I attended StAnza: Scotland's Poetry Festival for my 3 rd year and was delighted to have three poems chosen for the Master Class by their Poet in Residence, Gwyneth Lewis, the Welsh Poet Laureate.
One of my poems was entitled ‘The Currying Shop’ and the discussion centred around this title and whether or not it should be used. None of the thirty or so people present knew what the poem was about until they had finished reading it. Most thought it referred to Indian Food in some way. Considering Scotland has a long and famous tradition in leather production, this did surprise me a little, but I was more surprised that I was advised to change the title if I wanted my poetry to be read beyond my region.
I had attended the StAnza discussion a couple of mornings before on the subject of ‘Homelands & Exile’. The discussion was chaired by Ruth Padel.
Jackie Kay, Gwyneth Lewis and George Szirtes all contributed. Much of the discussion tackled the loss of language and vocabulary and the effect this has on a person’s sense of belonging. Jackie Kay read her excellent poem ‘Old Tongue’ about losing her Scottish vocabulary on moving to England. Gwyneth Lewis read from her book Y Llofrudd Iaith, literally ‘the language murderer’.
I therefore have to ask the question, why is our industrial language of less importance? Why should we not preserve it in our writings as we do our playground language? A currier, (a person who finishes leather after the tanning process) is one of our oldest crafts, modern society would not exist without this important trade and the name is not specific to Scotland. The currier and the ‘currying shop’ can be found across the world. And although today, it is not so often a separate trade but has been incorporated into the whole tanning process, the skills used are very much unchanged, just industrialised.
I believe we should celebrate our industrial language in our poetry as much, if not more than the language of the ancient Greeks and Romans, which I often don’t understand, yet this has never stopped me reading on. Literature should permeate throughout society. Scotland has a fine tradition of poetry within all its classes, and as was demonstrated at StAnza, we continue to lead the way as a nation of poets exploring new forms and ideas. Scotland also has a fine tradition in the production of leather. Both should be celebrated and if you thought reading a poem entitled ‘The Currying Shop’ was going to be a mixture of hot, medium and mild spices, then at least by the end, you will know differently and perhaps want to find out more about the subject. That is what poetry should be about, should it not?
Hazel B Cameron
(Administrator of Scottish Pamphlet Poetry website)
THE CURRYING SHOP
A modern development but nothing new
behind concrete and melamine, the same
distinctive odour of my ancestors’ living.
Recognisable in black and brown: Ayrshire
Friesian, Black Angus – drawn from glens
Some salted, others refrigerated fresh.
Blood and membrane cling. Small panel-mouths
spew tanned hides from vast wooden drums.
Limed and re-hydrated. Shaved and clipped,
then hung to dry. Stretched beyond creation
Opened up, book like – to tell a story
Split, coated and dyed - reds, blues, greens.
A growth mark across the nape remains.
Softly draped over wooden horses – supple:
mushroom-cap smooth; inviting a caress.
This end of kye brings material beginnings:
clothes, saddles, upholstery and shoes –
then and now, a glove like fit: skin to skin.
Hazel B Cameron