Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Another conversation with Stephen Nelson

stephen nelson

Dialect words are those terrible marks of the beast to the truly genteel – Thomas Hardy

Like me Stephen Nelson is a Scottish poet although when you look at our bodies of work we’re really very unalike in most ways—Stephen specialises in visual and concrete poetry (which we talked about in our first conversation) whereas I, much as I hate putting labels on what I do, veer towards the anti-poetic—but where we do find common ground is in our attitude towards writing in dialect, specifically (although, in my case, not entirely) in Scots.

Generally-speaking writing in dialect is frowned upon. It’s one of those many rules people try and foist upon us writers like the “cardinal rule of writing fiction”: show, don't tell. I can see why agents and readers turn up their noses; the former find it hard to sell and the latter find it hard to read and we wouldn’t want to make anyone’s life hard, would we? And yet there are writers who doggedly persist both in prose and poetry and I thought I’d see where Stephen’s experiences dovetailed with my own.

I’m just about to bring out a collection of short stories including four in dialect and I’ve just posted a review of Stephen’s poetry collection Lunar Poems for New Religions which includes four poems in Scots including the long poem ‘Look Up!’ and that seemed as good a place to start as any. A twelve-line poem is one thing; forty pages is something else.


JIM: So, Stephen, why did you choose to write ‘Look Up!’ in Scots?

STEPHEN: The experiences and reflections in LOOK UP! were so personal and close to me, I wanted a language that expressed my voice, those experiences, how I sound, how my family sounds to one another, which really is a mix of dialect and English. There’s an ability to move in and out of various tongues according to circumstance. We’re not bound by English or by regional dialect.  So the poem moves in and out of English and regional sounds, with a smattering of proper Scots.

Also, the text is littered with spiritual speak and hippie philosophy, so I wanted a regional dialect to balance that, perhaps bring all the mystical stuff closer to home, closer to domestic, suburban Scotland. The experiences are pretty off the wall, so an ordinary Scots voice allowed me to ground them and perhaps add a touch of humour—you know, here’s this ordinary Joe (or Jock) having all these weird, mental, mystical, often drug induced psychic encounters and unitive experiences. It’s funny.

JIM: I got the idea that you were going for an everyman here but it’s always a little worrying when accents, especially working class accents, are used because they sound funny. That’s what the BBC used to do. You’d have the newscasters with their Received Pronunciation but if you have a deliveryman he’d be a Cockney or a northerner and it really wasn’t until the fifties with the rise in popularity of kitchen sink dramas that the workingman was given something meaningful to say.

STEPHEN: Well yes, it's worrying if someone is taking the piss out of the accent or demeaning an individual for having that accent. But here the humour lies in the contrast between everyday speech and the language of mystical experience. You can't deny there's a gap there and the bridging of the gap is amusing enough for me, without being in the least bit mocking.

william mcilvanneyJIM: Understood. For my part I’ve always associated accents with honesty. Everyone around me spoke with an accent—be it my parents’ Lancashire twang (which they held onto despite living the majority of their lives in Scotland) or the various Scots accents around me—these were real people, people I could relate to. I’m fond of quoting William McIlvanney here when he said, “Scots is English in its underwear. It's difficult to be pretentious in a language like that.” That’s the thing about working class accents: these belonged to people like me who never pretended to be anything other than what they were and if they did they’d soon get put in their place.

Talking about the voice of the people obviously makes me think of Robert Burns who was definitely a man of the people. Burns was a big thing at my school—I even won a prize for my project on him during Primary Six—but his Scots felt like a foreign language to me and I think that’s why I’ve struggled with the likes of Hugh MacDiarmid and his synthetic Scots. Thoughts?

STEPHEN: Burns is foreign to me, too—well, not foreign, more distant in time. My great grandparents on my mother’s side spoke something closer to Burns’s language, and elements of that have filtered through the generations and been diluted, till now, with my niece and nephew, it seems almost lost. My mother is still a link to old Scots however.

When I started reading poetry again in my late twenties, I went to MacDiarmid, and enjoyed his first book [Annals of the Five Senses], which is very lyrical, although I definitely needed the glossary. I think his project failed in terms of language and literature, but it kick-started a nationalism which might bear fruit if we get independence. Something about his synthetic Scots makes me cringe a little now, although I admire his political aspirations and how he created the language in an attempt to re-establish a true Scottish identity.

