Iain Morrison at Caesura this Friday, 8 Nov 2013

Hotly anticipating my return to Graeme Smith’s excellent, and much engorged, Caesura spoken word night. That is, if I’m allowed to hotly anticipate myself (Vanity thy name is Morrison).

Graeme pointed out on the facebook event today that the last time I read with them was at Caesura  #4. Well, they’re up to Caesura edition #18 now and have been busily accruing their reputation as “the voice event of the only real literary avant garde in Edinburgh” (as Martin Belk put it). Basically they’ve upped the ante and I’m going to have to raise my game.

I have worked hard on this, though, so am hoping to pull off some sort of credible reading of my new longish poem ‘Hippocrener’ without getting too soaked from bottles of beer/piss thrown at me by the now alarmingly swollen crowd of regular Caesura aesthetes. It’s good that they’re vocal, I tell myself now, before stepping into the ring. That’s the point, right…?

Here’s a giddy extract from Hippocrener for any keenos wanting to ostentatiously nod along/off at the appropriate moment (encouraged behaviour. I am vain, remember) 🙂

‘Bod bud, soft-porn is an attractive category, promising not to bruise;

show me the rib and show me the rib only.

Unmoved much to care, electrolytic Hippocrener, Diabolus in Musica, hemiola utterer, ghost in the machine,

do I consdescend (to myself) to estimate what percentile of the populace my voice can speak for or, failing, over?

Engagement and interaction vs. truth-shout vis-a-vis personal experience.

Variable isn’t when or who

so much as how it represents a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative or similar sound, velarized.’

Hope to see some of you upstairs at The Artisan Bar. Night starts at 7pm-ish I believe. Entry by donation according to Graeme Smith’s The Goodnight Press website. Many talents on the bill: Sandra Allan, Karen Veitch, James Leveque, Graeme Smith, (me).


Drafting on the move, Scotrail-style

I like writing on trains. Nice to be back with a pen in hand for redrafts too. This is me back in June working on a poem about the Forth estuary and industry on a train from Fife to Edinburgh, appropriately enough.

Iain Morrison writing on the train

I read a version of this poem, Tied, at David Faithfull’s recent Earth, Wind & Fission exhibition in Haddington at the Peter Potter Gallery recently. Also reading was Samantha Walton, and we interleaved our poems on related Forth valley subjects. We’re hoping to get them into print together at some point. TBC.


Bees, Basho, Blossom, Brogdale.

As interlude to the Emily Dickinson discussion, a nicely crafted project of artist/poet Alec Finlay’s. Alec asked a variety of poets to translate Basho’s famous haiku about a bee reluctantly leaving a peony flower, and then hung his gathered translations in blossoming trees in Kent. There are some great responses to the mission, and I felt I’d had a whizz-bang masterclass in the possibilities and strategies of translation after I’d read the resulting collection through.

Here’s Luke Allan’s photo of my humble (bumble?) contribution.

Iain Morrison's Basho translation for Alec Finlay

And lastly, Emily Dickinson does still get a look in! Ken Cockburn has fashioned one of his translations in fine tribute to her.

Subject Index Day 4: Putting the brakes on Emily Dickinson

I’m going to write up Day 4 of Subject Index in parts.

This final day wound round the houses a little in my ordering of the poems as, knowing I wasn’t going to be able to read all of the remaining poems, I tried to navigate a suitable closing path for the 4-day process of Subject Index. The first part of the day saw me reading for 5 hours, on my own or with Mirja present filming and listening. This took me from Johnson edition number 751 to 972 – slow-goingly, satisfyingly, slightly despairing of not having made it further than the year 1864 of Dickinson’s life.

I stopped for a quick breather and a sandwich across the road at my flat and came back for an evening session which 10 visitors turned up to at various times (I love you energy-giving audients!), and I attempted to execute a reading of the last dated poems in Johnson’s edition. I picked up at poem 1509, having leapt forward sixteen years of Emily’s life to 1881. This was frustrating, as I could sense a big change in the form of what I was reading, and I’d hoped to chart the changes incrementally all the way through her writing life. It was not to be, however, and not just because of the chunk I skipped over in the book, but also because at this end of her writing career, the poems simply aren’t coming as thick and fast, so you don’t get the same illusion of poems appearing at the rate of living. You can’t settle into them either, they’re mostly very short, and because I was mapping them too, I was up and down every thirty seconds to record a number on the board. I read in this way from 1509 through to number 1648, dated 1886, the year of her death.

