Tuesday, December 09, 2014

My Favourite Poetry Collections in 2014

As ever with this annual blog feature, these are collections I read or finished in 2014, but were not necessarily published this year.

Gottfried Benn – Impromptus (Faber, 2014): translations of the great 20th century German poet by Michael Hofmann. When people start using words like “great” to describe newly published collections, this book should put that comfortably in perspective.

Alexander Hutchison - Bones & Breath (Salt, 2013): deservedly won the Saltire Scottish Poetry Book of the Year. The fact that it wasn't also shortlisted for the Forward and TS Eliot Prizes simply evidences the marginalisation of Scottish poetry within the UK, except for the approved brands. This book is profound, humorous, musical and touching, and blurs the boundaries of experimental/mainstream.

Tishani Doshi – Everything Begins Elsewhere (Bloodaxe, 2012): these poems channel strong feelings in a way that most contemporary confessional poetry only aspires to. Their cumulative effect is of a singular and deeply reflective consciousness at work.

Ian Hamilton – Collected Poems (Faber, 2009): the master of the short, compressed lyric shows why he is the master. Eighty-five pages of poems published over forty years or so was his entire life’s output (he died in 2001). Very few duffers.

Vahni Capildeo – Utter (Peepal Tree Press, 2013): this collection uses words in ways you could almost describe as original, and there are very few books that deserve that description. Rich imagination and dark humour combine to provoke, amaze and occasionally baffle.

Joan Margarit – Tugs in the Fog (Bloodaxe, 2006): we should be grateful to Anna Crowe. Her translations of this Catalan poet have resulted in profound and moving poems that aren’t afraid to pierce the heart of darkness. The best of his love poems are as good as you’ll get.

Michael Donaghy – Collected Poems (Picador, 2014): I’d only read bits and pieces from Donaghy before. Not everything works for me but the good poems are exceptional. Dextrous use of form and diction engage both emotions and intellect.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Vows, Powers and Federalism: Post-Referendum

So that’s a No vote in the referendum and I hear people from both sides of the debate already looking to the future, a future in which the Scottish Parliament is to be given greater powers. People in England too are talking about change. Everyone remarks on how the turnout was a great thing for democracy and involvement (I agree) and on how change is now inevitable. I suspect radical change is inevitable but these may not constitute the change voters in Scotland wanted or expected.

I think we have a massive problem. David Cameron, far craftier than he often appears, has immediately shifted talk of (unidentified) powers for Scotland to talk of federalism in England and to deny votes for Scottish MPs on English matters. Initially this sounds reasonable. It will form part of a populist agenda, delivering on those rather oblique ‘vows’ (isn’t it easy to deliver something when no one really understands what was promised in the first place?) and making out that the Scottish vote has galvanised support for radical change in England. However, this is a right-wing Conservative government, propped up by the dead-men-walking Liberal Democrats, and their sudden enthusiasm for constitutional change should be ringing alarm bells in our heads. Loudly. Conservatives do not tend to put power in the hands of the people. Naturally, they tend to consolidate the status quo and strengthen power in the hands of those who already have it i.e. people like themselves.

Let’s imagine the scenario of the next election being won by Labour with a small majority. However, they are unable to pass any laws on health, education etc because Scottish MPs cannot vote on these issues, which are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Despite the Labour majority, the Conservatives would have enough MPs to pass a law effectively destroying what’s left of the NHS. This would slash state health funding throughout the UK. The Barnett formula, or whatever disadvantageous variation remains, would allocate a now much smaller sum to the Scottish Parliament health budget, and the NHS would therefore become unsustainable in Scotland even though Scottish MPs had no say in the matter at Westminster. Labour would find themselves unable to pass laws on all kinds of vital services. Only a very big majority for Labour could guarantee a stable Labour government. Whether New Labour would protect the health service even with a large majority is (shockingly!) open to question in any case.

Federalism in England may also give Conservative-held councils the ability to slash social services, while councils presiding over areas of significant deprivation will see their budgets proving even more inadequate than at present.

Many people in Scotland are suspicious that Westminster will not deliver the ‘powers’ they promised. I think they will deliver alright, with gusto, at terrible cost both for Scotland and for the cause of social justice in the rest of the UK. In Scotland, we will complain, of course, but we have no legs left to stand on. It’s what a majority of people voted for in the referendum, whether they realised they were voting for it or not.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Late Reflections on the Scottish Independence Referendum

1. We are asked whether we want to be an independent country. Someone from the Conservative Party says we’d be better with the UK’s “safety net”. He likes being safe and is very worried about all that... stuff out there. Like bewildering trapezes, perhaps. Really, how you vote may depend on how scared you feel. But the safety net is mythological. There is no real safety net.

2. It’s interesting to hear that some Conservatives appear to support a dependency culture when it comes to Scotland. They complain about subsidies we are supposedly being given and then do everything in their power to keep us, to make sure we keep receiving them. What’s the logic in that?

3. Actually Scotland isn’t being subsidised at all and the extent of currently untapped oil reserves are unclear. That could be one reason why the main British parties are keen to resist separation. Oil! Who would have thought?

