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  • Alistair Braidwood

By Leaves She Lives: An Interview With The Scottish Poetry Library’s Robyn Marsack…

Libraries are constantly under threat from cutbacks and closure so it is heartening to see the Scottish Poetry Library thriving. In case there are any poetry lovers who are not aware of the library its title hints at only a small part of what it does. This is the place for all your poetic needs be they local, national or international. The SPL is the literal and spiritual home of poetry in Scotland. It is the point of contact for, and the protector of, Scotland’s Makar and is where you can browse the Edwin Morgan Archive. There is the house blog Our Old Sweet Etcetera, resident poet Ryan Van Winkle’s always entertaining podcast and the library is currently collaborating with the BBC and The Scottish Story Centre on fascinating and far reaching projects. They will have a strong presence at this year’s Margins Festival, presenting Tom Leonard, Don Paterson and Billy Letford at the event known as The 3 Poets. All this and much more, and you can even borrow books! Let’s never forget that the SPL is a lending library at heart, determined to match those looking for poetic inspiration, contemplation and comfort with the appropriate text. If you have never visited, or have left it a while, why not cross its door to find friends old and new, and who knows what you’ll discover?

Director Robyn Marsack is at the heart as well as the head of all that happens with the Scottish Poetry Library and she was kind enough to take time off from her work to answer some questions for Scots Whay Hae!:

SWH: Could you tell us a little about the history of the SPL and how it has developed over the years?

RM: The Scottish Poetry Library was founded by my predecessor, Tessa Ransford, in 1984. It was then a few rooms in Tweeddale Court, off the Royal Mile, and began with 300 donated books. In 1999 it opened its beautiful purpose-built premises in Crichton’s Close, further down the Canongate and now has about 40,000 items in the collection – which is freely accessible and open for lending as well as browsing. We work with poets in schools, and with partners and volunteers in care homes; we have links with a great many public libraries; we hold events including reading groups; we distribute postcards annually on National Poetry Day; and we have a brilliant website, re-launched last month, full of information and inspiration. Like the Tardis, we’re bigger than we seem on the outside!

SWH: Although it is the Scottish Poetry Library it appears to me that Scottish is the least important word in the title, and Poetry the most. How do you view the role of the library?

RM: It’s actually rather an interesting time to have ‘Scottish’ on the label, so I wouldn’t quite agree with your assessment! The core of the collection is Scottish poetry, and we try to collect all the Scottish poetry published. We annually showcase a selection of it in Best Scottish Poems online – in fact the choice of 2011’s poems should be going up towards the end of next month. We’re a unique resource for readers in Scotland and – through the website – those far beyond our borders. Our current strap-line is ‘bringing people and poems together’, and that’s the heart of it: we are all passionate advocates for poetry.

SWH: Libraries face many challenges as literature is consumed in ever changing ways. How important do libraries remain today and do you fear for their future?

RM: While it’s true that people find out about poetry through many different sources, what remains vital to us as a library is the knowledge represented by the staff – and I think even more than the buildings and books, what is threatened these days is the role of the professional librarian. Our librarians do a brilliant job in guiding and enabling readers – the web, as great an aid as it undoubtedly is, cannot replace personal, individual experience and knowledge. We’re a trustworthy source, among the many available.

At the SPL we’re all print junkies, actually, so the look and feel of the physical book is important to us, and I don’t think we’re a dying breed – the people who flood in for our annual ‘By Leaves We Live’ fair in the autumn are testimony to that shared pleasure. The library is one of the few public spaces you can enter and not be expected to purchase anything (although we do love people buying something in our little shop!): it’s a free and free-ing space in a commercialised life.

We’re lucky to have had steady support from Creative Scotland and other public funding, but of course we can’t absolutely rely on that in the future. We’re very glad of our Friends who support us with subscriptions. I do fear for public libraries, because they are such an easy target and even when there is protest, it seems hard to dent the conviction of local funders that libraries are a dispensable element of the community.

SWH: You are collaborating with the Margins Book and Music Festival this year, presenting the ‘Three Poets’ event that features Tom Leonard, Don Paterson and Billy Letford. How important do you think live poetry events are, and who else would you recommend readers should try to see, hear and read?

RM: Of course poetry has its roots in oral culture, so hearing it goes back a long way. There can be a very sharp difference between poetry that works on the page and poetry that works off it, but there is always an interest in hearing the voice the poet was hearing when s/he wrote the poem, with its accents and hesitations, or indeed headlong delivery. We’re delighted to be partnering Margins with this event, which I’m sure will both confirm and unsettle people’s opinions of the poets involved: it’s a great opportunity to hear three generations and to sample the familiar and unfamiliar voices.

As for recommendations, I’d hope that the SPL podcasts would lead people to listen to and read poets they didn’t know about before, or re-read some classics. The same with the ‘poem of the moment’ on our home page.

SWH: With that in mind are there any other forthcoming events that you can tell us about?

RM: I’m looking forward to StAnza in March, the annual poetry festival in St Andrews which is always a great mix of the known and unknown. I’m from New Zealand, and I’ve heard great things about the Samoan poet Tusiata Avia, so I’m excited about hearing her perform. We’re just firming up a date for the American poet Jane Hirshfield to read at the SPL in April (see our events diary for this and events around Scotland), and also for the Poetry Translation Centre’s tour of Persian poets and their translators in May. Scottish by name but international in outlook, that’s the Poetry Library!

* You can become a Friend of the SPL by clicking here or visiting Crichton’s Close. The 3 Poets Event is on at The Arches, Saturday the 25th Feb, at 5pm. You can win a pair of tickets by answering the following: Q: Who preceded Liz Lochhead as Scotland’s Makar? Send your answers to by 10pm, Thursday 23rd Feb, and the winners can pick up their tickets on the door.


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