|Life and Work
Notes on On the flyleaf by Angus Reid
Life and Work
I was born in Kirkcaldy in 1960, went to school there and in Edinburgh, then studied French and German at Aberdeen University, and Theatre Studies at University College Cardiff. In Wales I worked with various touring theatre companies, returning to Scotland in 1990. I worked for some years in art galleries, on the 1995 reading campaign Readiscovery, and from 1996 to 2004 at the Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh. As SPL Fieldworker I drove the library van to schools, libraries, community halls and prisons across Scotland, lending books and running workshops. With Alec Finlay I established and ran pocketbooks, an award-winning series of books of poetry and visual art (1999-2002), and was a director of platform projects, its successor company, until 2006. Since 2004 I've worked freelance, as a poet, editor, translator and writing tutor. I live in Edinburgh and have two teenage daughters.
As a poet I've written a lot about places, both in Scotland and abroad. The 'flyleaf' poems focus on particular books, looking content, the circumstances of reading, and other associations they bring to mind. My collaborations with Alec Finlay have led me to work with particular forms, especially mesostic poems, 'football haiku' (three-word poems), and the short linked verses of communal 'renga' events. A residency at the John Murray Archive, National Library of Scotland developed my interest in alphabet and found poems.
As a translator from German I've worked on poems by classic authors such as Goethe, Fontane and Celan, as well as contemporary poets such as Arne Rautenberg, Christine Marendon, Thomas Brasch and Thomas Rosenlöcher.
I was awarded Scottish Arts Council Writers' Bursaries in 1996 and 2005, and the Arts Foundation Fellowship for Literary Translation 2008. In 2010 Alec Finlay and I received a Creative Scotland Vital Spark award for the collaborative project The Road North.
At school, and more so at university, I got turned on to literature, both in and out of the classroom, but had to emerge from formal education before I could find a space for writing myself. The impulse was a couple of unhappy love affairs, which is why I’ve written very few love poems, identifying with Orpheus for whom the death of love was the birth of poetry.
I’ve never been very good at making things up, which is maybe why I prefer writing poems to writing stories, and why the poems are based on actual events, or dreams and myths, or are simply ‘found’. I like the idea that poems exist already in the world in a ‘raw’ state, and the role of the poet is to reveal them. I’m also taken with the idea of recurrence, that things which have happened once will come round again, which ties in with this kind of of recycling, whether it’s using a story which has already been beautifully realised as piece of literature, something overheard or misheard, or even a bad translation from another language, as with the Lorca ‘flower’.
Ken Cockburn, in Dream State (2002)
Notes on On the flyleaf by Angus Reid
You put the Triduana poem first, as though it has a special importance. I like the extended free-verse feel to it, and as the first one, it casts a shadow over the others. Despite reformation, neglect and healthandsafety it appears that you go there to seek her intercession. This appears to be the anticipated event that the book awaits. This is frequently the manner in which you recount encounters with place in the first part, where the poems more or less all deal with place. And it sets up some imagery that resonates through the book, particularly the restoring, healing, spiritually nourishing qualities of natural water.
The end of that poem is very good: no chance to test, but wishes admitted. It feels appropriate and true, and it sets up the threshold between you and the miracle that’s often your real subject. The art is going to be how you negotiate the threshold.
‘Housesitting’ is good as a second poem because it’s about a definition of poetry such as you will practise in the book, and it defines the voice of that loose prose-iness with which you often proceed through a poem against the austere economy of all that a poem needs to be. Of course, poetry here is used only as a metaphor for the way you sometimes think about it poetry itself is of course much bigger than mere minimalist living spaces. But that push towards minimal expression is something that you refine really well in the first half.
I was charmed by the ‘Analogue Greys’ haiku effortless bits of imagism. There is no straining, no need for a voice. They are entirely immanent. Knowing the renga deal as I do I recognise them as the fruit of experience, and fruit they are. It is striking to be confronted by the pure images alongside the nearly eventless narrative of an encounter with a place in poems like ‘Fynnon Fair’ or ‘Moel Ty Uchaf’. Something spiritual, rewarding and refreshing is going on. The dip into language really is ‘an emptiness/I drink from’. I am amazed how you can continue to spin out that sense of language as refreshing emptiness through the first section. That delicacy is important.
By contrast,‘Long Grassses’ stands out as a convincingly well-sustained note within which the water image appears, burgeons and transforms, to be identified as love and understood and dealt with. Your whole approach to writing somehow blossoms in the effortlessly well-placed petals of that unrequited bouquet.
All these are fascinating well-wrought contemporary poems, different stones set in a special ring. They’re doing what poetry should they indicate a mystery, they create the world in words, and they have great memorable lines. And you persuade me that the ability to live as a poet, to render and live ones life poetically is being nurtured elsewhere as well. The light touch really works in poems like ‘Tint’, ‘Kingfisher’, ‘Service Station’, ‘Shandwick Stone’, ‘Polytheron’ and ‘Hick’. Here and there I might pick, but in that sensibility of lightness and easy writing you are touching tons of things like a sort of maestro watercolourist sex, nature’s alacrity, landscape, writing, tourism… These are your real haikus, compressions of experience into words in a form that is rootedly ours, and each a small movement exercising the same sensibility that invokes the reality of intercession, be it wordy, worldly, other-worldly, or all at once.
At this point I’m excited by the book and the breadth it offers within very exact but apparently effortless writing (very nice how understated the disciplined 10 syllable line is in ‘Long Grasses’, by the way). I trawl through the words and titles and the one that stands out to me is ‘Tint’. That seems to me to be potentially a very good title for the book as a whole. It’s surprising, positive, minimal, definite. All it needs to be. A good way to sum up the certainties that your minimalism accomplishes.
