On the anniversary of the death of writer and filmmaker Margaret Tait, we celebrate her life’s work with a recording of our event Midwinter with Margaret Tait, a book launch in collaboration with LUX London and So Mayer, which featured special guest speakers Sarah Neely, Lottie Whalen, Pema Monaghan and Alison Miller.
Last Winter Solstice, Lucy Writers were fortunate enough to collaborate with So Mayer, Benjamin Cook and Seonjoo Park of LUX (London), on a virtual event to celebrate the life and work of the late filmmaker and writer Margaret Tait, and to launch the publication of Tait’s book, Personae. Edited by the academic and writer, Sarah Neely, Personae brings together a previously unpublished manuscript and selection of photographs by Tait. Open-ended, self-reflexive, fragmentary and imbued with sublime moments of poetry, Personae weaves together Tait’s time as a medic in the Second World War, the years that followed, as well as observations on creativity and the creative process itself. To celebrate Tait’s remarkable achievement as a writer and filmmaker, but also the publication of Personae, we invited Sarah Neely, writer and publisher Pema Monaghan, researcher, curator and writer, Lottie Whalen, and Orkney-based poet, Alison Miller, to speak at the launch. To mark the anniversary of Tait’s death, we, together with LUX, have made public a recording of the entire event, together with a lightly edited transcript (below the Vimeo link). We hope you’ll celebrate this exceptional mind and voice, and the voices that gave themselves to this event, by reliving the launch, with us, today.
Transcript of Midwinter with Margaret Tait*
*Please note this is a lightly edited transcript
Initials of Host & Guest Speakers:
BC – Benjamin Cook
HHG – Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou
SM – So Mayer
AM – Alison Miller
PM – Pema Monaghan
SN – Sarah Neely
LW – Lottie Whalen
Plus, comments from Elinor Cleghorn and Jenny Chamarette
SC: Welcome everyone to Midwinter with Margaret Tait. My name is So Mayer, I’m keeping my camera off at the moment just to demonstrate the cameras off mode and also so that we can enjoy this incredible array of images of Margaret Tait with her multiple expressions and self reflections as we encounter her in Personae. I’m gonna hand over first to Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou of Lucy Writers’ Platform, who is going to say a few words about the event and about the LWP collaboration. And then she will hand on to Ben Cook of LUX, who will introduce our first speaker and you’ll be hearing from me throughout the evening. But I want to say thanks to Ben and Sun at LUX. This is actually already their Christmas break. And they’ve stepped in to ensure the smooth running of this event. So thanks to them. And also thanks to Hannah and LWP not only for creating this event, but for all the great writings they’ve shared with us all year. So Hannah…
HHG: A big thanks to So Mayor for also organising this incredible event and lining up some amazing speakers for us. I wanted to start, basically, by thanking everyone for attending the virtual book launch of Margaret Tait’s Personae, published by LUX and beautifully edited by Sarah Neely. So, Ben, Sarah and I are extremely encouraged by the response to this event, and with the complimentary feedback about the book. It means so much to have a lot of people attend a few days before Christmas, during this incredibly difficult and stressful time. Thank you so much for joining us. We hope you’ll feel lifted and inspired by the talks and readings tonight.
I don’t want to talk for too long about Lucy Writers as I’d love for us to dive right into the Tait celebrations. But I will give a brief outline of what the site is and does. So, Lucy Writers is an online platform that aims to uplift the creative and critical voices of women and non binary writers. Established in 2016, and in collaboration with Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, the site was officially launched later in January 2019. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength with over 130 writers and creatives from around the world, contributing creative writing, reviews, interviews, essays, and original artwork. We have an extremely strong arts editorial, which has seen us collaborate with the brilliant Decorating Dissidence, Byte The Book, Body Politic and Retreat West.
Recently, we have had several guests editorials on themes as wide ranging as international literature and translation, the inspiration and solace found in postcards of art, friendship during the pandemic and virtual dinner parties involving women creators from all over the world. These guests editorials conceived and curated by talented writers such as Elodie Rose Barnes, Rochelle Roberts, Susanna Crossman, Sumaya Kassim and Aysha Abdulrazak, have opened up a multitude of voices, viewpoints and experiences for our readers. They’ve shown what can be achieved by lesser known or emerging writers, particularly during a pandemic.
But one of the core ideals of the site that intersects with our event tonight is collaboration. Lucy Writers has always been about working together, providing a safe, inclusive space for both emerging and established writers. One that encourages mutual respect and learning, care and support. Our guest editorials, all of our writers and the fantastic previews we’ve had from incredible authors like Irenosen Okojie, Amalie Smith, Jen Calleja, and writings from our very own So Mayor, have shown an investment and care for the site and our community that is at once humbling, empowering and energising. Our event on Margaret Tait and Personae comes out of this spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration. The generosity, kindness and time given by the brilliant Benjamin Cook and all at LUX, and the super So Mayor, Sarah Neely, Lottie Whalen, Pema Monaghan and Alison Miller shows what can still be achieved even in the bleakest of midwinters. And I’m just going to hand over to Ben now.
BC: Thank you, Hannah, for such a lovely introduction. My name is Benjamin Cook, I’m the director of LUX and I’m so happy to be collaborating with Lucy Writers’ Platform and thank you so much for making this connection. Just a couple of housekeeping things that I wanted to point out at the beginning. We’re recording this tonight so if you want to ask questions later on, you can do so in the chat box. We also have captions for those that need them. They are AI generated, so they’re not perfect. But they’re there. You can click on the CC box at the bottom.
LUX in its various incarnations has been around for almost well over 50 years. And it began a relationship with Margaret Tait in the 1980s when our predecessor organisation, London filmmakers Co-op, started to distribute her films. I want to give a big thanks to one person, I think who’s here tonight, the filmmaker Peter Todd, who after Margaret’s death in 1999, came to me and we started to work on a project to restore her films. At that time, we worked with the Scottish Film Archive; we published the Margaret Tait Reader and we did a film tour and it showed in 70 countries around the world. People were amazed by her work in her lifetime, they weren’t as well known or as appreciated as they should have been. So it’s been really amazing and encouraging over these last few years to see this growing awareness of the significance of Margaret Tait, both as a filmmaker, poet and a writer.
I also want to thank Sarah Neely, who I’m going to introduce now and has been absolutely tireless in her research and support of Margaret’s work. She’s done so many things for the legacy of Margaret Tait. She’s also published and edited a book of Margaret Tait’s poems, and she was instrumental in the organisation of a centenary celebration of Margaret’s life a couple of years ago. And one other person I’d like to thank is Maeve Redmond, the designer who produced the beautiful book, as well. So yeah, I’d like to welcome Sarah Neely now.
SN: Thank you so much, Ben. And thanks to Lucy Writers and So Mayor and LUX for hosting and organising the event. Although originally LUX and LUX Scotland and I had hoped to have an event to mark the publication, in the end we decided that we would wait until we could meet in person. And eventually, we still plan on doing this. But it was very welcome news to hear that So Mayer and Lucy Writers were interested in hosting a reading group focusing on the publication. And it seems particularly fitting to have it held on the winter solstice – something which I think resonates in the text itself. But it’s something I think Tait would have appreciated as well.