4. Many friendly people from England say “Don’t go. Stay with us.” But we are with you. We’re not actually going anywhere.

5. One English person was saying, “But what about us if you become independent?” Well, that is up to you and the people of England and I hope you make positive choices. Some people have suggested the entire population of the UK should have had a vote in this referendum as it affects everyone. I presume they also believe that every citizen in the whole of Europe should have a vote in the proposed referendum to decide whether the UK should stay in the EU?

6. I am not a nationalist and dislike flag waving. I describe myself, when asked, as “Scottish” rather than “British”. It annoys me when people on TV talk about British culture when referring to aspects of English culture. It happens very often! But I do not “love” my country: neither Scotland nor the UK. Anyone like David Cameron, who feels “heartbroken” over a change in a country’s constitutional affairs, needs a psychiatrist.

7. I was watching that awful Better Together video with the patronising BT lady and then watching one of the versions with subtitles inserted by very witty, creative people from the Yes campaign. And I thought, “Who would I most like to have a pint of good Belgian lager with? The makers of the video or the makers of the subtitles?” The answer is easy.

8. Some people might think it rather glib that I'd consider voting Yes because of a campaign video, but I don’t think it is glib. It’s to do with vision. The people I’d like to hang about with are the people most likely to want to build the kind of nation I’d want to build. They get my vote.

9. The Yes campaign has been characterised by wit, creativity, artistic flair and positive vision. The No campaign has been negative, scaremongering and gloomy. It basically says, "We love Scotland. But we can't make decisions for ourselves." I find it depressing even to think about it.

10. Sometimes Yes propaganda has gone over the top. I don’t really believe we’re going to create this new society founded on peace, justice and solidarity, complete with unfathomable riches. But the alternative is the terrified, doom-laden purveyors of No, and, to that I say, No thanks!

11. Apparently we are the 14th or the 49th richest country in the world, depending on how you calculate it. Needless to say, a Yes supporter calculated 14 and a No supporter calculated 49, roughly equal to Ireland. That sounds OK to me, either way.

12. Supporters of the status quo are often concerned for what they might personally lose. They are especially worried about their property. I heard today of one couple who made an offer on a house but had a clause inserted in the contract that they could back out if there is a Yes majority on Thursday. What do they think is going to happen? Is Scotland due to slide into the sea?

13. Think of your pension, I am told. Think of your savings. What currency are you going to use anyway? Well I certainly don’t trust the UK Government to protect my pension or non-existent savings and anyone who does, post-financial-crisis, is a prize idiot. And I’ll use whatever currency we end up deciding on.

14. And that reminds me – Standard Life? Are you reading this? My pension scheme is with you. It’s not going to be with you for much longer. Cheers!

15. Various businesses and banks threaten to leave Scotland in the event of a Yes vote. Some No voters get hysterical and actually argue this as a reason to vote No. I have never witnessed such pathetic capitulation before power in my life. For goodness sake, let's show an ounce of courage here! An ounce of moral fibre, even! People who use threats clearly do not have the interests of Scotland, or you, at heart. In the unlikely event that they do move out, I’m sure someone will move in and take over all their customers.

16. “Vote Yes and get away from the Tories!” some urge. That has appeal, but wouldn’t swing it for me. The problem for me is that in the UK there is no visionary alternative. The Lib Dems have lost all credibility. The Labour Party in Westminster doesn’t stand for anything worthwhile. And then there’s UKIP whose racist, nationalist agenda I really find disturbing. I much prefer the Scottish Parliament. Even some of the Tories there don’t come over as horrible, obnoxious, uncaring people, unlike the entire Westminster cabinet. A recovery by the Tories in Scotland, which might even happen in an independent country, would be a good thing for democracy. Strong oppositions are always a useful check on those in charge.

17. I am still waiting for any serious political party to tackle the issue that 432 people own half the land in Scotland. However, as unlikely as anyone having the courage to tackle it might be, it’s more likely to happen within an independent Scotland than from the corrupt London parliamentary elite.

18. Why does anyone want to stay with a Parliament that lied to us to justify an illegal war at the cost of thousands of lives and billions of pounds; that stands accused of covering up an organised paedophile network within its own ranks; that fiddled ridiculous levels of expenses at our expense; that gives itself a 9% pay rise during a period of austerity and then tells us that “we’re all in this together”?

19. “Don’t build walls! Break them down!” say some of the more persuasive supporters of No. They are good, liberal people who believe in sticking together for the good of all. I see their point and it does make some sense. But there are walls all over British society and they are becoming higher every day. In an independent Scotland I hope we might at least have a shot at breaking down some of those.

20. Ed Miliband had an idea. He thought (very mistakenly) that it would really appeal to the Scottish electorate to have a Saltire flag hoisted above 10 Downing Street, currently the home of an extreme right-wing Conservative prime minister. The Saltire had other ideas. I’m with the Saltire.

