Monday, August 14, 2017

Not a defence of Philip Larkin

Hull is currently UK city of culture for 2017, so you would think its most famous literary resident, the poet Philip Larkin, would be getting something of a boost. However, whenever I see his name recently, it always seems that he is being held up as an example of what poetry is not supposed to be. Just in the last week, I have read a review of the work of a poet whose rejection of 'parochialism' was contrasted favourably with Larkin's own alleged failings in this area; and a restaurant review for an eatery in Hull (yes, a restaurant review!) that began with a quip about Larkin's 'rhymed misanthropy'.
When I read or hear such criticisms, I am reminded of Tony Hoagland's poem 'Lawrence', in which he experiences rage at the fashionable denigration of D.H. by those whose talents and achievements pale in comparison (take a listen here). I am not unaware of Larkin's failings as a man. Reactionary, racist and misanthropic in his private letters, he did at least have the luck to write in the years before the famous could express their jaw-dropping opinions direct to the world via Twitter. There are doubtless those who feel that all of those writers who had unpleasant views or behaved appallingly in the past should now make way for more virtuous, open-minded and cosmopolitan alternatives; that there is an injustice in the prominence of someone like Larkin who, despite apparently not having been a very nice (or particularly happy) man, still resonates so profoundly with readers today.
The major problem with this view is that it lacks moral complexity. Larkin's work is, on one level, bitterly, perhaps even tediously preoccupied with his own failures: there's an early poem, for example, where he is already bemoaning his life being over in his mid-twenties. And yet, few other poets have looked the nature of human existence so squarely in the face, have found words so telling for a life that is experienced as 'sweet, meaningless and not to come again', as he puts it at one point. Whatever Larkin the man was, Larkin the poet is capable of a simultaneous distaste for and aching sympathy with ordinary lives, among which he ultimately counts his own. Hopefully most of us are more enlightened in our personal views than he managed to be, but aren't we all in some way like him: flawed, sentimental and cowardly one moment; courageous, generous and awe-struck the next? The poems don't so much transcend the arguable weaknesses of the personality that created them, but transfigure those weaknesses so that they become key to the power of the work. That does not mean, of course, that any reader is required to accept or condone Larkin's personal politics, but it seems simplistic to me imply that appreciation of the poems has to equate to supporting those politics. Larkin was a formative reading experience for me, for example, despite the fact that I share none of his views on these matters.
I have no interest here in mounting a defence of Philip Larkin the individual. However, what I do want to raise my voice against is the lazy dismissal of work by writers whose personal attitudes are deemed not to be up to scratch. It seems to me that this is merely a strategy for avoiding an engagement with the ambiguities and difficulties of their work, escaping into moral platitudes that only demonstrate the limits of our own imaginations.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Short and sweet

As the title of this blog suggests, when I write here, I write about poetry. However, my own reading fluctuates between phases of only wanting to read verse and gluts of prose consumption. As much as I enjoy fiction, reading it also also makes me realize why I love poetry so much. I have a fairly short attention span, I'll admit, so there is something about the concentrated power of poetic expression that I find attractive. For a few minutes, I see another reality that reflects back on my own. Or, if I am reading a full collection of poems, I may spend a day or so in one poet's company as they guide me through their version of reality. Of course, fiction does this too, but a longer novel means committing to live in the world the author has created for more than just a few hours. Frankly, I have to feel like that world is especially compelling to make that commitment.

The alternative, of course, (and leaving aside the short story or even flash fiction) is the short novel or the novella. The German Romantics had plenty of theories about what a novella was, apart from just being a novel that wasn't very long. Then again, they had theories about most things. What I like about a good short novel is that, as with a poetry collection, I can be caught up in the world of the author's imagination for a relatively short space of time. Short novels don't outstay their welcome and maybe even leave you wanting more.

So, with one foot still tentatively planted in the world of poetry, here are my top ten short novels or novellas (in  no particular order) that are ideal for poetry fans, or perhaps just for people like me whose attention wanders easily. As a rough guide, I'm going for books of less than 200 pages. There is a 6/4 gender imbalance here in favour of male authors, but hopefully there's a good geographical spread. I'd love to hear your suggestions of other short texts for my reading list, especially suggestions by female authors, or perhaps even by some non-Europeans.

Thinking about this list has also made me realize that short novels and novellas also potentially offer the kind of intensity of experience that can also be the province of poetry. Many of the selections below deal with heightened states that would become overwhelming if sustained over a longer piece. They are small books, but they have a big impact.

1. Tove Jansson, The Summer Book

Not really a novel at all arguably, but an entrancing and subtly moving short book of stories about a grandmother and her young granddaughter spending summers on an island in the Gulf of Finland. A book about youth and age, about endings and beginnings, delivering its philosophy gently and with good humour. Nothing much happens, but it is a book about the whole of life.

2. Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten

Jakob is enrolled in an eccentric institute whose educational purpose is unclear, if not dubious. He is a petty and pompous little character, whose aggressions and sublimated desires he does not fully comprehend himself. A surreal and at times hilarious book about adolescence and the tension between the need for conformity and the impulse to rebelliousness.

3.  Christopher Ishwerwood, A Single Man

Isherwood arguably recycled his Berlin years a little too often, but for me this short Californian book is his best work. A portrait of lost love and middle age, it deals with tragedy so compassionately and with such a lightness of touch that this remains ultimately a life-affirming read.

4.  Aki Ollikainen, White Hunger

Again, not a cheery read, but this description of the consequences of a terrible famine in Finland in 1867 is also clear-eyed, unsentimental and arrestingly cinematic. Pereine, the publishers, specialize in short European fiction in translation, and this is one of their most memorable publications.

5. Albert Camus, The Fall

A man confesses to a chance acquaintance in a bar, relating how he, who once enjoyed professional success and high self-esteem, came to realize the hollowness of his own existence and the values he believed he lived by. A classic of existentialist literature.

6. Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

The term 'novel' or even 'novella' seems to fall short with this book, which is more of an extended prose poem that charts a love triangle based loosely on the author's own affair with British poet George Barker. Full of agony and exhalation, this psalm to love is heady stuff.

7. Beryl Bainbridge, Harriet Said...

A tale of adolescent hysteria and claustrophobic British provincial life in the 1950s. Harriet and the narrator are inseparable, but Harriet's almost demonic influence leads to a shocking denouement. A book full of childish grown-ups and scarily precocious children.

8. Patricia Duncker, Hallucinating Foucault

A novel about literary obsession and the blurred lines between the writer and the work, appreciation and appropriation. Queer romance, literary theory and feverish drama are all in the mix.

9. Theophile Gautier, The Jinx

A gleefully grotesque narrative about superstition and unconditional love. A tale of the uncanny that manages to be simultaneously very Gothic, very modern and very funny. A most disconcerting read. Like Pereine, the publishers Heperus offer many shorter works in translation.

10. B.S. Johnson, Christie Malry's Own Double Entry

Christie Malry is a dull little man, but he soon starts putting his skills as a book-keeper to terrible use as he rails against the injustices of the universe. Johnson manages to make the mad logic of Christie's crimes seem oddly plausible.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Hanging on the telephone

The summer, or what passes for it this year, has been full of poetry so far. I managed to find some time to attend a number of events at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, after a hiatus of two years, and was also invited to take part in Steven Fowler's Enemies project in a Ledbury incarnation. I was partnered with the brilliant Jonathan Edwards to come up with 7 minutes' worth of poetry performance. After swapping some recent work, Jonathan and I discovered that we had both written poems about telephone boxes, which led to a performance on a telephonic theme. You can see the result on Youtube, along with the other videos of all of the other contributions to the event, which closed this year's festival.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Guest Poet: Maria Stadnicka

Last month, I was delighted to attend the launch of a new book of poems by Maria Stadnicka, a Romanian-born poet living and working in Stroud. Before coming to the UK in 2003, Maria worked as a radio and TV broadcaster, presenter and radio editor. She also won a series of national poetry prizes. In 2010 she became member of the Stroud Writers Group, Gloucestershire.

I first become aware of Maria's poetry when Yew Tree Press published her beautifully illustrated short collection A Short Story about War (as Maria Butunoi) in 2014 and her new poems, collected in Imperfect (also Yew Tree Press), are a welcome addition to her English-language work. Maria's poems are restrained and precisely crafted miniatures: enigmatic narratives shot through with dark humour and surreal detail, they are eminently political, but rarely tackle Politics (with a capital P) head on. In all of these respects, they put me in mind of the work of Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, yet there also seem to me to be echoes of Kafka: the poems record fragile surface realities, beneath which lurk the symptoms of violence and oppression. This is a poetry of unease, and all the more honest for that, but also ultimately a poetry of hope, recording the struggle of the subject to maintain its integrity in troubled times.


Maria has agreed to feature as my guest poet in this post, which presents here poem 'City'. Of the poem, Maria writes:

'What can I know?'….'What can I know?'…This is not my question. Immanuel Kant answered it already, a long time ago, and many other thinkers answered it in their own way too. As a society, we slowly learnt to get used to 'knowing' everything a priori. When there is no obvious difference between 'freedom' and 'dogma', what is the point in asking? Everything is 'google-able', right?