So asked me to say a bit about how the publication came about and how I first encountered it in Tait’s archive, and then how the project developed. And to think about this, I went back through some of the informal photographs that I’ve taken over years of some of the items held in the Margaret Tait collection at the Orkney Library and Archives. And apologies for the quality of some of these photographs. Most of them are largely informal snaps, which I took for my own use and study. In hindsight, I think I’d be more careful in the future about the photographs that I take because you never know when they might come in handy in other ways. But hopefully they will give you an idea of how I first encountered the archive and Personae. I first visited the archive over 15 years ago. And like most people, I was first aware of Tait’s achievements as a filmmaker. Much of the collection in the archive relates to her work as a filmmaker. There are development notes for films, scripts, correspondence with other filmmakers with family and friends, correspondence with film distributors, including LUX and film labs. There are also many programme notes for her films, wonderfully crafted by Tait, such as this one for A Portrait of Ga [see image on Vimeo]. And when I first visited the archive, there were over 46 boxes of material. However, this has since grown. Her husband Alex Pirie, pictured with Tait’s mother in the photograph above [see image on Vimeo], deposited further items over time, including a substantial collection of Margaret Tait’s notebooks and recently, her photograph, albums and photo contact sheets were added by her niece and Tait. A selection of these photographs are included in the book and they were digitised a couple of years ago by Stills gallery for an exhibition. My first few visits to the archive were spent going over the contents of the collection. The archive hadn’t yet been catalogued. So it took a few weeks to get a sense of what the collection entailed. And because Margaret Tait was inclined to hold on to everything, it’s a pretty comprehensive collection and a real treasure for those who are interested in her films. However, what I hadn’t expected was to find the considerable collection of writings; this included poems, short stories, novels, or novellas, essays and scripts for stage and screen, most of it unpublished.
The most substantial manuscript was based on Tait’s experiences serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War II while stationed in India, which went under a few different titles, but was eventually called The Lillywhite Boys. Tait did send out the manuscript, but it was rejected on the basis that there was a lot of war novels. And you may be able to make out Tait’s handwriting at the top of the folder here, which says “war is excessively boring.” This was likely in response to one of the reviewer’s reports, which said the novel was boring. Tait eventually came to the conclusion that the Lillywhite Boys didn’t sufficiently convey a sense of what the experience was really like. And so she wrote Personae, or what was initially titled, a Postscript to the Lillywhite Boys. This she intended to get across the emotional experience of war and what it felt like.
Personae was a manuscript that I felt was particularly powerful when I first encountered it, because it offers such a candid account of her own thoughts and feelings. And it was something which I regularly drew from in my own writing on Tait. Eventually, I began transcribing it with an eye for publication, and in 2018 LUX offered to publish it as part of the activities for celebrating Tait’s centenary. I finished working on the transcription in 2019. But it wasn’t until 2020 that Maeve Redmond began working on the design of the book. There were several drafts of the original manuscript and this was one of the challenges for assembling it for publication. As you can see here, in this version, the postscript is envisaged as part of a larger manuscript, which would include The Lillywhite Boys, but eventually Tait concluded that it would be best for readers to skip The Lillywhite Boys all together. So later drafts presented the Postscript or Personae on its own. And although she said she wrote the bulk of the manuscript in 1959, she continued to work on it for several years after that. It was challenging to determine which draft was the last. None of them are dated, and those of you who have read the book will be familiar with Tait’s description of the manuscript as being something that was open and ongoing. She writes here “I am going to go on writing this book for as long as I can go on writing it.” And even though I eventually identified what was likely the last version of the manuscript, it still didn’t fully incorporate the ending indicated in Tait’s notes.
So one of the key things that we hope to convey with the publication was a sense of the text as it exists in the archive, as a more open form, and one that lacks a definitive version. Maeve and I were keen to draw attention to the manuscripts archival origins and this involved including things like handwriting and drawings, which were very much a feature of the manuscript as she presented it, but also reproductions of some of the actual documents in the archive. One of the features of the manuscript as it developed was Tait’s use of different coloured paper and you can see here examples of green and blue paper. She wrote that the paper reflects the different emotional themes in the work. So green, she writes here, is not mad now and actually yellow is what she considers mad in terms of the colour coding of her paper, but green is lifelike, spring fresh. In Italian, they say green is for hope. So as part of the manuscript, we felt it was important to include reproductions of the different coloured pages to at least get a glimpse of this aspect of her approach. But as I said before, it was challenging to make sense of the different versions. And this is an image of a page of one version that was heavily edited.
And eventually, to my surprise, I found that this version, written in Tait’s fluid cursive writing, was the version that incorporated all of the suggested changes of the earlier ones. And for those of you who have read half a copy of the book, you may recognise the heading here and may have decided to incorporate Tait’s handwritten chapter headings into the text. This was something I think that’s fitting in terms of Tait’s own practice. She often used her handwriting and her film titles, but also in other written manuscripts as well. And this is the severance file which held the bulk of Tait’s notes for the manuscript. Much of the manuscript was written in fragments on individual sheets of different coloured paper, which was then later incorporated into a full draft. And you might pick up on the fact I thought it was a nice kind of coincidence that the colour of the actual book is very similar to the colour of the file that the original text is held in. This gives you an example of the contents of the folder. It’s a mix of full pages, scraps of typed paper, and even scrappier, handwritten notes are in there as well as drawings. The drawings were another important aspect of the publication; we wanted to incorporate Tait’s use of drawings which featured in her own drafts, both in handwritten form, which you see in the handwritten versions here, but also the typed versions.
We also decided to include an index which drew from Tait’s original selection of words, which you can see here corresponds to the much longer version that incorporated The Lilywhite Boys, which I showed you at the start of the presentation. Hopefully, in the end, we’ve managed to achieve a sense of the aliveness and openness of Tait’s original text, which is a state described in Personae, a kind of poetry that is essentially incomplete. It is, “the substance of poetry rather than the main thing. It is not really literature, it is the raw magic. It has to go on as it came in. Be related whole that is incomplete for it as food and will be sustenance for growth.”
And I’d just like to finish with a poem by Tait, which I feel resonates with the general spirit of the text, and its resistance to convention, to containment, and definitions. It’s called, ‘To Anybody At All’:
To Anybody At All
I didn’t want you cosy and neat and limited.
I didn’t want you to be understandable,
I wanted you to stay mad and limitless,
Neither bound to me nor bound to anyone else’s or
your own preconceived idea of yourself.
First published in Antonia Fraser (ed.) Scottish Love Poems: A Personal Anthology (Canongate, 1975)
SN: Thank you.
