The Poets’ Tour: Pauline Prior Pitt, Gordon Dargie and Rosie Alexander
Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney, 20 October 2011
THE premise of this tour and its ten events across Scottish Islands is that each features a locally based writer with two brought in from other islands.
So in Stromness we had local Rosie Alexander, Pauline Prior-Pitt of North Uist and Gordon Dargie of Shetland. All three featured poets have moved to their islands from elsewhere – Dargie from Lanarkshire, Prior-Pitt from Hull and Alexander from Cornwall. However a highly accentuated sense of place was a common theme for the evening.
All had discovered their islands and expected to only stay for a short time, which had extended to years and decades.
For Gordon Dargie, two years in Shetland grew to 30 in a blink: “I liked the view,” he said. Due to a mix up over the evening’s start time I only caught the last 90 seconds of Dargie’s performance: an engaging, in-your-face, direct speech sequence of consciousness delivered with no notes and plenty of eye contact as he roamed towards the audience.
There was power here in his sonnets, told almost conspiratorially using Scots and English and the first person, and I was bereaved to only catch one of his tales. I was told he contrasted his childhood memories of harsh Lanarkshire with the softness of Shetland.
A sense of place and a confused identity is a strong theme in Alexander’s work. She was born in hospital in Aberdeen when her mother was flown from Shetland as an emergency for a very premature birth. She is proud of her dramatic entry into the world, and her early days in an incubator being very sick which led us into her poem Baby about a creature of blood and bone.
Her parents moved to Cornwall where she grew up hearing stories of Shetland. Her quest to make sense of who she was took her to Orkney. Three weeks snowed in on her own last winter was an intense experience, which led to intense, personal writing, including Snow, “Adrift from all that is known”.
Orkney’s history has seeped in and taken her away from the personal and reflective for a few poems, such as Replica House Seven, inspired by the skeletons of two females found in a wall of a house at the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. Alexander is a gentle and reflective young poet, finding her voice amongst the hills and water of her adopted islands.
North Uist-based poet Pauline Prior Pitt is more earthy and earthbound, with a string of everyday concerns which she makes into the great epics of life and death. She warmed us up with a comedic insight into her writing routine with Between. “No screen, no hum, no bloody cursor yet”.
Hot Penning is an exercise in writing for 20 minutes without stopping, no matter what, about a certain phrase. Her phrase was She Had No Umbrella, which led to a fanciful and funny piece fantasizing about the woman with no umbrella having an affair in a hotel room with mascara running down her beautiful face and many other flights of fancy.
She moved on to relationships between men and women with the funny, clever and perceptive Crumbs. Do men leave crumbs so they can enter the Turner Prize, she wonders, but wipes them away anyway. Wry looks at ageing and amnesia followed, and several at death, the prospect of which is almost too much for her to cope with. “Oh sorry,” she says as if coming to. “That’s far too miserable. I’ll do a funny one before I stop.”
Whether happy or sad, Prior-Pitt’s poems moved me to tears – of the good sort.
The tour is timed to coincide with the publication of an anthology of Scottish Island poetry by Birlinn Polygon, edited by Kevin MacNeil. It was organised by the Scottish Island Writers’ Network, a Hi-Arts project, and supported by Scotland’s Islands.
© Catherine Turnbull, 2011