Move. Shift.

It was a bright November morning in Glasgow when I nervously stepped off Govan Road into the high-ceilinged peace of the Pearce Institute. I’d signed up for Em Strang’s ‘Embodied Poetry Workshop’ having been blown away by seeing her perform in Dunblane Library back in the summer. She'd been so present - yes, a word that is perhaps overused, but there is no other word for it, she'd been present in a full-tilt spine-tingling way. 

     So there I was, a few months later in the ‘Billiard Room’, sitting in silence - we’d been given instructions to arrive in silence. We waited until we were seven, accompanied by the uneven breathing of a hot-water urn. The session started with dancing. Dancing in a room with worn dark wooden floorboards and fat brown-painted radiators and pipework clad in black sponge. Too much space for just seven of us to be dancing. Mostly strangers. Sober. In daylight. This is agony. But I did it, holding on to Em’s words ‘Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing, just move’. I moved awkwardly among barbed thoughts of self-judgement through what felt like the two longest musical tracks ever recorded.  

    We all sat down and Em read some lines form Scott Cairn’s poem Adventures in New Testament Greek: Nous. ‘Attend for a moment to our breath as you draw in: regard the breath’s cool descent, a stream from mouth to throat to the furnace of the heart. Observe that queer, cool confluence of breath and blood, and do your thinking there.’ Em’s poise was cat-like. Her voice calm. My heart settled. I was there because I wanted help, I wanted help to find my spoken voice. Help with not disappearing just a little, or a lot, when reading my work out loud. Help in those every-day other days when my voice just feels wrong to me, when my knees bend beneath shrunken consonants and cowed vowels. 

    That day in Govan we moved and made noise and played and howled and sang and my voice felt its way along new paths. It was hard, really hard. I kept thinking this is why I write, it’s so much easier. We wrote too, and then shared what we'd written, focusing on the body: ‘if any part of your body is holding your breath you are not fully present’. Em talked about the extreme power that comes of being present in our vulnerability. The backs of my legs shookMy words hesitated like that last bit of toothpaste in the tube, the bit that keeps sucking back in, but then they were out, and stayed out. Thank fuck the words are written down. I was relieved when Em said there wouldn’t be time to read the short poem she’d asked us all to choose and learn off by heart before the session. I clutched my notebook fiercely. The written word. My salvation. But imagine, just imagine, if I could let go of the paper.


A couple of weeks later I had the privilege of facilitating story sharing sessions for the Gypsy/Traveller community in Lochgilphead and Perth during Book Week Scotland.  We started the sessions not with dance but by listening to tracks from Martyn Bennett’s 2003 album 'Grit', music that crosses cultural and musical divides. We heard Sheila Stewart singing fragments of ‘The Moving on Song’ and ‘What a Voice’. The music triggered a freshet of stories that participants shared with lyricism and emotion. One woman had chosen to write her story down. When it came to sharing it she read the first sentence, then firmly put the paper down and continued to tell her story fluently, movingly, strongly. What a voice. I was struck by all the voices that day, the talent to tell stories and let them dance to their own tune.

    I left those sessions humbled by the voices I heard. So much talk of travelling in the summer, of ‘shifting’ here and there - Fort William, Skye, Tiree. Talk of how you just can’t do it anymore, that simple thing of moving that’s deep in your DNA, how you can’t get ten minutes up the road with the trailer before the ‘polis’ are on your back. The stories of intolerance brought to mind the poem of Gerda Stevenson's I’d learnt for Em Strang’s workshop. The one I hadn’t had time to recite. I shared it that day with the group in Lochgilphead who were generous and kind in front of my awkward efforts.


Two Horses against a Hill


Two horses against a hill,

shoulder to shoulder, one faces East, the other west,

and I think of us -

how we can be at our best:

opposites, yet close enough

to cradle each other’s different worlds

in a wide arc of peripheral vision.


In the spirit of all movement that enables our hearts to beat fully, and in the spirit of all hoofbeats - past, present and future - here are links to two photo albums of a trip I made with ponies, from Barra to Lewis, with my friend Shuna in Spring 2017. If you like horses and the Outer Hebrides, the magic of Calmac ferries and a fair bit of wandering disorder, then please enjoy. Warning: no words or map, feel free to improvise.


Link to Hebrides photobook volume 1


Link to Hebrides photobook volume 2

Photograph courtesy of Peter Ross, MECOPP.