Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Spirit Bears, Clear-Cutting and Bed Nesting

So the snow hasn't gone away, it is now rather like a guest that outstays its welcome, although just turning out the lights and going to bed doesn't seem to make it disappear as it does the odd guest. Going to bed is of course an option which I find appealing especially in winter. I am very good at nesting in my bed surrounded by all the detritus of what constitutes early winter bed upgrading. Cosy over sized pyjamas and industrial strength bed socks for the coldest of feet (tick), Portable TV (tick), laptop(tick), good book(tick), DVD box set of some ilk that you always meant to get through (tick), cup of hot chocolate with mini marshmallows on top (tick), biscuits of all shapes and sizes and dunkability (tick), wind, snow, sub zero temperatures, icy rain outside (tick), microwave.....no that would be going a bit too far although I do know someone who has a microwave in the bedroom specifically for pot noodles and ready meals but he is way past nesting and more into total hibernation with the odd surface for food and the toilet. However come to think of it the microwave doesn't leave the bedroom and migrate back to the kitchen in Spring. So may I wish you the best of Christmas and the greatest of years in 2011 dear reader.

Yesterday I sent a copy of a Christmas bear story to someone in Canada. I wrote this story because the arrival of some singing Canadians and some work with a small boy coincided. The small boy has come to like bears and trees and worries about them both. The bits that are personal to him I have edited out of course but I have hopefully retained some of those ideas and images we arrived at together. We researched Canadian bears and clear cutting by the logging industry in Canada. Have a look at this space satellite photograph of just one area in British Columbia and you may get some idea of what it can mean in real terms to an environment. Some progress has been made between the logging industry in Canada and the environmental lobby but it is still an uphill struggle. We found a story about the Kermode Bears called 'Spirit Bears' by the Native Americans in British Columbia due to their white colouring. They are totally unique, it is believed only five hundred of them still exist in the wild and they are now in danger from an oil pipeline that is to skirt the B.C. rainforest they inhabit. The risk of a major oil spill is minimal and highly unlikely says one smug oil executive, perhaps the events in the Gulf of Mexico may have made him just a little more circumspect.Here is the news story on Youtube if you want to see it
However the brown bear won out as the main characters of the story. The boy felt the bears should be ordinary yet extraordinary bears. Stories written for and with children have such a responsibility not to lose the magic of how a child sees. Hopefully something of that magic remains. If you would like to read it let me know and if I think you aren't one of those spammers that keeps leaving anonymous comments on the blog that I have to reject I'll send you a link to where you can read it on my Dropbox public folder. I have just deleted comments from someone linking to a black girl escort agency, someone to do with concrete ( yes truly someone singing the praises of decorative concrete in the garden) and a number of others who look extremely shady. So ask if you are not shady and the link may be opened unto you.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Snow; Graphic and Poetic

So dear reader it has snowed, in some places more than others, the offering of snow this way has been meagre but some have made huge fattened white bullocks of snow offerings, snow that bellows at you through the windows and through the television screen. I went to the American Poetry Foundation to mull over snow as I was in search of a Wallace Steven’s poem I recall, and because the Americans know about snow , deep and cold. It is often dumped on the Eastern seaboard and other places regular as annual clockwork, so the Americans, and I have to add, the Canadians know their snow, they can contemplate it without surprise. Here is the Steven’s poem, The Snow Man, beautiful, crisp and all one long sentence. Perhaps the English are more uptight about punctuation than the American poets but that is probably a sweeping generalisation that you can throw back in my face like a huge snowball round a brick.

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

That last stanza is worth a few rail disruptions alone, but then I haven’t been that disrupted by the weather so I can say that. I have slithered and slid across some icy back roads in the fens though, deep dykes on both sides tend to keep you focused but snow here has only amounted to a dusting of icing sugar on dark rich Christmas pudding soil in the hinterlands of the fens.
No schools shut but then elsewhere all those children are shaking the shackles free for a while

Snow Day

by Billy Collins

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.

In a while, I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,
and I will shake a laden branch
sending a cold shower down on us both.

But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news

that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed.
the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with—some will be delighted to hear—

the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.

So this is where the children hide all day,
These are the nests where they letter and draw,
where they put on their bright miniature jackets,
all darting and climbing and sliding,
all but the few girls whispering by the fence.

And now I am listening hard
in the grandiose silence of the snow,
trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,
what riot is afoot,
which small queen is about to be brought down.

Then browsing snow in these American archives I found Charles Tomlinson, an English poet who has never quite had the recognition here that he deserves I think. He is in The Bristish Poetry Archives but I prefer the selection of his poems they have available on the American Foundation site. He is also a painter and his work is full of visual images and landscapes as well as being deeply influenced by American poets. His poem Snow Signs resonates with his understanding and close observation of landscape and the image of the ‘simplification of the snow’ is for me absolutely spot on.

Snow Signs

by Charles Tomlinson

They say it is waiting for more, the snow
Shrunk up to the shadow-line of walls
In an arctic smouldering, an unclean salt,
And will not go until the frost returns
Sharpening the stars, and the fresh snow falls
Piling its drifts in scallops, furls. I say
Snow has left its own white geometry
To measure out for the eye the way
The land may lie where a too cursory reading
Discovers only dip and incline leading
To incline, dip, and misses the fortuitous
Full variety a hillside spreads for us:
It is written here in sign and exclamation,
Touched-in contour and chalk-followed fold,
Lines and circles finding their completion
In figures less certain, figures that yet take hold
On features that would stay hidden but for them:
Walking, we waken these at every turn,
Waken ourselves, so that our walking seems
To rouse some massive sleeper out of winter dreams
Whose stretching startles the whole land into life,
As if it were us the cold, keen signs were seeking
To pleasure and remeasure, repossess
With a sense in the gathered coldness of heat and height.
Well, if it's for more the snow is waiting
To claim back into disguisal overnight,
As though it were promising a protection
From all it has transfigured, scored and bared,
Now we shall know the force of what resurrection
Outwaits the simplification of the snow.

So I went from that, following footsteps in the snow, to a Kenneth Patchen poem from the forties that a graphic novelist had taken and run with as part of the American Poetry Foundation's project called The Poem as Comic Strip. This, after looking through the various responses seems a great project, I would like to let some British graphic novelists loose on a few poems and see what comes out of it. Not to self must talk to the Boo ( Beloved Only Offspring) who is both a writer and comic book illustrator about this). We have talked now and again about doing a collaboration as we have done another project together quite successfully. There is a graphic novel of The Wasteland by the way if anyone is interested by Martin Rowson

The Snow Is Deep on the Ground

by Kenneth Patchen

The snow is deep on the ground.
Always the light falls
Softly down on the hair of my belovèd.

This is a good world.
The war has failed.
God shall not forget us.
Who made the snow waits where love is.

Only a few go mad.
The sky moves in its whiteness
Like the withered hand of an old king.
God shall not forget us.
Who made the sky knows of our love.

The snow is beautiful on the ground.
And always the lights of heaven glow
Softly down on the hair of my belovèd.

If you want to see the comic strip version by Ron Rege here is the link

By way of an after thought here is Fiona Shaw reading a tiny section from the Wasteland, she is a bit like Marmite , some like her, others hate her take on the Wasteland, personally I quite like the humanity she brings to it.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Sunday and All Next Week

Sorry to have been incommunicado dear reader. I have been trying to write 50,000 words of a second novel in a month, an arbitrary target I know but I find deadlines so irritating I tend to try and meet them just to prove who's in control, the deadline or me. Of course it is simply a mind game as I have set the deadline in the first place ( well more or less I registered for the worldwide National Novel Writing Month) where the foolhardy are encouraged to write a whole novel in a month or 50,000 words.

I have much to talk about which may or may not interest you when I come back to the blog planet, Aldeburgh Festival, the prose poem, a night spent at Little Gidding, a performance of Journey’s End, a night spent listening to M R James ghost stories by candlelight in an 11th century Manor house near here,. Treat this as one of those trailers you used to get before films, Sunday and all next week. Trailers now seem more general rather than time specific as if we need weeks, even months to get whipped into buying a ticket for the show by the hype.