SM: Thank you so much, Sarah. It’s very hard to let go of the view of those archival assets. I know that many people on this call will perhaps have been hoping to work in archives and libraries this year. So it’s just been such a thrill to connect to the aura of these objects and papers of a writer who spent her lifetime archiving herself and working with her archive in such reflective, messy, creative ways, as we hear in her text and in her poem. We are going to be hearing a number of Margaret Tait’s poems this evening as well, which I know some of you will know very well. And for some of you this will be the first experience and in particular, I’m delighted that we have Alison Miller here on the call with us who is up in Orkney. And we’ll be closing the event by sharing some of Margaret Tate’s poems, including I think, one in Orcadian. It as a shared moment, a reflective moment for us on solstice. So thank you to Alison for the poetry and to Sarah for the archive joy.
We have two more speakers coming up who are going to be speaking about writing and self publishing, and craft, and its feminist history. I’ll introduce them in the moment. But I want to say hello to everyone who’s on the call. And this call is for everyone. If you have questions for the speakers, please drop them in the chat and I will keep a list of them. We’ll have a chance for q&a, as well. The q&a will be mixed with a discussion of the book. So this is the more complicated bit if you would like to say something about Margaret Tait or about the book, or either a reflection or a question. And you’d like to, you know, turn your camera on or your microphone on and share with us. If you could direct message me in the chat and I’ll keep a list of speakers. We’ll take a break after our two presenters, then, when we come back, I’ll name the people who said they’d like to speak and I’ll have an order. So please do join in, throw your hat into the ring. If there’s something you’d like to say, but you don’t necessarily want to turn your mic on, you can also message that to me, and I can share that on your behalf or you can message it to Hannah, as well. Do send any questions you’d like to throw out there. We’re all I think most of us quite experienced with this multimedia format now.
But for the moment, I’m absolutely thrilled to introduce our two speakers who’ll be following Sarah and making connections from Tait’s practice, which is often seen as very sui generis, to a century I think of feminist craft, a feminist artisanal and self publishing, so that we get this joined up sense of her work and how that connects to what Hannah was saying about collaborative work as well.
Our first speaker is going to be Pema Monaghan. Now, I first met Pema in print form before I met her in person. I met her as the beautiful [maker of the] risographed pamphlet, The Last Word on Mom, when I came into work at Burley Fisher one day and there was just this glowing jewel of a pamphlet sitting on the front desk and I thought I have to meet the person who wrote this, who designed it, printed it and Pema is a jewel as bright as this work, I can’t recommend it enough and what she does with Takeaway Press, which she’s going to talk about. She’s also a journalist and her work moves across some of most exciting venues at the moment, gal-dem, willowherb, and Extra Teeth, which represent just such a dynamic new generation of digital publishing, that is speaking collectively and speaking against dominant culture, and that is really shaping our media across print and digital, which is something very exciting. And I think that answers some of Tait’s deep, profound concerns with being excluded as a woman writer, as an Arcadian writer, as an anti-war writer in some senses as well. So thank you very much and thank you for being with us this evening.
I’m just going to introduce Lottie Whalen as well so we can flow from you to Lottie. I also met Lottie at Burley Fisher, which is where everything happens. And I’m looking forward to meeting Lottie in print as well with her 2022 book from Reaktion which is about New York’s Dada women.
Lottie produced a fantastic series of events this year about feminism, women and Dada, examining some of the more difficult or complex aspects of Dada in terms of its attitudes to gender and race and class. She’s the cultural producer for Decorating Dissidence, which is an interdisciplinary project on craft that runs from modernism to the contemporary era. And that makes perfect for situating Tait. She’s a project curator for Women’s Pioneer, an incredible practical project for social change for women, and she’s also an incredible writer, and an incredible investigator of personal writing and the essay and the fragment, which also speaks to Tait’s work as well. So, we’re going to hear from Lottie second, but first I’d like to hand over to Pema.
PM: Sorry, I’ve muted myself. I’m just about to share my screen. So get ready for that. Okay, so thank you, So, for the lovely introduction. Thank you, LUX. And thank you Lucy Writers’ Platform for having me here. I’m just going to give you initially a glimpse of my first ever published book. She’s a little book of poetry. I wrote this for my little sister who was seven at the time. I think the poetry itself is not amazing. It was obviously influenced by my heavy diet of this one Nursery Rhymes book that I used to read and reread all the time. So it has that sort of rhyming rhythm to it. But any case, I asked my sister to dig this out for me, and she has it still, and she said it makes her cry, which is really sweet.
To begin with, I am Pema Monaghan, I am a co-founding editor of Takeway Press with my partner Oscar Price. He’s an artist. We are a micropress specialising in collaborations between artists and writers.
I was really lucky to be sent a copy of Personae. And in her introduction, Ali Smith, brings up this question that Margaret Tait asks throughout the book. What is a book, actually, you know, is a book a book, just when it’s written, or when it’s published? Or just when it’s seen by somebody? And that’s a question, I think, that comes up a lot in self-publishing and artisan publishing.
To me, small press publishing and self publishing is about two things. It’s about community and it’s about politics and living an engaged political life. The community aspect is necessarily political. It’s about publishing the people that you know and that you love, who are the great writers that you know and maybe their work isn’t being seen by the sort of mainstream publishing or media for whatever reason. And so, I’ll just sort of begin by talking about my history with self publishing. I’m a bookmaker, but I wasn’t always a bookmaker. It’s something that’s kind of quite new to me, really. Before I moved to London, I lived in Western Australia, which is where I was born. I went to university in Australia, went to school there, and I studied some really amazing books. I had really amazing professors who introduced me to a wide range of the history of the novel and the history of nonfiction as well. So I was very lucky to have really great professors. They didn’t really have a relationship with self publishing, and I maybe associated it with like sexy vampire novels and things like that. No disrespect to those but it wasn’t what I was interested in. I sort of had this sense that in order to be a writer, I had to be deserving and I had to be published by those big names. And even though I felt like I had these important stories to tell if I wasn’t being picked up by Penguin, or if I wasn’t being picked up by like Australian publishers or Australian literary magazines, then my writing wasn’t worth it. It was just obvious that my writing wasn’t worth it because no one wanted to publish me. So when I was doing my university degree, I chose to specialise in Woolf. And I loved Woolf. At the time, she was to me at the time, she was like my sort of epitome of an adventurous writer, which kind of shows a little bit how – not that she wasn’t an adventurous writer, she was – sort of limited my exposure was at that time. I had a very canonised exposure to literature, but it was more that she was a self publisher.
I didn’t really think about her in this context before. These are two of my copies of books published by the Hogarth press. The first is a uniform edition, which is the sort of subsequent editions that they published. They all look the same, and they had this like beautiful, kind of small detail in the front. And then this other one is a writer’s diary, which is the posthumous edited collection, published by Leonard Woolf rather than Virginia herself. So it kind of had all her sort of bits of unhappiness taken out and was more focused on the writing.
