I’d wondered if there was something about the American-Irish set-up of the lyrics which gave a different nuance of the word? Or even whether the word had literally a different, alternative meaning (beyond the bundle of sticks one, or meatball ones…). I hear people saying a lot, for example that a certain c word is statistically used much more in Scotland than in England and considered much less offensive (I’d love to eavesdrop on the street surveys I like to imagine being used to determine this information) or even that it meant something different – thinking of how the word clart differs in Scots and Jamaican lexicons, say. But it was two Irish-connected people in particular who brought the current thinking around the song to my attention so this seemed less likely than I’d thought. And on investigation I realised that Kirsty MacColl was English – I’d somehow thought she was Irish, so live and learn etc.


– I wondered if I’d let the song off the hook because of being character-based, something about it being like a play. The characters would say this. And I got a thrill, like I do when I watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the exhibitionist searching for one-up insults in a hopelessly enmeshed and entangled love/codependency. I realise though that beyond this dramatic scene, this moment in the song has evidently been taken out of context in spontaneous shout-a-longs reported by other queer friends, where I’ve been told of obvious enjoyment of presumed straight people singing the taboo word with relish. And I imagine I would have felt much more uncomfortable if I had been in those situations, and felt threatened – like it was some call to homophobic arms.


– But then there’s another possible explanation for the song lyric’s appeal. I say ‘appeal’ to include the shouty thrill mentioned about and the enjoyment even I as a gay man think I felt at the problematic moment in the song. It’s something to do with representation. A friend I used to be in a band with told me that in a discussion about why homophobia was so present in certain genres of music (I think they were talking about hip-hop and dancehall and this would have been about 10 years ago) a friend suggested that a homophobic attack or slur might be in a lyric as one of the only ways (apart from encoding and regendering maybe, aka Noel Coward etc.) that same-sex desire could be talked about in the fiercely sexual and genderpoliced communities where the music came from. Better to say something offensive and get a thrill from it’s closeness to your desire, rather than not be able to talk about it at all.


– And I think there’s a perception I had that the way that the straight couple in the song include this insult along with ‘old slut on junk’ (interestingly the only term asterisked out on the lyrics site I visited) and the colourfully anglo-saxon scumbags, maggots and bums, makes a celebration in their debasement of a true seeing of people’s range of behaviours, including sexual ones. I guess I think something like the guy she’s singing to maybe *does* like having sex with men as well as with women. And I enjoyed being winked at in the song as the man that might have been one of those he’s had sex with. And I liked the honesty of her calling it in to her depiction of him.


And that might all be far-stretched and rose-tinted. I also remembered that the same band I mentioned earlier writing a song in response to the homophobia of Ragga lyrics about a ‘trannie’ who was taking the culture on, having a good time and calling the frontmen out for their sexual double standards. I can’t imagine writing that song now. I have since educated myself more about trans experiences and I see the way we conflated a lot of issues around LGBT inclusion into a trans character, as well as the way that no one in our band was trans, would mean I would choose a different character instead, if I wrote the song at all. I had a glimmer that some of my band’s LGBTQ politics were in conflict with other people’s when we were invited to perform at a queer night called Fag Club, and brought out a mixed straight/queer audience to the gig. I remember being vaguely offended when I heard that some of the queers present had producted a zine about queer spaces and how our night had not worked for them. Now I would like to see that zine!

Maybe there’s a way of framing my song and the lyrics of Fairytale of New York as something that felt, or hopefully *was*, productive in its time and place in pushing back against an oppression. Hopefully they’re part of the success that leads to their own content seeming outmoded and embarrassing at this later, present time.

For Fairytale of New York, I think I am guilty of not having thought about the use of the faggot enough. Having done so, I feel like I may continue to claim something about that problematic lyric moment as part of my life-history experience of queerness. I will remember the excitement it gave me as a gay/queer person, but I am now thinking that we are in a hard-won position to move beyond the use of that word in such a song because in terms of representation and respect, we are achieving that in healthier, more supported ways.

I have shifted in my feelings towards this song, and the pasts it anchors me to. And this change becomes part of a complicated nostalgia for times that were never simply worse or better that the song performs so beautifully.