In the meantime if you want to read a review I wrote about Phantom Noise by Brian Turner you can find it here

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Letters, Sonnets, Out of Body Experiences and Jumping the Synaptic Tracks

So long time, no blog reader. Busy, busy writing, reading, working, sleeping, walking, having visitors.

My friend from Philadelphia, S, came to stay whilst she visited her elderly mother and celebrated her 95th birthday (they build them to last in the fens). One evening I unearthed the sheaf of letters she has written to me in the 32 years she has lived in the States. We in fact only knew each other for a little over two years before she found love with a lovely American and moved stateside. She has an equally big pile of my letters back at home. Strangely she felt re-reading them wouldn’t feel right and I think I would feel the same if she gave me my letters. Our younger selves, our lives, up and downs were all poured into these letters. Things and people we have long forgotten or consigned to some box way back in the storage depot of our brains are held in blue biro. She always wrote either on airmail paper, that tissue bordered in white, red and blue or on yellow lined legal notepad paper. The physicality of them so easily fixed in the brain, the handwriting hardly changed and the English spellings doggedly refusing to give way to color or center.

What is it about our own old letters that appeals and yet at the same time seems dangerous, I have to admit to hanging onto a number of old love letters but never reading them. Maybe it is their fixed nature, the moment of writing pinned to the paper for all time or until they fade or are destroyed. Barthes often talks about photographs in this way, a moment pinned like a butterfly for constant re-examination. Letters have this same quality but words are somehow different. A photograph is I know never totally objective but certain things are available to every eye. A letter contains a striving for conversation; a striving for the creation of a dialogue that can only be one sided. Even a response from the recipient is delayed and often changed by the passage of time it takes for it to materialise as an answer. Is a personal letter a monologue to an audience of one whose response you invite or predict from past knowledge? Placing some things on paper can quantify and qualify experience, words becoming not the butterfly itself but the pins which try to hold it down in the cabinet of curiosities.

That’s why those Christmas summary letters that some send you , whilst being welcome as news about someone can also jar as you know you are not the sole audience. This person did not sit down and write this solely for me, they did not take time, effort, or go through the whole physical experience of writing and posting a letter just for me.

I have just re-read some of Elizabeth Bishop’s and Robert Lowell’s letters to each other and sometimes in them I detect that they too were writing for an audience bigger than one, for posterity or whatever they saw as passing for that.

Do we write a poem for an audience of one, a sole recipient or are they those Christmas round robin missals? Are or should we write with an audience or reader in mind at all? Are poems a letter to ourselves that we allow others to be privy to in some game we play with our own mind set that avoids the question of readership altogether? Would we really like to be Emily Dickinson and place them in a trunk for no-one or posterity, which ever is the first, to give them credence?

As I read at the Toddington Poetry Society this week to a lovely audience I did at one point have one of those out of body experiences that I am sure other poets have ( or if they do I’d be interested to hear from them as it may highlight that this is not some peculiarity of my own). The experience in brief is that moment when you find yourself standing at the back of the audience watching yourself read your poem and being acutely aware of the moment, the feeling, the whole physical process that brought that poem here to this place, at this time and coming out of your mouth. This is not something to do just with very personal ‘memoir poems’. In this case it was a poem that had sprung from one of those synaptic connections that happen in a blink of an eye that you manage to catch before it bleeds away into the brain or the ether. A chance conversation lurching into something I was reading and the poem whilst not written had some private and individual moment of fertilisation.

At the reading I had one of those, ‘Where do you get the ideas for your poems from?’questions. This openness to those moments when two synaptic pathways in the brain suddenly jump their own track and make a third, is maybe the only true answer I can give. Even if writing about something you think is heavily focused on one thing the best poems have some element of something other weaving into it.

I have just been reading Don Paterson’s article in the Guardian about Shakespeare’s sonnet and have thought that form can sometimes be the way we are made to discipline ourselves to be open to the something other. It makes us observe and focus in such a precise way that rather than closing ourselves down to other thoughts it pushes us to engage with them via its very structure thus opening up those serendipity synaptic cross overs.

I have a feeling Shakespeare , being a genius, was able to engineer those crossovers at will and yet his social context alone made him have to write one thing in terms of another, love for another man, how he felt about women, politics etc. This conceptual juggling in order to stay this side of the law and public condemnation must have led him into areas he may not otherwise have gone. The Dark Lady of the sonnet may be one person, several people, a concept, and several concepts all at once but in the end it is the reader’s experience of the poem that counts. Some would get more if they take it apart, strive for the minutiae of meaning ; others are happy without that knowledge to exalt in the language and what it means to them alone. Here’s a link to a website that has all of Shakespeare’s sonnets with commentaries ( which I can’t necessarily vouch for as insightful) if you want to look some of them up.

I started my reading at Toddington with something Dylan Thomas wrote in 1961 in his Poetic Manifesto which always gives me pause for thought.

‘You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick.... You're back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps... so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.’

Shakespeare knew all about holes and gaps. He must also have had those out of body experiences standing at the back of the Globe listening to himself coming out of another’s mouth.

Friday, 3 September 2010

What Matters in Poetry, the Poems, the Poet or the Times in Which we Live?

Have had an invite to a friends' launch which I hope to attend, I know she reads this blog so it is belt and braces so she knows I am coming if I can. The book Second Exile by Jane Kirwan and Ales Machacek is out with Rockingham Press, I'll review it here as I know this is going to be a fascinating read, can't wait to get my hands on a copy.This promises to be a really important book, reminding us that what we are and what we may become is woven into the narrative of where we have been and what we have experienced. This may seem blindingly obvious but sometimes we forget that individual personal histories are what creates History with a capital H. Poetry pundits are always harping on about going from the particular to the universal and never is that so important as when particular lives become woven into the fabric of important moments in history.

Jacqueline Saphra came up with a thoughtful blog post about Middle Aged Women Poets to which I responded on Facebook but thought it would be useful to post it on the blog here as well
I agree that MAWPs (Middle Aged Women Poets) are coming in for a lot of stick at the moment. I, like you, work on the presumption that a poem about anything should be judged on its own merits not its choice of subject matter or the age and gender of the poet just as I would expect it not to be judged on the basis of ethnic origin of the writer. I am absolutely in favour of encouraging anyone to write poetry but it feels offensive when my very existence as a MAWP is seen as one of the reasons that poetry is seen as a 'twee' exclusive 'coffee-morning club’ that makes poetry less accessible and meaningful to others.

There are indeed a great many of us in workshops, audiences, buying in bookshops, reading poetry, writing it etc. If all women between the ages of 40 and say 65 withdrew from all participation in anything poetical would this then kick start a great renaissance of writing and reading poetry amongst other members of society and allow younger talented poets to gain more recognition and rejuvenate and refresh the art. I tend to think not but then I would wouldn't I? And what happens when the current brilliant generation of younger poets hit middle-age, does their talent fade into the ether as they become reduced to writing about all those events and situations that becoming older presents? Are these no longer opportunities to explore what it means to explore the full story of what it means to be human but obstacles to be steered around at all costs?

In the end all I can do each time I stare at a blank page is try and write what I hope will be the best poem I can and let that speak for me. If the voice happens to be that of a woman's and middle-aged it doesn't automatically negate or belittle what is being said or drown out the voice of others. However I refuse to be paranoid I think most have no problem with MAWPs and those that do have a problem are probably right to stir up the waters to ensure we never become self satisfied or smug or just plain entrenched in the 'Well it has always been like this' school of thought. It wasn't that long ago when the male domination of all poetry was being railed against and questioning any sense of the status quo disempowering others can only be good.

Interestingly when I did a Google image search just keying in ‘middle aged woman poet’ the first image offered was the one above of Michael Palin. I have to say I don’t know any poet, male or female, that looks like that.