JIM: I have to throw my hands up and say I’ve read very little MacDiarmid apart from his most famous poem ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’. He was never taught at school. Apart from Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson (at Primary School) I never read a single Scottish poet until I was working and could afford to buy my own stuff, although I’m pleased to see that things are changing now that pupils sitting Higher English from 2014/15 will have to answer compulsory questions on works by a variety of Scottish authors. Now I think about it I can only remember two novelists we covered, Robert Louis Stevenson again (Kidnapped) in Primary Four and John Buchan (The Watcher by the Threshold) in Second Year at the Academy.

So, if not Burns then, who were the Scottish writers that most influenced you? (I’m thinking here of those who chose to write to some degree in Scots.)

STEPHEN: Well, now we’re getting to writers who reflect a genuine contemporary central belt Scottishness, particularly Glaswegian writers like James Kelman and Tom Leonard. It’s not Scots in any traditional sense, but it’s part of the sound I hear around me. I read Leonard before I started LOOK UP! with a view to allowing something of his sound into the poem, but ultimately I had to reject it because it was too closed, too political, too reflective of a social milieu which wasn’t appropriate to the poem’s concerns with cosmic themes and its links to San Francisco and Manchester drug cultures in the 60s and early 90s. It’s the Glasgow writers I love and admire, though. I can’t say Burns or any traditional Scots writers have influenced me at all, although I have to mention Ian Hamilton Finlay, not in this context for his concrete poetry, but for his early short stories, which are really lovely and gentle, and his first verse collections, The Dancers Inherit the Party and Glasgow Beasts An A Burd, which was written in dialect [in 1961, so he really was a pioneer] and is really lovely. Beyond dialect writers, my main influences are friends and contemporaries like Peter Manson and nick-e melville.

Allotment Fox

see me
wan time
ah wis a fox
an wis ah sleekit! ah
gaed slinkin
an snappin
the blokes
aa sayed ah wis a GREAT fox
aw nae kiddin
ah wis pretty good
had a whole damn wood
in them days

Ian Hamilton Finlay

JIM: Kelman I only came to in the past ten years. William McIlvanney was probably the first writer who used contemporary Scots whose work made me sit up and go, “Oh aye.” Laidlaw was the first of his books that I read. I reread it back in 2009 and realised it’s a far better book than I realised at the time; it was 1977 and I was only eighteen and couldn’t read books fast enough.

Tom Leonard was a big influence on me though. In his poem ‘100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose’ he writes ‘John Menzies doesn’t stock poetry’ and yet the amusing thing is that that’s exactly where I bought my copy of Intimate Voices which, of course, included his famous Glasgow Poems.

Tom Leonard - The Good Thief - from Six Glasgow Poems

That would’ve been about 1984 and it made a big impression on me. In an interview he wrote:

People make the mistake of saying that art should be in the language of communication, but the language of communication is not the language of Art. The language of art is a language in itself, that’s what I believe. So if someone writes in the language of art, it might be in a language that only two thousand people speak, but it’s still universal. The language of art is universal, but it doesn’t have to be a universal language of information: it is universal because it’s about the universal person.

What do you think about this?

STEPHEN: Yes all language can be the language of art, including invented language and pure sound. Glossolalia is art if you find it so, but no one understands it. It can still move you, uplift you, and means something spiritually and psychologically. If you invent the language and no one else speaks it, but you turn it into a poem, something will happen, if the hearer is receptive. Have you heard Jaap Blonk recite Kurt Schwitters? Or Bob Cobbing? Such depth and resonance in a voice, in a sound! And it’s language! Communication. Scots is full of pure sound. Listen to a drunk man in a Glasgow pub on a Saturday night! You won’t have a clue what he’s saying but the sounds from his voice are full of expression. Glaswegian drunks are sound poets!

