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Writing from a pro's perspective

A new writers' festival in Orkney next week will mean special masterclasses for island children. David Hartley reports

As poet and playwright George Gunn took the ferry to one of the most remote of the Orkney islands, he scribbled in a battered notebook.

On the way to Westray I looked at the sea And it looked back at me Its eyes were a thousand green fish.

I saw the fields and heard the grass grow It was like thin sweet elastic.

The words were heard first by pupils at Pierowall Junior High, Westray's combined primary and secondary school. "I read them the poem, then worked with them as they wrote their own," George says after a morning with P6 and P7 and afternoon with S1 and S2.

He encourages the youngsters to describe the world around them as if it had never been seen before and to feel confident in the use of imagery, metaphors and similes. "I also try to instil in them a feeling of pride in their own creativity," he says.

"During workshops I get them to read poems they've written. It teaches them that poetry is an oral art and that your tongue, voice and ear matter as much as pens, paper, printing presses and computers in the creation of poetry."

The process of helping the students gain an author's appreciation of the written word continues next week when George's idea for a writers' festival on the islands comes to fruition and leading lights in Scottish literature take part in the first Orkney Skald.

George is the current holder of Orkney's creative writing fellowship, a six-month post funded by Orkney Islands Council and the Scottish Arts Council. As a writer in residence, he spends much of his time in Orkney's two main schools, Kirkwall Grammar and Stromness Academy, as well as those in the smaller outlying communities. He is the third author to hold the post and he hopes a growing appreciation of the value of bringing children into close contact with writers will mean that the nxt fellowship, in two years' time, will last for 12 months.

"If the writer could go into the schools at the beginning of the academic year it would make such a difference. I started in January. I could look at the written work of students doing Highers and Sixth Year Studies and make suggestions about how it could be improved. That's fine, but it would be so much better if the writing fellow could start in September, instigate work and help in its development throughout the school year."

School visits headed the list of priorities for those organising the skald. They will provide a rare opportunity for pupils to hear the words of four literary star turns - Dilys Rose, Alasdair Gray, Angus Calder and Suhayl Saadi - along with local writers and musicians. They also offer the authors a unique chance to meet young readers in Westray, Papa Westray, Sanday, Stronsay and Hoy, as well as in Orkney's two main towns, Kirkwall and Stromness.

Orkney has a proud literary tradition as the home and inspiration for George Mackay Brown, Eric Linklater and Edwin Muir. But short story writer Dilys Rose expects the pupils she encounters at Pierowall Junior High to share her childhood view that books are always written by someone else. The Edinburgh-based author has just published her first novel, Pest Maiden. As a child, she never considered writing as a career.

"As children, we were never exposed to people who wrote books. So I hope those I meet in Westray will want to know what it's like to make a living from writing," she says.

English teacher Allan Forrester sat in on George's two workshops. "I know how poetry works, but I'm not a poet," he says. "He approaches the subject from a different perspective, that of someone who actually writes poetry. I felt really proud of the children when they read out their poems."

The Orkney Skald takes place next week, Monday to Friday, June 11-15.

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