I am busy trying to sort out the synopsis of my novel, which has changed enormously since its first draft and now even has a change of name to match. I will be sending it out soon onto the mean streets of publishing, in her new dress and high heels. I hope I have given it enough to survive out there; I will tuck a can of mace into her stocking top just in case. Strangely, like cars and boats this novel feels like a she.

By the way the answer to my own question that heads this post? Everything matters, every single atom, every single moment.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Sarah Waters and Larkin and Unreliable Narrators. Do We Really Know What Truth Is?

I am off to the North East on Wednesday (burglars please note) and am reviewing what to take with me to read. I am two thirds of the way through Sarah Waters latest The Little Stranger which is a post second world war quasi ghost story. It has been discussed in the Guardian over the past four weeks but I have tried not to read the comments and write ups in order to come at the book without preconceptions. One thing that strikes me forcefully is the choice of era; the time when post Second World War everything was changing, the NHS was being formed and council houses rising at a rate of knots. I suppose I was a child that arrived in 1951 in time to benefit from that first hurrah of Labour when the social fabric seemed to be changing, gaining just a tad more texture.My brother who is nine years older bore the full brunt of expectations. Better health, better education raised the bar and becoming successful was just a tad more achievable and thus the pressure to do the high jump over this bar grew. This was a time when many parents who had been born at the end of the depression aspired to get out of pits and factories, aspired better fro their children and the lower middle class opened its arms to them. Education as a means to escape the working class was just a little more available and a grammar school place augured well for something that would set you up in the middle classes for life. A steady job with a pension seemed more open to those who could pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Even my parents who, whilst economically, would be labelled as lower middle class, by the time I was born contemplated the education of a daughter with slightly more enthusiasm as a means of social mobility and white collar nirvana.

Sarah Water’s book explores the flux in social class that was happening around that time in the late 1940s. The class system was not so much under attack as being sniped at from the higher moral ground of the Bevanites. She mirrors this class system with the fortunes of an old country house and the family that inhabit it in Warwickshire. The house seems to be falling about the ‘toff’ family's ears and the war injured emotionally fargile eldest son and the jolly hockey sticks sexually confused (I had a taste of freedom in the Wrens) daughter are sucked into servicing the needs of the house whilst the mother retreats gradually into the old times when clothes, life, everything was so much better, easier and predictable.

Into this tale of social class is weaved happenings which you can choose to explain away using a mix of cod psychology and objective/scientific reasoning or can take as a sign of things emanating from some dark and sinister ghostly presence or a poltergeist. The narrator, the doctor, working class boy made good by the sacrifice of parents from the servant classes is interesting. He is continually describing things in other terms making leaps of interpretation or connection. He describes behaviour of the daughter or the son of the house in quite minute observational detail and then adds the rider of ‘it is as if…’ then goes on to some explanatory planet where everything always seems as if it is something else.

The unreliable narrator, as I think the doctor is in Sarah Water’s book, is I think an interesting phenomenon. Sometimes you have to woo your readers into trusting the narrator as being objective and then gradually throw in small seeds of doubt about their viewpoint being slightly, if not totally, skewed and altered by their own needs and beliefs. I was pondering this and thinking how it might apply to the ‘voice’ in poetry. So often poetry is seen as either truly autobiographical, especially in its more ‘confessional’ mode. However more and more we come to accept that an assumed voice might be taken on by the poet. I am racking my brains to think of poems where the deliberate unreliable narrator voice is used (suggestions welcome). Where is a poem written in a first person voice and then the reader becomes aware that the voice is totally or waveringly unreliable?

Of course there is the surrealist approach when what happens in the poem is obviously taking us via another kind of reality but are there poems where the I voice has time even in a short poem to draw us in as speaking some truth (not necessarily factual truth) and then is discovered by the end or on re-reading to be viewing that ‘truth’ from an unreliable angle. Maybe it is not useful to think of the point of view in poetry and reliable and unreliable narrators but it is something I am exploring at present. Of course in older works such as The Iliad or The Canterbury Tales the ‘story’ nature of the work allows the reader to explore point of view. However if I took for instance at a modern poem such as Mr Bleaney by Larkin the POV may become important. Because we know Larkin, we probably have things we feel about him as a person stored away in our head we tend to see this as almost autobiographical or Larkin imagining himself as the next tenant of Mr Bleaney’s room. Larkin as the poet brings with it a tremendous baggage that it is sometimes difficult not to haulinto the poem. However nowhere in this poem are we told whether the narrator is male or female for instance, we tend to arrive at the gender from knowing who the poet is and maybe assumptions that only a man would smoke or this landlady would only take in male lodgers. The narrator tells us things about Mr Bleaney that he gleans from the landlady and from the room but what he or she chooses to tell us are perhaps only those things that speak to the narrators own feelings of alienation and ennui with life. He may only be choosing to tell us those things about Mr Bleaney that confirm or lead us to the final question of the poem, do we measure ourselves by our surroundings (social and physical). Perhaps the narrator does not tell us anything about Mr Bleaney that would not speak to that question or prod us in that direction. Mr Bleaney may have been a very jolly, happy man who adored his sister in Stoke and was more than happy to go to Frinton each year and lived a small but content private life.

Is Larkin, as the poet, deliberately making the narrator of his poem unreliable so the reader has to question the whole premise of his approach to Mr Bleaney? Is he , on the other hand, expecting the reader to accept that whilst he narrates facts about Bleaney, the tone and the facts chosen are there to push us towards an assumption that Bleaney lead a small sad life that didn’t amount to much if he at no point questioned his existence. The ‘I don’t know’ at the end seems somehow less than genuine as the whole tone of the poem pushes you to make a value judgement.

Does the poet want us to believe everything he tells us about Bleaney? Are the details of Bleaney’s life important at all and only in so far as they tell us what it is the narrator finds noteworthy. Is the poet just telling us about himself? If for instance we were told that Mr Bleaney was written by Sylvia Plath would our understanding and enjoyment of the whole poem be altered? Can we disassociate Larkin’s personal autobiography and well known lugubrious nature from his narrator? Is the form of the poem saying something about the narrator,the poet, or both? Quatrains rhyming abab, neat strict predictable boxes to mirror the small predictable box room, to mirror the small predictable life. Don’t tell me Larkin didn’t want us to feel hemmed in, claustrophobic, feel a longing to break out of the strait jacket that he places the poem in. He tells us he doesn’t know whether Bleaney questioned his existence but if he didn’t question it he ‘warranted no better’. Is he condemned by his unquestioning state to box-room hell or is he merely held in the limbo of blandness that the narrator believes the undeserving people who exist by routines inhabit anyway? Is the poet or the narrator being rather sneeringly judgemental about Bleaney?

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.

I have tried to use the concept of unreliable narrator to interrogate just this one well known poem, shake it up a little. It doesn't add much to the world of literary criticism and is less than scholarly but it made me think just a little harder about what the POV of a poem can covey to the reader and whether unreliability of the narrator is something we don’t question enough in poems or incorporate deliberately into our writing.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

On Being Out of Kilter. Bowie, Hunter S Thompson, Asperger's and my Dizzy Self can be made to connect

I have Labyrinthitis, no not a constant urge to watch that old film with David Bowie in it, but something to do with the inner ear. It involves dizziness, vertigo and having a brain that feels stuffed full of cotton wool and being on a ship that is navigating quite a rough sea. Strangely the only time I feel balanced is when I am driving which I am told is something to do with forward visual concentration, so hurrah there is some light at the end of this queasy tunnel. I am also managing to type this by adopting the same forward concentration on the screen but I have to admit the back lit nature of it is making it quite a challenge and I am not entirely sure if Microsoft word has a tilt text facility which I have somehow engaged inadvertently
It is strange to say the least to have to doubt your experience of the world…no the floor is not moving….no the corridor is not tipping to starboard and the supermarket aisle is not narrowing and than expanding. I just wonder at how Hunter S Thompson managed to get through the world in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegaswhen so much of the out there was not computing correctly or rather computing as something else entirely.