21. What it comes down to: if you have the choice between making decisions for your life or allowing other people to make decisions for you, often not in your interest and often against your will, what do you choose? It’s not rocket science! At least if we as Scottish people make bad decisions on our own behalf, we’ll be able to blame ourselves rather than the English. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Six Poets at the Fruitmarket Gallery 2014

Friday 15 August, The Fruitmarket Gallery, 45 Market St, Edinburgh: you can hear six poets for the price of only £5, and it's a great line-up:

Simon Barraclough
Isobel Dixon
A.B. Jackson
Rob A. Mackenzie
Andrew Philip
Chrissy Williams

You can read a poem by each of the poets on Isobel Dixon's blog, Toktokkie.

For me, this is always one of the highlights during the Edinburgh Festival time and would be even if I wasn't reading in it. The Gallery is a great venue and the readers are always excellent. I'll be reading some new material and I'm sure that's true of everyone. We'll kick off fairly sharp at 8pm and all poets will read short sets in each half. Please come along if you can. It's unlikely you'll regret it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lines from Poems I Read Early This Morning and Liked

Fleeting tails in a corner of emptiness
just leaving the frame,
the photographer filming swallows
has to learn to love failure,
how the almost having of the thing
is true in itself.

Gabeba Baderoon, ‘’Learning to love failure’ (from A Hundred Silences)

So I drink to become her
to tug the stubborn roots of the heart, sap the past
of its fading film and amber ore, snap the branches
of time because in a blink it is only scent that remains
       and tonight darling even the sea is thirsty.

Janette Ayachi, ‘Passing Places’ (from A Choir of Ghosts)

Layabout, M, 43, seeks similar F, 47. No time-wasters.

Richard Price, ‘Valentine: Would love to meet’ (from Small World)

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Hidden Door Festival 2014: An Appreciation

The Hidden Door Festival took place over nine days in Edinburgh from 28 March–5 April 2014. HD had hired 23 of the city’s disused vaults and transformed them into art showrooms, music venues, bars and other performance spaces, which included poetry. It was a monumental achievement to put an exciting programme together and utilise such a space. It was free during the daytime and a charge was made for the extensive evening line-ups. David Martin and his HD organising team deserve a massive round of applause.

I got there on two nights. First of all on Saturday 30th March. I saw a little music but I was mostly interested in the collaborative poetry event organised by SJ Fowler. Poets were placed in twos beforehand and asked to come up with a new poem, written and performed collaboratively.

There were plenty of interesting approaches. I enjoyed most of the sets. The two that worked best for me were Colin Herd & Iain Morrison (both talk about HD at these links), good poets in their own right, and they had obviously rehearsed really hard. They talked and sang over one another with flawless timing, and the bureaucratic jargon-influenced poem sounded both clever and funny. And then Jow Lindsay (performing under a pseudonym) and Samantha Walton stole the show with an incredible piece of poem-theatre, including lines nicked from poets’ ridiculous Facebook status updates: possibly the best performance of poetry I’ve ever seen (ironic, as parts of the poem were less than gently mocking the performance of poetry). Then there was the HD bar with Estrella lager, then The White Horse Bar on the Canongate, and then dancing through the small hours in a club... What a night!

Tuesday 1st April was the music/poetry collaboration night. It began with Jane McKie reading a short but very good poem before a band played. Then I saw Andrew Philip reading some of his ‘MacAdam poems’ with backing from the musical duo, Holm, on guitar and violin. Think more Arab Strap or Mogwai than Aly Bain (not that there’s anything wrong with Aly Bain). It was intense, dramatic stuff and the music and poetry were a great fit for one another. I caught the first twenty minutes or so of Brian Johnstone’s band Trio Verso, who played experimental jazz improvisation (can’t think of a better way to describe it) along with Brian’s poetry. I’d like to hear more, as it was certainly different and enjoyable.

However, I had to go, as Janette Ayachi and I were reading a poem I’d written for two voices as a response to Steve Reich’s astonishing composition, Different Trains, which was then performed live by the Viridian Quartet. I’d never written anything quite like it. Over four A4 pages, it used lists of railway station names (mostly made-up), twisted health & safety regulations to do with luggage in stations, phrases from the text of Steve Reich’s work used in completely new contexts, allusions to other poems by Kenneth Koch, Tishani Doshi and Tomas Tranströmer, and some original lyric poetry as well – and somehow ended up as a meditation on love: perhaps a love poem or an end-of-love poem or both simultaneously. I should say that I did even manage to squeeze hidden doors into the poem!

The bodies we love
contain hidden doors
to other bodies

Janette and I had also rehearsed for hours to get the timing right: we read some sections separately, some together, some weaving between one another. It went great and Janette was a star. We left the stage hanging on a question - "Are you sure?".

The Viridian Quartet went straight into Steve Reich’s piece afterwards and their performance was amazing. It was just great to see it live. I’d heard it on CD played by the Kronos Quartet and also on YouTube, such as this terrific performance, but nothing can quite match up to the live experience.It must take incredible concentration to play as the four musicians are often supposed to be slightly out of time with one another but it sounded flawless for the full 27 minutes.

