Friday, 30 January 2009

Doing Porridge with Galway Kinnell, Don Paterson and Baking as Therapy

The blogs are of course full of him, well at least those blogs written by those of us old enough to remember with a frisson of times past the beautiful John Martyn, and in the 70’s he did truly have something of the beautiful wild gypsy about him. I saw him perform live four or five times at various points during his career and my life, when his emotions were raw, when mine were, when we were thin and when we were both fat. He was always moving somewhere else, always looking for something different to say, he was always the Marmite music man, loved or hated, but he was never bland. Thank god for those that try to keep us from the anodyne, few of them around, sadly one less now.

The completed manuscript of the novel (with the definite article) is off with the agent now, and the final proofs of the poetry collection expected from the publisher. I now pace the floor in my head waiting. I think I have worn down the floorboards in a few synaptic corridors such that I can feel my way along the slight dip I have created in the dark, especially at 3am, a common time to meet other anxious poets and writers walking similar corridors. At 3 am I have become adept at peopling these corridors to make the to and fro less solitary, ‘an anxiety shared is an anxiety justified’ is my motto. I have bumped into several writers and poets of note, they tend not to recognise me of course but they are the sort of poet and writer who would tend not to notice anyone too much when in the throes of anxiety so I do not take offence and am more than happy to field the odd nod or brief moment of eye contact from them.

I heard Galway Kinnell read his poem Oatmeal at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival some years ago and I was happy to discover that he too found himself in the company of other poets when alone. Of course I find the word oatmeal chafes a little, porridge is surely not oatmeal, it seems a transatlantic bowdlerisation of the porridge I know and love. Oatmeal has a whiff of the nursery about it rather than the aroma of the solid gloop heart of dark cold mornings that the word porridge means. I have not been able to achieve the advanced art of noted poet conjuring as Kinnell has, the ability to create at will through the medium of a particular food group, I still find a small visitation of writers is the by-product of insomnia, cheese after 8pm and those early hours of low self-esteem, but nevertheless they do arrive. Emily Dickinson, brushes past me, her skirts taking up far more than her fair share of the corridor, head fixed on some point ahead, as if good deportment and a sense of the eternal are one in the same thing, she raises an eyebrow as I pace past her for the umpteenth time and that is enough to put my desire for some form of recognition in context. Soleiman Adel Guemar, who I heard read last autumn, wanders by and nods, enough for me to know that some have to be in fear of their lives, leave their country to write not simply spend time at a laptop in a cosy sitting room. Even J. K Rowling has flown by once, littering the floor with her rejection slips. I think Van Gogh may have stomped by mumbling about being in the wrong genre of corridor but muttering something about rejection and real turmoil not solely being reserved for those with pens. Strangely my solid no nonsense northern mother often rushes past on the way to or from some eternal kitchen where she cooks meat and potato pies and stews for all these anaemic looking writers who insist on peopling my head, she does not have to say anything she has the look reserved for the overly dramatic, those who need to get a grip and bake something or watch a little snooker.

I went to hear Don Paterson read in Cambridge on Tuesday, he read poems from a new collection yet to be published; it is always good to get a hint of what is to come. Interesting stuff, he also read some of the aphorisms from his book Best Thought, Worst Thought. The one that stuck in my head was this one,

The aphorism is a brief waste of time. The poem is a complete waste of time. The novel is a monumental waste of time.

I hereby resolve to try and do less mind pacing and bake more meat and potato pies.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Goals, Green Day, Daisies and Dublin

Friend DH appears out of the blue on the Facebook radar, a small comeback sonar ping currently over Dublin. I choose the ping with a purpose as DH has always been a poet interested in language, audio, music and poetry. I realise I have created a possible acronym there by accident, LAMP. I hate acronyms, I once had to sit through a whole morning of SMART target setting, specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-related. I did a little drifting off now and then and ended up with Supercilious, Managerial, Actuarial, Regimented, Tosh scribbled in my notebook. I think I was having one of my cynical days triggered probably by the speaker referring to all feelings as soft data and therefore not measurable and very unreliable for the purposes of accessing whether a target has been achieved.

Of course I am aware that such approaches do have their place if sensitively applied to the human condition. I suppose I even do a version of this when trying to think about personal goals but the word goal sounds so back of the net, success or failure I have a tendency to dribble around the pitch a little too much, look at the crowd, examine the daisies growing in midfield, wonder if the ref is going to blow for time up, worry about the other players on the pitch and brood over whether they need a goal to bolster their position in the team more than me. I am probably just too English, too polite, too much the person who queues in an orderly fashion to feel comfortable with the word winner. Even achiever feels rather a bolshy word sometimes.

