Thursday, 27 March 2008

Brian Turner and the Price of a Combat Game

I am still fielding phone calls and e mails from people saying how moved they were by the reading Brian Turner, the American poet, gave in Cambridge on Tuesday night. I am also fielding e mails and phone calls from people saying how sorry they were to have missed the reading as they had heard how fantastic it was, I think the jungle drums work quickly around Cambridge and East Anglia, it may be because there are no hills to get in the way of the sound waves.
I had the pleasure and worry of introducing him. I say worry because when you are in the position of introducing a poet whose work is as powerful and as moving as Brian’s any introduction, other than a brief biog for those who may not know it, is probably always enough. As Brian’s collection Here, Bullet, which is about his experiences as a soldier in the Iraq conflict, has won many awards in the States he must have heard endless introductions and listened to his CV emanate from the mouths of far grander and more erudite people than myself. However since it is the month that sees the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq I felt the introduction demanded just a little more context. I’m going to post up that introduction here followed by a link to some of Brian’s poems, which has recently been published by Bloodaxe in this country I urge you to follow the link, I urge you to look out for the book and it can be yours for a quarter of the price of Battlefield 2: Modern Combat for the Xbox (‘This game brings the over-the-top action and excitement of the Battlefield series into the modern era with a bleeding-edge arsenal of vehicles and weaponry allowing for the most extreme "Battlefield Moments" yet and it can be yours for just £39.99’) Again this is not a flog blog but I hope the above puts something into perspective.

Brian Turner received his Masters Degree from the University of Oregon and lived abroad in South Korea for a year before joining the army. He served for seven years in the US Army In 1999 he served for a year in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division. In 2003 he was sent to Iraq where he served as an infantry team leader for a year with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. His poetry was included in a feature-length documentary film, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, which was recently nominated for an Academy Award. Here, Bullet (Bloodaxe, 2007) was first published in the US in 2005 where it has earned Brian nine major literary awards and it has recently been published here by Bloodaxe.

Poets have always had a role in bearing witness to the important things, the small and immense things that allow us access to what it feels like to be fully human. It has been said that the War poet has the particular role, perhaps the word might even be ‘burden’ of bearing witness to the big questions of life: identity, innocence, guilt, loyalty, courage, compassion, humanity, duty, desire and death. Their response to these questions, and its relation to immediate personal experience and to moments of national and international crisis, gives war poetry an important place not just in literature but in our view of history, society and importantly ourselves.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Driving home this week end I listened on the car radio to a report coming in about yet another bombing in Mosul and Bagdad and the numbers injured or killed, I caught myself consigning this to the background wallpaper of similar incidents I have heard or read about over the past few years. It is this that the war poet can perhaps fight against, this diminution of the immense importance of each and every life; they bear witness to the individual in a situation where each life may begin to become a blur.

Looking round I am sure there are many in this audience far better equipped than I am to place Brian’s collection about his experiences as a soldier in Iraq in a literary and historical context I therefore will not even attempt it, instead by way of introduction I will read you a short extract from a letter sent by an ordinary working class young private in the Korean War to his elder sister. He was a regular soldier, not a conscript, who joined up to see a bit of the world rather than stay at home and work down the local pit. He was reported missing in action and presumed dead and this letter by the vagaries of the military postal service was received a month after he was believed killed.

Dear E,
I was glad to get your letters, three came altogether yesterday. The post round here is like the number 47 bus, none for ages and then three all at once. I was sorry to hear about Bess, she was a grand dog I know you will miss her.

I am keeping ok but will be glad to get home to some decent grub, I keep thinking about your rice pudding. We tried to tell a young local nipper that hangs around the camp about what our rice pudding was like. A week later he turns up with some his Mam made in an old mess tin. It tasted awful not like ours but we ate it as we didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He wasn’t asking for money or anything; it was just an act of kindness. It was good of him as the locals have a tough time as it is getting enough food for themselves, let alone for us strange foreign blighters turning up on their doorstep.

That’s what it’s like here, the locals and the soldiers doing kind, funny, daft or wonderful brave things and then there are the cruel and terrible things. I haven’t learnt yet how to get them out of my head, I just try to keep myself busy to stop them coming in at me. It all makes you wonder what god is playing at sometimes but then he might be thinking the same about us.

