Monday, 19 December 2011

Bread Sauce, Guilty Pleasures and Money

It is the week before Christmas and all round the house not a creature was stirring not even a mouse. Well that is actually a lie because a week before there should be much stirring to ensure everything is done and ready for the holiday. Who am I trying to impress apart from vegetables from the farmers market ( brussel sprouts on the stem have always held tales of freshness for me) and some presents wrapped nothing is stirring much but not in the Christmas eve quiet way. I have had a poem accepted for a really good publication and have made myself sit down and send out some more to competitions and magazines.

There is something can happen to the brain between writing a poem and sending it out. I tend to keep mine after editing, let them compost under the bed for quite a while and sneak up on them and try and take myself and the poem by surprise. I do savour that feeling you can get when you read a poem, think it is someone else’s that you have downloaded decide it’s quite interesting and then recall it is actually one of your poems. This may sound like an exercise in madness and maybe it is but I do think distance rather than the white hot heat of the writing can allow you to re-read your work with fresh eyes. Sometimes you think, “Bloody hell I’m glad I didn’t send this one out..”. Sometimes you get the ‘rubbish’ self- feedback but know something is fixable or can be salvaged from the wreckage . Now and then you think, this one says something I think is worthwhile. There is always that tightrope of retaining the initial energy of the words and ensuring the words don’t pirouette for the reader and draw attention to themselves just for the hell of it.

Language can, of course and should always dance but like a good ballet the experience is in something transcendent that the human body can channel. Think I am sending a bit ‘Ommmm’ maybe and trailing my sixties roots like and old hippy but I do believe all the arts at their very best help the individual transcend the moment or maybe be so in the moment that you can touch something almost inexplicable in its power or beauty. Sometimes in poems the experience of engaging with that power or beauty is when the words are at their simplest and cleanest and without artifice.

So I shall be composting some new poems for a while whilst I make a mountain of bread sauce which my daughter and I think is one of the highlights of Christmas and a bread sauce sandwich on Boxing Day can’t be beaten. Yes I do know, dear reader, that a bread sauce sandwich amounts to a bread sandwich; but mushed bread between two slices of bread maybe with a bit of cranberry sauce thrown in and a little chicken is a guilty pleasure. Then why should I be guilty and what the hell is a guilty pleasure, one that you feel you shouldn’t indulge in? These days it seems to be used as a phrase to describe something that is not exactly ‘good taste’ but you can’t help but like. So who are the good taste police that might catch you pleasuring yourself by watching Extreme House Make Over and crying, listening to Carmina Burana because of that advert. Surely pleasure can only be guilty if it involves hurting or degrading others or if it involves the use of some unsuspecting animal life for sexual purposes?

Guilt can be attached to most things especially if adamant religion of any kind plays a part in your upbringing. Then there is the added twist of guilt becoming a pleasure in itself if you’re not careful. I have decided that maybe my New Years Resolution should be not to use the phrase guilty pleasures I will simply have pleasures and a bread sauce sandwich is fine, just fine….was that the sound of the good taste police knocking at the door?

While we are talking about guilt, now that John Kinsella and Alice Oswald have asked to be removed from the short list for the T S Eliot prize because of the financial support a Hedge Fund is giving it this year I wonder if any money or funding comes guilt free. An Art Council award is the life blood for the arts and its income comes from the tax payer. This is the price society, at this moment in time, deems the tax paying public feel able to allocate towards funding the Arts. Of course the highest tax payers may well be those engaged in businesses that may be less than squeaky clean, they could be engaged in activities that might be less than PC, should the tax derived from such businesses be deemed laundered of guilt because they have come via the public purse? I struggle with that because I am happy for a small portion of my taxes to go not only to social welfare, education the health service, transport infrastructure, national security, but also to the funding of the arts. I suspect a poll amongst tax payers would reveal many less than happy about funding the arts and poetry in particular.

I have had an Arts Council grant, two in fact, one as an individual and one as a group, I have been prepared to accept money from a government whose policy in invading Iraq I marched against, so am I a hypocrite? I don’t honestly know. I can tell myself the story that funds for the arts is untouched or unsullied by other government policies; it lives in the higher cultural planes of social organisation in a so called civilised democratic society. I will continue to struggle about the concept of good money, bad money, good sources of funding, bad sources of funding.

I fully accept these two poets made a personal statement of where their line in the sand was about this particular source of funding. I expect that from now on their sources of funding for future work or projects will be interrogated by some for signs of hypocrisy; if you refuse to sup with the devil once any cup you put to your lips from then on has to be seen as equally ‘clean’ from contamination. Hedge funds may be the spawn of the devil they may not be, they may be various shades of grey veering almost to lily white, I don’t profess to have the expertise to fathom the nuances of ethical financial dealings and of course we all come at such things with belief systems that are deeply rooted in who we are. Judging what is right in these circumstances probably comes down to what you feel to be right and the rest of the short list for the T S Eliot have, I am sure, had to go through the dark night of the soul to know where they stand on the matter. I wish them well, I am saddened for them as whoever wins is going to be seen as being the winner in the year Oswald and Kinsella pulled out because of the stand they were taking against a hedge fund backed prize.

Who wins in this maelstrom? I think free thinking, and a national poetry forum where hopefully it is shown that debate around such things can be pursued without personal rancour. And of course very few people care except those that care about poetry and arts funding and those, dear reader, are few and far between in the great scheme of things, who knows it may in be only you and me and a handful of others.

Friday, 2 December 2011

A Woman of Age

I now feel myself to be 'A Woman of Age'. Such a description holds a certain ring to it, suggests certain virtues as well as vices and hints at losses and strengths that only age may endow you with. I have had a big birthday since we last met dear reader, I can now get free prescriptions and eye tests and may have the ability to make younger people feel guilty on the bus for not surrendering their seat to me. Stop, stop, I don’t require congratulations , unless it is to extend your good wishes at having made it thus far up the slippery pole called life. One wonders how far you can shimmy up before you start slipping back into those years you thought you’d left behind.

I was told the other day by someone that a cure for stress and anger was to squeeze a lemon ( the real variety not the plastic kind as that might result in the top shooting off and hitting some unsuspecting passer-by, although that may in itself be stress reducing). However it is not just the squeezing that helps, afterwards you are meant to smell your hand and this smell then becomes linked with the reduction of stress so thereafter throughout the day ( barring a savage soap and water hand washing session) just sniffing your hand makes you feel a little less angry or stressed. Putting aside the image of people sniffing their hand as their blood pressure rises, which in itself could lead to some encountering a less than positive response, there was a rider added to the advice. One of the early signs of Alzheimer’s is the inability to smell common things such as lemons.

Of course I immediately rushed home and smelt the lemon I had lurking at the back of the fridge but its rather green moldiferous state made it less than fragrant. Then I decided that it would be better to just let the smell of lemons waft my way one day by acident and the smell would be the more fragrant simply for the notion that it may be a sign my noodle is still firing on most pistons.

Ageing is not a bad thing, the longer a writer and poet lives the more they have to write about and the more they can mess up which is usually the source of many a decent poem. A good friend sent me a book of poems by the poet Ruth Stone, who has recently died at the age of 96. Her last collection was published when she was 93. She was sharp, funny, irreverent and had the ability to write poems that touched on the 'big' things with a lightness of touch.


What my eye sees
Goes into the dark
And passes, packet by packet
Along the ledge over the abyss
Between the lobes.
It goes so far
I think I cannot get it back
And when I least expect
Some of it returns
Not simple
as it was
Or seemed
But now complex
And freighted with the universe.

What we may think we forget may return with something added; now that’s a motto to embrace when next I go upstairs then wonder what I went up for.

