Ithakas

This is a piece I was asked to write for the Poetry Reader when I was leaving the Scottish Poetry Library, and then due to various complications it wasn’t able to be published there, so I thought it would be nice to include here.

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Ithakas

Toward the end of my interview for the job of Programme Manager at the Scottish Poetry Library, when trying to explain what I would attempt to achieve if given the job, I spoke of the books on the shelves being silent bodies that needed the voices of living poets to animate them. I’ve always loved libraries and their anonymous quietude, the stealth of tucked away reading between the stacks and the writer’s voice in one’s own mind, however I’ve learned just as much from the great light that a live reader shines on a poem.

I hope I have succeeded since then in my dream of filling the Library with these life-giving voices. It certainly has been a poet’s dream job, and I’ve learned so much and had so many extraordinary experiences in this role. Now that I am moving on to a new opportunity working as Projects and Engagement Coordinator for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh, I want to pass on my enormous gratitude to all the poets who have been so generous with their time and creative energy, to the many partners from around the world who have offered their support and enabled us to expand our offerings, to the incredible audiences who came from near and far to attend events week in and week out, to the writers who filled poetry and translation workshops with their bravery and brilliance, to the readers who complete the circle for every writer and to my extraordinary colleagues and all the volunteers who made it possible to do this work.

I learned so much over the years, and I remember how worrying it was when a few events in my first season had small audiences. It took the grind of hard experience to learn how to sculpt the programme to satisfy the needs of the Library, our audiences, our partners and our funders, but quickly, and with the help especially of our brilliant communications manager, Colin Waters, we began to attract more folk and I was able to really explore what excites me about programming; stimulating the creation of new work, encouraging collaboration and communication, and bringing voices, minds and hearts from afar to connect with voices, minds and hearts from right here.

I could cite so many examples of events and projects that I loved being part of at the library, but some that spring to mind include:

The My Life in Poetry and Perfume event featuring the magnificent writer and perfume expert Alex Musgrave at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in the lush surrounds of the Victorian Palm House. Soaring glass walls and massive green leaves embraced us as we heard Alex’s choice of 10 poems to accompany 10 perfumes, each of which was available to be sampled. We also had live music, sparkling wine and a biologist-curated display of plants used in perfume creation.

The many festivals I have visited and had the honour to be part of, including Edinburgh International Book Festival as a chair of many unforgettable readings and more recently in the role of poet as a contributor to the Scottish-Canadian Innu poetry exchange project, the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival as official festival blogger and StAnza – Scotland’s Poetry Festival as a poet and in conversation with one of my greatest poetry heroes, Alice Notley.

Big projects like Walking With Poets which saw us situate poets in four botanic gardens in Scotland to work with local communities and the Written Image project in partnership with Edinburgh Printmakers where we partnered 40 poets with 40 printmakers and hosted an exhibition and reading of the gorgeous work produced through these collaborations.

Workshops and podcasts that have allowed me to work intimately with poets, which I find very fulfilling and inspiring both as a poet and as a facilitator.

The award-winning The Library Is Open! Drag Queen Poems event, that began when I heard the poet Iain Morrison reading an exquisite poem about drag queens and asked him if he’d thought about a more extensive performance project on this subject. We concocted a plan that became a ground-breaking multimedia event featuring Iain and Jean-François Krebs (also known as Wanda Isadora de Fourrure).

International festivals and projects via partners such as Literature Across Frontiers, Literary Europe Live and the British Council that have brought me to places as far flung as Montreal, Riga, St Petersburg and Moscow, Malta, Barcelona, Berlin and The Hague.

It is difficult leaving families and places one loves. I left America to come to Scotland, and leaving the Library feels a little like leaving home. It was so amazing for me as a poet to be in a literary centre, to host and interview poets from around the world and to be reminded every day that people do love poetry, but I will be just down the street in my new role where I will be carry with me so much that I have learned about sharing a love for creativity and learning. I hope to still have plenty of time to concentrate on my own literary career, and am excited to share with you the news that I have a new collection scheduled to be published by Shearsman Books in Spring 2017, and I have written the libretto for an opera that will debut in London in Spring 2017 (for more details and to book tickets, please see www.theoperastory.com).

In parting, I’d like to repeat my thanks, and to encourage you, as your heart wishes, to continue to read poetry, write poetry, and to support the Scottish Poetry Library and all the vital literary and arts institutions that work to encourage communication and empathy between human beings, both much needed in our world. I will leave you with a few lines of poetry from another of my favourite poets, C. P. Cavafy, who knew much of longing, and journeys, and how to observe the richness of a dreaming life:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

from Ithaka by C. P. Cavafy, translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard