12th November 2018
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Books: These Islands, We Sing

A new collection of poetry from Scotland’s islands has just been launched, and many of Shetland’s best writers are included in the book. Jordan Ogg meets the editor, Kevin MacNeil, to discuss his thoughts on the collection.

Kevin MacNeil is in jubilant mood when we meet in Islesburgh at the end of this year’s Wordplay festival.

In the company of Shetland poets Alex Cluness, Roseanne Watt and Lise Sinclair, he has just finished launching These Islands We Sing, a landmark anthology that brings together some of the finest modern poetry from Scotland’s three island groups: Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.

As the book’s editor MacNeil knows well that this is a significant moment for Shetland literature. So too, I suspect, do the many local poets in the audience, several of whom have work featured in the new collection.

For some years now, MacNeil has enjoyed a connection with Shetland. He first visited for Wordplay in 2007 on the back of his cult novel The Stornoway Way, returned in 2008 as Shetland Arts writer in residence, then spent a year living and writing from a cottage in Cunningburgh.

During this time, MacNeil became acquainted with Shetland’s literature and the effect was like that of spell; a poetic potion cast itself over the Lewis-born author, instilling a deep respect for the isles’ literary tradition.

Such feelings are clear from the introduction to the new anthology, where MacNeil writes: “Living in Shetland was an edifying experience. I saw similarities to my home island of Lewis, but I also felt the cultural differences keenly, and had to make an active effort to tune in to the native tongue as both listener and reader”.

This experienced proved worthwhile, for when tasked with editing the book – the first of its kind to collect poetry from all of Scotland’s islands – MacNeil’s local understanding, along with a deep knowledge of Gaelic literature, informed a clear sense of duty toward selecting what to include in the volume.

Shetland has done particularly well in this regard. “Fully one third of the poets represented in the book – i.e. about 20 out of 60 – have a connection with Shetland, which is extraordinary”, MacNeil explains when I ask how it feels to be back for the launch (some weeks earlier, the book had a glittering reception in Edinburgh). Many of these twenty poets are older, more established, figures – T.A Robertson (Vagaland), Lollie Graham, William J. Tait, etc. – while others, such as Jim Mainland, Lise Sinclair and Mark Ryan Smith, are more recent arrivals.

Ensuring a broad coverage was fundamental to MacNeil’s project. “The point I was trying to raise is that the quality of poetry created in the Scottish islands is disproportionately high”, he explains, before listing some of the other poets featured in the anthology: “Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown, Robert Alan Jamieson, Ian Chrichton Smith, Jen Hadfield, Christine De Luca, Laureen Johnson, Stella Sutherland – many, many great names – but sometimes names of poets who are under-appreciated in the wider North West European context.”

For MacNeil this as an unjust and unrepresentative situation, borne partly from the social conditions of island life: “As islanders, by nature we’re quite self deprecating. Were not good at putting ourselves forward . . . Whereas actually, some poets get on well not because they have the most eloquent voice, but because they have the loudest voice.”

As the title implies, MacNeil hopes that this book will allow the marginalised voice of the island poet to sing. He wants readers to engage with a new way of understanding the poetic landscape, both from a perspective particular to each island, and in the national conception of what Scotland’s literature is taken to be.

I ask if part of the problem might be down to a sense of elitism that hangs over all types of so called “literary poetry”, whether created by an island writer or otherwise. MacNeil smiles wryly, before replying: “Some poetry has this strange image as being something very pretentious, or abstract, or difficult”. But this need not be the case: “Poetry can either add meaning to your idea of what life is, or it can intensify your very experience of life”, he says. “Or it can simply give you a bit of enjoyment, put a smile on your face, because poetry is like life – it is very, very diverse.”

This diversity informs MacNeil’s belief that there is at least one poet out there who even the most intimidated reader will love, whether that be an Orcadian encountering Aonghas MacNeacail’s translated Gaelic verse for the first time, or a Western-Islander being introduced to Rhoda Bulter’s Shetland dialect poetry.

Furthermore, by nurturing a relationship with poetry, MacNeil feels that new readers are likely to start experimenting with their own poetic voice: “Once you start reading . . . finding the poetic voices you like, then you can start writing poetry . . . and again, there’s no magic involved – if I can be a poet, then anyone can. It just takes a little bit of learning the skills, and then you can find that it’s a very worthwhile thing to do.”

These Islands, We Sing: An Anthology of Scottish Island Poetry is published in hardback by Polygon, priced £14.99.