So in the interests of my remaining a balanced person I will keep this post short.
I have been working on an article about Autism and the Creative Mind and have a collection of similes and definition of words gleaned over the years made by children who have been diagnosed with Asperger’s or are somewhere on the Autistic Spectrum. I suspect many creative people are on there somewhere, including myself, but some are just further along than others. Indeed this is a proposal I investigate in the article.
I have posted the quotations below. I find the specific nature of them or the lateral approach quite refreshing.As many who are diagnosed with some form of Asperger's can testify they see the world just a little a kilter which ties in well with things being a little out of whack for me at present.

Some Similies and Definitions written by Children between 7 and 12 in mainstream schools who have been diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Condition or Asperger’s Syndrome


Angry as a waste of paper
Angry as a ‘No right turn’
Angry as two bulls in a field
Awkward as a Zombie at a birthday party that's not fancy dress.


Beautiful is something certain
Big as Mrs Cook’s dog.
Black as liquorice, but not the red sort.


Careful as a cat on stubble [Boy lives on farm. He explained how feral cats won’t walk on stubble if they can avoid it as it is very sharp and can cut their paws]
Crazy as a windy playground.
Clumsy as raspberry Slush Puppy on a new carpet


Deliberate as a right spelling
Drunk as my Nan on Bailey’s at Christmas
Dark as a drove road dyke


Empty as a box of nicked chocolates
Excited as bullocks and a yappy dog
Endless as the middle


Frightening as the fire alarm bell when you are standing underneath it
Frightening as things that hide
Friendly as a daft dog


Germy as the toilets at the bus station that my Mum won’t let me go in
Green as Dad’s best wellies that he only keeps for shows.
Grey as Hunstanton and Nan’s face after the crab.


Happy is things being right.
Happy as my Mum when she’s throwing snails into next doors garden
High as the things they don’t want you to touch, even if you stand on a chair.
Hot as the chippie’s fat by closing time.
Hopeful as a BP garage scratch card


Interesting as a Tyrannosaurus Rex even though they’re dead but why they’re dead is just as interesting as well [Guess what his particular obsession is]
Ideal is the thing you’ve got when you want it.
Itchy as a bite at night in Newquay.


Jolly as Mr Benson pretending to be Santa when he’s already too jolly
Jumpy as Nan waiting by the phone for the hospital to ring


Kind is a quiet voice
Kind as shoes that fit
Knotty as old bale twine


Lazy as smoked bees
Lumpy as old rice at the back of the fridge
Late as the Number 14


Magical as birds in your sleeves
Mean is anything less that a quid
Musical is sounds that make sense in your head
Many is more that a few but not too much, if that’s what you want.


New as a baby. Our baby is even newer because she was early.
New as the first time
Nice is a biscuit, a real biscuit, that isn’t very nice.
Nasty as sticking a pencil up your sister’s nose


Odd is not being in a two.
Odd is not being in the right jigsaw box.
Odd as black turning white because it’s always the other way round
Old as Romans and ration books
Ordinary is being different in disguise


Poorly as a day on the sofa
Private is a sign to keep out
Proud is showing off and having a big head about something but it’s ok for about a day.
Prickly as a row of ones


Quarrelsome as Aunty Sue and Maureen about the pork pie at the wedding
Quiet is waiting for a noise
Quick is almost missing it


Regular as crap work [Mishearing I think!]
Round as a year [Boy explained that he sees years as round because the season’s keep recurring in a circle, days are triangles; morning, afternoon, night and weeks are long thin oblongs. many ASC children have wonderful islets of synaesthesia]
Rough as blue sandpaper pants.
Reliable is when you are there, at the time you are meant to be there even if you don’t want to be there and you try to pretend you want to be there and do it the same as if you are glad you are there. But if you hate being reliable after a while you are allowed to stop being reliable because it would be stupid to carry on being reliable about something you hate doing.


Suspicious as a fierce dog and a BMW.
Silent as a broken iPod
Still as dead glasses in our pub
Secret as a gun in a sock drawer


Tight as my Nan’s chest
Terrible as losing when you are three goals up
Twisted as words when you’re tired
Tubby as a Tudor [Boy doing Henry VIII and I think ‘Tubby the Tuba’ was something they had listened to that week in assembly]


Urgent is when you can’t wait until the next services.
Unhappy as a hen on china eggs
Unwanted as nits in Class Four
Unexplained is them not wanting to tell you.


Violent as broken teeth and windows
Virtual is a thing made by a computer to be real but it isn’t real, although if it feels real to me it is my real but not your real. Things can be definitely unreal but make you have real feelings and other things are really real, it’s when you don’t know the difference that my Mum has to take the pills and sometimes go into hospital because she doesn’t know what is really real anymore. Our brain is just a computer really and Mum has to go and get rebooted.
Vague as sometime


White as washing on the adverts about Persil
Worried is when you keep thinking about something you’d rather not think about.
Wishful as a man with a lamp


Yellow as Grandad’s fag fingers
Yappy as my Gran on the bus

Random collections of comments

The day was as grey and thin as my sister in her faded Scooby Do pyjamas.
The sky was full of clouds that were like someone had stuck bones in a liquidiser.
She cried like she was trying to wash it all away.
He smelt as if he were trying not to smell of anything.
No door can ever shut enough to be safe, the outside can always be inside.

If anyone is interested there is a wonderful lecture by Dr Temple Grandin on YouTube which looks at how she, as someone diagnosed with severe autism as a child, views the world. Worth watching, for any poet or writer as it reveals how pain,anxiety,vindication and joy, not necessarily a god, is in the detail.
May post the article up on the blog later this year if I don't find a home for it elsewhere.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Wandering Simon Armitage, Gandalf, Praise Singers and Zombie Haiku

So Simon Armitage is wandering the spine of England, living off poetry, kindness and reputation. He finishes in Edale today I believe. The old troubadours no doubt had regular halts from their travels at villages where a tale or ballad, full of assonance, rhythm and cliff hangers would ensure at least a mug of ale and some cheese. Poets these days may also require somewhere to charge up their GPS and iphone as well as a bed of straw. I always imagine a good stout stick a la Gandalf would not only be helpful out on the moors to test for bogs but somehow also endow the poet with some gravitas and slight magic.

Poetry and magic were always closely associated. The spell, the chant, the rhythmic naming of names was once seen as part of the deepest magic. Words were always seen as having the power to conjure. In Africa Praise Singers would recite the history of the tribe in such a way as, not only to be an earlier version of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, but also as an invocation of the power of the ancestors to remain a force within the present. When a Praise Singer died one tradition in West Africa dictated that their body was placed in the hollow trunk of a particular kind of tree. This was deemed the only way to contain their magical powers as the wordsmith that could summon the ancestors and spirits. Mind you the Praise Singer Zolani Mkiva, who officiated at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration is being used to advertise a bank in South Africa and the Football World Cup so perhaps even hard bitten capitalists take their power seriously these days.

Nowadays for our most famous of ‘Praise Singers’ we don’t resort to hollow trees but have Poets Corner in St Pauls’, an obituary in The Times and sometimes elegies written by others who also know the power of words to evoke and summon and have given their lives to it. However perhaps their power is contained not by trees but by paper when they are made the subject of GCSE’s and taught sometimes without vision and passion to the next generation who may be driven solely by the necessity to tick the boxes in order to get an A* grade.

I suspect that way back the early European wandering bard/poet was still imbued with a little of the mystery and magic of the spoken word. People may have felt that if you shunned them their words might rain misfortune on you, your family, the village, the crop. Perhaps now we rely on Arts Council Grants to keep the poets going, that as a community micro or macro we believe someone else will ensure we pay our dues to the power of those who make their living by the word. Now the Arts Council is less well funded maybe we have to find other ways of keeping the weavers of words and stories in cheese and ale.

