Friday, September 27, 2019


She counts murdered women. Not women 
wiped out in warzones by bullets and bombs, 

nor the 63 million missing in India - Rita Banerji 
keeps count of them. Nor is she counting 

the Korean Comfort Women, piecing
together what’s left of their bones 

from the fire pits where they perished.  Though 
that too needs done. No, she is counting close 

to home. But not the victims of wild-eyed strangers 
they drilled us to evade: stay with your pals when 

you leave the pub, don’t walk down darkened lanes, 
don’t take shortcuts through woods alone, don’t 

get into vans, don’t wear too short skirts, too 
high heels, low-cut tops, don’t end up a headline, 

a corpse a break-a-mother’s-heart statistic 
in a ditch. Though we miss them too. Every one. 

She counts women, girlfriends, wives, killed with 
shotguns, ropes, with septic tanks and fists, 

with poison, acid, cricket bats and knives, each 
murdered by a man who said he loved her once; a 

boyfriend, husband, partner, ex; a man she’d trusted 
in her heart, her home. A man who thought her life 

no longer counts. But she is counting, every week, 
every one. And we are counting with her.

                                        Magi Gibson

The two images are of an artwork graphic designer Vahit Tuna from Turkey. 

Vahit hung a pair of women's shoes on a building in Istanbul for every woman killed in Turkey by their husband in 2018.

Women in the UK are more likely to be raped, beaten and/or murdered by men they know than by a stranger. One in four women will experience domestic violence.

Two women a week will be killed by a partner or ex-partner.

40% of cases feature over-killing. That is, being way, way more violent than he had to be if he'd simply wanted to "kill" her.

Yet to a great extent this domestic violence, this femicide, has become so normalised that we don't even recognise it as a major problem.

In fact, our news headlines often go out of their way to make up excuses for perpetrators. "Good fathers" snap and kill their "cheating" wives. "Lovesick" men kill the women they adore. As if the woman is responsible for his - an adult male's actions.

Time and again we are invited to feel sympathy for the man, who, we're told, now faces a future in ruins...  while the woman, no longer there, is already fading from view.

Which is why it is so important that the murders of these women are recorded - that we honour the memory of each individual woman, as well as record the build up of statistics.

Murdered women 2018 - Karen Ingala Smith

In the UK Jean Hatchett does sponsored bike rides every week for women killed by men they know.  But Jean doesn't just ride her bike, she also publishes something about the woman she's riding for, enabling the public to see her - and remember her as a fully rounded person in her own right, with friends and family who are grieving. Not just a victim whose last moments are being argued about in a court case, as if she's already become the female corpse we see far too often kicking off the story for detective series and thrillers, whether books or films. 

All part of the horrendous normalisation of male violence towards women in our society. As if by the end of the film/book we really do believe it's all okay, the world is steady on its axis once more because the killer is behind bars, justice has been meted out, and our tired and exhausted cop has done a good job and deserves that weary glass of whisky.




Karen Ingala Smith has been keeping count of all women murdered in the UK since 2013 with her Counting Dead Women campaignAnd again, Karen, who also runs a women's refuge in the north of England, understands the importance of restoring dignity to women who so often are only referred to on the press in such dismissive terms. She also collaborated on The Femicide Census with Women's Aid.

When Karen recorded her 1000th murder she wrote a moving piece detailing why she kept going. 

"I continued because I cannot bring myself to say that the next woman killed isn’t important. I continue because a focus on intimate partner homicides at the exclusion of other killings disguises and diminishes the true rate of men’s fatal violence against women. I continue because the killing of women by their current and former partners is so normalised that it is not recognised as a national emergency[....]I continue because the slaying of women by men, although it has happened at least 1,000 times in seven years, continues to be described by the police and reported in the media as an ‘isolated incident.’[...] I continue because I believe a different world is possible, but it is only by consciously committing to making changes that look at the multitude of factors that support and enable men’s violence against women, that will give us a hope in hell of getting there."

Inspired by Jean and Karen, a woman called Charlie started up another Dead Women Count in New Zealand. While these websites make for grim reading, they really do drive home just how normalised violence against women is in what we like to think of as our civilised western society. A society where, the narrative runs, women have equal rights, are fully protected under law, and are treated with respect.

