Monday, 21 December 2009

Somewhere Over the Gasometer Skies are Blue

Having slipped and slithered my way on icy pavements back from town after a dental appointment I settled down with a cup of tea to watch bovine afternoon TV whilst the numbness wore off and I stopped dribbling down my chin. The Ten Commandments was on, Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea and a quick change of wig and beard to demonstrate years wandering in the wilderness. I love an old fashioned Hollywood epic no attempt at all to either be authentic or even nod in the direction of historical or even literary accuracy. I still have the voice of John Wayne in my head as the centurion saying’ Surely this man was the son of Gawwwwd’ in one such film. I can recall with relish Elizabeth Taylor played Cleopatra whilst in real life having an affair with Mark Anthony (Richard Burton) and never quite losing the refined Anglo American accent. Rex Harrison played Julius Caesar in that film ( pre Dr Doolittle and my Fair Lady talk singing days) uttering the immortal lines , often misheard, ‘Those baristas need dealing with send out a turtle !’

A cast of thousands was, in the fifties, sixties and even seventies, a sure fire way to get bums on seats in the cinema. These days we are a bit cynical as casts of thousands can be generated by CGI. Most of the Coliseum audience in the final scenes of Gladiator were generated by a computer they even managed to digitally place the dead Oliver Reed into some scenes. No doubt there may be a time coming when old films could be edited together seamlessly of some long gone great actor to make a whole new film. Paul Scofield could have turned up in an episode of the Tudors compiled of out-takes from a Man for All Seasons.

Gone are the days when a film director had a megaphone and thousands of extras to control and probably only two or three cameras to capture a scene that if not caught on film could not, without huge expense, be replicated. Just now as I watched the Ten Commandments directed by Cecil B de Mille I realised that there must be scores if not hundreds of Americans alive today who were in that film’s cast of thousands and perhaps also other epic films of that era as a child. There was one shot of a girl that sticks in my head, she could have been no more than four or five and she was driving geese before her with a stick. She was leaving Egypt walking just in front of Edward G Robinson as a n’er do well Jewish slave overseer. Where is she now? She must be about my age as the film was made in 1956. Does she have the film on DVD and fast forwards it to that scene with her appearing to show others who doubt her one claim to fame. Now and again does she catch a middle of the night re-run of it and remember the day Mr De Mille shouted action and all these people started moving and pretending to be something they weren’t? Does she even know she is in the film, did her family move from Hollywood to some small town in Iowa and open a shoe shop and never even see the film or think it best not to remember the time they were so hard-up they had to hire themselves out and their little girl as extras? Perhaps this little girl died young of drink and drugs trying to make it as a Hollywood starlet, fixated on achieving greatness in the media that claimed her so young? The life of the extras in those old epics could be fascinating, all stitched together into a backdrop patchwork of the old Hollywood that was. There is a short story or short stories in there somewhere, over and above Ricky Gervais’ take on the extra's life.

The American Film Institute a couple of years back produced a definitive list of the ten best films of all time in particular genres. Here is their list of the top ten for the epic genre.

1 Lawrence of Arabia 1962
2 Ben-Hur 1959
3 Schindler's List 1993
4 Gone with the Wind 1939
5 Spartacus 1960
6 Titanic 1997
7 All Quiet on the Western Front 1930
8 Saving Private Ryan 1998
9 Reds 1981
10 The Ten Commandments 1956

How did Reds get in at Number 9 when Dr Zhivago makes no appearance at all? That is a minor quibble or course, I have to say that looking at this list, the older films that I saw for the first time in the cinema; Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, Spartacus, The Ten Commandments, Gone with the Wind ( at a re-run show at the local flea-pit when I was ten years old) still remain in my head as moments of ‘wow’. The cast of thousands , the action scenes with real stunt men risking their lives ( I believe 2 at least died making the chariot scenes in Ben Hur), the pan across some vast army, sometimes a literal army, of extras, the attempt to show something on a grand scale, did inspire a particular state of awe in me.

Nowadays I may be amazed at the technical trickery and accomplishments that generate some scenes as in Lord of the Rings, Gladiator etc but I have never again experienced that same sense of real wonder at the power of Hollywood to create something akin to celluloid magic on the grand scale as when I first saw these films. This of course may be because I saw some as a child or adolescent and I had not yet grown cynical or jaded about the moving picture show. It may be a function of the generation I come from. As a child I caught the last gasp flicker of the Hollywood ‘big pictures’, when the move to technicolour still seemed jaw droppingly vivid. In the grey Midland town I lived in then even the green of the grass and the red of a cloak in Spartacus seemed extraordinarily bright,it made you think that America held a whole palette of colours you could never experience anywhere else but there. Colour was so lacking in the fifties and that shift from black and white was still significant. The sudden change from black and white to colour in the film The Wizard of Oz somehow epitomizes it, somewhere over the rainbow or the gasometer at the back of my house and in Hollywood the sky always was truly azure blue. The story may have been important, the acting probably important but the dazzling colour of it all as a child was the most important thing of all. I have seen New York, walked around every corner expecting and sometimes finding familiar gritty backdrop locations of great American films I have seen and loved but I have never been to those locations where those big epics were filmed ( Italy, Spain, Monument valley, California ,etc). I expect that if I ever do go there it will take me back to those times as a child in the cinema soaking up all that colour as if it were a sunlit cure for some ailment I had no name for but today would probably call mind-numbing drabness.

I do hope you have a Happy Christmas and wonderful 2010 dear reader. I shall be back with you anon, probably after New Year.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Floods, The Comfort of Things and the Poet John Lyons' Cooking

A wet Sunday but nothing like Cumbria where people must view the rain, any rain now, as an enemy, a taker of homes, possessions, livelihood, lives. Our local river still remains within its banks but the floodplains near the town look sodden as if just another jugful of rain will tip them over the edge into fen mere where no dog walker can pass and the swans and Canada geese float on a memory of meadowland.

I have an 8 minute radio piece up on the Audiotheque website about water and the draining of the fens, it’s called Isle ( scroll down to find it, I can't guarentee this link will work after more updates have been added to the site). This is a experimental sound website run by De Montfort University which has some short play pieces like mine but also some interesting soundscapes etc. Having lived in the fens for many years and been fascinated by it’s history, water, its encroachment and its loss, has been at the core of its social and economic history and still is. There are attempts being made now to return areas back to its original mere and marshland state. Such projects are valuable but they only show you a gnat’s bite of how the area would have looked in the sixteenth century and earlier, pre-drainage. It was a huge undertaking to drain the fens and in fact was never truly successful until the steam engine’s invention that allowed water pumps to be more effective. Windmills were never really up to the job but for a while covered the countryside.

As you drive beside the dykes now the roads are raised up due to the shrinkage of the land once it was sucked dry of water. It always seems odd driving across the fens at night beside a raised drainage dyke on one side and a huge dark drop on the other down to the fields. Sometimes, as it did the other night as I drove back from Ely (The Isle of Eels), it feels as if the world is almost tilting as the camber of the road veers towards the drop. The road snakes across the landscape sometimes letting go its grip on the raised drainage dyke and meandering off to follow old sheep tracks and ways that existed through the meres long before they were drained. As you snake around late at night you can see headlights appearing and disappearing way ahead as they follow the road. The road does indeed resemble an eel more than a snake I feel. eels were once prolific in the fens; one medieval scribe noted that at times they were so plentiful you could almost walk on the backs of eels for three miles across one stretch of the fens. However whilst the snake has been turned into a verb the humble eel hasn’t , although 'to eel' sounds as if it ought to merit a verb especially in wet or sodden landscape. Even in a downpour in the city one has a sense of the mass of people on pavements twisting and turning like eels to avoid each other, shopping bags, umbrellas. They eel down the pavement sounds right to me, it also conjures up that knotted mass of eels and the flow of water. I must find out what the collective noun is for eels, I presume there is one.

