Behind the Scenes of the Edwin Morgan Twenties #EM20s

  27 Apr '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

2020 marks the centenary year of Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s first poet laureate.

To mark the occasion, Polygon has produced five new collections, the Edwin Morgan Twenties. Each book contains 20 poems, with an introduction by a well-known writer.

Edward Crossan, Polygon’s poetry editor, takes us behind the scenes.

Where did the idea for the Edwin Morgan 20s come from? Why five books with 20 poems?

With the Edwin Morgan centenary coming up, we wanted to celebrate his work, but also to bring his poetry to a new audience. We wanted to replicate the success of the Muriel Spark Centenary. That was such a good way to present an author’s body of work: repackage the work in a way that makes it aesthetically desirable as well as ‘collectible’. Instead of republishing all of his collections though, we thought it would be a better idea, since he was such an eclectic poet and wrote on various themes, to have five short selections, representing his most popular themes: love, animals, Scotland, places and people, and science fiction. There are twenty poems in each and five collections, so that makes 100 poems in total: 100 poems for 100 years. He was born in the 1920s, so it worked out well to call the collections, with 20 poems, the Edwin Morgan Twenties which we are, of course, celebrating at the start of the twenties. 

When did you start working on them?

The initial discussion about the books started in about October 2018, there was a meeting with Michael Schmidt of Carcanet, Hugh Andrew, Hamish Whyte, Robyn Marsack and me. In this meeting it was decided that Polygon would publish the Edwin Morgan Twenties on the centenary and Carcanet would publish a new selected poems, edited by Hamish Whyte, and an updated collected poems, which are to follow later this year and next year, respectively. Hamish Whyte was in charge of selecting the poems to go in each of the five Twenties. The manuscripts and introductions were delivered toward the end of 2019, the page proofs and the cover designs were all signed off by the end that year. The books plus the box sets arrived in the Polygon offices just ahead of lockdown, so I’m pleased to have a set with me on my desk right now. 

How did you decide who to approach for the introductions? 

We wanted to have writers whose names would draw attention to the work of Edwin Morgan, he is a well known poet in Scotland, but we wanted to attract more attention from across the UK. We wanted to have authors who knew his work well and have been inspired by him. The list of introducers is a good mix of that, not to mention two makars, Liz Lochhead, who was Edwin Morgan’s successor; Morgan being the first of the modern makers, and it was fitting to have Jackie Kay the current makar. We thought Michael Rosen was a perfect choice for Morgan’s animal poems and who better to talk science fiction that Ken MacLeod, and really any excuse to get Ali Smith to interrogate a writer she admires should not be passed up.

How did you decide which poems to pick?

That would be a question for Hamish Whyte. Hamish Whyte was the best person for the task of selecting the poems to go into these books. Whyte is the publisher at Mariscat Press, who published a number of Morgan’s collections.

We love the design – how did that come about?

The format of the books was inspired by the old Penguin classics, they are small and can easily fit in the pocket, poetry that can be taken with you where ever you go. The design was inspired by the aesthetic of the man himself. The brief was written with Morgan’s own natty dress sense in mind, he was known for his style, maybe not the best dressed, but definitely stood out from the rest. And so it was with this in mind that we wanted these books to really stand out: bold colours, with a pattern that can be replicated across five books and a box set.

The designer Teresa Monachino, did a great job of taking the brief and bringing it to life. She took his initials, EM, and created a very eye-catching, slightly seventies pattern that is used to great effect across five very colourful, eye-catching designs. The Edwin Morgan Twenties logo was inspired by part of the brief for the books, in which we wanted to use his iconic eye-wear, Morgan was always pictured with his square framed glasses and so Teresa took that idea and created the EM Twenties logo.

Do you have a favourite of the five books?

It is really difficult to choose. There is so much to take from all of his books. I’m not a reader of science fiction, but I love ‘The First Men on Mercury’, and the creativity, humanity and humour in ‘The Computer’s First Christmas Card’ found in Space and Spaces.

And to read the work of a writer that was so in love with and connected so profoundly to his country and to his city, Glasgow, the poems in Scotland sweep across the land and poke a bit of fun at the country, but at the same time take pride in its history.

But I think it has to be his love poems that I find the most engaging, that ever perplexing word ‘Love’ because after all ‘Love is the most mysterious of the winds that blow’. A lot of these poems were written at a time when homosexuality was illegal ‘yet I can’t not be what I am’, there is such a tenderness to these, a poignancy, a longing that can’t be reciprocated. Look at his poem ‘A Divide’ in which he describes an ‘almost’ happiness during an evening spent with a man who ‘can’t be what I’m not’ and to whom Morgan cannot reveal how he feels:

How hard it is not to watch you.

We had got to that stage of not talking

and not worrying, and that 

was almost happy. Then, late

when you lay on one elbow on the carpet 

I could feel nothing but that hot knife

of pain telling me what it was, 

and I can’t tell you about it, not one word.

“A Divide”

Although divided into five different themes, it’s the humour and the humanity that is the glue and the thing that makes Edwin Morgan’s work so accessible and so relevant and at a time like this his work has never been more relevant:

Morgan, I said to myself, take note, 

Take Heart. In a time of confusion 

You must make a stand.

The Edwin Morgan Twenties are now available on our website, with free postage for delivery direct to your door.

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