Coronavirus: Bringing poets together to share a 'storm of emotions'

By Giancarlo Rinaldi
South Scotland reporter, BBC Scotland news website

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image copyrightHugh McMillan

It might appear to be a pursuit perfectly suited to the lockdown age, but a south of Scotland poet has been using the time of social isolation to bring fellow writers - from across the country and beyond - together to perform their work online.

More than a month ago, Dumfries-based Hugh McMillan started writing on his blog about poems and poets he liked.

It quickly expanded as he tried to "rustle up some favours" from others to perform their "poems from the backroom".

"I was very surprised how keen folk were to record themselves in lockdown," he said.

"And though there have been many technical challenges, I'm very pleased with the way the project is working."

'I'm a lot less restless'

One of those taking part - from hundreds of miles away - is Donald Murray. Originally from the Isle of Lewis, he now lives in Shetland.

"Despite my reluctance to engage with technology, I was very happy to get involved with Hugh's idea," he said.

Mr Murray said the lockdown had also allowed him - or perhaps forced him - to concentrate on his work.

"I must confess I'm a lot less restless as a result of the coronavirus," he said.

image copyrightSandie Maciver

"I'm an extrovert - in a lot of ways.

"I have no choice, however, but to get down and write at the moment. It removes the temptation to do other things.

"This is especially true in Shetland which - in percentage terms - has been the worst affected area in Scotland."

Another poet involved is Glasgow-based Magi Gibson, originally from Kilsyth.

She co-edits the magazine The Poets' Republic with Mr McMillan, and said she was happy to be involved with any of his "madcap ideas".

image copyrightMagi Gibson

Ms Gibson, who lives with her husband, comedy novelist Ian Macpherson, said that coronavirus had not had a huge effect on some parts of their lives.

"We write daytime at home in separate rooms, so lockdown hasn't been much change," she explained.

However, it has had an impact on promotional events and she has been missing her family and getting out to poetry readings.

As a result, she has welcomed the online gathering created by Mr McMillan.

"I've only just in the past few days turned to coronavirus/lockdown as a theme as I've been working on my collection," she said.

"I always write about what's going on around me, and I'm often political, so it's inevitable these themes - and political anger, I imagine - will seep into my writing over the coming year."

image copyrightBrian Johnstone

Brian Johnstone from Edinburgh, who has lived near St Andrews for many years, has been using the time in lockdown to work on a memoir as well as sharing his poetry.

"I've been amazed by the burgeoning of poems posted on social media and have been taking part in various other online initiatives to spread poetry - and art work in general - around," he said.

"I think people find the concision and precise observation of poetry something they can hold on to at these often stressful times."

Mr McMillan said that as well as allowing the poets to express themselves, the work has also been of interest outside the writing community.

"I know of very many people who look forward not just to this blog - which I think is unique in its form and scope - but others like it," he said.

"Poetry is singular in cutting to the chase: saying the things that make people think, feel and empathise."

'It calms us'

That is a view echoed by Ms Gibson, who has regularly spoken about how people tend to say: "Poetry's not for me."

"Then, when a crisis hits, they do turn to poetry, for comfort, for words that soothe, that untangle and perhaps express the storm of emotions they're overwhelmed by," she added.

"A poem might be a temporary escape hatch, a return ticket to a time or place of happiness."

Mr Murray said that hearing poets recite their work was something people were hopefully pre-programmed to enjoy, particularly at a time like this.

"We all like to be told stories when we're anxious. It calms us," he said.

"It's why children like their parents to read to them - an instinct that stays with us to the end."