I was driving back through the fens from Ely because I had been to the launch of John Lyons’ new book published by Peepal Tree, a great press for all Afro-Caribbean writing. Cook-Up in a Trini Kitchen is joy of a book if you like poetry and food, it contains great recipes for all kinds of Trinidadian dishes, many with a twist on them . John did the launch in a bookshop whilst also cooking some of the dishes. The smell was heavenly, although the smoke detector did have a moment when hit by a waft of steam from sizzling onions herbs and spices. The book contains some of John’s artwork ( he originally trained and continues to be a visual artist of some repute) as well as some prose pieces about his childhood in Trinidad and some poems that speak to the recipes. As John said Trinidadians take their pleasures very seriously and food and having fun is high on their agenda. I tried some of the dishes and can personally recommend the Christmas cake recipe but suggest you don’t eat too much as you may be well over the limit given the amount of rum, cherry brandy and port it contains. It was one of those joyous occasions when poetry nestled so easily into the other delights of the senses and the poems John read just added to the flavour of the evening.

What else have I done this week, well I’ve started reading a wonderful book given to me by a friend written by a social anthropologist who just writes so well that his material jumps off the page at you and some pieces almost make you want to cry at their poignancy and insight into peoples lives.. It is called The Comfort of Things by Daniel Miller. It is book that investigates the things 100 people in an ordinary London street surround themselves with in their homes and what significance these things have for who they are and how these things give meaning to their lives. It is so glib to say materialism is a bad thing, this book shows how stuff or even the absence of stuff can be heartbreakingly meaningful and is not simply an indicator of how a person rates their standing by possessions. The first chapter contains a piece called ‘Empty’ and shows a man 74 years of age who lives in a flat surrounded only by furniture and items that have a functional necessity. The sterility of his surroundings is so marked that when he is asked questions about his past life it is no surprise that his story is quietly desperate and devoid of any real human contact and warmth that began for him from birth. I started to cry as a read it.
The next piece in the book is called ‘Full’ and gives the chaos of an extended family whose possessions are simply an extension of their love and warm contact with each other. The description of their house and all its many decorations at Christmas and all the laughter and stories each decoration and bauble held for the family may seem like some sugary Dickensian Christmas card. However I was left with permission to gaze round my house full of books and objects that many would deem ready for the jumble or Charity shop, from whence some of them actually came, and feel absolutely ok about it (not that I have ever felt not ok but now and then moments of life laundry do creep up on me).

It is that time of year so I have baubled up the willow canes I keep in a pot of sand in the living room and have hung gold and red bunches of grapes and extra cherry red Christmas lights to go with the ones that bedeck it all the year round plus other ornaments that are old friends at Christmas. I have a feeling, as the cherry red lights look so warm and comforting, they may stay up there now past Christmas and add to the stuff of my life. That’s ok. I’m not going anywhere and the Boo will have to clamber over all this when I go or am shuffled off into accommodation for the bewildered and dazed. I have however promised not to collect old newspapers and milk bottles or anything that might attract rats a la Miss Haversham. The Boo is equally squirrelish about some stuff, as was my mother, so this genetic trait may be passed down through the generations. I can travel light when needs be but home for the past twenty-eight always has a sense of people and warmth about it that some stuff of mine signifies. It may be an age thing but I think it is a stuff thing. Ask many of those who have lost things in the floods in Cumbria and on their faces you will see it is not always about the monetary value of possessions it is about all those things that gave home its meaning.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Birthdays, Age and Tightrope Walking with Larkin

I had a birthday this week-end, I have no problem with birthdays they roll by whether you want them to or not so I like to embrace them as an increasingly familiar old friend. Twenty was wonderful, thirty was wonderful, forty was fine, fifty was interesting, sixty my next one I shall encounter with a zero will bring a bus pass, heating allowances and best of all I anticipate the feeling of empowerment that I have earned the right to not bother about what people think about me. If truth were told ( and truth is not always best told but probably less damaging that untruths told in the long term) I feel that at fifty –eight ( pause whilst I have to recalculate from last year). It would be a lie to say I did not care how others perceive me, that way lies slight madness and those blouses you find in shops that cater for ladies of a certain age. You know the ones I mean, tiny paisley patterns, maybe with trailing things that can be tied in bows at the neck. I still squeeze myself into jeans that are a triumph of corsetry over breathing and have T-Shirts that have slogans on. I was once told by a very glamorous perfumed and couturier bedecked lady that no woman should ever wear T-Shirts saying anything past twenty-five, unless it is a small discreet designer logo and then only if the designer is expensive enough. This woman was obviously wrapped in silk pashmina as she exited the birth canal and her mother probably only broke into a slight glow throughout labour.

I have little dress sense, no glamour ( as defined by afore mentioned designer woman), I often manage to achieve an effect through sheer serendipity, sometimes in the tumble of the drawers and wardrobe an outfit comes together by some strange law of permutations of what is nearest to hand. It must be a bit like the probability of winning the lottery, now and again you may win a tenner ( a near decent outfit) which makes you feel that a jackpot win( bloody great) is not totally impossible. At 6’ 3”( I’ve lost an inch along the way somewhere) you tend to get noticed when you enter a room, if you then add to that clashing colours and items of clothing from various decades that would make the words ‘an interesting mix of styles’ seem overly generous….. then you have a statement but in my case more of a exclamation ( probably best described by an exclamation mark).

I watched a couple of programmes on TV this week designed to cater to the over sixties. Gok Wan managed to persuade a lady over seventy to wear only iced buns for a photograph by calling her angel and ‘my darling’ every other sentence. In the other programme some doctors revealed the joys of the older body falling apart. Age is a bit of a bugger; it gives with one hand and takes with the other. Of course life is always about balance; the balancing act just gets a little more difficult as you get older, the wire a little thinner, you have to put your glasses on to see where you are going and the drop is a tad more daunting and you wonder if that slight twinge as you walk across the abyss signals a future hip replacement.. Of course I wouldn’t say I was as pessimistic as Larkin though and birthdays, any birthdays should be fun.

PS, The photograph at the top of the page was taken by my friend Martin Figura, a professional photographer and poet. I asked him to take photographs of my mother's bungalow a week after she died and then a few months later after it has been cleared. This may seem macabre but the photographs I knew would be strangely beautiful and continue to remain very poignant for me. You can see more here at his web site with a shortextract from an explanatory text I wrote to accompany the work.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Philip Levine, Seagulls and Keats

I don’t seem to have posted for a while dear reader, events have rushed at me like a herd of stampeding wildebeest ( I am imaging that scene from The Lion King when computer generated animals populated the screen). Aldeburgh Poetry festival threw up a lot to be savoured most of all Philip Levine who has been a poetry hero of mine since I was 16 years old. Someone showed me his poem The Horse and I had this epiphany about what poetry can do in the world.

Philip Levine was interviewed about his life and that session alone would have been worth the price of the weekend. He was taught by Lowell and Berryman. Lowell he said was a terrible teacher whilst Berryman never turned up drunk to a lecture and was a brilliant teacher. He recounted a tale of an incident when he and Berryman had gotten very drunk together and fell asleep on Berryman’s bed. In the morning they were awakened by a telegram boy announcing he had a telegram for a 'Mr John Berryman'. Berryman sat up in bed and stared at Levine, “Are you John Berryman?” he asked with no hint of joke in his voice. “No” replied Levine, “In that case the telegram must be for me,” Berryman told the puzzled telegram boy. “I hope it’s from Saul Bellow,” he said, “He has money these days and I need to keep in with him.”