I note that the adverts on my Facebook Page seem to have reset themselves to the default position of second guessing what women of a certain age may need or want. Wrinkle creams, dating sites for the over 50s and randomly, coats for dogs, cheese and free coupons for meals at distant cafes. I suspect there is, somewhere, a woman of sixty eating cheese at the kitchen table, cutting out free coupons for dinner in Glasgow and dreaming of meeting someone on a dating site whilst staring at her Chihuahua dressed in a fetching Versace number.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

I Want To Tell You a Story, Are You Sitting Comfortably?

So, dear reader, it is the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness yet again. the garden centres are now displaying Christmas decorations and chocolate advent calendars are available in shops. Harvest festivals have come and gone and not only is everything safely gathered in , as the words of the hymn go, but it is put away, pickled, salted, frozen or generally preserved for the winter days ahead. I have yet to turn on the central heating, donning extra jumpers and warm slippers, instead. Every year I go through a phase of defying the elements. I nurture the wild notion that one day I will be able to last out until the first snows and if they keep coming earlier and earlier I might be able to. The dog days of Autumn always get me feeling nostalgic but also help me justify time spent writing and reading in bed because I am not wasting precious sunshine by remaining indoors.

Reading in sunlight however has always been a tiring occupation but I am now assured by those that have Kindles that reflection and bounced light is a thing of the past and that text is available despite all levels of sunshine intensities. Laying by the pool or on the beach reading has never been so available and easy. Holiday reading is now not bought at the air port but downloaded in some Internet Café in Malaga, Sorrento or Florida. No longer will the traveller have to frequent the aisles of W H Smith at the airport looking for a good read to take onto the plane, the Kindle can be slipped into the hold luggage along with the 3,000 books it is holding. It is a bit like taking the local library onto Easy Jet and whilst wonderfully life enhancing I don’t want to do it , not just yet, I want to feel the paper between my fingers.

I am no Luddite, I just have a paper fetish, I like a spine, a sense of weight. Don Quixote is fat and heavy and gave me a strong sense of accomplishment when I finished it. Not that I am suggesting we should measure books by the kilo but the physicality of the book adds to my experience of it. Where on a Kindle can you experience those wonderful hand crafted poetry chap books, the quality of the paper, the delight of vellum that adds to my reading pleasure. Hopefully such things will continue to exist long after pupils sit at their desk, browses the virtual school library and download their next book and the system logs and notes their choices automatically. I am sure the system could also be set so that only books at the pupil’s level of ability could be shown to them in the catalogue. I know we are not even far from a child reading out loud to their Kindle type notebook and the notebook halting and correcting them when they make a mistake perhaps sounding the word out so the pupil can make a correct stab at synthesis. No longer will there be children stacked and waiting to land with an adult so they can read to them. However where will be the warmth, the human contact and shared excitement of opening a book and looking through it, wondering what it might contain. Reading is not just a lone art it can be a shared experience.

Those children that have had a fun and warm fuzzy feeling from snuggling up to an adult and being read a story regularly, usually learn to read faster and maintain the habit of reading far into their adult life. I listened to a radio programme that was investigating the marketing of programmes to children such as Peppa Pig. The TV series immediately has the spin off of toys, DVDs, clothes, lunch boxes and books. Something that makes any child want to read is good but I wonder whether such marketing destroys something as wel,l in its ready packed consumer experience. I heard someone on the radio ( yes dear reader along with a paper fetish I am a Radio 4 groupie) talk about the fact that in some ways the art of the story was destroyed by the written word. That writing a story down fossilised it. In the era of the oral tradition stories were passed on and people would miss out the boring bits, extend and slightly tweak the exciting bits or add to the vividness of the setting. This process kept the story as an organic living thing that responded to its audiences’ interests, needs and lives. I am becoming involved in some story telling projects in schools and I find it fascinating how much, even very young children, want the opportunity to tell their story, to stand before a class and recount a story they have heard.

I am toying with the idea of getting someone to make me a story teller’s staff, one adult sized, one child sized. It is common practice for some story tellers to put on a special coat or cloak to give a visual prompt to the idea that now you are listening to a story. Allowing children to do the same thing is very empowering and very young children have no problem in telling the same story over and over again to each other adding their own little embellishments. You don’t have to be a Saxon elder huddled round the camp fire with other villagers to want to embellish and improve on the story of Beowulf to entertain and captivate your audience. A short incantation that children and adults say before telling a story can also be a great lead in to signal that now we are in the land of the imagination. “Let those that have ears to hear draw near and listen to my tale of a time when there were princes, princesses, animals that could talk and adventures to be had by those who were daring and brave,” is always a great attention grabber before you even launch into any fairy story. I have even used that tactic in another form when introducing children to poems especially ballads such as The Highwayman or The Listeners. I would never describe myself as a story teller but I am passionate about children being excited by them and sometimes you don’t need gadgetry, technology or devices to engage children with a story you just need the skills of one human being telling a story well to another and giving them the space and time to pass that story on to another. In such a way can the story thrive and grow and become part of the fabric of our society. The written word them becomes another doorway to a world children have already been excited by.

So much thought about stories and story telling is going on at Blogspot Towers. This also seems to be feeding into my poetry head and poetry tutor head as well so all things are useful that excite you about words.

If you want to listen to a consummate story teller listen to Eamon Kelly, a master of the art

I do know that momentous things are going on in the world, Gaddafi is dead, the European Market is wobbling, a Defence Minister is amazingly stupid …would you invite a friend to work and let them sit in on private meetings even when the higher management at work have specifically told you not to.. the man must have a blind spot the size of the House of Commons or an ego as large. Anything else …well all seems to be quiet and calm now at The Poetry Society, wounds may still be being licked but business as usual or rather as it should be seems to be being resumed. The small Dingly Dell that is the Poetry Village is more tranquil and no episode of Midsummer Murders will now be filmed there.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Net-Kipple and My Secret Life at The Dump.

I have not blogged during August and late July because it is the summer holidays and I had set myself the task of catching up on the novel, some poems and reading for my next Poetry School Course on Point of View.

I did this but not necessarily as much as I would have wished to. Why not? Because I got distracted. By what you may ask dear reader? And I will reply by saying, nothing much.

I am a great follower of tangents; I can go off on one quite easily. Tangents present an opportunity to find out all manner of things I don’t really have to know. The things I don’t have to know, I tell myself, may be precisely those things I might find useful one day, like the piece of string, the AA battery (power status unknown) , the small blunt blue crayon, found at the back of a kitchen drawer. The small detritus (detriti?) of knowing could one day prove useful or at the very least help my team win at Quiz night at the local pub.

I spent some time this summer trying to throw away or give to charity shops items and books I did not need or use any more. The men at my local Refuse Recycling Centre started to call me by my first name and enquire if I was moving house, so frequent were my visits. Even whilst at the dump, I kept spotting other people’s items in skips I longed to rescue and take home, so profligate did their abandonment seem.

I exercised restraint; I hurled black bags away like a champion shot putter. I assuaged my guilt and environmental consciousness by advertising things on the local Freecycle web site and four big bags of novels went to The British Heart Foundation. Old mice chewed discards extracted from my garden shed, however, were piled into the back of the Clio and ejected from my life.

I have written about kipple before, as Philip K Dick coined it and at the end of the blog given you a scene from the novel ( Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep..which was adapted into the film Bladerunner) in which he writes about it.

I can recognise that stuff can gather around us in an almost sinister way, it mounts up without serving any useful purpose. Yet still I can watch ‘Life of Grime’ and empathise slightly with the man who allows newspapers to stack up over the years, the woman who rescues old battered dolls to a point where she has only one seat she can sit in, the twins who never let a milk bottle escape from the house.

This is, in the extreme, a psychiatric condition I know but I nurture the seeds of this in my own life. I have stuff therefore I am. By stuff I don’t mean a rampant display of materialism but those items that are generated just by being. There must be an existential angst associated with identity and things we surround ourselves with, both intentionally and unintentionally.

