Glasgow: Sparkling City of Poets

James McGonigal of the University of Glasgow on the city's outward-looking poetic tradition

There is a new vitality about Glasgow, and not just in the cranes and building works along the banks of the Clyde where shipyards used to be. In poetry, too, there are sparks and flares of new creative energies. Is there any other city that could hold a successful 36- hour continuous public reading from the work of its much loved Laureate, Edwin Morgan (now 87), in the streets, at hospitals, fire stations and taxi ranks and in the Gallery of Modern Art, in which members of the public joined so heartily? This January ‘Morganathon’ continued into the Aye Write book festival in March, one of the events being based around From Saturn to Glasgow: 50 Favourite Poems by Edwin Morgan (Scottish Poetry Library and Carcanet Press), fifteen thousand copies of which are being distributed free.

Edwin Morgan was influential at an earlier period of Glasgow’s poetic history in the 1960s and 1970s. Both he and Philip Hobsbaum (fresh from leading successful poetry groups in London and Belfast) taught English literature in the University of Glasgow. They influenced by example and supported a new generation of local poets (Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead, Robert Crawford, Aonghas MacNeacail, David Kinloch, Richard Price). As some of these young poets moved on to academic and/or creative careers elsewhere, there was perhaps a sense of lull in the 1990s. Recent developments suggest, however, that this was merely a pause for breath.
The current revival has found several factors in lucky alignment. One of these was the creation of St Mungo’s Mirrorball, a free association of about 45 Glasgow-based poets who meet regularly in the Glasgow School of Art. St Mungo is the patron saint of this most Celtic of Scotland’s cities, and a mirrorball reflects and sparkles upon scenes of enjoyment, so there is a clear link with the spirit of Glasgow, and a democratic dimension that is also part of the city’s sense of itself.

Apart from regular free readings to showcase local poets, Mirrorball has organised poetry residencies for work in the subway and in local schools; a New Poets award scheme to provide mentoring towards publication of a first collection; poetry events; and effective links with other organisations, notably the Scottish Poetry Library. Appearing as a Glasgow poet on Mirrorball’s website is Michael Schmidt of Carcanet Press, recently appointed Professor of Poetry at the University of Glasgow and editing PN Review from there. An energiser, he is developing the Masters in Creative Writing and (soon) a taught PhD course, with up to 60 students, who are encouraged to produce and edit online and printed magazines. There is a new focus on poetry and on international connections.

The ‘rival’ University of Strathclyde also teaches creative writing on its BA in Journalism and Creative Writing – David Kinloch leads the poetry dimension – and as part of an MLitt in Literary Studies, soon to develop into a creative writing Masters. In both universities, adult education classes also play a crucial role in mentoring writers.

David Kinloch is also a guiding spirit behind Vital Synz, a company that promotes the poetry of Glasgow through international and community involvement. Such international emphasis is typical of Glasgow’s outward-looking trading history, which has often looked to North America or Europe (rather than to England) for its engagement with new trends. An International Poetry competition (with a £5000 prize), readings and workshops with major poets (Simon Armitage, Ciaran Carson, Jo Shapcott, Vicki Feaver) are early positive signs of ambition.

Local publication of poetry has been, so far, more limited or transitory. However, The Dark Horse is a stylishly produced and thoughtful ‘Scottish-American’ poetry magazine edited locally by Gerry Cambridge. Mariscat Press has had a distinguished list of new and major writers over twenty-five years, often in pamphlet form. The Association for Scottish Literary Studies in Glasgow publishes an annual volume, New Writing Scotland. With so much poetic energy around, it seems certain that sparky Glasgow poets will soon find new ways to launch a thousand poems. 

Links: (Scottish Poetry Library)

Poetry News, Spring 2008