TOM POW – A Sense of Place in Poetry

As Nigel finished his introduction and Tom Pow rose to his feet, the window of the Mercure Hotel framed an interesting Autumnal scene behind them: twilight clouds loomed along the shoreline; chimney pots half-emerged from the shadows; dark leaves huddled under white street lighting; and brake lights glared up in red flashes at the edge of the pane. It was the ideal scene in which to hear Tom share how he creates his own sense of place in his poetry.
The Dumfries-based poet began the evening with Milk, a poem about his home in rural Galloway. ‘Have you been there?’ the poem asked, and this is what Tom does so well. He does take us straight there. He takes the reader-spectator right inside the poem to become active participants. We go from experiencing the ‘drama of the farmyard’ – becoming ‘moo-minded’ cows – to experiencing a sense of place through the people who inhabit it. So we too stand alongside The Map Man, and visualise ourselves ‘bursting forth out of the darkness’; becoming ‘caught up’ in the idea of running through the same terrain with him until ‘the landscape runs us.’
Tom said he had ‘broken away’ from home to travel extensively for research and for residencies, and this led on to how he fused his journeying with a sense of place. In fact, he explored two ideas around this; the first being the French idea of regagner, where you try to ‘win back’ a place from memory.
In Soviet Map of Edinburgh, Tom showed how a familiar place could be twisted to feel unfamiliar and illustrated this in the ‘fatigued combat-green’ installation on the Soviet map and the further disorientation of ‘tanks along Princes Street’.
Using pictures from his old Ladybird books, Tom evoked a sense of an imaginative journey as well as a physical one. As part of a childhood game played in his back garden, he made every ‘moment last’ in his imaginary Antarctic as Scott and Oates. In The Ambush – A Robin Hood Adventure, this seven-year-old Tom then took us to an imaginative place in which we hide with Robin Hood and Friar Tuck to ‘taste of bread and cheese in manly chunks’.
After these moments of regagner, Tom introduced his second idea around the tensions between the familiarity of the village and the unfamiliarity of the open road: between the obligations, security, and safety of home; the dangers and uncertainties awaiting us on the road; and the ‘elsewheres’ of those places in between.
The Welsh concept of hiraeth, of feeling the pull of ‘the road’ whilst experiencing an overwhelming desire for home, was also introduced. This put me in mind of my own experience of feeling that ‘cruel’ and ‘heart-breaking’ pull for the islands of Skye and Uist, while at the same time experiencing an overwhelming desire to return to my Ayrshire birthplace, which is now home once again. Tom reminded me how useful these contradictory feelings can be for writers and I made a mental note to make more use of them in my fiction.
Tom also spoke movingly about rural depopulation and hiraeth ‘pressing heavily’ when there is no chance of returning to a well-loved place. He illustrated this with a poem about Robert Louis Stevenson in Valima where the pull of home became a ‘claw around my wrist’.
As a recipient of the RLS Fellowship in 2014, Tom enjoyed a month-long residency at the Hôtel Chevillon International Arts Centre at Grez-sur-Loingand in France. Here, he wrote about The Garden at Hôtel Chevillon where RLS met his future wife, Fanny, and this led us on to exploring history and place.
Following up on his project on dying villages, Tom spoke about sites of loss and the ‘threads from a dying village’. In The Choice¸ ‘he’ leaves for the road, while ‘she’ chooses to remain in the village.
Soon the tea break (and chocolate chip cookie break!) was upon us and I had a chance to pick up ideas for new reading material at James’ ‘What I’m Reading Now’ display. I even remembered to bring a book for the table myself (A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman).
Post-refreshment, Tom spoke about places of remembrance, or lieux de memoire, when sites come to embody horrific memories like that of Oradour-sur-Glane where 642 people were massacred in WW2. Tom said visiting the ‘martyred village’ was like ‘stepping into a war time newsreel’, and in Singer, he juxtaposed his ‘mother’s palm gently massaging the black wheel’ of her own sewing machine with the rusted wheels of sewing machines in Oradour that ‘now graze on rubble’. The second lieu de memoire was Bannockburn and How Can I Sing of so Much Blood? fitted perfectly with the Stirlingshire landscape.
The final poem of the evening was The Ballad of Jolanta Bledaite, which Tom said he hadn’t read in public before. He contrasted her home landscape in Lithuania, with ‘forests all around’, to that of her migrant home in Scotland where she worked the ‘fruit fields of Angus’ until her ‘lonely death’ as a ‘child of the fag end of history’.
We rounded off the evening with a lively Q and A session and then Alison summarised the evening expertly before thanking Tom for giving us so much to think about. It was indeed a thought-provoking and inspiring evening which gave me many ideas to work on.
So, evening over, we wandered into the Autumnal evening and stopped to remark, not only on Tom, but on the friendliness of Ayr Writers’ Club and their infectious passion for writing. Under the street light, I saw a twinkle in my husband’s eye.
Quite conspiratorially, he said, ‘I think I’d like to come back again.’
‘You definitely should,’ I said.
‘Good,’ he said, ‘because I think I want to write poetry…’
And so we headed back to the car with massive grins, feeling the pull of our respective notebooks. So I, sorry, we, look forward to seeing you all next time. Thanks, Tom. Thanks, AWC. We can’t wait for the next one.

By Suzy Kelly
10th October 2015

One comment

  1. Carolyn O'Hara

    Thanks for that, Suzy, really enjoyed reading it. Only downside is that I’m now even more annoyed to have missed it!

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