Book Week Scotland 2020: The Story of a Group Poem

Find out what’s been going on in our sessions as one of our Lead Readers shares news from their group.


The Story of a Group Poem

Lorraine Thomson is the lead reader who runs our Creative Writing group in Ullapool.


When I first became a Lead Reader for Open Book, I was fascinated but also slightly horrified by the notion of creating group poems within the sessions. Judging by the stricken looks I got from the group when I first suggested creating one, they felt pretty much the same. We got tore in anyway and as it turned out, we had a riot. We had such a good time that we created one in the next session and in every session after that. I’m not giving any secrets away when I tell you that the group in Ullapool loves to talk. There are always good discussions when we read the poems relating to that month’s theme, but when we move onto creating our group poem, everyone really lights up.


There are a couple of rules: 1 – nothing is too daft to be added into the mix. Come to think of it, that might be the only rule. It’s a kind of no-holds-barred affair, with everyone calling out ideas, words, half-finished phrases, weird notions, and sudden inspirations, while I try to scribble it all down on huge sheets of paper stuck to the walls. (This was pre-Covid, when we were still meeting in person. We’re meeting virtually now and still managing to create group poems. It’s working out okay, but we all miss the fun of sparking off each other and of working at the edge of chaos.)


With so many ideas flying around, I don’t always catch everything first time, which is no bad thing as in one of our sessions it led to the creation of a new word. Someone said, the sound of sleet on a skylight. When I asked what that sound was, I misheard thrum for flum. Flum (lovely, lovely word) became the title of a zine collection of our poems.


Not surprisingly, the theme for the session when we wrote Ullapool’s Sonic Adventure was sound. We’d read The Songs of Scotland by Stephen Watt and Field Song by Jim Carruth, and now I asked the group to think about the sounds we can or might hear as we walk around Ullapool. I set the game going with the sound of Beth painting light, this being a nod to Beth Robertson Fiddes, a landscape artist who creates compelling images of water, stone, and light in a studio in the village. The ideas flowed and that line ended up being the first in the poem.


When working on the group poems, we spend around 15 minutes teasing out images and bouncing ideas around. Someone will say something that sparks someone else before another person sets it shooting off in a new and surprising direction. Meanwhile, I’m scribbling it all on the wall for everyone to see. It’s a lot of fun. When that initial explosion of energy burns itself out, we take a look at what we have and begin the process of picking out lines and phrases, looking for patterns and rhythms, contrasts and echoes, as we try to make something of the raw material. From start to finish, we spend around 40 minutes creating our group poems, and while there might be a bit of tidying up afterwards, what’s produced in the session is pretty much the finished article. It’s an exciting, satisfying thing to do and seeing it take shape before our eyes gives the group such a buzz. Over the months, these shapes have taken various forms, from list poems to weird rants (a personal favourite called Bloody Wailing Moonface comes to mind). Often they have a dark payoff line. Interestingly, very often the darker the words, the more laughter there is in the room, so I suppose it is something of a cathartic experience.


This particular session was rounded off by a reading of Local Natural Sounds by the brilliant Ivor Cutler. Afterwards, I uploaded our completed poem to Slack (the sharing platform used by Open Book) and a few months later was asked if we’d like to submit it to the Future anthology. We were absolutely delighted when it was accepted and were keen to take up the challenge ourselves when the Scottish Book Trust said they’d like a recording of it. This took place during the summer when social distancing rules were in effect, but we worked around those and while we took turns to go inside individually to make the recording, everyone else was happy to see each other and converse across the expanse of a carpark. The recording was made by one of our regulars who happened to miss the session where we’d written the poem, so it was nice to have him involved in that part of the creative process. We each read the full poem individually and then he edited it together, giving us a few lines each. He made two versions, one just with our voices, and the other with some rather nice sound effects, and it was this second version that SBT used. They used it for the audio book version of Future,and we were stunned when they also produced a film to go along with it. As one of our members said, we’re in a book, an audio book, and now a film, what’s next – a musical?


Listen to the poem read aloud, plus all the other writing from the book.


Watch the ‘Ullapool Sonic Adventure’ film made by Scottish Book Trust: