Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Pantheon and Poets as Synchronised Swimmers


I am wondering why seeing two grown men so distraught at only coming second in the double skulls is sticking in my head so much. Super Saturday brought so many scenes of great triumph for the GB team; people over coming, striving, working so hard to get the ultimate reward, a gold medal. Whilst I loved all those winning moments for the GB team I still can’t quite shake those shots of the exhausted pair as the floated on the water and just cried in front of the packed stands and afterwards in a brief painful interview with the inconsolable Zac Purchase he said,

     “The emotional side is always difficult. When you put everything in and you lose, there is no hiding place. …We’ll spend days, weeks, months, the rest of our lives, trying to work out if we could have done more.” 

    I am of course always drawn to the plucky loser, gracious in defeat, it is almost part of our cultural DNA. The maternal in me wants to hug them and say those words we say to our children when they don’t pass their driving test, get relegated to the back row of the ballet class, don’t get picked for the team, don’t get the grades they need, get pipped at the post for their dream job, “Well you did your best, that’s all you can do”. The taking part, the endeavour is what’s important not the winning, the need to make someone feel better about the situation and themselves drives us to believe that. Top athletes however want to be the best they can be but ‘the best’, measuring yourself against others’ performances, is what it is all about and the best they can be is to be first. The nature of the winning professional beast is that you do have to judge yourself and be judged by others and be found short of the mark. 

     Innate talent is a given but everything else is up for grabs. Usain Bolt may be too tall to be a sprinter but be blessed with super fast twitch muscle fibre by virtue of his genetics but that is all; the rest has to be hard work. There may be hundreds out there who could have exactly the same physical and genetic requisites but circumstance and personality and opportunity is what will make all the difference…and the need to win must be up there with the other circumstances and attributes.

     I sometimes work with children with such low self esteem that winning is never a valid option the whole of their being denies them that vision. They can rip up a picture they have drawn if you tell them how good it is. To be good at something, you first have to be comfortable with the concept of being good at something. The GB Team in general has broken through to that place where winning is not just a lovely perk of taking part, you have the right to want it and work to achieve it and be devastated if you don't achieve your goal. 

     Perhaps devastation is the price you have to pay for that level of belief. This same belief  fuels and drives athletes to train in bleak wet weather, spend hours pounding the roads or in the gym or on the track, go to bed when others are going out on the town to enjoy themselves and makes them grasp the nettle of being lonely and separated from those you love. A personal best is not the consolation prize at the top levels and even lower down it is still the wooden spoon because if you have given so much, your all, you have to believe that you are doing it so you can win and be the best. Keeping things inproportion is exactly what they are doing when they weep at not winning. Good sportsmanship does not preclude being angry at yourself for falling short of what  you dared to strive for.

     The relationship between performance and sponsorship and monetary rewards is a huge part of the equation now. Mo Farah and his family will have a better life financially because he has won Olympic gold. Jess Ennis will always have a job when her heptathlon win is just an old clip they run on TV but part of the qualities that will sustain them in their post Olympic careers is that they have been the best in the world and that being the best in any other walk of life you choose to enter is an option.

     In some countries, where young people want to have the sort of life they see top athletes having, it is acceptable to want to emulate sporting heroes and become famous because their fame is legitimised through hard work. The successful sportsman or woman have always inspired young people but in this media savy age the opportunity to be seen to do what you do best, winning, has been increased a million fold. Someone I met recently told me about their experience of watching the Kenyan athletes in the last Olympics in a Kenyan township in a school hall where satellite TV had been installed. He spoke about how nearly every child there saw a real possibility for themselves and not just a spectacle.  

     Others here who gain celebrity status through fly on the wall TV or other routes are regarded as passing fluff and tomorrow’s chip paper. Sporting heroes with their face on bill boards or advertising banks or trainers have achieved their status through ‘righteous endeavour’, they have literally sweated for it over years, their fame has longevity and cultural kudos. 
     I wonder if our excitement at having a plethora of sporting heroes to embrace now is not just about them being an inspiration for future generations to get off the sofa, switch off the computer and participate in some sport. All cultures need their mythic heroes and if they don’t have them they create them out of what the media serves up to them . Perhaps deep down we are rejoicing that we may now have, not just one or two heroes but a whole pantheon of them…there they are on top of the heap, standing on Mount Olympus smiling down at us, affirming that it is not just ok to win, it is what we have a right to want to achieve. These are not the false gods of quick media celebrity but are what our deeply engrained Protestant work ethic tells us is virtuous and so we can relax and enjoy.

     It isn’t just the younger generation that needs to be inspired, I know I need to feel it is ok to get teary when a GB sportsman or woman wins and when Zac Purchase spoke he spoke for something else in us, that regret at not winning is what you have to deal with in life because telling yourself you did the best you could is never truely consoling or quite enough. Regrets are ok so long as they don't become so deep we become dysfunctional.; hence the note of irony in this blog's name.

Writing as a competitive sport is not yet eligible for the Olympics.The various glittering poetry prizes and book awards create a thin veneer of competition about what is the best but you can’t judge poetry or prose with a stopwatch. There aren’t points for level of difficulty as in gymnastics or diving, no one would say that a sonnet attempted quite well beats a free verse poem that is merely very good. There may be marks for technical merit but artistic interpretation and creativity gets a huge percentage of the marks. Having come across the marking system for synchronised swimming I think it may be a system that could be used for poetry and book awards but just invert the percentage of the marks allowed for technical prowess and artistry. Take a look, I think a team of synchronised swimmers could be roughly akin to a batch of poetry books or novels and for some books you don’t need waterproof makeup, neon swimming caps and nose clips to get you through.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Mini Opera


Here is the entry for the mini opera competition run by the ENO based on a story 'The Dream Sweeper' by Neil Gaiman.

