Review: Be The First To Like This: New Scottish Poetry

THROW a stone in Glasgow or Edinburgh, it is said, and you’ll hit a young poet. But until now there has been no anthology to celebrate this ubiquity.

Makar Liz Lochhead compares Waters anthology to the classic Dream State. Picture: Neil Hanna
Makar Liz Lochhead compares Waters anthology to the classic Dream State. Picture: Neil Hanna

Be The First To Like This: New Scottish Poetry

Edited by Colin Waters

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Vagabond Voices, £11.95

This collection is described by editor Colin Waters, of the Scottish Poetry Library, as “a class photo, a yearbook, a time capsule”. Liz Lochhead has compared it to Dream State, the seminal anthology edited by Donny O’Rourke in 1994.

Waters went looking for 40 poets under 40, quickly dismissed the tidy arithmetic and ended up with 38, mostly under 40, none of whom has had more than two full collections published. Each is represented by three poems. They reflect the international nature of their generation, born in Scotland, Ireland, the United States, some have lived in South Africa, Japan, Mexico but consider themselves in some way “Scottish” writers. Many are graduates of the Masters in Creative Writing at Glasgow University, and some of Glasgow’s Clydebuilt Verse Apprenticeship Scheme, to which the royalties of this book are donated. They encapsulate the energy of the poetry “scene” in Scotland, which gives writers both a platform and a community in which to flourish, but are striking in their diversity.

As the title (which comes from a poem in the collection by Theresa Munoz) suggests, Waters has deliberately sought out poems and poets who address 21st century life. There are enough poems in the world, he says, about Odysseus or about rivers. Where are the poetic voices which address internet dating and social media?

So, contemporary subjects are much in evidence: YouTube and the Dyson vacuum cleaner, Eva Longoria, Instagram, Dolly the Sheep. A handful of poets play with the writing conventions of new media. Many more are grappling with an international, interconnected world in which there is a dearth of intimacy. But some of the strongest poems here are those which take a more conventional poetic subject and do something fresh: Claire Askew’s Bad Moon, Russell Jones’ poem about not seeing the stars, Marion McCready in whose poem daffodils “spread like cancer”, Charlotte Runcie’s Pope, Telescope, a complex, controlled approach to a big, timeless theme.

Some of the work displays a young poet’s tendency to place the vigour of language over formal constraints; to throw an excess of interesting words at the problem in the hope that some will stick. Therefore, the more distinctive voices stand out for their restraint: for example, Richie McCafferty, who uses language carefully to create poems which are often uncomfortable and surprising; and Niall Campbell, whose writing is so poised and precise that he holds back every word except the right one. His subject matter – a bird, the sea, love – is far from aggressively contemporary, but that matters less than the magic he creates around it.