Involvement in Mark Bleakley’s A Boy stands…(Cartographies)

Artist and dancer Mark Bleakley is a multifaceted individual – my favourite sort! He asked me to come in to a performance he was making at Basic Mountain in Edinburgh during a recent exhibition in order to be one of two people recording it in writing. It’s nice to occasionally write to a brief like this and especially when the person asking is an artist whose line of enquiry sparks your interest. Here’s Mark’s thinking about the experience and other recent work.

I also hope he shows the beautiful kinships video again with Claricia Kruithof’s hands interacting with the casts made of the dancers’ bodies. There’s an excerpt from the 10min video below. I really love this work and I like seeing how work emerges successfully out of a sustained period of focus and research.

This writing invitation also geared me up for my writing residency at John Hansard Gallery in Southampton over the next year where I’ll be writing during events at the gallery. More on that soon!

Sutra as poem again thoughts

Am just writing the notes section to my first published collection of poems, I’m a Pretty Circler, and having worked out with my editor Colin Waters which of the poems would benefit from notes, am now treading that line between explaining and overexplaining.

A happy diversion for the moment is that I was writing a note for my poem Birthday Sutra, which is one of two poems with Sutra in the title that’ll be in the collection. I knew that I’d gotten the title from Ginsberg (there are two Sutras in his complete works, Sunflower Sutra is the most famous I think) but I thought I’d just doublecheck again whether there was any sort of googleably recognised poetic form definition, and I found this from a school-essay-help website that I liked so much I thought I’d share it here:

‘Ginsberg titles the poem as a “Sutra,” a Buddhist form of literature in which a string of aphorisms compose a body of work. An aphorism is a kind of quick line – spoken or written – that uses wit or humor to state a deep seeded truth. Ginsberg’s poem is more complex than a simple Sutra, however, though by titling the poem as such he means to suggest that the message of the poem is really quite simple.’

Not sure about that last sentence with its heavy handed didacticism, but I find the the chaining of aphorisms idea helpful, and happily in tune with the loose forming of the two poem structures I gave the ‘sutra’ name to.

Then again, I also offer my own definition of a sutra poem halfway through my Sunny Sutra, the second sutra poem in my collection. So I’ll leave that here too:

‘Sutras: poems occasional, read at times which are propitiate
Sunny Sutra: the long poem about the sun in which I know how to say things and
think like a fire poet.’

…wondering now about the word ‘propitiate’ too, which I realise is officially a verb, but I use it here as an adjective. Maybe I liked the sound better than propitious, but I think there’s a ghost word that’s a real, although old-fashioned, adjective lurking behind my use of it somewhere. Maybe it’ll pop up in my consciousness now I’m thinking about it. The phrase ‘this initiate May’ is coming into my head, but that doesn’t seem to mean anything previously…

England mini-tour, Spring 2017

I’m doing a little self-described tour – definitely not grandiose – over the next few days. Would be good to see listeners, watchers, friends at the following three events. I’ll be reading from my Art Talk Notes poems, among other things (including a guest pop-up in Nottingham from Leiza McLeod!)

1) Nottingham

Reading at Five Leaves Bookshop on Wednesday 29 March, 7pm. Entry £3. With mon ami Colin Herd, as well as Vicky Sparrow. Thanks to Lila Matsumoto for organising this one.

2) Bristol

Back at my old haunt Arnolfini contributing to a reading series called Anathema for Moot, Hesterglock and Sad Presses. Friday 31 March, 6.30-9pm. Entry by donation. Co-readers are Redell Olsen, nick-e melville, Anne Laure Coxam, Sally-Shakti Willow & Joe Evans

3) Manchester

Not actually reading here, but attending the launch of this year’s Other Room anthology, which I’m in. Wednesday 5 April, 7.30pm. Free event. Seemed to me like a great excuse to catch up with friends there as well as hear readings fromErkembode, Juxtavoices and William Rowe.


p.s. This is all great and all, although I am sad to be missing CA Conrad and Sophie Robinson with home-girl Jane Goldman in Edinburgh. If you’re in Edinburgh, go to this! Embassy Gallery, 6pm, looks free.

