R-Words meets Citizen and Story Nation

The Book Festival is working with Ross Mackay on his infectious poetry project

The R-Words is a ‘mass participatory poetry project for our times’, but what does that really mean? Several community writing groups have found out through participating in the project and creating inspiring collaborative poems. Read on to find out more and see how you can get involved.


The Project

Ross Mackay is a theatre director and writer, and the founder of R-Words. At the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, he became fascinated with the R number, which explained the rate of infection. In this innovative project, he has been inspired by the concept of the R number, turning it into something joyful, rather than something menacing.

Drawing on retro chain letters and games of Consequences, Ross wondered what would happen if we decided to spread poetry in the same way, everyone working on a line, and passing them on to friends and strangers to contribute to. As Ross has said: “Some of the poems will be messy, monstrous things but some may be beautiful collaborations that glisten like a diamond in a coal mine.”

Ross commissioned twelve of Scotland’s finest poets to write the first line of a poem. Hannah Lavery’s was “I find myself saying your name”, while Stuart A Paterson’s Scots poem began with “Come intae the body o this kirk an aye mind”. There was a Gaelic line written by Peter Mackay, and a line written in BSL by Emery Hunter. Each of these poetic launch pads were then sent out into the world, the poems growing and meanings morphing as more lines were added. You can explore the growing number of poems on the R-Words website here.

Working together

Several of Edinburgh International Book Festival’s community writing groups worked on R-Words, beginning with The Citizen Collective, a group of writers from across Edinburgh and Musselburgh, who have been working with Leyla Josephine over the last year. Working on Zoom, the group crafted a number of fascinating poems, including this one:

I find myself saying your name

And your name is all I can say

Though the words stay locked in my throat

Your name now engraved in my brain

I sink under the bath water, watch your name become pockets of air

Bubbles of all my pain form, bubbles of 'I love you' again.

Love. Pop. You. Pop. I. Pop. Love

How sweet love is, how predictable, how sticky, how tangy

I don’t love love, I barely like it so why am I like this?

The bath water has no answer.

Another group of enthusiastic writers who took on the project were Margaret, Joan and Dorothy, who are all part of the Warblers, a choir for people with chronic lung conditions. We have worked with the Warblers for some time during lockdown, and one of their group poems took Hugh McMillan’s starting line in a beautiful and vivid direction.

Here’s a memory: orange and crimson

Brings lots of memories of our family garden.

Poppies shedding their seeds, roses spreading their perfume

The birds are singing, and I’m so happy

My child is learning to walk amongst the uncut grass.

It looks so natural, it will save me a mowing job

Will I lose if work brings freedom?

No. Nothing will be lost as this is a shining memory.

As part of our Story Nation programme, in early August we plan to take a hands-on R-Words workshop to Cramond Residence, one of our partner care homes, and we are also hoping to work with young adults at the Royal Hospital for Children and Young People.

We’re also delighted to be working with Open Book on the R-Words project, who have invited their creative writing groups from all over Scotland, from Uist to Galloway, to take part and add their talented poetic voices to the project. You can explore their poems here.

Celebrating R-Words at the August Book Festival

Photo of Ross Mackay


We are delighted that Ross and three of the poets who contributed starting lines will be joining us in August to celebrate the R-Words project. Join us online or in person on Wednesday 18 August at 10am, to see how the poems and the project have evolved and travelled across the world. You’ll also get to enjoy some of the poetic creations, read live by project participants and captured on film. Click here to get your tickets and to watch online.

Getting involved

If you would like to get involved in the R-Words project, email Ross at rwordspoetry@gmail.com with Start Chain as the subject and you will be sent a starting line. Add a second line to the poem and send this new 2-line poem on to three friends with these instructions. Make sure you include your name at the bottom so that you can find the finished poems on the website.

If you’re a North Edinburgh local, Ross will be delivering a special R-Words workshop on 2 August at 11am for everyone aged 10+ as part of the North Edinburgh Arts Summer Programme. Click here to book your spot.


R-Words is an independent project, supported by the Tom McGrath Trust. The Book Festival Communities Programme has been delighted to be a part of R-Words, through our Citizen and Story Nation projects.

Citizen is our long-term creative programme working in partnership with organisations across Edinburgh and Musselburgh, offering local people a platform to explore identity, connection and place. It is supported by the players of People’s Postcode Lottery and the PLACE Programme administered by Creative Scotland.

Our Story Nation project aims to bring the spirit of the Book Festival to audiences who, for various reasons, cannot access our physical events. It aims to combat isolation and create rich opportunities for engagement with the written word among vulnerable or unheard communities, enthusing and empowering readers across Scotland.

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