Monday, 28 May 2007

Paper Pianos, Paper Knickers and Jenny Joseph

I have just finished poking with a stick the final draft of a poem about a house I visited whilst in the States this summer made entirely out of newspapers.As I didn’t have a car the journey to see this bizarre piece of roadside Americana took a local bus trip and a very long walk. The very kind woman at the tourist board near where I was staying seemed appalled that I should contemplate the trip or any trip at all without a car. Foot tourists in country Massachusetts appear to be as rare as hens' teeth (although I have no personal knowledge I hasten to point out about the dental situation of hens). I had made a giant carbon footprint to get there so travelling around by car did seem wasteful especially when the most interesting people are met on public transport or waiting for public transport. It also gives local inhabitants far more opportunity to be kind, helpful and instructive.

The particular journey to Pigeon Cove Post Office halt allowed me to hear about an elderly woman’s grand-daughter who was back-packing in Scotland to find their ancestors. 'Did I know any McKelvies'.. strangely I did know one many years ago that made her rummage in her bag for pencil and paper and me in my brain for where the hell I knew the name from…he mended cars in York was the best I could offer her. She seemed happy with that information but did, as is often the case presume that I was on intimate terms with most people in Great Britain as it was so small. My British accent in a small local supermarket elicited. ‘I have a cousin married to a man from Runcorn, do you know people in Runcorn, you might know him?’ This didn’t seem to happen in New York or Philadelphia, they seemed to be much more urban cool there, more rushed more disinterested but perhaps they understood isolation and distance more.

Getting back to the Paper House. I arrived and the family that lived in the house next door just left a note saying ‘Key under mat to house, remember to lock up and put light out when you go. If you buy a postcard leave money in pot.’ The owner of the house was a grand-child of the original builders of the paper house, it had stayed in the family since the twenties. It seemed so wonderfully trusting, so content to place this little piece of their history in the hands of complete strangers. A Paper House, heavily varnished must be highly flammable. One visitor with a cigarette and bang goes grand-ma and grandpa’s life work. It did however seem in keeping with the spirit of two bonkers people who thought making everything out of rolled up newspaper would be a fun interesting thing to do.

Eccentrics, usually hurt no-one, in fact by definition they are rather fun which separates them from the deeply strange or painfully mentally ill. They give humanity the capacity to laugh at ourselves and admire the sheer bloody-mindedness of some people who get a bee in their bonnet, an idea in their head and pursue it to the ludicrous and bitter end. Do animals have the capacity for eccentricity? I knew a dog once that was definitely eccentric but then so was its owner so perhaps that only counts as modelled behaviour. An elderly relative had a parrot that would sit in the old enamel washing up bowl for hours saying ‘Time for bed’ which is I presume unconventional parrot behaviour.

A friend keeps telling me that I am becoming eccentric, which I take as a complement. One person’s eccentric however could be another’s pain in the arse. I much prefer this poem by Jenny Joseph about what we value (literally) in others behaviour rather than her ‘When I am old I shall wear’…you know the was voted the nation’s favourite poem! The old woman in that poem would I think be whipped off to the Old Peoples Home asap. The Zimmers notwithstanding, there is only so much bad behaviour a family and a society will take from its elderly before nice old eccentric lady becomes mad old bat…that said mad old bat is preferable to boring lady of a certain age. It has to be remembered that some eccentrics gave the world scientific breakthroughs, artwork, music, literature and if left to their own devices Elis and Esther Stenman of Pigeon Cove could have probably come up with paper knickers well before the sixties.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Looking Douglas Adams in the eye and Vogons at Open Mics in Hell

I attended an Open Mic session at my nearest live poetry venue last night, where people can lie back as if in an old Victorian opium den and drift away. On offer are thoughts threaded through with others words and imaginings, some good, some bad, some indifferent. Open Mic sessions can be an act of faith, throwing yourself off the cliff hoping something will be there to catch you. You trade in two hours of your life (three in my case if you count travel time) in the hope of hearing something that speaks to you, amuses you, angers you and enthuses you. Of course I also go to strut my own stuff and the price in time and energy I am prepared to pay to open my mouth in public plays havoc with the cost benefit analysis. However last night was a good night, some interesting poems to listen to and friends to see.

I have occasionally been trapped in rooms when an Open Mic is very long and tedious. Once I attended one when the naive but jolly organiser had magnanimously announced that everyone could have as long as they liked as the room was booked and free for hours. This was a huge mistake, waving what passed for an eternity under the nose of eager poets who took him at his word. I did start to meander off concentration wise during this marathon and decided that purgatory would be an endless open mike session without any poems of merit. Further into the session, by hour three, I upgraded that thought and knew for certain that hell would be an endless open mike session.

I was sure that the Vogon poetry session in Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy by the wonderful Douglas Adams, was inspired by the authors visit to a long open mic session in which the doors had been locked. I once met him at a party and he was much taken by the fact that I was the only woman he had ever met who could look him in the eye,this being a matter of height rather than shiftiness or embarrassment I hasten to point out. During this afore mentioned long session, Vogon poetry began to seem preferable at one point, almost as if given sufficient serious analysis of the, I have a degree in how to bullshit my way through an English degree sort, deep truths and the unfettered rhythmic pulse of the universe could be unleashed in its tumble of sound.