And in the States there is Women Count USA, also known as the United States Femicide Database.  Nurse, Dawn Wilcox, started it after she saw the public outcry over the killings of two zoo animals, Cecil the Lion and Harambe the Gorilla.  She was taken aback that the public did not get so exercised over the killings of women in their own cities and hometowns. Killings which we are so inured to - why even our country and western songs contain them, complete with heartbroken lovers/husbands, such as Johnny Cash's song, Banks of the Ohio - we seem to think they are an inevitable part of everyday life.  IF YOU ARE BORN FEMALE.

Confession here. I've been singing/humming along, to the Banks of the Ohio for years not fully comprehending it was about a man brutally murdering his lover because she refuses to marry him and he suspects she's been 'untrue'. Same old, same old. And how as girls and women - and as men - we internalise this without realising. And it's not just the old songs. Eminem kept up the tradition when he rapped the pregnant girlfriend in the car trunk suicide song even though it was later censored. And hip-hop has its own streak of "ride and die" rhymes normalising/romanticising/numbing young minds to the horrendous misogyny that simultaneously reflects and shapes a culture that harms us all - but most especially women and girls.

The Women Count USA project aims not only to collect statistics on every woman and girl killed by a male, but Wilcox also works with her team of volunteers to track down photographs and details about each individual woman and girl, so they are not only recording them as murders, but as very real people. 

The statistics are chilling. In 2018, at least 1600 women and girls killed.

One of the issues in the USA is that unlike in some Latin American countries they do not have a clear definition of femicide - the killing specifically of a woman or girl by a male. This makes it much more difficult to present a clear picture of the true and horrifying extent of the problem. 

Statistics and terminology really do matter so we get a clear picture of who is killed and who is killing. 

Now, in whose interests would obfuscation be? Certainly not in those of women and girls. And in Canada Metis artist Jaime Black knows exactly who she wants to remember with The Red Dress Project, which she calls an aesthetic response to the more than 1000 missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. With the donated red dresses she hangs in unusual and unexpected places she honours these women - and shocks a public grown all too complacent and content to turn a blind eye. 
Isn't it amazing that in different countries around the world women are volunteering to do this work, collecting names and statistics? Highlighting the extent of the problem. Commemorating. Refusing to accept that routine killing of women by men - so often as punishment/control/revenge - should be normalised to the extent we no longer as society really notice just how bad it is.
As Dawn Wilcox says, "Femicide, it's the end of the road, where all other abuses of women sort of lead."

Dead women count. We count dead women. And we are not going to stop. Until the killing stops. 

From Women Count USA website

If you, or someone you know is at risk, please reach out. 

Domestic Abuse Helpline (Scotland) 0800 027 1234 (24 hour service)

Victim Support Scotland Phone: 0800 160 1985 (Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm)

With thanks to Poets React (The Poets' Republic) on Facebook and BellaCaledonia where the poem Dead Women Count was first published September 2019.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019


 ‘I told [Leonard], in confidence and as gently as I could possibly do it, that if Virginia had ever been invited to an Edinburgh literary salon – not that it was likely – they’d have set her to butter the bannocks while the Real Poets got on with the chat.’From a dream sequence in “Scotland the Brave – and me” by Joan Ure.  First published in Scottish International Review 1968

