Monday, October 24, 2016

Poetry, Left and Right

Recently, my contributor copy of the New Boots and Pantisocracies anthology plopped through my letter-box. It is a good-looking book, with many startling poems by some of the best contemporary British poets, engaging in sometimes angry, sometimes oblique fashion with the outcome of the 2015 general election; an election which, as we all know, has had untold ramifications, setting the country on the path to Brexit.
Sheenagh Pugh has quite rightly raised the question of the apparent political homogeneity of the work offered here, and of that submitted to the original (and ongoing) blog that gave the anthology its name. As W.N. Herbert says in his introduction, it is (or has become) an avowedly left-wing project; and, indeed, is published by Smokestack Books, who specialise in publishing work in that tradition. That in itself is not a problem for the book, of course, but Pugh and others have worried why such consensus reigns in the world of poetry; or, at least, appears to.
Public Writer, Jean Jacques de Boissieu, 1790, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In one discussion I noticed on-line, a poet who is not included in the anthology, and who clearly doesn't share its political leanings, has argued that this left consensus among poets is a reason why poetry is alienated from a public he considers to be made up of a majority of conservatives. On a number of levels, this seems rather tenuous. Plenty of contemporary poetry, even by those who are part of this alleged left-liberal cabal, is not overtly political, or is perhaps at most vaguely humanistic. There are plenty of other reasons why people are not interested in poetry, which have nothing to do with its ideological content. Nevertheless, this does leave us with the slightly embarrassing question of why there is so little political diversity to be found, not just in the New Boots anthology, but in contemporary British poetry more widely.
The problem, I think, has to do with the nature of the contemporary politics more than with contemporary poetics. Quite simply, the dominant political ideology of our time makes the adoption of what we might call a conservative position in poetry a vexed undertaking. Our on-line commentator, who finds it problematic that poets don't represent the views of the alleged majority, is wrong-headed in a number of respects, not the least of which is to assume that voting preferences actually tally with the views that voters hold on particular issues (that link is not as strong as commonly imagined). Yet the chief misconception here is to assume that it is the function of art to reflect back to 'the majority' what it already (thinks it) thinks. This is a dubious assumption, even leaving aside the fact that there are plenty of other social institutions already doing this job quite efficiently. There is ultimately something authoritarian about it, as if the only thought that should be expressed is the kind that everyone can agree on and that will trouble nobody.
The point about poetry, or art in general, is that it is not affirmative of the status quo. This does not mean that it cannot affirm something (the beauty of nature, the value of human relationships, etc.), but it does so in a context in which those things it affirms are not to be taken for granted or are fragile and threatened. Poetry is a response to a world that is not as it should be (when was the world ever as it should be?) and is a corrective to those who peddle the notion that everything is in its right place. This certainly leaves room for conservative or right-wing writers (understood here as a very broad category), as the likes of Eliot, Pound, Benn, Hamsun, Celine, Nietzsche, Waugh, or, today, Houellebecq demonstrate (I'm not going to draw any conclusions here about my inability to name an example of a female writer. This is probably my ignorance. For reasons that will become clear, I don't think Ayn Rand really fits). However, what links these writers is their relationship to progress, or what their contemporaries consider as such. The writer of the right, or the conservative writer, is the writer railing against what everybody else consider to be the great advances of their time. All of those things the left tends to think are inherently progressive (technology, democracy, cosmopolitanism, equality, materialism, humanism, etc.) are held up to scrutiny by the literary right, which looks back to the values of a world (very possibly of their own retrospective construction) that is being bulldozed by a new form of society that they abhor. The left's relationship to progress is perhaps more straightforward: They think progress is a good thing, just not the kind of progress we are getting now. Their writing is against a variety of progress, not against progress itself.
In the prevailing ideological climate, the position of the left-liberal poet is clearly easier to negotiate. If we restrict our view to the UK for the moment, we are currently witnessing the dominance of an ideology that calls itself conservative or invokes the position of conservatism, as in the case of UKIP and its demand to 'get our country back'. However, this 'conservatism' is an ideological smoke-screen for a brand of neo-liberalism that worships the 'creative destruction' brought about by increasingly restless flows of global capital and rejects any impediment to such flows as they tear down borders, uproot ways of life and trash the global environment. This is not a conservative project, but a revolutionary one, yoked to a notion of progress that has increasingly lost sight of the needs of individuals and communities in favour of the needs of corporations and their shareholders. Frankly, conservatives should be in up in arms about it. This would, surely, be a position from which to write, but one looks in vain for British poets who can take up this tradition. Where they do exist, they seem to fall into the trap of endless attacks on the 'liberal intelligentsia'. Not that that this intelligentsia doesn't deserve and need critical scrutiny, but at the moment this seems to me to be largely an excuse for not addressing the real nub of the problem, which is the nature of the contemporary capitalist system, from a conservative standpoint.
Conservative writers of the twentieth century recognised that the society that capitalism had created was the target of their critique – they just formulated a different kind of critique to that proposed by the left. The fact that conservative writers, if they exist outside the pages of the opinion columns in the tabloid press, fail to rise to recognise this today, must surely be due to the ideological confusion that has been brought about by the importation of neo-liberal ideology into British politics. Free-marketers have found no ruse more effective for selling their project than to drape it in the colours of reactionary cultural conservatism. While UKIP and the Conservative Party strive for a society of the market, dreaming of a future UK as a kind of new Singapore off the European coast, they promise the electorate that such a society will return them to a culturally homogeneous, insular world of national sovereignty, when exactly the opposite is the case. For truly successful conservative writers to emerge, I would argue, this is what they would have to write against, not just against the 'left-liberal elite', which is (let's face it) by far the lesser threat to the things conservatives (in the true sense of the term) hold dear. That we do not have such writers is an impoverishment, even if I would have to spend a lot of my time radically disagreeing with them about almost everything.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Unexpected encounters

