The Scotsman Sessions #306: Billy Letford

Welcome to the award-winning Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts sector still impacted by the pandemic, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on scotsman.com, with introductions from our critics. Here, poet Billy Letford reads his poems In a Bamboo Shack on the Edge of a Beach and Monuments of the Mind

It’s possible that Billy Letford will always be known in Scotland as “the roofer poet”. His journey from working for the family roofing business to an MLitt in Creative Writing and a first poetry collection published by Carcanet just makes too good a story.

But there is something else, too. Letford’s poems speak to the experiences of ordinary, working-class Scots. Not too many poetry collections contain the line “I was standing outside Greggs eating a macaroni pie…” English reviewers found themselves reaching for dictionaries to look up words like “radge” and “bevvy”.

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Letford’s poems are carefully crafted but have a directness which is immediately engaging. Writing about his second collection, Dirt, published in 2016, Liz Lochhead described his work as “utterly original and instantly recognisable”. Letford says, simply: “The mundane is where the magic is.”

Billy Letford

He’s philosophical about being the roofer poet of Scotland. “It’s been a long time since I worked on the roofs, and I don’t hear that tagline as much as I used to. When my first book was published, ‘from roofer to poet’ was a stronger story than, say, ‘from academic to poet’. The extra attention worked well for me, although I had to refuse to wear a hard hat for photos!”

Letford left school with no higher qualifications. Although he always wanted to write, by his mid-twenties he was working for the family roofing firm in Stirling. In 2008, he got his break when he won a New Writer’s Award at the Scottish Book Trust. The same year, at the age of 30, he applied to study for a Masters in Creative Writing at Glasgow University.

He said: “When I started writing seriously, I was focussed on getting a single poem published. ‘Just one,’ I would say to myself, ‘and then another one, and then another one’. Mayfly magazine in America published my first poem. They sent me ten dollars in the post. I felt like a millionaire.”

His first collection, Bevel, drew on his experience as a roofer, and he was hailed as a distinctive new voice in Scottish poetry. Writing in The Guardian, the critic Nicholas Lezard used the words “new Scottish genius”. He has read and performed his work all over the country and taken part in translation projects in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. Six months travelling in India, funded by a Creative Scotland bursary, helped inform his second collection, Dirt.

He writes both in vernacular Scots and English, and says that discovering the work of writers like James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard “helped me hear the music in the language around me”.

“If anything, writing in Scots gives me more freedom. I can play with spelling and sound. No matter what part of the UK you come from, very few people speak the Queen’s. Capturing the music and rhythm of the language that surrounds you opens subtleties of meaning. Language is fluid. Words move from French to German to Norwegian to Scots. The more sounds you can make that have meaning, the easier it is to express yourself.”

Billy Letford will be taking part in StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, in St Andrews, 7-13 March. Over 150 poets from all over the world will take part, and many of the events are online as well as in person. For more information see www.stanzapoetry.org

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