Setting, a huge tip consisting of mountains of rags. Ghost like people sort through the rags scavenging for those that can be sold. A man, the rag man, swaggers towards them.

Rag Man:  Come on over ladies and gents,
                   let’s be having you, penny for old mares,
                   a quid for something new.
                   Found a sailor drowning in a whisky sea,
                   a man trying to open doors with a melting key?
                   A check-out girl, glued to her swivel chair,
                   she spits teeth onto the belt
                   watched by a queue that doesn’t care?
                   How about a soldier watching his mates die,
                   he screams to warn them over and over
                   but they never hear his cry?
                   A timid teenage girl running
                   through her school, suddenly she’s naked,
                   I’d give a fiver for that but I won’t take any tat.
                   Top price paid for terror, misery and pain
                   mare stuff I can recycle again and again and again
Scavengers: We can sell you all their nights,
                     but there are no dreams for us,
                     only theirs to sift and to sort;
                     bad to worse, worse to this ,
                     the last resort for us.
                    We are the dreamless,
                     the scavengers, the lost.
                     and no one gives a toss.
Rag man:    Listen I’m no bleeding heart,
                     I’m only here to play a part, 
                     my job is just to buy the mares.
                    Who cares about you...No one cares
Sweeper enters with his broom pushing a hand cart piled high with rags. The scavengers all gather around his cart examining its contents. He sits down, exhausted.

Sweeper:   The nights these days seem longer,
                  each pavement and every gutter
                  clogged with all their dreams,
                  the clutter of designer histories,
                  words they mutter into pillows,
                  and into the ear of the dark
                  that listens at their window.
                  Each dream roars in my head
                  and this old dragon breathes
                  a fire into the shadows,
                  into the fabric of the night
                  then it slashes, tears and rips
                  and I sweep it up, sweep it up
                  and bring it to the tip

Scavengers:   We need new fears, new tears,
                        bring us something new.
                        These old sorrows, bad tomorrows,
                        are two a penny now.
Sweeper’s Lover:  Leave him be, leave him be
                               can’t you see he’s had enough
                               night after night he sweeps alone
                               sweeps the dark for us.
                               Let him have some peace 
                               all their ragged dreams
                               have worn him to the bone.

The Sweeper: Their dreams have worn me down.
                        I am the man they don’t quite see,
                        a roll-up glow in a back alley.
                        I am that maybe, an almost sound
                        they believe they don’t quite hear,
                        the constant foot- fall behind them
                        that suddenly disappears.
                        That old moon is this white silk,
                        a soft noose around my neck,
                        those stars a million holes pecked
                        in black velvet by dark crows.

Scavengers: We need new fears, new tears,
                      bring us something new.
                      These old sorrows, bad tomorrows,
                      are two a penny now.
Sweeper’s Lover: Remember Sweeper what I find as well
                               those scraps of hope I never sell;
                               odds and ends of wonder, happiness,
                               bright threads of memories.
                                                                            We sort and sell the torn dreams
                                                                            but there are always those I keep
                                                                            that makes it worth the sweep.
    Scavengers: A girl whose wedding dress is slashed and cut.
                         An opera singer whose mouth is sewn tight shut.
                         A mother who sees her dead son in the house.
                         A man being chased by a giant Minnie Mouse

Rag Man:     A penny for that giant Mouse,
                      tenner for the mother’s haunted house.

Sweeper’s Lover: Hold her rag to the moonlight,
                              see the tight warp and weft
                              the close weave of her longing
                              is all that she has left,
                              the silky slivers of her heart
                              that shimmer in the dark.
The Sweeper:  I bring it all here, the scraps
                         of teeth bared, bolting mares,
                         the ragged dreams of life,
                         their Kevlar loves, their flimsy cares,
                         I bring them home to you.
                         A panic at losing something,
                         the wanting that comes first,
                         all their best dreams and worst,
                         I bring them home to you,

Sweeper’s Lover: I have made a quilt to keep you warm
                              out of dreams that may be torn
                              but are flecked with love and hope
                              stitches of better tomorrows.
                              I know the strands of cold 
                              that wrap around your soul,
                              those frayed chill fingers
                             of lost dreams that linger
                             on your face and in the air you breathe.
Rag Man: A hundred, no a thousand for that quilt.
                  It’s wasted on the sweeper; 
                  he’s the one who built
                  this wasteland, rag, by rag, by rag

 Scavengers: He swept and swept,
                       and built this wasteland,
                       rag, by rag, by rag

 Sweeper: I swept and swept,
                  and built this wasteland,
                  rag, by rag, by rag
Sweeper’s Lover:  No, you swept for us, for me,
                                we forgot how to dream and
                                we built our own wasteland
                                here, rag, by rag, by rag

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Solipsism Syndrome and Other Horizons in Poetry.

