We had a lovely evening at last night’s HighlandLIT. We were celebrating with Mandy Haggith the publication of two recent books, The Amber Seeker (the second volume in her ‘Stone Stories’ trilogy), and her collection of poems, Why the sky is far away.
Mandy read passages from the novel, which is based on Pytheas is a historical figure. He was Greek trader, geographer, explorer and scientist who explored Britain and the Baltic in the 3rd century BC for scientific and also commercial reasons, seeking to identify the source of amber, walrus tusk ivory and tin. The powerfully written story was powerfully read.
One of the reasons Mandy was drawn to Pytheas was the evidence-based likelihood that he made landfall in Assynt where she lives, and must have met and interacted with the inhabitants of the brooch near the shoreline. What was said, surmised, understood? How were old stories re-shaped in a new culture while still bearing truth?
Mandy spoke of the challenges of writing about his Greek cultural background and the cultural background of the Celtic peoples he visited, while all the time viewing their pasts from a contemporary perspective.
There was rich discussion about liminality, and about the mythic and psychological significance of underground world. The first passage Mandy read took us with the narrator Pytheas down into the claustrophobic confines of a Cornish tin mine where he has a very unsettling encounter. Mandy also discussed the creative process. Her creativity is inspired by research – she herself went down a tin mine, and followed in Pytheas’ wake to explore the volcanic coasts of Iceland seeking to get up close and personal with walruses. Mandy used the phrase ‘method writing’ to describe her approach - much of the book was drafted on board a small boat, a mile off the coast of her beloved Assynt, beyond the reach of mobile phone signals where she could enter in imaginatively to ancient days - sea, land, weather, and even much of the wildlife unchanged since the days of Pytheas.
Mandy reflected on the imaginative process - the combination of left and right brain function, the inspiration of a deep subconscious knowing which flows into our awareness, the balance of what I’ve heard described as Mythos and Logos.
And then Mandy read some poets from Why the sky is far away.
Mandy first published a poem when she was eight and wrote poetry as a teenager, but because of a negative response from a teacher to whom she showed a piece of work, she keep her poems – even the anthem she wrote for her idols Thin Lizzy intensely private, hidden under the bed. She studied maths and philosophy and artificial intelligence. Developing Logos while neglecting Mythos.
Truth bearing is the key to successful poetry. Mandy describes how she was mentored by Glasgow poet Tom Leonard who passed away last December. He would read her poems with silent care, making almost invisible pencil marks in the margin beside certain lines. Watching, Mandy knew what he had detected about those line - they were not true. And I suspect that only at that point did she herself become aware herself of their lack of truth.
Mandy remembers Tom Leonard drawing the point of his pencil beneath a line of the poem he was currently looking at. ‘I think the poem finishes there’, he said, decisively. And he drew the pencil across again six lines above. ‘And I think the poem begins there.’
Everything else, all the carefully wrought, and edited, and mused over lines were discarded. Mandy was dismayed, but then Tom took her to another room in his house and showed her a picture in the house. A new vessel is being prepared for launch, perhaps at Clyde shipyard in its heyday. . The intricate scaffolding which has surrounded the hull during its construction on which which the labourers stood as they rivetted steel was being dismantled. Mandy understood. Those other lines were not wasted: they were the scaffolding which tuned and focused you consciousness so that you could write the six lines of pure gold, pure truth which could now launch into the ocean of the world bringing their message to every welcoming port.
She told us, in fact, how similar writing a computer program is to writing a poem. Capturing the truth in a few words, the right words; checking, editing, double checking, tweaking; running the program and discovering bugs and correcting them and then finally the program runs, the poem flies, the new ark of words sets sail.
We were all, I am sure, moved by Mandy’s poems: she read about sharing the environment with wildlife; there was a lovingly humorous poem about her husband Bill, a former fisherman, who got his words mixed up and said he thought he was going a little ‘saline’; there was a poem about the pain of not having children, the visceral pain of childlessness. I was moved by Mandy’s discussion of the pain she felt at her mums death, the resultant long hiatus in her writing, and then the realisation that in a sense she had without knowing it been writing for her mother. Now, she realized, it was time to write for herself. And later still, the discovery that her mother was yet with her in memory: in a sense her mother was still her primary audience and always would be.
‘I feel naked reading these’, Mandy said. ‘I have never read them out loud before.’ We are so grateful for her courage and vulnerability in writing and sharing these poems.
Mandy suggested that her works were in a sense her word children. You meet the grown child in the imagination, and then go back to gestation, as you sit with your notebook and fashion this progeny in the womb of your mind. Or again, you hand over the manuscript to the publisher and wait in a strange nine months of anticipation until the word child issues forth and makes its way into the world all independent of you, the one who gave birth to it and now must let it go.
A lovely evening with a lovely woman and a great opportunity to share with one another in HighlandLIT.
A reminder to make room for Mythos and Logos, to seek truth in our living and in our writing, and (knowing that as in the case of Mandy’s teacher words have power to undermine and destroy rather than to encourage and build up) to gently nourish the tender fruits of Mythos in one another’s lives and work.