Afterwards, there was more partying and some rappers took the stage. More dancing. And then on to somewhere else, although it wasn’t quite as late a night as the previous Saturday. I would like to have got back again but money and time wouldn’t allow it. The Hidden Door Festival is an extraordinary event and I hope they find another brilliant venue for its next incarnation. It’s certainly something which deserves everyone’s support.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

'When Someone Goes Away, Everything That's Been Done Comes Back'

I really love this poem, 'When Someone Goes Away, Everything That's Been Done Comes Back' by Macedonian poet, Nikola Madzirov (translated by Peggy & Graham Reid, Magdalena Horvat and Adam Reed). You can find it and other terrific poems in Remnants of Another Age, published by Bloodaxe, 2013, a dual language edition.

"In the embrace on the corner you will recognize
someone’s going away somewhere. It’s always so.
I live between two truths
like a neon light trembling in
an empty hall..."

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Utter (And Three Other Books)

I have read four books, all completely different from one another and all brilliant in their own way. I will try to write more soon about Jen Hadfield’s Byssus (Picador), Tishani Doshi’s Everything Begins Elsewhere (Bloodaxe) and Gabeba Baderoon’s The Dream in the Next Body (Kwela/Snailpress).

But I have been re-reading Vahni Capildeo’s amazing Utter (Peepal Tree Press), a book with a tremendous range of voices and forms and with a beautifully iconoclastic sense of humour. It flits between mainstream and experimental enough to call the existence of such categories into question. I’m reading it again because once is not enough and twice may also prove insufficient. It is complex but rewards a bit of effort. I will write more coherently in due course but, seeing this is Saturday morning and you may need something to make you smile at the end of a long working week, here is Vahni reading a poem from the collection, ‘The Critic in his Natural Habitat’, which is probably the funniest thing I’ve read in ages. Funny in an uneasy sense, of course, like the best humour tends to be

“You seem to be serious about liking literature. Have you ever considered writing up some of these thoughts of yours? A poet like you could bring a fresh perspective to criticism. People would appreciate that. You needn’t worry: they wouldn’t expect scholarship...”

Thursday, March 20, 2014

We Could Send Letters

What came through my letterbox yesterday? A selection of leaflets advertising carry-out pizzas and other foods, two envelopes containing junk mail, a package with a book inside sent by a publisher for possible review in Magma, and a business letter. I can't remember the last time someone actually wrote a letter to me that wasn't to do with work or was carrying out some form of transaction. I can't remember when I last wrote such a letter either.

A few months ago, I wrote a fairly long article on a book published by Bloodaxe, Airmail: the Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer, an article which was commissioned and published by The Dark Horse magazine, issue 31 (which I would thoroughly recommend, whether my article interests you or not). The letters were written between 1964 and 1990 and they make for fascinating reading. They cover historical upheavals from the Vietnam War to the fall of the Berlin Wall, matters of religion and spirituality, the art of writing, translation, the pretensions and strengths of literary ‘scenes’, and they chart the growth of a close friendship. The two poets translate one another’s work and arrange reading tours. They are also peppered with sharp humour and quotable asides. It’s a brilliant book.

What strikes me about it though, something I didn’t mention in my article, is that such a book will be impossible in years to come. We don’t write letters any more. Of course, people still communicate through email and social networks, but it’s not the same. Anyone trying to chart connections between poets in decades to come by analysing Facebook activity will have a soul-destroying task. FB’s archive system is hopeless and I’m told the walls of the dead are often torn down, which will no doubt come as a relief to most people in that position.

Email isn’t really any better. It’s great for communicating events, meetings, transactions and for organising things quickly. It’s great for business and for any activity that thrives on getting things done fast. Theoretically, an email has as much scope for interesting exchanges as a letter. You write, the recipient writes back. But in practice, the dynamic is very different. I was once told that I ought to reply to emails within two days at the most and that any delay was bad form. This was in connection with work-related email but the sheer speed and immediacy of email communication creates demands and expectations that extend beyond the world of work.

If I was to try to write ‘a letter in an email’ full of news, thoughts, ideas etc, the sort of thing people used to set down into six pages of handwritten A5 paper and pack into an envelope, I am doing two things. I am writing in expectation of a reply. I also sense an awkwardness of imposing that on the recipient. I wouldn't want to make anyone feel that they must reply with speed but at the same time, if a reply doesn’t come within a few days, I’d be wondering what had happened. I’d know too that an email correspondence like that is almost impossible to maintain. It’s too fast, too much of an imposition. An old-fashioned letter to a penfriend, sent second-class or airmail, took days or even weeks to arrive. There was no sense of expecting an immediate reply by return post. You could post several letters in a week or none for a month. You could send off a quick paragraph or a 12-page tome. To keep the correspondence going did entail a degree of commitment, of course, but it was possible, a relatively laid-back activity. I think email is kidding us on that such things are still possible but it is a medium hostile to the kind of exchange Bly and Transtromer maintained over four decades. Can you imagine a book in twenty years time being published with the title, 'Email: the Communications of X and Y' (insert names of interesting poets), a selection of electronic transmissions between them over the last 40 years? I can't...