Sometimes I think that despite the advent of the printing press and education that allows more people to read and access the word there is still a special kind of reverence reserved for those who can stand up before a group of people and hold them literally spellbound just by the spoken word. I am not necessarily referring to ‘performance poets’ but those few who can make the authority and beauty of words such a communal experience that you know something powerful has happened, not just in your own head but almost in the air the audience breathes. I think I have been to a few readings (not necessarily big well attended ‘posh’ or prestigious ones) where you feel something has happened. There must be a strange conjunction in the stars now and then when poet, poem, listeners and venue all converge at some point where everything is right, absolutely right and something bigger than the sum of the parts is created.

If I try to define or describe that rightness it is always elusive, neither can you or I as a poet or writer strive for it, it is a moment of unexpected grace. That may sound as if I am likening it to a religious experience but that would be to confine it to a particular small box. I am aware that many will say this is all mumbo jumbo nonsense and that a brilliant well written poem, well read before an attentive, open minded audience in a venue that allows the poem to be delivered clearly and without hindrance is a very definable and repeatable recipe. I think I would still have to say that there is something not mystical, not magic but ‘other’ that can happen now and then at a reading. It is probably this rare experience that keeps me going to readings, perhaps I am always searching for that ‘fix’ of rightness.

From the sublime to the ridiculous or just plain wierd. The Boo has passed on a link about a book called Zombie Haiku in which a man charts his experience of becoming a Zombie in the form of haikus. This may well rival the wonderful Spam (as in pork luncheon meat) haikus as the most bizarre and poor taste juxtaposition of form and content. I note that Billie Collins has contributed a Zombie haiku to the website and the section of Zombie haikus in the style of famous poets I admit had me come up with a Tennyson and Charge of the Light Brigade offering.

Half a brain, bad breath
into the valley of death
rode the six hundred

I am off now to buy a Gandalf replica staff on a website, a snip at $99 this may add something to my readings, a certain power, authority and je ne sais crois. However the staff might only work if the poems are worthy of it.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Salt's Tenth Birthday Flash Blog Mob

At exactly 3pm at the Royal Festival Hall supporters of Salt Publishing will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of the press by reciting Neruda's Ode to Salt. It will be a flash mob with poetry instead of dancing, although some may dance who knows? As I can't make it to dance and recite I am joining in the Flash blog mob instead. Enjoy the poem, celebrate the joy of having a good independant publisher reach 10 years of being in the fray and as they are always needing support buy a book from them. In hard times when the recession can push under many Arts projects a strong bunch of good presses putting forward fantastic work that may otherwise never see the light of day is important.

Ode to Salt

This salt
in the salt cellar
I once saw in the salt mines.
I know
you won’t
believe me
it sings
salt sings, the skin
of the salt mines
with a mouth smothered
by the earth.
I shivered in those
when I heard
the voice
the salt
in the desert.
Near Antofagasta
the nitrous
a mournful

In its caves
the salt moans, mountain
of buried light,
translucent cathedral,
crystal of the sea, oblivion
of the waves.
And then on every table
in the world,
we see your piquant
vital light
our food.
of the ancient
holds of ships,
the high seas,
of the unknown, shifting
byways of the foam.
Dust of the sea, in you
the tongue receives a kiss
from ocean night:
taste imparts to every seasoned
dish your ocean essence;
the smallest,
wave from the saltcellar
reveals to us
more than domestic whiteness;
in it, we taste finitude.

Here is another celebratory poetry flash mob , just in case you think Salt has taken leave of its senses. Maya Angelou celebrated mob style.

To update here is an audio report of Jen Hamilton Emery (one of Salt's founders, editors and general heroes) reporting on the events of the afternoon

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Neruda in Heat and Those Spies that Came In or Out of the Cold

A mixed random bag of thoughts today dear reader, it’s hot and I don’t function well in heat and it tends to make concentration on one thing hard.

It could be climate that sometimes fosters a difference in the literary tradition of nations. I have been reading and listening to a lot of Neruda recently and perhaps his love poems in particular could only be a product of a man who understood heat. This is not to say that love and passion is not to be found in colder climes but that landscape and weather are so deeply embedded in the psyche they cannot help but permeate the poet. Then here to contradict myself I have picked Merwin’s translation of Neruda’s famous Poem 20 which mentions snow in line 14 which I believe must be a typo on the website for 'soul' ( spot the deliberate translation mistake). I suggest you read it and then listen to the poem read by Neruda himself here in order to get a feel for the heat in his poem. This is one reason why I have promised myself that I will start to learn Spanish before the little grey cells become stodgy, clustered and unable to absorb.

The Americans have just swapped ten Russian spies for four spies which seems like a bit of a good deal. Living near Cambridge I am always interested in spies. The University, in the thirties in particular, was the nursery for many a spy. The famous elite and secret debating society called The Apostles based around Trinity and Kings afforded Anthony Blunt (later Sir Anthony, art historian to her Majesty) and others, scope to recruit. Burgess, McClean, Philby, Cairncross, the list goes on, all trod the hallowed grass in Kings’ College and Trinity quadrangles. Here, in the elitist of all institutions they decided a communist regime offered more hope than high table suppers, punting and tutorials in seventeenth century studies accompanied by the smell of toasting crumpets and the merry banter of bedders cajoling Hooray Henrys out of their pits, where they would lay until mid afternoon recovering from jolly japes and parties.

I had forgotten how fantastic Prunella Scales was as the Queen until I came across this encounter between her and Sir Anthony whilst he was still in the closet ( spy wise that is) but on the cusp of being unmasked. It’s eight minutes plus if you look at Part 2 as well but well worth it. We tend to produce a far more educated and posh spy than the Americans. One of the Russian spies recently swapped was in real estate and was on Facebook for heaven’s sake, no self respecting Cambridge spy, one likes to think, would have even contemplated something like Facebook. Tea would be at the Ritz not at Burger King.

Of course we can also do grubby spies quite well, listening to Richard Burton’s little tirade in The Spy who Came in from the Cold about sums that gene of spy up. I like to think though that spies have some sense of irony, (a la Orson Wells in The Third Man).

I wonder if those returned Russian spies will miss apple pie, Wal-Mart, Oprah and free refills of coffee in diners. What occupies me most about it all is the fact that some of the couples had children conceived and brought up solely in America. They are currently being held by child welfare in the States. The younger ones will probably be returned to their parents but what about the teenagers? Will an American teenager who had no idea his parents are Russian spies want to be dropped down in the middle of a tower block apartment assigned to returning spies in some wind blown seedy suburb of Moscow? There is a whole novel, film, anything you care to think about in that. When everything you have believed to be true becomes a lie on such a mammoth scale how do you possibly cope with that. Your Mum and Dad may love you, you may love them but all the time they were leading another life or maybe playing so hard at leading another life that it became their real life and the spying some sort of half repressed fantasy. How do you square the circle or come to grips with that. I shall be interested to see if the older children choose to join their parents in exile or actually I suppose it is join their parents back home, although home is something unknown.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Bundled up with Richard Branson, Dean Parkin and Martin Figura

I have somehow skipped an entire month not in life but in blog posts. Are blog months somehow different to real months, are they like dog years; one month missed equivalent to seven months in the passing of internet time? I am told that the art of blogging is to do little and often so you keep on the radar of those that follow blogs. I seem a bit of a binge blogger, weeks without then maybe a few posts all bunched together. This is how life is sometimes; famine and plenty, all or nothing, three buses at once or hours waiting for one…all the clichés you can imagine to describe bunching. No doubt there may be a serious mathematician out there who can tell me that you could actually produce some formula if you gathered enough data from blogs about frequency of posts that would indicate the likelihood of long silences and then a bundle of blogs all at once.

Speaking of bundles I have been having a Victor Meldrew moment with Virgin my broadband provider. I seem to be paying far more for just my broadband than other people; I discussed it in my office. They all suggested I phoned and said I was thinking of leaving them and this should trigger a flurry of better offers from them as they became twitchy meerkats at the thought of losing your custom entirely. But no, dear reader, it thrust me into a strange Kafkaesque conversation with a young man who was probably reading from a script but who couldn’t seem to grasp what I was saying or perhaps what I was saying did not make any sense in the media services world view.

