Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Guest Poet: Katherine E. Young

Katherine E. Young
One of my most pleasurable poetry discoveries of recent months has been Katherine E.Young's collection, Day of the Border Guards (University of Arkansas Press, 2014), a book that addresses the author's long experience of living and working in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia. Katherine, who I was lucky enough to meet at a reading she gave in Cheltenham recently, is also an accomplished translator of Russian verse into English, and her deep knowledge of and love for Russian literary culture in particular are a hallmark of this collection. And yet the tone here is never academic; rather, the poems are constructed around the lived detail of everyday existence in Russia's past and present, closely observed, yet never exoticized. I have many personal favourites in the book, but Katherine has been kind enough to allow me to showcase the following poem.

Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

But how little they resembled the gods
who wore winged crowns in allegorical paintings,
those dissidents who frowned through scotch-taped glasses
and shook their fingers at my naïveté.
No more than I resembled Icarus
falling from the sky, my failures even
more ordinary. What amazed me then:
the armies of the everyday who woke
each morning and set patiently about
making something of their lives, despite
every conceivable incentive to do
nothing. Onetime ploughmen throttled combines,
the torturer’s chauffeur strained his back
changing a flat, printers inked metal plates
to print the newspapers office workers
used to wrap up fish. On the Koltso,
trucks belched smoke; and up in space men floated
in expensive delicate ships and watched
the earth in blue radiance whirling away.

Of 'Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts', Katherine writes:

'I first went to the USSR as a student in 1981 – all the poems in Day of the BorderGuards are in some way connected to the years I lived and worked in the Soviet Union and then Russia. I started studying Russian because I wanted to be an astronaut and meet up with cosmonauts in space: I had this naïve, idealistic notion that meeting face-to-face with Soviet citizens could somehow help bridge the Cold War gap between America and the USSR. And, in fact, meeting Russians – all the peoples of the USSR – was illuminating, but not always in ways I’d expected. Quite often, Soviet citizens turned out to be just as mulish, obstinate, and unempathetic as Americans! Some of the most mulish and obstinate among them (with good reason, of course) were the dissidents and refuseniks whose lives had been twisted and ruined by the Soviet system: they could be even more strident in their anti-Soviet rhetoric than Americans. This was an uncomfortable discovery for me, because I instinctively distrust people who see the world in black and white. In later years, I’ve experienced a good deal of guilt for harboring such mixed feelings about the dissidents, for preferring moral ambiguity to moral certainty, for not fully understanding how much they suffered. But at the time, I found the very Soviet-ness of the USSR in all its strangeness, its casual cruelty, its cheerful stagnation, to be curiously compelling. This poem explores my fascination with Homo Sovieticus, particularly the generation of women who lost millions of potential mates in the Second World War, women who held the nation together from sheer force of will, almost completely uncredited (nor do they receive their due in my poem, I’m sorry to say). While the poem pays obvious homage to WH Auden, its final line comes from the nineteenth-century Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov’s phrase “The earth sleeps in blue radiance…” from “Alone I set out on the road” [“Выхожу один я на дорогу”]. I discovered new meaning in Lermontov’s phrase when translating Inna Kabysh’s “Yuri Gagarinwas a great Russian poet”. Elsewhere Kabysh has written eloquently about the unimaginably difficult everyday existence of Soviet and Russian women, but her poem about Gagarin (the first human in space) speaks particularly to the kind of idealism and optimism felt by a young American girl who wanted more than anything to grow up and become a celestial ambassador.'

The American poets who get a hearing on this side of the Atlantic are few in number compared to the productivity of US poetry, and we often rely on UK publishers to act as gatekeepers, selecting for us the books we will engage with. Clearly, British poets and readers have much to gain by looking further afield in the US poetry scene. In that spirit, I can wholeheartedly recommend Katherine's book, which can be ordered inthe UK.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Salt on the Wind

