Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ordinary

My poor neglected blog - so long without a substantial post! And that it should be an intervention by British journalism's answer to Cyril Sneer, Jeremy Paxman, which made me want to write again. Not that I am particularly exercised by Paxman's comments. The online discussion has been lively, but I've found it hard to get hot under the collar. Whatever one may think of Paxman, he is a shrewd media operator who knows how to whip up a bit of publicity for the Forward Prize.

Cyril Sneer takes the poets to task

George Szirtes' comments on Paxman's frankly weird idea of putting poets before peoples' tribunals are spot on: It all sounds vaguely Stalinist, although perhaps more Maoist, if you ask me. Get the dunces' hats, parade the intellectuals around the village to let them feel the righteous anger of the people! What's not to like?

And yet.

There is that question of ordinariness. The very nub of Paxo's argument goes unexplored. So here are some thoughts on ordinariness, in no particular order...

1. Poetry is a marginal art. And always has been, or at least in the modern era. From time to time, individual poets or volumes of verse have achieved significant sales and caught the British popular imagination, for a whole range of contingent reasons: Tennyson's In Memoriam, Edward FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Housman's A Shropshire Lad, the Georgian anthologies, Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters... But when I say 'popular imagination', we really are only talking about sales in the tens of thousands and, for want of a better term, a predominantly middle class audience. Most poetry books, by these writers' contemporaries, have always sold far fewer copies.

2.  In the post-war period, writer-educators like Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart insisted that we should pay more attention to the culture of ordinariness, the everyday culture of newspapers, popular song, and so on. What gets forgotten is that, in their own educational practice, originally in extra-mural programmes at British universities, Williams and Hoggart believed that 'ordinary' people should aspire to appreciate the classics of English literature. They didn't believe that those classics had to modified to make them more accessible. The (implicitly working-class) ordinary reader could enjoy those works on their own terms and find their lives enriched by them.

3. In Neil Roberts' biography of Peter Redgrove, Roberts discusses J. H. Barclay, a retired biscuit-maker from Bootle, who had left school at 13. He was Redgrove's most avid reader, who would buy all of Redgrove's books, travel to attend his readings, and visit the places Redgrove wrote about. He was an ordinary man who connected very deeply with the work of a poet who is by no means 'popular' in the sense of being straightforward or undemanding.

4. Poetry is sometimes hard work. It doesn't take much effort on the part of the viewer to watch The X Factor, although clearly millions of people find it an exciting and rewarding experience. It is pure entertainment, and no the worse for that. Poetry demands to be re-read, it asks you to spend time with it - not simply to fill time with it. Even when it hits you straight in the gut on first reading (and plenty of the best poetry does do this), there are more intellectual and emotional rewards when you return to it. I don't believe that appreciating certain art forms automatically makes anyone a better, more moral, or more sensitive person (see John Carey's What Good are the Arts? on this point). However, I do believe that a better society would equip people with the cultural education, the time and the aspiration to engage with art forms which ask more of them - not as some worthy chore, but as a means to expand their perception and feeling, to become more fully alive to the world and to themselves.

5. A lot of the entertainment which pervades our lives and demands our time - on television, on-line, in the cinemas, on the library shelves - is avowedly popular. It wants to give the public what it wants, to engage desires and patterns of thought which are culturally established and commodified. That is not to say that imaginative 'ordinary' people don't do very interesting and often subversive things with the products of entertainment culture, nor is it to say that more 'difficult' cultural forms can't become commodified as part of a leisure experience (just pop along to Tate Modern and take a look). However, we can say that the chief message of much entertainment culture is essentially (to quote Bill Joel) 'don't go changing'. It says: There is no need to be anything other than ordinary. The challenge of poetry to the reader is 'be extraordinary.' Or, as Rilke succinctly put it - 'you must change your life.'

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review of Kevin Powers

I just reviewed Kevin Powers' new book of poetry, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, over at Dr Fulminare's Irregular Features.

Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2014



Hard to believe that Cheltenham Poetry Festival has already been over for a week. What a great time we had! It has taken me this long to recover enough to be able to write a post reviewing the whole event (or those parts of it I was lucky enough to attend).

Picaresque
The preview weekend got off to a strong start on 22 March with local all-female troupe 'Picaresque', masterminded by Jennie Farley. A range of accomplished voices were showcased in a thoughtfully constructed and professionally delivered reading. Then Howard Timms left his audience deeply moved with a one-man play on his mother's dementia, that featured songs, some brilliant acting, and Howard's impersonation of his grandfather doing drag. This was an affecting and cathartic piece of work - never was the cliché 'not a dry eye in the house' more apt. Later that evening, the Stroud Pamphlet poets (led by Rick Vick) gave an eclectic and laid-back reading of their work.
The first weekend of the festival proper began on Friday 28 March with a reading by Don Paterson and David Briggs. It was a real coup for the festival to secure a reading from Paterson, one of the most essential voices in contemporary British poetry, and he was well-matched with David Briggs, whose two collections from Salt are among my favourite books. David's reading was beautifully presented and contained some excellent work - you could feel the audience's concentration in the room as he read. Paterson was relaxed and funny, sharing with us some work-in-progress as well as his feelings about poetry readings, especially those where the pre-ambles are more entertaining than the poems they preface.
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Sarah Dixon (photo: Write Out Loud)
Later that evening, I forsook the rowdiness of the slam for a parallel event organised by 'Quite Compere' Sarah Dixon. The theme was 'life, death and poetry' and several of the readers had had their own experiences with life-threatening illnesses, or were (in their day jobs) involved in the medical professions. This was a great combination of perspectives, and much of the work was first class. Sarah is currently organising a tour of readings across the north of the UK and has similar projects in line for the future. Do look out for her events, as she clearly has a good eye for putting together thought-provoking, high quality shows.
Sadly, I wasn't able to attend a full day of events on Saturday 29 March, but I did make it along to the launch of Mikki Byrne's Flying Through Houses, an autobiography of Mikki's early life and childhood illness in the medium of prose poetry. Mikki is able to write directly and unsentimentally about her difficult start in life, evoking the spaces of her childhood to great effect, and her work speaks of a resilience of spirit which is genuinely uplifting. Later that afternoon, I was able to make it along to a reading of Laurie Lee's work in the Chapel of Frances Close Hall at the University of Gloucestershire. Angela France had organised a well-balanced programme of Lee's prose and verse, and it was a great treat to relax and listen to such good work in such peaceful surroundings. This is Lee's centenary year, and there are plenty of other events going on, especially in and around Stroud, throughout 2014.
Me, Jennie Farley and Chris Hemingway
The next event for me, on 30 March, was one of the three I was lucky enough to appear in, presenting a programme on 'Myth, Memory and Music' with Jennie Farley and Chris Hemingway. Here we are looking nervous before our performance, which I'm pleased to say drew a good audience (as many as our small venue could hold, which is always pleasing to see). After all of the hard work putting the the event together, it was heartening to hear from members of the audience that they had enjoyed themselves.
Although I had to slip away from the festival in the early afternoon, I was volunteering all evening at one of the venues, helping to make readings by Pat Borthwick, Maria Butonoi, Jean Riley, Sujata Bhatt and Gillian Barker run smoothly. It was a pleasure to meet the poets, and I came away with an armful of books, which is a good sign. It was a particular pleasure to hear Sujata Bhatt read again, and also good to see that the festival is in a position to attract really top-notch international names like her. Romanian-born Maria Butonoi is one to watch, I would say - her debut pamphlet from Yew Tree Press is original and surprising.
Anna Saunders, Struck (Image: Pindrop Press)
I mainly had to miss out on the events in the following week, due to work commitments. But did make it along to 'Women's Words', with Angela France and Dani Schlosser. Interspersed with tweets from #everydaysexism, these poems addressed women's experience. It was humorous, raw and direct - and still felt vital in today's climate of backlash against women's liberation.
On Thursday, I went to the launch of Anna Saunders' amazing collection Struck from Pindrop Press. Anna gave a brilliant reading to a packed room, which enjoyed free wine and chocolates, not to mention excellent support from fellow Pindrop poet Jeremy Page. My own small contribution was the brief appreciation of the book I had written a while ago at Anna's request, which is quoted on the back cover and reproduced in full in the endpages. Having read the book again now, my initial enthusiasm has only been confirmed. A quick mention, also for Helen Dewbery, who produced a fantastic film to accompany Anna's reading - you can see more of Helen's work here.
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Little Machine (Image: Cheltenham Poetry Festival)