I would have to continue paying £20 for 10MB of broadband no matter what but, and now he beamed down the line at me, but what I can do is offer you 20MB of broadband for the same price. I pointed out I didn’t need 20MB, I don’t live with several teenagers all downloading as if their life in the Matrix depended on it. I, as he confirmed from the data he was obviously accessing on screen, am a very light user. Offering me more was like offering to deliver me three bottles of milk per day when I could only consume 2 bottles per week. Even my milkman who due to lack of light and sleep and the resultant vitamin D deficiency could sometimes be a little slow on my scribbled messages now and then, could understand that argument. So I told him I did not want to pay the same for more I wanted to pay less for the same. This did not compute. I asked if it cost Virgin anything to upgrade my speed to 20MB, he couldn’t answer this as he knew it was the Catch 22 question……If he could give me 20MB at no extra cost to the company why did the company not give me this facility as a matter of course? If it did cost the company something if only a pound or so why couldn’t I have this amount deducted from my bill and stay the same as technically I was saving the company money by saying no thanks to 20Mb at the same price. This seemed logical to me, not to him because he said he did not have the ability to offer me that or it wasn’t in his script.

Then he says, well for £29.99 you could have broadband, phone and television. So I say phone and TV must cost £9.99 if broadband at my speed had to cost £20. No, he said, Broadband bought in a bundle costs far less than that. So says I, leaping onto this statement, like a lioness on a wounded gazelle, I want that bundle minus the TV and Phone. But, he whines, Broadband only costs less if you have it in a bundle, it is not possible to unbundle anything and buy individual components. The clue is in the name of the deal…BUNDLE. I could tell he was getting testy with me by now. So I say by way of final clarification. So I can have more for the same, far more for a little bit more but never the same for less, despite the same costing less when bundled. Exactly, he sighs, as if at last I had grasped some great economic and philosophical truth. Thank you, I reply, I will go away and think about it (…and write about it in my blog as well…and keep an eye out for Richard Branson if he ever passes within hailing distance of me). I may have a Jack Nicholson in a diner moment with him

Brief pause for a slurp pf tea and a deep breath whilst I take off my grumpy old woman head and step down from the soap box.

Went to see Dean Parkin do his one man show called Dean’s Dad’s Ducks. This was his trial run before its appearance at the Edinburgh Festival in August. It was fabulous; by turns funny and poignant and even downright heart breaking. You found yourself laughing and then suddenly thinking, wait a minute this is really sad should I really be laughing? It mixes poems, monologue, sound effects, songs, audience participation and a plastic duck all to serve the real life tale of Dean’s dad’s world in which he makes toys and lives a strange shuttling life between his family and a woman called Denise. Life in a small Suffolk village has never been so closely and bizarrely observed and at times it makes the world of The League of Gentlemen seem rather ordinary and tame. Go and see it if you happen to be at the Festival or live that way, if you don’t find out where you can see it in the future, it is worth the effort.

The one man (or woman show) and poetry seems to be on the rise at the moment. Martin Figura under the Apples and Snakes banner is also launching his show called Whistle at Ledbury Festival next week-end. His is a serious look at how his world fell apart when his father murdered his mother, it uses poems, photographs and monologue but also letters to tell the story. As I know Martin I have known many of the poems used in this show for some time but I have yet to see it brought together with the full experience of photographs etc.

I think the key word in both these shows, different as they are, is the word ‘story’. Each of them draw you in, not only because we are listening to a well constructed and suprising narrative but also that it is a tale of real life. Neither show would, I think, work at all if these were fictional, a dramatic fictional monologue would somehow be almost distastefully inauthentic. However the heightened language of poetry allows you to thread through these memoir pieces a sense of observation, of stepping back and regarding the world they both experienced as a child and later reflect on as an adult. Of course lies are told, the truth is always something elusive, even unobtainable, when we talk about family. We all have our own truths about how we survived and flourished inside one or despite one. A fact is not the same as truth; how we interpret fact or even perceive it at all, is the mystery of how we come to see ourselves and forge our own identities.

It is good to see the Arts Council putting money into these shows, in times of huge financial cutback it is good to see them funding work that reaches beyond the usual poetry audience and allows people to see that poems can truely be a part of real life, anyone's real life. Go see these shows; I think they will both leave you thinking about what you believe to be true in your own life and not just about the life of the person delivering their life and truths up there in the spotlight.

PS I have. for those who have popped in for a look before, changed the blog template. Variety may not be the spice of life but I thought I'd just see how this felt for a while. If anyone hates it or thinks this template is too busy and unreadable I am more than open to persuasion. I did resist the template marked ethereal that had twee flowers etc on it and also the one that was very dark and all crisp design lines. This may be because I am neither a flowery person nor a cutting edge design sort of person. Rain on a window pane seemed ok, well for now at least; it reminds me of the bizarre variety of postcards and adverts stuck up on the window of my local corner shop. I like the thought of a blog being like a changing postcard advertising for a lost cat, lost poem, lost something or other plus also mingled in with those wierd self revelatory adverts in the 'room to let in a clean, nicely appointed, non smoking home for a professional only, must not be allergic to cats. An interest in Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals and Cage Fighting would be an advantage' ilk. ( True newsagent postcard advert I once spotted in a nearby town and had to write down)

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Answers for the Children on the Danish Island of Sejer

How did you start writing poetry?

From a small child I always loved reading. I loved the way you could just put marks on a piece of paper and people could find in them another world, perhaps a pretend one or perhaps a real one that I would never be able to see for myself. The children of Sejer may find it strange but reading helped me also find out things about myself, even when I was very young. In a story I would think, what would I do if I was in the same situation as some of the story characters? So I began by loving reading, loving books and then I eventually came across some poetry books and a teacher that loved to read poems to the class at the end of the day.
So I started out by reading as all poets and writers should do, reading everything I possibly could. Then I thought I wanted to try writing some stories and poems and so I began to write them down, just to please myself.

I kept writing things down and eventually I decided to show some poems to others who’s opinion I valued and they said they were good, so I sent things out to magazines and a few got published. I got many turned down but with all writing and with life you have to keep going and not give up and I began to win some prizes in poetry competition and then eventually I published a small book of poems that a play writer turned into a radio play that was broadcast on national radio which was very successful. Then a big publisher agreed to publish a big collection of my poems and that was published last year.

I work with lots of children in different schools as my day job but I also spend a lot of time going to places all over the country to read my poetry to people. I am also in a poetry group, we are five poets who go to all sorts of different places and festivals and read our poetry in different ways so that people can see that poetry does not have to be boring.

Why poetry?

Just the sound of the words can be very exciting, and if a poem has words that rhyme or nearly rhyme the sound of the poem feels right and makes me feel as if it is a piece of music. The rhythm of the words also adds to the excitement, just like a good modern ‘rap artist’ can use rhythm and rhyme to make a song work and stick in your head so can all the good poets. For instance there is a poem called Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll who wrote Alice in Wonderland that is full of nonsense words that he made up but still the sound and rhythm of them feels right as if they should be real words.
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Here is the link to the Muppets performing Jabberwocky Don’t worry if you don’t understand it, just listen to the sound and rhythm of the words.

Poems also make you think very hard about the words you choose because the idea is to use the best possible word in the best possible place so that no word, no sound is out of place. Sometimes a very good poem can say something in just one or two lines that you think would take pages of writing to say. It can be a way of making something very clear and at the same time very beautiful and complex.
It is one of the oldest arts, for thousands of years people have made poems, even before writing was invented people used poems to tell others stories or histories of their tribe. The rhythm and use of the words was a way of making people really listen and also of making it memorable. Tribes from all over the world from Europe to Africa to the Americas and even the aborigines in Australia understood about rhythm and sound and saying a story or something in a poetic rhythmic way so others could experience it and almost feel it in their bodies. Before musical instruments were made people used the beat of a drum or just a stick banging on a hollow log to keep the poem rhythmic. So poetry is very old and I think somewhere deep inside all of us we can feel a good poem almost like a piece of music.