There are moments when you realise, as you sit battling with the new Blogger layout and system, that blogging is an act of total and utter solipsism. Nothing I say within the limits of this blog feels real to me as an experience for anyone else, not that I don't think you are real dear reader or that your experiences are not valid. However if there is no interactive experience other than the self, the very early stages of solipsism syndrome may kick in now and then which may be displayed in mumblings to the self and a slight sense that it may be a hop, skip and a jump from here to starting to stack newspapers in the hallway and appearing on Life of Grime. Solipsism is a philosophical position that nothing outside one's own mind can be known to exist, or, sometimes, the position that nothing outside one's own mind does exist. Solipsism syndrome is, by extension, the overwhelming feeling that nothing is real, that all is a dream. Sufferers become lonely and detached from the world and eventually become completely indifferent.Luckily I went through all that 'Am I the figment of someone else's imagination' angst when I was thirteen and decided back then that if I was whoever was imagining me had a really poor imagination if all he could come up with was what I was living.Watching the Matrix also confirmed to me that if Hollywood could put Keanu Reeves in a film that purported to show our whole lives as being the construct of some giant computer then the reality option was to be preferred. However I became interested in solipsism syndrome whilst researching something for a SF short story. Psychological considerations are important in the design of enclosed spaces such as artificial habitats in deep space or under water, with aolipaiam syndrome being specifically identified as a factor by scientists and engineers.Several strategies to attempt to avoid occurrence of solipsism syndrome in artificial environments are discussed in NASA's "Space Settlements: A Design Study" which proposes designs for space colonization: 1. A large geometry, in which people can see far beyond the "theatre stage" of the vicinity to a view which is overwhelmingly visible. 2. Something must exist beyond each human's manipulation because people learn to cope with reality when reality is different from their imagination. If the reality is the same as the imagination, there is no escape from falling into solipsism. In extraterrestrial communities, everything can be virtually controlled. In fact, technically nothing should go beyond human control even though this is psychologically bad; however, some amount of "unpredictability" can be built in within a controllable range. One way to achieve this is to generate artificial unpredictability by means of a table of random numbers. Another way is to allow animals and plants a degree of freedom and independence from human planning. Both types of unpredictability must have a high visibility to be effective. This high visibility is easier to achieve in a macrogeometry which allows longer lines of sight. 3.Something must exist which grows. Interactive processes generate new patterns which cannot be inferred from the information contained in the old state. This is not due to randomness but rather to different amplification by mutual causal loops. It is important for each person to feel able to contribute personally to something which grows, that the reality often goes in a direction different from expectation, and finally that what each person takes care of (a child, for example) may possess increased wisdom, and may grow into something beyond the individual in control. From this point of view, it is important personally to raise children, and to grow vegetables and trees with personal care, not by mechanical means. It is also desirable to see plants and animals grow, which is facilitated by a long line of sight. 4.It is important to have "something beyond the horizon" which gives the feeling that the world is larger than what is seen. All the above begs to become a found poem which I shall work on and of course I see metaphors for so much else in these points made in the study. There are so many people now that have no access to something beyond the horizon let alone a future space colony on Vega. Why am I talking about all this ? Because I have just had a poem published in Focus the magazine for writers published by The British Science Fiction Associations and it set me thinking in my embryonic solisistic way about horizons and boundaries. Science Fiction and Fantasy is a genre that I admire and love, when well written. It is a genre that offers up the opportunity to explore beyond what is now or possible and interrogates the imagination in complex ways. Fantasy and Sci Fi have to sometimes create not just a narrative but a whole world for that narrative to unfold in. There are no short cuts in a story, the 97 Bus to Peckham is something most people have a concept of but place it in an urban fantasy or Sci-Fi story and it becomes other; it has to be defined, it has to be described, its purpose and history created because in an urban fantasy this bus may not be just a bus. It may be a sentient being who manifests itself as a bus, it may be a thought bus created by the necessity to get to Peckham and that thought can move you through space and time, it could be a holographic bus created for nostalgic reasons in the 23rd century. Everything is up for grabs in fantasy and Sci Fi, even in hard scientific sci fi stories, as long as the writer remains internally consistant. Charles Christian in his article in Focus in which he addresses 'Why Poetry in a SF Magazine?'talks about the sort of prejudice that exists against poetry in Sci Fi and Fantasy genre but he suggests that if you call it magic realism then it becomes something far more acceptable. The rose by another name will indeed smell sweeter to some poetry readers. Whilst there are no boundaries about what a good poem can do, some readers can still occupy the border crossings demanding to see the poems paperwork, its passport and visa before it can be truely welcomed to Poetryania. Some poets, because they are beloved existing citizens of Poetryania can cross the border now and then into Sci Fi and Fantasy and still be welcomed back to their homeland, their brief excursion viewed with some minor interest or ignored as a brief but ill advised excursion. The best Sci- Fi and Fantasy( both Urban and otherwise)can tell us something about ourselves and our world now. At the moment I am reading China Mieville's Iron Council the last in his Bas Lag trilogy. In these books he creates a world and writes a story set during three different period in this world's history. The whole work is rich with metaphor about our world and the history of capitalism and empire , the nature of freedom and what makes us free beings despite our differences. Here is a world where characters can be giant cacti or sentenced criminals remade as hideous part human, part insect, part machine or a monstrous compilation of attributes, there is, by definition, an exploration of what is the defining qualities which make a sentient creature capable of moral judgement. What makes an individual capable of good, ill or both at the same time because in the end characters and their choices are what drive a story.The use of magic and strange steam technology may enrich that world but it is the why of things rather than the how that holds the real magic of looking at the commonplace with different eyes. Equally a poem that explores strange context, the nature of reality, what might be or not be,creates a whole new world, is only a stone's throw from the old so called Martian School of poetry which uses the strangeness of the everyday to underpin the poem. The late Edwin Morgan was of course one of the great poets who embraced the Sci Fi genre and he saw no reason why poets should not be as comfortable in the journey to the planets as in any walk in the countryside.He didn't believe in boundaries and to go back to the design specs for future human existence in space then there needs to be a sense of something beyond the horizon to make sense of it all. I would also like to point out that I have created paragraphs in this blog but the new system seems to deny all knowledge of this means of creating boundaries between thoughts.....walks away from the computer mumbling to self and tripping over a pile of newspapers.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Falling Tall Women, Pope and Body

This is a blog partly in response to a posting on the blog Poetry on the Brain by Helen Mort. This post looks at the relationship between the body, the mind and the poet. This response wanders off, of course, as I like to wander, annoying to those around me but strangely exhilarating to me as I find all sorts of things down the road less travelled; teapots, unread letters, marbles, a few of which are often my own.

