Happy 70th Birthday Aonghas MacNeacail!

If there was anyone we’d describe as laughing at the clock, it would be Aonghas MacNeacail. Acclaimed as the foremost poet writing today in the Gaelic language, his skilful way with words and general bonhomie make it very hard to believe his latest collection Déanamh Gáire Ris A’ Chloc – Laughing at the Clock is published to celebrate his seventieth birthday. Aonghas talked about his experience of ‘being a poet’ on the Scottish Poetry Library’s blog, Our Sweet Old Etcetera.

Aonghas MacNeacail

Image by Kevin MacNeil

“The moment when an individual decides to be a writer of poetry is not at all the same as that when the same individual can be said to have become a poet. In my case, around five years of exploring how words work – those of acknowledged practitioners, and – clumsily – my own.
Being told to ‘go back to your roots: write about what you know’ might seem like obvious advice, once it’s been taken. I might wish to have received it earlier, but those years of obsessive reading, and obsessive writing, were also a kind of affirmation that I had the tenacity to follow this path – that I had chosen / had chosen me – through to a productive conclusion.
Once poems begin to appear in print, you are then liable to be introduced as ‘the poet…’ which can itself be discomfiting, when you’re aware of only having, at most, seven adequately abandoned (in the ‘Valeryan’ sense) poems. And there are those days, weeks, months, when nothing at all is written: terrifying. Have I said all that there is to be said? But you keep reading, and there’s a part of the brain always open to the possibility that something interesting may present itself: which, eventually, if you let it, happens.
Those politicians who argue that ‘incentives’ – i.e. lots of cash – are necessary to encourage the creative process (‘enterprise’, they call it) have clearly never experienced the itch at the back of the brain that insists on being turned into a poem. It may be a word, phrase, visual image, sound, or simply an inchoate feeling that there is something to be said, and it’s your job to say it. What eventually turns out may seem inordinately slight, ludic, ludicrous even, but if you can say, with reasonable confidence, that it is a poem, then that is enough.
When asked, usually by children, ‘What’s the best poem you’ve written?’ I invariably reply, ‘The next one’. Whether writing to commission or responding to an unexpected trigger that sets the creative juices going, the process is always going to be one of discovery: sometimes the material is drawn entirely from memory, at other times it may depend on considerable research.
But even the least personally experienced subject can only be responded to successfully if there are enough points of recognition to enable the poet to engage with the material. The previously unknown has to be uncovered until it becomes thoroughly familiar: once it becomes a ‘known’ which can then be explored with the same level of assured curiosity as any other subject, all the fun, and torment, may begin.

MacNeacail_cover_Print.inddIt’s maybe just as well that such commissions are not daily occurrences. Even after half a century of writing, I am still more accustomed to the mysterious pleasures derived from writing ‘to find out what I have to say’. That the spark may present itself in one of three languages, and in poem or song form, merely adds to the satisfaction gained from being a poet.”

Laughing at the Clock: New and Selected Poems – Déanamh Gáire Ris A’ Chloc: Dáin Ùra Agus Thaghte is published today on Aonghas’ 70th birthday by Polygon, £12.99 pbk

Delete This At Your Peril!

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Last week was a cracker for press coverage at Birlinn books. Neil Forsyth started it all with an interview on BBC Breakfast News on the subject of spam email and a great little plug for the hilarious Delete This At Your Peril (did you follow this on BBC Radio 4? VERY funny programme. Still on catch up if you hurry!). Six days of coverage for Alistair Moffat’s the Scots: A Genetic Journey followed in the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday; an interview with Alistair on BBC Radio 4’s the Today programme AND on STV’s The Hour; plus of course an episode of his radio programme based on the book on BBC Radio Scotland.

And the unique and quite fabulous Alexander McCall Smith was on fine form with an exhausting schedule of events and interviews. Monday saw Alexander with his publicist in Hexham for an event with Cogito Books. Tuesday was Newcastle for interviews and an event with North Words at the Tyneside Cinema. Wednesday was London and interviews followed by our annual event for Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street and dinner at the very nice Galvin Bistro de Luxe on Baker Street. Thursday morning took us to the BBC studios for Breakfast Television interview with the lovely Bill and Sian, then a lunchtime event for supporters of Pelican Post with the lovely Clemency Burton-Hill and a quick drive over to Bath for the Bath Festival and an event with Decca Aitkenhead. Friday was a signing in Bath at Toppings Books before a flight back to Edinburgh in time for a packed house at an event in St Mary’s Cathedral. We finished the week with an event and interviews in Glasgow for the Aye Write festival. All went incredibly well.

Scott-land by Stuart Kelly is BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week

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Exciting times at Birlinn Ltd. Scott-land by Stuart Kelly is BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week from 16 August 2010! This is a gem of a book, thoroughly enjoyed by readers – whether they are an expert on Walter Scott, have a passing interest in the man and his work, or just want to know more about Scotland and its relationship with England – none more so than MSP, Michael Russell… ‘The book is (in my view and I use the term very rarely)  a contemporary  masterpiece –  absorbing , clever,  intuitive, scholarly and enlightening. I feel I know more about both the author and the country, or perhaps to be accurate I have more questions ( and perhaps more worries)  than I had before, though I have also had a great measure of entertainment in getting to that state… a magnificently intelligent book which will help and engage many others too.’
NOT TO BE MISSED, find it on BBC Radio 4, Monday 16th – Friday 20 August 2010, 09.45–10.00 (or on BBC i-player).