Poetic Inspiration

There’s just one week left to enter the Autumn Voices poetry competition! If you’re desperate to submit an entry but feeling a bit stuck with your writing, we’ve got the perfect blog to get your poetry juices flowing. Kay Ritchie, one of the highly commended poets featured in the recent Living Our Dying competition, tells us all about her poetry influences and inspirations …

About Kay

Kay’s life might be that of the steel ball in a pinball machine, sent in different directions with every strike. She grew up in Glasgow and Edinburgh, lived in London, Spain and Portugal, and worked as a freelance photographer and radio producer.

She took part in the Clydebuilt programme in 2014 and she’s been published in numerous anthologies, chap books and magazines. She produced a hand-made book, 10 poems and 4 photographs – ‘I’ve been eating Iberia’ – and her work has appeared in a Historic Scotland film, an installation in Pollock Country Park and the Burns’ windows in Dumfries, as well as a couple of archives.

Kay came 3rd in the Federation of Writers (Scotland) poetry competition 2013, was longlisted for York Literature Festival Poetry competition 2014 and shortlisted for the CRM Society’s ‘Letters to Mackintosh’ competition 2020.

She has performed at various events, including Aye Write, Billion Women Rising, Women’s Aid 40th Anniversary, 100 Poets read 100 Poems, Scottish Refugee Week, the Edinburgh Fringe and the Inverness Film Festival.

Kay likes to dance and paint and walks everywhere. In the summer of 2019, she walked the Portuguese coastal Camino from Porto to Santiago de Compostela. In 2023 she hopes to walk the Hebridean Way across 10 Scottish islands.

I do love those features which list the cherished books, films and music that inspired people I’ve never met but whose interior lives are revealed to me. I listen with great interest to Desert Island Discs, Private Passions or my new favourite, John Wilson’s This Cultural Life. But when asked to talk about my own influences, I go blank.

Was it the nursery rhymes, read in bed by my mother? Or the playground songs and clapping games we all knew so well as we skipped or played ball against the wall? Was it loving and learning by heart Robert Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’? Or Miss Wallis striding the classroom as Lady Macbeth? Portia? Titania? Or me, on tiptoe, on the school stage, as the mischievous sprite Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Aptly cast I was told.

Was it Gilbert & Sullivan, our bath-time singalong and my 6th birthday ‘grown-up treat’, D’Oyly Carte’s Mikado at the King’s Theatre? The thrill at the plush, the cherubs, the dimming of the lights, the raising of the curtain and the colour, costumes and greasepaint which transported us to Japan. Me joining in till asked to ‘keep quiet’ as I was disturbing the chorus. Was it the ballet I studied from the age of 2 to cure my knock-knees? And those unforgettable live performances – Fonteyn and Nureyev – Romeo and Juliet, The Dying Swan. Or just all the things my mother took me to? The pantomimes. The galleries. The concerts. The cinema.

We didn’t have a television, so I grew up listening to the wireless, imagining the pictures created by the words. There was the little wooden desk my mother built for me to work at and all the paper, pencils and paint she supplied so that I could draw and write freely, while steam trains hissed and puffed outside our window and the house filled up with the smell of soup and cake. There was her soundtrack – Ella, Billie, Bessie, Frank, and my own – Motown, Dylan, Joni and Leonard: singer-songwriters telling their stories, expressing their feelings and mine, laying open their hearts and healing mine.

Then there were the images discovered when studying photography at Bournemouth College of art – Brassai’s ‘Paris by Night’, Robert Frank’s ‘Americans’, Don McCullin’s ‘Vietnam’, Dorothea Lange’s ‘Depression’, Robert Capa’s ‘Spanish Civil War’ and Cartier Bresson’s ‘moment’. The excitement I felt as new worlds opened up to me through the two-dimensional black and white photo essays. Monochrome pictures that reminded me of 1950’s Glasgow with its soot-black buildings and chimneys, steel grey skies and winter smogs. Each picture saying more than words could about the horrors and the humanity. It was the all-night film cycles – Truffaut, Fritz Lang, Wilder, Jacques Tati, Scorcese, Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray and Rossellini. It was the sea.     

Spain and Portugal brought me Flamenco and Fado, duende and saudades. That intense emotion. It was Lorca, Pessoa and Machado. It was Latin America’s nueva cancion, protest song – Rolando Alarcon, Violetta Parra, Victor Jara, Mercedes Sosa, Caetano Veloso. It was gazpacho, paella, tortilla, rioja and La Movida Madrileña. It was the Prado, the Alhambra and the Sagrada Familia. It was standing in front of Picasso’s Guernica, learning about the revolutions in Portugal, Cuba and Nicaragua and the coup in Chile, still relevant today with what’s happening in Ukraine.