I should perhaps start by saying that as part of my work in the past I have worked with those who have or have had acute Body Dysmorphia and on two occasions Gender Identity Disorder. I also know someone who, as a hospital social worker in the United States had to deal with two people experiencing so called Body Identity Integrity Disorder ( when a person feels a part of their body does not belong to them and is so alien that they want it amputated ).

These are of course very extreme positions on a ‘psychiatric continuum’ which we all to some extent inhabit, for instance how many women or men regard a part of their body as unsatisfactory when others can see no problem at all. How we perceive out body and also how we perceive our movement of it and the space it inhabits is extremely interesting and must be part of the human condition.

Many children with Dyspraxia I have worked with have huge difficulty knowing where their body is in space. If you ask them to lie on the floor and close their eyes many will clutch at the floor and they will open their eyes because without any visual feedback they feel as if they are falling in space. Ask them to describe that feeling and even very young children have told me not only are they falling (with all the inevitable anxiety this can bring with it) but they feel they are losing something else they can’t quite name. One boy once told me it felt like he had to open his eyes because if he didn’t he would disappear, which I can only presume is a loss of the sense of self.

The use of various techniques such as sensory circuits help such children build a greater sense of where they are in space and in relation to others and the effects on behaviour and mood are reported as enormously beneficial in many cases. This of course begs the question of how self-esteem and self-perception are integrated within the psyche which is a whole different ball game but nevertheless increasing an individual’s body awareness in space does seem to have a marked effect on self perception.

Those whose career and identity are intrinsically woven into their physicality; how they move in space , how they control their body to achieve various objectives or to experience a sort of endorphin rush find the loss of bodily function informs who they are, their own sense of self. Kinaesthetic memory has a huge impact on memory in general and if identity is seen as a constant chain of memory, each link has to be of some importance in creating and perceiving self. I am 6’ 4” tall and that has had a huge impact on how I perceive myself and how I am perceived by others which has to have a knock on effect on self perception.

Strangely at the moment I am attempting to write about being extremely tall. I actually see the world differently given my eye-line which means I see somethings others do not and vice-versa. I can see across a crowded room whereas my shorter friends can not; my body allows me to experience a crowded room as something other than a swathe of backs . Put me in a room full of people taller than myself, which has happened once or twice and I become quite disorientated and strangely disembodied. This is nowhere near the impact that a disability could have on who I am and how it effects my creative work. Someone in a wheelchair entering a room who has to look up to people to talk to them has to work harder at maintaining their self esteem as there is research that shows that having to talk to someone taller than yourself has an impact in how you perceive the nature of the dialogue and who has the power in the relationship. This may tie in with your example of the difference people showed in judging distance after being read different types of stories. A very assertive tall person can be seen as either a leader or a bully (dependent on context), whilst an assertive short person can be perceived as either exhibiting some kind of ‘Napoleon’ complex or being aggressive.

The late Ian Drury in later life said that his disability had a huge impact on his creative work if only in so far as he sort to fight against and nullify what others perceived as its impact. It would be interesting to know how many poets now and historically have disabilities, blindness, deafness, paralysis, deformity, and how is this bodily difference reflected in their work and is there a difference in those with a difference from birth and those who have acquired a difference.

I sometimes can’t help but think about those old tales of Native American Indians believing that if they allowed their image to be taken (photographed) they believed their soul would be taken from them. Perhaps they knew better than we do that when faced with the objective image of our own bodies, in order to process that information something more than the visual is involved, we have to integrate that with our self perception and this may cause a real schism in our sense of personal identity which you may see as the soul if you are religious. Who we are and who we perceive ourselves to be has always been a hot poetry topic and the shell we inhabit isn’t really a shell at all it is an integral part of who we are and how we inhabit physical space.

Alexander Pope, the eighteenth century poet and essayist (among many other things) struggled with ill health all his life. He had a kind of tuberculosis of the bone which led him to be only 4’6” tall and quite badly deformed. He was in constant pain yet his sharp satirical wit demonstrated his refusal to be pandered to because of his physical looks. But of course how far was his physical difference the source of something that drove him to be the poet he was. His Catholic faith precluded him, as brilliant as he was, from ever attending University or holding any public academic post and yet this hunch-backed little man was able to be one of the most prominent thinkers of his day. The drive to be listened to, to write, to be counted as one of the great minds of his day cannot be totally divorced from the fact of his body and the way that impacted on who he was.


There are those who to my person pay their court:
I cough like Horace, and, though lean, am short
Ammon's great son one shoulder had too high -
Such Ovid's nose - and 'Sir, you have an eye'.
Go on, obliging creatures, make me see
All that disgraced my betters met in me.
Say, for my comfort, languishing in bed,
'Just so immortal Maro held his head;'
And, when I die, be sure and let me know
Great Homer died three thousand years ago.
Why did I write? What sin to me unknown
Dipp'd me in ink? my parents', or my own?
As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came.
I left no calling for this idle trade,
No duty broke, no father disobeyed:
The Muse but served to ease some friend, not wife,
To help me through this long disease, my life.

Alexander Pope

Monday, 9 April 2012

Being Nowhere and Somewhere

So Assad continues to murder his own people, the man under Donald Trump’s toupee asserts that Obama is hiding the fact that he was not born in America and a man swims out into the Thames to disrupt the Oxford versus Cambridge boat race. This seems the default position of the planet, mad and mad and mad. But all of these acts have an agenda , hidden or otherwise, showing that madness is a term only used by those who do not grasp the benefits such acts can accrue. Assad gains ground before a potentially damaging ceasefire, Trump gets publicity for his TV show and plays to the Republican paranoia, and the swimmer gets a lot of air time for himself and a cause.

I often think the world is going to hell in a hand-cart and that we, as a species, are doomed to expunge ourselves in some gradual or spectacular way and leave the planet to keep turning and mend itself in any way it can. Yet such a feeling is of course defeatist and ignores all the good things our species can do and there are some good things you just have to look hard enough. Individuals can be kind, thoughtful, willing to help, some even sacrifice their own well being for the well-being of others. We may produce Mozart, Da Vinci, Shakespeare, the small pox vaccine etc but the small things may be the most important. I saw a man yesterday run after someone who had dropped a ten pound note, a young girl pushing what looked like an elderly relative in her wheelchair and laughing with her about something, the man in the corner shop letting a young man use his mobile because his had run out of money and he needed to phone someone to say he would be late.

Ok tiny things, small unimportant events, in great danger of becoming that twee ‘pay it forward’ scenario but on the whole I keep the faith that most people would rather do good than harm on a personal level and that all that needs to happen is that this feeling get translated to the bigger picture. Why am I pontificating about all this, because I have joined the Nowhereisland Community and I am thinking about how a new nation should be formed, what values it should hold as worthwhile. This is especially important when children get to think about those things in a way that grabs their attention and this project seems to be doing just that.

At present the American writer and poet Ben Morris is this week’s resident thinker and proposes that the constitution of Nowhwereisland should include a demand that islanders should have multiple careers, a state he describes as being Occupational Polyglots.

I qualify as being an occupational polyglot, even more so, if we factor in being a mother and a carer of elderly relatives. If the view from where you stand involves several points in the landscape it does make for a more rounded perception of where we are. I think one point I would make however is that perhaps occupation does not have to involve monetary exchange. I know many poets who would say they are poets but make no money from it and in fact the flow of money may well go the other way. I make my living by doing something can sometimes be equated with I live by making something such as poems, books, images, a community organisation of some kind.

Is someone in receipt of disability benefits for instance precluded from seeing themselves as having an occupation as a poet, writer, artist, web designer, carer? Their occupation is not being disabled but that defines how they are paid and often relegates anything else they do to a ‘hobby’ as the potential for some occupation being paid for will effect their benefit.

How we occupy ourselves surely is an occupation but I understand in pure economic terms it cannot be classed as such but with a new nation perhaps volunteering, producing beautiful art which makes you no income, should still be an occupation. When that space on the form says occupation, I am always tempted to write simply ‘YES' as I am more than occupied. I have a paid occupation but much else of what I do is just as important and feels like a career and not a hobby. Are only those whose income is solely from writing, art, etc, able to say this is their occupation? Most poets I know actually make their living from teaching creative writing, editing etc and not from the poetry itself but they would still say they are poets on a visa request form. I never actually write poet or writer as my occupation, am I doing myself down by just writing what constitutes the source of my income. I could of course put textual and conceptual imagineer and see what happens.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Anatomy of an Obsession

This post is I suppose about the anatomy of an obsession, how it mutters in the brain until something is written and then the noise manages to subside to the sound of heavy breathing somewhere at the back of the mind. For over twelve years I have been slightly obsessed with the artist Goya and in particular his Black Paintings and now I am busy thinking about Goya again as my sequence about his Black Paintings is going to be published by Gatehouse Press in the summer accompanied by drawings by the artist Tom De Freston.
Goya was a man who lived in two minds, official court painter and a creator of drawings and etchings that showed the dark side of war, the Inquisition, the corrupting nature of power. He feared poverty; keeping careful track of monies owed him, writing letters to remind the royal court of his pension payments whilst spending his final years in France for fear of retribution by the king and government. In his seventies after the death of his wife he lived with his mistress Leocadia Weiss, forty years younger than himself and a known supporter of the liberal cause, who had a child Rosaria who was probably his illegitimate daughter.

His series of etchings the Disasters of War are graphic portrayals that warfare was a bloody, terrible thing and that the aftermath of famine and hunger were equally terrible. He did not turn his face away from these realities and in so doing he is seen by many as the first true war artist. His support of the liberal cause in Spain and his lampooning of the church made him a candidate for reprisals by both state and church yet he painted Ferdinand VII on his return to power after he had suppressed the brief flowering of the liberal constitution in Spain. This was the same king who beefed up the powers of the Inquisition which was a secret police that anyone could denounce people to, especially those who might be at odds with the state and church.

