I was delighted to have the opportunity to run an event at The Stove in Dumfries in February. They are a really exciting arts network who have been a driving force in revitalising Dumfries town centre in recent years, part of a much broader flowering of cultural activity in the region.
Beyond Burns was an evening of poetry and talks about literary Dumfriesshire & Galloway, past and present – the first event funded by my British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship. It was an opportunity to engage with the local public, aiming to inspire thinking about other literature connected to the region around the time of Robert Burns, as well as more contemporary writing.
After an opening talk in which I surveyed some of the early fruits of my research, I was delighted to give the stage over to three local poets: Hugh McMillan, author of many books and pamphlets including Not Actually Being in Dumfries (2015) and McMillan’s Galloway (2016); Liz Niven, widely published in Scots and English and recently the editor of I’m Coming With You (2017); and Stuart A. Paterson, the latest BBC Scotland Poet in Residence, who has a new collection titled Looking South (2017). All three poets gave performances featuring a mix of their own work, other local poetry and reflections on the literary history of the region, with particular stress on issues including place, gender and language.
‘Knowledge Exchange’ and ‘Impact’ in academia have acquired the off-putting quality of all buzzwords. But literary scholars are among those best placed to engage with wider audiences. I’ve been really heartened at the response my project has had from the local community over the past six months. It’s clear that there is a significant wellspring of local knowledge and enthusiasm for eighteenth and nineteenth-century subjects. Through my involvement with the Oxford University Press edition of Burns at Glasgow, I was introduced to some creative ways of tapping into the massive public interest in Burns. Certainly no other D&G writer has his profile, but there is a real appetite for the wider literary-historical landscape here.
Engaging with three contemporary writers has also been a refreshing way of developing my thinking. Liz, Stuart and Hugh are all poets with a keen interest in the historical, geographical and political issues around living and working in this part of Scotland, with its unique perspective on local, national and global contexts. Further collaborations have already been mentioned – it’s great to reach beyond the traditional confines of scholarly research and participate in what is an optimistic moment in the region’s arts scene.
Beyond Burns was well-attended and closed with a Q&A session, before an after-hours writing workshop for keen attendees. The response to the event has been brilliant – I hope that it has helped to stimulate some new conversations about this rich literary history – including but also beyond the legacy of Burns.
Thanks to The Stove for all their help. Credit to Galina Walls for the photos from the evening.