Then! I realised I still had another half an hour left. I’d misjudged the timings because there were so many short poems in this section. I was frankly unsure what to do with my last half an hour in Emily’s clothes. Well, like in some of her celebrated poetry, the consciousness continued past death and I tentatively read on through 1649, 1650 and 1651 in the ‘undated poems’ section. This was enough to convince me, given what felt like a sudden thickening intensity of the poems’ thought-weave, to go back to where I had left off, at 973, where I remembered that same satisfying feeling, and to read from there onwards until closing time came at Argyle House.

I hoped that it would be enjoyable for those still listening to hear some longer, more wrung poems at the end of the vigil. A relief for me too to be in the middle of her writing life again, strategic decisions past and the course set in that last half hour.  I got as far as poem 1017.

In the next posts I’ll talk a bit more about the poems I read on the last day and what I found. For now, here’s an image of the map I made in its finished (for now) state. I think it looks pleasingly geographical! I had a conversation with Stevie from ForestCentre+ in the pub after about how the map might be given a digital afterlife, allowing people to click through to poems from their position on the map, so I’ll keep you posted if I pull that off at any point.

Emily Dickinson world map of her poems

Scree 6

Am very pleased to be among the poets featured in the latest issue of Lila Matsumoto’s Scree Magazine. Inspired by 60’s small press magazines like Hamilton Finlay’s Poor Old Tired Horse, Lila retypes all of the included poems on an actual old-school typewriter, which is a lovely thing to imagine happening to one of your poems.

There are some great things in this issue, including work by Calum Rodger and Gerry Loose.

Details of how to get hold of one are on this link. The theme of the issue is…SPACE!

So, anyway, Iain Morrison poem in Soanyway Magazine

‘Soanyway is an online repository of words, pictures and sounds that tell stories. We interpret story broadly, considering it in relation to fact and fiction, narration or implication, and structure or a lack of it. We also regard most history, theory and critique as stories about stories.’


I’m happily included in the latest issue of online arts magazine Soanyway.

Soanyway, online since 2008, is currently edited by poet Claire Potter, who I had the pleasure of reading with last year. The title of the current issue is Interlingual and my poem playfully charts some of the anxieties of influence within my beloved scene here in Edinburgh.

I hope you enjoy reading the issue and discovering its many voices. Why not submit something for their next?


My Zoe Fothergill Collaboration. The correspondence file continues!

Jan the 9th and high time I posted further links in my email chain with artist Zoe Fothergill. The last post was in November I see. Check there please if you’re at sea with what’s going on below. Basically we’re collaborating and working towards a performance lecture on structure and content.


Iain Morrison said:

Hi it’s me! I’ve been in writing-thinking-blogging-Zoe+Iain-land tonight. Have done lots of thinking and I’ve put one new blog up, with two more written and set to auto-publish during the week. So that means my blog should be catching up with our correspondence.

Here’s a reply to your email from the 5th November. I hope it’s interesting. I have an idea that it might be fun for us to both reply, quiz or questionnaire-style, to a series of questions about form and structure. I think, now, that we pretty-much know where we’re at with what we’re thinking of, but it might be useful to capture it for the project and could generate some interesting text. Anyway, I have some idea, but will send in a separate email. Here’s my reply to your reply to my reply from before.


I thought your paragraph on the difference between structure and form was excellent. It answered a lot of the questions I had about where you see the difference. You wrote:


‘ok so i say structure because i think it’s far more precise.

form has many more interpretations for me.

and oed agrees so it must be right – pasted below

but maybe the more openended nature of form appeals to you more

i guess for me structure feels more inside

more understanding relations within

and form is a step remove

surveying the whole

what say you?’


Having looked at the OED definitions of form and structure, I think I understand a difference that form is somehow about what can be perceived visually (possibly not that different in an artwork or a poem actually), where structure takes into account the inner organisation of an artefact. So form=externally visible and structure=external and internal organisation.