Over the last two days, I've been privileged to have been part of a poets in residence scheme for Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival at the Billesley Manor Hotel near Stratford. The Festival, organised by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, secured Arts Council funding and the cooperation of local businesses and attractions for poets to go into all kinds of unusual settings, from nail bars to railway station cafes. The poems inspired by the residencies will be performed this Saturday night (24 September) in a special Festival event.

All of the residencies have been run under the heading of 'Unexpected Encounters' and, to judge from the report back that some of us enjoyed in The One Elm in Stratford last night, they have lived up to this promise. You can check out the hastags #SUAPoetryfestival and #unexpectedencounters on Twitter to see some of the things that have been going on.

Billesley has been a lovely setting that has offered me a kind of poetry-writing mini-break in beautiful countryside and historic surroundings. The manor house itself was originally Tudor and has a real English country house feel to it. The topiary garden, pictured on the left, is particularly fine. The staff and the guests have been very welcoming and generous with their time, and -- by the end of day two -- I have managed to draft six poems, on subjects as diverse as spa treatments and the life of a night manager. I was particularly struck by how much everyone seems to enjoy their jobs. I didn't meet any member of staff who wished they were doing something else!

I'm fascinated to see what work has emerged from the other residencies. What has struck me most about the residency experience is the role of chance. I made plenty of plans for the residency, and I'm glad I did, but in the end I found myself having to respond to situations and encounters I could never have predicted. Still, without that element of randomness, I would have only written what I expected to write, which would not have been nearly as much fun.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Autumn, Hotels and Pantisocracy

Logging on to look at my blog, the statistics tell me that my post on Top Ten Autumn Poems is getting hits again. Clearly, when autumn arrives, we cannot help but turn to poetry. My autumn certainly has plenty of poetry in it, with a reading with Cliff Yates at my favourite monthly poetry event Buzzwords on 2nd October and my participation in a very exciting residency with Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival.

For the residency, I will be based for two days at the Billesley Manor Hotel (19-20 September) and will also take part in a reading on 24 September with other poets who have been brought into local businesses to create some 'Unexpected Encounters'.

I'm also hoping to put on a short performance on 'The Poetry of Hotels' while I am at Billesley. You'll be able to find updates on that here and also on my Twitter feed (@davidcchelt).

The various residencies at the Festival will contribute to an online publication of poetry produced in Stratford. The link will be posted on this blog as soon as the project is complete.

In other news, four of my poems have just been published in Bare Fiction magazine, which is an outlet I've been wanting to get into for a while. This little magazine packs a real punch, combining fascinating new poetry, drama and fiction in a carefully designed package.

