This is the second in a series of guest features by editors of recently published anthologies from Culture Matters. Here, Jim Mainland discusses the book ‘Almarks‘, Shetland life, and the richness of its poetry. It’s a really interesting read, and the book is great. You can buy a copy of the anthology Almarks, here:
“When Mike Quille of Culture Matters suggested putting together an anthology of radical Shetland poetry I discussed the notion with a friend of mine whose political acumen I usually respect. He gave me chapter-and-verse why such an undertaking would fail. Shetland wasn’t a radical place and didn’t have any of the ingredients required to fuel such an anthology – there were no particularly active feminist groupings, BAME groups, or LGBT+ organisations. The local Trades Council has been moribund for decades and political parties have no real impact locally and rarely spearhead campaigning, certainly not in national terms. And even where there was a presence, there was certainly no evidence of a literary wing to them. However, this starkly negative prognosis only made us all the more determined to accede to Mike Quille’s request.
We did this because whatever the overall radical potential of Shetland writing, we believe that poetry from Shetland is in a strong place at the moment. The poet and novelist Kevin MacNeil said as much a few years back when he was Shetland’s Writer-in-Residence. He said that what was missing wasn’t the talent but the self-confidence, the self-belief. It was also our feeling that an anthology of Shetland verse with a progressive remit would be a worthwhile event in any case. Moreover, it can be argued that Shetland does have a solid radical poetic tradition to build on, in the work of J.J. Haldane Burgess, Hugh MacDiarmid, Billy Tait, and Laurence (Lollie) Graham particularly.
And although Shetland is known throughout the world for its ponies, its Fair Isle knitwear, its nature and natural, rugged beauty, Shetland also has its food banks, its own social problems, and has always been economically precarious, and vulnerable to economic exploitation. And there has always been a strong sense of community here, an ingrained duty to look out for one another, and rally round in time of need.
In the event, the call-out met with a good response. We have to thank the facilitators of the various writers’ groups in Shetland for encouraging poets to submit, and for individuals who sent in contributions.
Unsurprisingly, some poets were unsure if what they sent in could be described as ‘radical’. Others, like Gina Paola Ritch, were very clear: “Is [the radical aspect] the subject matter or the style in relation to ‘cosy reading of traditional themes’? And does poetry highlighting social injustice constitute radical or are you looking for something that questions and challenges the system and authority in general?” Yes, yes and yes! Poets who wrote mainly in Shetland dialect were among the first to respond, keen to dispel any notion that dialect poetry didn’t deal with radical themes and perhaps hinting that even to write in dialect these days could itself possibly be interpreted as a radical act. Ultimately, therefore, the contributors’ response has shaped the definition of radical and has given the collection its guiding principle. We decided to call it ‘Almarks’ – an ‘almark’ is the Shetland name for those particularly thrawn and awkward sheep who will jump walls and break through fences into common ground.
Many of the poems here are, broadly speaking, issue-based – they strike an attitude. Others are more observational and personal or reflective. Some are clearly political, others radical in terms of subject-matter or style. Appropriately, some are in English, and some in Shetland dialect, or Shetlandic, as it has recently come to be known.
Christine De Luca has for long shown that the small, diminishing, rich and enriching word-hoard of Shetlandic can still be an effective vehicle for acerbic contemporary comment and the telling contrast. For Laureen Johnson, it is the natural voice of ordinary folk, free from ‘bullshit’ and pretence, whether commenting on the waste of war or the loss of a livelihood, a fishing birthright, brought about by the insensitive bureaucratic meddling of the faceless and the conscience-free. Sheenagh Pugh, whose poems are always models of clarity, is a poet who has always championed the underdog, and not always the ones you would expect, in her work. Her novel set in Shetland, ‘Kirstie’s Witnesses’, deals harrowingly with a notorious case of injustice from 19th century Lerwick dealing with homelessness and misogyny and has clear contemporary resonances still. Raman Mundair, whom I first heard give an electrifying performance of her poem about the murder of Stephan Lawrence to an audience in Lerwick, has always written strongly from an activist perspective.
As I write this, radical measures are being enforced as the world hunkers down before the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, in what many would argue is a foretaste of what is to come, albeit from a different threat. Whatever kind of society emerges from this, one thing is certain – the need for radical, committed poetry will be all the greater.
Poetic doomsayers are fond of quoting what W.H. Auden famously said in In Memory of W.B. Yeats: “poetry makes nothing happen”. However, if you follow his argument to its conclusion, it is far from negative: “…it survives, /A way of happening, a mouth.”
“A way of happening, a mouth.” That is what we have in this anthology: a variety of ‘almark’ mouths, young and old, in Shetland and English, never mouthpieces, never mouth-y, and never, as we say, ‘blate’ ( Shetland/Scots: timid, reserved). It’s a good start.
Gina Paola Ritch is a consistently political poet, who, while working as a fisherman, wrote gripping, realistic, unsentimental accounts of the perils and travails and dignity of that particular trade. Then as now, authenticity has always been important as a way of validating her voice.
Her poem, ‘The desert is only as deadly as the circles we walk’ relentlessly catalogues the harsh economic realities faced by so many, an account which is all the more effective because it is based on the poet’s own experience. But it also includes those who are at the sharp end of capitalist exploitation, and suggests they are no better, despite their apparent ‘success’ and drive for ‘growth’. They, too, perhaps even more so, are unfulfilled and empty. But poetry’s fragile art, the poem suggests, can transcend the economic treadmill, the marketing deadmill; its integrity is a fragile, tenuous hope, a light in the darkness.
‘The desert is only as deadly as the circles we walk’
Scraping by on the minimum wage
and the tips that a waitress scrapes from the tables
pissing my life away
in the grind to survive
like a thousand faces I see everyday
of the damned and the dead and the drowned
floundering in the rut
or clinging to a ladder
with no way up
and no way down;
the marketing men, the junior clerks
the lawyers, accountants
financial advisors, property managers
ruthless nobodies who are somebodies in oil
and the loveless family with nothing more to say
as they impatiently wait
in a world where everything is too late,
and I am no different
pissing my life away
in the monotony
trapped in the banality, the stress, the fear, the race,
the slave to the mortgage
and the monthly pay
where my only escape
is the half-finished poem in my pocket
that carries me through the madness
of being just one more wasted creature
dancing between the tables
of a wasted world
watching the wasted and featureless faces
that contemplate profit margins, cash projections,
structure, streamlining and cuts,
sales, commissions and deadlines,
costs and expenses to slash,
portfolios that perform
deadwood that doesn’t
equities and pension funds,
a budget break to Benidorm
or any God-forsaken shit-hole in the sun.
My half-finished poem
my passion, my heart,
my destruction, my salvation,
my part that stops it all from becoming bearable.
And when asked,
‘Why not quit and try to making a living from your art?’
I simply say,
‘Poetry doesn’t pay the bills.’
And God how I pray,
sweet merciful Jesus how I pray
that it never will!
You can buy a copy of Almarks here