This raises the interesting possibility just now in my head, of a see-through artwork. Can you think of any?

I notice that a word that comes up in both definitions is ‘arrangement’. The definition of form in the OED’s definition list that came closest to what I think I’ve been thinking of was

‘[mass noun] style, design, and arrangement in an artistic work as distinct from its content: these videos are a triumph of form over content’

I also love the idea of a ‘mass noun’. Cool!

You wonder if it’s the open-endedness of form which attracts me. I think what I like about ‘form’ as a word to use in this discussion is that it’s often set up as, not exactly the opposite of, but certainly the counterpart to ‘content’, so it comes out of my mouth/fingers naturally. It has a valency, history of use. Maybe that makes it too cosy to use now unthinkingly. A bit hackneyed.

As I think you say, the Andrew Grassie flips apparent content into a place less-important than the structure. The content doesn’t become the meaning and the structure does. What’re we left looking at? It’s more than our own perception, isn’t it? You talked about ghosts.

You say that the structure (meaning the process here?) becomes the principal subject. I’d like to hear what you think might be secondary subjects in this Grassie work too.

I can see a dance of meaning happening in his work. You’re presented with a formal question about what’s going on, how were the images generated, is it  a photo, is the content the artist’s work, no it seems so various, oh it’s a painting, hang on, I’m in the space depicted in the painting, but where have the objects gone, oh, this painting is made from the exact same view-point you would look through if the canvas were a window. Then once you’ve worked it all out, a second stage of interpretation happens. Why these works? Why has he done this? Why these materials? Questions which don’t have such straightforward answers as the formal ones. But I’m interested in that initial period in which we’re wooed by the work, and the game, the puzzle, keeps you looking longer – it makes it something happening in time maybe?

The submitted art he lets into his process seems effectively repressed and literally flattened/walked away from. I’m intrigued. Thanks for introducing me to this artist.

I can see what you mean about it possibly losing its meaning if you move it to a different venue. That’s a thing with site specific isn’t it? Cake, eating it perhaps. Did I tell you ever that I once misheard people talking about what I thought was ‘Site-Specific: The Musical’? I eventually realised that they were talking about ‘South Pacific’! I had a massive LOL about that.

I love structure/stricture. That’s a very nice sleight of word just there that you’ve introduced me to.

I’m interested in what you say about translation. I wonder if we could play some sort of translation game as a way of interrogating the ‘thisness’ of something. I wonder how we might do it with words and then also with something visual. Any thoughts?

You do read my poems very well. I was grateful to read your reponse to ‘in relation to’ that picked up elements that had interested me around the prefixed/non-prefixed (fixed?!) vocab, and I like that it had that effect of involving you in its play as it reached its conclusion(s). I wonder if sometimes the answer to the question ‘what is it about?’ has two answers: one which centres on the content and one which centres on the form/structure? So in the case of my poem I could say it’s about the extent to which you can relate to someone and which differences are insoluble, but I could also say it’s about moving forwards through a syntax structure and then unpicking what’s been created backwards to see where you end up. Maybe? Or maybe the second bit is the answer to the question ‘how does it convey its meaning?’, but I don’t think it’s that exactly. To say the meaning is housed in the structure implies a possible separation of the two. Maybe there are just two separate processes going on in an artwork and the trick is to manage the symbiotic relationship between them with you as the magi?

Iain x

On listening to Fauré and long lines in poetry

I’ve been wondering a little bit recently if there’s some literal sense to a connection people spot between the fact I studied music and the form of the poetry I write. Well, wondering that, and if I’m honest, whether or not I’m really putting together anything, not original exactly, but newly, interestingly, (or usefully?) combined.

I believe I’m able to take a lot away from the process of my writing. With each completed poem I feel I’ve taken an x-ray of myself that also shows up the wounds picked up from my present and past engagements. Interesting and helpful to me as I make my decisions about and adjustments to the way I can live.

Regards the music connection, it continues to fascinate me and provide insteresting points of comparison with poetry artform.

