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 clich├ęs 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)