When working as a freelance photographer in London it was the opportunity to meet people like Susan Sontag and Nadine Gordimer. To hear them consider the responsibility of the writer and how even the most private aspects of life are penetrated by politics. Gunther Grass and Salman Rushdie examining how fictions are lies that tell the truth and how fiction can reach a truth that other kinds of writing, (e.g., history and politics) can’t.  

Back in Glasgow, unbelievably making programmes with Tom Waits, Bert Jansch, Billy Bragg, Robert Wyatt, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Paul Robeston Jr, the Seegers and so many more musicians, it was the stories behind the stories they told of the iconic songs they had sung.

And all the time I recorded and read and wrote notes and discovered someone new, something new. Another book. Another artist. Another idea. Another piece of music. And I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be meeting and talking to all these amazing characters as well as reading their books. All so generous with their time and their talent.  

While studying experimental documentary and sound at Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, I made three short films about Donna Campbell, then of Survivor’s Poetry, and Ruben Romero, who’d been imprisoned during the coup in Chile. Both of them re-awakened my interest in poetry. A different kind of poetry. Personal. Honest. Raw.

So, when health issues interrupted working life, I began attending writing workshops. First of all with Donny O’Rourke who introduced me once more to the power of poetry through poets like William Carlos Williams, with his short lines and line breaks, Robert Musil with his au contraire sense of the ironic, the confessional poets – Sexton, Plath, Lowell and Berryman and of course Leonard Cohen as poet. The poet as priest. The poem as ritual worship.

Then Magi Gibson’s Wild Women Workshops where we addressed the body through the work of Sharon Olds and Anna Swir and subverted fairytales with Carol Ann Duffy and Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

I joined the Federation of Writers (Scotland), St Mungo’s Mirrorball and the Scottish Writer’s Centre and suddenly had the opportunity to see and hear poets talk about their methods and inspiration and perform their work , bringing it to life, so different from reading it on the page.

I was accepted onto the 2014 Clydebuilt programme with Gerrie Fellows, a wonderful mentoring experience and now I’m involved with several Lapidus workshops and Open Book workshops with Sukhema (Larry Butler), Bev Schofield, Adrienne Hannah, Marjorie Lotfi and Beth Godfrey.

‘If you want to write there are three things you must do. ‘Read, read and read.’ 

After losing my partner and mother I began to take long walks and to enjoy days of complete silence. Having walked the Portuguese coastal Camino to Santiago in 2019 I now plan to walk the Hebridean way, crossing 10 Scottish islands. There is something about the pace of stepping out that helps me to process and compose.

All of this has inspired and influenced and nourished my attempts to write. And I am so grateful to everyone who has given me this opportunity not only to express myself but also to keep on discovering new and fantastic work. As Donny O’Rourke and Magi Gibson always said: ‘If you want to write there are three things you must do. ‘Read, read and read.’ 

So, I will keep on reading and hopefully keep on writing.

Annual Poetry Competition

Theme: ‘The Environment’
Deadline: 31st October 2022 – Entries now closed

4 thoughts on “Poetic Inspiration”

  1. Hi Kay,
    Loved reading this fabulous journey through your life and influences. It is a powerful, enlightening, entertaining and hugely evocative path that you have travelled. Thank you for sharing.
    Separately, I have enjoyed reading your poetry.
    Thank you again.
    Tom Langlands

  2. thankyou Tom
    I really appreciate your feedback and can i say that i really enjoyed your poem Why I Do Write also your beautiful photos
    hope that we may meet again at an Autumn Voices event
    till then best wishes

  3. Hello Kay,
    Great to read your story. I dont know if you remeber me. We did the Caña workshop ( flamenco) in Jerez ( ’87). We had a lot of funn practising flamenco on the rooftop, thanks for the foto’s you made, they keep my memory living ( with “el Jerezano “). Im still aficionado of Flamenco.
    Hope to see, read or hear more from you and your work.
    Thanks for the funn we had.
    Ilona R.

  4. HI Kay, that was a very very interesting read. Your writing is incredibly inpirational, this writing about the sheer quantity of things done and achieved in your life, I loved it.

    The Camino has been on my mind a few times over the years, after reading Coelho’s El Camino de Santiago, not sure of the spelling there. My Spanish isn’t great but my French is fluent. I walked in the Pyrenees in 2001, it was totally brilliant.
    Thank you so much I really enjoyed this.

    Roddy X

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