For example I’m writing at the moment poems in long lines. I’ve been enjoyably taken to task on this recently by a poet friend. I was wondering in any case what the attraction of long lines to me at the moment was, and I think it’s partly to do with wanting to have a unit of sense (the line of the poem) which is long enough to hold quite a lot of syntax and be nearly long enough to be read on its own, but that also needs relation to the other lines on either side of it to hold it up. I enjoy a potential for sense dissonance between how the line reads on its own and how it must be read to make sense in its context.

This strategy perhaps derives a bit from my big hearting of Emily Dickinson. The little hyphenated clauses in her poems often float inconclusively in sense between other parts of the poem. See, ‘I think that the root of the wind is water’ for example.

Also, I was reading a review of an anthology on a blog somewhere quite recently which posited that in much current British poetry, the individual lines make sense, but that something is being left out or occluded in between the lines as written. The effect was of a whole reality that the poem was holding back from representing. I think instinctively I’ve taken this criticism (for it was meant that way) into my thinking and at the moment I’m more interested in writing poems that are of the one piece of elastic reality. I’m not sure if I mean reality, but one whole, not patchwork around missing bits.

The long lines question came into my head again last night when I was listening to a piece of music that’s been new to me in 2012, Fauré’s D minor Cello Sonata. It was written during the 1st World War – Fauré was an old man at the time and the sort of artist who had been patiently perfecting his grasp on the aspects of musical language that interested him I think . The first movement in particular has had me hooked. It’s unusually punchy and rhythmic for Fauré. Also, it pleased me that I was having such difficulty working out what the time signature (the beat) was.

I often love it when music works this way and had a similar pleasure with the beginning of Radiohead’s Pyramid Song.

With the Fauré cello sonata, I discovered, when I managed to track down this handy youtube version showing the sheet music in time with the performance, that as I had pretty much suspected, the first movement is written in 3/4.

It doesn’t sound that way at all consistently though, and I’d encourage any of you who are able to read music to listen first with your eyes closed and try to work out where the barlines are. I noticed on further looking, that the piano part for the first 40 seconds or so, definitely isn’t obviously in 3/4 but that the cello line, looking at the placement of the semiquaver flourishes, actually is. The cello phrases are so comparitively long against the assertive piano quaver pairs though, that this isn’t enough to give an obvious sense of the time signature to the listener.

It’s there though, this time signature, and I was intrigued that Fauré had chosen to write the movement all in this same time signature when so much of the content seemed to disregard or work against it. I wonder if the idea of these longer 3/4  cello phrases was helping Fauré in its construction as a mental unit, a sense unit, like the a set long-line in poetry. A long-line in poetry can be similarly imperceptible when the poem is read out. It has its effect, however on the writing and the reading. It holds sense together in some way while pushing form under. It’s a puzzling tension.

Faure has sometimes been seen as conservative. I wonder if he suffered from the fact of living so long and being able to write his best sallies against the received order when perceived as old and therefore not the young man from whom you’d expect the shocks in the system to come from (his pupils included Ravel for example)?

I think many musicians have been perplexed by the later Fauré chamber works, if interested at all, by what seemed to be a narrow range of expression dragged out in slack forms. I believe pieces like the string quartet, his last work, are famously difficult to ‘bring off’, and with this particular cello sonata, there’s debate about the tempo of the last movement, with cellists believing that the printed metronome mark must be too slow; this may be related.

What I’m hearing in the music is more akin to different processes working themselves out in tandem, but sometimes only in loose relation. The music comes unstuck within – the threads in its weave loosen.

This is some sort of approach to extending the possibilities of how a formal structure is perceivable. This is a pushing against the formal container of a piece, or maybe the opposite of pushing, rather some sort of creating of a slight vacuum in the centre of the form somehow blurring a boundary between what’s in the piece and what’s in the perception of the listener, or the players even? A sort of proto-John Cage listening exercise?

Maybe that’s too much to say, but the slackness in the middle of a late-Fauré movement forces the players and the listeners to hear connections in a different way. The form has to work harder to bear up the weight of the lengthy meanderings and wrong-footings within it. In the process we become more aware of the assumptions about how the music will work perhaps? And how the art form relates to our lives and our perception of life. I feel like reading the Fauré piece this way fits with other modernist developments like stream-of-consciousness writing.

