Sally Evans Poetic Adventures in Scotland with Seventy Poems (diehard poetry 2014, e-book: Firewater Press 2013)

by William Bonar

Sally Evans is one of those essential stalwarts who continually build and maintain the support and distribution infrastructure of grassroots poetry. She is a poet, performer, bookseller, publisher, editor (of Poetry Scotland), originator and host of the redoubtable annual Callander Poetry Gathering. Evans is a Welsh poppy amongst the thistles — prolific and vivid. She has produced a quirky, entertaining book, the blurb of which promises to “[spill] the beans on 30 years of life in the poetry community in Scotland.” However, do not expect famous sherrickings, illicit liaisons, tantruming poets or drunken disgrace. Indeed on the final page, Evans offers a disclaimer:

Naturally I have had difficult relationships and indeed disagreements with quite a few people, and, regarding such things as private, I have generally left them out. I do enjoy gossip and I have left it out in the main with some reluctance.Evans cover (1)

So there. The book is structured as a chronological episodic memoir in which specific memories prompt associated poems from the corresponding period and vice versa. The touch is light; it skims rather than delves. Indeed, the tone is almost conversational and can be frustratingly elliptical, as if Evans were talking to an old friend who already knows the background. One example is her sketchy account of her attempt to publish a novel, claimed to be by Charlotte Bronte and previously unpublished. She cites Germaine Greer and Magnus Magnusson as among those who questioned the novel’s provenance and successfully opposed publication. This story is thrown away in a few sentences without any of the colour and rancour that must have been involved. The can of beans remains sealed.

The most disappointing thing here is not the absence of salacious gossip but the tantalising lack of specific evidence for Evans’ assertion that, “male dominance was the rule in poetry” when she arrived in Scotland in 1979 and that this was a consequence of a conspiracy amongst “[…] a strong clique of insiders, exclusive graduates, and others who had no wish to see poetry extended to becoming a province of ordinary people, however well read or able they may be.” Yet Evans later exercises the poets’ prerogative of self-contradiction: “The lively and relatively open poetry community fascinated me (it was to become more open as years went by).” She does cite one piece of evidence of a specific attempt at Stalinist control.

Joy Hendry and Angus Calder had heard I was going to Liverpool and summoned me to an interview in the garden of the Pear Tree Inn, where they grilled me on my suitability to ‘represent’ Scotland at this event [a conference for small press publishers] […] I explained I would be representing myself.

This is an excellent anecdote but it is worth noting that one of these two would-be commissars is a woman. It is also clear that Evans mistook and mistakes Edinburgh for Scotland and sees Scotland through Edinburgh spectacles. Indeed, she also concedes her lack of interest in Glasgow (“I have never been much of a Glasgow person”) and the (post) industrial Central Belt in general, where the vast majority of the (“ordinary”) people of Scotland live and work. The first line of her poem ‘Antoni ne Wall’ is: “It scars the dullest part of Scotland”. Her perspective reminds me of a travel programme I once saw in which the RP voice-over told me that “the Forth Road Bridge is where real Scotland begins.”

The fact is that poetry in Scotland in 1979 was male dominated in the sense that, pre-Lochhead, all the major living poets were men and MacDiarmid, the most dominant figure of all, had died only a year or so earlier. In this, poetry in Scotland was no different from poetry elsewhere, just as poetry was no different from any other worldly endeavour. No doubt there were misguided attempts at “quality control” but, as Liz Lochhead’s meteoric rise was about to demonstrate, there was no bar on talented women.

So, what of Evans’ poetry as represented here by 70 poems written across the 30+ year time-span of her life in Scotland so far? Among the best is ‘I am Thinking’:

how the hills
made of substance
threw forth gravel, stone
and allowed grass
I am thinking
on a village seat
made by others
watching the gravel
waiting for no bus.

