by Diana Durham
My poems were still in the bottom drawer of my desk, and the very idea of performing them was challenging, when I first met Jay, around 30 years ago. Like many other poets before and after me, I got to experience Jay’s extraordinary kindness and encouragement, and soon had a first volume of poems from the Diamond Press with the help of Jay and publisher Geoffrey Godbert. Not long after that, I joined the other members of what was probably the second generation of the performance group Angels of Fire, with Jay, Lizzie Spring, Carolyn Askar and Taggart Deike.
Jay became a lifelong friend and colleague, editing four poetry anthologies that I contributed to, editing two of my poetry books, writing endorsements, offering his Chrysalis imprint for my collection of sonnets. He came over to America after I moved there with my family, and we had a lot of fun giving workshops and readings. My daughter was eight years old at the time, and I will never forget the ‘living sculpture’ of driftwood and flotsam she and Jay built down along the marshy edge of the tidal pond close to our home. It stood for a surprising number of years before tides and weather dismantled it.
Jay’s generosity functioned within his own passion for and dedication to the craft of poetry. The number of his poetry books alone is legendary. But, more than this, what I valued always was his unabashed staking out of what he called ‘the visionary dimension’. Jay’s perennial theme is that the worlds of vision and form are intertwined:
I cross the threshold, and wade
Where the breath hangs in the sunlight and the green
And there’s no sound, only the breath whispering,
Humming inaudibly like bees, at my feet …
And the light pours down, the light is pouring down
Over my head, drawing me into silence
So there’s no difference between the light
And what it’s shining on—it’s all one place
Why is this important? Because: ‘Where there is no vision the people perish.’ Visionary awareness brings coherence, brings life. And for Jay this is what poetry enacts, what it is for:
Poetry, stuck like a rare transparency
Pressed between the pages of a book
When we need it written all over the air
A mile high, so blind eyes can see?
from ‘prelude-for Ted’ in Monuments
Jay persisted in this understanding, the poems flowing out through decades dominated by the intellectual arrogance of postmodern nihilism, reductionist science, and the juggernaut of global markets. His poetry forms a significant thread in the gold weave of vision sustained by all great poets – and which in turn sustains us.
Recently returned to the UK from America, I managed to see Jay twice. Once in a sunny cafe, when he looked radiant, the second time at the launch of The Dangerous Book, when he looked more gaunt. Now he is no longer here, in form anyway, although I know he is here in presence. Nevertheless, I will miss him, miss co-creating, miss hearing his beautiful voice.
by Lindsay Clarke
The last time I saw Jay was at the launch of A Dance with Hermes in the Black Book Cafe and I remember how astonishingly well he looked despite the various ordeals of both illness and treatment he had so recently undergone. It felt characteristic of his courage and resolution that he coped so well with conditions that might have left a lesser spirit utterly debilitated. As with my old friend John Moat, he was fortified and invigorated by the presence of poetry within him and the indomitable power of the spiritual imagination.
He and I were friends – at times close friends – for around a quarter of a century, during which time I often teased him for an occasionally over-portentous seriousness of purpose which, in these days of arid intellectual scepticism, I also deeply admired. I must have tried his patience at times but he always received my jocular critique with good humour and a shrewd awareness of my own deficiencies in the spiritual realm. In many ways, he was like a younger brother to me, one from whom I had much to learn.
Jay carried light within him through this dark time. It shone through his work as it resounded, unforgettably, in his voice. That illuminating presence will be deeply missed by me and by the many others whose souls it so feelingly touched.
Awen are thrilled to announce the launch, on 17 January 2019 at Blackwell’s Bookshop, Alistair McNaught’s long-awaited novel The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie.
48–51 Broad Street, Oxford OX1. Free admission.
