'I'm more interested in the edges of a place than the heart': Harry Giles maps out a Scottish identity

Monday 25 February 2013

Harry Giles at StAnza's Edinburgh Preview, January 2013/Chris Scott

Harry Giles is a poet and performer, founder of the Edinburgh spoken word collective, Inky Fingers. Brought up in Orkney, he now is based in Edinburgh, but his mind is on many other places, as his guest blog reveals. He will be performing at StAnza's lunchtime Poetry Cafe on 8 March.  One of StAnza's themes this year is Legacy and Place

I'm thinking about what Scotland is more or less every day. There's a referendum coming, after all. I'm trying to work out what the lines on the map mean, or might how we might be choosing to redefine them. I'm trying to work out if it matters more to me to be on this side of the line or that side of the line. For me, place (and the legacy of place) is all about borders.

I grew up in Orkney to English parents – the family moved when I was two years old – so I'll always be an incomer to my own home. I've known no other home but Orkney, but the playground spent a decade reminding me that it still wasn't really mine, and my voice continues to speak the same reminder. I grew up trying to work out which side of the border I stood on, or whether I could just ignore it. And Orkney, of course, is a strange part of Scotland to start with – sort of Scottish, sort of not, and definitely and justifiably sceptical of them down in Holyrood.

It's hardly surprising, then, that when I came to put together my first book of poetry – a wee pamphlet called Visa Wedding from Stewed Rhubarb Press – that the poems started to congregate around the borders. I was trying to write my way through my identities, as many poets are. My tongue has grown more Scottish over the years, and my heart has too, though I've given a lot of both to America as well. Sometimes writing poetry is less about answering the question,“What do I want to say?” as it is about just asking “How do I speak?”

As I do, the pamphlet jumps between the English that colonised Scotland and the mongrel/magpie Scots that colonised Orkney. The poems' places are spread between islands and cities in Scotland, England and America. The legacies of one place are written into poems about another. Most of the poems, in some way, are about a border crossing – a roadtrip, a mistranslation, sex, body piercing, the meeting of tongues.

Sometimes, when I read another poets' nature poetry, or poetry about place, I'm astonished at how secure and assured the language can be. Poems where the writer wholly identifies with a place and gives themselves over to it. I love these poems, but I'm not sure I could ever write one – without one true home to be secure in, I'm not sure I can write unproblematically about anywhere at all.

I think I want to vote to change what the border of this country means. Anti-nationalist and anti-state, I use justifications like “regional governance” and “preserving the vestiges of welfare state socialism”, but I worry that it might be something more personal, more gut. I'd like to live somewhere more definite. I'd like to be able to place a cross in a box that says, definitively, who I am and where I stand. I feel like, to the good, I'm taking part in a huge series of national conversations about what this place is. And while I figure out where the cross goes, while I'm still hopping back and forth across borders, I'm glad that I get to write poems about it, too.

Check out Harry's website and blog here

Photo by Chris Scott

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