Do Facebook friends sometimes count as kipple? Those with over a 2,000 such friends can only be intent on self advertising and serious networking in order to achieve an end. They must have realised very early on that the word friend means something totally different on this site. Does the use of the word kipple now have to be extended to cover all forms of internet accumulation? Is there net-kipple? Is this blog just another example of net-kipple, something that just hangs in the ether once read or even without being read and takes up some notion of space ( but not as we know it Jim)?

I was astounded when I cleaned my browsing history out, how many sites I had visited in the space of just a month. My browsing history was leaning heavily towards kipplisation. I now set my history time span to just one day and even that can, at times, produce visits that seem randomly bizarre.

I needed to research mortuaries in St Petersburg for my novel and that alone generated twenty four sites and pages examined. The physical ability to wander tangentially by following links probably increases exponentially the detritus in my computer’s cache. If things that accumulate randomly on my computer were translated into paper I would have to camp out in the garden and give the whole house over to them.

I have been editing some poems and fiction recently and realised how much kipple can accumulate in the written language. Do I need that word, does the reader need that word, that paragraph, how much wordage have I accumulated because I can rather than because I need to?

The old adage of ‘show not tell’ can leave you giddy with loss but there are also words that build up without the writer’s conscious intent. I have word ‘tics’ that accumulate and which my brain strangely doesn’t even seem to register, there are probably some in this blog post, in fact I know there must be some.

Not all poets and writers choose to use the short punchy sentence. The lyricism of the longer line or sentence can serve the writer’s individual voice better but I am trying to discipline myself to recognise what I need rather than what I think I need. I am also working harder at seeing the things that by constant presence become unseen. I am sure the elderly twins don’t see their thousands of milk bottles in the same way others see them. Perceiving and seeing are two different things, the former being ties in more closely to the vagaries of emotional reasoning.

The era of the assiduous editor who lovingly trawls through every line and sends his or her notes to the poet or writer is a luxury many publishers cannot afford, especially in the small independent presses. This then makes the role of writer as editor even more crucial and highlights the importance of ongoing workshops for writers and their access to good feedback from knowledgeable individuals. I suspect quite a few Arts Council grants are in part used to pay for such feedback.

Now if I could de-kipple more easily in life I wouldn’t be on first name terms with the men at the dump. However I embrace and am thankful for all those good souls out there who give me feedback on my work and allow me to see my ‘stuff’ as others see it.

Extract from
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
J.R.Isidore explaining kipple to Pris

- Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers of yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there's twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.
- I see.
- There's the First Law of Kipple, "Kipple drives out non-kipple." Like Gresham's law about bad money. And in these apartments there's been nobody there to fight the kipple.
- So it has taken over completely. Now I understand.
- Your place, here, this apartment you've picked - it's too kipple-ized to live in. We can roll the kipple-factor back; we can do like I said, raid the other apartments. But -
- But what?
- We can't win.
- Why not?
- No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I've sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and non-kipple, for the time being. But eventually I'll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It's a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization. Except of course for the upward climb of Wilber Mercer.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

'Don't Ask What Poetry Can Do for You, Ask What.....'

I spent last week end at the Ledbury Poetry Festival and closed the festival with Joy of Six. I was put up by a lovely local family who made myself and a fellow Sixer more than welcome. I never ceased to be amazed at the kindness of strangers (she says taking a Blanche Dubois pose) who are willing to invite poets into their homes, we are a strange breed often with stranger habits and yet these good souls open their homes to us; so three cheers for all the unsung heroes who put up poets all over the country.

Ledbury is a great festival with a healthy ‘broad church’ of poets from pink fairy ladies enticing children in to create poetry cup cakes, to full-on performance such as the Anti Poet, to Anthony Thwaite, who would not feel aggrieved at being described as not the 'Anti-poet'. The resident poet for the Festival was Ian Duhig who produced some really interesting work as a result of that residency. One of the stars for me was Helen Mort reading from her new pamphlet the 'Lie of the Land' especially a sequence of poems about the Miners strike in 1984 and in particular the Battle of Orgreave. She talks about where this sequence ‘Scab’ comes from on her own blog here so I won’t reinvent the wheel by outlining its background suffice it to say she drew in part on her experience of watching a re-make documentary film made by Jeremy Deller. It was a good reading, in fact I was so slow out of the starting blocks at the end I missed buying a copy of the pamphlet as it sold out in a flurry of eager poetry punters.

I found listening to this sequence engendered a mix of emotions; my uncle was a miner but significantly a Nottinghamshire miner. Mention the Nottinghamshire miners in some parts of South Wales, County Durham or Yorkshire and they may well spit in your face for what was seen as their treachery in not coming out on strike in 84. In fact I happened to mention that my uncle was a miner when once doing a reading in South Wales and when the penny dropped that he was a Nottinghamshire miner the air went distinctly frosty. If you listen to these audio memoirs of Nottinghamshire miners you can hear the very real dilemma these Nottinghamshire miners found themselves in as their region had balloted not to join the strike and they eventually formed their own union.

By then my uncle had died in his fifties of cancer and silicosis brought on by years at the pit. I don’t know whether he would have ever crossed a picket line if he had still been working but I tend to think he wouldn’t have, not because I want to have a ‘rosy’ PC view of my families socialist credentials but because he would have hated to be called a scab by anyone, in those mining communities that word holds such enormous power and baggage that it still has the ability to separate whole families to this day.

As a couple they both understood what the cohesive power of a trade union could achieve. My aunt, his wife, was one of the first female shop steward at the Players cigarette factory and she had fought long and hard not only for female representation in the union but for better pay and conditions for female workers. I listened for years to her tales and my mother’s tales (she also worked there before she married) of the conditions in that factory for women in the thirties and forties. I wrote a sequence of poems about her experience and my mother's using an old copy of the regulations issued by the employers at that time. It was part of the way of thinking for them that a union was the surest safeguard against exploitation.

Thankfully the coal dust made the decision for my uncle before he had to face the dilemma of whether to come out on strike and now all the pits have gone in Nottinghamshire and the slag heap from the pit that you could see from my aunt and uncle’s house is now greened over and part of a new park.

So to rewind, I found Helen Mort’s sequence very moving and also very exciting because it managed to combine real poetry with social commentary without becoming polemic which it can so often do. I wonder whether poetry on the whole has tended to offload strong social commentary onto the singer song writers these days. Poetry in the past has always been at the fore front of political and social commentary and in many other countries throughout the world it still is. If we English (and I am being specific here) write about it we often dress it up in irony or satire , this is a well established tradition, political views should only be inferred from poems. Perhaps poets (and I include myself in this) are a little afraid of appearing a little too self-righteous because poetry is supposed to show not tell, is supposed to somehow remain unsullied by the poets own strongly held views. These views are meant to be inferred by how the poet writes or the subject matter the poet chooses. Palestinian poets, Balkan poets, North Korean poets, all poets who have written poems of direct confrontation that have made them at risk of imprisonment or worse, they have created work of great courage, probing the status quo. Around the world words are important as they carry the weight of certain freedoms.

Here in the UK , well probably in Western societies in the main, we can write whatever we like within the current laws against slander, libel , racism and sexual discrimination and very little happens. Consequences are minimal, even Ezra Pound is still regarded as within the poetry ‘church’ despite his fascism and racism; he even wrote that his imprisonment was conducive to writing, with unwanted visitors kept from his door and a place assigned to him for his writing. The Welsh, Scots and Irish have produced twentieth and twenty-first century poets who were and are formed and informed by their political context, political freedoms are still a burning issue and continue to influence poetry. Sometimes I long for a bit more passion and fire in English poetry at present. Of course I know there are a number of poets who have written poems that contain aspects of real ‘social blood and guts’ without resorting to rant but they seem to be few and far between. Of the ‘bigger’ names’ , Farley, Tony Harrison and Armitage can pull out the political stops in a beautifully crafted way when they put their minds to it. Sometimes I want to feel that a poem is really important to the poet, that it comes from a passionate place, that if they didn’t create the poem they would be eaten up by the need to write it.