The book is adorned with stunning cover art by the printmaker Andy Kinnear, which marvellously captures the likeness of the eponymous Glaswegian playwright. The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie can be ordered directly from Awen’s website or via the other usual channels. Here’s what it says on the back of the book:
The question that haunts Ian Alexander MacDuffy is why the playwright Campbell McCluskie was murdered at 10.30 p.m. on Wednesday 16 June 1954, for that was the very moment that Ian’s mother died giving birth to him. The coincidence suggests that some universal meaning may lie behind that gratuitous and painful event. Ian tries to uncover every detail of Campbell’s short but colourful life: the guilt-ridden hypocrisy of his grandfather; his father’s success as a shoe manufacturer; his childhood in Clydebank; the death of his favourite aunt; his bewildering role in the D-Day landings; his post-war success as a playwright; his passionate and eventful love life; his ambiguous relations with the criminal underworld; his violent death – because as Campbell himself wrote, in his inimitable style, ‘It’s all down tae patterns and figures; if you can decipher them, then Auld Nickie-Ben’ll dance tae your tune.’
‘Alistair McNaught’s ingenious fictional biography brings to life not only slain playwright McCluskie but also the mid-twentieth-century Glasgow he inhabited. McCluskie’s literary career, social life and erotic escapades are vividly evoked against a backdrop of smoke-filled bars, sombre tenements, and back streets haunted by prostitutes and razor gangs.’ Andrew Crumey
by Verona Bass
I knew him as Jay, although he tried to revert to being known as John near the end of his life. I have a book of poems by him acquired in 2008, with an inscription addressed to me: ‘for Verona. In your heart’s life and dreaming, warmest and best, Jay. Waterstones. (9.10.2008)’
The title of the collection is Out Of Time, which seems poignant now that I know that he ran out of time on 30 December 2018, just over ten years later.
On the dedication page are several quotes, all of which now seem prescient:
Time becomes more and more dreamlike. It’s often only possible to know something happened or somewhere was visited by seeing the marks I made … (Kurt Jackson, Sketchbooks)
This is journey without distance, to the place you never left. (Tom and Linda Carpenter, Healing the Dream)
How we imagine our lives is how we will go on living our lives. (James Hillman, Healing Fictions)
Jay (or John) influenced people both by who he was and how he wrote. I didn’t know him well, and didn’t often see him, but it doesn’t take that much time for someone to have an impact. He seemed kind, had an instinctive understanding of the human condition. He was a performer of great power and presence with a quiet authority. They say he was a healer. He practised psychotherapy. He conducted teaching sessions to encourage creative writing, and it is here I encountered him in a day of in-depth writing at Hawkwood College in Stroud. I booked to attend a longer course with him, somewhere remote, which he had to cancel because of his father’s illness.
In Out of Time, there are poems about his father: ‘Driving Home on Christmas Day’ and ‘Golden Leaves’. In the latter one he describes sweeping up golden leaves on the garden path in the last light of day, with his father indoors, ‘wondering if you can see me’ … It was a task, a duty, but an act of devotion for his dad, and it begins, poignantly:
I was in the darkness, Dad
and you were already in the light.
One of my most telling encounters with him was when we both tried to offer support to a fellow poet and friend, Mary Palmer, before she needed to go into a hospice. It was a short but sympathetic overlap.
These moments are the stuff of what makes us human, what informs the transactions we regularly make as we navigate the currents carrying us through life. Jay’s flow has entered a different realm but we will feel the ripples in the wake of his passing.
by Anthony Nanson
I heard last night that our beloved Jay Ramsay had passed away that morning (30 December), peacefully and without pain. I saw him in hospital in Torquay on 23 December. He was very poorly, and both medics and family were preparing for the worst, yet there was such a fire in him still that I hoped he might bounce back once more. He said, ‘See you!’ not ‘Goodbye.’ His last words to me, just as I was leaving, were, ‘Give my love to everyone.’
I can’t yet believe he’s gone. He will leave such a big space in the healing and poetry communities of which he’s been such a leading light. He was Awen’s biggest champion, just as he championed and encouraged so many individuals on their creative and spiritual journeys. He said to me once that for him poetry and psychotherapy were essentially the same thing, equally concerned with transformation. He had no time for poetry that didn’t have some kind of transformative intent.
