Scotland’s ‘Unmakars’ can take you to some unexpected places – Laura Waddell

Scotland's 'Unmakars' have a way with words, says Laura Waddell (Picture: Getty/iStockphoto)
Scotland's 'Unmakars' have a way with words, says Laura Waddell (Picture: Getty/iStockphoto)
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In Makar/Unmakar, 12 contemporary poets each provide readers with a literary divining rod, writes Laura Waddell.

What does ‘makar’ actually mean, and does the word have an opposite? A new book, titled Makar/Unmakar, presents 12 contemporary poets in Scotland and delights in ‘making’ with words, pushing back against the notion that to be writing in Scotland today is to be writing on explicitly municipal themes. While holding the poets aloft, championing them as national talents, it gives them room to breathe and write about whatever they choose.

Editor Calum Rodger is Scottish Slam Poetry Champion 2019, and this summer represented Scotland at the Poetry Slam World Cup. The significant acievement received little media attention here – poets are not always very good at sending out press releases, and it’s a shame they even have to – but it was of little surprise to anyone who knows him. We work together on the co-operatively owned Gutter magazine. For years Rodger has been one of the best live performers on the scene, his words as rigorous as they are joyful. I have seen him coax a teetering, worse-for-wear literary crowd into awed silence by standing on a chair and reciting poetry word perfectly in his North Berwick accent. You can get a taste in a Tedx Talk on Youtube called Glasgow flourishes, where he says “Some would have it thought that Glasgow’s wrought from miracles. They’re wrong. It lives in stone, souls, song and syllables.”

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In Rodger’s introduction to Makar/Unmakar, small-press Tapsalteerie’s first full collection, he sketches the culture these poems come from. “Poetry is a shared enterprise, through such multifarious activities as collaboration, translation, zine and small-press publishing, workshops, events, research, criticism, and pedagogy.”

Coverage of what emerges from this petri dish usually concludes poetry is ‘thriving’ pegged on individual poets or successful spoken-word events. But publishing, occasionally awkwardly, straddles both business and art and that in many ways shapes what emerges.

Rhyming Texan lairds

Much of what happens in collaborative, close-knit small-press scenes is, by nature and by economics, driven more by linguistic passion than by servicing commercial markets as first priority. Funding problems to one side, it’s where some really interesting and innovative writing is nurtured.

Scottish art, wherever it is categorised, defined, or boundaried in any way, has always faced a see-saw of self-identity, balanced between thematic and physical claims to ‘Scottishness’.

In some instances, definition takes the ‘by formation’ route, akin to the electoral roll; if you live here, you’re in. Sometimes, Scottishness is defined more vaguely, fuzzy around the edges but usually with the aim of welcoming, encompassing being born, living, or having studied here, or writing explicitly with reference to Scottish terrain. (Only occasionally must literary editors deal with rhyming Texans who claim lairdship status and brandish a square foot of land receipt as proof.)

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‘Makar’, the old Scots word for poet, which has seen a resurgence in recent years with appointments of Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead, and Jackie Kay, is playfully balanced with ‘unmakar’. The book is respectful of these poets, but sceptical of the confines of formal roles.

As Rodger describes it; “Makars-with-a-capital-M who, like their courtly forebears, participate in public discourse from a position of governmental patronage or sponsorship. That contemporary Scotland supports such a role for poetry is a fact worth celebrating, but as with all our democratic institutions it should not be celebrated uncritically. This critical spirit is there in Morgan, Lochhead and Kay, to their great credit.”

But, as the introdution continues, the idea of reducing the recognition and support of Scottish poetry to “a civic appelation” is at odds with the wide-ranging interests and inner world of any good poet, no matter where they live.

Voices suppressed by poetry establishment

The reader is reminded that a prior anthology, Twelve Modern Scottish Poets, was entirely male. Although it was published 50 years ago, there are more recent anthologies which, while marginally better, still skew overwhelmingly towards men, like the Zoo of the New.

While the book sets itself up as an alternative, Rodger says the selection wasn’t gender-balanced by numbers. “Rather, it’s simply the case that much of the best poetry in Scotland today is being written by voices hitherto suppressed by the established hierarchies of the poetry world.”

This has also played out in recent publishing start-ups who publish more diversely than predecessors because the scene they exist within is more diverse. The world turns, slowly.

You can feel the academic context Rodger and many of the contributors emerge from most strongly in the introductions to each poet, which attempts to situate them critically alongside the wheres and whats of previous work.

As an avid reader, but one who gave up academia years ago, parsing meaning from the dense descriptors occasionally left me ready to shout Parklife. But it’s also a book which says to the reader: make of this what you will. There are no polemics here, no dumbings down.

Language ranges from crisp, humourous, or direct in those with a knack for summing up a complex feeling and chasing it around their lines in an attempt to pin it down; and others which venture into the unknown, making both the complexity of what’s around and their attempts to grasp it their theme.

Juana Adcock, a rising star writer and translator, writes of “a feeling of being at home in the unknown”, Tessa Berring (one of my favourites of the collection) speaks of “lean words, you know, like spirit, and lightly placed unspeakable things”.

Another highlight is Daisy Lafargue who searches for signs in the world around and suggests, “to receive them, it helps to be empty but imbued with residual function, like a disused water tower”. Maria Sledmore says “to exist here is ever to quiver”.

Elsewhere, Harry Josephine Giles writes future fantasy in Scots and Alice Tarbuck makes mischief with Classical allusions. Their chosen forms vary from straightforward to experimental, but each poet has given the reader a divining rod; what we find with it depends on what direction we walk, led by our own associations.