But even though I sort of identified with Woolf, somehow, I still considered her a canonised writer. Even though she had this thing that I thought was really amazing about the complexity of her identity and writing from that complexity, I knew that she was someone who’d come from money and had come from a literary background and was also different to me, a white writer. So she was somebody who had all these sort of vaults of power to draw from.
And so when I moved to London, I started working in a shop that kind of gave me a new perspective on the archive. And on what I would say was almost like a sort of domestic type of writing. Writing that was just for the person who wrote it, and maybe for a few others, things that weren’t published or seen by other people. Manuscripts written by children, or like young women. And at the same time, I started buying zines and small press books. And I made friends with the people who brought those zines in. So the next slide, Oh, this is just a different, nice book from my collection. It’s not relevant, sorry. This is my friend, Nina. So I met Nina because she came into the shop that I was working in, and I was buying zines off her. And she came in to show this book, I’m a Forest/Fire, that’s [on screen] down there in the corner. And I don’t know if you can see, but the subject heading there is “Notes on Mitski & being mixed-race”. Nina had been hand making books for years, walking into book shops and selling them basically for what she paid to make them. And each one was handmade, and super individual and exquisitely beautiful. And it was like clear to me that Nina wasn’t just a poet, she was an artist. These books were not made by somebody who couldn’t find someone who would publish her. She was making these – not there’s anything wrong with that, incidentally – but she was making these because it was sort of like a holistic project, a beautiful holistic project and artisan book. She’s an art maker. And this is actually a copy of one of her books that is published by Fairly False press, and I bought this from the LRB. And they have an amazing section of their poetry section downstairs. It’s like a chair that has a big box full of small press and self published books. I really recommend it once they reopen.
I also met Kirsty and Rosalind and Katrina, who are the editors of Ache Magazine, a magazine that is explicitly political. It’s a magazine that now has three issues. They publish stories and poems and artworks on illness and women, and non binary and trans people’s bodies. So they’re at the intersection between experience, personal experience and the health system, which is quite a complicated place. And I think if you’re someone who’s been been sick a lot, you understand that what you’re hearing from your doctor doesn’t necessarily correspond to your own lived experience. And this is a magazine that sits explicitly in that space. And I’m so sorry, I did a really bad crop there. You can’t quite read it. But anyway, this is an amazing magazine. And I recommend reaching out to them and getting a copy or like applying to write for their next article, because the thing about small press, and self-publishing work is that it doesn’t make a lot of money for the publishers or for the people involved. But what it is, is a labour of love and community; you’re working with people who will probably become your friends and your colleagues, and everything you give to them in terms of your labour, they give back in terms of care. This is more of Nina’s work. She now has her own poetry press. It was found at the same time as my poetry press that we sort of did it. Not that we didn’t do them together, but we did them alongside each other and work together and helped each other and Nina taught me how to bind books.
So this is, for example, an unbound book. This is a very simple binding. Now I’m just sort of rambling, but basically all you need to make a book is a needle and some paper and some string and a pen. Um, okay, so my press that I share with Oscar is Takeaway. The first book I published with Takeaway was my own book, illustrated by Oscar, and put together by Oscar. I’d written a poem about my mother and my sisters. I’m calling back to my first ever poetry pamphlet, the little book of poetry. I really wanted to publish this. It felt really urgent to me to publish this. And I didn’t have any way to put it, or I didn’t know anywhere that would produce it in the way that I wanted. I just had this sort of experience of working with my friends and seeing their beautiful art books. And I realised that I could do it myself and I had living artists to help me. So I did that. And I realised that I wanted to continue doing it; I didn’t just want to publish myself, I wanted to keep publishing.
So I then reached out to Kirsty who, if you remember, is one of the editors and the founding editor of Ache Magazine. And she and Alice Blackstock, who’s the artist here, worked with me and Oscar to produce a book of really beautiful poetry about folklore and the body. These are amazing artworks. And I think that what’s so special about working in this way with this relationship is that you have so much control over what you’re doing. And you can basically, you can say, I want to have handwritten text and you know, they’ll say we’ll just do that for you. And just as long as everyone’s happy about the end product, you work together to make something as beautiful as possible. And something that everyone feels comfortable with, which I think is the most important thing. And this year, we published two digital pamphlets, because we didn’t have the money to make printed pamphlets and digital pmaphlets are cheaper. Also, it was hard to distribute pamphlets this year because of the pandemic. So one of those was In the Sick Hour by Kaya and Jane. It is another meditation on illness. And it’s a really amazing, very thoughtful, circular book about living with illness and trying to be an artist with illness. I think if there are a lot of people whose writing doesn’t kind of subscribe to the publishing schedule, and it’s harder to publish if you’re somebody who doesn’t always feel like you have the energy to write, right? Or if you’re ill that day and you can’t do it, or whatever. There’s a mental health aspect to it. It can be difficult to access publishing. And I’m really proud that we have a space where like, we can kind of bring those difficulties to life and publish moments or thoughts that are kind of not enclosed and are ongoing.
And then this last book I want to show you is Speech Therapy, by Laura and Anju, and Laura’s watching. She’s an amazing writer. So Laura is the writer, and Anju is the illustrator. This is a book on childhood, family and longing for your home, which really resonated with me. But I also just thought it was like spectacularly beautiful. And I’ve included it here – it’s actually about pressing flowers, which I used to do as a child as well and is a sort of bookmaking if you ask me. The last thing I want to say is that, if you have, if you have something that seems too small, or something personal, that you’re not sure other people will want, and you can’t, but you also feel like you want to out there and you can’t wait to have it out there: self-publishing is open to you. And it’s a beautiful art practice. It has a rich political history that I didn’t have time to go into. But publishing is a gated community as it is and it shouldn’t be that way. But it is that way and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t form your own communities outside those fences and make beautiful artworks. Even if they’re not read in all the countries across the world, they are important to people and you’ll hear back from people and hear people talk about the ways that they specifically and particularly identified and loved your work and I think that is so rewarding. It’s rewarding to put yourself out there and be heard so everyone should self publish. I think it’s beautiful process. Thank you.
SM: thank you so much, Pema. That was incredible. I’m just taking notes and just so beautiful and I really recommend everyone checking out takeaway and Ache and all of the publishers Pema was talking about. I’m going to invite Lottie now and we’re going to try a bit of a duet here, where I will be PowerPointing, so please forgive us and forgive me if this doesn’t go perfectly.
LW: Okay, well, firstly, a huge thanks to Hannah, So and LUX for inviting me to be part of this wonderful event, which feels like a much needed bit of light in these very dark times. Earlier this month, Hannah kindly sent me a copy of Personae and she enclosed a postcard of this beautiful work by Faith Ringgold, which is one of the quilt collage painting hybrids that she’s quite recently became most known for. You can see that on your screen there.
