John Glenday was born in Broughty Ferry, near Dundee, in 1952, and lives in Drumnadrochit in the Scottish Highlands. His first collection, The Apple Ghost (Peterloo Poets, 1989) won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and his second, Undark (Peterloo Poets, 1995), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. His most recent collection, Grain (Picador, 2009) was also a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for both the Ted Hughes Award and the Griffin Poetry Prize.
In 1990/91 Glenday was appointed Scottish/Canadian Exchange Fellow, based at the University of Alberta. He is a Trustee of the Scottish Poetry Library and is a judge for the Poetry Society’s 2011 National Poetry Competition.
Glenday works as an addictions counsellor for NHS Highland and has previously worked as a driver, a printer’s assistant, and a psychiatric nurse. On his various employments he has said that: “There’s nothing worse for me than having the whole day to write, sitting in a quiet library for five hours. I’d much rather write in a really noisy cafe for ten minutes between trains with a scrap of paper in my pocket. Poetry is about expressing yourself within the limits” (Scotland on Sunday).
Succinct in form, Glenday’s poems are invariably taut and spare. The lines may be surgically precise, but the tone is always warm and intimate. As Andrew Greig wrote in The Scotsman: “it is clear that though Glenday has intelligence, learning and technique enough to afford to downplay them, his poetry’s source is not in these but the heart. The heart and the noticing eye. Perhaps more accurately, a calm receptivity that watches from behind the heart.”
Glenday’s “noticing eye” often lands upon the paradoxical, as in ‘Typography’ (from The Apple Ghost), where “At the presses, they grumble constantly/ about the quality of ink; although this makes/ the books more difficult to burn.” He also creates his own lexical paradoxes, as in ‘The Widow’ (from The Apple Ghost). Here, everything becomes the opposite of what it is meant to be, implying that the border between the possible and the impossible, the real and the surreal, is paper-thin:
In the house where the smoke slides down the lum,
She watches the clock compact its tensing coils;
Reeling time back to its hidden spool,
[ . . . ]
She remembers when she was old, and growing young,
While the stream climbed skywards on the brackened hill
This preoccupation with paradox (especially the paradoxes of time) hints at a quiet humour, which suffuses much of his writing. Glenday wittily plays with both archetypal imagery and conventional grand narratives, from fairytales to prayer. In ‘A Fairy Tale’ (from Grain) the story of Beauty and the Beast is reversed, returning the princess who “had been living happily ever after before” back to living with her sick father where, “When passers-by asked her about her life, she waltzes the laundry/ to her heart and answers with a distant smile: Once upon a time.” Similarly, in ‘The Garden’ (from Grain), “the apple goes withering back to blossom in your palm, and the serpent [ . . . ] leaves off whispering.”
Inspiration comes often in the shape of a fact rescued from historical obscurity: for example, ‘Tin’ (from Grain), a love poem inspired by the invention of the tin-can opener forty-eight years after the tin-can; and ‘Undark’ (from Undark), a meditation on “those girls who painted/ the watch dials luminous and died” inspired by the ‘Radium Girls’, the group of female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with luminous paint in the early twentieth-century.
Elsewhere, Glenday’s noticing eye delights in riddling wordplay, such as in ‘St Orage’ (from Grain), where he creates an unusual lexicon of forgotten saints: St Orage, St Eadfast, St Alwart, St Randed, St Ifle, St Rangle, St Arving, St Ab, St Agger, St Ainless, St Anza and St Igmata.
Writing in the Guardian, Charles Bainbridge has noted that Glenday offers us “a haunting music full of subtlety of thought and religious echoes [ . . . ] a delight in the sheer physical presence of [the] world”.
The Apple Ghost, Peterloo Poets, Calstock, 1989
Undark, Peterloo Poets, Calstock, 1995
Grain, Picador, London, 2009
Visit John Glenday’s profile on the Picador website
Listen to the Scottish Poetry Library’s podcast with John Glenday
Read Charles Bainbridge’s review of Grain in the Guardian
Read an interview with Glenday in The