Goya was called before the Inquisition and a report of his behaviour during the Napoleonic occupation and his known sympathies with liberals was drawn up. He stood before a secret tribunal of the Inquisition charged with gross corruption and indecency for painting the Naked Maja. This nude was not ‘disguised’ as some goddess or myth, she was painted as a real woman gazing, unashamed, into the face of the observer and the artist. No one knows what was said at that secret hearing. Goya, who had completely lost his hearing in his forties, would have stood in silence and have been unable to hear the charges made against him. Their questions would have been written down so he could read them.

However Goya knew how to look, how to really look, at faces, his work bares testimony to that. What he saw in their faces must have frightened him enough to make him decide that staying in Madrid was not a viable option. Soon afterwards Goya bought a small house and estate out of town and retired there with his mistress and his child. The tribunal and the power of both the King and the church were not to be toyed with. As an old man he knew he was no match for the King who set about a series of bloody reprisals against all those liberals that had opposed his return to power. Typhus was also ravaging the city and life in the country would have seemed the best way for him to continue his work .

In his house, aptly named by a previous resident, Quinta del Sordo,(House of the Deaf Man), Goya fell ill , probably with the typhus, and nearly died. He painted a portrait of himself and the doctor who managed to get him through this illness by way of thanks. So, old, deaf, weakened by illness, still in fear of the authorities and still tormented by the ravages that bloody war and civil turmoil had wrought upon Spain,Goya set about painting the walls of his house.

Fourteen paintings for himself, fourteen images that seemed to come from something he could not come to terms with or ignore. These paintings were painted on a thin layer of plaster on top of adobe brick. Not the best of preparation for posterity and Goya would have known that. These paintings were not commissioned, not for sale, not created for any other purpose than to be the outpourings of something that gnawed in his brain like a rat. X Rays have revealed that he may have painted them over the top of lovely landscapes of the countryside and joyful scenes of peasants dancing.

They only survive now because of extraordinary coincidence and the skill of the conservator who managed to lift them from the walls in the late 19th Century and put them onto canvas so they could be transferred to The Prado, where they remain. These paintings allow us to become a peeping Tom staring directly into the head of the artist, who some regard as the bridge between Romanticism and modern art,the last of the Great Masters.

Who knows, Goya may be appalled that these paintings still exist, that they are publicly displayed, as this was never his intention. Those that visited his villa and dined with him may have found it uncomfortable to have the image of Saturn devouring the body of his child staring down at them, or Judith swinging the head of Holifernes. Goya may have liked the idea of discomforting his visitors. There were devil goats, witches, monstrous old men and women, men up to their knees in mud hitting each other with cudgels, a scarlet woman on a flying carpet with a terrified man flying toward a citadel on a cliff above the guns of men below, strange religious processions in which the people had surreal distorted faces, a small dog struggling to swim uphill, only his head showing above the ditch dirty water. These images are not exactly the work anyone would choose to decorate their walls with, they are dark, disturbing, nightmarish and some display a dark kind of humour..

These images and Goya’s later life have fascinated me for well over twelve years and now I am getting to a point when I can somehow express that strange obsession and share it with others. Working with a painter seems so appropriate and right, Tom's response to the paintings, Goya, and the poems, make this project a meaningful exercise in examining how art and poetry individually can work together to make a different whole.

Perhaps it is in the nature of slight obsession that modern parallels between these paintings and Goya’s later life seem to keep appearing, only a while back there was a cartoon in the Bristish Press using the Black painting of Saturn Devouring his Children as a template but it was entitled Assad Devouring his Children. The constant back and forth of armies across Spain, the years of to and fro between so called liberators, liberal more democratic causes and a repressive entrenched regime intent on using religion as a means of control doesn’t seem too far away from the Middle East and Afghanistan now.

The Peninsular War and its aftermath killed thousands upon thousands of soldiers and civilians, caused famine and disease and throughout it all Goya kept painting, who ever was in power at the time could whistle and he would come and paint for them and yet he painted the Duke of Wellington complete with all his medals and regalia whilst also drawing a lampoon of him as a strutting peacock. He may not have been a nice man or even a kind man but he was complicated and I think a genius so that may cut him a bit of slack.

As a political exile in France in his eighties he would wander the streets of Bordeaux sketching ordinary people, drawing freaks in local carnivals. Totally deaf and wearing three pairs of spectacles, one upon the other, as his sight was so poor he was still driven to capture images.One of his last drawings was of an old man on a swing which was maybe lampooning the French portrait style of Watteau and others who favoured placing women on a swing to paint them. However sometimes I wonder whether this is another little portrait of the old Goya who swung back and forth between life and death, between rich paymasters and a liberal cause, shadow and light. During his life Goya said three things which reasonate with me.

'First be a magnificent artist and then you can do whatever, but the art must be first.'

'Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.'

'Always lines, never forms! But where do they find these lines in Nature! For my part I see only forms that are lit up and forms that are not. There is only light and shadow.'


After the Black Painting ‘Saturn Devouring his Son’ by Goya

In the dining room I have finished the grasping hands,
the air is thick with the smell and even my deaf ears
can detect the high notes of putrefaction that coat the wall.
The eyes bother me, the necessity for a shade of white,
too desperate for my palette makes the mixing of paint
another exercise in the toxic arts. The lead has stoppered
the jug of my brain enough to make the chemistry risky.
I have studied the priest in the inn eating a leg of lamb
to get the right degree of lean into the meat of the body.
The half erect penis may cause guests a little trouble.