I had the pleasure of reading with Anna and fellow members of Poetry Factory the following evening for the launch of The Museum of Light, a limited edition anthology of photographs by Create Photographers in Cheltenham accompanied by our poems.
Saturday 5 April had further treats in store, kicking off with Ros Cogan's talk on talk on the sonnet form, of which he is himself a highly skilled and effective proponent, and readings by Peter Carpenter and Lesley Ingram. Then we changed venue to the newly developped Wilson gallery at the Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, where we heard readings by Ruth Padel and Cristina Newton. Both readers prefer to recite their poetry by heart, and these were both beautifully judged performances that thrilled the large audience that had come along to see them. They were followed in uproarious fashion by poetry band Little Machine, who blew us away with settings of classic and contemporary poems.
Next morning I was reading (again!), this time as part of a Flarestack Poets showcase, with the excellent Michael Conley and Richard Moorhead. It was good to meet the two of them properly and hear them read from their work. Both pamphlets can be thoroughly recommended!
Then I was on duty again, volunteering at readings by Sophie Hannah and Nic Aubury and Peter Wyton and Robin Gilbert. Then, fittingly for a Gloucestershire event, the programme came to an end with a talk about and readings from the Dymock Poets. Having recently read Matthew Hollis' biography of Edward Thomas, I was familiar with the story, but it was great to have the atmosphere of that time and place evoked by the wonderful readers, and by Jeff Cooper, grandson of Lascelles Abercrombie, who was a key figure in the group.
There are so many things I've left out here, not least Buzzwords with Carrie Etter, which rounded off the final festival weekend. But hopefully this gives some sense of the variety and quality on offer. Reliving the whole thing as I write this, I think I need to have another rest!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Guest Poet - Jonathan Edwards

I first met Jonathan Edwards a couple of years ago on a Poetry School course run by David Briggs in Bristol. Jonathan's poems immediately captured the imagination of everyone in the group. The warmth and wit of his work is balanced perfectly with a precise sense of craft. His first full collection, My Family and Other Superheroes, which has just been published by Seren, is a triumph. Moving and audacious, Jonathan's vision is shrewd without being harsh, surreal yet grounded in the world we all share. This is poetry that believes in seeking out the truth in the ordinary, its flights of pop-culture-inspired fancy always bringing us back to the bedrock of what makes us who we are. This is especially the case in the wonderful 'Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family', which is featured below as a guest poem.

Jonathan has this to say about the poem:

"I work as a teacher and sometimes, when they’re not asking me why they have to do the homework, or why they have to study this book for GCSE, or even why the sky doesn’t have orange polka dots in it, my pupils have been known to ask an interesting question: where’s the best place to write a poem? I think they’re expecting me to say something like ‘In a rose-lined arbour in high summer, as bees buzz their ideas round your ears, and all your senses tingle’ or, ‘On a hillside at night overlooking a city, as the silhouettes of office buildings and smokestacks form their ghostly backdrop to the nightingales’ song.’ Instead, my answer is usually the same: sitting on the sofa, during the advertising break in The Simpsons.

The Simpsons is a gift for anyone wanting to write the comic, pop culture surreal – the kind of work that grows out of Jo Shapcott poems like ‘Superman Sounds Depressed,’ or ‘Tom and Jerry Visit England,’ or the wonderful sonnet sequence by the American poet David Wojahn, ‘Mystery Train,’ which explores a series of apocryphal but plausible moments in pop culture. There’s a sonnet about Francis Ford Coppola teaching Philippine tribesmen the lyrics to ‘Light My Fire’ on the set of Apocalypse Now, for example, and another about the time Delmore Schwartz went to a Velvet Underground gig. It’s difficult to look at the plot synopsis of a Simpsons episode, or even a single frame, without getting a bunch of ideas for comic and surreal poems which also – and this is the crucial thing – get to something which matters. The surreal as a way of getting to the real – that’s the thing for me.
With ‘Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family,’ the episode of The Simpsons in question was an early one, where a character clearly based on the real-life daredevil 70s motorcyclist inspires Bart to try and jump Springfield Gorge on his skateboard – something which Homer subsequently does instead, to try and win over his son. This reminded me in turn of an Evel Knievel action figure I had when I was a kid and would launch across the room, having him risk his plastic life by leaping candlesticks, coffee tables, toy giraffes. From there I was off. What could Evel Knievel say about my family? What if Evel Knievel jumped over my family? How would my mother feel about that? My great-grandmother?

A very eminent poet once told me that if I wrote poems about my family, they would only be of interest to my family. But if there’s a more important reason to write poems than the people we love, I don’t know what it is. Evel Knievel, as he soars through the air, is my solution to that problem. Throw famous people at a poem and you might also be throwing readers. The poem forms part of a sequence of similar surreal approaches to the family at the start of my Seren collection, My Family and Other Superheroes. I’ve yet to write a poem set in a rose-lined arbour in high summer. But if I ever do, I might well-find that two figures come zooming through it: a boy on a skateboard, dust rising from his wheel-tracks, being chased by his balding, beer-bellied, and strangely yellow dad."


Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family

A floodlit Wembley. Lisa, the producer,
swears into her walkie-talkie. We Edwardses,
four generations, stand in line,
between ramps: Smile for the cameras.

My great-grandparents twiddle their thumbs
in wheelchairs, as Lisa tells us to relax,
Mr Knievel has faced much bigger challenges:
double-deckers, monster trucks, though the giraffe

is urban legend. Evel Knievel enters,
Eye of the Tiger drowned by cheers,
his costume tassels, his costume a slipstream,
his anxious face an act to pump the crowd,

surely. My mother, always a worrier,
asks about the ambulance. Evel Knievel
salutes, accelerates towards the ramps.
I close my eyes, then open them:

is this what heaven feels like,
some motorcycle Liberace overhead,
wheels resting on air? Are these flashes
from 60,000 cameras the blinding light

coma survivors speak of? Before he lands,
there’s just time to glance along the line:
though no one’s said a thing,
all we Edwardses are holding hands.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

And they're off!

The first event of this year's Cheltenham Poetry Festival took place last night - and what a corker it was!

The Cheltenham Improvisers Orchestra provided a wash of ambient sound - created live with synthesizer, bassoon, drums, cello, electric bass, household items and even a ping-pong bat and ball - over which poets read their work about spring. A whole range of styles was on offer - the combination of so many different voices with the lush and inventive soundscapes made for a mesmeric experience.


There are so many good things on offer over the coming weeks, and the standard is already high. You can see more of the programme and book tickets here.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

States of Independence

States of Independence is an independent publishers' fair held annually at De Monfort University in Leicester, home of one of the region's liveliest creative writing programmes. I've been meaning to get along to it for a couple of years now, but have now finally had the time to make the trip. It was well worth it. Apart from the all too-tempting book stalls (see my haul of purchases below...), the readings and discussions were some of the most stimulating I've experienced for a long time.


Sadly, it was impossible to attend everything on offer, but here are some impressions of the events I was able to see.

The morning began promisingly with 'The Poetry of Sex', presented by four poets recently included in Sophie Hannah's controversial anthology of the same name from Penguin. Although some of the participants had mixed feelings about the anthology itself, their poems, and the discussion afterwards, threw up lots of interesting questions about what sex in poetry could be about, apart from being about sex itself. Rich Goodson's impressive prose poems drew on mythology and theology to present sex as a transformative and potentially subversive force, whereas Cora Greenhill's poems explored the gender politics in various sexual encounters. Gregory Woods reflected on the place of depictions of gay sex in the fight for equality, and Maria Taylor's poems discussed sexuality in the context of her Greek Orthodox upbringing.

In the next session, Peter Hughes of Oyster Catcher Press presented three pamphlet poets: Alan Baker, Kathleen Bell and Sarah Crewe. Baker's wry collages of everyday thoughts and perceptions produced a restrained lyricism, while Bell's elliptical, fragmentary work was particularly effective in a sequence on the drowning of immigrants at Lampedusa. Here the poet drew on tales of legendary European travelers to weave a complex inter-textual fabric, which was political without being polemic. Sarah Crewe, who had traveled from Liverpool, delivered a blistering performance of highly original 'working-class, feminist psychogeography', then fairly brought the house down with a sequence of poems which re-imagines Steven Spielberg's Jaws from a feminist perspective. Her re-appropriation of pop culture (including the Thundercats) to political ends was witty and compelling.

At one o'clock, a full room was treated to a reading by Roy Marshall and Rory Waterman, both of whose debut collections came out last year. Marshall and Waterman both often write ostensibly 'personal' poetry (family plays a significant role), but they also have in a common a precision of expression and brilliant handling of imagery (especially of the natural world) which I very much admire. Waterman's book, Tonight the Summer's Over, is perhaps more melancholy than Marshall's collection, but certainly a worthy Poetry Book Society recommendation.

The final event I attended was hosted by Bold Strokes Books, an LGBTQ publisher, who had invited a panel of authors along to talk about the extent to which LGBTQ literature needs to move out of the ghetto of the bookshop's 'gay and lesbian' section. There was a strong feeling in the room that the community (or possibly communities) still needs and wants books for themselves, but there was also an unresolved tension with the desire among authors to write what they chose without being bound to represent a particular group, and to have their writing read by a wide spectrum of people. The relatively brief discussion was never going to resolve this issue, but it was good to hear the conversation carrying on in the corridor afterwards. Also, it was fascinating to find out about developments in LGBTQ publishing in recent years which had passed me by.