The governance of the Poetry Society is still up for debate and an EGM may help or hinder the better running of that society. A lot of poets or those interested in poetry have been tweeting, blogging, Facebooking, emailing, Youtubing and generally addressing the issues from various viewpoints. To take a step back I find it healthy that people want to take their freedoms and their rights seriously, that those currently in power are questioned and held accountable and that people are passionate about how poetry can best be made a thriving part of society . However I doubt whether how anyone votes at the EGM will resonate down through the years as strongly as the outcomes of votes for the Miners Strike in 84. There may be a bit of finger pointing, general bitchiness for a while and some may come out of the whole affair worse or better than they went into it. If the whole edifice comes tumbling down then it will be difficult for a number of people but not for as many as a local factory closing, as has happened near me. Poets will continue to write, some will get published and a few will be read and the best of them may be remembered into the next generation and perhaps beyond. I suppose to misquote Kennedy the question is ‘Don't ask what poetry can do for you but what poetry can do for society’. Writing poems about what really matters most to people in their lives, be that emotionally, socially or politically, may be a small part of that doing.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Caesar's Wife and Elvis Wander Betterton Street.

I have been quiet for a while as things to do and the amount of time available seem to have somehow got out of sync and an hour for Peter has been robbed to pay Paul and the blog got well and truly mugged. So I make up for that now by assuring you dear reader that I may be gone but you have not been forgotten entirely.
Of course the buzz in the poetry world at the moment or in small parts of it at least is about The Poetry Society and what is transpiring there. What is truly transpiring I have no idea, one can simply go on the facts; The Chairman of the board Peter Carpenter has resigned, the president Jo Shapcott has resigned, the Finance Officer Paul Ranford and the Director Judith Palmer have also resigned. No one at the Poetry Society has clearly stated why there has been a spate of resignation leaving it to blogs, Facebook and general gossip to make the rounds all of which contains some clear facts, some innuendo, some considered speculation and some wild allegations. Some has been anonymous; some from those well placed to know what is going on, although those two groups are not mutually exclusive.
Kate Clanchy is organising a petition to call for an EGM to address the concerns Poetry Society Members have and the Society itself has announced a meeting on the 22nd July to address the way forward and future plans for the Society. There is a big Arts Council grant at stake here, although it is doubtful if that will just disappear in a puff of smoke should the furore become even more public and vitriolic. However public funds for poetry have been slashed in other areas, so the Arts Council will want to know that they are not casting their bread upon decidedly choppy if not stormy waters.
I left the Poetry Society last year to join English Pen, which fights for the rights of writers, journalists and poets who are in countries where free speech is a very precious commodity. I would have liked to have remained a member but I couldn’t afford both. However I am a tax payer so as such I do have a stake in how public funds are spent. I would be suspicious of money being poured into any organisation, particularly one that is also a registered Charity where key figures have resigned, there is obvious unrest amongst members and the board is doing a heavy spin on lets look to the future rather than past events. If a public company acted like that I would not be comfortable about my widow’s mite going into their coffers without some public, reasonable debate in which I could hear all sides of the situations and place the flurry of resignations in context.If someone rattled a charity tin in front of me and I knew the charity was experiencing such difficulties then I would think twice before dropping a coin into the box.
It may be that everything comes down to personality clashes, it may come down to a clash of deeply held opposing views about how the Poetry Society should promote poetry, it may be due to genuine misunderstandings, it may be down to some kind of power struggle between various factions. It is probably a mix of all of these yet none of these reasons is beyond debate, especially in a publicly funded charity.
There may well be a clear divide about certain things but the trustees have to be seen to be even-handed and part of the facilitation of a solution rather than the source of the problem. The very name trustee implies a person in which we have full trust.No one will ever agree how £360,000 pounds can best be spent to encourage and support poetry in the UK. However the Arts Council by its actions in supporting The Poetry Society to this financial extent whilst closing the door in the face of other poetry organisations have clearly made a statement about the best use of the public purse. Those negotiations as far as I know have not yet been completed and I will want to know what questions the Arts Council have asked the Poetry Society about their organisation, the management, the board and the cohesive support they have for their current state of being, let alone their future plans. The money is obviously being given on the basis of specific goals they intend to achieve and have put in writing; anything else would be a reckless use of public money. What assurances can the board and the management give to the Arts Council that they are in a position to put in place strategies to achieve those goals with the support of the majority of its members and its current team (two of which, Board Chairman and Director are only temporary placements). They may be very well placed, they may not but they have to be seen to be at least striving to be in that place.
I have been a public activist all my life, I have a stake in society and in any government that seeks to run it. I vote at all levels of government and encourage others to do so. Whether or not I am a member of the Poetry Society is irrelevant, I still have a stake in any organisation or charity which seeks public funding by the democratically elected government. I expect such organisations to be as open and transparent as I would wish my government to be. That is not always possible, the law sometimes is used to protect those who might be harmed by such transparency but there has to be a very good reason why the behaviour and views of people in a publicly funded organisation is not accountable to the public as well as its members and to the trustees. I would hope that reasons for people’s resignation are clearly stated and are open and honest. It may be that their view of a situation is at odds with other views but any organisation should be robust and healthy enough to withstand even the harshest of critics and be able to counter the arguments with measured and clear ripostes Such good reasons for this not happening may well exist, they may not. I cannot believe poetry needs to go down the Murdoch and Gigg’s road of gagging but if it does then it should state clearly why it does and if it does.

There may be an element that believe that today’s news is tomorrows chip-paper and that simply keeping a dignified silence will eventually lead to the situation returning to a relative normal and business as usual status. An EGM or a GM may well not bring forth a solution it may even inflame the situation, if not handled well, but I hope the Arts Council are keeping a close eye on events and attending those meetings because other Arts and Poetry organisations have lost out spectacularly to keep HMS Poetry Society afloat and if the ship is actually holed below the water line and slowly sinking under the weight of either apathy or gainsayers to its current policies and management styles then I for one would withhold any payment until the situation is clearer and as a tax payer I shall be writing to the Chair of the Arts Council to that effect. This may well cause hardship and pain now but other organisations in the Arts have had to face such times and I don’t think The Poetry Society should be immune from the same sort of close scrutiny other organisations have had to bear. Woolly goals such as promoting and supporting poetry and poets can avoid the question of the way something is done. The ethos of clear, decisive and fair management and substantial support from the board and members has to be seen to be in operation. Caesar’s wife has to be above suspicion but has to be seen to be so.The Poetry Society has done some amazingly good things for poetry and poets and I hope it continues to do so in a way that all can support whole heartedly, if not that, then in a way the majority can embrace whole heartedly, that's the way it goes in a democratic society. Poetry will survive come what may, I think it is not a delicate flower , more a spectacular beautiful tenacious weed that can grow out of street pavements and on wastelands but lets not get to a situation when the poetry gets trampled under foot in the wrangling for what is best for it.

And here is a bit of music to end on from the king that might be appropriate

Let’s hope it all doesn’t all end up like this.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Tag wrestling: Eurovision versus Emily Dickinson and Mozart

I am in post Eurovision Song Contest mode. I always think it is a little like watching a car crash involving loads of people from a variety of countries squashing into buses that career into each other and then observing who will help out who. Mid Europeans, Balkans, ex Russian countries, Scandinavians there is no end to how each country's ‘voting panel’ rise to the challenge of ensuring old grudges are born out, alliances confirmed and the odd song shambles its way through the wreckage to win. This year Azerbaijan won, which is still fairly oil rich so staging the fest next year won’t put a dent in their balance of payments. Indeed perhaps the various juries bore in mind who could afford to run it when voting. No point voting for a country that hasn’t got a couple of goats to rub together when the Continent’s whole press descend and demand running water, flush toilets and MacDonalds, not to mention a stage big enough to accommodate a small army. At least this year there would uni-cycles and Jedwood to ensure the ridiculous continued to be represented.