This sounds insulting, arrogant and up my own hind-quarters but you were not there dear reader, you were not there. I survived due to a strong bladder, the capacity to see interesting images such as Tin-Tin in floor tiles and mainlining on the prospect of eventually getting up there and reading myself. Of course the poetry organiser in hell would ensure that your name is never called and you would sit for eternity clutching your poems in your hot sticky hands until they weld and mesh into your skin and become a useless extension of your own body. Much like it felt at this session I refer to. I also decided at this session that The Hell Poetry Society would have a strong penchant for nature poems and heavily rhymed work without enjambment that assaulted the ear to the point of auditory torture. The poet who read excruciatingly slowly running at the end of the rhyming couplet with all the vigour of a used tea-bag would be given long and repeated stints at the mic of course. He would stare at the audience and have a doctorate in passive-aggressive eye contact that would defy you to so much as breathe during his long reading.
The devil loves an open mic but then sometimes so do the angels.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Jane Holland, Brendan Kennelly and A Girl Hiding in the Cupboard from the Polar Bear

I saw Jane Holland perform at CB1 the local poetry venue in Cambridge. Her new collection (Boudicca & Co) has a long sequence about Boudicca, the first century AD, Queen of the Iceni tribe. This is pronounced, as we all now know, Boo-dee-ka not Bow-duh-see-ya as I was taught back in the mists of time that now passes for my school days. Blood lust, rage, sex and suicide what more could you ask for to ensure people don’t think a Tuesday night out at a poetry reading is about pastoral scenes, limp love loss and the savage breast calmed. Actually there was more than a bit of breast exposed and covered in woad (an unintentional rhyme crept up on me there in quiet carpet slippers). Apparently some of the men in the Iceni tribe went into battle naked, which seems a triumph of hope, or the local availability of herbal drugs, over experience.

Reading her blog afterwards Jane went on from the poetry reading to play snooker until the early hours, now that’s what I call a rock and roll life. Personally I usually find myself turning rather pumpkin like as the chimes of midnight approach. Once in bed of course, head on pillow, sleep is elusive. A friend’s daughter when young was notorious for being able to fall asleep anywhere, under tables, face in dinner, even standing up. She still retains this capacity but has also now honed sleepwalking to a fine art, waking up in a cupboard in her flat once as she was being persued by a polar bear. The Boo(Beloved Only Offspring) and her childhood friend regularly held long strange conversations with her during sleepovers only to discover she was in fact talking to her whilst she was asleep. I had conversations with her myself in which I recall that I endowed her words with meaning, tailoring mine to fit what I thought were left of field but true responses from her. The surreal avenues these conversations used to take were quite interesting. One I remember involved zebras and the fact that we were going swimming the next day.
What has this to do with writing or poetry, I hear you mumble into your beard/coffee/laptop (delete those not applicable)? I have recently read some poems in which I thought I, as the reader, was having a dialogue with the text. I try to respond and then I suddenly think I am holding a one-sided conversation and then I am off somewhere making strange and spurious connections. One wrong assumption and I am off with the zebras. This of course may well centre on whose reality this poem inhabits and does it matter? Certain words have an iconography or a baggage with them that takes the poem into another place for the reader which the poet has no knowledge of, the words just map out a different landscape from that travelled by the poet. Some would say this would amount to reading the poem wrongly, not paying enough heed or doing enough work on the poets intent; personally the magic of words is their power to be in two or three places at the same time.

My friend’s daughter hid in the cupboard because there was a bear roaming her flat. Should a polar bear get into my house, being terrified and hiding in a cupboard seems a very appropriate and a sensible thing to do. What we summon up from the psyche can be as powerful as the substance. Brendan Kennelly has a poem about a fox he dreamt of. I particularly like the three lines

Leaving us with fear
And safety –
Every usual illusion

Friday, 11 May 2007

Gwyneth Paltrow, quicksand and walking on water with Matthew Hollis

I was at Wells-Next-to-Sea in Norfolk at their annual poetry festival this past week-end. Sarah Law, Matthew Hollis, Blake Morrison, Alan Brownjohn amongst others were reading.
I arrived early on the Friday afternoon and decided to walk on Holkham Beach. Those familiar with the final scene in Shakespeare in Love will recall Gwyneth Paltrow (she of the extended neck) walking purposefully across a vast expanse of beach supposedly arriving on the shore of the Americas…this was in fact Holkham Beach. I walked purposefully across the sand towards the sea, mindful of the signs that informed me that the tide could come in rapidly and that I should ensure I stay alert. The sea was so far away it seemed only the notion of a sea, something grey heaving on the horizon and wafting salt in my direction. I continued to walk purposefully towards it in a reverse Gywneth Paltrow tracking shot.