There was an interesting discussion with a panel of the great and the good about whether all poetry is ultimately about sex and death and another one about whether there is anything that could be deemed the female poem. The general answer seemed to be yes and no, which is the usual answer you get from such discussions. Jo Shapcott the chair of the second discussion wrote about this in an article in the Guardian some days later.

I spent a great deal of time watching the gulls wondering if they were engaged in poet spotting, trying to guess by their plumage which walkers along the strand of beach would be looking at them in a poetic way. There were a number who seemed to have been extras in The Hitchcock film the birds as they had obviously engaged in a few method acting lessons and could do menace quite well, digging deep into their inner vulture maybe. The sight of someone with fish and chips sent them into a whirling feeding frenzy and I didn’t help much by hurling them the odd chip which they could take on the wing, like a dog I once had that specialized in grabbing a Frisby in mid air.

So what will I remember from Aldeburgh 2009 .

• Crying after Philip Levine had finished his reading on the Sunday afternoon, as I knew that this would probably be the first and last time I would hear him read. Over forty years since I read The Horse sitting on a bus on the way back from school and suddenly all the noise and yelling on the top deck drifted away and I was somewhere else.
• Being impressed by the enormity and agility of the seagulls
• Tom Paulin giving such a close reading of some poems that it was at an almost sub atomic level, I could almost hear the sound of the rhymes, half rhymes and vowel forming in the movement of the air.
• The people at the quiz who got such high scores that it revealed an almost unhealthy level of poetry knowledge.
• The poor woman who trapped her toe in the chair in front in the hall where the reading were held and let out the most primal of screams that caused everyone in the place to freeze and stare.
• This year making sure I had enough time just to sit and look at the sea without having to rush between events

Since returning from Aldeburgh I have been to a great reading by Roddy Lumsden and Tom Warner

I think I need time to digest all the poetry I have accumulated in my head over the past couple of weeks. There is such a thing as poetry constipation, when so much has been consumed it can cause a blockage. On top of all this I went to see Bright Star, the film about Keats and Fanny, so much angst, so much longing, so much coughing.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Season of Mists, Eliot, Pam Ayres and Question Time.

I was surprised when T S Eliot was voted as the best loved Poet of all time in the Latest BBC survey. Had the T. S. Eliot Society been block voting, cornering people in the streets, canvassing at poetry readings, doing deals with the supporters of Keats and Coleridge in smoke filled back-rooms like some sleazy Republican Convention in Chicago? However in another way I am not surprised because Eliot for all his tortured emotions and poetic craft was an emigrant, an American who found the old world fitted his temperament more than the new and converts are often more deeply embedded in that which they embrace than those born to it. I have written about Eliot before dear reader I know but surely he and I can withstand another look.

I watched the odious BNP man on Question Time last night and concluded here was a man not of intelligence but of deep cunning mixed with not a little fantasy. Indigenous people of England, for god’s (Christian, Muslim and any other religion or secular way of being that hold to gods of true justice and compassion) sake is the man not aware that all men are mongrels. All of us have DNA coursing in our veins that stem from the four corners of the world; we are all passing migrants in a way on a planet that is so small it will soon burst at the seams. Mr BNP seemed like a huge antediluvian dinosaur peeing in the corners of his territory as if that act itself would keep away those that would take his land and his right to roam it as he sees fit.

So why did this man drive me to read Eliot’s Four Quartets again and in particular Little Gidding; because here is a poem written by an immigrant writing about a place that spoke to him and yet transcended all sense of place and looked to something more important beyond the greater importance of which particular piece of earth our first footsteps trod.

Little Gidding is just a short drive from where I live, I have eaten my lunch in the graveyard there when passing. It is at the end of a tiny single track road that ends with the house and this tiny church. The lovely people that live in the religious community there, who often come from all over the world to stay there bring you tea and homemade cake and ask for no money other than a donation. I can see what Eliot may have felt here because it is also a place where you can go no further so have to turn back on yourself. I go there and find it has a sort of quiet steadfastness (an old fashioned word I know) yet at the same time the people there, some from war torn or chaotic places in the world, bring to it a sense of it being the beginning of something for they usual come not to hide from but to gain strength to run back towards the outside world which they will soon have to cope with and try and change for the better. I am neither a Christian or particularly religious but I do, I hope, understand spirituality, hope and a striving for good in the world. Most religions have been and continue to be the cause of great suffering but that’s like a Martian looking down and thinking Mr BNP, his views and actions, represents everyone in Britain.

Little Gidding in a wonderful place to go to in the autumn as the foliage on the trees is now reaching that critical point of turning to fallen. There is that point when they give off that last fire before they drop. Nothing like the glories of New England of course but still just enough glory to fill a tea cup and that can be enough for anyone. In his poem about Little Gidding Eliot talks a lot about fire and I tend to think he may have those autumn fire colours in mind and not just the metaphor of fire in Christianity and I think he also speaks to earthly love and suffering of all kinds.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

It is strange that Eliot, a complex man not without his fair share of unfathomable blindspots and unkindnesses, not least of which was the ease with which he embraced the Anti-Semitic language current in his day, should write something which I personally find so full of thoughts that not only attempt to understand human emotional suffering in some ways but also to give a kind of solace within that suffering. Thousands of people have read the last stanza of this Quartet to breathe in some sense of peace or at least a measure of hope from it. I think it may be one of those times when the poem is greater than the sum parts of the poet. I have often heard poets speak about the demands a poem makes of them; that in some way it has its own sense of what it is or could be which we ignore at our peril. The old tale that Michelangelo, looking at a block of Carrere marble, spoke of merely releasing the statue already formed from within the stone, is often also related to the poet and the poem being released from a block of words. Perhaps Eliot’s Four Quartets is one of those experiences; writing out of our skin or beyond ourselves is perhaps only an experience the greatest of poets have but I am sure we have all sometimes wondered at the weird way with which a poem can sometimes insist on being other than what you first intended it to be. Judge for yourselves about that last stanza of Little Gidding.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

I apologise dear reader if I have rambled on but the strange conjunction of stars which provide Eliot as the nation’s favourite poet, Mr BNP on Question Time, autumn, the turning of life and seasons and the smell of burning leaves coming from the garden three doors up as I write have put me in this place. Next blog I will try and discuss the phenomenon which is Pam Ayres, which is not a joke, I truly believe the woman is rejected and despised as a vernacular poet by some of the literary glitterati because she packs out venues and is never up her own arse about the importance or historic legacy of her work and is unafraid of rhyming little with peanut brittle.

