a better tale to tell
A poem is ‘a form to hold the language of another’ (Brian Teare). In this new work the poem itself contains nothing but the language of others.
A better tale to tale is composed entirely from submissions to the Smith Commission. All but two of the sources are letters from individuals – I tacked around political and civic organizations, and lobby groups. It is a found poem and an attempt to shape a historical record from material that is unique. I cannot think of another consultative process – ‘vox pop’, mass observation, letter campaign – of a similar scale since 1945. By the time that submissions closed over 11,000 people had taken the time to contribute.
A better tale to tell will feature in an exhibition, symposium and digital publication, 'The Shock of Victory', at CCA (Glasgow). This curated programme is an active response to the first anniversary of the Independence Referendum of 18 September 2014, and it seeks to speculate on possible artistic approaches and motivations in what the curator defines as a "post-referendum reality in Scotland and beyond”. There is an open call for the project. Extracts from my – or better, your – poem will be read at the opening and on each day.
All of the conversations, in shop doorways, on buses, in cafes – all of the argumentative threads on social media – all of them still buzzing away, resolving into new policies, changed parties, altered mindsets: what makes Smith different is that these were letters, and they were not written by politicians or paid campaigners. I ignored anything that read like standard political organisational or institutional discourse: let the people's voice be heard.
The letter may be an out-moded form of address, but it does require a different experience of writing – a particular mode of attention. The authors had to negotiate an attitude of relation, illustrated in the different ways in which they addressed ‘Lord Smith’ – liveried in totemic red, white and blue in the photograph above – is a figure of power and high repute (Commonwealth Games), or dispute (fracking) – ‘To’, ‘Dear’, ‘Hello’ or ‘Hi’ – and how they signed off – ‘yours’, ‘thank you very much’, ‘le deagh dhurachd’, ‘TTFN’.
That wee bit of cheek underlines what has changed in Scotland. TTFN is arguably more important as a marker of change than SNP, or any other acronym: it reflects the way people are no longer cowed; and how they refuse to offer a blank cheque of respect towards authority.
The Empire’s Death March down Sauchiehall Street was a big moon directed at entitlement. It will become a mythic event, as surely as Bruce’s duel with de Bohun at Bannockburn. It was a recognisably Burnisian moment of wit and panache. As a historical occasion Smith is more complex, as writing a letter to a Lord requires the negotiation of power and language, producing the different registers of voice and tone that I’ve alluded to. Burns struggled with the same issues in his songs and poems.
Why these letters matter is that they catch the language of a diverse range of people – let's ditch the word ‘ordinary’ – who are attempting to describe – passionately, amusingly, desperately, recalcitrantly, hopefully – the future of their home, land, community or nation. All are anonymous, though one can pick out traces of articulacy, hesitancy, gender, and attitude. Some of the phrases may be seen as dull, not material for poetry, but I believe they deserve the respect that this work intends.
Of course, I have included all shades of opinion: consciously interweaving the argufying and disputatious, so that the reader has to consider the entanglement of certainties and doubts we all have our part in. Whatever you believe, whichever way you voted, what is undeniable is that the use of language is changing and, it seems to me, this change is being accelerated, on the politico-cultural level, in Scotland.
Working on the project I was partly guided by Charles Reznikoff’s two long poems based on found material, Testimony and Holocaust, composed from found material. I was also, naturally, thankful for Tom Leonard’s example of the ethical commitment of the listening ear.
Other work that I have produced in this manner includes the book and blog, today today today, on the theme of illness, wellbeing and death.
Selections from a better tale to tell
we must have
our own powers
there are no advantages
for us here
I feel more
of my place
in this democratic society
than ever before
nobody in power
wants to give it up
politicians must become
with a better tale
who voted Yes
No must mean No
to help them?
are to do with
the moral life
with other people
they are not derived
from a nationalist
change is risk
we are better
than to be seduced
by heroic problem
a better tale to tell can be purchased from our bookshop
blog: To Live in an Independent Scotland
Posted by Alec Finlay