I have been working on two poems at the moment, one of which sprung out of the BBC call for submissions for a poem about one of the pieces being performed at this years proms. I noticed Mahler’s Ninth was being performed and as I have a very particular memory associated with that piece I thought I would have a go. Memory is such a tricky thing and writing about a piece of music can either start pushing you down the autobiographical route or as I was tempted down the path of locating the piece in the biographical life of the composer. Mahler’s Ninth was his last full symphony, a work he never got to hear performed, dying in his forties before it could be played by an orchestra. I presume that Mahler must have heard it all in his head but in that I may be influenced by scenes from Amadeus where Mozart is dictating his great Requiem mass to Salieri… the notes were merely written down as a form of dictation from everything he could hear in his head, each instrument each musical line. I think I have been overly influenced by films when I think of how great composers work. This scene from Amadeus has always stuck in my head, such a beautifully crafted piece of writing and acting and comes close to getting under the skin of how great art is not just made but lives almost like an overwhelming animal inside one person.

A friend has a short story collection called True North. The story which the collection is named for is loosely based on the pianist Glen Gould and is well worth a read at how fiction and music can weave together.Gould's playing and interpretation of Bach is world renowned and it is interesting to see some of the traits displayed in the portrayal of Mozart in Amadeus is reflected a little in Glenn Gould’s quixotic approachto music. I am not saying that Gould was in any way close to Mozart on genius but that sometimes there is a passion, a talent so trapped inside the frailness of a human body that there is almost sensory overload. It takes discipline to compose and play well but it takes a dark fire to drive that discipline beyond mere magnificent to sublime. I suppose the old understanding of the word sublime as something transcendent is interesting.

Music has this way of expressing its genius in a way beyond itself, it can be externalised in an instrument or an orchestra. A writer, however, only has the same currency as the medium he works in to try and convey something beyond words.
It was interesting at Wordfest at Cambridge that Hisham Matar said after his talk and reading that it is always difficult to explain how one writes using the same medium as the art itself.

Musicians have been inspired by words for centuries; the earliest Latin masses inspired a musical interpretation in plainsong and later was a source of inspiration for many composers in great choral works. Poems have often been set to music by great composers but making that exchange a two way street is always difficult. Writing a poem about music has to rely on the evocation of something beyond words that engages with how a piece of music operates in the human psyche but which still has to be captured by them. Therein lies the skill.

The fascinating chill that music leaves
Is Earth's corroboration
Of Ecstasy's impediment --
'Tis Rapture's germination
In timid and tumultuous soil
A fine -- estranging creature --
To something upper wooing us
But not to our Creator –

Emily Dickinson

One of the best poems I know about music and what it can do is by Philip Levine about Charlie Parker. Personally I think Levine and Dickinson are singing the same song but in two part harmony.

Call It Music by Philip Levine

Some days I catch a rhythm, almost a song
in my own breath. I'm alone here
in Brooklyn Heights, late morning, the sky
above the St. George Hotel clear, clear
for New York, that is. The radio playing
"Bird Flight," Parker in his California
tragic voice fifty years ago, his faltering
"Lover Man" just before he crashed into chaos.
I would guess that outside the recording studio
in Burbank the sun was high above the jacarandas,
it was late March, the worst of yesterday's rain
had come and gone, the sky washed blue. Bird
could have seen for miles if he'd looked, but what
he saw was so foreign he clenched his eyes,
shook his head, and barked like a dog--just once--
and then Howard McGhee took his arm and assured him
he'd be OK. I know this because Howard told me
years later that he thought Bird could
lie down in the hotel room they shared, sleep
for an hour or more, and waken as himself.
The perfect sunlight angles into my little room
above Willow Street. I listen to my breath
come and go and try to catch its curious taste,
part milk, part iron, part blood, as it passes
from me into the world. This is not me,
this is automatic, this entering and exiting,
my body's essential occupation without which
I am a thing. The whole process has a name,
a word I don't know, an elegant word not
in English or Yiddish or Spanish, a word
that means nothing to me. Howard truly believed
what he said that day when he steered
Parker into a cab and drove the silent miles
beside him while the bright world
unfurled around them: filling stations, stands
of fruits and vegetables, a kiosk selling trinkets
from Mexico and the Philippines. It was all
so actual and Western, it was a new creation
coming into being, like the music of Charlie Parker
someone later called "glad," though that day
I would have said silent, "the silent music
of Charlie Parker." Howard said nothing.
He paid the driver and helped Bird up two flights
to their room, got his boots off, and went out
to let him sleep as the afternoon entered
the history of darkness. I'm not judging
Howard, he did better than I could have
now or then. Then I was 19, working
on the loading docks at Railway Express
coming day by day into the damaged body
of a man while I sang into the filthy air
the Yiddish drinking songs my Zadie taught me
before his breath failed. Now Howard is gone,
eleven long years gone, the sweet voice silenced.
"The subtle bridge between Eldridge and Navarro,"
they later wrote, all that rising passion
a footnote to others. I remember in '85
walking the halls of Cass Tech, the high school
where he taught after his performing days,
when suddenly he took my left hand in his
two hands to tell me it all worked out
for the best. Maybe he'd gotten religion,
maybe he knew how little time was left,
maybe that day he was just worn down
by my questions about Parker. To him Bird
was truly Charlie Parker, a man, a silent note
going out forever on the breath of genius
which now I hear soaring above my own breath
as this bright morning fades into afternoon.
Music, I'll call it music. It's what we need
as the sun staggers behind the low gray clouds
blowing relentlessly in from that nameless ocean,
the calm and endless one I've still to cross.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Village of the Dolls, Garden Centres Out to Get You

Tonight I watched a documentary film called Village of the Dolls, it is about Mark Hogancamp, an American man who built a whole small universe of dolls in his back garden. He does this as a means of expressing something about his life after he was brutally attacked and left severely injured outside a bar. His World War 2 village is called Marwencol and within it he creates scenes that his dolls play out which he then photographs. If you haven’t seen this documentary, it is astounding. Its view of how a man, so badly physically and emotionally damaged by others, struggles to make sense of that event, had me wondering at times whether this was just a voyeuristic look into the life of a man who may not be fully able to protect himself from the intrusion of others. By watching was I colluding with this intrusion? This is of course the old chestnut that is served up with documentaries about vulnerable people but it is still a question I feel I have to at least acknowledge and address. I think the tenderness and poignancy of his work however and his need to talk about it, makes the documentary a study in the triumph of what the human psyche is beautifully capable of when it attempts to heal itself. The fact that Mark is a cross dresser and pours so much of himself into his girl dolls as well as into his alter ego male doll representation, is touching, particularly when placed into the context of the attack which was triggered by his cross dressing Here is a link to a trailer about the documentary which gives you some flavour of it. The one thing I found important about the documentary was Hogancamp’s emphasis on how the building of his world was the way he could make sure that those who beat him so badly could not rob him of his imagination, the thing that made him most himself.

Sunshine has been conspicuous by its presence. Always a good way to feel that soon it will be skies filled with aerobatic swallows and sharpened elbows at the garden centre for bedding plants. I have an intimate knowledge of garden centres as my mother loved them. In the last few years of her life, even when the Alzheimer’s had a firm foothold she would love an afternoon being pushed in her wheelchair down aisle after aisle displaying all things garden . When garden centres embraced coffee shops and crafts, clothes and even pets her joy was complete. We could spend hours moving from hamsters to geraniums, passing jumpers and jigsaws on the way to a frothy coffee and cake. We could also add to her stock of hoarded packets of sugar, sachets of tomato sauce and mustard, she was a contented woman in the presence of potted plants.