It has taken me a little while, but last week I finally found time to read work by American poet Ruth Stone, specifically her collection Simplicity (1995). Stone died in her nineties in 2011, after becoming more well known relatively late in her career (more details on the Poetry Foundation website). Stone is an immediately engaging presence, writing out of everyday life, but unafraid to address the fundamental issues of human existence head-on, with a humour and lack of sentimentality that feel hard won in the face of her own experience, which was marked in particular by the suicide of her second husband in 1959 (several of the poems in Simplicity make reference to this).
I came to Stone's poetry (and hope to read more of it) as a result of the kind gift of a new anthology edited by Chaucer Cameron and Helen Dewbery, Salt on the Wind: Poetry in Response to Ruth Stone (Elephant's Footprint). I'm not going to offer a full-scale review of the anthology here, although it does contain many very fine poems (my particular favourite has to be Cristina Navazo-Eguia Newton's 'Dog', but there are numerous others I could recommend). What I like most about the book that Helen and Chaucer have put together is that it is not a straightforward homage. Stone herself is not strongly present as an individual in the book. Rather, it is her writing and teaching which provide the starting-point for a diverse range of poems. There are interesting notes at the back of the book where the poets talk about how they came to write what they did, and these are testament to the many forms that influence can take, how - in their own mind - poets often fashion subterranean connections to the work of others. Apart from the enjoyment of the poems themselves, the anthology as a whole provides a fascinating demonstration of the true value of literary influence - not as slavish imitation, but as a dialogue in which we take up where others have let off, but selectively, personally, and always making something new with what we find. Given the recent scandals in the world of poetry over the plagiaristic use of models from others, this volume could be recommended as a primer in the creative possibilities of engaging with the work of other poets. The poems are  more than worthy of engaging with in their own right, but will also serve as an invitation to get to know the work of Stone herself.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Music and Lyrics

One of the questions I get asked now and then about poetry, and one of the more interesting ones, is about the difference between song lyrics and poems. Are song lyrics just poems with musical accompaniment? Are lyricists poets? After all, from time to time, publishing houses (I mean you, Faber and Faber) try and milk a few book sales and a bit of pop-cultural kudos out of putting out collected lyrics by various singer-songwriters.
The answer to the question of how to distinguish song lyrics from poems is, I think, both straightforward and quite complicated. The straightforward answer is that a poem can exist on the page or in performance without music. It makes its own music, that is to say that the sound, structure and rhythm of the poem are sufficient to produce the poem's overall effect. You could set a good poem to music (and there are many examples of this in the history of music), but then you are making something new. The poem itself doesn't need the music. Lyrics on the other hand, while ideally working well with the music which accompanies them, might struggle to have anywhere near the same effect as poems without music.
So, that's the basic position - but then things get complicated. In reality, we probably have to imagine the relationship between poems and songs lyrics on a sliding scale. At one end, we have lyrics that work wonderfully with the music they were written for, but which would be much less impressive on the page. There are many varieties of this phenomenon, but we could take the example of Paul McCartney's lyrics for 'Yesterday', one of the most successful popular songs ever written, to stand for those lyrics which, on the page, would seem hackneyed and uninspiring, but which are magically transformed in combination with that great tune (and McCartney's brilliance as a performer). Let's face it, rhyming 'yesterday' with 'far away' and 'here to stay' is not the stuff of great poetry. Without the tune (which is pretty hard to forget) it would not be great art. With the tune, it unquestionably is. Another variety of the lyric which can't survive without the tune would be the work of Morrissey. A remarkably lyricist, many of Morrissey's texts actually have relatively few words in them, but these are repeated, woven in and our of the melody and subjected to some of the most extraordinary performances you are likely to encounter. Just think of what he does the with the word 'etcetera' in 'Sweet and Tender Hooligan'. Apart from all of his wit and insight, what makes Morrissey's lyrics work is the way they are sung.
At the other end of the scale, there are certainly song lyrics which, although they might have a different kind of impact, could easily survive on the page without any knowledge of the music which normally accompanies them. Leonard Cohen, who of course is a published poet as well as a songwriter, is the name that comes to mind immediately. Lyrics like 'Chelsea Hotel #2' or 'Tower of Song' have that quality. And somewhere on this scale, between Leonard Cohen and 'Yesterday', most other song lyrics have their existence.

Another interesting sub-category are lyrical collaborations between poets and songwriters. So, for instance, Frank McGuiness has written lyrics for Marianne Faithfull, Paul Muldoon worked with Warren Zevon, and Jeremy Reed collaborated with Marc Almond on Piccadilly Bongo. There are sure to be others out there I don't know. Feel free to leave me a recommendation!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

In the booklight

My fellow Nine Arches poet Sarah James has been kind enough to publish an interview with me on her blog, as part of a new series called 'In the booklight'. Sarah came up with some really interesting questions - I hope the answers are worth reading too! It was really rewarding to enter into a dialogue with someone who had read Arc so thoughtfully. Click here if you want to read the whole interview.

