About Valerie Gillies
Valerie Gillies’ poems are of a startling clarity. The precision of thought and image that coalesce in her vivid and occasionally microscopic descriptions might prompt a line of comparison between her work and that of the earlier, American poet, Elizabeth Bishop. This is a connection that is further borne out in the poems’ preoccupation with journey and discovery, a focus that gives us the sense of the poems’ being somehow turned outwards, towards the world beyond the page, that is, and towards the reader. Accordingly, Gillies’ subject position is often a collective one, a ‘we, or, indeed, a ‘you’, that evokes a sense of communal thought and feeling.
An established poet, Gillies has become a fundamental presence in contemporary Scottish poetry since receiving her Eric Gregory Award in 1976. Born in Canada, in 1948, Gillies grew up in Edinburgh and on the moorlands of Lanarkshire, in Southern Scotland. She has received multiple awards from Creative Scotland and was shortlisted for the Saltire Award in 2016. She both fulfilled (from 2005-2008), and helped shape, the post of the Edinburgh Makar or poet laureate to the city, a role that has since been taken up by Gillies’ contemporaries Ron Butlin, Christine De Luca and Alan Spence (Stewart Conn was the inaugural Makar, in 2002). She has been a Royal Literary Fellow at Queen Margaret University (2010-2012) and both writer-in-residence and Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh, successively, for a decade, from 1995 until 2005. She is currently a sessional artist on the staff of Maggie’s Cancer Centre Edinburgh, facilitating Creative Writing through the medium of poetry to promote healing and personal growth for the Centre?s patients.
In addition to her various academic and institutional postings, Gillies frequently collaborates with visual artists, most recently with fibre artist Anna S. King. King and Gillies worked together to create an exhibition, A Garden of Time and Silence (2016), in response to Dawyck Botanic Garden in the Scottish Borders. In such projects, Gillies observes and reinterprets nature and existing mythologies. In its striking and enigmatic mixed media works influenced by the changing seasons, archaeological findings in the surrounding countryside and the Dawyck’s location in the Tweed Valley, A Garden of Time and Silence drew viewers both into and out of the silence of the undisturbed, arboreal environs from which it had sprung.
Such preoccupations can be said to extend to Gillies’ published collections of poetry, where she shows herself to be a writer who is simultaneously respectful of the tradition she writes into and critically aware of it. Indeed, the sonic properties of Gillies’ work act to reflect her diverse influences, including Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Unfinished Poems & Fragments, and the work of John Clare and Michael Longley. In ‘Ravendean Burn’, Gillies’ use of mimetic birdcalls prompts the speaker to observe how the raven ‘likes to toc the toc’, that ‘Anything with a vocal edge goes down well with him.’ With many of her poems palpably influenced by Scottish ballads, rants and songs, as well as the music of the natural world (including birdsong and the sonic signatures of wells and springs), Gillies may be said to be invoking the lively raven in this poem as a proxy for her own poetic approach, a fact made manifest in the Archive’s recordings of Gillies’ dynamic readings.
Valerie's recording was made at The Tun, Edinburgh on 4th October 2017
Poems by Valerie Gillies
Featured in the Archive
Books by Valerie Gillies
The Jordanstone Folio, with 12 artists
Tay Press, 1990
Poeti della Scozia Contemporanea, Supernova, Venezia [translation]
St Kilda Waulking Song, artist's book with Will Maclean
Morning Star, 1998
The Cream of the Well: New and Selected Poems