In 1983 the Third Eye Centre along with Glasgow Libraries published Noise and Smoky Breath, An Illustrated Anthology of Glasgow, Poems 1900 – 1983. It features forty three male poets, and four women. Now why should this matter? Can a good male poet not write for both sexes? Indeed, one wit quipped in the late 1950s that “a woman poet is a contradiction in terms”, and William Wordsworth wrote, “What is a poet? He is a man speaking to men…”.
             Well, obviously, I do think it matters! But did Glasgow really have an overload of talented bards and a dearth of women who could scribe a decent rhyme between 1900 and 1983? A daunder through anthologies and poetry magazines from the twentieth century certainly suggests that women poets were as likely to pop up in these publications as a capercaillie on a grouse shoot. But just like capercaillies, women writing poetry existed. 
Songbirds Ride the Stag
So why were they hidden from view? And with that invisibility, their unique experience of the world, their experience as domestics, as factory workers, as shop workers, as women who ran homes and held families together against the odds, and suffered - and triumphed over - domestic violence and sexual abuse, and enjoyed sex and love and all the various experiences of being a woman from girlhood to puberty to menopause and after. Why was that all lost to future generations of Scots?
            Well, as Joan Ure points out in the quote at the top of this piece, they were unlikely to receive much recognition from the Great Men. Look no further than Sandy Moffat's iconic painting The Poets' Pub, and you'll get the picture. Literally. The Great Men of Scottish poetry of the twentieth century are busy being Great Men –  and the women...  
The Poets' Pub
See, girls of Scotland! You want to hang out with poets? You can 
a) tout for business in the shadows of the pub doorway (peer into the far right there)
b) lounge drunken, bare-breasted and miserable on a bar-stool 
c) be swept up in a passionate kiss or 
d) be an icon in a mural – La Liberté  in this one – aha, you get to bare your breasts again. 
One thing for sure, you'd certainly be in the background.
Oh, and the female face was always vague. While the men, oh the men! They had strong, well-defined faces. They were thinking, deep, deep thoughts. And they were fully clothed. In very serious trousers. 
Or you might take up the Muse Option. Then you get to drink with the lads, as young Stella Cartwright did in the late 50s and 60s. Stella, it’s claimed, had hundreds of poems written about her by many of Scotland’s greatest poets of the mid-twentieth century. Described by one as “a lassie frae the mune”, and by others as ‘The Muse of Rose Street’. One of her poet lovers claimed, "An orgasm with Miss Cartwright was metaphysical, transcendental, like nothing else you can ever imagine. She seemed built for love." 
Stella also wrote poems herself. But a career in poetry? For a lassie? In the 60s? 
She probably had more chance of being frae the moon. Her story, which ended in tragedy, prompted me to write this poem in her memory.

     Stella, The Muse of Rose Street 

Poets gaze at her. Oh, the brightness of this teen, 
her golden laugh, her hair! In Milne’s bar, all oak

and smoke and gloom, her father orbits round 
his sparkling star, observes his drinking mates ignite

bright as turnip lanterns when she’s near. He preens 
himself to know this girl whose face illuminates 

the dullest room, this girl for whom these men will spill 
their pens, this adolescent who incites such passion 

with her numinescent glow, is herself a work of art 
that sprang from him; his very own creation.

And while she sparkles ever brighter, supping 
whiskies down with compliments from poets twice 

her age, while with gentleness she carefully unknots 
the jingle-jangled tangle of their genius heads, 

in distant darkened rooms the great men’s wives 
tuck their children safely in their beds. 

                                                 Magi Gibson

Poetry is not only about recording the present and reflecting on the past. It can be a revolutionary act. Through poetry we can imagine the future - and make it different. As Audre Lorde (1934 -1992) said in her seminal 1977 essay Poetry is not a Luxury “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.” 

            Scotland was the loser in the twentieth century when it failed to make equal space in its literary canon for the voices of its women to not only record and explore the nation and culture at that point, but to shape the political, cultural and social future it might have.
            As Dorothy MacMillan records in her introduction to Modern Scottish Women Poets in 2003, those few female poets of the mid-century who persevered did try on occasion to take the Great Men to task. A particularly feisty exchange occurred over an anthology edited by Norman MacCaig in 1959 where he included no women. NOT ONE.
          When a Scotsman reviewer raised concerns MacDiarmid dismissed the women poets of the time as ‘the bevy of Scottish songstresses’ and their poetry as “superannuated kinds of verse”.  
          As Mary Beard so eloquently explains in her essay, The Public Voice of Women, men from Greek times onwards have sought to keep women from having a serious voice in the public sphere. To label the Scottish women poets as songstresses sent out a signal loud as a rutting deer in a highland glen there was no place for them in the male world of poetry. It was designed to suppress Scottish women poets – and in so doing it deprived the culture of its true heritage. As Elizabeth Burns later wrote,  “To believe in our voices as poets and to begin to mark out a place in the tradition in the face of such a denial takes a certain amount of courage and defiance.”