Also on the publications front, the crucible of discontent that is New Boots and Pantisocracies is about to make the transition from the screen to the page with an anthology from radical publishers Smokestack Books. I've just seen the proofs, which include my poem 'In the Snug', and it really is going to be a corker. There is passionate and spiky work here from just about all of my favourite contemporary poets (Sean O'Brien, Rachael Boast, Tony Williams, Helen Mort, Ian Duhig, Ciaran Carson...). Let's hope there is a post-Brexit sequel!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Stanza - A New Course for the Poetry School

After having taught a one-off workshop on-line for the Poetry School earlier this year, I'm very pleased to be returning to teach with this amazing organisation in the autumn of 2016. The topic of this five-session course (running over 10 weeks) will be 'The Stanza'. To promote the course, I've been asked to a write a post over at the Poetry School blog, which you can read here. I hope some of you will consider signing up -- I'll be doing my best to make the course stimulating and productive for all of us.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

What's going on?

In post-Brexit Britain, as political leaders tumble and old certainties are shaken, this is a question I find myself asking more than once every day. In another (non-poetic) guise, I've written about what I think is really going on here, but things are moving so fast, any substantial judgement still seems premature. We can't see history while we're making it, or while others are making it for us.

What does poetry do here? There are a couple of interesting projects up and running where poets respond directly to contemporary events: over at The Fat Damsel and a rejuvenated New Boots and Pantisocracies. I've written a few pieces in this vein myself in the past, as evidenced in part by this blog, but I'm finding that the general atmosphere of upheaval is seeping into my writing in more oblique ways at the moment, so that I don't think I have it in me to write a poem directly in response to current events. Instead, a rather odd and fantastical sequence is emerging with the title Scare Stories, which may or may not see the light of day in due course.

Luckily, I have the distraction of some summer readings to look forward to. July is quite a packed month in this respect.

On Monday 18, I'll be reading at Leicester Shindig, from 19.30, in the company of Claire Walker and others at The Western, 70 Western Road, Leicester LE3 0GA. There's an open mic, so please come along and share your work!

On Friday 22, I'll be reading with other Gloucestershire-based poets at Waterstones Birmingham, courtesy of Cheltenham Poetry Festival (full details below).

On Tuesday 26, I'll be reading with Daniel Sluman at Poetry Bites in Kings Heath, Birmingham (full details here), also including open mic.

On Thursday 28, I'll be reading at Words and Ears in Bradford on Avon with Rachael Clyne (see full details below).

Friday, June 3, 2016

Letter from Brussels

This week I was in the Netherlands and Belgium for my work. With a couple of hours to kill in a rather misty and chill Brussels, I took the retro-futuristic Metro to see the Grande Place and buy truffles for the nearest and dearest. The standard tourist stuff. No time to look at the fine museums or pop into the 'Parlementarium', which is surely what Eurosceptics imagine hell must look like.
There I was, at the heart of what we have come to see as 'Europe' (although its real heart may lie further east these days), thinking of the journey home and the prospect of arriving back in the truly depressing midst of the EU referendum debate, with the looming prospect of Britain's self-isolation from 'the continent'. The old myth of separateness and parochialism is alive and well in this ever-more interconnected world -- a colossal failure of the collective imagination, whatever one thinks of individual EU policies, or even of the apparatus as a whole.
Judy Sutherland has been publishing some lovely, positive Europhile poems over at The Stare's Nest. I recommend you check them out. Below are a few lines of doggerel written on that rainy afternoon in Brussels. They can't match the positivity of the poems Judy Sutherland has posted, I'm afraid.

Letter from Brussels

I call a narrow land my home –
it does not thank me for my hymns.
For want of answers it says NO
and doesn't care what it doesn't know.

Whatever phoney war this might
turn out to be, the last of fight's
gone out of me. The double-dealing
chatter smoothly on, the feeling

offered's like some sticky hand
you brace yourself to shake. Bland
messiahs packed in spittled suits,
poisoners of the grass-roots.

And here is better? Why not stay?
Today these flatlands, clipped from baize
and duller cloths, are rich enough
for killing over petty stuff –

who speaks how or prays just so,
who may stay and who must go.
Here too, the papers all report
opinions instead of thought.

At least, perhaps, there may be space
to share – a hope we learn to face.
Rarely do we get to choose
the juice in which we will be stewed.

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!