Blonk performs Ursonate with real-time typography (see essay)

JIM: Ah, now, sound poetry. That’s another form of poetry I struggle with because I’ve never really taken to poetry as performance although I do still to this day remember one of my classmates—a boy called Neil with a particularly gruff accent—standing in front of the class and giving a most impressive (if somewhat aggressive) recitation of ‘Scots Wha Hae’; I’ve never heard it read better. I know Schwitters mostly for his art but I’ve read some of his sound poetry (I suppose that defeats the purpose); Cobbing is just a name to me; Blonk I’d never heard of. But I do see where you’re coming from here. I don’t suppose it’s any different to listening to someone sing in a foreign language. I’ve always been fond of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire which employs the sprechstimme technique which is an expressionist vocal technique between singing and speaking. I don’t really care what the words mean.

Talking about Schoenberg I was interested in what Peter Manson had to say about his own serial poetry.

My accent of spoken English (I come from Glasgow) has twelve vowel and diphthong phonemes, and the poems are written in groups of twelve words, with each of these twelve phonemes being represented exactly once in the main stressed syllable of a word in each group. – A note on serial poetry

[T]he actual structure of the poem only exists when its spoken by somebody who has an accent similar to mine ... [pause] ... So I think there are interesting political consequences of that. The poem in the mouth of an RP [Received Pronunciation] speaker, let's say, the words are the same, but the structure of the poem disappears completely ... 'cause you have a different phonemic structure. – Peter Manson His Lament

Peter MansonThere’re two poems online, ‘Serial Drunken Boat Fragment’ and ‘Campaign for Really Authentic Poetry’ and what I found interesting about these is that he chose not to use an eye dialect when writing. But he is acutely conscious of the sound of the words nevertheless.

Up until this point we’ve focused on Scots but, of course, the world is full of different accents and dialects. Do you not think it strange though that so few people write in dialect bar the Scots? I mean, when was the last work you read in a Yorkshire dialect?

STEPHEN: That could be a political thing, the need to voice an identity normally submerged in another culture. I don’t read too much dialect poetry, but I used to listen to Linton Kwesi Johnson—again that need to free a voice historically suppressed by colonialism.

JIM: I’ve always shied away from any kind of political stance although there are those who would argue—and not unreasonably so—that’s it’s impossible to be Scottish and not be political. I don’t know about you but my hackles rise when someone on TV talks about the UK and calls it England. I’ve no problems with Larkin being called a British poet but Edwin Morgan is a Scottish poet. A few years ago I decided to do an article on dialect and went searching for fellow poets and writers to quiz and was very disappointed to find very few of them. I ended up using the Trinidadian poet, Miguel Browne to make my point although I’ve since discovered the Black Country poet, Liz Berry:

'Birmingham Roller' by Liz Berry (text here)

I’ve also found this site which has a few English dialect poems: A Celebration of English Dialect in England and if you want to hear my parents’ accent try this site: A Collection of Lancashire Dialect Poems, Photographs, Phrases & Sayings from around the Wigan area by Jeff Unsworth and to this day I’m still prone to definite article reduction when I speak (as in the classic ‘Goin’ t’Mill).

That said there are loads of examples of Scottish writers who’ve dabbled with dialect writing.

It might seem to others that those Scots who do write in dialect have a chip on their shoulder and are just making life difficult for their readers. What if the shoe was on the other foot? Here’s a wee passage from my short story ‘Monsters’ which is written in a New York dialect. How easy do you find it to read?

Whad’s a monsta anyway? Prick up yer ears, heah comes da English lesson: da woid comes from da Latin monstrum—meanin’ pawtent, which’s like a warnin’ prophecy kinduva ting—you tink I don’t read books?—which’s exactly whad Andrew believed his monstas ta be, notes from one parta his brain to anudda. Da human psyche’s a connivin’ sonuvabitch, sly, resilient and adaptable. Don’t toin yer back on it. When one meansa communication’s denied, anudda steps up ta da plate. Andrew’d lost da ability ta ‘heah’ dese warnin’s but da verces wouldn’t go away: dey was gonna have der say in whadeva way dey could. If da highway was closed dey’d scoot awf down some back roads. Now, is dat monstrous or ingenious?

STEPHEN: I don’t find that too difficult. It’s about tuning the ear rather than relying on the eye or normal patterns of language imprinted on the brain. How many people actually talk the way English is normally written? Poetry can make the page sing the song or sound the cry of the poet, not reflect some standardised version of English. Dialect writing is just one way to do that. Some dialects we can really hear, others we can’t. I think a lot of people can hear Scots. It doesn’t take too much effort to tune in. If the meaning of certain words are unknown, look them up. It’s no different than being presented with English words we don’t know. Besides, the sound of words is expression enough sometimes. Meaning doesn’t have to be always “got”. Sometimes it’s more about resonance or frequency. Or the feel of a certain tone.