Happy to be given the answer, happy to steer clear of uncomfortable dirt and pain. Happy and safe. But isn’t that called oppression?

Recently I have been thinking about oppression and the subtle nuances revealed by urbanism. The layers and layers of conformity which are impossible to eradicate without consequences. But then… how else shall we build consensus?

And one afternoon, walking through my working class town, out of the blue an answer kept staring me in the face. There was the rain and the shops closing at 5 o’clock and people hurrying to get the dinner ready. There was an English February, defined by our sleepwalking hyperreality. Me and everybody else: surrendered, crushed.




City

The afternoon we passed the city prison walls
fighting the wintry wind with a broken umbrella.

It was precisely five o'clock and
a girl on a bicycle overtook an old man
holding a rope.
About the same time,
the ice cream van closed.

The armed police arrived
to disperse the queue with tear-gas.

In the near distance, people ran
between horizontal watermarks
back to their semi-detached
airing cupboards.

We had nothing to stop for and then, I think,
I paused and
I covered my arms with a piece of history.


Imperfect can be purchased by contacting Yew Tree Press (philipalrush[at]googlemail.com) or via Amazon.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2017

Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2017 will soon be with us, and this year Festival Director Anna Saunders and her team have put together an exceptionally good programme. You can find full details here on the festival website, but here's a preview of a few of my personal highlights.

On Friday 5 May, Matthew Sweeney will be reading with Ben Parker at Smokey Joe's in Cheltenham at 19.00. Matthew Sweeney's reputation needs requires no further comment from me, but this event will be particularly worth attending to hear work from Parker's first collection, The Amazing Lost Man. I've been a fan since reading his first pamphlet a few years ago and I'm eager to hear the new work.

On Saturday 6 May at 17.00 in St Andrew's Church, Jane Draycott will be reading from her translation of the 14th century poem The Pearl as well from new work. I'm intrigued to hear more about the process of rendering this beautiful text into contemporary English.

On Sunday 7 May at 15.30 in the Cheltenham Playhouse, I'm looking forward to hearing a showcase of poets published by Worple Press, one of out best independent presses, and especially to a reading by John Freeman from his collection What Possessed Me, as previously featured on this blog.

Also on Sunday 7 May, at 19.00 in the Cheltenham Playhouse, I'll be hearing Paul Stephenson read from his Happenstance pamphlet The Days that Followed Paris, which engages with the aftermath of the November 2015 terror attacks in the French capital. I'll be reading a couple of poems myself, alongside other local writers, on related themes. The intersection of poetry and politics is very much to the fore in this year's festival, and I'll be fascinated to see how Stephenson deals with this difficult subject matter.

On Monday 8 May, my fellow Nine Arches poet Roy McFarlane will be reading with Michael Henry and Tricia Torrington at the Playhouse from 19.00. For those who have never seen Roy perform before, this will be a revelation. The work is brilliant on the page, but Roy's charismatic delivery is not to be missed.

On the evening of Tuesday 9 May, there are two treats in store: a reading with Gram Joel Davis from his much anticipated V Press collection, Bolt Down this Earth, and new work from Rory Waterman. Be at the Muffin Man in Cheltenham from 19.00 for this two events!

On Wednesday 10 May at 19.45, Cheltenham Poetry Festival's very own Howard Timms will be offering a performance of his own drama about Oscar Wilde. Howard himself will be in the eponymous role for Oscar Wilde's Women, which is sure to be a treat.

On Thursday 11 May at 20.00, also in the Playhouse, Indigo Dreams will be showcasing a number of their poets, including Jennie Farley, who has previously featured as a guest poet on this blog. Indigo Dreams is building up an excellent list and there will be something here for everyone.

I'll be at the festival all day on 13 May, first running a workshop on 'Poetry and Politics' (a few places still available!), then reading with Alistair Noon at 17.00 in St Andrew's Church. In between those two events, I'll be listening to Sasha Dugdale and Alistair Noon talking about poetry and translation and hearing readings by Sasha Dugdale and Katherine Towers.

That same evening, Stuart Maconie returns to the festival to share some of his favourite poetry. I saw him last year and have remember it fondly as a warm, witting, moving and enlightening performance. Maconie is a real poetry fan-boy and his enthusiasm is infectious. The event will take place at 18.30 in Cheltenham Playhouse.

On Sunday 14 May at 14.00 in St Andrew's Church, I'll be listening to Fiona Sampson discuss Mary Shelley and the reading with Sampson and others that will follow. Sampson is one of our best poets, but also an excellent and lucid critic, whose views are always worth hearing.