I was listening to Aztec Camera's classic Postcard single b-side, 'We Could Send Letters' on YouTube and noticed that someone had commented along the lines of "If Roddy wrote this now,would it be 'We Could Send Text Messages'?" The comment is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it made me think all the same. The reality is that such a song is unimaginable today. Texts, emails etc may keep people in touch but they are not letters. I'm not meaning to be hopelessly romantic or nostalgic about this, but I do think we have lost something vital with the demise of postal correspondence and I don’t think current forms of communication are anywhere near replacing that gap. While it’s unlikely that anyone will want to publish correspondence between most writers (no bad thing, I guess!), the ferment of ideas, inspiration and practical activity generated by the Transtromer/Bly letters is enough to convince me that we are missing something important.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Poetic Creativity and Hidden Door 2014

The last year hasn’t exactly been the most productive for me in terms of writing new poems. I have tried and mostly failed, with a few exceptions, but since the StAnza International Poetry Festival my mind has been buzzing. Buzzing too much really. I have begun to wish it would stop and just leave me alone although, no, I don’t really wish that because I know I have to write these pieces if I ever want an approximation of inner peace again! It’s partly the poetry and the creative inspiration from being in St Andrew’s and partly other things I’d rather not go into. I feel that talking too much about the content of a poem before writing it might either stall the poem or affect its fluidity i.e. fix it too early along a defined path. I like my poems to veer off the path, otherwise I could end up telling you what I already think or know, which probably isn't that interesting..

It’s strange how poems come. For the last week I’ve seen one poem form in my head, but only its shape. I could virtually see it on the page, an embryonic form, but there were no words at all (although what's inspired it is clear). That's until I woke up early this morning before 6am and, trying to get back to sleep, suddenly found four complete lines scratching themselves into my brain. I have now written them down on paper. I have modified them slightly from their initial near-dream state, but only for reasons of music and rhythm, not meaning. There a few small gaps as the line-breaks need to fall between specific words, but it’s the beginning of something. Not just a single poem, I’m pretty sure, but a sequence or cycle or series of connected poems.

Annoyingly, it’s not the one I most needed to get a move on with. I am appearing at the Hidden Door Festival on Tuesday 1st April. The festival is at the Edinburgh Vaults and promises to be the event of the year in the capital: art, music of all kinds, photography, poetry, other spoken word, all combining and often collaborating.

I am genuinely excited by the commission – to produce a poem to go along with a live performance by the Viridian Quartet of Steve Reich’s rarely performed work ‘Different Trains’, one of my favourite classical pieces. I have ideas and a few stray lines at the moment. It will be the first poem I have ever written that will require more than one voice to read it, that's a definite component. It’s quite a task to put it all together and the stress of having to produce the goods is building, not necessarily a bad thing.

I remember David Morley saying at a Stanza masterclass a few years ago that he likes to work on more than one poem at a time. If he can’t get one poem to inch forward, another one might do. Sound advice and one way to defeat writer’s block. What I’m hoping is that kicking off the first poem mentioned above will, in some alchemical way, feed into the creative process for the second very different kind of poem. Let’s hope...

Friday, March 14, 2014

Twenty Moments from StAnza 2014

I went to the StAnza International Poetry Festival for the first time in 2006, commuting for a day or two and knowing hardly anyone there, but I enjoyed it and have been back every year since. I was back this year as a participant – reading on the Friday afternoon with U.S. poet and playwright, Dan O’Brien, and being on a panel discussing ideas of ‘home’ on the Saturday morning. I couldn’t get to St Andrews until Friday morning but stayed all the way till Monday morning.

I can’t review everything that happened. Well, I could, but I’d be trying your patience beyond limit. Instead, I want to hold up a few special moments, times of happiness however fleeting, memories I will carry around with me, inspiration, humour, joy, a blend of hope and loss the way memories always are.

1. Alexander Hutchison reads the words of David Jones from ‘In Parenthesis’, part of a ‘past and present’ session in which a living poet talks about a dead one. The poetry is astonishing. Jones surely must be one of the great 20th century poets but, like W.S. Graham, he seems to have been shunted off to the margins of the mainstream canon. I wonder why that is, how it can possibly be.

2. My own reading with Dan O’Brien shoots past. I hadn’t read at StAnza since 2007 and the hour disappears as if it were five minutes. Time is complex, relative and irrelevant.

3. Tanya Shirley and W.N. Herbert discuss the phenomenon, as described in one of Tanya’s poems, of men who get a sexual thrill from fat women sitting on them and squashing them. The exchange happens during the changeover from Tanya’s reading to WNH’s and is hilarious. Both readings are great too, the best double act of the festival.

4. Going back to my bed at around 1.15am, Saturday morning, when there is the possibility of continuing to drink and dance with an assembled company of poets until after 3am. I’m told it turned into an amazing night. So that is a special time I don’t get to experience, but I have my 10am panel the same morning and, for once, good sense wins out over ‘the moment’. Sometimes it has to and there will be other moments. Moments like wakening up and feeling alive the next morning.

5. The panel discussion is fascinating, each panelist bringing a unique perspective to the concept of ‘home’, although none of us are altogether clear on what home is. I had privately considered my own poems, ‘Horizontal’, (“our love remains where we move from// or move to, resistant to our hopeless/ DIY, our attempts to settle and stand”) and ‘Experience’ (“Every/ dose of reality// leaves the tang of absence. The moment/ I leave a place,// I taste it in the next bright thing: each capital/ city a mere simile// for others, each neon facade disguising the dark/ ache within...”). But I don’t mention them. The audience seem to enjoy the discussion and, if not, they at least enjoy the delicious coffee and croissants.