PS. The Boo has just bought a brand new motor bike (a Suzuki Van Van…what company calls a bike a Van Van!). All positive vibrations for her continued well being and the wish that she does not end up as a smear on the roads of County Durham gratefully received. But, hurrah, as she points out, this one has an electronic ignition not a kick start so things are now retro styled but not retro labour intensive.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Faber New Poets, Jerwood and the J word in Strictly Come Dancing and Poetry

On Tuesday I was on the door doing my impression of meet and greet and where’s your money please for the opening of the new season of poetry readings at Michaelhouse run by CB1 Poetry. The four winners of the Faber New Poet Award, Fiona Benson, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Jack Underwood and Heather Phillipson. The Faber Poetry Editor Matthew Hollis introduced them and did a fine short reading himself. There is always something exciting about hearing a young poet beginning to explore their craft. It feels like watching something being planted that could blossom into a magnificent tree, or maybe an orchid or even a hardy shrub or it may never reach its potential and wither in the cold. Who knows but these four new young Faber poets are being carefully nurtured by Faber and the Arts Council, it won’t be for the lack of fertiliser and tending that they don’t grow but then as Sean O’Brien pointed out in his review of their pamphlets in the Guardian it is the next forty years that may hold the proof of their growth. Although I think there are some poets who have been loved and admired through the centuries who never produced a large body of work, who may even only have written two or three great poems that somehow stuck in the national consciousness. There may be the poetic equivalent of one or two hit wonders in contemporary music but that doesn’t mean that the poems themselves are of any less worth if they don’t come from the pen of a poet who has produced collection after collection of good poems. Most poets might I suspect swap their whole career and oeuvre for one perfect magnificent poem because every time you stare at a clean sheet of paper or a black document on the computer screen it is filled with the possibility of magnificence and that is probably what makes you keep writing. There is no holy grail of poetry, no one yard stick by which we can ever measure such a thing but we have a sense of always striving for this elusive cup of words and even if we fail by a mile or a gnats whisker we keep trying and I hope taking risks.
Risk taking is something the young might be more prepared to do, or is the poet with a so called ‘reputation’ under their belt more able to caste aside the safety net and take risks. I think every poem should be a risk of some kind. The safe poem that merely strokes the sleeping dog versus the one that risks waking the wolf is to be applauded. it may not always come off but at least the intent was there. I thought Fiona Benson managed with her pamphlet to pull of the difficult feat of appearing to write very quiet almost studious poem but which were actually infused with huge risk, the quiet swan with the engine feet paddling away underneath and which might break your arm if you get a little too close and assume it safe.

The short list for the Jerwood Prize for best first collection have been announced, my publisher, Salt has two poets in there. Sian Hughes for the Missing and and Andrew Philip for The Ambulance Box. The others poets short listed are J O Morgan, Philip Rush and Dawn Wood. I list them all as in those interviews on the television about at upcoming election in which the BBC interview one candidate but in the interests of even handedness all candidates including those representing the Monster Raving Looney party has to be mentioned, blessings be upon the head of Lord Reith who was a stickler for such things including radio news reader wearing Dinner Jackets. I shall be rooting for Andrew as I think Ambulance Box is a stunning piece of work that floated my boat in terms of what interests me in poetry. Prizes are such odd things, a product of the amalgam of judges opinions.I have been informed by some who have been judges on some other competitions that sometimes if there isn’t a clear winner then a sort of haggling takes place in which the collection everyone is able to live with as the winner comes to the fore. We’d all like to be a fly on the wall at such meetings, I imagine that at Aldeburgh it will be extremely civilised and no one will throw tea cups at each other in the Cragg Sisters tearooms.

I am wondering why I am yet again hooked on Strictly Come Dancing, the parade of minor B celebrities and athletes trying to master the tango or the quickstep and parade the result of their efforts for public consumption and even humiliation on prime time TV. I have come to the conclusion that I should come out of the closet about it because I have managed to convince myself that it is ok be glued to how well people’s frame, heel leads and hip action is coming along. The ‘journey’ is the buzz word; it’s all about travelling and not the arriving and therein lies the metaphor for all things. Is writing about the process, the love of it, the attempt to master it, or the product? It’s about both of course but for those of us that struggle with how you can sometimes be so bad, so mediocre, so clumsy with the words, with the medium you love so much, then that J word can be amazingly relevant. Can she manage to pull off a beautiful waltz, can she manage to conjure up a crafted yet amazing sonnet. Can he really do that fiery tango, is there something that drives the words an underlying controlled passion. I am of course dear reader writing myself towards justification. I should be reading something worthwhile or classy or out there experiencing real life in the fen fast lane. But you know what, a curry in front of the Tele on a cold night watching people trying to do the Viennese Waltz or Jive who usually long jump, box, act like wooden planks in soaps or read the sports news is fine by me. There is always the extraordinary to be found in something ordinary and the journey between those two things can arrive somewhere interesting and visit a few bizarre service stations on the way.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Nietzsche and Hegel and She-Ra in the Closet

I was wading through a wardrobe in what was The Boo’s bedroom and discovered her Crystal Castle lurking at the bottom. It was a Christmas present given nearly twenty years ago. Of course the uninitiated or too young may not know that The Crystal Castle was home to She-Ra, ‘Princess of Power’. She was never called just plain old She-Ra just as He-man never got away without the tag line of ‘The most Powerful Man in the Universe’ follow him. She-Ra was a revolutionary, the freedom fighter against the domination by all evil forces who would subjugate the ordinary people. She was Obama, our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, our fight against all evils that threaten a democratic way of life rolled into one. Swap Hordak or Skeletor, the baddies in these two cartoons for Ben Laden, the Taliban or generally anything anti-American ( it was made in America) and there you have the right and the wrong of it all, the morality tale that all children want to identify with. She-Ra of course did good by stealth never revealing her true identity but once she lifted that old sword there she was in all her glory, tight figure hugging costume, knee high gold boots and a good legth of thigh showing as she goes out to battle against the evil hoard. As He-Man was the mild mannered Adam (think bumbling Clark Kent to Superman) so the fluffy headed Princess Adora became She-Ra. All this came back to me as I was moving The Crystal Castle, even back then the power of marketing was a thing to behold, I think the Boo had the lunch box too, plus all the action figures. Should I have been encouraging her to play with more politically correct toys but no one was marketing the Marie Curie doll complete with toy laboratory and I certainly wouldn’t have bought her a Thatcher Doll complete with handbag to make her feel girls could be leaders of men. It was all roughly around the ‘girl power’ era when the marketing men realised that girls might not just want baby dolls and Barbies but action figures or pop stars that looked like they might kick a few butts and were generally proactive rather than passive. I think the toy industry was a tad slow on picking up on the feminist revolution but then Mattel etc still wanted to cling to the Stepford Wife concept I expect. They did not have many women on their board of directors until recently and they still have one woman executive in charge of 'girls toys' as if girls and their parents need a special range for them alone.

The finding of the Castle comes at a time when I am in the middle of reading Stephen Dobyn’s Book, 'The Wrestler’s Cruel Study' which I am enthralled with and the She-ra thing and this book collided in my brain. It is a surreal, even bizarre book which is set in a New York full of varying and arcane heretical Christian religious groups who meet to dispute at the top of the Chrysler Building about what is true and the nature of good and evil. The plot (if you can call it that) is driven by the classic hero’s dilemna. A wrestler called Michael Marmaduke who’s wrestling name is Marduk the Magnificent trying to find and rescue his kidnapped girlfriend Rose White. His world weary and philosophic manager, Primus Muldoon, whilst trying to help him and advise also spends time lingering on the nature of ‘the gimmick’ in wrestling and ‘the mask’ and how these relate to how people function in ‘real’ life. He has a love of Nietzsche and relates much of what happens in professional wrestling to our desire to cling to or to look for stereo types and pared down simplicities and our search for power of all kinds but Muldoon has a Hegelian nemesis. I won’t spoil it for you by saying too much but I never though Gnostic heresies, philosophy and wrestling could be brought together in a strange yet satisfying mix. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but Dobyn’s is a well known poet as well as a novelist and his language and voice is right up my street.
Of course American wrestling seems a tad more violent than the world of Sport 19 70’s version I recall.

