Where to begin? The list is tantalising but for purely personal reasons Kate Tough catches the eye and the ear with a poem that turns a cleverly crafted marketing slogan into pulverising evidence for the prosecution.
Here’s an unflinching account of Glasgow’s past disgrace and present self-abuse.
What we murdered them for
we kill ourselves with.
The whip’s crack
comes a little after
the whip’s stroke.
People Made Glasgow is one of twenty poems in the newly published Best Scottish Poems 2016, the Scottish Poetry Library annual online anthology now in its 13th year. This time the editor is Catherine Lockerbie, former director of Edinburgh International Book Festival, and she describes her task as impossible. In the end, she says, it came down to a personal choice of poetry ‘which does what all excellent poetry must do…speak strongly to the heart, whisper softly to the soul, engage the mind, startle and seduce, stir deep emotion, set the world in a new light.’
You might say Kate Tough both startles and stirs, and shines a new light with a contrarian view of the famously friendly city. The poet describes herself as ‘a resident native who senses Glasgow’s contradictions’ and you can hear the mournful anger in the recorded reading of her work. Saddest of all perhaps the mother’s Bank Holiday words overheard in a checkout queue.
Ah hate bank holidays cuz it means
Ah huftae look at youse fir three days no two.
Merchant City ghosts
A disclaimer and digression. The poem’s title caught my eye because my work in Glasgow often involves taking the view from the glossy side of that crowd-sourced slogan (as branding goes it certainly beats Edinburgh’s ‘Inspiring Capital’). Unlike Liverpool, Glasgow has built no museum to slavery but from my own experience it’s not quite accurate to say the city ignores its dark history.
The Merchant City was built on the proceeds of trade in tobacco and sugar from slave plantations and there are creative and often poetic attempts to confront that reality. (Empire Café seized the opportunity of the Commonwealth Games to explore Scotland’s links with the slave trade through music, poetry, theatre, food and drink in 2014. Merchant City Voices, commissioned by Glasgow City Council, still tell the story in a discreet soundscape of electronic installations. I am involved in collaborative projects, tracing the links on audio trails and storytelling. And Sceptical Scot can vouch for international interest in the work of historian Stephen Mullen, author of It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery, whose article ‘The myth of Scottish slaves’ is consistently one of the most popular reads on this site).
However, Kate Tough’s poem has the power to make me look and listen again.
Brutalised Africans made Glasgow
amazing disgrace, how sweet
the civic amnesia…
‘Amazing disgrace’ is no idle phrase. As Catherine Lockerbie says, poems which need footnotes do not always appeal, adding ‘and this poem does not necessarily need them – though I was astonished and ashamed that I did not know ‘Amazing Grace’ was written by a former slave-trader.’
Who knows? Try Wikipedia – John Newton slave trader became a devout Christian and eventually a clergyman after calling for God’s help in a storm at sea in 1748 though he kept on trading until 1755. Amazing Grace was published in 1779.
Deservedly voted ‘world’s friendliest city’ by Rough Guide travellers; yet we can struggle to nurture ourselves and each other (domestic violence spiking after Old Firm matches).
Kate Tough’s notes are almost as compelling as her poem, tracking her personal responses to conflicts and contradictions built into the ‘world’s friendliest city’. Her poetic premise is courageous and painful: ‘Glasgow, the only Atlantic trading city without a memorial to its brutal past’, is suffering ‘a contemporary sickness which has its roots in unaddressed wrongs’.
Best Scottish Poems 2016 is available online, celebrating a bewildering range of talent and the wealth of multifaceted complexities in a small country. Read and listen to the full anthology.
by Katie Ailes
by James Aitchison
Catalogue of my grandmother’s sayings
by Claire Askew
Aig Cladh Hallain/At Hallan Cemetery
by Angus Peter Campbell
Don’t Hesitate To Ask
by Michel Faber
The Narcissist and The Light Stasher
by Jenni Fagan
Physics For The Unwary Student
by Pippa Goldschmidt
by Andy Jackson
This Is It
by William Letford
by Pippa Little
In the Mid-Midwinter
by Liz Lochhead
The Conversion of Sheep
by Hugh McMillan
‘We used to think the universe was made…’
by J.O. Morgan
What Not to Write on the Back Jacket of Your Debut Collection
by Helena Nelson
by Stuart A. Paterson
by Tom Pow
by Alison Prince
A Poem Before Breakfast
by Em Strang
What Is It Like To Be A Herring Gull?
by Sam Tongue
People Made Glasgow
by Kate Tough