I hear something of the unstuckness happening in the second movement of the cello sonata too, where the piano and cello are playing the same material out of time with each other. It’s very hard to tell where the beat of the bar-line is again. I hope I’ve encouraged you to listen to this piece of beautifully accomplished music.

The long slack form thought possibly relates to the long slack, verbose, but shaded lines I’m trying to write and keep electrified. This talk of slack electric power lines has just made me think of a poem I love, and indeed a seasonal one, which I’ll share below. I think it fits the argument of this post rather well. And if there’s a lot of ‘slack’ in this post, it’s possibly also because I’ve been watching Miss Marple again and Chief Inspector Slack has featured heavily!


J.C. Squire

The heavy train through the dim country went rolling, rolling,
Interminably passing misty snow-covered plough-land ridges
That merged in the snowy sky; came turning meadows, fences,
Came gullies and passed, and ice-coloured streams under frozen bridges.

Across the travelling landscape evenly drooped and lifted
The telegraph wires, thick ropes of snow in the windless air;
They drooped and paused and lifted again to unseen summits,
Drawing the eyes and soothing them, often, to a drowsy stare.

Singly in the snow the ghosts of trees were softly pencilled,
Fainter and fainter, in distance fading, into nothingness gliding,
But sometimes a crowd of the intricate silver trees of fairyland
Passed, close and intensely clear, the phantom world hiding.

O untroubled these moving mantled miles of shadowless shadows,
And lovely the film of falling flakes, so wayward and slack;
But I thought of many a mother-bird screening her nestlings,
Sitting silent with wide bright eyes, snow on her back.

On Mellifluousness

Tonight I keep wanting to post to my facebook wall ‘How good is Herbert Howells by the way?’, but stopping because I can’t be bothered to get into a discussion about who Herbert Howells is and when I stopped to think about why I’m feeling the love for ol’ Herbert tonight, I realised that the answer was more of a blog-post than a spontaneous ejaculation.

Howells is the sort to get categorised in the ‘honorable second-rank’. Eek. The piece of his music I’m listening to is ‘In Gloucestershire’ String Quartet (here’s another of his I could find online) as I catch up on some correspondence, and as I type, I keep getting buffeted by a wave of beautiful warm sound, or fibrilating texture that makes me type hard and impetuously like I’m a silent pianist in accompaniment. The experience is making me think how much I appreciate sensual beauty in art, which it’s easy to feel has become problematised, or at least difficult to access in contemporary work which truly owns up to the experience and thinking of this time and place. I quite often have thought that mid-twentieth century composers/poets whatever were fortunate in being able to write at a time when fractured beauty was a workable contemporary compromise, and you could get away with writing lushly, in contrast to darkness and austere patches/breaks. I think of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, of T.S. Eliot in 4 Quartets (but prob more in the earlier Waste Land) and also of poets like Larkin (High Windows eg). Now it can feel as if to indulge a glowing phrase is to risk tendentiousness or naivety. ‘Keep it all awkward’ my inner voice says, ‘keep the reader on their tiptoes’. Something like that.

At the moment, I’m starting to read through F.T. Prince’s Collected Poems (as I mentioned in yesterday’s post) and he’s very much a poet who can sweep me off my feet. The poem of his that I, that everyone, first fell in love with was Soldiers Bathing of course, and I didn’t want to own up to that yesterday as it felt hackneyed to always take a discussion of his work there. Soldiers Bathing is a poem that almost makes you suspicious that you’re enjoying it for all the wrong reasons, pervily, and that feeling seems to be backed up when you get bored at the extended art historical reference that you have to google, excusing the depiction of nakedness as it seems to be doing. And that sense and reputation that he is a ‘one-hit wonder’ poet, like Gray with his elegy (also untrue I think) stops people generally from feeling the need to seriously look for good content throughout the writer’s work.

In that way, I would say Prince is a victim of this suspicion of pleasureable sensation in serious art. He was rather overtaken by subsequent generations and made to look old-fashioned in his own long life.

I feel like these are initial, not fully worked-out thoughts, but I want to say that I am looking for a way, a clear way, to write for now, to write for now intelligently, but to retain a pleasurable motivation/impulse/experience at the centre of what I’m making. I need to keep that because these unfashionable sense-merchants have me by the balls.