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!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Get ready! You're in for it!

So opens a stimulating new anthology of French poetry, Writing the Real, edited by my good friend Dr Nina Parish and her colleague Dr Emma Wagstaff. The words are those of Christian Prigent, whose oblique, surreal, linguistically playful work opens a collection as varied as it challenging. Rather than foregrounding any one tendency, the editors have done a good job of introducing a range of voices that (outside of a few translations through mirco-presses) will be largely unfamiliar to a UK audience. While the experimental end of writing practice is very much the focus here, those experiments are of many different kinds, ranging from the more process-driven approach of Jean-Michel Espitallier ('Tales of up to 15'), or the interrogation of the banalities of everyday language in Christophe Tarkos' poems ('Song 1' and 'Love'), to the New York School-ish work of Stephane Bouquet. Female poets are strongly represented (for example, Anne Portugal and Sabine Macher) and the editors have done an excellent job of providing an introduction that sets the scene and gives us a sense of who the key players are, while at the same time leaving us free to come to our own judgements. Where further translations are available, details are provided to allow us to follow up on other publications by the poets whose work most holds our attention. The translations themselves are by various authors, many of them practicing poets themselves (such as Keston Sutherland), but the texts are presented alongside the original French, which is always a bonus in this sort of edition. Even if our own grasp on the language is not so strong, we can begin to approach the original texts once we have absorbed the translations.
French poetry seeps into the consciousness of UK readers in a fairly sporadic way, driven by the enthusiasm of translators and other advocates for particular authors, so it is a great thing to have this overview of writers whose work might not yet have appeared on our radar. What is most striking about the differences between French writers and UK poets, if this anthology is anything to go by, is the extent to which longer sequences rather than self-contained short poems appear to dominate, alongside a strong tendency towards the prose poem. French poets are clearly working on larger canvasses than many of their UK counterparts, and that alone is a good reason for UK writers and readers to be grateful for this book.
Enitharmon are also to be congratulated on the design on this volume, which looks great!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

True confessions


I have recently been reading the work of Danish poet Yahya Hassan, the son of Palestinian refugees, who was jailed in September over the shooting of a 17-year-old boy. Hassan has been a literary sensation in Denmark, selling over 100,000 copies of his book (there's currently no English translation of his work that I am aware of, so I am relying on the German version here).

Hassan writes of a life of brutalization, both by his parents and the Danish authorities, describes what he perceives as the hypocrisy of Danish Muslims, and details his own (sometimes brutal) juvenile crimes. His direct, unflinching poems, written exclusively in capitals with no punctuation, have made him famous, but the financial success they have brought has clearly not allowed him to transcend many of troubles of his early life. Not only that, but he has found himself alienated from elements of his own community, which have reacted angrily to what they perceive as the attacks on them in his work.

Hassan is part of a wider trend in recent years towards a new kind of confessional poetry from previously marginalized voices, speaking uncomfortable truths about violence, discrimination, mental health, illness and disability, addiction, economic disadvantage, and a whole range of other issues. These texts live from their authenticity. The poet does not hold back from revealing painful, even shocking details from their lives: In the case of Hassan's book, there is a particularly disturbing episode where the teenage protagonist assaults and robs a Danish girl who has rejected his sexual advances and racially abused him.

Image result for yahya hassan book
There are, of course, questions to be asked about the construction of such authenticity. Charles Bukowski is arguably the granddaddy of this kind of writing, yet his 'Henry' persona is very much a fictionalized version of his own experience and not to be confused with the writer himself. However, the fate of Hassan, whose welfare and state of mind have increasingly been cause for concern, also leads us to ask moral questions about the audience's role. Hassan's readers may be fascinated by his life-experiences, but is there a danger of that fascination becoming a high-brow version of the gawking at 'car-crash' celebrities we encounter in the tabloid press? Some are beginning to question whether Hassan's publisher had a duty of care to counsel him against revealing certain experiences or expressing certain views, or at least to talk to him about possible consequences.
There are clearly no easy answers here. One might hope that poetry of the kind that Hassan has written will have a therapeutic effect, allowing the writer to deal with their experiences productively and taking on a positive social role in terms of breaking down taboos and encouraging tolerance and change. Clearly, even if those positive social effects are achieved in this case, the writer himself has paid a high price.


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Best Blogs of 2016

Matthew Stewart at Rogue Strands has been kind enough to include 'A Thing for Poetry' among his best blogs of 2016. Good to know that the blog is read and appreciated, and also very helpful of Matthew to have provided this excellent list of the best in UK poetry blogging. There are certainly some here I need to explore more thoroughly.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Unexpected Encounters is online

Poems from my residency for Stratford upon Avon Poetry Festival, along with the work of the other poets who took part in 'Unexpected Encounters' are now free to read on-line in this electronic publication.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

New publications from John Freeman


What Possessed Me



I have taken great pleasure in the last week reading two new publications from John Freeman, whose excellent collection of prose poems, White Wings, I reviewed a while back. Now retired from his teaching post at the University of Cardiff, John has clearly entered a highly productive phase, with a chunky new collection from Worple and a pamphlet just out from Knives, Forks and Spoons.

The collection, aptly titled What Possessed Me is resolutely personal in its focus. The poems often start from everyday or even mundane experiences (a walk around the village, going to the dentist), or from encounters with people and places (there is a sequence on a visit to Athens, another on a series of visits to Llandaff), but this is not autobiographical or even confessional work in the narrow sense. The poet does not have any revelation to make about his own life, rather the poems are a record of his concerted paying attention to his surroundings, his cultivation of a state of receptiveness and careful observation, in which he wishes 'to be fully open like wild roses, / wanting only this, nothing more than this.' ('Summer Solstice, Cornwall'). Reading the poems opens the reader to such attentiveness, too -- a welcome corrective to distracted the consciousness of our digital age.


The pamphlet, Strata Smith and the Anthropocene, mixes prose poetry, verse and essayistic fragment to address the legacy of William Smith, the founding father of geology, whose 1815 map surveyed and classified the various geological strata to be found in the British Isles. The texts deftly interconnect Smith's life story, the poet's investigation of that life and our shared ecological predicament, expressing genuine admiration for Smith while not losing sight of the wider historical and political ramifications of his work. To me, this felt like a taster of what could be a longer account, although the pamphlet stands up very well on its own terms. I can certainly recommend both books.