There are claims too that certain writing in Scots is twee, like the Tartan shops along the Royal Mile, but this is down to the authority of the writer. No one could accuse Kelman of being twee, but I’ve read a lot of contemporary writing which is just too cosy or cloying or even cringe-worthy. So Scots to me isn’t twee per se, it depends on the power of the writing and how the language is employed. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.

JIM: Absolutely. I’m not daft—I realise that we’re a very small country, albeit one with a bit of an attitude, but why should a redneck sitting in his rocking chair on his porch staring out over the Mississippi not think of me as a some kilted, ginger-headed bloke living off haggis and whisky? It’s inevitable that we view each other in some stereotypical fashion; I bet most kids in America base their entire knowledge of Scotsmen on Groundskeeper Willie (who actually hails from Orkney so he’s not exactly your typical Scot, is he?)

ClydePersonally I’d be appalled if Scott’s dropped that bloke in the kilt from the front of their boxes (even though I can’t stand porridge). It’s a part of our heritage and something to be proud of but Scott’s has been on the go since 1880. We embrace change on the whole but not entirely; there’re certain—let’s call them emblems—that people of all cultures like to hang onto. That said, I hate the mascot they’re using for the 2014 Commonwealth Games: Clyde the thistle man. Truly awful. But change is inevitable. Even in my short life I’ve seen a marked shift in the way people speak. The accent is still there but the dialect is fading. Glaswegian is being replaced by Scottish English. I’m just wondering how long it will be before a poem like ‘Look Up!’ will become as hard to read as, say, ‘When Malindy Sings’ by the African-American poet Paul Dunbar:

G'way an' quit dat noise, Miss Lucy—
    Put dat music book away;
What's de use to keep on tryin'?
    Ef you practise twell you're gray,
You cain't sta't no notes a-flyin'
    Lak de ones dat rants and rings
F'om de kitchen to de big woods
    When Malindy sings.

What do you think will be lost when we all speak the same homogenised tongue?

STEPHEN: If we do, and I don’t think we ever will because language is too fluid, always moving and evolving, the greatest loss would be the voice of community or family. Community has to be open to outside influence in order to grow, which is why the sound of a community changes, but that sound is distinct from family to family, even within a small radius. To say that Burns is proper Scots, or Leonard is the sound of modern Glasgow isn’t the whole story. It’s a choir, an orchestra of polished tones and clanging symbols. But the sound of a family or community comes from a heart and the poet must be allowed to make the sound which expresses the collective heart or mind of a particular group of people in order to connect to that universal humanity we share.

Listening to the sounds of the voices around us can be a healing thing. In one section of LOOK UP!, the narrator finds healing in the arms of his family and church community, and it's their songs and stories which comfort him and the consolations of community voice which nurse him back to life. Dialect can be an expression of that closeness and affection and it would be a terrible thing if we lost that to a homogenised voice that didn't adequately convey a tenderness for who we are and where we've come from.

JIM: I get that. I’ve only been out of the UK twice—once to the States and once to Ireland—and both times when I stepped off the plane and heard the familiar Scottish accents around me I felt I was home; there was something heartening about those sounds; as you say, not so much the words as the sounds. I don’t have a Scottish accent—don’t ask me why but I adopted the accent of my parents—and I had a miserable childhood being the ‘English bastard’ at school (no one would believe I’d been born in Glasgow and I can’t say I blame them) but I still find being around Scots speakers comforting, reassuring. I write in Glaswegian on occasion because that’s the voice I hear in my head. My story ‘Zeitgeist’ was inspired by a colleague from Kilmarnock—which is in the heart of Burns Country—when on a bus he turned to me and said, “Ma wife says Ah'm too serious.” That was the voice I heard in my head so why not put that on the page? To do anything else would’ve been dishonest.


Hope you enjoyed that wee exchange. Let me leave you with my poem ‘Bloody Foreigners’ (the “translation” is part of the poem) and Stephen’s poem ‘So High So Hung Up’.