Art Talk Notes: Reading with film at Market Gallery, Glasgow

I’m doing a reading today at Market Gallery in Glasgow. It’ll be the most substantial reading so far from my Art Talk Notes series of poem-texts made from hastily written notes written in art talks. I’ve begun to make film pieces to go with these poems too, so it’s turning into quite an Enterprise. But I’m getting there. And I’m really grateful to Market Gallery’s committee, in particular artist Conor Baird, for the support they’ve given me in helping take this work forward, as well as the chance to show it and talk about it in public.

Art Talk Notes Iain Morrison

The link to the Market Gallery info page is here.

The poem-texts I’ll be sharing are:

Helen Douglas
Edinburgh College of Art Lecture Theatre, 24th April 2016. 

Ray Gosling: His Life, Legacy and Archive
The National Videogame Arcade Nottingham, 21st July 2016. 7.00–9.00pm.

Luc Tuymans
Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, 31st October 2015, 11am. 

Screening & Reading Co-organised by Laura Guy & Patrick Staff
Lecture Theatre Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 15th April 2016. 6.30–8.30pm. 

Drag Pecha Kucha

The generous folks at Creative Dundee have uploaded a video of my Pecha Kucha talk on various drag adventures. It takes in my interest in drag performance (as a non drag artist) and the collaboration with drag queens for a drag queen poetry event I organised at Scottish Poetry Library in 2016.

I enjoyed the Pecha Kucha format – it felt both faster and longer than I thought it would. The slides move quickly (apart from those horrible moments where you want them to and they seem to hang for an age), but I really needed to think about how I was going to structure what I was going to say over the full six and a bit minutes. The format sits somewhere between a performance, a lecture and a chat. The result felt like a useful exercise to benchmark a part of my practice that felt more and more evident to me and others, but which I hadn’t quite articulated the reason for.

The other (very varied in topic) videos from the night last November are all here. Oh, and we won the Creative Edinburgh award I mention. Boom!

Umbrellas of Edinburgh anthology

Aha! One of those really enjoyable anthologies that captures a flavour not only of a place but also of those writers working within its various scenes, has come to Edinburgh! And we have Russell Jones and Claire Askew to thank, two poet-editors who came up with the idea, collected poems from many of us in or connected to the city by ingenious shared google documents, and negotiated a publication deal with the much lauded indie publisher Freight (based in Glasgow, but happily not snooty about the other end of the M8 – gone are the days of Mark McManus’s Taggart).

The publication launches on Thursday 3rd November, 2016 at the Scottish Poetry Library. It’s available to buy online here.

I have two poems included: Rock Lover Leaving Ritual and a wish to lodge, geo-located in South Queensferry and the New Waverley Development respectively.

Revisiting Emily Dickinson for Summerhall, Halloween 2016


I was cautious at first when I was asked to revisit my Emily Dickinson Subject Index performance for a Halloween themed night. After my last round of reading her poems, and in some ways echoing a possible physical presence of her, I was asked to take part in a Dead Poets Slam as Emily Dickinson. I said no to that. I didn’t want my service to her work to slip into campy take-offs.

But on looking into it, The Golden Hour’s Bone Digger event was a different case. Although there were definitely going to be some campy elements to this Halloween night, each participant’s piece was being given the space to find its own tone, and the curation by Ryan van Winkle was generous, but pretty focused. The first part of the night was a pretty meaty set of poetry installations involving a clutch of poets I very much admire (Nicky Melville, Colin Herd, Tessa Berring & Katherine Sowerby), which then was going to segue into a gig and wild stuff later on. 6pm to 1am; room for different energies!
So anyway, I said yes, but I’ve been pretty busy until now, the night before, with other writing and work. Today was the first day it clicked for me that I was really looking forward to this chance to reinhabit Emily Dickinson’s poems. There was a moment, when I was in the space by myself, when I worked out that there was a new train of feeling and thought going to come out of this particular installation situation, compared to the previous presentations of this piece in 2013 and 2014. On the last occasion, in an exposed cage environment in a Berlin subway I picked up some strength at dealing with hostile elements within a public performance environment, learning to filter out what wasn’t useful to the performance and to find a personal space within a public space, if you see what I mean.