Why do we need poetry for in a modern society?

We don’t need poetry; we don’t need music or art. We just need food, shelter, warmth and air and all the other things we need to survive but if we want to be more than just an animal that survives we may need these other things to make us better people. Music and poetry make us listen; make us think about things in a way we may never have thought about. Art and painting makes us look at things in a different way.

When I was invited to New York with other poetry friends to read our poetry it was just a year after the twin towers had collapsed and the city was still in shock. Everybody felt sad, frightened and most people knew someone who had died in the disaster. All around the city in the big railway stations and on boards near the site of the twin towers, poems started to appear. There were hundreds and hundreds of poems about friends or relatives who had died that day the towers collapsed. Some poems were famous ones written by poets of long ago but many were written by the relatives or friends themselves, simple little poems about how much they loved that person and what they wanted others to know about them.

I think it is common in times of real hurt or pain that people turn to poetry and why is that? I think it is because not only is there comfort to be found in a poem but there is something magical about how words can make some idea or someone live on in your head, it is a way human beings can connect with each other, how they can experience something common and human together.

Poems must also be important and powerful because in countries where freedom and liberty are threatened the poets and writers are often the first people to be arrested as governments know the power of poems and how they can inspire and move people. A long time ago in Chile many people were fighting for freedom against a bad government In one prison cell a poet wrote on the wall in his own blood, ‘The poets are the first to be taken.’

That shows that poetry is not just an old fashioned dead thing but a living thing which can give people hope and courage even when the world seems without hope. A famous Russian woman poet a long time ago had to commit all her poems to memory and then burn them (and she had many of them) because if the government found any paper with her poems on they would arrest her. Later when she was in prison she taught her poems to other women so that when they were released from prison they could tell these poems to others and somehow the outside world would hear how badly people were being treated. If poems were not important in a modern world why would people still put their lives in danger to write them and risk getting others to read them?

It can also help people hear what they are losing and what they need to fight for. Many poets now write about global warming, the loss of species of animals and their poems fly round the world so that others can hear them and perhaps try to change what is happening.

How do you learn to write poetry?

I think the best way to learn to write poetry is to read and listen to it as much as possible. Always keep a little notebook and when you hear something interesting or just a word you like always write it down. Poets have to be very good at listening to others and watching them and the world around them.

When you are older you may want to go on a poetry writing course, I went on many of these. Find out if there is a local poetry club or sometimes a café or place where people go to read or talk about poetry. I go to a café in a town near me every month where people bring poems to read and we chat and talk about poems. The best way to learn to do anything is just by trying to do it. What you write may not be good at first but there is always something to be learnt by looking at it and saying what could you change about it to make it better. Talk about poems you like to others, share your favourite poems with them. I know many people who you think would not like poetry but when you talk to them often they secretly write poems themselves or have a favourite poem. On a train once I happened to sit with a lot of football supporters going to see their team playa match a long way from home. It was a long journey and we started talking to each other and when these young men found out I was a poet they started to tell me all about the poems they liked and two or three told me that they wrote poems themselves including love poems for their girlfriends. So don’t think only certain types of people like poetry, it may surprise you how many people do like it.

What's your favourite poem?

This is very difficult for me as I love so many poems for so many reasons but I suppose one of the first poems that made me really love what poetry could do was written a long time ago in 1684 by an English poet called John Donne. It is very famous here.

Meditation 17

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

I like this poem because in just fourteen lines it doesn’t tell me things it just shows me a picture in my head of all of us being like little islands and how that seems slightly mad. It makes me think about how each of us is connected in some way and that we cannot ignore others and what happens to them no matter how far away they seem. If we do ignore them and what happens to them, it makes us die just a little inside. We are involved in the world even if we want to think we can live in our own little island and think that what is happening outside in the world will never be anything to do with us. This poem was written nearly four hundred years ago yet I think it is still very powerful and in a time of global warming and other global events it still has a message for us.

If I were to translate this poem into more modern easier English I would perhaps say it like this.

Thought Number 17

No one can be like a little island
all on their own,
everyone is part of the whole world,
the whole thing.
Even if a tiny bit of mud is washed away,
the earth is made a tiny bit smaller
just as much as if a big headland
or your own home
or your friend’s home were swept away.
Each person’s death makes me smaller,
because I am part of all humanity.
Don’t ask why the alarm is ringing,
it is ringing for all of us, you and me.

Your favourite author?

Again I like so many authors but I have always liked Charles Dickens and Jane Austen but I also like many American authors like Raymond Chandler who wrote detective novels many years ago. I also like reading old myths and legends and stories like the Odyssey, which is actually a great adventure story about a soldier trying to get home to his wife and all the ways some of the gods try to stop him getting home. It is a story about how using our wits and your mind is sometimes better than being the best or strongest soldier. Poets I like are too many to list and I think I love particular poems more than everything a poet writes. If I had to choose a modern poet then maybe it would have to be Pablo Neruda a Chilean poet or an American woman poet called Elizabeth Bishop.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Overheard at the Polling Station

So today is polling day and I expect that you dear reader will already know the result and are girding your loins at this very moment for the cut-backs and the long dark night not only of the soul but public spending.

After work I walked down to the polling station, in my case a church hall. The sun was shining and people lingered outside to chat and there were various people armed with clipboards approaching voters before they went in. One local councillor whose job is also up for grabs today was caught in a pincer movement by two old ladies who demanded to know how he had the audacity to ask for them for their support when he hadn’t bothered to knock on their door and explain his policies and what he stood for. Other candidates shrank back; no doubt glad they hadn’t been the subject of the ladies spirited attack. I had to linger to listen as they had got into their stride and lambasted the unfortunate candidate with all the ills of their world, many of which he had little control over as a Local Authority Councillor. The lack of suitable equipment for the troops in Afghanistan ( one of the ladies had a grandson in the Army, the cost of petrol and duck houses, The NHS, the state of the pavements, pensions all were grist to their mill. He tried to explain that as a local councillor (and an Independent Councillor at that) he had little control over anything governmental but at the mention of pavements he clung to that like a drowning man.
“I have a good track record on pressing for compensation for elderly people who have been injured due to poor pavement maintenance” he beamed at the ladies.
They looked at each other then at him, “What does that mean when it’s at home? You haven’t come knocking on our door telling us all about what you’ve done for old people who can’t stay upright.” they paused for only a millisecond, “Exactly how many people have you helped?”
You could see the man was struggling with the reply. “Well one, an eighty year old lady but she got, five hundred pounds for a broken ankle caused by some paving slabs sticking up.”
“I wouldn’t fall out of bed for five hundred pounds,” replied the tightly permed one. “If you break your ankle when you are over eighty like us, you know what you can look forward to …..hours hanging around in casualty, MRSA probably and pneumonia because you have to sit around in a freezing cold house unable to move even to keep yourself warm because you can’t afford to turn the bloody fire on. The bloody guided bus is millions of pounds over budget and isn’t even opened because you can’t get that right and all you can manage is £500 quid for a life threatening injury. I suppose she got less because the powers that be thought she didn’t have much time left anyway so no point giving her lots of money if she was going to die soon?”

The Councillor was on the back foot well and truly now and looking for a way out, he decided to take the simple route out.
“So will you be voting for me?” It was said as a means of ending the conversation rather than a genuine enquiry.
“Oh yes love, we always vote for someone who lives in the town no matter how useless they are, at least you aren’t an in-comer.” The smaller of the two old ladies said as if the man was stupid even thinking that they would not be voting for him. I inwardly groaned at the on coming immigrant rant.
“Yes some of that lot from the next town can’t be trusted,” agreed the other woman.
The would be re-elected Councillor retreated no doubt as mystified as me about the psyche of the voting public.