And coincidentally, at the same time, I was also thinking about an exhibition of the Gee’s Bend quilt that just opened in London [at the Alison Jacques Quilt]. On the next slide are a few examples, for anyone not familiar with the quilts. They are incredibly striking works made by an intergenerational community of African American women in Alabama, a tradition that began in the 19th century and then really started to flourish with the freedom quilting bee, a cooperative set up in the 1960s to help Alabama women sell their craft for auction or to department stores. The exhibition of the Gee’s Bend quilt, the first in Europe, sent me thinking specifically about what it means that quilt and craft in general are increasingly being celebrated by major galleries and art fairs. On the one hand, the benefits is bringing this kind of art to a new, wider audience and acknowledging it as a work with significant cultural importance. But on the other, the risk is of absorbing and neutralising disruptive, politically potent work into a fundamentally toxic system. Work that falls into the category of craft, which is often made with a slow process, and in dialogue with a community of makers past, present and future, also challenges us to rethink our systems of retrospectives, cannons and prizes that champion the lone genius. More often than not white, male, young, or else forces artists, writers and makers who fall outside of these categories to conform to them.
Clearly, Personae and Margaret Tait’s film and poetry practice more generally, fall completely outside these structures and categories. Her work represents a determined effort to get away from what she calls the male standard and its old ways, to accept that they have nothing to offer a woman artist and instead seek new forms of expression. The more I explored Tait’s body of work, the more I understood why the language of craft and making creeps into the critical conversation around her. Specifically, Gareth Evans, his poetic response, “where I am is here, a patchwork Margaret Tait” and Sarah Neely’s collage essay, “the bits really behind in that magazine”. Across the variety of mediums she worked in, and sometimes combined, Tait’s method is a process of assemblage, whether that be images and sounds for film, thoughts and memories in written work, or physical tokens of place, memory and identity in the beautiful collages that Sarah talks about in her essay, which is on the next slide. You can see an example of one of those. Tait’s method evokes the slow processes of craft and the unfolding meanings that emerge through embodied acts of weaving, sculpting, stitching, layering, piecing and unravelling. To see Personae as a quilt is, I think, a helpful way not only to come to a better understanding of what is a shifting, and at times willfully opaque text, but also to think closely about what we can learn from Tait as we continue to carve new paths away from the male standard. When I talk about quilts, I’m specifically thinking about politically charged community made works that have recharged and revolutionised the medium through the 20th century to the present day. Quilts that create radical juxtapositions to reveal alternative collective narratives. If you turn to the next slide, we might think, for example of the AIDS Memorial quilt, where each stitch marking an individual life was also as a whole work representing a powerful act of community. Or Suzanne’s crystal quilt, which is on the left, a sort of durational performed quilt that explores the invincibility of older women in modern society.
But even in less decisively political forms, quilts are inherently powerful heterogenous works. Like the complex landscape that Tait creates in Personae or indeed in her film poems, quilts have their own topography. What can appear to be a haphazard surface, belies a multi-layered construction of solid backing material, a middle layer of dense batting, and the top pattern all held together with intersecting stitches. A quilt is a crafted network of fabric, stitch and touch, each of which is embedded with the members of the maker or makers. The legacy of quilt making communities, feminist histories as well as perhaps the body once closed by the recycled fabric used. But it’s also a future oriented act, made to be used to tell a story and crucially to be added to. A quilt is a multi-voice assemblage that speaks to us across boundaries of time, space and culture. But the making of it also involves individual acts of focus, attention and persistence. As Mayors suggests, the painstaking hours of stitching a quilt, represent an urge not to flee but to pin oneself down in order to discover the unconscious, unarticulated and private modes of expression buried within.
Tait’s almost unending, repetitious and at times, frustrating work of constructing Personae, again, evokes the quilt maker. By another coincidence, before coming to Personae, I recently finished reading a book by another overlooked Scottish woman writer, Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. And this is an innovative piece of nature writing composed during the second world war that strives to comprehend or become closer to Shepherd’s beloved Cairngorms. It’s a text that stayed in my mind, as I’ve recently moved to Glasgow and began exploring its wild edges where orderly rows of tenement buildings suddenly give way to overgrown woodlands, streams and hills. And it may not be quite as well as the Cairngorms or Orkney, but for someone who spent the last 10 years in London, to learn quite quickly about thermals and sensible footwear and actually waterproof waterproofs there’s been a lot of resonance there for me. But, as with Tait’s Personae, the form of Shepherd’s Living Mountain mirrors its writers processes of living in the world, and recording those assemblage assembled experiences. Both Tait and Shepherd seek to know with the knowledge that is a process of living, Shepherd suggests, too slow for the impatience of our age, something that seems even more relevant in our own era of immediacy, distraction, and information overload. Unlike Tait, Shepherd didn’t as far as I know work in any other medium, but her writing is intensely, gorgeously visual. She shows us naked birch trees, exquisite when the opening leaves just flack them with points of green flame, or the thinning leaves turn them to a golden lace. And she leads to the top of a cloud to see, upheld and lustrous, stretch out to the highs and like the morning of creation. Shepherd’s roving perspective seems to have a real parallel with Tait’s, as in the way Tait describes filming, or with her handheld camera, following the water running along and to certain moments, gets caught in the current and goes whipping up into some pods that are at the side of the burn. And I was able to follow it. And it just made all the difference that, somehow or other, it forms the whole film. The every day becomes transformed.
It struck me that both women were writing at the margins, theoretically, stylistically and geographically, each writing as a response to the seemingly endless cycles of war. The disruption caused by patriarchy, nationalism, and capitalism, writing as a way through that despair. And perhaps partly for that reason, both texts are crafty in every sense of the word. They bewitch and beguile for one thing, and then another, and in putting them together, Tait and Shepherd, carefully weave and layout memory, images, senses and language to present multiple perspectives that exist simultaneously. Much like quiltmaking. Although very different texts, they share the same essential patchwork quilt approach, a process of radical juxtaposition that creates an interlocking hole in the process, disrupting cultural hierarchies as well as notions of margin and centre. Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and Tait’s Personae work at the intersections between order and disorder, spontaneity and structure, individuality and uniformity. They accept ultimate unknowability of the world and oneself, defying the new narratives that are supposed to define who we are and what we do. And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t strive to know, but rather, we shouldn’t expect or even want to achieve total knowledge to conquer the summit, or to complete the masterpiece. Or as Tait puts it, men like to finish a thing and put their name on it, married to them and preserved in glue. By contrast, Personae rebels, inconsistent, incongruent, in it’s very title warning us to expect multiplicity. Whether in fabric images or text, this crafty patchwork quilt approach offers a way of resisting the suffocating patriarchal structures that have for so long decided whose work was valuable, whose gender, race, sexuality or body was superior or acceptable, and whose wasn’t. What art should be preserved, and what should be consigned to the scrapheap. Personae seems in some ways to encapsulate the unfinished, messy, disordered body of work that Tait like so many other women artists working in avant garde or marginalised modes left behind. But perhaps this is because we’re still wired to view art through, in Tait’s words, the male standard. If we as viewers and readers take a craft approach, perhaps we’re better equipped to explore the layers of distinct yet interlocking pieces of Tait’s work, and to then engage in our own unending processes of creating further juxtapositions with similarly dissident projects. And I’d like to end here with one of my favourite lines of Personae: ‘men with guns are the silliest things’. And in the next slide along a quilt that was stitched by the Boys Peace quilt project, dedicated to the women of Greenham common, weaving and reweaving the web of life.