To achieve, to realise, to attain is very good, it validates you as a human being everyone should have their fair share of achieving. The child who never experiences achieving something and never sees that achievement being recognised by others will always have to work that bit harder as an adult to find that validation but the big proviso is of course how you go about it. No-one has to be a loser even if someone is a winner but unfortunately some games we play seem to demand measurable outcomes. There is that cringe making moment I have seen when the plucky gallant losers are cheered for taking part, the speech about ‘it is the taking apart that is important not the winning’. As the member of a school netball team that lost every match we ever played and always got the wooden spoon at tournaments, trying to smile through the ‘it’s good just to take part’ speeches, I came to realise that taking part is only good if you feel you have some hope of winning in the future, taking part and losing all the time basically sucked. This may be why I spend so much time looking at the daisies on the pitch, I created my own version of winning that makes the just taking part speech convincing. I may, of course be indulging in making an art form out of excuses created for not achieving goals but I can live with that, I like daisies. Oh you think you do, says the inner winner who sounds remarkably like the PE Teacher who took over from our old one at school who used to be so consoling about our constant failure. The new PE Teacher had trials for new and better players, got us new netball skirts, ousted the fat, slow, dim and unfit and managed to win a tournament. We, the old guard, unchosen, slow and in threadbare netball skirts took to smoking in the small copse in the school grounds, sitting on damp fallen logs and exchanging stories of other areas of perceived failure; boys, parental expectations, unravelling the mysteries of tampon insertion if you went by the instructions in the box, getting into X rated films, auditions for the part of Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Joan of Arc in joint productions with the boys school and always being asked to help out with scenery or props, being secretly fond of the Beatles when the Rolling Stones were seen as so much more riskier and dangerous. I gained more from those times in the copse than I ever would have from winning at the Under Fourteen, County Netball Tournament. It is in retrospect one of those coming of age films but with lots of Embassy Fags and discussions about whether you could get piles if you sit on damp logs for long enough . As I think about it that song by Green Day keeps running through my head like a soundtrack, 'something unpredictable but in the end is right'. No need to speak to the therapist and the Life Coach about my angst about scoring goals now, much cheaper to write it through in a blog.

Here is Dublin friend DH's (who I would not dare place in any acronymed genre) interesting website full of poems, sound and visuals. I liked Flock state. He has quite a following I am told. It runs on Quicktime I believe so if nothing happens when you click on the link consider humble pardons proffered .

Sunday, 18 January 2009

New Times, New Signs and Pacific Poetry Time

We seem to have had a lot of dying and a lot of living going on this past week, notwithstanding the situation in Gaza. The painter Andrew Wyeth, Patrick MacGoohan, John Mortimer, Mick Imlach, Tony Hart and then we have 155 passengers on that plane crash on the Hudson River in New York living against what must be , if calculated, enormous odds. How do you live your life after walking away from something that should have killed you and probably others on the ground? As everyone lived you don’t even have to contend with survivors’ guilt just with the sheer gift of being given your life. A quirk of fate, an act of pure chance, divine intervention, a lucky outcome of the pilot's skill and experience and the weather conditions etc has resulted in a Death 0 Life 155 score line in this particular situation. Here is your life, to do with as you wish. Others die; too young, too terribly, too unnecessarily, too violently or because it is the end of their time but then something happens that decrees that you have more time.
I wonder if sometimes we could just wake up once or twice in a week and have some sense of what those passengers may feel now, elation that we are still here, that we have more time gifted to us. I understand how depression totally robs you of the capacity to feel that but I also know that I don’t celebrate the fact that I have another day to live enough…even if the weather is foul, I’m cold, pissed off about something at work, worrying about the electricity bill, the odd noise the car is making, are the rewrites ok, did I send them off too prematurely to the agent, all those myriad of things that clog up my brain would it all be just a little better, a little more manageable, a little more proportionate, if for a split second I engaged more with that sense of awe at unexpectedly being given another day.
I am beginning to sound like ’Thought for the Day’ or Patience Strong here. An American friend who lives in New York tells me that there is almost no news apart from this crash. It is the immense feel-good factor Americans yearn for at present. Coupled with a new presidency it is the totem of ‘we can do this’, we can pull ourselves out of the economic mire, we can make America a country that other nations round the world don’t revile or at best remain deeply suspicious of. I wouldn’t be surprised if the pilot, Captain Sullenberger, is not up on that platform at the inauguration smiling behind Obama. New times need new signs, a skinny black man from Chicago, a fifty something pilot from California and a flock of geese in perfect formation created them.

PS. You will note that I have discovered why I had such a rap across the knuckles from an employee of the Poetry Society (see Pinda’s comments on previous post) for blogging about Jen Hadfield winning the T S Eliot Award last week apparently before the winner was actually announced. It was to do with the clock on the blog which from the outset I have never taken much notice of. It seems I was set to Pacific Time so that the time of the blog appeared to be eight hours behind GM time. I have now corrected this and am safely ensconced in my own time zone and so can no longer appear to be psychic or have pre-cognition of anything officially poetical. I can’t say that I felt any different blogging in Pacific Time not even the scent of the odd orchid lei drifting across the keyboard. It of course may have lead you, dear reader, to think that I led a strange life posting at the oddest of hours, now you will discover I sadly live life by an ordinary pedestrian clock set to the rhythms of an ordinary pedestrian life.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Hurray for Jen Hadfield and Motown.