There is a radiant heat and peace here, each line slotting quietly into place with enough surprise in phrases like “allowed grass” and “waiting for no bus” to freshen the simple diction without disrupting the meditative mood. Evans claims Hardy and Lawrence as her prime influences and there is something of Lawrence’s snake and of his hushed classroom in this poem.

Evans records that it was her reading of Scottish poets on coming to Scotland that prompted her return to writing her own poetry. It is clear that she is an attentive close reader of poetry and those poems in the book that pay tribute to other poets are the most consistently strong. She reports devouring Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, Sorley Maclean (in translation, most likely the work of Iain Crichton Smith), Hamish Henderson, Edwin Muir, Robert Henryson and Robert Fergusson. Curiously there is no mention of Burns or (Edinburgh specs?) George Mackay Brown, Tom Leonard or W.S. Graham. Edwin Morgan is not mentioned until late in the book but he does rate a tribute poem, ‘In This Life’. Other poets she writes well about include Adrian Mitchell, Basil Bunting, Hamish Henderson and Allen Ginsberg. It is perhaps worth noting that all of these poets are men; if Evans was reading women poets, Scottish or otherwise, living or dead, she does not mention it and she certainly does not accord any woman a tribute poem in this book.

‘On Edwin Muir’s The Grove’ is her tribute to Muir, which prompts a deserved return to the man’s work. Muir died in the mid-1950’s and is somewhat neglected now. In terms of poetic form, he was perhaps the most conservative of Scottish 20th century renaissance poets, but his exploration of psychology and his translation (with his wife, Willa) of Kafka’s major works marks him as an important figure in Modern literature.

‘Talk Out’ is a likable, linguistically inventive poem describing the frustration of being trapped with young children. My favourite poem in the book is Evans’ gentle satire on Gaelic poetry in translation, ‘Translation of a Non-existent Gaelic Poem’ which deserves to be read aloud in a cod-Hebridean accent:

It was my expectation
you would listen to my poem’s music,
that is why I wrote the bloody thing.

‘End of The Sixties’ captures the narcissism of the 60’s generation, although I am not sure this is the poet’s intention.

Evans goes off the boil when she remains grounded in mere description (e.g. ‘Bonspiel’, ‘The Hazel Thicket filled with Wrens’, ‘1993: Girvan’s New Lifeboat’) or when she reaches too far and lapses into turgid diction such as in ‘Meeting the Ploughman’: “He has ploughed / tremendous meagre acres, where my path / treks up and down […].”

Evans celebrates the democratising and educational effects of the internet, which has revolutionised poetry networking and publishing.

The internet had begun vastly improving poetry networks by around 2000. […] I’d met [Gary Blankenship] through Jim Bennett’s email list The Poetry Kit (and I now enjoy keeping up with him on Facebook). Through these email lists I learnt about revising poems, and about forms, especially haiku and related forms, and collaboratively written poems.

With this in mind, Evans looks forward to an ever improving world of literature.

Literature just gets better and better with the internet. No writer need be isolated. We can publish, we can confer at all levels day or night with other writers, discovering friends with the same interests or different outlooks. We have everything to gain from e-publishing, and everything to retain from traditional books, which we can write, print, make beautiful, collect and buy. We can have far more friends than was ever thought possible before, and that perhaps is what literature was always about.

It is not clear how the internet does or will make literature better. Surely literature changes through time, each generation reacting against what has gone before, without ever erasing the best? Perhaps this is not what Evans means and she is really talking about writing as an activity which is shared with others and that she mistakes this for ‘Literature’. ‘Literature’, like all art forms, cannot be prescribed; it is recognised, sometimes at first only by a perceptive few. Most of the writing that appears on the internet is not ‘Literature’, how could it be? Most of what has been published throughout the ages is not ‘Literature’ either. But she is right about the proliferation of writing and its sharing and the opportunities this opens for writers of all genders, races and creeds, genres and interests to learn and develop. May a thousand flowers bloom, the bonniest will always be so.