The Bard of the Glen

But by the late seventies a new generation had come along, and a small group of feminist women in Edinburgh who wanted to write, and write on their own terms formed the Pomegranate writing collective. They’d had enough of being sidelined, of being up against the kind of rejection that American poet Sharon Olds experienced when she first submitted her poetry to literary magazines in the 1970s. "They told me,” Olds says, “'this is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest the Ladies' Home Journal. The true subjects of poetry are ... male subjects...' ". 
           Olds persisted in writing, including her glorious Ode to the Hymen and Poem for the Breasts, and in 2013 became the first American woman to win the TS Eliot Prize for poetry. 
            In Edinburgh the Pomegranate women’s collective, gaining in self-confidence, formed a small publishing house, Stramullion, (old Scots for strong woman). In 1980 they published a poetry booklet of their own work, Hens in the Hay. In 1984 the Workers Educational Association started up a women only writing group in Stirling. They even had a crèche, and produced an all-women collection of poems and short pieces, Recurring Themes,in 1985. That group led to both myself and the poet and novelist, Helen Lamb (1956 - 2017), starting to write, getting published, and going on to produce poetry that’s been anthologised both in Scotland and internationally for decades. 
            But the big landmark in Scottish women’s poetry in the twentieth century was Fresh Oceans, the Stramullion anthology published in 1989. Here were over forty women collected together for the first time, and not a buttered bannock in sight. Strong, individual voices in English, Gaelic and Scots. Meg Bateman, Dilys Rose, Gerrie Fellows. Oh, I’d love to list them all! At last Scottish women poets could see each other, read each other as a distinct group. 

"when a hegemony is to be breached it is the appearance of a larger group that truly marks the possibility of real change"

Of course, before that there had been occasional women poets appearing on the Scottish poetry scene, in particular, Liz Lochhead with Memo for Spring in 1972, Valerie Gillies in 1977, and then Kathleen Jamie with Black Spiders in 1982. But when a hegemony is to be breached it is the appearance of a larger group that truly marks the possibility of real change. And no more 'songstress' nonsense.

American poet, Adrienne Rich (1929 -2012) has written of the frightening “tunnel of silence” the marginalised often find themselves in when no voices seem to have told their stories before. We hear in different fields the phrase, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. For whole generations of young Scottish women the female giants of their own country had been hidden from sight, the canon dominated by male voices, and the tunnel of silence as they tried out their poetic voices seemed very real and scary. With the publication of Fresh Oceans, at last the “tunnel of silence” in Scotland had voices in it singing out loud and clear in all three leids - and we were not going to fall silent again. 

            Soon after, in the early 90s, came Polygon’s Original Print series, a mix of poetry and short stories featuring new work from Scottish women writers that helped develop the fledgling voices of writers such as AL Kennedy, Janice Galloway, Ali Smith and others. 
            In Glasgow by the second half of the 1990s the Glasgow Women’s Rights Education Network (WREN) was also running writing groups and undertaking publishing. Very much a grass roots and working class initiative, their third anthology from their Smeddum imprint, Silent When I Should Be Screaming (1997) was dedicated to women who’d committed suicide in Cornton Vale Women’s Prison. In a letter in August 1998, Tom Leonard mentioned by name poets Lesley Benzie and Sandie Craigie, saying “… it has been evident for some time that a lot of the most interesting and worthwhile stuff in poetry being produced in Scotland just now is being done by a wide range of women writers...”

