It is to do with the launch of #UntitledOne, the new poetry anthology and accompanying music compilation produced in association with Birlinn's Polygon imprint by Neu! Reekie!, the monthly poetry, music and animation night presented at assorted Edinburgh venues over the last four and a half years by Williamson in partnership with poetic whirlwind Michael Pedersen. While the former features the likes of Tom Leonard, Scotland's Makar Liz Lochhead and Douglas Dunn nestling up to Jenni Fagan, Aidan Moffat and Jock Scot, the latter sees Mercury Music Prize winners Young Fathers line up with the likes of The Sexual Objects, Momus and Teen Canteen.
This pan-generational, cross-artform approach will come to life tonight at a special launch event at La Belle Angele, the same Edinburgh club where Williamson first mixed and matched poetry and music at an event called Invisible Insurrection in 1993. That was under the auspices of Rebel Inc, the brash, punk-inspired lit-zine he'd set up the year before, bringing together early work by Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner alongside more established kindred spirits like Gordon Legge.
With Laura Hird, Duncan McLean and others providing equally fresh voices, Rebel Inc shook up Scotland's literary establishment in a way that hadn't been seen since Hugh MacDiarmid called Beat novelist Alexander Trocchi 'cosmopolitan scum' at the 1962 Edinburgh World Writers Conference. It was Trocchi whose notion of an 'invisible insurrection of a million minds' inspired the name of Rebel Inc's event.
With #UntitledOne marking his return to publishing for the first time in fifteen years following a fall-out with Canongate Books, who had published some sixty titles under the Rebel Inc banner, the sort of insurrection Williamson has in mind this time out focuses on the state of the publishing industry itself.
“I missed publishing,” the Caithness born writer says over a cup of mint tea in the National Gallery of Scotland cafe in Edinburgh, “but the publishing industry I was in has gone now. I came into it pre Amazon, at a time when the net book agreement was still in place, and now you've got a different landscape, which I don't think is conducive to authors and publishers, and I would like to do it differently.”
That difference will come in the provocative form of a flat refusal to deal in any way with all-encompassing online distribution site, Amazon.
“Amazon are now in the process of creating an absolute monopoly on distribution,” Williamson observes. “They've already got sixty-six per cent of books in America, and it will go that way in Britain, then it will reach a point where they can destroy publishing and the ability of writers to make a living.
“As a publisher I'd like to take a stand against that, in a really small way that's almost comical, a tiny poetry publisher declaring war on the biggest distribution corporation in the world. I quite like that, because it's comical but it's also serious. I don't think publishers and authors have the balls to actually have a go at Amazon properly, but Amazon's getting more and more powerful, and if we don't fight them now then it'll be too late because all the independent and experimental publishers will be gone.”
Williamson has clearly not lost any of his political fire since his Rebel Inc days and nights, even as his own work as a writer has come increasingly to the fore. In 2005 he won the Robert Louis Stevenson Prize for literature, while his first poetry collection, In A Room Darkened, was published in 2007. As well as establishing Neu! Reekie!, with whom he has performed Robert Burns' Tam O'Shanter to a live indie-folk backing, Williamson also found time to co-found with Mike Small pro-independence website Bella Caledonia. With such dual concerns ongoing, #UntitledOne is making a political statement as much as an artistic one.
“I want to look at different models in Scotland,” he says, “and basically ask writers and publishers to take a stand on Amazon, because they'll be crushed if they don't. Amazon are going for global domination. They're a corporation that must be destroyed. They're monopoly capitalism of the worst kind, and we have to work out a viable alternative to them.
“In Scotland,” he continues, on a roll, “the worst thing the SNP government have ever done was give £12 million to Amazon to open a distribution centre here, to a company who are basically scroungers and who don't pay tax. Amazon have claimed more money than they've paid in tax, and it's a shameful thing what the Scottish Government did.”
For this weekend's event, Williamson is inviting audiences to bring along their Kindles to be smashed. Whether such a pro-print gesture affects Amazon or not, Neu! Reekie! and #UntitledOne will carry on regardless with three months of intense activity. In June, #Untitled Live will feature performances from Young Fathers, DJ and producer Andrew Weatherall and Edinburgh techno pioneers Fini Tribe alongside poet Holly McNish and others. This will be followed by a fifteen date tour around Scotland's small towns and villages, with Williamson, Pedersen and assorted guests travelling in a pair of Range Rovers. There will also be several dates in Japan alongside the band Tenniscoats.
With two further books planned, #UntitledOne in all its forms is both mission statement and retrospective.
“It's a snapshot of all the people we've had on at Neu! Reekie!,” Williamson says of #UntitledOne “and it's all poetry. When I did Rebel Inc books we didn't do poetry, but that's really what I want to publish now. I want to do it on a small scale, as niche, boutique publishing almost, putting out carefully curated objects that look good and feel good, and which bring together all the different aesthetics of Neu! Reekie! We also want people to buy the book directly from the publishers. Apart from getting a book of brilliant poetry, they're also helping to destroy Amazon .”
#UntitledOne is published by Polygon, and is launched at La Belle Angele, Edinburgh, tonight from 6pm. #UntitledLive, featuring Young Fathers, Andrew Weatherall and Fini Tribe plus surprise guests takes place at the Central Hall, Edinburgh, June 9.www.birlinn.co.uk
The Herald, May 1st 2015