I was at The Essex poetry festival yesterday mainly to see an old friend,Joanna Ezekial, from an Arvon Course way back, read. It was wonderful to catch up and talk about where poetry and writing has lead us over the years. I never cease to be amazed by what people are prepared to sacrifice and give up in order to make writing an important part of their lives. Poets especially usually gain no financial reward at all from their writing but have to rely on all the workshops, residencies, teaching etc that brings in a crust. Yet people still give up well paid jobs and potential careers in order to do it. It gladdens my heart that people are still willing to do this and it makes me feel sad that there is so little money in the Arts pot now that such people are going to be fighting hard for what minute amount there is. Of course you can write magnificently even if you have a full time job as a sheep-dipper, cashier, lawyer or water board official but it is a struggle and I sometimes wonder how many great poets or poems may have been lost to the world because they could not juggle earning a living with writing. A brilliant poet will triumph over financial necessity and adversity you could say but then maybe not and society may or may not be the poorer for it. I note that Eliot has been judged the nations favourite poet, I wonder how he would have coped in maintaining his personal writing life in the current financial wasteland when he would have had to pour endless time into keeping a publishing house afloat plus all the networking and endless meetings with the Arts Councils maybe to get grants?

Friday, 2 October 2009

Larissa Miller, Francis Ponge and Conviction in Poetry and Politics

The Kings’ Lynn Poetry festival was a joy as ever, an interesting mix of poets and the sun shone. This was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the festival so a surprise special anthology was put together to celebrate the event. It contained poems written by poets who had read at the festival over the years. I must say it was an honour to be in there snuggled between Pascale Petit and Peter Porter, a position I doubt I shall ever achieve again and which I only owe to the vagaries of alphabetisation.

Pascale Petit read some of her new poems that she is writing that are based on the work of Frida Kahlo,. These were impressive and as I love Kahlo’s work I shall be looking out for that collection when it comes out. Michael Hulse, Kit Wright, Annie Freud, Moniza Alvi, John Harley Williams, Lachlan Mackinnon were there but I was interested especially in the work of the French Poet Valerie Rouzeau, the Basque poet Eli Tolaretxipi and most of all the Russian poet Larissa Miller
I have included the links to their biographies and websites so you can read some of their work for yourself.

I found the power of Larissa Miller’s work particularly moving but then I am a sucker for that big Russian lyrical melancholy and poems wrung from experience of repression that most of us may never experience. It is worth listening to some of Larissa’s poems read by her in Russian on her website as then you get a true sense of the rhythm, sound and tone. There is something about listening to good poems read out in languages I have no knowledge of that I savour. There is still that sense of sound and rhythm, the moment now and then when you realise the universality of the spoken word, the sound and cadences of a voice saying something that matters. Of course I always have the sense that anything such as the instructions for putting together an IKEA bookcase may sound interesting and somehow beautiful in many languages and I wonder whether the same could be said of English, I shall have to ask an English non-speaker.

Speaking of foreign language poets, I gave a friend a copy of Unfinished Ode to Mud, a new translation of some of Francis Ponge’s poems by CB Editions for her birthday. The man is a superb poet, he looks at the simplest of things in the simplest of language and he never turns away, he keeps looking until everything is seen. To look without blinking is a rare skill. In a notebook, I have had for some years I have an extract from one of his prose poems, Memorandum, which C K Williams translated, in which Ponge writes of ‘the only interesting principle according to which interesting works can be written, and written well.'

“You have first of all to side with your own spirit, and your own taste. Then take the time, and have the courage, to express all your thoughts on the subject at hand (not just keeping the expressions that seem brilliant or distinctive). Finally you have to say everything simply, not striving for charm, but conviction.”

It has always seemed like a good way to tackle writing of any kind to me.

Come to think of it, in this season of the party conferences, Ponge’s Memorandum might be a good thing for politicians to embrace. The Sun has announced grandiosely that it will no longer be backing Labour as if this statement alone ensures that the coming election is a dead cert for the Tories. As we all know the Sun is the great arbiter and dictator of political wisdom and the common man’s opinion, hence the topless models as the essential statement of how women should be viewed. Rupert Murdoch no doubt rests easier knowing he is now in bed with the future government of the UK, as what the Sun says goes of course, elections he probably sees as mere formalities. Perhaps it’s the other way round and David Cameron is relieved to be in bed with Rupert. All that snuggling up on the media mogul’s yacht last year must have paid off and was worth the fuss in other newspapers that attended it about the free flights. Real convictions in politics rather than the snake-charming of the electorate are probably too much to hope for in the run up to the next election. I am sure The Sun will put me right on who is the most likely to be convicted ( I think that’s not the verb from conviction but it sounds about right).

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Seven Minutes and Thirty-Two Seconds with Tick Boxes and Peter Porter

Sorry, sorry, dear reader, she says rushing into the room slightly dishevelled with twigs sticking out of her hair ( think white queen with slightly more empathy). I have been remiss at posting this week–end due to the various things that intrude on time.

We have been asked to keep a blow by blow account at work of every minute of our time, which has to fit into various boxes, ten minutes on this, two hours eleven minutes on that, a second on the other. If you suddenly have to audit your time in close-up you suddenly start to wonder where it goes and what it consists of, it has a habit of sliding through the gaps between the words. It is indeed relative. If I were to do a time audit on my personal life I tend to think the boxes would be myriad and strange. Staring into space or out of the window could perhaps be consumed in the catch all tick box, ‘thinking’. I think I spend a lot of time thinking, I think about other things when I drive ( come on confess it dear reader I am sure you have thought about things other than the road ahead and the mechanics of driving at times) so does ‘drive time’ go in two boxes. I think about lots of things when I listen to music, so if I listen to music as I drive does that tick three boxes; listening to music, thinking and driving? I can check my emails, watch Eastenders, think about a poem I am writing and chew gum all at the same time. We can all multi-task or should it be multi think. I have deliberately been trying to think how I think this past week-end and thinking is indeed the multi layered lasagne of activities. Even as I write this, not only am I thinking about what I am writing but there are thoughts about what to have for tea, when is my next dentist appointment, did the man on the TV just mention William Carlos Williams, why has next door’s cat taken to sitting and watching me from the middle of the lawn as I stand at the sink.

Thinking in a totally focused way, concentrating solely on one thing and one thing alone, is difficult. By this I do not mean thinking in a linear way, one thing after another, but thinking in depth about one thing without the intrusion of any other thought. Try it , it’s hard, the brains natural state for me and I suspect for many is maybe one thing in focus and lots of other things cutting in momentarily like a shaky jump shot in an art house movie.

There are few writers who can actually summon up that jump shot way of thinking in their writing. Some good graphic novels can do it as the genre allows the visual dimension to do several things at once along with text. An image can say six things at once and more once text is thrown into the mix; also the placement of panels, images and text can specifically be used to convey simultaneous occurrence whereas text alone, by its very nature, is linear. The movement from beginning to end of a sentence is the basic building block of language that conveys sense or meaning. Narrative can be blown apart and re-assembled in many ways but few writers other than the avant-garde do that same thing with the sentence and still achieve some sense of the whole.

This does fit in with my time and motion experience as it has made me examine the tick boxes into which we place time in order to make sense of how a day has passed. When someone asks you what you’ve done today, they don’t actually want to know in detail, they are expecting a brief summary of the highlights or low lights of the past few hours. If we were to hand them a written summary of how exactly we have spent a day in a linear way it may be either a conversation stopper or a source of interest. ‘So first you spent seven hours five minutes asleep then two minutes cleaning your teeth, thirty seconds coming down stairs, thirteen minutes eating a croissant, two hours thinking whilst staring at the computer. Not exactly riveting stuff, and the linear nature of explaining how time passes in such a precise way paints something of a grey picture but then as the Scotsman said.