Needless to say, there are plenty more delights on offer this year, with slams, performance events, workshops and poetry films, to mention only some of the other varieties of poetry in the programme. Small festivals like this survive on ticket sales and the support of the poetry-loving public, so I urge you to book early and make the most of this year's festival!

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mass Production

This year, the beginning of National Poetry Writing Month coincided with my reading Ian Hamilton's collected poems. In his preface to 1988's Fifty Poems, reproduced in Alan Jenkins' informatively presented edition of Hamilton's work, the poet wryly addressed his own lack of productivity: 'Fifty poems in twenty-five years: not much to show for half a life-time, you might think. And, in certain moods, I would agree.' But, Hamilton concludes, 'Why push and strain?'
Hamilton published seventy-odd poems in his lifetime, of which he only thought sixty worth preserving. That's about two year's worth of NaPoWriMo, as it has become known. I wonder what he would have made of it? This was a poet who was all about concision and distillation, who was clearly only writing those poems he felt needed to be written, or that he needed to write. The idea of producing drafts of thirty poems in thirty days, on the other hand, arguably speaks of a desire simply to write, rather than of a need to write something in particular. I think those impulses are probably more evenly balanced in the work of most poets, since writing in itself is (or should be) a pleasurable activity.
Of course, Hamilton was hardly a lazy man: he wrote literary biography, edited magazines, wrote for literary journals, and so on. But he was never a 'professional' poet. Like his contemporary, Larkin, who also published a relatively slim body of work in his own lifetime, he had plenty of other bread-and-butter stuff to be getting on with.
I'm not against NaPoWriMo at all. Firstly, there are enough people in the world who spend their time disapproving of things that other people do (the opinion columns of our press are full of such sounding-off). Secondly, I would have to admit a certain jealousy. April is not the cruelest month for me, but certainly one of the busier ones in the year. I don't have the time or the excess mental energy to be churning out thirty poems, but I am envious of those who do. However, I would also say that it does concern me sometimes that our poetry writing culture (on-line and elsewhere) is so very fixed on production: workshops, residential courses, writing prompts. The injunction seems to be that we must write more and ever more poems. While it is a marvelous thing when people are given the confidence to write, while nobody should be discouraging anyone from doing so, I would also want to say that it is okay to write more slowly, to be less productive, to revisit, revise, to stop writing for a while, to spend more time reading than you ever do with a pen and notebook (especially that!). Is this a suggestion for National Not Writing Poetry Month (NaNoPoWriMo)? Well, hardly. I have plenty of those anyhow. But in this culture of productivity, poets also need permission to go slow, or at least find their own pace.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

All together now

Brimingham has a new poetry festival, the aptly named Verve, which took place for the first time last weekend at Waterstones in Birmingham. Due to other commitments, I was only able to attend on the Saturday, when I was reading as part of the launch of the Emma Press Birmingham anthology This is Not Your Final Form. I certainly wish I could have stayed longer.
What I liked most about this new event, which had a real buzz about it, was the determination to break down the barriers between different kinds of poetic practice. Instead of cordoning off the performance poetry in a festival slam, for instance, the organizers had clearly made a conscious decision to programme spoken word, avant garde, multimedia and more traditional work back to back. And it worked. I got to hear poets working in other forms who I would never have encountered otherwise, but more importantly the diversity in the room was visible and vocal, in terms of age, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality and disability. This is something few poetry festivals are achieving at the moment, in my experience. While Verve clearly benefits from its location and the diversity of its potential audiences close at hand in such a large city, the programmers have to be congratulated for their innovative approach.
My enjoyment of the day also brought home to me a wider truth about this kind of diversity. In these days when politics has seemingly been reduced to a frantic defending of one's territory against the perceived threat of others (even to the extent of obsessing about who gets to use which public bathroom, if recent debates in the US are anything to go by), it can sound like a lazy liberal slogan to insist that it enriches us to hear the voices of people whose experience differs from our own. The poetry world, like any other sphere, sometimes suffers from the impulse to draw boundaries and police them, but more diversity always means more for everyone. Nobody has to lose out.
In this spirit, everyone should be encouraged to support another project currently seeking funding: the anthology Stairs and Whispers, the first major UK anthology of poetry and essays by disabled and D/deaf poets. As I write, they have hit 67% of their target, and for donations from £15 you'll get a copy of the book posted to you when it comes out. You know what to do!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Workshop



Although Alexei Sayle has been very unflattering about anyone 'who uses the word workshop outside of light engineering', workshops are undoubtedly a major feature of the world of contemporary poetry. I've attended a fair few and have delivered them myself for various groups, most recently for the Poetry School. Workshops can focus mainly on providing writing prompts or discussing particular techniques for inspiring new work, but I've been wanting for a while to write a post about the other kind, where groups of people get together, whether formally or informally, to share and discuss their work. These can be led by a tutor or facilitator, or can be entirely self-managing. Whatever the permutations, to get the best out of giving and receiving feedback in a workshop, I'd recommend following these pointers.