You say you have been following the war there on the radio and in the papers. I expect they all have something to say about it all but you know me I never was one for speeches or writing much; I’d rather be out fishing or mucking about with my pals than doing my schoolwork. Still I hope someone says something about it all. There are things people should know about how it feels like to be in the middle of all this. I expect that is too hard or complicated for any one body to write. There must be something worth saying to people about how it all is though, that won’t be a waste of breath or ink.

Dear reader, I know you won’t find Brian’s poems a waste of breath or ink.

Here is Brian reading the poem Here, Bullet

Here is the text of that poem and the poem Ashbah

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Smoking out my inner Lana Turner with Frank O'Hara

A poet friend has a fantastic poem in her latest pamphlet called Why I Cannot Write a Poem Like Frank O'Hara and now I know what she means. I am at present reading the Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara and I am having severe gut wrenching bouts of cigarette envy. I smoked a long time ago as a twenty something, I gave it up for over eighteen years then I re-embarked on it for a couple of years a while back but I have been nicotine free now for nearly three years. I can smell the fags on the breath of Frank O’Hara’s poems ( yes I know he was gay dear reader but no pun is intended). I can smoke vicariously along with him as he puts the best words into the right order. I find a video of him reading a poem in his New York loft and there is the cigarette in his hand wandering in and out of the frame to his right twitching slightly at the repetition of the word partly as if he was conducting the lines with smoke. He finally places it down in the ash tray that must lurk out of shot on the desk in front of him at the precise moment in the poem when he starts to interest himself in his own words. He finishes straight to camera with a half boyish smile as if addressing the very person the poem was written for.

Now and then I have an urge to smoke not for the buzz of nicotine and not for the need to have something in my hand to let them feel less empty. What I want to do is play the lets pretend I am a real writer and poet from the bad old daysgame just once more. I want to catch my thumb nail on the tip of a filter and flick ash in one sharp staccato movement into a cold coffee mug instead of an ash tray simply because it is the nearest thing to hand. I want to be blow a small stream of smoke out over a clean page and leave it slightly tainted with its stench. I want to be singularly stupid and selfish and have no regard for my heart, lungs, throat or anyone else in the room. Then I want to put the smelly clothes of the smoker back in the dressing up box that I would keep high up in a small private loft way above the sound of milk floats rattling out before dawn whilst stiletto heels click home on wet pavements from private drinking clubs accompanied by the slight swish of small handbags that close with a steely clasp.

I want to open a cocktail cabinet with a mottled mirror and a proper soda siphon. I want to see the bright red stain of my lipstick on the glasses in there and on the filter tips tumbling out of a green glass ashtray. I want the next cigarette to be the one that accompanies me on a journey to somewhere different and exciting in my head. The feel of the paper as I roll it between my finger will be as familiar as a lovers skin and the spark of the lighter and the slight shimmer of petrol that hangs above it will mesmerise me for just a second and all across a dark city in rooms and lofts small flames will be rising to greet the tip of a cigarette.

But of course I won’t but even the memory of it can create a sense of an old lover who was very very bad for you and other people, who was poisonous and insidious and controlling but who nonetheless showed you a few good times as well. I want to have a good time with Frank and party like Lana Turner and then get up and walk away unscathed but you just can't.
This blog is bought to you by the politically incorrect society for the study of smoking poets.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Lost tapes and Larkin over the garden fence

I have written about Larkin before in the context of my daughter’s experiences of working in Booze Busters in Hull, serving lurching men with lurchers on ropes and Cuprinol Amazon women who know that a sun bed is for life and not just for Christmas. However I do not apologise for returning to Larkin as they have recently discovered old tapes made by Larkin reading a compilation of his poems before the days of podcasting, mp3players and listen again. The Radio 4 programme hosted by the poet Paul Farley was full of anecdotes not only about Larkin’s personality and approach to life but about the whole business of the poet’s voice, literally.

These tapes are the words of Larkin straight from the horse’s mouth. He took the time and effort to seek out someone local he trusted to record him for an American project which then folded and then he did absolutely nothing with them. He had a few years on the planet left to him after he made them but still he did nothing with them. Larkin was an intelligent man, I can’t believe he forgot they existed but he did not leave them with his personal effects, he did not give them to anybody for safe keeping, he did not lodge them with a solicitor or place them in a bank vault with strict instructions that they only be played after his death; nor did he leave orders for them to be burnt like his diaries.