      In her essay in Chapman 74 – 75, Women’s Forum (1993) one of the original Stramullion group, the hugely respected and much missed poet Elizabeth Burns (1957 -2015) writes, “this need for self-confidence, for support, for someone to tell us we are poets seems a particularly female need.” 
           Women in Scotland had at last started to self-organise and create the all-female spaces they needed where they could share work on topics that mattered to them without fear of put-downs from men or being told they were not fit topics for poetry, places where they could support and encourage each other and not be expected to fall into the traditional buttering-the-bannocks role. Or worse, be dominated as men spoke over them. 
            As recently as 2015 research shows women were not confident their voices were being heard in public discourse. “Women still have confidence in their views, even when they see that their status is low,” said Tali Mendelberg, a Princeton University professor who is co-author of The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation and Institutions, a study from Princeton and Brigham Young University published in 2015. “But they’re not confident that what they have to say is valued, and that in turn shapes how willing they are to speak, and what is discussed. Society signals that the domains of power are still reserved for men.”
            Meanwhile, in the 1990s, more women were beginning to appear at pub poetry readings, though as Elizabeth Burns explained in her Chapman essay, “the haunt of the male writer – the pub – has often been closed to women”. It’s worth remembering just how male the preserve of the pub could still be in 1980s and 90s Scotland. Only a decade earlier bars existed that still didn’t have women’s toilets (and I don't mean they were mixed-sex) and a woman was often met with cold stares and disgruntled comments, not to mention suggestions she should leave. 
            The University of Glasgow had an all-male students union until 1980, its misogynistic legacy still being played out at the utterly shameful debate in 2013 where a woman speaker from Cambridge suffered overt sexist harassment. 

                Pubs chosen for poetry readings might be more woman-friendly, but even so, women poets needed to be exceptionally brave to get up and read in such a male domain, especially as their writing might, quite obviously, have women’s concerns and life experiences at its heart. One man complained to me in the mid-90s, why do you women always have to write about childbirth? (I didn't. It was one poem about a scan when I'd been told the baby I was carrying might have died in utero. Part of my life as a woman.)

 On another occasion a regular came up to me at the bar after with the dubious – and destined to fail - chat up line, “I had a wet dream about you after last week.” And another time a male member in the audience at the Clutha Vaults gave me a ticking off for using "swear words". On the plus side, I got a poem out of that particular experience.
            Often there could be a clash of cultures. While some women were using poetry to speak about hitherto taboo subjects such as incest and domestic abuse and bring them out into the open – their poetry being a precursor to #metoo some 20+ years later – the dominant lads’ culture thought it a fun idea to run a raffle as part of a lit mag evening and offer a prize of a Playboy porn video.  (What did they think I'd want that for?)

"Women wanted to use radical poetry as a power tool for political change."

           But we women needed to write our lives. We wanted to use truly radical poetry as a power tool for political change. We had breached the pub doors, we had taken control of publishing for ourselves. And we were getting noticed.