I do not have green fingers, I am a poor gardener and sometimes plants flourish in spite of, not because of my care. I am not likely to be pastoral poet, I might be able to spot a host of golden daffodils but anything more difficult botanically than that and I am reaching for my Guide to Wildflowers and blowing the dust off it. This is not to say I don’t rejoice in the wonders of nature but more that I can’t put a name to them and don’t seem able to nurture them personally. However my garden does grow, not just with silver bells and cockle shells but elder, hawthorn, Camellia, ivy, a lot of ivy, brambles, dandelions, orange blossom, honeysuckle, bluebells, holly, convolvulus, ceanothus, daisies, buttercups and grass – so many types of grass, more types of grass than you would believe grasses. Nature given a clear run can manage just fine without the use of grow bags and all purpose plant food. Let be and there would be ivy covering Canary Wharf in no time, daisies on the M25, dandelions on the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon. That’s what I most love about nature sometimes it is always out to get you of course this is written by the woman who was bitten by a squirrel and returned from six weeks away to find convolvulus and ivy half way up all the drainpipes.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Hyperthymesia involving Shatner, Heaney and Strange Things My Mother Said

I watched a rather dodgy American comedy programme called Sh*t My Father Says which is loosely based on a Twitter feed that gained a lot of followers. I am still recovering from watching William Shatner deliver I’m too Sexy for My Shirt at a kari-oke night, the man is eighty which cuts him some slack.

However I started to think about all those bizarre pieces of information or sayings my mother chose to pass on to me, sometimes at inopportune moments, sometimes with some strange twisting of vocabulary. Here is just a small sample.

Never go out with a man with thin lips.
Never wash your hair when it’s a new moon or you have a period and definitely not if both coincide.
Never carry an umbrella around nervous dogs.
You can’t buy experience you have to pay for it.
A long green dress is likely to make you look like a stick of rhubarb, specially as you blush easily.
Sitting on cold concrete will give you piles.
Your granny could read Guinness froth like the tea leaves but only saw a four leaf clover once and then the man got knocked over by a coal lorry the next day.
You’re only tall because I overdosed you on Rosehip syrup.
If they are too neat they are probably German.
Too much coffee can undo all the good a Guinness does you.(Bit of a theme here)
Robins bring a message of imminent loss ( that one was a bit of a nightmare at Christmas as cards with chirpy robins dropped onto the mat).
No red and white flowers together, unless there is ivy in the house.
All brass ornaments off window sills during thunderstorms as they attract lightening.
Over jiggled babies can become cross eyed.
Swearing in cold blood in like kissing an old uncle. ( Never fathomed that one)
Wearing a vest is essential for the health of your kidneys.
Tripe soothes the stomach.
You probably failed your driving test because the examiner looked Welsh.
Going into hospital on a Saturday is never a good idea, all the doctors are tired by then.
Your granny had more cats than money.
She ended up in Mapperley (a psychiatric hospital) because she was having celluloid delusions.
The car won’t start because there is condescension under the bonnet.
You can tell he loves her, he gets constipated when she’s in hospital.
Your granddad went to the barber’s to get his hair cut and that led to pneumonia.
Their neighbours sit naked in the conservative.
She had pantomime poisoning and just blew up.
I can remember the Battenburg disaster, it was all over the papers.

I am researching memory for my second novel. I studied psychology at University both for my first and Master’s degree and have always found it a fascinating subject. Some traumatic experiences may be blocked out for emotional reasons, others experiences may be so small as to be immediately discarded. However under hypnosis the mind can summon up minute details that we think we have forgotten. There are those that would argue that these retrieved memories can in fact be constructed after the event and like eyewitness statements can be compiled unknowingly from a mish-mash of clues or expectations and bare only a small resemblance to the actual event. There are some who believe everything we experience is stored in the brain somewhere but that good memory is the art of retrieval, some can do it more easily than others. How we store information is embedded in all the memory skill exercises that you can find in books and on the internet. Attaching information to items along an imagined walk or as you move through a house is a tried and trusted memory aid going back to Socrates, yet everyday pieces of information and experiences cannot easily be recalled in such a precise and practised manner.

I was fascinated to find a programme that examined the phenomenon of super autobiographical memory when researching. There are a handful of people (five in this programme but probably more who don’t even realise they possess it) who have perfect recall of everything that they have experienced usually from ten to twelve years old onwards. Ask them what happened on 22nd March 1991 and they can recall with perfect clarity, what day of the week it was, what they did, the weather, any important event that happened in the news etc. They were all subject to a battery of tests that verified that they could do this accurately. Everything is filed away, stored and accessible with immediate vividness. One person who has this kind of memory finds this constant torrent of memory almost intolerable whereas the others in this programme seemed to be quite pleased and comfortable with their ability. They seem to be able to put the memories in the library and only visit it when they want or need to.

The neuroscientist involved in the study presumed he would find nothing special in their MRI scans of their brains and was surprised to find they had significantly bigger temporal lobes (the place where memory usually happens) and large caudate nucleus, a site deep in the brain associated with higher order motor control and sometimes with those suffering from OCD. It could be that some people can develop an obsession with memory to the point where nearly everything gets stored and recalled yet this does not seem to become dysfunctional. There may be others who exist with this kind of super memory yet have not been identified, some younger people may not even be aware that we do not all have this ability and others may hide the ability in case they may be seen as some kind of freak. We may be in X men territory here, powers that some may hide or channel into acceptable channels. The concept of photographic or eidetic memory has been dismissed by many scientists but those with this super autobiographic memory (Hyperthymesia) have something that comes pretty close, this ability coupled with high intelligence to channel it may be as good.

The constant accurate recall of past events may be a blessing or a curse, to the poet or the writer it certainly makes autobiography easier but all those poems about their own past would probably be no different, no matter how vividly something in conjured up or rerun like a DVD, complete with emotion and smell; the art is always in the way we see it and the way we tell it. The poem does not rely on accuracy, the truth of a poem never lies on perfect recall, it is not important if Seamus Heaney ever really watched his father digging, or Wordsworth happened on a lot of daffodils.

When I was giving out The selected Works of Seamus Heaney for World Book Night, I was distributing some in a sheltered housing accommodation complex. I came across a very elderly man, who turned out to be Irish, digging in his tiny garden (a strange coincidence). He asked me to read one of the poems from the book, so I chose

The Old Smoothing Iron

Often I watched her lift it
from where its compact wedge
rode the back of the stove
like a tug at the anchor.

To test its heat she’d stare
and spit in its iron face
or hold it up next her cheek
to divine the stored danger.

Soft thumps on the ironing board.
Her dimpled angled elbow
and intent stoop
as she aimed the smoothing iron

like a plane into linen,
like the resentment of women.
To work, her dumb lunge says,
is to move a certain mass

through a certain distance,
is to pull your weight and feel
exact and equal to it.
Feel dragged upon. And buoyant.

After I finished reading it, his eyes filled with tears and he told me about watching his mother do exactly the same thing when he was a boy. Then he said how touched he was that someone could use such a simple thing and simple words to make something so beautiful and real. So the right words in the right place and the memory is more than just a finely detailed description of a past event and yet it is also that. The tension between what the moment was and what the moment still is creates something dynamic and universal.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Have You Heard The One About Bishop, Marquez and the Whale

I have been busy researching in preparation for the series of workshops I am running for The Poetry School with Jane Monson. It is exploring the concept and practice of narrative in the poem. This subject has always fascinated me as the story is something that has been with mankind for as long as we have used language. I am sure the story was part of Neolithic man’s life. Cave paintings suggest that man understood the power of the imagination wrapped as it was in concepts of sympathetic magic. Perhaps all stories are forms of sympathetic magic a conjuring of the ‘what if’ for us to try on for size. Stories do have a purpose not necessarily as in a moral as such but as a playing out of scenarios. Are stories sometimes our way of being the kittens swiping away and a dangled piece of string in order to hone the skills of catching our prey? Do we unconsciously rehearse our own reactions to situations through the medium of a story? How would we cope with that eventuality, why is someone behaving in a particular way, do we think he or she should have done that. Of course the old great stories, the ballads pin us to our history, to where we have come from, what we owe, what we admire in ourselves and others. Beowulf told tales of monsters, what hides in the dark , what we fear and what we can aspire to in courage, how we can overcome fear. Such things were important in times when fear and death were constant companions. Fairy tales, even putting aside Jungian interpretations, hold universal themes, a certain kind of rough mirror up to our sophisticated faces.
Exploring poems for their narrative always seems to tempt me, what story do we create from the best of words in the very best place? I do not of course suggest that poems are always stories dressed up or cloaked from the reader but it is surprising how we cannot help but join up the dots sometimes; create a whole from the sum of the parts. There can be a ghost narrator in the machine now and then. I know a couple of well known poets who often speak about listening to what the poem has to tell them, sometimes that may be a story.

