A relaxed and happy smile on her face, the poet, publisher, blogger, and editor sits at the head of the room, and tells us of the chickens she left at home in Callander tonight to come and read to us. She brought with her instead, however, a number of friends who assist with these readings, and a broad range of texts that provide them: collections of her own poetry, books she has helped into publication, and a variety of past issues of her long-running broadsheet magazine Poetry Scotland.
What strikes you immediately about Sally is just this: the variety that issues from and gathers round her in her life and work. Her readings over the course of the evening encompass haiku sequences, free verse, and a series of intricate sestinas, on topics ranging from meeting Travelling People, to visiting Buckingham Palace, to revisiting her old childhood home. ‘If your subject is worth scrutinising, nothing will scrutinise it so well as a sestina’ she tells us, and indeed there are few topics over the course of the evening that are left untouched by the humorous, inquisitive scrutiny present in her poetry.
Sally spent the first thirty-five years of her life in England, and the second thirty-five in Scotland. ‘I threw in my lot with Scotland’, she tells us, intimations of the original risk mingling now with a rewarded pride, and ever since she moved she has done everything she can to advance the country’s literary publications and consciousness. She started Poetic Scotland in 1997, at a time when it was almost impossible to be published unless you were a man writing in Glasgow or Edinburgh. ‘Outsiders weren’t getting heard’, she tells us: ‘with Poetic Scotland, we were out to reform. We were out to do things that nobody was letting us do’. This playful defiance of the establishment, and of established modes of expression, surfaces throughout the evening, and seems to be based in a fierce personal belief in the value of curiosity, and a genuine desire to connect with others through her work.
Poetic Scotland is planned to have a hundred issues, ‘but I can be as slow as I like getting there’ Sally jokes. She is working now also on her new blogzine ‘Keep Poetry Alive’, another response to the shortfalls of the establishment and publishing industry. The blogzine features poems published three or more years ago, republishing them so that they’re not forgotten – a perpetual risk due to the number and pace of poetry publications now in print and online. ‘The Internet is a wonderful thing for poetry,’ Sally believes, however, and certain digital details in her works, tales of computers in crofts and cryptic emails away from home, show that her desire to embrace any potentially useful medium for the dissemination of poetry has kept up with the years’ advances in technology.
Commemoration and ‘keeping alive’ seems to be an act of key importance not only in Sally’s publishing practice, but also in her poems, many of which revolve around memory and an inspection of time. ‘Time is a river and this tributary of the river had a pool’, the speaker tells us in ‘In Her Father’s Study’, inspired by the previously mentioned trip Sally took to her childhood home. ‘I stood breathing memories and understanding change’, the speaker continues, and this kind of meditative inspection is the force that most frequently animates Sally’s poems, whatever their form, and whatever their setting.
Corresponding with the physical movements of her life, Sally’s poetry explores a variety of physical settings, and investigates the different accents, dialects, and languages associated with each. Her poems include snippets of Welsh, hints of regional accents, and passages of broad Scots. Sally has also had ‘skirmishes’ with Gaelic, she says, translating Sorley MacLean and Christopher Whyte, and even writing a poem about the experience called ‘Translation of a Non-Existent Gaelic Poem’. The work is a ‘mickey-take’, she tells us, ‘but you can only take the mickey out of something you love.’
As the evening draws to a close, then, it is a sense of this love, of Sally’s genuine belief in the value of poetry that prevails. ‘It all matters,’ she tells us: ‘whatever is said in the pubs, written in the bedrooms. It isn’t always very good, but it all matters, and as poets it’s our duty to listen to it.’ This belief in listening, in curiosity, in adventure and discovery, is present in all of her works, and imbues them with an earnest, life-affirming force.
Adventure implies in its essence, however, not just an outward journey on which knowledge is gained, but also a homeward return in which it is shared – with family, and friends, and the self. The warm, humorous, and tirelessly inquisitive self that is present in Sally’s poems is what unites them, despite their variety of registers, subjects, and settings. ‘Wherever I go, I find corners of my own life, no one else’s’ one poem’s speaker tells us; and, despite the vastness of her ventures, across languages and subjects and physical spaces, there is with Sally always a return: to friendship, and poetry; to language, and words, her ‘first and last friends’.