SM: Thank you, Lottie. That was transformative. Before we take a very short break, and then bring everyone into the conversation, do drop your comments, questions, desire to speak about tea into into the chat or directly to me. Sarah Neely suggested that I read one of Tait’s poems from her book Subjects and Sequences. I want to thank Peter Todd for making it possible for me to be holding this, where she talks about her work exactly in terms of craft. The poem is called ‘Pavement Artist’:
I chalk it out on the ready squares.
Only the colours out of the box
If you walk
And scrape your shoe on the finer lines
I do them over, with emphasis.
But a sort of blur
Is the result of too much walking
And, in the blur,
Exaggeration and some distortion,
Result of making too oftern the journey.
Told to die,
I can’t die without dying.
How can I?
For my ninety lives are at an end. I’ve inhabited too many Margarets
And there aren’t any more left.
Restless spirits go a-haunting,
So they used to say.
Mine will have sport for centuries
If that’s the way:
Spilling of the ink-pot,
Tearing of the page,
Intruding with blundering fingers
In the micro-picture gauge.
What would you think
If I took to shouting?
What would you think
If I skipped the length of the street?
Or slapped the faces of strangers?
Or cheeked the policeman on the beat?
What would you say if I burst out crying
And cried that I couldn’t manage alone?
What would you do if I gave up trying
And sat on a stone
And never came home?
Who are these crowds in me
If I am myself alone?
What are these other voices I hear
And what are the hands that tug me here and there?
I am all of my ancestors,
Seafarers and landsmen,
Ale-tipplers and cake-bakers,
And ravagers of homes and fields.
All the troubled women
And all the striding ship-men,
Up-striving sad merchants,
Mourning mothers, dotty grandmas
And well-wishers, ill-wishers,
Doers and undoers
Lodge here in my high heath
Where I light my fire.
I lit the light-house for you
To guide you in the mirk.
You’ll see the regular flashing,
And by the known timing,
By recognition of that formula once learned
You’ll know it’s me.
It’s in myself, this mazy thing,
This unattachable me,
This floating footless creature,
This last word in what shouldn’t be.
(21 October 1957)
SM: So we’re gonna take a fill-your-glasses-and-come-back break. If anyone would like to speak after the break. I know there are some people out there who know Tait’s work really well. And some people who are coming to it for the first time. Everyone is welcome. Just drop something in the chat or message me. And if not, I have some questions for Sarah, and Lottie and Pema that hopefully they’ll be willing to answer. So we’ll see you in two minutes. Thank you.
Welcome back, I’m going to bring people back in in the belief that people are out there. Sometimes doing Zoom events is…I feel a little bit of a parallel with how Margaret Tait wrote and made her films, hoping, knowing and sometimes there was an audience and hoping that that they would find their moments. So thank you, everyone who’s stayed with us and thank you so much to our three speakers, Sarah Neely, Pema Monaghan, and Lottie Whalen for such an intricate and overlapping and really beautiful way of thinking about Tait’s work of putting herself together and how we can reflect on that in relation to contemporary self publishing, and craft.
I have a question for Sarah. First of all, a really quick question. And then we’ve got some questions that have come up from Elinor Cleghorn and Jenny Chamarette. So anyone else who’d like to ask a question or speak to their experience of reading the book or knowing about Tait, please do drop me a message. But Sarah, I hope you’re there. One way that Tait is often misrepresented, I said, is that she was utterly alone. sui generis – and she certainly was someone who enjoyed her own company and her own practice, but she was also friends with a number of other writers and particularly women writers who she writes to and about very touchingly and it’s a sort of really an unknown community or collaborative world that has sort of been under represented and forgotten about. And I was really moved by what Pema was saying about communities. I wondered if you could say a bit about Tait’s writer friends or soulmates or the people that she responded to?
SN: Thanks. I mean, both Pema and Lottie’s presentations really stimulated a lot of things for me in relation to the new publication. In terms of collaboration, I was thinking during Lottie’s talk about the collaborative nature of quilt making and what that means in terms of Tait’s Personae in particular and that it was written essentially on her own without engaging with others through the process of writing. But in a sense, it made me think about how the text itself, as Lottie described, is a kind of quilt of fragments, which she said creates radical juxtapositions. And I think Margaret Tait’s text does that in a way that resists the impulse in order to turn something into a seamless narrative and instead makes it more of an open conversation which you can engage with and take forwards. Lottie also talked about it as a quilting, as a future making act, and, it made me think about Margaret Tait’s Personae and how she talks about the future of the text and people being able to kind of engage with it and get it. And so, I mean, it did make me think about the ways in which it might be more open in a way to other people in engaging with it. But in terms of collaboration with other writers, actually, interesting Lottie made the connection with Nan Shepard, because there are in Margaret Tait’s archive, and she also corresponded with writers and one of the writers who she was in touch with, not to a great extent, was Nan Shepherd. So, they corresponded as well, but she was also close to other poets; a sister in law of hers, wrote poetry, and they kind of discussed poetry together.
And in terms of Pema’s talk, I was very interested by what she was talking about, what could be gained from working on a smaller scale. And I thought I would get out these, Margaret Tait’s publications, that she published in the late 1950s. So that’s a collection of short stories called Lane Furniture. This is a sort of collection of stories for children called the Grassy Stories. And then three collections of poetry, The Hen and the Bees, Subjects and Sequences, which you saw from So, and origins and elements of beautiful publications. But even though she did send her work off to be published, it’s quite interesting to see what she was able to produce outside of that. And that involves a collaborative element as well. This cover is actually designed by Peter Hollander, who was one of the filmmakers that she met while studying in Rome. And they established Ancona films together. And there was Robin Phillips, who she took a night class from Edinburgh College of Arts. Robin Phillips created the cover for The Hen and the Bees. So she did involve others in her filmmaking activities, as well as in her publishing endeavours as well.
SM: Thank you, Sarah. Always so great to have a show and tell. And to hear that Tait and Shepherd were correspondents. It just opens up how much we don’t know. You know, with artists, canonical artists with the dominant embodiment Lottie and Pema were talking about, every scrap of correspondence has been pulled over archive accessed, written about that these rich histories, these friendships, collaborations, even just conversations, like we still have so much to learn from them and the archival work that you’re doing is so important. And I have a question about the archival work before we go to the comments from Elena and Jenny, I hope that’s okay. It’s from someone, who says she’s juggling a cat and a cup of tea. So she’s asked me to read it. She said that Personae feels very much like it sits in an in between space of poetry, memoir, film image, a beautiful description as if it was not just words, but living beings. How challenging did that make it to edit? beyond the obvious archival challenges?