Here is a sestina by Elizabeth Bishop that manages to make that often difficult and boring form play to the strengths of what a story might demand; a series of events, a tantalising suggestion of who the ‘we’ might be, a switch of perspective from we to I and back, a beautifully described clear setting but with a surreal quality to it, gestures towards another story ( The Sermon on the Mount), the back history, if you care to investigate, of it having been written during the depression. What also sets this poem apart is that the sestina form can often just whirl around like an interminable carousel; this word, that word and here they come again, which can play against any sense of linear advance.

A Miracle at Breakfast

At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
--like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.

He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river.
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,
his head, so to speak, in the clouds--along with the sun.

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!
Each man received one rather hard crumb,
which some flicked scornfully into the river,
and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee.
Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle.

I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle.
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river,
--I saw it with one eye close to the crumb--

and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb
my mansion, made for me by a miracle,
through ages, by insects, birds, and the river
working the stone. Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.

This poem has always reminded me of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story. One of his quotes I have had in my journal for years is, “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” He also very famously remarked that fiction was invented the day Jonah got home and explained his lateness to his wife by saying he was swallowed by a whale.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Führer of the Streptococcracy

I have a cold, the Full Monty of a cold, pounding head, blocked nose, sore throat, sore eyes, temperature, cough, general weighty sense of self pity that usually descends with most colds. I stress this is a cold, not flu, Avian or Swine. It is just a common cold yet at the point of experience most colds do not feel at all common; they are uncommon, particular to you, always a cut above the average, run of the mill cold. I have long felt some sympathy for men when women mock their hypochondria, calling it ‘man-flu’ as if the fact that women bare children or have periods allows women the moral high ground on the cold. I think women may soldier on with a bad cold because of circumstances but secretly we would all like to take to our bed, be brought chicken soup, soft boiled eggs with soldiers, all the drugs the pharmacy can muster that purports to alleviate symptoms that prevent us raising our throbbing head from an unplumped pillow.

No one in Hollywood films seem to have colds, indeed the common cold in singularly absent form most movies. Would Norman Bates have turned out to knife Janet Leigh in the shower if he was suffering from a bad cold? Gary Cooper might have postponed his shoot out in High Noon if he couldn’t stop sneezing. John Wayne certainly couldn’t have held his reins in his teeth in True Grit if he was so bunged up with a cold, breathing was impossible except through his mouth. Kate Winslet would never have climbed out onto that prow of the Titanic if she was full of snot, indeed would she have ever managed an affair with Jack if she was confined to her cabin with a box of tissues and a hot water bottle. Arnie never has a cold, Rambo didn’t sneeze once, since 1988 John McLane in the Die Hard movies has never caught a cold from running around in just a vest in all weathers.

In literature, the odd women in Austen novels may take to her bed with a snivel so some gallant can angst or pace floors but indisposed never seemed to cover looking like shit and having a nose that can glow in the dark . No one seems to deliver their greatest speeches with a bunged up croaky voice, could Mark Anthony have got away with it if he had sounded like someone from Birmingham with acute adenoidal overtones? How would Lincoln have got away with the Gettysburg address if he had to stop to keep blowing his nose, would Elizabeth I have cheered on her troops before The Armada so well if she had to admit that she had the heart of a lion but with a bit of a bunged up nose? The common cold seems to have avoided the pivotal moments in history, if Arch Duke Ferdinand hadn’t gone to Sarajevo because he had a headache and couldn’t cope with his bunged up sinuses then World War I might have been delayed a little at least. If Lee Harvey Oswald had sneezed maybe his aim would have been off? The three hundred Spartans may never have fought so bravely and gone down in history or myth as brave men if they had managed to all have colds spread by their use of communal drinking bowls and shared washing facilities?

So I apologise dear reader that this blog is not the best blog I or anyone has ever written, it could have been if it weren’t for the fact that I had to stop to blow my nose, thence losing my thread amidst the grey cells that seem to be wrapped in a grey cotton wool at present .

I leave you with Ogden Nash, whose light humourous verse is sometimes dismissed by the poetry community. His surreal creation of rhyme by word invention has sometimes been under appreciated, I think a poet that understands my cold so well and can even invent the phrase The Führer of the Streptococcracy deserves some praise.

Ogden Nash

Go hang yourself, you old M.D.!
You shall not sneer at me.
Pick up your hat and stethoscope,
Go wash your mouth with laundry soap;
I contemplate a joy exquisite
I'm not paying you for your visit.
I did not call you to be told
My malady is a common cold.

By pounding brow and swollen lip;
By fever's hot and scaly grip;
By those two red redundant eyes
That weep like woeful April skies;
By racking snuffle, snort, and sniff;
By handkerchief after handkerchief;
This cold you wave away as naught
Is the damnedest cold man ever caught!

Give ear, you scientific fossil!
Here is the genuine Cold Colossal;
The Cold of which researchers dream,
The Perfect Cold, the Cold Supreme.
This honored system humbly holds
The Super-cold to end all colds;
The Cold Crusading for Democracy;
The Führer of the Streptococcracy

Bacilli swarm within my portals
Such as were ne'er conceived by mortals,
But bred by scientists wise and hoary
In some Olympic laboratory;
Bacteria as large as mice,
With feet of fire and heads of ice
Who never interrupt for slumber
Their stamping elephantine rumba.

A common cold, gadzooks, forsooth!
Ah, yes. And Lincoln was jostled by Booth;
Don Juan was a budding gallant,
And Shakespeare's plays show signs of talent;
The Arctic winter is fairly coolish,
And your diagnosis is fairly foolish.
Oh what a derision history holds
For the man who belittled the Cold of Colds!

Despite the cold I managed to give out all my Seamus Heaney books for World Book Night and had some interesting conversations with people along the way. I also managed to host an event in the evening which was fun and brought back to me again how important the reader is, without them books are merely paper with marks on.

Off now to watch Spartacus on the TV, nothing like a cuppa and an old film on a Sunday afternoon to help your cold feel loved and nurtured. That’s another one, imagine the famous ‘I am Spartacus’ scene if everyone was unable to get the words out for sneezing or a sore throat.
If you want to hear Ogden Nash read one of his poems that always struck a chord with me you can find it here.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011


Sometimes I wonder what the hell the world is about. Here we are this tiny rock spinning around an inconsequential giant ball of hot gas with a few other rocks, some smaller some larger. We spin around just quickly enough to ensure most things stick onto the surface without floating off, including us. We inhabit this rock and organise ourselves roughly by geography, political, belief and monetary systems. Sometimes we decide that one of these systems is not fair or not working to meet our needs and we attempt to change it. Sometimes that attempt is successful through the ballot box, sometimes it fails because a fair and democratic system is not in operation but the interesting thing is we still keep trying. Those who are most invested in a current system try to ensure that those who want change are ignored, silenced or generally marginalised. Fear and bullets are the quickest way to silence those who want change but many still keep trying.