This book has come out of a traumatic period in your life... how great to produce from that whole period of pain and self-doubt and difficulty something that is very unmuddled, clear and sharp. That would be an excellent message about the value of art. About the value of the art one sticks to anyway, through everything. No sour grapes, no self doubt, no self pity. No going through the motions. No dutiful this or that. Just… fresh air.
It also invites a discipline, because rather than be a rattlebag full of stuff, it’s the articulation of something precise. I mean, you don’t just want to include a cross-section of everything you’ve been writing. Who cares! There’s no marks for effort! You want to give them a distinct experience of your poetic gift.
‘tint’ certainly sets up some nice resonances, particularly if you end with the Yves Klein poem which would somehow tie the flyleaf experiment back into the tint sensibility. And there’s also ‘Advent’ where you talk about pink. The sense of something suffusing the world.
So I see it as tint poems and fly-leaves, fly-leaves including the homage to Gael Turnbull. I think this, your second, book, must display craft, well-made poems, and so the tint sensibility, and the flyleaves sequence make a sturdy structure. Very readable and thorough. It’s OK to put the Gael Turnbull one first in the second section, its touching and a thorough attempt, and by putting that in the middle you are making a great homage to him as a poet by surrounding it with your most achieved poems.
The oblique angle (flyleaves) is part of the statement of the book to have constructed an oblique angle is the craft and it gives you all the poetry. So the ‘Submariner’ fly-leaf poem says everything about origins and growing up and Fife and becoming a poet. It’s a fascinating thing, superheroes, powers, death and all that.
Angus Reid, on the first typescript of On the flyleaf (February 2007)
On the Fly Leaf (Luath, 2007)
"I’ve found my self quite bowled over by it. Partly because I simply didn’t know what to expect. But partly too and after admiring how beautifully it is produced for its individuality. Whereas so many of the books cascading from my shelves, though enjoyable, are virtually interchangable. From the outset, I find the poems, their ingredients and flavour, and your meticulous joy with words, a delight. Quite a number I found at first glance and am still finding enigmatic. But in a way which rather than creating barriers, whets my appetite. And imbues the collection as a whole, for me, with something of a sense of mystery. What I can unhesitatingly respond to is the flow of feeling eg the Untitled poem, and what it is saying and that lovely last line. And I find 'Polytheron' quite magical."
Stewart Conn (unpublished letter, February 2008)
"Ken Cockburn is becoming a better, more accomplished and wider-ranging poet with every volume he publishes. His fascination for taking incidental detail that reveals a deeper truth is just as apparent here as in his earlier work but there is a greater technical range and, in places, a new lyricism which offsets the sometimes demanding nature of his intellect. On the flyleaf presents poems which you can simply enjoy and those that are more demanding (a fair share of the volume) make you want to burrow down into the references to reveal resonances that open up fresh views onto the physical, psychological and intellectual world around us. Always happy to experiment but never fatuously so, Cockburn’s work loves languages and the geographical space they occupy in the world and in the mind. Shifting in and out of French and German, aluuding to Goethe or Ovid, any sense of pretentiousness is quickly offset by the poet’s personal transparency and intellectual rigour."
John Hudson, Markings, no.26 (2008)
"On the flyleaf, the second collection by Scottish poet Ken cockburn, is divided into two sections. The first contains a generous helping of blank-into-free verse poems, sustaining an attractive (slightly louche) tone through which the temporal and literary are intertwined, nowhere better than in 'Housesitting'"
Contained, considered, no excess, a kind
of poem, our small flat herereplaced
by spacious there, a kind of novel,
rambling, inventive, unfinished [...]
Cockburn reserves for the second section his first inkling of a project in which eighteen books, ranging from Stendhal's La Chartreuse de Parme to Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger, have a poem specifically written for their flyleaves. Despite the slightly remorseless nature of this idea, it is enacted energetically. At their best, as in 'On the fly leaf of a 1964 edition of Brecht’s poems' the poems combine spareness with stark wit.
Tim Liardet, in Poetry Review, Volume 98, No 2, Summer 2008
"L’observation quotidienne, discrètement autobiographique, s’y marie au naturel avec références culturelles et se faire partager une découverte du monde sensible et intellectuelle, voire raffinée, dans un optimisme serein."
[“Everyday observations, discreetly autobiographical, are seamlessly connected to cultural reference-points, enabling the reader to participate in a discovery of the world that is sensitive and intellectual, indeed refined, with a serene optimism.”
Philippe Démeron, Les Citadelles, no. 13 (2008)
Souvenirs and Homelands (Scottish Cultural Press, 1998)
"...it is refreshing to read contemporary poetry of such rare grace and compassion... a welcome contribution to the literature of our nomadic century."
Tom Hubbard, in Fife Lines, 1999
"One of the principal strengths of Cockburn's poetry is its exploration of the life that is contained in seemingly trivial, small or uneventful moments. The result is gentle, meditative poetry that is occasionally opaque but often subtly powerful."
Alan Rawes, in Scottish Literary Journal, 1999
"Cockburn treats his language, culture and the fabric of his daily life in the context of a European culture with a long history and that can only be applauded."
John Hudson, in Markings, 1999
"...he tries to make each poem new, a difficult task that he more-often-than-not pulls off. His poems... bang home with integrity and inventiveness."
Andy Brown, in Orbis, 1998