SN: Well, yeah, I mean, it was a big challenge in that sense. I mean, the biggest challenge was trying to, to find my way through the different manuscripts. But in terms of I mean, I won’t take up too much time from the others because in terms of I didn’t, if you read about Tait’s own feelings about the importance of the manuscript or of things to kind of exist and breathe on their own to have a kind of confidence in that in whatever it is, whether it’s Oracle Burn, a film that she’s making, and wanting to keep the text open and responsive. The last thing I would have wanted to do was to go in and change that kind of openness. In terms of editing, I didn’t kind of have any kind of intrusive engagement with the text in that sense.
SM: Thank you, Sarah. And I think the book is absolutely testament to that. The reactions that Hannah says she has been receiving during this discussion we’ve seen of it. It’s such an open work, text and so inspiring, I think, to any of us who are struggling with writing in particular. So the first comment or reflection comes from Elinor Cleghorn. Elinor, I think you should be able to unmute yourself. Hi.
Elinor Cleghorn: Hi, thank you so much to Pema, and to Lottie, and to Sarah for a wonderful talks. Sorry, my light is slightly bright. And also to LUX for making this extraordinary book possible. And most of all, thanks to Sarah for this incredible work of editorship. It’s just, I think it’s the book that we all need now, in these, as we will say, these times. Let’s just call them these times. I read it as it is, being able to be with Margaret Tait’s self, or unpublished self or thinking self or feeling self, over these last few days as incredibly comforting, generous, challenging. And I sort of read, especially the part of the book about that reflects on work as the kind of brilliant manifesto for our time, sort of against rigidity, against elegance, against finishing, against war, against disease, against expectation, against linearity, against routine, and, of course, against the patriarchy. But in that sense, it’s also a work that, in all its brilliance and generosity is always moving towards something and through something; moving towards dancing, moving towards meaning making, time taking, and ritual, and even towards loafing. And even then poetry of course, and poetry is orgasm. I just think it’s startling. And the thing that I wanted to particularly bring up now is this incredible concept of the life certificate that Margaret Tait talks about in relation to her work as a medic. And she writes and this is on page 47 of the book. ‘S p e. l l, whole, whole life certificate 17th of June 1960. I resolve two days ago and still resolve to write no more disease certificates. Only life certificates, life spells, life prescriptions. Poetry is a spell is a life certificate, whole healing, healthy, sane, wholesome hail. So I cannot be a locum anymore, can’t certify disease.’ And I think this concept of a life certificate is just incredible how this sort of radical rethinking of how we might attest to, or confirm life, rather than focus on the moment of its absence. And I think in a sense, also, Personae is a life certificate. It’s a work that explores what it means to certify a life’s work. And this certifies the life’s work through this sort of radical transmission of knowledge between different selves between different practices to especially of medicine, of poetry in the cinema. I think that’s all I have to say. But yeah, huge thanks. And thank you for letting me speak.
SM: Thank you for sharing, and particularly for sharing from your expertise as a writer, writer about film and also about feminist approaches to the body, and to medicine. And thank you for this event, which has been a life certificate, I think, in some way. For all of our certainly working on it, it has been for me and Hannah. We have another reflection from Jenny Chamarrete. And then if there’s no one else who is moved by the spirits, to join us, we will hear some some of Tait’s poems from Alison Miller in Orkney. So Jenny, if you’re ready to join us, thank you.
Jenny Chamarette: You’re making me not want to speak at all now, because I’m thinking about those gorgeous poems I want to hear so much more often than my own voice. And I’m really dazzled by what Elinor has just said. And also really dazzled by Pema and Lottie and Sarah’s contributions, which have kind of opened and expanded the ways that I’m kind of breathing Margaret Tait right now. But something that I was thinking about is the engineering question of what draws me to an artwork? And I don’t think I will ever have an answer to that question. But I know that one of the things that draws me is an appeal to process. When a work encourages me to think about the conditions of its own making, and encourages me to think about the conditions of my own making, my own making as a person and my own making as a writer, maybe as an artist that kind of gorgeous creative chemistry. And that’s something that Margaret Tait’s work does for me. It brings that place of process. And that was making me think a lot about what all of the speakers were saying, but especially what Lottie was saying about quilting, and how when I’m writing creatively, not just academically or critically, but creatively. What swarms in is all of those metaphors of quilting or making or working? Actually not even with my own words, with other voices and the voices of people that I’ve read, and particularly women that I speak to, that I read, that I see, that I watch?
And so that process does always feel like part of a chorus. And perhaps this is a question that I could sort of gesture out towards the speakers is whether you feel that there is, whether you’re working alone, or whether you’re working on Tait alone, whether there is a sense that you’re also working in community, in chorus with a whole host of voices that you might not even know, you might not even have met. Because that’s certainly something for me that feels really resonant and powerful in Tait’s work where there’s something from her but also in concert with a whole host of visible and invisible beings, whether they’re human or more than human.
SN: So, do I have time to respond?
SM: Of course.
SN: Yeah, I think, I mean, definitely, that’s one of the exciting things about it, I think and why this event, it has been great to bring different speakers together as well, to hear those kind of resonances. I have over the years through working on Tait and through watching her films and reading her work. This is kind of an aside, but I’ve ended up making a lot of friends as well, through that kind of shared love of Margaret Tait’s work. So yeah, that is something that I do sense, more of a community as well through that.
SM: I don’t know if Lottie or Pema would like to respond quickly. Or maybe if Alison whose work includes several collaborative projects, including the Scottish Pen Many Voices project for which she is responsible for the Orkney strand, as well as being the reader and resident at Orkney library and archive. And this year, she piloted open book further afield, which brings together reading and creative writing. So I feel like Alison, you might have some reflection on this experience of working in chorus and working as an act of writing, and reading as an act of writing, and writing as an act of reading. So, Alison, over to you. I’m hoping that we still have Alison with us.
AM: Hi, here, I’m here. Sorry. Oh, I’m not able to start a video for sure. For some reason. I think you might be in charge of that. So
SM: I think Ben or Sun should be able to start your video. Great. Okay. Oh welcome!