I am off this weekend to the Poetry-Next-the-Sea festival in Wells, sun, sea, poems and delights of fish and chips. It may be to lick wounds or celebrate but what ever the outcome of the election there are hard times ahead, The times they are a changin' as Mr Dylan once pointed out.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Thank You Letter

Dear Literature,
As I have been reading various letters written by the great and the good and the not so good to each other lately I thought it about time that I wrote to you just to acknowledge the debt I owe you. So often we become so used to something or someone being always there, part of the furniture in our emotional house, that we take them for granted. We have been friends for a long time now and I have never ceased to wonder at your capacity to inspire, infuriate, console, stimulate, perplex, bore and sustain me. I read voraciously as a child , books being a constant bolt-hole from real life. However I found something more profound and exciting than mere escape in the form of poetry, when I was thirteen. Rather it was the case that you found me when a new young English teacher read the class Prayer Before Birth by Louis MacNeice and did not dissect it or interrogate it or come with any educational agenda other than to help us engage with the words and the tumbling sound of them. Then through these words and images they created to the feelings they engendered. She read it in a way I had never heard a poem read before, in a way that did not make a straight –jacket of received BBC pronunciation but in her robust Lancashire accent. For a Midland girl who had been suddenly parachuted into the alien vowels of the posh south only a year previously this experience was revelatory. Poetry did not require you to be posh, nor did it demand you totally understand what it all meant, that could come later, but what it did demand was that you close your eyes and just listen, really listen. This same teacher managed to make Dickens as exciting as any TV soap and Richard III positively oozed with all the twisted thrill and urgent barely repressed sexuality that any bad boy with long hair and the gift of the gab had for any one of us installed in an all girls High School. I even managed to find literature walking the streets of my old Midland home town when she lent me copy of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe

Almost from then on, Literature, we came to an understanding you and I, that we would be connected in some way. You would give me something I needed even at times when I did not know I needed it myself and I would give you at the very least, time. At fifteen I told a man who was very old, very wise, very well published and very kind that I wanted to be a poet or a writer some day. He did not laugh, he told me that what I needed to do first was read as that the greatest way to learn how to write. So I read as I had as a small child ,voraciously, for nearly thirty-five years. I read anything I could get my hands on that seemed at first glance to be worthwhile. At first I did not know what to make of what I was reading and quantity might have outstripped quality however I always found something that excited me enough to make me read on. After thirty-five years I eventually decided that I might be ready to write something other than private meanderings. This was in itself quite a difficult decision as the more I read the more I realised I had so much yet to read and whilst I wrote for my own private consumption I wondered whether with so much poetry and fiction out there I really needed to add to the amount available. Maybe this wise man did not intended that I should read for quite so long before I wrote for an audience of any kind but time spent reading is never wasted even if you throw a book across the room in disgust or fail to get past the half way mark in a book because you realise the author and you have diverged on what you deem to be good writing.

You and I will always be life long friends, in poetry at its best I find something almost mystical and yet solid and organic in the way sound and words work together to make something happen for me as the reader. In fiction I can be invited into a world that binds me so closely to something ‘other’ that at times I have been genuinely startled when I have lifted my eyes away from the page to find myself in my own room surrounded by my own things. If books were to vanish from the face of the earth and I could never read another poem or book again I can still be in your company for the best of what I have read has always stayed with me.

So this is by way of a thank-you letter, in case I should never have the opportunity again to ensure you know how I feel. Of course it really is a thank-you letter to all those poets and writers who have struggled, agonised, battled to bring me so much. Some have found neither fame nor riches from their work but nonetheless they have made my life the richer for their words. They may never know this, they may be long dead, but nonetheless thanks are owed to them. It may be that only one poem or one book out of many they have written has allowed me some connection with some thought or experience that I would otherwise have missed but this is more than enough to warrant my thanks. If anything I ever write or have written gives just one person something they feel worth holding onto, then I would be content. In the end Literature, you and I both know that I would be a sadder and maybe a more insular person without you and we still, hopefully, have a long road to travel together.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Sean O'Brien, Robert Creely and thoughts about whether 'In my beginning is my end'.

Why haven’t I blogged dear reader, because I had nothing to say, because I had no time, because I have deserted the corridors of blogdom in search of other means of soap boxing? I have no idea, perhaps a mixture of all three. I have been trying to get down to novel number two and am attempting to research to the point that the research will not show in the writing. This can take a long time to achieve. I can always spot the writer who has spent so much time researching the background for a novel that they cannot help but let the reader know they have done their homework. This can take the form of meticulous dress description, the citing of the exact number of the bus that goes to Hackney, the precise recipe for something ancient and decidedly untasty like Ancient Egyptian porridge. Of course where does a solid understanding of the background veer off into information dumping, a type of ‘I know this so I think you should know it as well’ situation?

Is this a phenomenon only encountered in fiction writing, where the scaffolding obscures the house beneath? Having been on a poetry workshop last week-end with Sean O'Brien, I am now equipped with the knowledge that beginnings are very important, ends are important and the middle is also quite important. This may sound like a clip form the Fast Show sending up poetry workshops but the knack, dear reader, is knowing when the beginning , middle and end actually occur in the poem.

I suppose to try a new visual other than the house and scaffolding one perhaps could see a poem as going off on holiday, the beginning may involve packing your bags, getting to the airport ,waiting for hours to get through, the flight, the late night arrival and taxi to the hotel. Then comes the waking up on the first day, opening a window to see a glorious view of sun, and sea or maybe mountains. The week spent exploring new sights and delights is exhilarating and then it’s the end, packing again, getting to the airport arriving home, stuffing your washing in the machine and sitting back with a mug of tea to think about what you have got from the holiday.

Now where is the true beginning of the journey, the moment we open the window and experience the heady rush of newness? So often we are told to get rid of the extraneous stuff that only leads us into the main body of the poem, no one wants to know about your packing and journey to get there unless of course it is intrinsically interesting in its own right and then maybe that alone is the source material. The experience of being on holiday is perhaps another poem in its own right. Where is the end of the poem, do I sometimes have recourse to the moment in the armchair with the mug of tea at the end of the poem where I review what I have experienced and make sense of it or simply absorb it?

It was pointed out at the workshop that endings do not have to be great crescendos but can be a subtle diminuendo but I think the emphasis there may be on the word subtle, it is not just a petering out. So I dived into some of my poems and thought about where the poem began but also where the poem ends and sometimes I came up with a sliver of a poem that began and ended and that’s where I had to angst over the middle, not as padding but as an awareness that a poem does not have to be constant linguistic fireworks or amazing metaphors and imagery but that the journey from a to b can earn its place, each word can earn its place by virtue of the movement it brings to the work.

Sean O’Brien who was leading the workshop pointed us, at one point, to the work of the American Poet Robert Creely which I have enjoyed exploring further. Here is one I thought just wonderful, a definite beginning, a definite end and the journey between exciting by it’s brevity, in fact I think the stanza break is the important middle section the journey between. Sometimes we forget that the white space between stanzas is important it says something both linguistically and physically, it isn’t just there to split the poem into balanced bite sized pieces. I think I could write a whole essay about the white space between stanzas and what it can express.

The Warning
by Robert Creeley
For love—I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
behind the eyes.

Love is dead in us
if we forget
the virtues of an amulet
and quick surprise.

You can find more of Creeley’s poems and his biography here.

Poets sometimes these days shy away from the big abstract things like love. We may approach it from subtle angles and metaphors but perhaps we should be a little braver about the right to make authentic statements about the big things. The old adage that all poetry can be reduced down to love or death may be true. However the reverse can be true, that from love and death a poem can be expanded to encompass it.

I shall get back to my research now for the novel. I am being drawn inexorably towards writing a poem though. It is a vice that I can’t quite quit even for a few weeks or days. What I produce may not be worth reading but with every beginning of a poem there is always a hope that by the end I will have arrived somewhere worth the journey.

Here is Robert Creely again reading another of his poems, ‘Please’.