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.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

The Continuing Psychopathy of Grey Squirrels, Stuffed Things and Northumberland Sojourn

Just a brief post having just arrived back from a stay in Northumberland. Saw daughter and admired her new house which has a great view across the council housing to the magnificent Weardale hills and valleys. Also admired her old and faithful motorbike and then off we went to the coast along with my cousin to enjoy the delights of the Northumberland coast and environs. Photographs above just give a flavour of what took my fancy, beaches, castles ( ruined and restored)and woods. A little museum in Seahouses visited during a downpour was full of knots, old fishing nets, lamps, dummies, tableaux and stuffed things. It had a small sink full of seawater that contained a few shells and a sad looking urchin which they described as a 'touching pool'. I did not feel it invited me to touch anything it contained, especially as the smell of something old and oceanic hung around it. I love these little museums that spring up , often in seaside resorts, they have a flavour of the slightly mad and eccentric about them. The waxwork museum in Great Yarmouth is a real contender for oddest seaside 'museum'/attraction ( friend and fellow poet Anne Berkeley has a great poem about this particular museum in her new collection Men from Praga) but the pencil museum at Keswick could give it a run for its money, along with the museum of wheelbarrows I only saw advertised but alas had no time to visit in the States, but the pictures advertising it alone were worth a look.

Stuffing things was mostly a Victorian and Edwardian hobby and there seemed a few birds and animals in this museum in Seahouses that had seen better days and were not a total triumph of the taxidermists art. The inside of a fisherman's cottage tableau, complete with roaring fire, pot dogs and stuffed pets had a audio play attached which seemed to be acted out by people at gun-point as they sounded a little stiff to say the least. This little 'play' seemed to want to stick in as many Northumbrian words as possible in order to educate the listener in the accent and terminology. This did not make for great realistic dialogue and when Grannie dummy offered to make small boy dummy 'a stoatie to tak' wi yer on the boat'. I thought I was in a remake of 'When the Boat Comes In'.

I also found a poster that serves to confirm my views on the grey squirrel. Just as the old red squirrel tries to re-establish a toe-hold somewhere in his native forests along comes the grey to try and wipe them out. No doubt they have secret germ warfare establishments deep in the heart of Sherwood forest manufacturing this pox and soon weapons of mass destruction will follow.

Found this 'Pieta' ( see above photos) in Alnwick cemetery. I have always been fascinated by this particular religious pose. Sometimes it is called Lamentations but usually this has other figures surrounding the central figure of Mary cradling the body of her son. I saw the Sam Taylor-Wood's 'Pieta', an installation video, some years ago at the Heywood Gallery. It was projected onto a huge screen and you could see every muscles straining in her neck and arms to hold up the body (played by Richard Downey Jnr ). It made my shoulders ache just watching it and the strength necessary to hold up a body in such a manner was brought literally into sharp focus. Since then this particular pose, represented in sculpture by many different artists, has always held a fascination for me. The mother holding her dead child is the ultimate grief, the worst nightmare and to do so after watching them die slowly in a barbaric form of torture makes the action even more horrific and grief laden. In the Michaelangelo Pieta, the most famous, Mary appears very young and her face passive as if in resignation. There is some who suggest that Michaelangelo saw this as a sculpture of Mary cradling the infant Jesus but what we see is the future that she can see unfolding for her child as she cradles him. Perhaps he did want to convey resignation and of course it was long before the time when total realism was seen as part of the artist's brief and he was still mixing the classical form with the new found freedoms of expression the Rennaissance had opened to the artist. However, the small wilted bunch of flowers tucked under the Virgin Mary's arm in the photograph of the Alnwick Pieta above says a little more about grief than a stone expression even carved by a master of the art could ever hope to.