Giving Feedback

1. It perhaps goes without saying that the feedback needs to be constructive. That doesn't mean you can't say that you don't like something, but you need to offer reasons why. 'Not my sort of thing' or 'I don't see the point of it' just won't do. We all know that we don't all like every poem ever written. A writer will be pleased when others say they enjoy his or her work, but it is not necessary to like something to offer helpful critique. Try to understand what the poem wants to achieve (this may not be clear to the poet themselves!) and suggest ways it could achieve that more effectively.

2. Try not to be absolute in what you say - remember you are expressing an opinion, not a fact. Saying 'that phrase doesn't work' or 'that image is weak' leaves the person receiving the feedback no room to think about the advice on their own terms and will probably just make them defensive. Far better to formulate your feedback as a set of questions: 'How would it be if you took out or moved that stanza?' or 'How would it be if you weeded out some of the less original imagery to allow the rest to really shine through?' are questions much more likely to get the author of the poem re-thinking what they are doing than categorical statements.

3. This is, for me, perhaps the most important thing: Don't kill the negative feedback! Sometimes, you will disagree with the feedback that others offer, but this isn't about who is right. Too often, someone listening to a piece of negative feedback they disagree with will want to jump in and say, 'No! That's wonderful - don't change it!' This effectively prevents the person receiving the feedback from thinking seriously about these negative points. It is a given of the psychology of feedback that we listen to the positives and tend to ignore the negatives, and 'defending' the poem from others' criticism will only only reinforce this. You can disagree with what others say, of course, but try to present that disagreement in an open way. For instance: 'Well, I didn't have such a problem with that line as Kevin does, but that's for you to decide.' The feedback is, after all, for the author, not for you. So let them take away the positives and the negatives to process in their own time.

Receiving Feedback

1. Paradoxically, given some of the suggestions I have made above, the most important thing is to know when to accept and when to reject feedback. This is something that needs to happen after the workshop, though, when you have really had time to think. Write down what people say, but don't start formulating arguments to counter what they just have told you. You will hear very useful things and some frankly very unhelpful things, but you need to give yourself the space to decide which is which after the event. Sometimes this may mean being brave in terms of getting rid of elements that only you will ever like, but also in terms of keeping those elements that you have faith in. Remember that the workshop is not there to re-write the poem for you, but to get you thinking about it in new and productive ways.

2. Take the work you are not sure about. If you need affirmation, send your completed poems to good magazines or enter them into competitions. A workshop is a place for work in progress, not an audience to applaud your poetry. Sometimes, it may turn out that a poem you thought was only half-done and directionless is hailed as a work of genius. If so, lucky you! But if you go hoping only to be told how good your latest masterwork is, you may find the experience bruising.

3. Show your fellow workshoppers that you value what they have to say. It is natural to feel protective of your work - you want this poem to be good and you care deeply about it. However, when everyone is telling you critical things and telling you how much work you may still need to do, there is a temptation to try to counter their suggestions. The person who makes it clear that they are not going to take any of the feedback on board and also that they do not value the insights of others is the person who, from that point on, is only going to get vague and unhelpful comments. Other participants in the workshop will soon learn to avoid saying anything critical, as they realize that they are wasting their breath.

I hope that this is useful to some of you who may be just starting to attend workshops or who would just like to get more out of them. Do you have any do's and don'ts you want to share? If so, why not leave a comment?

Image Credit: Carpenter by Albrecht Altdorfer (German, Regensburg ca. 1480–1538 Regensburg), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

New Year, New Poetry!

A belated Happy New Year!

I've been very pleased recently to have a number of people speak to me about this blog and about the posts they've enjoyed reading here. I hope in 2017 there will be more thoughts about poetry to share with you, and perhaps not quite as much posting about my own activities, which I will try to confine as much as possible to social media (I'm @davidcchelt on Twitter, by the way...).

Nevertheless, I do want to use this first post of 2017 for an announcement about my own work.

My next pamphlet, entitled Scare Stories, is scheduled for publication with the amazing V Press in the first half of 2017. It contains a sequence of 25 new poems, all of which are written in the first person plural, and all of which imagine possible near futures or versions of the present.

I'm hoping also that the pamphlet will evolve into a performance and I am currently discussing this with some potential collaborators. More details will follow!