Bloody Foreigners

Ah went intae this Paki's
n asked the auld dear servin
fur ginga n dya know whit
she tried t palm off oan me?

Irn BruGinger fur cookin. She wis
frae England. Ah said are yoo
mental? Gie us a canna
Irn Bru ya stupid twat.

I nearly got ma arse felt
by her man but ah wis oot
o thur like a bat oota
hell wioot payin n aw.

Am ah a jammy bugger ur whit?

Friday, 8th February 2008


I went into this corner shop which happened to be owned by a gentleman of Pakistani extraction and asked the elderly lady serving behind the counter for a can of a carbonated soft drink. Unaware that the local euphemism for this is 'ginger' the lady mistakenly offered me a packet of the spice which I declined and asked after the state of her mental health. Realising the woman was from south of the border I was more specific in my request and used a brand name, Irn Bru so there would be no further confusion. Unfortunately I let slip a disparaging remark and one of her male relatives came to her assistance and tried to physically assault me however I managed to make my escape but, in the flurry, I omitted to pay for my can.

So High, So Hung Up

1. smiley

Gouchin oan E in the
shittiest nightclub
imaginable cheap beer n
slapper sex in silver sequined mini-
dress dress up dress doon
blissful slabs ae flesh
quiverin roon God’s grandeur.
Music’s a beist n a
beat wi a burd screamin
the grace ae romance n
the pride ae her sex wi us
a random dance ae molecules.
O’er ma heid I feel
the love ae the place
n I want tae scream fir love
the love ae aw that’s floatin
in the sea above n the sky
below … love fur the
jellied cunt in the corner
the puir cow wi the squinty eyeball
the hard bastard wi the blade in his jaiket.
Noo, twenty years on,
I pity every beetle
I crush and flush doon the pan
wi every other ounce ae shit n piss
wrapped in a shroud ae
soft quilted velvet
— ah the bliss ae the world.

Trippin oan Acid in a high rise
wi a couple ae guys and a lassie
in it fir a laugh but me wi ridiculous
pretensions ae highest yoga tantra
n astral elevation possibly a vision
ae God …
Leavin that aside, the ither day I
bought a book on LSD research and
contacted a transpersonal psychotherapist.
Nae acid flashbacks, nae drug enduced
schizoid behaviour (as yet) but a
history ae Kundalini
awakenin n several warm spots
in ma body tender n sweet as
marshmallow n jist so incredibly
poignant aw ae it.
I see yon acid trip n think
ae the lassie how she gave me
an incredible hard-on wi wild
Babylonian fantasies whirlin in
ma brain n Shiva lingam worship
wrappin itsel roon the high rise
so wired oan the drug
so constrained by perinatal
fuck it mother
fuck it father.
In the book, subjects experienced
hours ae oceanic sex
reported visions ae
Babylonian orgies
acquired a taste for the forbidden
the exotic
the perverse.
And tae think I wis brought up in the
Plymouth Brithren!


Jonathan Chant said...

Fine post. Timely, as I have just been reading Tom Leonard.

I'm with you, having grown up with that wonderful Lancashire accent, on the honesty theme.

Being a Dorsetman, I'm a William Barnes fan myself.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’d never heard of William Barnes before Jonathan but I can see the appeal. I looked him up and this verse jumped out at me:

      An’ if you look’d ’ithin their door,
      To zee em in their place,
      A-doen housework up avore
      Their smilen mother’s face;
      You’d cry—“Why, if a man would wive
      An’ thrive, ’ithout a dow’r,
      Then let en look en out a wife
      In Blackmwore by the Stour.”

Accents and dialects are fascinating things. When I was working on my forthcoming short story collection—which contains four stories in dialect—I spent a long time researching just exactly how dialects are constructed. I found a particularly scholarly book talking about Scots—too complex for me to grasp—but it was still nice to see that there are very clear rules in place. Very hard to write in a dialect you don’t speak. I did actually think of rewriting one of the stories in a Lancashire accent but I’m too far removed from it. I’d need a native to check my work. That’s what I did with Milligan and Murphy and the short story ‘Monsters’.

Jonathan Chant said...

Great Jim. I look forward to your short story collection. As well as a wife from the Blackmore Vale.

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