All this power must be underlined by a sexual thrill,
besides this hard-on is only for private consumption.
Flesh that springs from our own loins is sweetest,
tender with all the hopes we baste them with.
What does he taste, this father; ripeness of muscle,
juices of a heart yet to feel the treacherous moment?
Is it salted with tears, the most ancient preservation?
Death is easily spat out but you need a strong stomach
when it comes to swallowing the whole corpus of love.
If I stop for lunch, the paint will congeal like blood.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

My status is Facebook and the Spiritual Poem

A Facebook Status

Why oh why oh why, is it so difficult to find tights that fit comfortably? I am neither excessively fat nor tall. Who do they make tights for anyway?

My response

Ladies step away from the counter and let an expert on finding tights that fit get through. The motto one size fits all was scribed by a skinny person of restricted growth. If you purchase Xl or XXL tights the length versus width dilemma prevails. They may come up to your chin but they are also so wide they would give Norah Batty a run for her money. Alternatively they are not too saggy but the crutch comes up to your knees. Tights were developed to meet the needs of the sixties, a mini skirt or hot pants with stockings was not seen as cool then (although now I am sure you could get away with it and do as a fashion statement providing you are under 25 or Lady Gaga).

Stockings had their own small agonies a suspender belt can leave huge welts around the hips that Torquemada would find satisfying on a heretic and if the suspenders are not long enough or the stockings too short you have every chance of having to walk like Quasimodo. I became used to stretching up to get something off a shelf in a shop accompanied by the painful ping as a suspender gave way under the strain and hit your thigh with all the recoil of an industrial strength catapult.

Bearing in mind the above I now usually go for jeans or trousers with socks or the comfy top pop sock so beloved of the vascularly challenged and at my age I thankfully no longer require the added contraceptive nature of tights especially in confined spaces such as cars and linen cupboards.

Then of course you do find the perfect fitting tights and discover they are made in factories in third world country manned by small under nourished children or they disappear from the shelves because the manufacturer has gone out of business because there is only a small pool of long legged women and possibly transvestites that love his product. And don’t get me started on leggings and the hybrid bastard jeggings.

What has this got to do with life as a poet and writer you ask dear reader and the answer is everything has something to do with your life as a writer and poet.

I have been thinking a lot about Facebook lately and why we use it; in view of its upcoming floatation on the market there has been much said elsewhere. It may be the spawn of the devil, it may waste the users time when they should be out talking to real people, but it also lets ideas be exchanged, projects floated, information can be sought and gained. It can support the Arab Spring, it can bully teenage girls, it can allow people spread across the world to see a new born baby held by its mother, it can tag someone in a photo of a drunken office party in a pose they deeply regret. We give advertisers their data, their demographs, their potential targeted markets, in return they give us a method of communication and a global forum. It is not compulsory, we choose to use it. We may have to be canny about privacy settings and access but it can allow others a tiny window into a life. Hang onto that thought of a window for later.

I have also been putting together a reading of spiritual poems by women poets over the centuries. Spiritual I have taken in a very wide context but I have been struck by how women write about things we may term as spiritual but how few are often represented in some anthologies. I have managed to find two or three anthologies of Spiritual poems by women that have been intriguing reading in their variety and approach. Spirit comes from the Latin root suspire to breathe, and the breath is the backdrop of all poetry, the silences as much as the words; the full stop, the comma, the dash, the moment of the line break , the white space around the stanza , all this is how the poem breathes. So given that perhaps most poems are spiritual but to that perhaps should be added the dimension of depth, how a poet struggles with their existence, or the why of it all. It is a bit of a cliché that all poetry is ultimately about sex and death, you could add that even sex and death as themes lay upon the foundation of why. Why do we strive for sex and love? What is love and death? What is our place or purpose on this small spinning rock? These questions are the life blood of poems that could be termed spiritual dealt with at a macro or micro level.

So now to draw together the threads of the spiritual and Facebook I am posting a poem by Adrienne Rich the wonderful American poet. Her poem might not be seen by some as spiritual but in my book it breathes it. Read it and then apply it to Facebook , some interesting connections are made, remember I told you to hang onto windows.These lines alone especially resonate with me re Facebook.

‘We see each other daily and in segments’

‘Maybe we shouldn't turn our pockets out
To the last crumb or lingering bit of fluff,
But all we can confess of what we are
Has in it the defeat of isolation--
If not our own, then someone's, anyway.’

The second stanza alone makes me approach Facebook in a new light.

It is, for me, a beautiful poem that demands we look at our own lives, how we take people for granted. That saying good-bye to those we shall see tomorrow places those around us in a different light, enough to make us step back and value them. All around the world at the very moment you are reading this someone, somewhere is saying good-bye to someone they will not see tomorrow but think that they will because they believe life is ordinary like that. Death and leaving are also very ordinary. That thought alone is worth a small breath, a little space to breathe.

Stepping Backward

Good-by to you whom I shall see tomorrow,
Next year and when I'm fifty; still good-by.
This is the leave we never really take.
If you were dead or gone to live in China
The event might draw your stature in my mind.
I should be forced to look upon you whole
The way we look upon the things we lose.
We see each other daily and in segments;
Parting might make us meet anew, entire.

You asked me once, and I could give no answer,
How far dare we throw off the daily ruse,
Official treacheries of face and name,
Have out our true identity? I could hazard
An answer now, if you are asking still.
We are a small and lonely human race
Showing no sign of mastering solitude
Out on this stony planet that we farm.
The most that we can do for one another
Is let our blunders and our blind mischances
Argue a certain brusque abrupt compassion.
We might as well be truthful. I should say
They're luckiest who know they're not unique;
But only art or common interchange
Can teach that kindest truth. And even art
Can only hint at what disturbed a Melville
Or calmed a Mahler's frenzy; you and I
Still look from separate windows every morning
Upon the same white daylight in the square.