6. A wonderful 4-hour conversation over coffee and lunch in which all kinds of things began to fall into perspective regarding life and writing and poetry. Not on the StAnza programme, this ‘event’, but something of a festival fringe happening! Great festivals are more than events. Many true ‘events’ are beyond the reach of a catalogue.

7. Another inspired pairing: J.O. Morgan and Croatian poet, Tomica Bajsic. I refer you to Helena Nelson’s report, which I can’t better. It is a sensational reading. I really like the idea of pairing Scottish poets with those from other countries. It always makes for something varied and worked brilliantly every time.

8. Botswanan poet, TJ Dema, begins her Saturday night headline reading in the Byre with “Poems are bullshit/ unless they teach/ they serve absolutely no purpose/ unless they reach the audience they are written for/ unless they reach the ears they are meant for”. Whether that’s strictly true or not, I was glad to be among the ears.

9. Catching up with Gerry Cambridge, Sandy Hutchison, Ross Wilson and Marion McCready on the Saturday night in the Byre bar. Old friends, two of whom I see reasonably often, two not often enough. Plenty of laughter, a little gentle ribbing (mainly at my expense), and good local ale. Then we go hunting for another bar open till late and find The Criterion and more poets.

10. Gabeba Baderoon and Sheila Templeton read in the St John’s Undercroft. Both are very good. I am a card-carrying Scottish Calvinist and public displays of emotion (in a man, at least) are highly suspect. But I actually shed a few tears during one of Gabeba’s poems and that, seriously, never happens to me at poetry readings. I can’t say that any more though. I brush away the tears and glance round at poet/dancer Tishani Doshi sitting next to me, wondering if she has noticed, but she is also entranced, lost in the words, elsewhere. Where, of course, everything begins.

11. Yet another brilliant pairing: this time Katherine Kilalea’s subtle, beautifully connected and fractured poems with Brian Holton’s musical translations of Chinese poetry into Scots. Both fabulous readings.

12. Gabeba and I both want to see John Greening’s reading, but we have only 15 minutes to get from one venue to another and we are hungry. We order an egg mayonnaise baguette between us. In my rush I drop part of mine on the pavement. Ridiculously, I pick it up and stuff it into my mouth. We get to the reading on time and it is excellent. I don’t become ill later.

13. Gerry shows me screenshots he has taken of certain Facebook dialogues between rampantly egotistical poets (I will not divulge!) and I can hardly speak from laughing so much. Amazing we can laugh at such sadness, but what else can one do?

14. Nine of us talk and laugh over dinner in a restaurant. On the way, Tomica Bajsic and I discuss possible collaborations. Exciting stuff, as he is a fantastic poet. Something good is happening here. Good food, wine, new friends, what more could anyone ask for?

15. Menna Elfyn and Paul Muldoon – incredible readings in the Byre to finish off with.

16. But not quite finished. King Creosote are playing a live set afterwards. I try to copy Tishani’s dance moves but what she is doing is impossible and she’s not even having to try. I can almost hear my 11-year-old daughter’s voice in my head, “Dad, you can’t dance!”... But I am dancing.

17. Saying goodbye. The band have finished, the dancing is over. The bar aren’t even playing music through the speakers. It is the end. “It is finished!” The silence. The anti-climax. The euphoria and the sorrow.

18. I have an enjoyable breakfast with TJ. She is off to do poetry things in Copenhagen soon. She doesn’t like goodbyes but she is the last poet I see in St Andrew’s 2014. We don’t say goodbye though.

19. The train home. Books in my bag, not as many as I wish I could have bought. I have Dan O’Brien’s ‘War Reporter’, Tishani Doshi’s ‘Everything Begins Elsewhere’ and ‘Fountainville’ and Gabeba Baderoon’s ‘A Hundred Silences’ and ‘The Dream in the Next Body’. Tanya Shirley is going to send me her book, She Who Sleeps with Bones, by post. We carry something of people with us.

20. Not everything has to be shared. This isn't Facebook. Is this really a summary of a poetry festival? Or is it just that over three days and nights within a small blip in the universe, something happens and I go away feeling resolute and with a few changes in the offing. And I have poems fermenting that need to be written, and need to be written better than I think I am capable of. But I need to write them, exactly like that.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Favourite Books in 2013

There are, of course, many books I have not yet had a chance to read this year, some of which might have sneaked into this Top 10 list e.g. recent collections from Alexander Hutchison and August Kleinzahler for starters, as well as thick tomes by Christopher Middleton, Geoffrey Hill and Gottfried Benn. But here, in no order, are ten books I have read.

Adonis – Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa (Yale University Press, 2010): an indispensible collection from the great Syrian modernist, often credited with changing the face of 20th century Arabic poetry. Strange, complex, beguiling work.

Luke Kennard – A Lost Expression (Salt, 2012): always engaging, humorous and memorable, Kennard also manages to be affecting and personal without retreating into sentiment. This is his best collection yet, including ‘The Harbour Beyond the Movie’ which I thought he would never top.

