Fifty poems in 50 words: Simon Lamb launches debut collection and says 'Caithness is such a big part of my life'
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Simon Lamb is living and working at the opposite end of Scotland now – but Caithness remains close to his heart as he launches his debut collection of poetry.
Simon taught at Lybster Primary School from 2015 to 2018 and relished the opportunity to take part in the annual Caithness Music Festival while he was based in Wick.
His book A Passing On of Shells – a high-quality volume consisting of 50 poems, each written in exactly 50 words – is issued this week by Scallywag Press, and the 31-year-old is quick to acknowledge the influence of the far north in his emergence as a published poet.
“The Caithness Music Festival was a huge thing for me," said Simon, now living in Ayrshire where he is writer-in-residence at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.
"Every year there was an opportunity to write a brand new poem for the original verse category, and up until then in one sense I had never really read poetry.
“The performance aspect of the music festival, the medal category for reading poems aloud, I'd never really done that either – so I think I've got the festival up north to thank for that."
Around half of the poems in the collection began life around eight years ago, with the others having been crafted since Covid.
“I'd dabbled with poetry here and here, but the collection that now has come out as A Passing On of Shells actually started in 2014," Simon explained. "I started writing the first verses for it way back then.
"I'd responded to a challenge to write in exactly 50 words. Because I did one, I tried to write another one, and then thought it would be fun to write 50 of these.
“I put it away in a drawer, didn't look at it again, and when the pandemic struck I thought, 'I'm going to need something to focus on.' For those first few months of the pandemic I just went back and threw out a few of the ones that I thought hadn't aged well, or I could do better... It became my absolute thing.
"The first lockdown for me was focused on that collection. And then out of the blue, that's when everything changed.”
He had come to the attention of Scallywag Press while writing children's book reviews for the John O'Groat Journal. In the summer of 2020 the publisher got in touch and asked if he had done any other writing.
“The timing was perfect,” Simon said. “They'd only published children's picture books so it was a bit of a gamble but they went for it and they've started a poetry line."
The result is a book for "all ages", with themes ranging from family, identity and growing up to the wonder of nature and the concept of poetry itself.
Simon is thrilled that the book is illustrated by Chris Riddell, a former Children’s Laureate, acclaimed political cartoonist and the only artist to have won the Kate Greenaway Medal three times.
“Scallywag thought the pairing would be a cool one because in a sense I am just starting out on my professional career as a poet and of course Chris is very far into his career and extremely established," Simon said. "I think they were excited about what possibilities would be created by bringing together two creatives at such different points in their careers.
“For me, it was joyous – and just feeling that I was in such capable hands as well.
“Poetry I think is an unusual art form when it comes to illustration. You can, I guess, over-illustrate a poem and then spoil the imagery. When I've spoken to people about what Chris has done, he hasn't just illustrated these poems – he has interpreted them artistically. It offers the reader something.
"It doesn't say, 'Look, this is a picture of the poem.' It says, 'This is an interpretation that I am offering to you,' and I think that's quite genius.
“We've really tried to make a book that can be marketed to all ages. A child can read it but also granny and grandad can read it.
“The cover doesn't look like a children's book but nor does it look particularly like an adult book. We've tried to do something that is for everyone.
"It's published as a beautiful hardback book that's textured, so it's a very grainy cover and the title and the shell are debossed into it. So it's a very tactile book and every poem has its own double-page spread.
"You can open this book on any double-page spread and you get one poem and one illustration that gives you a world to go and explore. You can just dive in.
“I thought it was incredible that they were going to give each poem its own space. That's what Chris has done.
“I've never really held a book like this – it is quite exceptional.
“One of the reasons that I loved Scallywag as a publisher when I was reviewing was that their books felt amazing to hold. It feels like they've not just been produced – they've been loved.
"And this book is no different – they have loved producing it. It's a quality product.”
On the possibility of further volumes, Simon said: “I would love to do it again. I think that the concept is a good one, and it is one that can be revisited. But I want to enjoy this book for what it is just now.”
As performer and storyteller, Simon works in schools to inspire young people through his passion for poetry.
"The bulk of my work now is school poetry workshops," he explained. "Most recently, I’ve delivered Tam o’ Shanter-themed workshops and will soon embark on a school tour to tie in with this book to get young people reading and writing poetry. It’s a privilege to be in schools with the opportunity to reach out to so many young people."
Simon has etched his name into the Caithness Music Festival through the Simon Lamb Quill, awarded to the winner of the original verse (primary school) category. One of the poems featured in the collection – Which Witch? – won the original verse category at the festival in 2018.
He values the far north for its sense of community as well as its scenery.
“I'll never forget Caithness," Simon said. "It is such a big part of my life. I loved the adventure of Caithness. It was so different to what I'd experienced, and so exciting, so thrilling.
"The very experience of driving down that coast from Wick to Lybster every morning and seeing the sun over the North Sea... there is just nothing like it.”
- A Passing On of Shells: 50 Fifty-Word Poems, by Simon Lamb (£10.99, hardback), can be ordered through the Scallywag Press website and is widely available from other online sellers as well as book shops.