The picture above was taken in May of this year, at the Community Project café on the Grassmarket, Edinburgh. The words on my laptop screen are one of two poems which I wrote after a local composer, Matt Giannotti, approached me about writing some words for him to set to music as part of a Fringe show called Spoken Spaces, Sonic Traces.
The poem on the screen is called ‘Columns of Air’. It didn’t end up being used.
The other poem is called ‘Stone Lands’, and it did.
The show was an hour of new musical settings for Scottish poetry. The performers were a pianist, a soprano and a cellist. The poets varied from Robert Louis Stevenson to, er, me.
Which meant I got to see my name on a Fringe poster for the first time ever.
(that’s me just above Robert Louis…)
I remember going to the Fringe for the first time in 2009. Bustle and dazzle and buzz. I loved the eclecticism of it, the way you could bounce around the city between musicians and street performers, flyerers giving out free tickets to abstract student theatre, occultist vegan comedians and men in dragon costumes with chihuahuas, art galleries and pubs co-opted into performance venues. I still love that dazzle and buzz, (although these days I do get grumpy about how it takes ages to walk to work past all the tourists with their stupid umbrellas. This is an inevitable condition of naturalising into an Edinbugger).
So I was happy to have the chance to contribute to the Fringe dropped into my lap. And with so little effort! I didn’t need to stage a show or worry about PR or learn to sing. Other people were doing all that already. I just had to write a poem.
So I wrote a poem:
Home land, murmuring, beneath the feet there are
Whispers in the concrete of an older way of
Being that doesn’t know if it’s
Over or beginning
The same or falling apart.
Old land, thundering, the hurried baffled rattle of
Whirring wings as birds are disturbed
By the One O’Clock Gun.
Pigeon instincts surprised again
At the same time, every day.
(they run to different rhythms in a)
Stone land, subsiding, distant pressures crush
Rocks into rivers which carry
Mountain grit to lowland cities
Can a town be a home to a stone
Which remembers mountains?
Cold land, shivering, the old epochal scrape of
Ancient ice still evident in every
Crack on the castle crag,
Every frostbitten word
In a winter accent.
(the whip of wind in jinking wynds in a)
Bone land, burying itself in folds of flesh
Foreign to its children it’s so keen to forget
That it’s a home land to anyone;
The pigeons or the glaciers
Or the cracks.
Home land, murmuring, inside the stones there are
Bone hands coiled in fossil curls.
No land ever stays the same
Ghosts can’t know that they never change
Nomads know that the whole world turns
Old ways of being never fall away.
Cold days go but the cold remains.
Over; and beginning;
I wrote these words, and Gio liked them, and we back-and-forthed for a while over rhythms and improvements. We added a refrain (which I don’t think quite works as part of the poem on the page – it’s a little too obvious, or something – but makes more sense in the musical setting where a thematic centre helps to bind the verses):
Cold as stone, this city grew
Another life is breaking through
Bones are old, hearts are new
The city’s soul is the joining of the two
Meanwhile Gio wrote his music, and sent me snatches in .midi format, and they were enchanting, or as enchanting as .midi gets. Playful and living. True to my poem, but making something of it which I never could. Isn’t that how collaboration should be?
I finally got to see the show on the second night of its short run. Our piece was the first of the night. The Jazz Bar on Chambers Street was around half-full. My parents and flatmate came along, and we sat at the side of the room and listened to the delicate piano introduction welcome the chocolate sound of the cello to swell out across the small, dark space. The soprano walked to the stage through the audience, and chimed a bell. She opened her mouth and my words rang out in someone else’s voice.