We were lucky to speak with Rachael Boast, one of the editors behind The Caught Habits of Language, an anthology in celebration of poet WS Graham. An event with contributors Ian Duhig, Emily Critchley and Denise Riley is at the festival on Friday 4 May, Northern Stage, 14.30-15.45.
What inspired you to put the anthology together?
Andy Ching and Nathan Hamilton have long been fans of W.S Graham, while I came a little later to his work. For some reason I’d been deliberately putting it off, waiting for the right introduction, as it were. In early 2014 Andy began some voluntary work for Graham’s daughter, Rosalind, who had recently inherited her father’s estate. Andy discovered a manuscript copy of W.S Graham’s then unpublished poem ‘An Entertainment for W.S. Graham for Him Having Reached Sixty-five’ in the estate archive, which he’d begun cataloguing. The poem was a wonderful find. As he continued work, and I joined him, we began to uncover many other poems. We were already planning for Graham’s centenary year, and the idea of an anthology began to take shape. We were aware there are many fantastic poets who are quiet Graham fans, in the UK and abroad, so we suspected we wouldn’t have a problem gathering poems for inclusion. Eventually Andy, Nathan and I settled on the idea of 100 poems for 100 years, with Graham (through his own poems) joining the party.
What does the work of W.S. Graham mean to you?
He’s a great Scottish makar. Everything he did had some sort of artistic rationale behind it. One aspect of Graham’s work I keep coming back to is how the poems themselves have a distinctly inclusive quality to them – whether through his use of direct address to the reader, or simply in terms of his attitude to everything and everyone he encountered. I like it when an artist says their job is ‘love imagined into words’. An empathetic tone is there throughout his work. He even loves his difficulties: ‘Come bonny friendly beasts…’
There are lots of wonderful contributors in the book. What was your selection process for the anthology?
Firstly, we had to make a selection from the unpublished Graham material which had been (and continues to be) discovered in various archives over the past few years. We always had to bear in mind what Graham chose to publish during his lifetime and respect his high standards. We also tracked down and considered a large number of previously published tribute poems written for Graham by friends and colleagues.
We were lucky to receive a grant from Creative Scotland, which meant we had funds to commission work from a few poets we felt sure would produce interesting poems. Some we knew were admirers of Graham, though I was also keen that those who might not know Graham’s work, well or at all, might be prompted to read or re-read him. Andy, Nathan and I each commissioned poems, which meant we received a fantastic range of work.
Lastly, we advertised an open invitation to potential contributors last autumn. A hundred and forty-five poems arrived in the project inbox and, whilst we had to make a very tight selection from these, we were happy to discover a high number of very fine poems, some coming from unexpected quarters. There was an array of excellent authors I would love to have included but there just wasn’t room. It’s a pity it wasn’t Graham’s 150th!
How do the poems in the anthology pay tribute to WS Graham’s life and poetry? (i.e. thematic content, etc)
Many of the poems are Graham-esque in some way or another; thematically or in terms of syntactical innovation, or in their use of quotation to underscore the poems, but there are many that don’t shout ‘Graham’. Ian Duhig’s poem ‘Glass Words’ is interesting in a number of number of ways. For example, the title of the first section is taken from Graham’s poem ‘Imagine a Forest’ which harks back to the Scottish Border Ballads. Ian’s poem is a ballad which raises a glass to Graham and recalls the latter’s Irish ancestry, and the historic troubles of that country. We love the poem and were happy to sequence it next to a ballad of Graham’s, which also hints at the repression of Irish republicans by the Black and Tans. We’re glad the anthology as a whole isn’t only made up of obvious tribute poems and that, broadly, the work isn’t too imitative of Graham.
Which poems in the anthology stand out for you? (if you want to answer this one!)
Andy, Nathan and myself have a very happy attachment to all of them! They all bring something unique and brilliant.
What are your plans for the book?
There’ll be quite a few reading events across the UK throughout the centenary year, culminating in a big birthday bash on November 17th at the Beacon Arts Centre, on the Custom House Quay in Greenock – Graham’s hometown – on the weekend before the actual centenary. This will include a talk by W.N. Herbert and readings from many fine poets – some local to Greenock. We’re hoping this will be a big community event, taking Graham home and raising a few glasses to him.
Previously unseen Graham poems from the anthology, along with artwork from the estate archives, have already appeared in the January issue of Poetry (in the USA), in the TLS and The Poetry Review, which we were thrilled about, and the first review of the book recently appeared in Scotland on Sunday. A couple of the recently-discovered Graham poems were broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb, in March, in front of a live audience in St Ives. There are many other centenary activities and publications lined up for 2018. What’s most encouraging is the excitement the centenary is whipping up, with many people re-engaging with, or discovering, Graham’s remarkable gift and formulating their own ideas for appropriate centenary celebrations. The more the merrier I say! I’m enjoying the idea of a party that lasts an entire year…