Guest blog by Jay Whittaker.
It's a truism, but the publication of your first book is a rite of passage. In my case, I had written a collection of poems wrung from personal experience, many in response to the death of my late partner and my own subsequent treatment for cancer. Even as I celebrated the news that Cinnamon Press would publish Wristwatch, back in January 2016, I had a classic post-cancer reaction — will I live long enough to see it in print?
All this fed into my plans to launch the book.
I decided to donate £3 from all copies I sold in person, in Edinburgh, in the weeks around the launch to the Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres. Like so many others, I found Maggie's when I started my treatment at the Western General Hospital, Edinburgh. Maggie's provides a beautiful, calming space, somewhere to retreat from the clinical environment, where the focus is on the whole person, not just the cancer patient. I attended meditation and nutrition courses, (though ironically not the creative writing course) and I made lasting friendships with the people I met. Like so many who have used Maggie's, I wanted to give something back.
I planned a large, celebratory launch event — and at the suggestion of my friend Angus Ogilvy, another poet and Maggie's stalwart, a more intimate joint reading in Maggie's soon afterwards.
There were various decisions to be made, but I enjoy organising events, and played a long game, booking the date and the venue for the launch long in advance. I opted for a favourite Edinburgh arts venue — Summerhall, the former home of Edinburgh's vet school, somewhere with capacity for the 70 people I hoped would turn up. Christine De Luca, reaching the end of her stint as Edinburgh's Makar, and who I met when I read at Edinburgh's Shore Poets, kindly agreed to introduce me. And I was delighted that Jan Fortune came all the way from Wales to host the evening.
I made the most of Eventbrite's free functionality to monitor numbers and keep in touch with the people who signed up. And then began a plugathon — one which certainly softened me up for the necessary self-promotional mindset required by a writer launching a first (possibly any) book with an indy press. I was glad I'd left plenty of time.
And then, decisions about what to read. For the Summerhall set I cherry-picked a range of poems from the three sequences in Wristwatch. In spite of the subject matter, which sounds bleak in summary, the poems are (I'm told) full of resilience and hope, and I built a set which matches the trajectory of the book — not flinching from what happened, and showing how perspective can evolve. I've blogged about the process and challenges of writing about such personal subject matter. I wanted to read a representative sample from the book, to give a flavour of the three sequences and the emotional arc of the whole — touching on bereavement, the unwanted insights (and frequent bleak humour) of the cancer treatment, and the rebuilding that followed. Telling my own story of transformation has also led me to invent other voices write about others too — a nun-selkie romance on Iona, a Victorian housemaid fascinated by stones, a gay woman in world war 2 aching to reach out to her bereft neighbour — so I included some of those.
Even though many of these poems were previously published, and I've read many of them at open mic or at readings, this was a very public statement of what happened to me and the sense I tried to make of it. A celebration of resilience (mine and others) and of life. With bonus nuns and a selkie.
I was nervous, of course, but also excited. I've discovered over the last 18 months how much I enjoy performing my poems — not something I expected, but I love how the poems have another life off the page, and also learning where the audience laughs, or sighs. Reading a poem aloud has always been part of my rewriting process, but these days performing a poem is one of my editing strategies.
I thoroughly enjoyed the evening — over 70 people turned out on a driech evening and bought books. There was a huge buzz:
Standing room only @Summerhallery tonight as @jaywhittapoet reads #Wristwatch poems covering my fave topics: perspective & furniture design.
— Ricky Monahan Brown (@ricky_ballboy) October 12, 2017
Thanks to Cinnamon for believing in and supporting my writing, to my friends Peigi and Gill who ran the book stall so efficiently and persuaded so many to donate additional cash to Maggie's. The final total raised for Maggie's was a staggering £300.
A few weeks later I read at Maggie's with my friend Angus Ogilvy — an excellent Edinburgh poet who also writes about cancer, and who has raised large amounts for Maggie's. This event was rather more intimate, sitting in the same room where I'd attended so many groups, though this time I was in the presenters' seat next to the wood burning stove. I read most of the 'Risky Breasts' sequence, as a testament, in poetry, of my own terrible and revelatory year, and the perspective it brought. It was a privilege to read these poems to a room containing so many who had survived their own equivalent.
It's been good to settle back into a more familiar pattern of writing and revision now the initial launch of Wristwatch is over. I'm writing new poems, revising, revising again, sending them out into the world, and attending poetry and open mic events in Edinburgh and beyond. And for me, that's what it's all about.