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.

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