"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Not that gloomy actually, points out that it’s best to get on with it, don’t waste it. Ok the ‘nothing’ kiss-off is a bit of a downer at the end but then the chap was in a bit of a bad place at the time. Of course no one was making him write down how long he spent staring out from the battlements, how much time was involved in seeing ghostly spectres, was the witch thing to be ticked in the meeting box or the future planning one?

I am off to the Kings Lynn Poetry Festival this week-end,
It is an interesting line up, so of that, more next week. Sadly the great Peter Porter has had to pull out due to ill health, so I leave you with this poem of his to savour which seems to fit this post.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Darwin, the American Health Care Bill and Emily Ballou

The sun shone yesterday and I whiled away the day in Cambridge with two friends. We went to see the Darwin exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is well worth a look if you are this way. The things on display are many and various, a few examined the premise of the male of the species’ need to have not only a USP ( Unique Selling Point) to entice the female but that they had to be the best at whatever form of plumage, display or behaviour was deemed essential. Any female of the species that didn’t pick him was not only deeply lacking in taste but would produce inferior ofspring that would not add anything of significance to the gene pool of the species and ensure its survival or ability to adapt to the environment. There was a short video display of a display ritual of a particular bird, lots of long tail feathers fanned out, much like a peacock, was involved. The interesting thing was the way the female being displayed to seemed not in the least bit interested and spent time and energy ignoring the male bird. ‘Here’s a nice bit of corn’ she seemed to be saying to herself most of the time whilst the male shook his tail feathers, hopped almost right under her beak and generally thrust himself and his plumes at her. Nothing new there then, I have been to discos.

The celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ has spawned innumerable things in Cambridge where he attended Christ College; lectures, readings, workshops, mugs, small rag dolls with white hair and long beards, tea towels, postcards, pop up books etc the list is endless. However there has been some good poetry spawned by the anniversary, so it isn’t all cuddly toys and jigsaws. Here is a wonderful reading by the Australian poet Emily Ballou from her new collection The Darwin Poems, which looks at Darwin’s life in poetry. Well worth looking at if you can get hold of a copy.

The whole exhibition really brought home to me that the publication of ‘On the Origins of Species’ was not only a huge shift in thinking away from creationist thinking but it also offered some people a world view that made sense of what they saw happening around them everyday, not just in nature but within society. Survival of the fittest was what had always happened and in Victorian society that was evident in the infant morality rates and the general conditions of the poor that led to an early death. Of course many of the wealthy and middle-class died young but not in the same numbers. ‘This is the way it has to be’, said some at the time. The concept of ‘the rich man in his castle the poor man at his gate’ and that ‘god ordered their estate’, weren’t lines from the famous and much loved hymn of the time, ‘All things bright and beautiful’ for nothing. The great unwashed, the poor, the ignorant, the feckless, the brutish under class would not survive because this was the way life was designed to be. The rich, educated and wise would always prosper and survive at the top of the heap.

I then read this morning, Obama’s address to Congress about the new Health Care Bill and I couldn’t help thinking about the Darwin exhibition in Cambridge. The constant fight to survive and adapt to meet change. None of the adaption Darwin thought of was conscious, species took thousands of years to adapt and some died out because they did not adapt quickly or well enough. Politics and government doesn’t have thousands of years to adapt systems of governance which will best ensure the survival of the people it governs. Man also has a moral element that interacts with all this adaptation. They may refer to an unseen higher power that dictates or limits the nature of change. They may seek to genuinely do what is best for the majority and thus spend years debating what may constitute the best or simply impose it by political and military means. They may decide that the furtherance of the well being and fortunes of a limited few, who would deem themselves more equipped to survive that other is the best answer, so government is dictated by the few, for the welfare of the few (as some have suggested the latest Afghan elections exemplify). Some may seek to limit the level of governance in order to maximise the moral concept of free will and the individual’s right to live their life as they see fit, unfettered by government dictates. All of them seem to tread the boards in the theatre of Darwinian thoughts on survival as, if you accept that whatever your moral beliefs are, and from whatever source you deem them to come, on the whole they are held to be best for man, the species. They are best to ensure society grows stronger, adapts to whatever is thrown at the species.

The health care bill in the USA raises huge issues about what you deem best for you and your fellow man. Whatever the moral, political or economic viewpoint you have, the task of convincing people about the need for change must boil down to, what do you believe your fellow man is worth to you and to your society? I put that not as a rhetorical question but a real one, how much is the health of Mrs Florence Peabody three doors up worth to you and society, enough to make your tax bill how much higher? In the UK we are lucky in so far as we have not had to debate this question recently, the NHS staggers on and there seems some basic underpinning agreement that the NHS is a good thing. Perhaps further down the road, if the financial burden of the elderly becomes too much to bear, we may be faced with the same question in stark terms. If someone has contributed x to the NHS system through national insurance and taxation are they entitled to x plus 1000% or a greater amount back, should they be unlucky enough to have some chronic or massive medical need. How much of another’s financial burden are you willing to carry? The survival of the fittest may at some point down the road be a very practical guideline to apply when limiting health care.

I will continue to watch the American debate with interest as it may be our debate soon if we have to continue getting a quart of health care out of a pint pot of money. I think the NHS is one of the defining things that makes me relieved and proud to live in the UK. It is, on the whole and for the time being, an example of how our society is at least striving to allow all some shot at survival and not just the fittest. It may have faults , it may not do it superbly well in all instances but at least there seems to be some will still left to help everyone in need.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Stephen Dobyns, Happy Birthdays, In-coming Season and The Yardbirds

I have just received a copy of a collection of poetry I ordered from the States by the poet Stephen Dobyns. I came across him by accident when a friend Facebooked a link to one of his poems (see Facebook does have uses over and beyond knowing that someone you don't know that well, if at all, is eating biscuits, running in a half marathon or generally mooching). I sat down and read the collection, ‘Mystery, so Long’, this morning after I got back from the farmer’s market in town, where I chatted about the joy of fat marbled beef with the farmer who lives three miles away who breeds beef cattle, commented on the delights of a cheddar mustard and ale cheese made by a cheese-maker four miles distant and bought fresh baked wholemeal bread from a local farmer who grows his own organic wheat and mills his own flour that his wife bakes into glorious loaves the smell of which wafts from the stall and sits on your shoulder whispering, ’ buy me, you know you want to’ . I wandered home probably repellently smug in the knowledge that I had purchased food with such a low carbon footprint. I sat down to the indulgence of lime and elderflower cake (cake making lady just up the road) with a cup of sweet Colombian blend ( I managed to block out the thought of its carbon footprint and mutter the mantra of ‘it’s fair-trade coffee, it’s fair-trade coffee’ to hold on to the smug mode for just a while longer). All this and a good poetry collection to read was a small corner of heaven on a dull fen Saturday.

I had not heard of Dobyns before and it is always a pleasure to explore a poet I wouldn’t normally come across. Dobyns manages to make that conversational style of some American poetry look easy and yet it is a skilled craft which requires more than prose chopped into lines. He tends, in the poems I have read so far, to stroll through life as if it is a huge stage set for the theatre of the absurd and the wry asides seem totally at home with concepts of orang-utans shitting on stage at concerts to liven up the proceedings for those not already into classical music, talking dogs, a parrot attached to a man’s shoulder as he hurries to the city day after day. Dobyns seems not so much part of any surreal school of poetry but grounded in how people really live yet within their lives such things are happening which only the absurd can perhaps depict, such things are happening which makes them unique even in the seeming hum-drumness of their days. Here are a few of his poems, Yellow Beak, It's Like This and Over a Cup of Coffee, see what you think.