Ahren Warner – Pretty (Bloodaxe, 2013): you have to take time with this collection, but it pays dividends. Not everything works, but what does is brilliant, and (speaking as someone who receives hundreds of poetry collections as review copies every year) I admire its ambition. It immediately stands out from the pack and takes its cue as much from French as from British influences.

Gillian Allnutt – indwelling (Bloodaxe, 2013): I could say the same about this book. There is nothing else like it. This is poetry that brings new depth to descriptions like “austere” or “sparse”. I haven’t seen many reviews of it, probably because it doesn’t recommend itself to easy poetic categories or review clichés.

Matt Merritt – The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches 2013): a good writer publishing his best collection so far without much fanfare or publicity or reviews (as far as I can tell) while inferior books grab most of the headlines. Such is the life of many talented poets in the UK...

Pippa Goldschmidt – The Falling Sky (Freight, 2013): a novel about an astronomer, an astonishing discovery and an emotional life in collapse, this book is gripping right up until its brilliantly ambiguous final sentence.

ed. Thomas R. Smith – Airmail: the Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer (Bloodaxe, 2013): these letters covering 40 years of literary friendship are consistently absorbing. My 3000-word article on them in The Dark Horse issue 31, will hopefully convince you to buy this book.

ed. Andre Saffis-Hahely& Julian Stannard – The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann (CB Editions, 2013): a stimulating collection of essays, reflections, memories and a few poems on one of the most influential poets of our generation.

Andrew Philip – The North End of the Possible (Salt, 2013): of course, Andy is a friend of mine, but that has no bearing on his latest book being terrific. Laurie Smith said of it in Magma issue 57, “It is hard to think of other recent poetry of such seriousness with such a range of means and such emotional depth.”

Dai George – The Claims Office (Seren, 2013): I don’t know how old Dai George is, but he is not old and has no right to be writing such assured poetry with such energised language in a first collection. This book is also fascinatingly counter-cultural and is worth your careful attention.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Poetry Readings and Sofi's

There have been moments when I’ve stopped doing readings, more or less, and even stopped attending them (with occasional exceptions made), mainly so there’s no danger of me writing for a live audience and all the instant satisfaction that requires. Not that all poems at a reading have to be “instant”, but I don’t want any pressure to knock off stuff that goes down well on first hearing. A poem, for me, needs to have enough of an instant hit to encourage readers to read it again, but the re-reads are where poems can be best appreciated (or can fail!). I apply the same standards when reading poetry collections by other people and have never yet reviewed a book I’ve only read once. At the moment, I am reading loads of poetry and attending live poetry readings and (coincidentally?) suffering from a dose of writers’ block. At some point next year, I may have to become a hermit again, curb my reading to a few favourites, and write like mad.

That said, I do enjoy the act of live performance and, last night at Sofi’s Bar in Leith, I had the opportunity both to read a set and to hear a variety of diverse poetic voices. Rachel Amey, a performance poet with a political, feminist angle, who performs her work from memory, was on top form - thoughtful, provocative and engaging material. The open mic featured seasoned readers Colin McGuire (organiser of the event), Roddy Shippin and Claire Askew, all of whom read with their accustomed poise and skill, and also the guy behind the bar (I don’t know his name) who was reading, I think, for the first time and did very well. Sofi’s always comes over to me as a friendly, welcoming place and the event attracts both the normal ‘poetry audience’ and people who go to this event because the bar is local to them. The readings take place in the main bar, not in a function room, and not being shut off is one reason people who don’t ordinarily go to poetry readings have begun to make it a monthly habit. A few people opened the door, realised poetry was happening, and walked straight out - their prerogative, of course, and poetry isn't for everyone any more than antiques roadshows or One Direction albums. A crowd of joggers stopped to receive glasses of tap water and then jogged off again, another regular occurrence each month. Perhaps they found extra sustenance in Colin's poem about pancakes?

I read an unusual set, beginning with poems from my back catalogue that weren’t in my full collections but which I didn’t feel ashamed of writing. Below is my set-list with the years each poem was published:

1. Do You Remember Henry Healey’s? (1999)
2. Designer Birthday for Little Brother (2002)
3. The Actress (2005)
4. The Clown of Natural Sorrow (2002, 2005)
5. Shopping List (2009)
6. Hangover (2011, 2012)
7. The Packs (2011, 2012)
8. Blade Runner (2012, 2013)
9. Locus-a-Non (2013)
10. The Dull Bulbs (newish, unpublished)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Few Thoughts on 'Beyond the Alps' by Robert Lowell

While many poets seem to have got their knickers in an unsavoury twist over royal shindig invitations, I (good republican that I am) have been thinking about Robert Lowell. More specifically about ‘Beyond the Alps’, which kicks off his most famous collection, Life Studies, and also the little Faber Selected Poems, edited by Michael Hofmann. I believe several versions of the poem exist, some with extra stanzas, but I’m going to stick to the one from the Hofmann Selected (two 14-line stanzas, one 12-line stanza and a final couplet). The poem isn’t online and I’m not going to reproduce it here (I can’t afford Faber’s copyright fees), so this post will continue a long line of Surroundings articles which have, at best, a limited audience. Given Lowell’s lack of popularity in the current climate, that audience may be almost nil, but not quite. This “not quite” is exactly what Surroundings is about and, I hope, it's a "not quite" that is set to grow.