Jay referred to his cancer journey as an ‘initiation’. I feel privileged to have got to know him more personally during these last years, when new levels of courage and grace blossomed in him. Although he fought so hard to find healing, and felt there was much he still wanted to do in this life, he seemed not to fear death. I remember him saying, ‘It’s just a gateway, after all.’ Conversations with him reinforced my conviction that death is not the end and there’s a multiplicity of possibilities of what comes after.
Jay was the author, editor, or translator of 48 books, by my count; three of them just this year. He launched The Dangerous Book, his interpretation of the Bible, at a well-attended event in Stroud on 1 November. Perhaps it was fitting that such a supremely ambitious work, accomplished while he had cancer, should be his swansong.
In the course of the past year, Jay attempted to revive his true name, John. He felt an affinity with St John, the beloved disciple, the one who tradition says laid his head on Christ’s chest during the Last Supper and thus heard the heartbeat of God. The heartbeat of God certainly pounds through Jay’s writing, just as it did through his life.
On Wednesday 5 December Awen was delighted to host the launch in Stroud at the ever-wonderful Black Book Café of two of our newest books. These were Green Man Dreaming: Reflections on Imagination, Myth and Memory, Lindsay Clarke’s selected essays; and By the Edge of the Sea, a short story collection by acclaimed New Caledonian author Nicolas Kurtovitch, translated into English for the first time by Anthony Nanson. Lindsay travelled up from Somerset to join us – and Nicolas beamed in from what was for him the following morning in New Caledonia, which is 11 hours ahead of Great Britain.
There was a nervous few minutes while we waited for Nicolas to appear on the skype call that our good friend Glenn Smith had set up for us – after all, when we called Nicolas it was only 6.30am! But, bang on the dot of 8pm our time he appeared, ready to share a virtual coffee with us. Anthony then interviewed Nicolas about New Caledonia and its situation in the world – poised between Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea – Nicolas’ inspirations for his long writing career, and particular for this writing collection. He spoke about how he had gone to live on Lifou, an island off the main island of New Caledonia, among the Kanak, the indigenous people, and how the landscapes and people he knew came into his stories – and how he wanted to share his relationships and personal experiences with the world, to bring the lives of the Kanak into a wider view. At that time in the 1990s, New Caledonia was just emerging from a period unrest following a failed bid for independence from France – ironically, just weeks before the launch of this collection in 2018, there had been a referendum on whether to stay part of France or become an independent nation. This time, the New Caledonians voted to stay – but not as many did as was assumed. Here’s a clip of Nicolas talking about inspiration from Australian travels – apologies for the sound quality, he’s coming from a long way away!
Anthony and Nicolas then read part of one of the stories from the book, ‘Desert Dreaming’, Nicolas starting it off in the original French, and then Anthony picking it up in English. Here’s a taster:
Then it was time for Lindsay, ably introduced by our emcee for the evening, Richard Selby, who runs the story, song and poetry night, What a Performance!, in Bath.
It’s probably best to leave Lindsay to speak for himself on the reasons for pulling together this collection of his essays, lectures and personal anecdotes of the many other literary figures he has known. Here, he talks about some of his thinking and philosophy towards the raising of consciousness that he feels is so desperately needed in both the individual, in society as a whole and beyond:
He then went on to read from the book, exploring, first, the concept that we all have our own, personal, daimon – and what that means for us:
More readings followed, going into dreams, and back out again, via the I Ching, and into his novels, The Chymical Wedding and The Water Theatre, and back to the personal. We’ll be sharing some of this on the blog at a later date. Then there was time for a question and answer session – and the all important book signings!
Putting on a launch event is always very much a collective effort, so we’d like to say our thank yous! Of course, big thanks are due to Lindsay and Nicolas for joining us and sharing their thoughts to create a meaningful, warm, fascinating evening. Thanks also go to our hosts Black Book Café for providing such a warm and welcoming atmosphere … as well as coffee and cake! Thank you to Richard for the excellent emceeing, big thanks to Glenn for coming down and making the tech happen for us, thanks to Kirsty for managing the book stall – and, of course, to the audience!
We’ll see you at the next event!