 Sarah James' blog

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


Whether you like it or not, readings are part of being a poet who is trying to flog a book (or pamphlet). As it happens, I rather like them. They are a chance to show off, at least. But mainly, I enjoy performing my work, although I'm not a 'performance' poet in the commonly understood sense. Although I always read out my work when I am writing it (the composition process happens somewhere between voice and page), it is only when I have a room of people looking at me that I really get a sense of how the poem could sound, which is often different from reading to reading. Reading other people's work aloud does this too -- even poems I know well can offer something new when spoken.
A lot of poets plan readings very carefully. I know I should, but it only makes me nervous. So, I try not to think about it until I enter the room and get a look at the audience. When events feature open mic slots, especially when the guest poet goes on last, this is a real help, as it is usually possible to pick up a couple of cues from poems that have already been read out as a starting-point for my own reading. Otherwise, I try to use my initial poem as the one that is going to capture people's attention, then take it from there. There's no use giving them a tiny, quiet and possibly slightly obscure poem to begin with. It might work on the page, but the opening of a poetry reading needs something big and bold. Equally, I've always found that the last poem works well if it can make the audience laugh. I don't do comic verse, but something that at least makes people smile is a good note to end on. By now, I've come to realise which poems can raise a titter, and I keep them in reserve. Only once did this go horribly wrong when my last, humorous poem, a sure-fire hit at every other reading, left an audience stony-faced. You can't win them all.
The thing I like least about readings is the terrible sense that, if the whole audience doesn't rush to the book table clutching a greasy tenner in their hands to buy the book, they must have hated the whole thing. This is silly, I know. Not everybody has the money to buy new poetry books every day of the week, and most people will probably not be instant fans in any case. It is lovely when people do buy the book and want to talk to you (or even when they just buy it!), but I've had to learn to take myself to a far corner with a glass of wine and ignore the business end of things. This also involves resisting the urge to fall at the feet of the few hapless book-buyers who have parted with their cash.
Happily, I have quite a few readings and other events in the coming weeks and months. On 19th March, I'll be in Birmingham taking part in one of the Vanguard readings (full details above). Then, on 12th April I'm taking part in the Ledbury Poetry Salon, which will involve and interview and a reading (further details to follow). On 27th April, I'll be appearing at a new event, In Your Own Words, organised by Miki Byrne at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury (from 17.00 to 19.00). Let's hope they all laugh at the funny ones!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

the terrible

On Thursday night this week I was in Birmingham to read in support of the launch of Daniel Sluman's the terrible, his striking second collection from Nine Arches Press. Daniel's book, which I've been reading and re-reading since the event, is unflinching yet tender as it faces issues of disability, mortality, love and sex - it's intense and compelling stuff. Daniel's reading from and discussion of the book was recorded, and I can recommend catching up with it here.

Daniel was quite a tough act to follow, and I also very much enjoyed hearing new work by fellow Nine Arches Poet and current Cheltenham poet in residence Angela France. The event was hosted by Birmingham City University and we had a good crowd, including students from their MA programme.
I'm also pleased to have been invited to contribute to another excellent initiative in the region, the Poetry Salons at Ledbury. Organised by the same people who bring us the Poetry Festival, these events include a reading and interview by invited poets, plus an open mic session. I will be reading on 12 April 2016, but the next event, on Tuesday 9 February, will feature Maitreyabandhu, and the following month's event with Myra Connell will take place on 8 March. The readings are held in the Panelled Room in the Master's House in Ledbury (7pm - 9pm) and entry is only £5, to include a glass of Poetry Gold cider. There's no need to book.

Finally, Cheltenham Poetry Festival is on the horizon once more. The programme will appear soon, but I'm flattered that the organisers have put my on the cover! From what I hear, it will be an excellent line-up again this year. Apart from reading with Sarah James, I'll be running a workshop on 15 May on 'Beginning and Ending the Poem'. More details to follow soon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Conceit

Gilding the Acrobats
Paul Cadmus, Gilding the Acrobats(Metropolitan Museum)

I'm pleased to announce that participants can now sign up here for my first on-line workshop with The Poetry School, on the subject of 'The Conceit'.

Some poetry takes everyday reality as its starting-point in order to reveal something about the world we know. But poetry can equally begin with a ‘what if?’ – it can create unreal or unlikely situations and then, by exploring the consequences of those situations, lead us to unexpected ideas and images.

These ‘what if?’ situations could be described as ‘conceits’ – extended metaphors that bring together disparate ideas, making the poem a kind of literary test-tube.

In this workshop, I'll be helping participants to explore how conceits can be used to open up our writing to new ways of imagining, while still remaining rooted in a concern for our human experience of the world. We will think about how the use of conceits can draw in the reader, hold their attention, and keep surprising them until the very end of the poem.

The workshop is free, but places are limited -- so sign up soon if you are interested. The workshop begins on 1 February 2016, and there will be a live chat on 12 February. I'm intrigued to see what people will create!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Why Do People Hate Poetry?