I can feel autumn coming in fast now, autumn is a season I love. It is not so much an end of summer but a beginning of things winding into themselves. Dark nights in front of fires. I am not a hot weather woman I like bright cold days, piles of leaves, thick bacon sarnies in front of old black and white films on the TV whilst the wind and rain busy themselves outside. Today is the Boos birthday, I am sure I hung on into September so I could push her out into a world that smelt of autumn, no summer baby for me. A September baby is always one of the oldest in the class in the English educational system, an August birthday consigns you to being one of the youngest. There are always perks to be had in being just that bit older, well that is what I tell myself when my young dentist who I had a conversation with this week whilst my mouth was full of iron mongery and sucking devices, revealed that she can’t even remember Take That first time around let alone that Jimmy Page was in The Yardbirds.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Kiss and Tell or Not Even a Kiss, Sharon Olds and the Desperate Romantics

I had a committee meeting this past week to try and start to firm up readers for the Poetry Events that CB1 Poetry run in Cambridge. Launch event on the second Tuesday in October looks a cracker Matthew Hollis, the Poetry Editor at Faber introducing four of his newly minted Faber poets; young, talented, innovative. Surely these poets could make the Desperate Romantics look like a boring middle-aged cast from ‘Carry on Up the Easel’?

I have been following this series on BBCTV and am aware that this is a total parody of the lives of the Pre-Raphaelites but quite enjoyed it by taking it at face( or should it be cartoon)value, its knowing style, looks to camera and the ‘nudge, wink, say no more’ jokes. It was no more a serious study of these Pre-Raphaelite artist and writers as The Poseidon Adventure was an insight into the survival and rescue techniques necessary for serious collisions at sea (although I suppose I will head for the propeller shaft should I ever be in an upturned cruise ship ). Rossetti, actually waited a few years before deciding he needed his poems back from his wife's grave and got a legal exhumation order to dig up his wife’s coffin, prise off the lid and retrieve his work. Luckily a back-up disc suffices these days. Of course this still seems to put Mr Rossetti in a bad light, although raking over old bones of past loves and partners for sources of work still occurs today in literary circles but not in such a graphic way. Should you ever be related to a poet or any writer has always been one of those questions the review pages of the broadsheets tend to throw out especially when reviewing some personal memoir or series of ill disguised poems about an ex, a child or a parent. It has been ever thus and is not a new phenomena generated by kiss and tell journalism. I was always a little uneasy that perhaps some relationships are off limits, especially if the power rests solely with the writer. Is writing about someone, who has no right of reply, tantamount to a subtle form of literary bullying?

Sharon Old’s poems that engage with her childhood epitomised by the incident of her being tied to a chair by her parents as a child are a well known current example of writing from life experience ( I am not even going down the Julia Myerson route). Her father or mother if they had been gifted poets or writers might have responded in similar vein with their own ‘take’ on past events, but they weren’t and they didn’t. ‘It wasn’t like that’ is always part of the dialogue between human beings and their own shared histories. Fact and fiction in terms of the operation of memory and social dynamics is a blurred border.

The answer may be of course that the writer or poet is entitled to say ‘Well it felt like that to me and fact is only a small part of the story I want to tell’. Whether you were wearing a blue jumper or a green one when your parents tied you to a chair is irrelevant, even whether they actually did tie you to a chair is irrelevant, if you felt or believed they had tied you to a chair is probably more useful for any discussion of the poem and even if the incident is entirely fictitious, the poem has to stand and fall by its craft, use of language and it’s emotional truth.Poets and writer may have always indulged in some equivalent of False Memory Syndrome, driven by creative forces stronger than mere fact. When is a lie not a lie when it is a magnificent creative lie is perhaps a cynical way of looking at it. I seem to be talking alot about lies at the moment in my blogs perhaps there is something in the air, in politics in what we are all looking for at the moment that makes the telling of lies and what this means to us as individuals important. The whole release of the Libyian bomber is threaded through with the need to know the truth and who is telling lies. The death of Ted Kennedy makes me recall how a man was driven to lie about what happened one dark night and was in many ways absolved of that lie by his life post lie.

What is an emotional truth? I have no idea for you dear reader, because it essentially relies on each individual’s encounter with the poem and what speaks to them. You can critique a poem in many ways, technical use of rhythm, rhyme, form, use of language, simile, metaphor, imagery etc but when you say this poem makes me feel x, it is a difficult one to argue with. You could argue that the reader may not be clear about the poem and is therefore wrong in what they feel simply on the basis of them ‘misreading’ something although sometimes we misread for a purpose because it supports our own need to see something in a particular way. If someone for instance says this poem makes them feel claustrophobic and points to things within the poem that for him or her substantiate this claim then that is an emotional truth for them. The use of the word cupboard maybe, allied with a tight box like form such as a sonnet may trigger some emotional response for the reader…..maybe they have been trapped in a cupboard or a lift, maybe they fear being in a confined space. One person’s nightmare cupboard is another person’s cosy nook etc.

I like Sharon Old’s poetry, she has something interesting to say, she often says it very well in a way that engages me and what if she keeps writing about her childhood and events in it as some have accused her of; if the poems are good she is not a one trick pony but someone who can perform the highest art of advanced dressage with an amazing horse. Space Heater for instance just evokes a moment when you can feel the tension and the emotion within a room going back years. Here is a good article about Sharon Old's work if you have the time and energy.

It is now a bright and sunny bank Holiday week-end. I may join the throng to wander round the huge market that takes over my small fen town. I am now quite good at convincing myself that a bargain is only a bargain if you actually want and need the item. I can even ignore the hard boiled egg slicer that a man with the gift of the gab convinces you can also be used for cutting tomatoes, brushing the dog and bringing about world peace.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Stories about Gender, E. A.Markham and Squirrelising

I worked in the local community café this morning with a friend. Lots of OAPs, families, the lonely who come in for a chat, visitors who come to look round the town. It is a cheap and cheerful café and you find stories in there. The old lady who comes miles on a bus to visit the local dolls house shop because she is creating a series of houses for a family of dolls who’s back history she has created in her head and she tells me who is married to who and what they do and what they hope for their children and builds up each house according to these histories. The man who travelled on the rural bus in Cambodia with chicken on the roof rack and who had to bribe officials for a visa. Heathrow have a writer in residence now collecting stories and observations . I noticed from an article in the Guardian this morning that a woman has set herself up as a gatherer of stories at a bus station in London.

Anywhere where people have to wait and have time to talk is likely to throw up stories and the strange thing is how many ordinary people are eager to tell you stories from their life if you ask them the right questions and are prepared to listen. I am nosy, I like most people and I am interested in what makes people tick and I am never surprised by how much of the internal mechanism that drives that tick people are willing share with you. The American Story Corp project is an attempt to make recordings of people just talking about some aspect of their life. The are all going to make up a huge oral history archive for the nation. It’s worth a look at some of the stories, I have over the past couple of years listened to them on a regular basis and they have always made me revisit the concept that there is no such thing as an ordinary man or woman.

