First, some background.
Late last year, after Richie McCaffery and I had decided to seek to publish a centenary selection of poems by Joan Ure, one of the first people we contacted was Professor Emerita Jan McDonald, formerly James Arnott Professor of Drama at the University of Glasgow, and we are delighted to confirm that she will be our main reader at the launch on Wednesday. At that earlier stage, Jan was able to help us get in touch with the poet’s daughter, Frances Wren, who lives in Canada. It wasn’t so much a matter of permissions, for Richie had quickly secured the agreement of the poet’s executor, Christopher Small, but we wanted at least to let Frances know what we were planning. Happily, she was delighted at the idea, and wished us well, in due course supplying a number of photographs and providing further background information. As she wrote, in a recent email: ‘The poetry books arrived, and they are great. You did a great job […] Marvellous non-poems, by a very remarkable non-poet.’
The nice point of her irony can be understood with reference to the pamphlet’s ‘Editors’ Notes’, in which we discuss Ure’s own remarks, as made in a letter of 1963 to Christopher Small, then literary editor of The Glasgow Herald:
‘I don’t write poems. I write pieces for acting. Sometimes I type them with irregularly shaped lines, but that’s to help an actor read them, for the sake of the sense, but I don’t write poems at all.’
Of course the contents of the new pamphlet are very much what anyone would recognise as poems, but the crucial way in which they lend themselves so readily to performance is suggested by Ure’s own ironic slant. Her main output was certainly as a dramatist, although as Jan McDonald reveals, in a note to her essay, ‘Is it not possible to have a Poem made out of Theatre?’ – An assessment of the dramas and dramaturgy of Joan Ure’, when she started to write as an adult, after a childhood marked by repression and self-denial, Ure began with poetry:
‘”Joan Ure” (1919-78) was the pseudonym of Elizabeth (Betty) Clark, née Carswell. She was the daughter of a Scottish engineering draughtsman and was brought up in Walesend, near Newcastle. From the age of twelve, she was obliged to look after her father and siblings when her mother contracted tuberculosis and remained a permanent invalid. “Betty” left school at sixteen and worked for two years as a typist prior to her marriage to John Clark, a Glasgow businessman. They had one daughter, Frances. Betty Clark contracted tuberculosis at the age of twenty-nine and it was while she was hospitalized that she began writing, later joining Edward Scoular’s creative writing class at Langside College. She wrote poetry at first, but subsequently developed an interest in playwriting, supported by staff at the College of Drama, Glasgow, now part of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. She chose her pseudonym to distance her ‘role’ as writer from that of wife and mother.’ (McDonald, J., 2002. ‘Is it not possible to have a Poem made out of Theatre?’ – An assessment of the dramas and dramaturgy of Joan Ure. International Journal of Scottish Theatre and Screen, 3(1).)
Alasdair Gray also discusses some of those circumstances in his foreword to The Tiny Talent, and in longer essays that he has published from time to time. One of these appeared in 1980, in an issue of Chapman magazine, entitled Woven by Women, in which the title poem of the present pamphlet first appeared in print. I am pleased to say that with his permission, and with that of the publisher Joy Hendry, we will providing the text of his appreciation of Joan Ure in a further post on this blog.
Now, to Wednesday’s Launch.
As an undergraduate, Jan McDonald belonged to the university’s dramatic society, and thereafter became involved with Theatre Group Glasgow, a semi-professional group with close links to the university, which owed much of its dynamism and ambition to actor and director Robert Trotter (1930-2013). Through this Jan met Joan Ure, performing in a number of her plays, including Scarlet Mood, which she discusses in the essay referred to earlier. Among many other public roles in the arts in Scotland, Jan was involved in the Scottish Society of Playwrights, of which Joan was a founding member.
Also taking part, as well as Richie and myself, we will be pleased to welcome Professor Ian Brown as a speaker. Ian is a freelance scholar, playwright and poet, and Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow. Like Jan, he knew Joan Ure, and he will be sharing his thoughts about her and her work, and reading a short elegy. Further, we will be playing recordings of some of Joan’s words for music, as kindly provided by singer and songwriter Sheila K Cameron, another friend and colleague of the poet’s, as well as a slideshow featuring a few images of Joan that we have assembled, together with illustrations of the manuscripts from which The Tiny Talent was largely edited. Last but very not least, we are looking forward enormously to being joined for the event by the writer and artist, the inimitable Alasdair Gray.
A ‘Foy’ for Joan Ure?
Finally, then, to take an Orkney view of the foregoing for a moment, one of the responses that Marjorie Linklater made to the St Magnus Festival, when it began here in the late 70s, was to organise a ‘fringe’. This comprised a short programme of local song, stories, recitation, poetry and music, to which she gave the name, The Johnsmas Foy, a ‘foy’ being essentially a feast. Swiftly incorporated into the Festival itself, the event has continued to feature, year-in year-out, since that time. I had an inkling, when starting to organise these launches, that what was wanted, in Glasgow especially, was a ‘foy’ for Joan Ure. Well, we shall see…