And when we come into each other's rooms
Once in awhile, encumbered and self-conscious,
We hover awkwardly about the threshold
And usually regret the visit later.
Perhaps the harshest fact is, only lovers--
And once in a while two with the grace of lovers--
Unlearn that clumsiness of rare intrusion
And let each other freely come and go.
Most of us shut too quickly into cupboards
The margin-scribbled books, the dried geranium,
The penny horoscope, letters never mailed.
The door may open, but the room is altered;
Not the same room we look from night and day.

It takes a late and slowly blooming wisdom
To learn that those we marked infallible
Are tragi-comic stumblers like ourselves.
The knowledge breeds reserve. We walk on tiptoe,
Demanding more than we know how to render.
Two-edged discovery hunts us finally down;
The human act will make us real again,
And then perhaps we come to know each other.

Let us return to imperfection's school.
No longer wandering after Plato's ghost,
Seeking the garden where all fruit is flawless,
We must at last renounce that ultimate blue
And take a walk in other kinds of weather.
The sourest apple makes its wry announcement
That imperfection has a certain tang.
Maybe we shouldn't turn our pockets out
To the last crumb or lingering bit of fluff,
But all we can confess of what we are
Has in it the defeat of isolation--
If not our own, then someone's, anyway.

So I come back to saying this good-by,
A sort of ceremony of my own,
This stepping backward for another glance.
Perhaps you'll say we need no ceremony,
Because we know each other, crack and flaw,
Like two irregular stones that fit together.
Yet still good-by, because we live by inches
And only sometimes see the full dimension.
Your stature's one I want to memorize--
Your whole level of being, to impose
On any other comers, man or woman.
I'd ask them that they carry what they are
With your particular bearing, as you wear
The flaws that make you both yourself and human.

Adrienne Rich

Friday, 20 January 2012

Gazing at Stars, Schrodinger's Cat and Nanomagnetics

So where did January almost go to, same place as Christmas and New Year I expect, same place as that other sock, the biro kept by the phone for messages,that fuse you could have sworn was in the corner of the kitchen drawer for that moment when the kettle plug pops, the same place as that New Year promise 2011 that you can’t even remember now but which at the time you really believed you would keep, the same place as the full stop in this sentence , but then oh no here it comes, glory be there is something finite in this fleeting, constantly moving, fey yet at the same time precise universe.

Perhaps you can see that I am just recovery from Stargazing Live on the TV. I love the way they tacked Live on the end to ensure everyone knows that Professor Brian Cox, the rock and roll, cool astro-physicist will be speaking without the intervention of an editor and some things may be less than exciting if it gets cloudy. I was rather disappointed for the Exmoor Village that consented to put all their lights out so the stars could be seen more clearly in all their glory and alas it rained and the cloud cover was so low even small children were ducking to avoid cumuli concussion.

I like science programmes, I like trying to get my head around concepts that are so huge I need someone to reduce them to the size of an orange orbiting a grape or should that be vice versa? In Cambridge next week I have been invited to an event at Cavendish Laboratory ( home of the split atom) which promises to tick all my boxes for bite sized pieces of fruity knowledge.

It is a competition akin I feel to a slam poetry event but here those involved in physics research of all kinds have three minutes to explain their research in a cogent and hopefully entertaining way and be voted on by a panel of judges, I presume mainly on delivery and content but also maybe on the wow factor.

Having seen some of the research topics I am looking forward to seeing if I understand anything. Some of the research projects up for 3 minute explanation are I gather

Measuring the Evolution of the Universe,
High force magnetic levitation using superconducting bulks,
Making solar cells better with Buddhist singing bowls,
Simulating planet formation,
Extreme Engineering: Nanopillar Lasers
CP violation in D(s)->KS0h decays,
Electrodeposition of Copper Nanowire Interconnects,
Controlling and Understanding DNA Transport with Optical Tweezers
Bacteria and the immune system in the human gut
Plastic Electronics
Multi-target ADSR: an innovative concept for a safer nuclear energy production Nanomagnetics
Mobile Human Monitoring
The Beauty of Bottoms

Personally I think the Beauty of Bottoms may just be a catchy title to hide something quite technical involving probes of some kind and the Solar cells and Buddhist singing bowls may be a bum steer as to what the actual research is. However I will be there trying to grasp with my little grey cells the magnitude of man’s capacity for exploring what is already out there and what could be out there. I am waiting to see if someone can come up with an app that gives you the dummy's guide to the explanation of everything. Some would say that already exists and is called an encyclopaedia or wikipedia or the internet in general.

One day we may all be chipped with a small interface with the internet and global wi-fi cover and speeds with be increased to the point where we can be walking around knowing everything almost instantly and then the intelligent will be all of us but the really intelligent will be those with the capacity to use that knowledge well and what well means will still be in the realms of social philosophy and politics …..but wait a minute we are probably there now , only a tiny step from the iphone3 to a chip in the head..

And finally in anticipation of this up coming evening here is a poem by Peter Howard, physicist and poet, a sestina no less, about , Schrodinger's cat, his hypothetical cat in the hypothetical box.

Some Flash Poetry pieces also by Peter can be found here, as we are in the area of technology , science and poetry. I particularly recommend Smoke. You have to have flash on your computer and be prepared to click on the poems and make things happen.