The recent controversy over the coverage of Sarah Howe's T. S. Eliot prize win has highlighted again the problems the British press has in discussing poetry. Katy Evans-Bush has analysed the sexism of much of the coverage in an article for the Guardian here, and that is clearly the central issue which needs addressing in this context.
However, apart from Howe's having dared to be young, female and of Chinese heritage, the portrait of her in The Sunday Times also chimes in with that strain of cultural journalism which turns a defensive attitude to poetry into a kind of passive aggression, with cliches about difficulty, elitism and lack of commercial viability to the fore. Poets will be familiar with these assertions, which are offered to them all too readily when they are outed as practitioners of the art in polite company. 'Oh, I've never really got poetry. All too clever for me. And I don't suppose you can make a living out of it, can you.' Sometimes, this is prefaced with a sorry, as if not liking poetry was a mild personal fault; at other times the tone is defiant, as if the very fact of appreciating and even creating poetry was an implicit criticism of all of those who don't.
Imagine substituting poetry for some other minority art in these exchanges. Would your first reaction on meeting a person training for the ballet be to tell them that you don't really get it, that you found it too elitist, that the dancer was never going to make a living out of it? I'm guessing that this would not be the case. Some polite questions about how it was all going and what the dancer's prospects were, perhaps, but nobody would feel it necessary to issue a statement on their own personal distaste for what is, after all, an art which only a small proportion of the population appreciate.
Ben Lerner has written very interestingly here and in a recent book about what he calls 'the hatred of poetry'. His argument, however, focuses very much on poets themselves and intellectuals of various stripes, exploring the notion that, compared to what it ideally wants to achieve, poetry is always to some extent a failure. His argument is a fascinating one and picks up on a neglected strain in thinking about poetry in order to launch a defense of what poetry can do. However, I'm not sure he helps us to understand the widespread hostility towards poetry in a society largely made up of people who do not think about it very much at all. Why is it that it is fine to mention going to the opera or an exhibition of video installations, but any hint of a visit to a poetry reading invites an open declaration of hostility. Most people aren't that bothered about opera or video installations, either (you certainly won't fine me sitting through the Ring Cycle) but nobody feels the need to feel defensive about their lack of engagement in those cases.
My own personal explanation is that other minority arts are not encumbered with the perception that they are educational. Poetry never lost its place on the school curriculum, despite a decline in its public profile, a situation which some poets have benefited from in terms of royalties and paid work with schools. However, when school is the only forum in which young people encounter poetry, the individual poem becomes a kind of test, a sort of overly-complex crossword clue which has to be decoded in order (literally) to make the grade. The novel arguably suffers from this treatment, too. But the young people are exposed to novels in other ways -- they can read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games for pleasure of their own accord and separate that pleasure from the grim accumulation of points in a school test. This, I think, is the reason for the defensiveness many people feel. Not only might you read poetry at them, they might well have to answer questions later about what it all meant. The idea that you might enjoy a piece of art without being able to discuss its deeper meaning in the appropriate academic terms -- as we manage to do every day reading novels, watching movies and listening to music -- does not seem to be extended to poetry.
Reading at a TableThis is clearly a shame. Contrary to many of the authors discussed by Lerner, I actually enjoy poetry. Reading it gives me genuine pleasure, and is certainly easier than writing it.
I don't always know exactly why I enjoy it, either. Reading Matthew Caley's new collection, Rake, recently, I was struck by just how much joy it brought me. Not necessarily because of anything Caley was saying, but because of its wit, its euphony, its ability to surprise, because of all of those things which, put into the dry language of criticism, are not adequately communicated. Let's just say that, on reading (and re-reading), I smiled. I probably couldn't write a decent exam answer on any of the poems (thank heavens I don't have to), but that's not what the poems are there for.
My experience has been that, when exposed to good poetry without the threat of a written test, most intelligent people enjoy what they hear. And most people I have met are certainly intelligent enough to experience that enjoyment. Yes, perhaps our education system could do more to allow people to engage with poetry, so that they could experience that enjoyment for themselves, but until you can get an A+ for having a good time, poetry might well benefit from being taken off the curriculum.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Two readings for February

Poetry people are hardy, resilient folk, so I'm sure some of them won't mind braving the plummeting temperatures and the dark nights of February to enjoy these two forthcoming events.

Firstly, on the evening of Thursday 4th February, I'll be reading with Angela France and Daniel Sluman to support the launch of Daniel's second collection, The Terrible, from Nine Arches Press. His first collection, Absence Has a Weight of Its Own, which I reviewed earlier on this blog, promises much for this new book -- expect passionate honesty and imagery wielded with astonishing precision. Tickets for the event, which is hosted by the Institute for Creative and Critical Writing at Birmingham City University, can be had for free here.

Then, on Tuesday 16th February, I'll be reading as part of the Polari Literary Salon hosted by Paul Burston at the South Bank Centre, where the headline readers will be Jonathan Harvey and Chris Green. It will be an interesting experience to be the only poet on the bill.