For some strange reason halfway into no-mans land between dunes and sea I started to think about quicksand. There had been no signs that mentioned quicksand but perhaps I had not seen them. Perhaps Norfolk coastal folk had pulled them down in an effort to reduce the numbers of people pretending to be Gwyneth Paltrow. When the concept of quicksand enters the psyche, the earth beneath your feet begins to feel less solid, wind blown ridges take on the appearance of slight eddies on the surface of something moist and shifting. I rapidly began scrolling through all the films I had ever seen that contained the hero/heroine escaping from quicksand. Trying not to move at all and some brave compatriot crawling out on a plank or throwing an old college scarf to be grabbed were the only memories I could muster. Perhaps planks had been placed down for Ms Paltrow to walk upon in her last shot, their use on the surface of the sand disguised by the cunning use of photoshop type filmic trickery? I had no quick-thinking companion to throw me an old school tie or girl-guide belt. There was a lady walking a small terrier way in the distance but this animal looked physically incapable of pulling a small rubber ball from a bowl of porridge let alone an overgrown poet from the sucking sands by the scruff of her anorak.

At such moments I discover that there is a stupid perversity that shapes my ends, rough hew them though I may. It was ridiculous that I thought there were unmarked quicksands, I thought, I should overcome this neurotic fancy on my part and plough on safe in the knowledge that this sand wasn’t going anywhere. The sea didn’t seem to be going anywhere either, I sat on a dune and watched it intently for signs of in or out. Perhaps the whole thing was like the Truman Show and it was an optical illusion created to give my particular show a natural boundary. I became fourteen again and flipped into 'are we really here at all or the figment of someones imagination', is this all an illusion but then I realised I was merely re-running the Matrix in my head.
I walked back towards the cheery little beach huts on the edge of the pine forest, stretching my neck just a tad in homage to Gwyneth and clicking the heels of my trainers together, ‘There is no place like home, there is no place like home.’ I did not sink, I survived to listen to some fine readings, especially by Matthew Hollis, who read a poemthat involved the scientific concept that the crest of a wave can support the weight of a human. If I’d have known that earlier it might have served to make me confident that should the tide have come in I could have walked on water in order to avoid the quicksand. Suspiciously during the whole of the week-end in Wells I never saw the tide come in, it seemed to remain permanently out at least during the times I was around near the quay…Wells does have something of the Truman show about it at times.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Dancing Round Tony Harrison and Maypoles

It was Cambridge Wordfest this last week-end and I availed myself of it to mainline on workshops and readings. Tobias Hill workshop had me sweating over writing a sonnet in iambic pentameter with rhyme and then onto examining a Klingon translation of a poem. I then went to a reading by Tony Harrison, who has been a poetic hero of mine for some time. His poems about the tragedies of war, the social and economic ills that fester under the surface of Britain are made all the more poignant for me by his ability to adjust his focus to explore the smaller tragedies and experiences of the individual, in particular his own family. Long Distance II, exemplifies this ability.

His film poem Black Daisies for the Bride about a hospital ward in Yorkshire for those suffering from dementia has re-run itself through my head many times, especially as my own mother tumbled down the rabbit hole into that particular wonderland, where cards speak, caterpillars smoke and the small girl you once were sits and dines with the Mad Hatter..not so different from the delusions of dementia.
Speaking to him afterwards, or rather mumbling incoherently in awe and dancing from foot to foot, I asked if they could be bought on DVD. All his film poems are unavailable to the public apparently; someone will undoubtedly come out with the box set should he kick the bucket he suggested. What a sad state of affairs when something so innovative and groundbreaking slips into the holding archives and gathers dust. Will step off my soapbox now, carefully avoiding all the broken wood I have built around me over the years from clambering onto other soapboxes with a healthy disregard for the weight of my argument and the robustness of the soapbox…still nothing ventured nothing splintered.

George Szirtes pulled a blog posting recently because some thought it unfair to literary agents. Scurrilous…hoorah nothing like a bit of scurrilous to get the juices flowing, raise the blood heat and make grabbing a tiger by the tail a good spectator sport. He offered on the blog to send the post to those who wanted to read it. Of course I did, who could resist. What delicate flowers people must deem agents to be, totally lacking in humour.

I watched some small children dance round a maypole yesterday in glorious sunshine. They twisted and turned, plaited and wove, got tangled and laughed, a good way to acknowledge early summer, the early Hawthorn, the early swifts, the global warming. I resisted going out at dawn to collect a bucket full of dew, which I am told by various wise old fen hags should show me the reflection of a future husband. I don’t do dawn and I puzzled about how you collect dew off my wildlife area(lawn), a spoon seems rather a slow process and enough to fill a bucket might take a while and cause the neighbours to speculate on my sanity. An unbroken peel from an apple thrown over a shoulder is meant to give you a future husband’s initial which might as a g ( as in g for George Clooney ) or an O (as in Orlando Bloom) surrender itself up to the natural proclivity of any apple peel to curve and coil; I like to work with the odds in my favour.