            Recognising the sudden upsurge in activity from women writers, many of the literary magazines were keen to feature more women. Opportunities were opening up and by the 90s women were appearing more and more, particularly in the newer burst of magazines such as West Coast Magazine, Cencrastus, Rebel Inc, Northwords.The women-run magazine Harpies and Quines featured feminist poetry. Gairfish published a special Calemadonnas: Women and Scotland issue in 1994. 
            The Edinburgh University Press imprint, Polygon, along with the Women 2000 movement launched a Women’s Writing Competition, Looking Forward to the New Millennium. Part of that venture was the anthology, Meantime, published in 1991, followed by a conference at Glasgow University, with speakers like Liz Lochhead and Janice Galloway.
Chapman in particular, where editor Joy Hendry had been championing female writers for years, was publishing more and more collections from women throughout the 90s. 
            And why does this matter? Because being creative, having the self-belief to be a poet can be hard enough, but to do so in a climate where one is constantly being given signals, subtle and not so subtle, that you’re a second-rate songstress, or you belong in the kitchen, or on the moon being the Muse, or sitting on a bar stool with your breasts hanging out, is soul-destroying. 
           As Janice Galloway said in her introduction to the Meantime anthology, ‘Do we need encouragement and the support of other women’s writing? Do you really need to ask?’  
            Breaking down old hierarchies is never easy. Bias is rarely a conscious trait as anyone who has suffered racism at the hands of kind people can no doubt attest. In the 90s and noughties it was not at all unusual for a poet like myself to read at events and be the lone woman in an all-male line up. It certainly was the norm for the men to headline. At the launch of one magazine, I congratulated the organisers (ironically) on inviting me as ‘the token woman poet’ when I took the mic. 
            But, you might be thinking, that’s all ancient history. Ah... if only! 
            In 2015 an event in Glasgow - one that sees itself as radical - accidentally billed a poetry line-up with eleven men and one woman. The subject? Looking back at the Independence Referendum. An important political topic. 
           Were our female poets too busy buttering their bannocks? 
           When I contacted the organisers to object they apologised and tried to fix it, rather late in the day. But how could it even have happened? Because of millennia of conditioning? Or because women are not a minority and therefore silencing (by omission) does not count as oppression? 
            In 2000 I was sitting on the Scottish Arts Council Grants to Publishers Committee. An application came in for a Scottish anthology of new writing on the theme of Irishness in Scottish writing – with almost no women included. Three male editors. All intelligent men who’d see themselves as enlightened. I refused to give my backing for funding until the editors actively sought out more women writers. Which they did. Because there were women writers in Scotland who should have been included. They had failed to identify them. And simply hadn’t noticed. Neither had anyone else on the committee. In the end the anthology came out with a ratio of  thirty four men to eleven women. Yes. That was the improved ratio. It had first been presented with four women. And I was made to feel I was being difficult in insisting more women be included.  
            Oh, the Lord save us from a difficult woman!             
            But nonetheless, she! and she! and she! persisted. 
            Until today we have wonderful women’s voices adding whole new dimensions to the Scottish poetry canon. Of course, there are those you know. Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay. Kathleen Jamie, Janet Paisley, Sheena Blackhall. And many others. 
            And there are some remembered in part because they died too young, such as the ground-breaking Glasgow poet, Maud Sulter (1960 - 2008).

Maud Sulter
In 1985 Maud was experimenting with urban Scots in Thirteen Stanzas:

Trip tae the local – shoapin centre – dogshit boarded up
            business –
capital before people – profit before
            need – hustle –bustle – cheery hullos –
how’s it gawin? – how ra wains? - - n the damp? – auld school

Unrecognisable – under the weight – o lost dreams and 
            illusions – other places – 
other spaces - other possibilities – beyond the
            Predictable – bloke – screw – n
how do ye do – quick jaunt up the aisle – offer a
            smile – bridesmaids in candy

(MS) from As A Blackwoman (Akria 1985)

And then there was the irreplaceable Sandie Craigie (1963 - 2005), who would no doubt have bellowed with laughter had MacDiarmid tried dismissing her as ‘a songstress’ writing ‘superannuated kinds of verse’. 

She wakes an casts oot
dreams wae a fag an
donnes her black
an stands bi the windae

In the backgreen, claespoles lean
West as if towards the sun
In atween the gravel, shoots 
dae a per imitation ae gress
pigeons an sparries pick-fikey
at the earths carcas

His washins hung 
here as the dayz long
She cannae bear tae
bring it in
Bi night its crackt
in the winds dry air
skelpt tae life

An even then only half the man
… the ghost ae him


Two more voices often missed from anthologies are those of Margaret Fulton Cook and Lesley Benzie. 
            Margaret Fulton Cook was involved in Glasgow in the early 1990s with the editorial team of West Coast Magazine. Her first full collection of poetry, Good Girls Don’t Cry, was published in 1996 by Chapman. 
           Poet and publisher Graham Fulton, brought out a pamphlet of Margaret’s poems, Burning Orange, in 2015 under his Controlled Explosion imprint. “I can't think of another Scottish woman poet who has written about such tough subjects as madness, abuse, disability, inequality, war and violence in such an uncompromising, fearless way,” he says of Fulton Cook. “Beautiful, moving and brutal. Full of humanity. She always does it her own way and that's probably why she's not as well known as she should be. She writes about outsiders, subjects often looked down on, subjects people would rather ignore. She is never part of the club, the establishment, and she wouldn't have it any other way. Yes, I think she's been overlooked, as are many, but if there's any justice her lyrical honesty will be rediscovered and remembered long after others have been forgotten. The same reason she's important is the same reason she's been 'overlooked'.” 