But today, in the new setting of a tightly torqued ironwork spiral staircase, where I could really only move up or down in front of a dropped curtain of paper, I started to have a new feeling, about how Emily Dickinson might have been trying to escape from a physical entrapment through language. And there was something about being effecively squeezed in the tube of space, that made the words seem like a genuine dimensional adjunct that I might pop into. Am now, consequently, *ridiculously* excited about the experience I’m going to have in only a few hours time, between 6–8pm on Sunday 30 October, 2016. I think I will be really pressed up against the language, and I hope those moving around the staircase might get a shiver, and a sense of that themselves.

(Also, I hear Chris Scott, my photographer chum is going to be working the event, so am hoping there might be some great images to share afterwards.)



video – Iain Morrison reading at The Other Room, Manchester

Got the video through from the reading I gave in July 2016 at a reading series I’ve long been an admirer of, The Other Room in Manchester.

I read a poem riffing on Star Trek, one that uses karaoke tracks from sad dance music, and Sunny Sutra, my beatnik poem for Orkney solstice times.

The night was a real pleasure for me, catching up with Manchester friends and poets. Kimberly Campanello and Geraldine Monk were on the line-up with me, two poets I’ve been interested in for a while, and I recommend checking out their readings too on The Other Room’s Channel.

Thanks for having me Manchester, and for the excellent documentation too.

Queer in the Landscape: Andrew Black at Embassy Gallery

Edinburgh Art Festival is running at the moment, concurrently with all the other August festivals in town. I got to the Embassy Gallery today, to see Our Andrew of the Flowers – a solo presentation by Andrew Black, a Glasgow-based artist.

Andy 1

Andy is a friend and I’d been looking forward to this for a while. I knew I was interested in the themes of ‘queerness, gayness, maleness’ that he was thinking and working around, but even so I was swept away by how much in the show there was that I connected with. The piece I spent longest with was ‘A man struggling with a huge faggot of wands’ which combined film footage of Scottish remote coastal landscape with superimposed transcript (rolling film-creditwise) of diary-like pieces in different voices that told a story of a trip made by a group of queers around the Highlands at the time of the Brexit vote.


This piece was the first art I’ve seen that deals explicitly with Brexit, so I guess that being dealt with was an unexpected bonus, in addition to the queer themes I was looking forward to seeing explored, and it all resonated hugely with me because I had been travelling around the same part of Scotland at exactly the same time with some friends, and was able to map and think about and compare my experience with that recorded in the work. I remember waking up in a hostel in Ullapool to find out the news, and the same feelings of wondering who around me had voted what, being angry at perceived ignorance, seeing the EU-funded signs on many rural infrastructure projects….. In the narrative Andy put together, the protagonists wake in a tent that day, and there is talk about their physical sensations on processing the news, passing through Fort William, thinking about communities they’re linked to or with elsewhere and how it all adds up to how visible these elements of their identities might be to those sharing the same landscape.


The question foremost in the piece, of how the queer can exist outside of the urban context is one I’ve thought about a fair bit, and in my experience, many remote livers are happy to see you! The way the outdoors industry markets itself though, can be pretty excluding, with straight stereotypes and expectations abounding in brochures and b&b’s. And even where situations turn out to be receptive, there are many moments of wondering how one is being perceived. One of the diary sections in the piece records a feeling at a Glen Brittle campsite of the circus having come to town.


I’d loved seeing Andy’s Instagram pictures of his time on Skye, of him and his partner and friends swimming naked at the Fairy Pools, as I’d done with my friend Viki a couple of years before. In my parallel trvelling at the time of Brexit news, I’d just come down from participating and reading at a community festival in Orkney, and was still thankfully buoyed by the knowledge that queer-friendly communities can set up and connect in the remotest of places. I feel encouraged too by Andy’s work to keep getting out there and living as I need and desire to. As one of the voices recorded said, ‘the sea is for me too’.

note the sea crashing, and the woodchip on the wall

note the sea crashing, and the woodchip on the wall

Andrew Black’s ‘Our Andrew of the Flowers’ is on at Embassy Gallery until 28 August 2016. The gallery is open Thursday to Sunday 12–6pm. Go!