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Features / ‘Writing poetry has been a process of slow cultivation’

Good things come to those who wait as poet Roseanne Watt returns home for book launch and film exhibition

Roseanne Watt.

“I HAVE loved writing since the day my Mam taught me how to write my own name on an Etch-A-Sketch. It’s not her fault. She couldn’t have known it would lead me down the path to poetry. Let there be no blame here.”

From scribbling her own name to scooping the coveted Edwin Morgan Poetry Award and its £20,000 prize, Roseanne Watt has tread a fairly distinguished path in life since the Etch-A-Sketch.

The award last year provided the foundation for the publication of the Shetlander’s first poetry collection Moder Dy, with the book enjoying critical acclaim.

Oh, and Edinburgh-based Roseanne also recently added ‘doctor’ to her title after completing a PhD – no big deal.

This week she is one of many speakers at the Makassar International Writers Festival in Indonesia, but on 4 July she will be back in her homeland to give Moder Dy a local launch at Mareel in Lerwick.

The Polygon-published book, which is interspersed with Shetland dialect, is described as a collection of “profound and assured” poetry that is built from the land and sea.

“The poems cross several channels of inspiration, but I think it’s safe to say that their common concerns are with landscape, language and memory, and all the beasts which wander amongst those things,” Roseanne says.

A ticket for the Shetland launch event – which costs a tenner – includes a freew copy of the book, and with the collection priced at £9 at Waterstones, it appears it could be a night out for bargain hunters as well as literature lovers.

Roseanne Watt performing at this year's Wordplay festival. Photo: Steven JohnsonRoseanne Watt performing at the 2017 Wordplay festival. Photo: Steven Johnson

The creative process which has culminated in the 64-page Moder Dy, though, was not quite the flurry of finger-tapping, ink-zapping inspiration that you may expect.

“There are glorious days where words just flow from thought to page, but they are woefully rare,” Roseanne admits.

“Alas, the rumours are true – the creative process is really about showing up for the work no matter where you’re sitting with inspiration.

“I think everyone knows that on some level, but there’s a difference between knowing something is true and actually realising it. I’m definitely still getting there on that last front. That said, I also think there’s something in letting ideas take seed in your head before rushing them to the page. I don’t endorse it. I can say this with a certain amount of authority – that way lies the slowest route to a full collection.

“For me, though, writing poetry has certainly been a process of slow cultivation. Like rings on hardwood. I’m sure that’s true of many creative practices. Over time, the things that incite your curiosity gather around you, and you just keep digging for their essence. Fairly sure I just plagiarised a Seamus Heaney poem there…”

And so to that Etch-A-Sketch. Roseanne’s more tangible inspiration for throwing herself headfirst into writing mainly lies with Scottish novelist Kevin MacNeil, who took up a residency in Shetland in 2008.

“I was on a gap year then, saving up money so I could pay for my university accommodation,” she recalls.

“I was working in a clothes shop and absolutely desperate for some creative pursuit beyond dressing mannequins, so a friend and myself took Kevin’s night class, where we were equipped with the best writing advice out there.

“I’m sure anyone taught by Kevin can attest to his generosity, and he really spelled out to me the possibility of pursuing writing as something more than just a hobby, which I had never really aligned in myself before.”

Roseanne also credits other “innumerable forces at work which brought me to this path”, including “excellent, attentive teachers” throughout every part of her education, as well as local groups Maddrim Media and Shetland Youth Theatre.

She also dabbles in music, providing vocals and fiddle to now dormant alternative acoustic duo Wulver alongside fellow Shetland ex-pat Claire Laurenson.

“Free music tuition, the writer-in-residence programme, the festivals…they were the creative mortar of my teenage years,” Roseanne says.

“Without them, I know I wouldn’t be doing this now.”

Her work with Maddrim, a youth-led film collective, honed an interest in moving pictures. A quick skim of YouTube and you can find Roseanne popping up in their quirky video skits from the 2000s, but her personal Vimeo page exudes a more mature aura with uploads of film-poems and portraits.

Her latest foray into film, meanwhile, will see Roseanne hold an exhibition in Scalloway in September called Stoal.

It will be showing at the Booth gallery as part of Shetland Arts’ Beyond Bonhoga programme, with the opening due to link into this year’s Screenplay festival.

“Stoal is an exhibition of filmpoetry I’ve been making over the past year with a band of hardy folk we call the Kishie Wife Collective,” Roseanne explains.

“The exhibition itself draws on a few poems from the first section of Moder Dy; ‘Stoal’, which means an old story or legend. It’s where most of the mythic, folkloric poems live. There are a set of characters in that part of the collection who are kind of archetypal figures from Shetland culture which I’ve elevated to the level of deities.”

The exhibition will feature five films – four film poems and a longer piece which is “more of a creative rendering of oral histories…specifically ghost stories”.

“They are all fairly creepy looking creatures, I have to say,” Roseanne continues.

“Over the last few years, I’ve found my filmmaking has taken a sharp turn towards certain aesthetics in the horror genre. I’m fascinated by how it can capture a landscape which is both beautiful and threatening. And threatened, above all.”

So what will onlookers see and hear at Stoal? “Expect to be a bit unnerved.”

Tickets for the Moder Dy book launch on 4 July are available online. Stoal, meanwhile, will take place from 4-29 September.