Speaking of which ,the furore about the South African athlete, Castor Semanya, is causing the ether to overheat. Is she, isn’t she? What she definitely is, is an eighteen years old having to cope with the most mishandled and public of humiliations about the nature of her sexuality. There is no doubt she was brought up as a girl, believes herself to be a girl and was doing nothing wrong in running a superb race as a woman at the World Athletics championship. What ever the outcome, we are told this is a matter of examining an extremely complex set of bio-medical variables that can be interpreted differently according to which scientist you choose to consult. So ok, let’s make a definite ruling about what is male or female so that no-one can have an unfair advantage of their extraordinary genetic make-up (in the sense of not ordinary). Perhaps Usain Bolt has been born with super fast twitch muscle tissue hence his great speed, should he therefore be seen as too ‘genetically enhanced by nature’ to be allowed to compete against other athletes who don’t have this genetic make-up? Michael Phelps, due to his extra ordinary arm reach and build gifted by nature can swim faster than others, is this fair? Ethiopian athletes born at altitude and living at altitude have a greater advantage in distance events, should they be seen as too advantaged by nature to compete. From my reading of the medical opinions that have been flying about, it seems that having ovaries, a womb and female chromosomes is not enough to say you are a woman, giving birth may not be enough to say your are a woman. How many women out there can produce a medical certificate to prove their feminine gender, a birth certificate apparently doesn’t count. Thinking back, how many of you out there as parents were asked to prove your child’s gender when registering their birth? No one asked me to prove my child was a girl, the authorities just presume we 'lay' people know the difference but apparently gender is such a complicated thing that it takes weeks of complicated tests and expert opinion on those results to determine it, yet any Tom, Dick or Harry parent can blithely register their child as male or female without consulting experts beyond the local midwife or doctor who is nowhere near qualified to assign a gender to a child on anything but the crudest of examinations ( penis, no penis). Perhaps therefore there are more people wandering around who have been incorrectly gender assigned than is ever discovered or who themselves never suspect they are anything else other than the gender their parents so blithely assigned them.

In the other gender direction I once went on an Arvon course with the late Archie Markham the wonderful Afro-Caribbean poet and writer. We kept in touch afterwards and he told me that in the sixties he had poems published in various ‘women only’ magazines using a female nom de plume, receiving once, he said, a letter from an editor saying how ‘her’ poem could only ever have been written by a woman as it so beautifully encapsulated the female experience. If you don’t know his work , here’s a link to just one of his poems I love.

On the ongoing subject of squirrels, their ubiquity is now reaching cult status because of that ground squirrel’s appearance on a couple's photograph in Canada. Now a friend has sent me a link to a Squirreliser site where you can paste that same squirrel into any photo you fancy.

It has been seen at The Last Supper, The Yalta Conference, with Obama, Putin, Ben Ladin. Squirrels don’t need this oxygen of publicity, dear reader, it will only serve to further their plans for world domination, while you are laughing you won’t notice them taking over.They are already starting blog wars.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Red Squirrels' fatal addiction

Re previous post's PS, here is a photograph sent to me by a friend taken at an eccentric B and B in an old manor house in Suffolk. It shows why red squirrels lost out to the grey, too busy playing cards.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Concrete Plinths, Poems and Lies, Glorious Lies

I went up to London yesterday to do some research at the National Gallery, take in the exhibition on concrete poetry at the ICA and hear two friends read there in the evening at the Ride the Word reading. I stood for sometime in Trafalgar Square looking at people looking at the latest person to go up on the fourth plinth, who looked back at the people looking at them. An hour is quite a long time on a plinth; there was a man up there with balloons promoting a children’s charity when I first arrived, who gave way to a man throwing T Shirt into the assembled onlookers to advertise a charity who works on projects in South African. I disappeared into the National Gallery and when I came out a while later there was a woman up there painting, complete with an easel. I listened to what people were saying, some thought it boring after a while, some thought it was turning into a charity plinth in which a sequence of charities could publicise their cause, others just seemed to like it and smile. I did eavesdrop on one conversation when an elderly lady enquired of her equally elderly friend why someone was up there. She seemed very pleased that the person was doing it for a charity and then said, “I wouldn’t like to think that I was looking at someone for nothing.”

Many tourists took endless photographs; some posed in such a way as to ensure they were in the picture along with the person on the plinth. I am sure families throughout the world will at some point be regailed with the slide show of ‘Our visit to London’ complete with and here is me smiling at the man who was holding balloons for charity on a plinth. Some people, probably Londoners, seemed to pass by in a hurry going somewhere but even they couldn’t resist a glance up to see who was up there and what they were doing. Driving past at night in a taxi I noticed it was a woman with a cello, floodlit to ensure she could be seen and there were still people crowded round looking. I wonder what those with the 3 or 4 am slot experience by way of audience, the charities must hope for a busy daytime slot, publicity is a little less in your face in the early hours. I didn’t get picked for the plinth for August and looking at the height I was relieved, but my name stays in for September so there is still time to be terrified and appalled at my decision to put my name in, in the first place. I have a charity in mind but also I have to admit I quite like the idea of being a nothing on a plinth or does nothing translate to exhibitionist. It is very complex this world of plinth art, all in the eye of the beholder or is it in the eye of the beheld?

The exhibition, Poor Old Tired Horse, at the ICA was interesting, a romp through some examples of 1960’s textual art/poetry up to the present day. I have a trouble with text as art which is I am sure either the point or the negative point of it in that I immediately want to read it rather than experience it. I am driven to see in symbols some code I can access through the medium of reading. Circular text written on huge ‘sails’ of transparent plastic in the exhibition immediately had me doing the usual wordsearch approach and indeed there were words in there which I think was partly the point plus the slight feeling of nausea that creeps up on you when you try to follow the flow of the text. However I suppose we have become more sophisticated in our approach to what we can do with text and graphics given the computer software that can now allow anyone to manipulate text to produce visual effects of increasing complexity. We’ve come a long way since The Mouse’s Tale by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland and Apollinaire’s work. If you are interested in the interplay of text, poetry and graphics go and have a look at Peter Howard’s Low Probability of Raccoons website here you can see a dialogue (is that a cliched word these days, perhaps more a collision of poetry text, the visual, sound ,animation in fact the whole monty of the human sensual repertoire), although touch is missing but even that can be brought in now with the use of textural touch screen technology I am assured. Here is a link to one of his galleries, you need the latest version of Flash Player but you can download that safely if you go to home on this site and these little poems are interactive so enjoy, have a play with them.

There was a prose poem at the open mike at the reading I attended which involved the expulsion of a tape worm by a fictional character, complte with facial expressions to enhance the fictional experience, it was different I have to give the piece that. I must repeat my mantra three times daily, ‘I will be open to the new, I will be open to the new, I will be open to the new but I won’t totally suspend my critical faculties.’ There is a debate on the Magma Poetry Magazine blog about the default poem i.e a poem that relies on the ‘I’ narrative of personal experience. It seeks to challenge poets to sometimes get out of their comfort zone but then I wonder if a poet is comfortable with something whether they can in fact be producing a good poem, surely a little discomfort provides some of the bite I look for in a poem. Some poets return to similar themes over and over again of course but this does not necessarily make the poems they write ‘default’. I have often heard people saying that a poet needs to move on or they risk becoming a one trick pony but the skill is in how they do that trick. Poets with big issues to explore need room to maneuver and revisit. Default smacks of the automaton, the computer reverting to settings it has established for its own well being. I does not always mean the real I , it does not mean that the real I or the assumed I cannot lie, in fact good polished lies are extremely difficult because the art of a good lie is that it does not seem like a lie at all but something born of authentic experience. I’m all for great lies, superb lies, lies of such depth and colour that they overwhelm me in their own reality.

PS I sat with friends in St James' Park for sometime watching the geese, coots and ducks on the lake. Unfortunately the pelicans and cormorants didn't put in an appearance but a squirrel did. Of course it was merely a rat who had brought in a great Image Consultant who suggested the whole fluffy tail thing. It set about mugging tourists who unwisely saw this as a photo opportunity and some unwisely tempted it closer with offers of non existant food. They lived to survive the experience and kept all their fingers, but then the squirrel was well aware that in such an up market park savaging the tourists might lead to old Boris Johnson announcing a cull, savage but politically savvy , that's squirrels for you.