Pure chance brought them to light, are we to believe that Larkin, who often had a strange sense of the ridiculous, intended the fates to play Russian roulette with these tapes; now they are discovered, now they aren’t? Did he just presume they would have been destroyed? A phone call to the local sound recordist whom he saw now and then, asking, what are you doing with those tapes I made now the Americans don’t want them, would have been quite easy? I don’t know the answer, no-one does, I have a sense that given they exist he would be quite pleased about a fuss being made about them. He may have well enjoyed the prospect of them being auctioned off on E bay, as the son of the sound recordist jokingly suggested soon after they were found. He would have found it easy to write a poem about that I’m sure.

Larkin notoriously hated reading in public and found the sound of his own voice difficult to bear. He had trained himself out of a stammer by teaching himself to ‘swallow’ words he found difficult to annunciate. All that swallowing of the sounds he couldn’t make stuck in his throat. It is ironic that he died of oesophageal cancer, the very mechanism that created his voice being the cause of his death.

Someone on the programme about the discovery of these tapes pointed out how important it was these days to event organisers that poets could read well. She said that often she was congratulated on her capacity to deliver a poem well rather than on the contents of the poems. It was ever thus, once the public became used to being delivered to. The radio and then the TV have ratcheted up what the public expects in terms of delivery for many years now. The means by which we hear a poem is as important as the poem itself in many cases. Larkin knew he could never compete with the dark brooding powerful delivery of a Ted Hughes or the light eccentric old ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ mannerisms of John Betjeman. He was wise enough to turn down being poet laureate probably knowing that the public face is as important as the private one. He probably didn’t even think his penchant for schoolgirl soft pornography mattered more than his ability to convey poetic charisma. The headline ‘Poet Laureate found with stash of schoolgirl magazines’ may have been composed with joy by The News of the World now but back then the headline ‘Poet Laureate walks into room and no one notices’ was something he feared more and was more embittered by.

It is a na├»ve reader that thinks that a person’s work and their life and personality can be totally divorced. I might find a poem by Adolf Hitler interesting to read as a piece of historical data but I know I would find it hard to read it as a poem on its own merits. Of course it is always easy to play the Adolf Hitler game, most writers and poets are far less palpable villains. They had ‘a complex personal life’ is the catch-all phrase for every racist, misogynist, two timing, emotionally controlling, selfish, passive-aggressive writer or poet that every put anything down on paper worthy of note.

Hearing someone read their own work adds not only a passing historic interest to a poem but also adds another presence in the room. When reading a poem there is the poem, the reader and the reader’s presumptions about or questions about the poet. When the poem is delivered by the poet personally those elements still exist but to them is added several other elements; in particular personal iconography of voice.

Mr Larkin sounds exactly like the man who lived next door to us when I was fourteen; he used to ask my dad over the garden fence about what height he was setting his blades at on the mower or if he thought it was too early to put the bedding plants out. He would often pop up over the back fence and ask me in his slow ponderous grey voice when I was going to stop growing, which was a question I never knew how to answer as it not only required foresight (not often found in teenagers) but also an ability to tease out whether he was trying to be pleasant, taking the piss (I was already exceptionally tall by thirteen) or simply socially challenged with teenage girls, in which case why bother to pop upover the garden fence at all?. I hear Larkin reading his poems and I try very very hard to listen to the poem and all I can hear is this old neighbour reading Larkin’s poems to me which then escalates into a bizarre and surreal experience. I have also discovered that Sylvia Plath is the voice of my first neighbour when I rented a flat in London and Seamus Heaney is a lovely man who ran a small hardware shop in Nottingham. Seeing the poet read helps break this habit of enforced association but given I never saw Larkin read, no-one much did, I am now stuck with the ghost of Mr H from next door reading Larkin’s poems to me over the garden fence. It doesn’t make them worse or better poems it just makes them what they are, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Mr Bleaney is still a good poem no matter who reads it, which may be the whole point of what makes a good poem. However I can concentrate more when I simply read the wonderful High Windows from Larkin’s last collection.

Ps In case anyone is counting I have been writing this blog for exactly a year time flies when you are blogging about yourself !