Invited to be Ignited

AM talks to Ayrshire Poet, Simon Lamb

By Alison Craig

It’s one of those days. One foot still in winter, a hand grasping for spring like a toddler reaching for sweeties. A liminal day where anything might happen.

I am at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, to meet with poet/performer/storyteller Simon Lamb, the museum’s Scriever, or Writer-in-Residence.

“Hi!” He turns towards me, warm and lit up with energy. He’s a man you can’t help but be drawn towards. “I thought we could go to the café, get a coffee and find a quiet-ish corner?” His smile is broad and gentle.

Sitting in that quiet-ish corner, we consider his choice of jumper, which is all the colours of the sea. “I thought it reflected the colour of the cover,” he explains, referring to his new book – A Passing on of Shells, published on 23rd February 2023, by Scallywag Press – about which we will be talking today. I can feel the love for this book already.

“I’m so excited to be able to finally take the book into classrooms,” he says. “How beautiful a physical product it is, and then using that physical product to try and get a message home.” His glee is palpable.
There’s so much packed into these few words – a bit like in the book itself, I realise, with its subtitle, 50 Fifty-Word Poems. So, let’s go back a bit…

“I’d better do the condensed version…!”

And there’s the laugh I will get to hear many times as we talk, at once mischievous as a winter burn and soaring as a summer sky.

“I was teaching up in Caithness and at the end of my time there, in 2018, I wanted to find something where I can use my creativity as well. So, I got myself a wee page in the local paper to review children’s books. And several of the books were from Scallywag Press. You could just tell these people loved what they were publishing.”

‘Love’ is a word that will come up again and again in the hour we are chatting.

“And then Scallywag emailed me and said, do you write anything yourself? If so, we’d be interested in looking at it. And of course, that made me very excited…”
His eyes dance now with light.

“So I thought, y’know, I’m just going to take my shot. I said to them, I’m going to send you three small poems from a collection I’ve been working on. I hope you like them. And it just blossomed from there. Eventually they said, ‘If we’re to publish your book, we’d have to start a brand new publishing arm for you’. And they did that for me! I signed with them at the start of 2021!”

So, I ask, why the fifty-word format? What was the glimmer that started that?

“Just having fun. Yeah. And it was the rigour of making it work, the challenge. What epic stories can you tell in tiny words? It was finding that sweet spot of which ones fit perfectly in fifty words, and that felt so expansive. There was something really cool about it. And it was 2020, the pandemic. It was my little escape…”

And now? How does it feel to be anticipating the book’s publication?

“I know that I want to give it the time where I go and be with it. And I think people will look at that book and know that it’s not just a poet who’s really proud of their work. It wasn’t just me; lots of people made this. An illustrator, a poet, a designer, a publisher, and that love shows in the book, a kind of magic. The Universe had its dominoes in a row, you know?”

Ah yes, the illustrations. Big drawings that wrap around the poems on the page. They are breath-taking.

“Yeah, the illustrator, Chris Riddell. As a very young illustrator, he worked with Ted Hughes on one of his poetry collections. And now he wanted to illustrate my book! His illustrations look so sketchy and free in the black and white, and there’s the space around them. You can just imagine them moving. The man is a genius. He used his gut response as an illustrator, and let’s be honest, he’s nailed it, every time. And you can open anywhere between word and image. You’re invited to, well… ignite in some sense. Yes, yes. You’re invited to be ignited. Ooh, I must write that one down!”

So how is Simon going to take the book out into the world, to be shared?

“Well now, in my poet role, I get to do so many school workshops. I love to think, okay, how in fifty minutes [there’s that number again!] am I going to take my passion and translate it in a way that you can understand why I’m passionate about something and why I hope you can find something about which to be passionate. And the workshops challenge kids to pick up their pencil and think, what have I got in my life that I can put on the page? And isn’t that the way with all art? It starts somewhere and ends somewhere. And you say that to a kid, let’s write a poem about a cup of tea. At the start it’s full. And by the end someone’s finished that cup of tea. What goes in the middle?…

“I don’t think a lot of people realise how much of Burns’s life, and the stories he hears as a kid, is built into Tam O’Shanter. And kids respond to poems, they realise ooh, we’ve been let in on something, we’re being treated as equal, as humans, not as wee kiddies. I hope this book will be something they can trust. Those words are so readable, but there’s so much behind them. And I think my experience of working so closely with children gave that insight into what helps the children to unlock those feelings behind those words.”

Ok, so now I want to be a Primary 5 again!

“There’s this thing of, is poetry really going to change the world? Hmm. But I think there’s a lot to be said for the power of words.”

Our time is up now, and we make our way to the foyer, then out into the light that is fading into evening. Anything might happen, I realise, in the gap, the bit in the middle, the space around.

The Rainbow in the Cupboard
we kept a rainbow
at home
in a cupboard
tucked behind the pickles and peas
beautiful thing it was
sparkled when we first saw it
sparkled like you wouldn’t believe
but we left it in the cupboard too long
unloved
and when we looked again
all we found
was rain

To read more about Simon’s work, to find out about events or to book a workshop, visit his website at
https://www.simonlambcreative.co.uk