So hurray for Jen Hadfield, love her work, love the collection she won the T S Eliot prize with. Knew back in June when I blogged about Nigh-No-Place that this was something special, a crafted collection that still manages the joy of appearing to be just thought of, fresh and tumbling from the lips. Are prizes elitist, only for a special inner sanctum of poets who haunt the corridors of literary festivals and academia, as some would have us believe? I don’t know but what I do know is that Jen doesn’t fall into that category and hell, like most poets the money is important, it buys time to write and nurturing rare talent should not come cheap. So I am happy Jen won from amongst a very strong field of superb collections and I shall do a small dance round my kitchen to a Motown song to celebrate. Motown is celebrating its birthday today so a double cause to shake the crockery and rattle the pepper mill a little by an unleashed jig with some cool moves thrown in for good measure to Marvin and Tammi. I also finished the novel rewrites yesterday so triple cause to bop. Any excuse really.

Despite my pleasure about Jen Hadfield's win I was sadden to hear about the death of Mick Imlah, he was a fine poet and his loss makes the world of poetry a little smaller, a little lessened.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Darwin and Gaza

I am reading the letters between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and am finding much there to think about, both about the art of writing and about how life and art interact. Elizabeth Bishop took twenty-five years to finish her poem The Moose, she took her time, each word needing to be absolutely authentic and the right one. Robert Lowell on the other hand was notorious for revising and constantly changing already published poems, sometimes driven by his manic self, sometimes for other reasons. I have been going through the proofs of my collection to be published in April and I can feel Elizabeth and Robert staring over my shoulder. ‘That poem’s nowhere near ready’, says Elizabeth, ‘Give it more time a few more years and then you may see if it’s worth the ink, most poems aren’t’. Robert over the other shoulder mutters, ‘You could change it now, you could change it later, everything changes, poems that are published are not sacrosanct, next week, next month, next year, you may feel differently.’ Between the two of them I could just scream, ‘ So why bother at all’ And then of course there would be a sharp intake of breath and they would both shake their heads and they would tell me that if I didn’t know the answer to that then I would be best not writing at all.

Their letters are stuffed full of long descriptions, an obsession with collecting detail, of observing the minutiae of life. Both these poets seemed to be compulsive collectors of names of birds, names of fish and flowers, words for a sky, the look of the floor of a half built house. Below is Elizabeth Bishop’s memorial poem for Lowell. She always joked with him that he would write her epitaph as she was older than him but life will not be bidden. His habit of constantly changing and revising poems is threaded through the poem. Death is seen by Bishop as the last unchanging state, death seals all creativity.

New Haven
In memoriam Robert Lowell

I can make out the rigging of a schooner
a mile off; I can count
the new cones on the spruce. It is so still
the pale bay wears a milky skin; the sky
no clouds except for one long, carded horse's tail.

The islands haven't shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have
--drifting, in a dreamy sort of way,
a little north, a little south, or sidewise,
and that they're free within the blue frontiers of bay.

This month, our favorite one is full of flowers:
Buttercups, Red Clover, Purple Vetch,
Hackweed still burning, Daisies pied, Eyebright,
the Fragrant Bedstraw's incandescent stars,
and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight.

The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow's five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.

Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first "discovered girls"
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had "such fun," you said, that classic summer.
("Fun"--it always seemed to leave you at a loss...)

You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue...And now--you've left
for good. You can't derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won't change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.

Elizabeth Bishop

The fighting in Gaza continues to increase, in order to preserve life Israel says it is forced to take life ( or destroy strategic military targets which unfortumately necessitates the taking of life, sometimes of innocents). 2009 seems to have started badly. Two hundred years since Darwin was born, the man who painstakingly examined man’s evolution, how we emerged from the slime and became the dominant species. The prime objective of evolution is survival of the fittest, the demand that the weak, the defenseless, those unable to defend themselves will eventually perish for the greater good, the betterment of the gene pool. Darwin’s theory is still painfully true today. Whichever side has right on its side is immaterial, it will be the children, the old, the sick who will suffer. Infra structure such as power and water supplies destroyed, will inevitably lead to terrible hardship and disease. Evolutionary theory doesn’t make room for morality and compassion, if those with the guns, the tanks and the rockets have the greatest chance of survival I wonder what the gene pool will evolve into in the centuries to come, that it survives at all may be in question. Justification always exists or can be manufactured for all actions taken by individuals, groups, communities or governments. Using the words of Bishop's last line, the words won’t change and the sad friends, the dead, those innocents who suffer, can no longer change themselves, the situation or anything that might make life a little better, that opportunity has been denied them forever.