In between all of this, there was a chance to chat with publishers, magazine editors and many familiar faces, including Jacqui Rowe of Flarestack. On the train ride home, in the spring sunshine, I was already beginning to read the book purchases I had filled my bag with.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Guest Poet - Daniel Sluman

I'm very pleased to have secured Daniel Sluman for a guest poet slot on this blog - the next in an as yet rather irregular, but hopefully increasingly regular series. I reviewed Daniel's first collection, Absence Has a Weight of Its Own, here a little while ago, and am very much looking forward to reading his second book. The poem below, which Daniel introduces himself, is from that new work. As is typical of Daniel's writing, this poem combines a frank tone with an artfulness and an arresting use of imagery that are all his own.

Daniel writes:

'One of the things I hate the most in contemporary poetry is the potentially lazy use of "poem" as a title. When the title is there for you to lift open a new ambiguity or show a different side to the piece,why waste that by telling the reader, simply that this is a "poem." Well, I broke this rule of my own because this poem in itself is about writing other poems, and contained a kind of meta angle that made it impossible for me to call it anything else.

As for the poem’s content, it’s typical of the confessional approach I used in my debut, and am refining, for what is currently known as #difficultsecondcollection on my twitter feed, to be published by Nine Arches Press at a later date . I have very mild OCD, which includes counting whilst opening doors, and turning light-switches off a certain amount of times (9 to be exact…) but this also included a stage where I would check the locks on the front door each night even when I was aware that I had locked them only ten minutes before. When I suddenly stopped this trait, I wrote it down in my notebook as I thought the idea of it could be seen to have a potentially deeper emotional reason behind it for the reader.


My then partner, Sonia Hendy-Isaac, who is herself a fantastic poet, and whose debut is out soon, appears in the poem as the female character.  She always looked at my poems before anyone else did. As someone who is always willing to turn his life into art, there are deeper connotations when that life is one you share with someone else and I felt at times that maybe Sonia gleaned ideas about my perception of the relationship, or was uncomfortable with how much I was willing to reveal about our lives on paper when she read these drafts. So that’s how the poem came about; quite typically for me, a collision of two ideas - this OCD act which I felt had deeper emotional connotations, and how someone else felt about showing the public our shared life bare to the world, this is how "Poem" came to be.'


Poem

For four years I’ve wanted to end this poem 
with    why have I stopped checking the locks 

at night       but as I part the pile-up 
of crash-red hair that slips over your scalp   

I understand the world only gets fuller
with the breaking of it      the smooth keys 

of your breath fill my shaking hands     
& we have never had as much blood 

in our bodies as we do now      you     
waking to read this draft       your face 

changing in the light of the laptop  
as you tell me to avoid repetition    

you count  the nouns      but worry 
is the grit in your eye     why do you wince 

when you read this poem       & why 
have I stopped checking the locks at night

Richard O'Brien's The Emmores

I have a review of Richard O'Brien's pamphlet The Emmores from The Emma Press over at Sabotage Reviews.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Cheltenham Poetry Festival Preview



The team at Cheltenham Poetry Festival have done a fine job again this year in putting together a wonderful selection of big names, rising stars and local writers (many of whom also fit happily into those first two categories!). I'm particularly looking forward to seeing the launch of Anna Saunders' new collection Struck, David Briggs reading with Don Paterson, the lunch of Mikki Byrne's Flying Through Houses, Sujata Bhatt, Sophie Hannah, Ruth Padel, and the swinging poetry band Little Machine (I'm especially hoping to hear their version of Larkin's 'This Be the Verse' again). There are also fascinating events about Dylan Thomas, Laurie Lee and the Dymock Poets, as well as showcases for excellent younger poets from the University of Gloucestershire.

The festival previews on 22-23 March, then gets into full swing from 28 March until 6 April. You can download the festival brochure and book tickets at their website.

In all modesty, I should also mention that you can see me reading on no less than three occasions: first with Jennie Farley and Chris Hemingway at an event we are calling 'Myth, Music and Memory' on 30 March at 12.30 in the Oxfam Bookshop;on 5 April with the Poetry Factory in The Strand, 20.00-21.00; finally, on 6 April, 11.00-12.00 in Taylors, with the Flarestack Poets showcase. Further details in the brochure.