Home > Blog, Literature > The West Port Book Festival: Day One – Douglas Dunn

The West Port Book Festival: Day One – Douglas Dunn

Edinburgh Books seemed far from cramped as the smiles of hearty Westportians filled the shelves, and spaces between, for this the first event of the four-day festival. Douglas Dunn was in fine form, reading from new work and old. He opened with a muse on the nature of discovering new cities, claiming he had been lost in almost every capital city in Europe. Even Florence apparently, which is very small. In ‘Bon Voyage’, Dunn decribes a place where “Tourism is not forbidden, merely discouraged” and the feeling that the next few days might see myself, and others, get lost in the West Port is something I can’t escape.

Dunn perfomed work exploring his childhood in a world where the writing of poetry was unknown. He conjured questions for the audience on the nature of reputation, of Philip Larkin’s disdain for new poets who “couldn’t even scan”. He tells us that “ambition determines you, then trips over itself”, sage advice from this grand master of the poetic form. When he tells us “I don’t know all the answers, I just know where to find them”, he is explaining the hunger that from his youth has informed his work. He wants to give us this advice almost reluctantly. You cannot deny, however, the belief that he is worth listening to. Listen we did, with only the faint squeak of a blowing fan in motion and the silent rumbling of nodding heads and smiles spreading.

In his poem ‘Chaplin’ he takes us back to the cinemas of his youth in Renfrew and Paisley, where he would watch Charlie Chaplin perform his “pathos in rhapsody”. Telling us of his hero: “What is love? your movies seem to say…uttered in silver light but never spoken.” Dunn’s childhood film houses have “chewing gummed floors” and his voice carries the weight of generations of observing and understanding the world around him. Incidentally, he explains to us, this poem was approved by the Chaplin Foundation in Paris, a capital city that always concerns itself with reputations.

He finished with ‘Thursday’, a piece of work on the boredom he accused himself of eliciting in lectures. Thursday had for him been a day with too many seminars and tutorials at St Andrews University where he was a professor. He is professorial in his ability to captivate you, to make the images appear in your mind, to soothe, and to inform. Douglas Dunn is a wonderful poet, both on the page and in person. A fine start to this literary celebration.

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