look at the size o that
Bella said
as she cradled
a hot steaming shite
from the unlocked toilets
as if it was
a fragile fortune
as if it was
some unwanted orphan
as if it was her long awaited child

she strutted through the ward

thirty years before
her husband
strutted through the war


glory filled
Bella had danced
her man came back
from the war
with stockings, stories
and a long line of gory tales
of dying men
and wandering WAFFs
but never mentioned 
the campaigns
of his untouchable barge pole
that put Bella
in an asylum
for the rest
of her life

medals from the king

Bella carried the shite
the ward sister
told her
to put it back where she got it

largactil burned in her mind
tears burned in her eyes

but obediently
Bella stuffed her thoughts
and dreams
down the drain
of the hospital sink.     


Aberdeen poet Lesley Benzie also writes with pared down honesty and humanity about people living on the edge of society. Many of Lesley’s poems are in an contemporary urban Doric. Her first – and only – collection to date, Sewn Up, was published in 2000 with Wisdom Teeth, an offshoot of Glasgow-based Cutting Teeth magazine. Lesley, like Margaret, is a fine performer and was one of the poets on the Two Weegies, One Quine, an Edinbury Whoor and a Sassenach Too tour to New York. Lesley being the Quine and Sandie Craigie the Edinbury Hoor. 

            After Sewn Up’s publication there was a flurry of readings around the book, then Benzie found herself increasingly unsure of how to move her poetry forward. Lesley was writing in urban Aberdeen dialect about the most disadvantaged in that city. She contacted Aberdeen University who were hosting a literature festival featuring poetry hoping to read at it, but they suggested her poetry perhaps wasn’t quite right for them. With a lack of support and direction for her poetry, and the need to support her young family, Lesley moved towards writing for film.

Aneath the stairs

Havin nothing else
but neighbourly relations,
she wis caught
fan he said he had something for her.
Then she wisna sure
if he wanted ti gie her it at a,
cause, as he placed it in her hand
he pulled it back
and fore
then pinned her to the wa
aneeth the stairs, ahind the lobby door.
His grin frothed whispers
she didna understand
till he came
ti the point
in her hand
She pulled aha
her sma grasp
on reality,
intae the childhood fold,
She closed the door
and washed,


Perhaps it’s no surprise that when voices have been suppressed in a tunnel of silence and are at long last given space and permission to speak, what emerges first is pain.           Wounds need to be exposed to the air so they can be cleaned out and healed. We need to be able to point and say, look this is where it hurts. Come see it through our eyes, listen to it in the rhythm of our voices. 

            Writing in the 90s both these poets invite us into worlds where poetry had not often dared to tread. They do so with humanity. They write in living language.  Muscular, musical language that is spoken aloud, that is muttered, that knows pain, that can get you into trouble if you use in the wrong place or at the wrong time, that can bring derision down on you, that often labels its speaker as being lesser in some way, less intelligent, less wealthy, less refined, less educated. Simply less...
            Through these poems the poets give these voices power. They say, we are here.
            Polish poet, Anna Swir (1909 -1984) said, “The poet has a conscience with room to grow. What does not, as yet, shock and outrage others, shocks and outrages her.” 
           Both Fulton Cook and Benzie  are poets who do not flinch from the injustices of society. Their poems combine anger and humanity, they are capable of uncovering wounds, and of healing them. And doing so with technical skill and beauty.
            Of the later poems in Fulton Cook’s Burning Orange, Alasdair Gray says, “They give  shapes and voices to the most injured people in our selfish and wasteful country.” And the same can be said of many of Benzie’s poems in Sewn Up.
            I hope they’ve both been writing away all these years. Scottish poetry is richer for their voices in the silence, it is richer for the voices of all its women poets now ringing out loud and clear, bearing witness, exploring, documenting, celebrating what it is to be a woman in Scotland today, and no longer lost in a tunnel of silence.

Magi Gibson 2019

A version of this first appeared in print in The Poets'Republic 7 (Spring 2019). I am posting here so it can have a wider readership.


She counts murdered women. Not women  wiped out in warzones by bullets and bombs,  nor the 63 million missing in India - Rita Banerj...