AM: Thank you and a pink glow because I’ve got pink lights in the window there. Yeah, well, the whole business of collaboration, I work with a group of writers in Orkney at the moment that grew out of the Many Voices Project. And that has been such a joy for me, it’s been a bit like going back to when I first started running greatest workshops in the 1980s. And they are all women who wouldn’t have gone to ordinary writers workshops, which is why I asked Pen if they could make it around Orkney language. I didn’t know anything about Margaret Tait until an American called Sarah Neely told me about her. Although I was born and brought up in Orkney, I didn’t know about Margaret Tait, she didn’t really feature much in my growing up. And it’s only really the work of people like Sarah, and LUX and so on, that has brought her to the attention of a wider public. And she’s become much more well known. And, you know, and as you probably know, she’s even got a plaque up in the cathedral, beside all the male writers from over the centuries. And she’s the first, the one and only women writer to have a plaque in the cathedral. And in the sort of writers corner, which is equivalent of Westminster Abbey that we have in in St. Magnus Cathedral in Orkney. So I’ve been very interested to hear about the ways in which there’s the kind of quilting metaphor for work, for Margaret Tait’s work, but also, for the work of women working together on the greatness of late Margaret Tait. It’s all very pertinent and it all very much reminds me of when I was starting out in feminist groups in the 1970s, when we talked about that kind of thing. We talked about that a lot. And you know I remember a particular piece of embroidery and quilting that somebody did with the caption on it, homemade, I’m afraid. And that sort of summed up the resistance, I think, to the notion that quilting was less of an art than painting. I remember seeing an exhibition of quilts in Aberdeen Art Gallery, where I thought one quilt looked like a Paul Klee painting. And I thought, well, it’s not but it’s not usually in an art gallery. It’s not usually regarded as art. It’s regarded as craft rather than art. And that’s downgraded because of that. But anyway, would you like me, because it’s after half past seven, would you like me to start reading some of the poems that Sarah sent me?
SM: I think we’d love that, although, thank you so much for linking Tait to the incredible work that you’re doing. And the history of feminist work that we saw reflected in Lottie slides. I think of the Greenham quote, and so on. Should we have some poems and then we can all go and see if we can see the great conjunction?
AM: Yes, the moon’s actually out here in Orkney, and I can see a star so it’s possible we might be able to see it. And that would be a very Tait thing to do on this day, wouldn’t it? Right, okay. I’m going to read the poems that Sarah chose, which are all very apt for this time of year. And also, I mean, Margaret Tait didn’t write much in Orcadian but this first poem is in Orcadian and that’s the kind of work I’ve been doing with a lot of women writers in Orkney recently. It’s called ‘Materfamilias’:
Me bairns all are born
Fae me heed and through me hand.
I ha’e no ither kind o’ peerie babe
But only writings and bonny pictures.
I tak weel care o’ them
And send them in the world wi’ scrubbit faces,
An bid them tell the truth.
I’ve tried to gi’e them a grain o’ the airs and graces
To mak their work lightsome
And so as the folk as meets them’ll like them.
But wance they’re oot o’ me care
They ha’e their own life. I’ll no interfere.
If they are strong and weel-made and honest
They’ll mak oot theirsells.
If they are as I meant them a’ to be
Their place is the for them.
A human sort of want might mak me think
That when I’m deed maybe they will recall
To folk as kent me
Familiar tones of voice half minded on
A glance or tone of voice.
AM: And then it’s funny trying to switch between Arcadian and a more kind of standard Scottish, but the next three poems are all in the standard English which I will read in a kind of standard Scottish. This next one is called ‘Northerner’:
It’s the now of all the now
– Now intensified –
For the solstice has been
When the days stood still:
The darkest time of all
– Dark of a darkness
made for renewal – that I crawled into
and lay in,
(Dark, dark the winter keeping)
Waiting, oh waiting for the sun.
In its absence, though,
Knowing of sun there, of
Sun’s own healing, growing, drawing qualities,
Nursing the deep power of the sun.
My north is turning to the sun
And will have long light days,
Will have the light I need
But from which I must recover later
By next long winter of dark days,
Short, dark, inside, budding, moiling,
hibernating days and long nights.
And this next one is called ‘Midwinter’. And you probably all know that the midwinter sun in Orkney sets along passageway of Maeshowe around the solstice and Maeshowe was clearly constructed for this to happen. So this is Margaret Tait’s point in ‘Midwinter’:
Where the sun sets in midwinter
It shines up the south-pointing passage of Maeshowe And enters
warmly at ground level the big stone chamber so deeply dark
for the rest of the year.
The single standing stone in the field there is a little to the west.
West again is the group of huge standing stones,
And the sentinel,
And the Ring of Brodgar, great stone circle.
No wonder the early inhabitants of the young islands
I would have set up stones to
For such an event
As the sun going down behind the hills of Hoy
And then, while it’s away, turning
So that next day it sets a little further west,
And day after day a little further west and a little further north,
Until in the long midsummer days
Which have only twilight instead of dark
The sun going down almost in the north
Merely dips and rises–
But turns again,
Rises always a little further east and south,
Sets a little more west and south.
Oh, anyone at all would have made a circle,
Trailed new-cut heavy stones from anywhere
– From far away –
Monstrous stones needing many men to lug them,
And have raised then upright, pointing to the sky
To stand with shadows sloping
The mystery of the sun’s progress.
(8 January 1958) Published in The Orkney Herald, 18 March 1958
AM: This last one is called The After Memory Supplies Also Later Allusions So it’s a typically a Margaret Tait sort of title:
The After Memory Supplies Also Later Allusions
Out of the snow a bright light
Beckons, then repels,
For it is over-bright, too bare
And hungry in the dark night, —
Inviting travellers to bask
In its sordid yellowness.
My foot falters, but my heart rebels,
Causing my vehicle but momentarily to pause;
I see the empty room, the fire, the paper chains,
And one customer sadly drinking tea
Who stirs to see the lights arriving, people coming, gay
As he would ask.
Accelerating out into the snow,
Un-nerved, I leave it all behind,
But almost see
The disappointed solitary teatime.
The decorations on the Christmas tree
Will fade before the sadness of that sight.
Returning image of his poignant plight
Allies itself, takes paths within my brain
Along with later trouble, keens the pain
Of sharp-felt death.
I only might that night have stopped.
I might have passed the door, have braved the light.
I might have entered in that desolation
And warmed the fire by making it for me.
I might have tried to feast for Christmas Eve
And not, forlorn and shaken, turned my heel.
The brightness of the beam was far too bright,
The darkness of the night received me and deceived me.
The disappointed person in the empty room
Was too alone
The silence in the public place was too alert.
All of the poems appear in Margaret Tait: Poetry, Writings, Stories, edited and with Introduction by Sarah Neely and foreword by Ali Smith (Manchester: Carcanet, 2012), apart from ‘The After Memory Supplies Also Later Allusions’ which is published in Margaret Tait, Subjects and Sequences (Edinburgh: Margaret Tait, 1960).
SM: Thank you so much, Alison, for that incredible reading. Wonderful, illuminated with this pink solstitial light. Thank you to everyone who joined us. We’re going to say good night. Thanks to all the speakers especially Alison, Sarah, Pema and Lottie, and to Elena and Jenny for sharing your reflections with us. And thanks to Hannah and LWP, and to Ben and Sun at LUX for putting together and making possible this beautiful event. Do order your copy of Personae if you haven’t already; it makes a wonderful gift. Although the office is now closed, so it will be a new year’s gift, first fitting gift for Hogmanay, perhaps. Thank you, above all, to Margaret Tait, whose presence I’ve really felt here with us in the most magical way. Goodnight from all of us.
This edited transcript was taken from a transcription provided by Otter.
To order a copy of Margaret Tait’s Personae, published by LUX, click here. Follow LUX on Twitter, Instagram and see their website for current and upcoming events.