Change of course is not always good, sudden change can mean instability, more conflict, a situation that seems worse than the one people at first sort to change but in some circumstances people will still fight for change because there is no alternative other than to try and make something intolerable better; the cost of not doing so outweighs the huge price that might have to be paid in human life and dignity.Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain are moving towards change, some may succeed in establishing a fairer, better system, others may fail, but the thing that impresses me is that people are willing to still keep on trying.

I don’t know whether I would have the physical courage to go out onto the streets and face the forces of authority that may seek to humiliate me, beat me, kill me. I went on the march against the war in Iraq because I was fervently against that war but it didn’t require any courage on my part, there was no danger of having to sacrifice my life to protest against something. However I did feel part of something bigger than just myself on that march surrounded by those who felt like I did, as I did way back when I marched against the war in Vietnam and Cruse missiles being based at Greenham Common. This may just be a tiny fraction of what protestors in Egypt and Libya and other countries may currently feel. Some may cite phrases such as ‘mob mentality’ but if a sense that nothing matters more than achieving change and striving for something fairer and better is shared by enough people there is a group will that comes into operation that might just be strong enough to bring about that change. And if bullets, tanks and planes prove too strong some will still be willing to keep on trying.

Of course there are as many reasons for protesting and wanting change as there are protestors. There will be some protestors who act out the worst that humanity is capable of(looting, random acts of violence, rape) and there will be many who act out the best that humanity can aspire to. Just because you want change does not automatically make you a better person but maybe what it does do is make you a person who is prepared to believe that change can be brought about through the sum of individual actions.

I have been re reading Anne Sexton’s last Collection of poems, ‘An Awful Rowing Towards God’, published after her death by suicide. She is of course one of the great confessional poets. She was encouraged to write poetry by her therapist to help her through her bipolar mood swings. She struggled with mental illness and writing poetry helped her with that struggle and out of that came poems that won her prestigious prizes and huge international recognition. I always let this be a touchstone when some tend to see poetry as a form of therapy as somehow a 'lesser species'. Survivors Poetry can produce poems that demand to be heard not just for the witness of the content but for their use of language and craft. One poem by Sexton jumped out at me, as I was reading it just after another news update from Tripoli in Libya speaking of people still protesting despite the attacks made upon them by Security Forces. The second and third stanzas remind me of all those men and women in Libya willing to still protest despite the danger, to swallow that hot coal of courage to die for each other and a cause. They have felt despair for too long and perhaps now it can at last awake to the wings of roses and be transformed


Anne Sexton

It is in the small things we see it.
The child's first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you'll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you'll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you'll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

In the Closet Rummaging for a Vampire Villanelle

So I think I should come out of the closet, I like urban fantasy involving supernatural powers, vampires, werewolves, the odd Zombie, maybe a demon or angel or two thrown into the mix. Don’t get me wrong if it is poor writing driven by clichéd situations and the odd splash of gore and sex thrown into the mix just to titillate or tick the box then I can easily dismiss it as tosh …such a nice word tosh feels more rounded than rubbish. Yet written well and acted well it can be a real joy to watch or read (although I must admit I tend to watch it rather than read it).

I have always been intrigued with why the concept of the vampire can have such a hold on the human psyche. There are Jungian and Freudian interpretations abounding…young girls and blood is always a good bet for something deeply meaningful going on in involving the unconscious. Some deep seated concerns with menstruation and becoming a woman and growing older and then along comes a vampire than not only drains you of blood (that nasty monthly reminder that you can now be a mother) but here is this creature that does not grow old has all sorts of powers but yet put them in the clear light of day or near any religious paraphernalia and they can be vanquished. They can only enter a house if invited which could be a metaphor for the fact the events that they bring about are somehow colluded with. We invite our own destruction at times.

Vampires and werewolves are big business, the media abounds with such programmes which can easily be overlooked as the equivalent of moving wall paper but thousands tune in to see someone transform into something beyond our normal understanding with fangs or hair and uncontrollable feral urges. Over the years the genre has built up a whole universe of vampiric rules and regulations which many fans guard jealousy. They can do this but they can’t do that, they can die in only very specific ways, stakes, silver bullets, daylight. Sometimes the rules are broken to serve the plot, to make the genre just that bit more flexible but you do so at the risk of some hard core readers shaking their heads in disbelief at such liberties. What interests me is that there are some things that remain central to what is essentially only an imagined world no matter who the writer is. Vampires crave human blood, werewolves transform during the full moon( again another menstrual cycle allusion). Vampires can beget other vampires and werewolves other werewolves. Everything stems from these things, plots, character everything has certain fixed points in a shared understanding of how this world works. That is almost what I love about this genre writing it generates a huge investment by the reader in the details of imagination. You are asked not just to suspend disbelief and believe in vampires etc but you are asked to invest in the establishment of boundaries and rules and an intricate yet shared interwoven set of beliefs about how they can act. All fiction demands of the reader a certain leap of faith into the writer’s world but in this genre there are a myriad of leaps of faith that are almost choreographed into an intricate dance that aficionados are willing to join in. I don’t look down my nose at such lovers of the genre I just love that they are so engaged in serial acts of imagination. There are probably as many badly written urban fantasy novels, televisions programmes and films as there are badly written literary, romance, crime or thriller novels or films. Somehow it is a genre that is often ridiculed as Goth, geek and plain weird territory despite the fact that in the publishing industry such books are out selling almost every other genre world wide and is also attracting an increasing number of women of all ages where is has a strong fast growing market. This is a genre that is probably not going to go away and it is the genre that statistics are saying is attracting people who would not normally consider reading a book. So I think something that gets non readers reading it great, it builds a reading habit that might start to extend to other books. There has also been the Harry Potter phenomenon whereby readers of that series have naturally morphed into readers of urban fantasy. If you have consumed wizardry and dark forces at work at Hogwarts its only a short stretch to a werewolf in your garden shed and a charismatic vampire turning up at your book reading group. I feel I should be out and proud about my predilection, I watch Being Human and enjoy it , there I’ve said it, do I need a sponsor to ensure I don’t go on a Twilight Trilogy DVD bender one day?

One of the earliest vampire stories is Vampyr by Doctor Polidori written in that rain sodden holiday in 1816 at Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont. Out of this came Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or a Modern Prometheus and Vampyre. Polidori based it on unfinished extract of a story by Byron and did little to dispel the belief that the very famous and huge celebrity Byron wrote the story…it helped his sales no end. The vampire in the story Lord Ruthven is almost modelled on Byron who himself worked hard at his mad, bad and dangerous to know image and who flouted conventions especially sexual ones with great panache. His connection with Hell Fire Clubs did little to dispel his demonic persona that he worked hard at promoting. There had always been folklore tales bout vampire like creatures and Poliadori simply packaged it up for the dark gothic tastes of the era.

There are countless vampire websites containing poetry that quite frankly rivals Vogon poetry for craft and tone but let’s not get too snotty, Goethe wrote a vampire poem and whilst it may not have been his finest work he is hardly a poetic dullard. I think poetry draws heavily on myth and legends for subject matter or metaphor yet somehow the world of vampires and other supernatural beings is consigned to some fanzine ghetto. Such tales are almost regarded as too chavish, too ‘poor popular taste’, to write serious or even ironic poems about, other than perhaps the odd tasteful homage to a classic Dracula film. If any one knows of a modern poet who has written a good vampire or werewolf poem I’d like to know about it.

How strange that a topic that can be an enormous part of the cultural zeitgeist at the moment and sparks endless poems on fan sites can be virtually unrepresented in modern poetry. I typed that and suddenly stopped , what a snob I’m turning into, there I am saying there is a huge amount of vampire poetry on innumerable vampire, werewolf or Goth fanzine type sites and then saying it is not to be found in modern poetry as if real poetry was something only defined by a very narrow criteria. There is the argument about what is just taste and what is ‘good poetry’ ( whatever that is) but to discount it all in such a cavalier way is a bit harsh. I must go up to my room and write in blood one hundred times, I must not be a poetry snob, I must not be a poetry snob.