Now, ‘Beyond the Alps’ is a fantastic poem. I love it! It concerns a train journey from Rome to Paris through the Alps, with various diversions – the failure of a Swiss group to climb Everest, the train stewards (from the restaurant carriage?) who, amazingly, go “forward on tiptoe banging on their gongs”, a “skirt-mad Mussolini”, and the Pope’s purring electric razor and pet canary. The poem is about Catholic faith, perhaps the loss of it or at least a distancing from its orthodoxy. The train moves off from Rome and heads into the mountains and, as it leaves the Alps and comes back to ground-level, each stark peak begins to resemble a “fire-branded socket of the Cyclop’s eye.” The landscape, where we might expect woolly snow, feels more like a barren burned-out desert: clearly also a psychological state. One of the main arguments concerns the ambiguous closing couplet:

Now Paris, our black classic, breaking up
like killer kings on an Etruscan cup.

I stared at this for a little while, as it seemed a curious way to end. It contains the virtue of surprise, but also evades any sense of closure. Or, even if “closure” isn’t desirable, the couplet asks more questions than it answers and not all the questions stem from what’s happened previously in the poem. There is debate on this online in the New York Review of Books – Jonathan Raban and Edwin Franks debating with James Fenton. The debate sheds some light on the poem, I think. The reference to the Etruscans must have to do with a great civilisation, vastly influential in its cultural milieu, which nevertheless disappeared and left behind no literature and whose geographical power collapsed completely. The killer kings have themselves been killed by events, time, shifts of culture and power. Paris feels the same to Lowell. His world-view is disintegrating as he nears the city and he seems himself in it or, perhaps sees himself as it.

Paris would be black, as Raban and Frank suggest, because it would have seemed grimy at the time compared to Rome. However, why “our black classic” is the real question, as Fenton says. If something is “classic”, it is untouchable. It has status, accorded by the influential. A ‘Penguin Classic’ (Morrissey aside) or a “classic album” is such because it has been ‘canonized’ by those who have the power to make such decisions. Paris has that canonical quality. It is a great, iconic city. It is a “classic”, but a sooty, tarnished classic here. It mirrors Lowell’s internal crisis of faith, dramatized within the poem by the Pope (expressly exercising papal infallibility) making the Assumption of the Virgin Mary a dogma in 1950, the idea that Mary was bodily taken up into heaven at the end of her life:

The lights of science couldn’t hold a candle
to Mary risen – at one miraculous stroke,
angel wing’d, gorgeous as a jungle bird!
But who believed this? Who could understand?

Lowell’s loss of faith in strict Catholic dogma has led him to a city breaking up before his eyes, a city beyond the Alps where gods once held sway. It is a poem that still resonates in the shattered cities, physical and psychological, of 2013.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

My Top 12 Smiths Songs

Seeing as I am in a mood for list-making, and seeing that I have been reading (and have now almost finished) Morrissey’s Autobiography, which I’ve found both brilliant and awful in equal measure, I thought I’d make a list of my 12 favourite tracks by The Smiths. My attempt to cut their oeuvre to a dozen showed me plainly how many great songs they had. Could I leave out Hand in Glove, Miserable Lie, Well I Wonder, How Soon Is Now?, Half a Person, I Won’t Share You, and more? I had to, but tomorrow I might pick a different dozen. Here are today’s, 12 brilliant songs, enough to remind me what was truly important about the Morrissey/Marr partnership. The lyrics of Cemetery Gates alone ought to be enough to convince anyone of Morrissey’s genius. I mean, where on earth did stuff like this come from?

“You say: 'Ere long done do does did'
Words which could only be your own
And then produce the text
From whence was ripped
(Some dizzy whore, 1804)“

Here are my twelve:

You’ve got everything now

Suffer little children
This night has opened my eyes
Please, please, please, let me get what I want
Rusholme Ruffians
I want the one I can’t have
I know it’s over
Cemetery gates
There is a light that never goes out
Death of a disco dancer
Paint a vulgar picture
Sheila, take a bow

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Caesura, Syndicate, Poetry at the Sutton Gallery

I recently read an article on Edinburgh’s live poetry scene – not the best informed of articles, as it managed to omit two of the best regular events entirely. I’m going to say something about them here and also another event that has just started.

Caesura takes place on the second Friday of each month, usually upstairs at the Artisan Bar on London Road, but it has also been known to use the Yellow Bench Cafe on Leith Walk. The focus tends to be on poets writing from the fringes of the mainstream or, at least, in that uncategorisable hinterland “whaur extremes meet” (McDiarmid). You can always expect the unexpected; a few months ago, the Marvo Men came up with a unique performance using a script, pre-recorded material and material recorded on the night from other artists and the audience. The result was mesmerising (and also entertaining). Sometimes the attempts at experiment feel already well travelled, but more often than not make me feel glad I made the effort to come along. The bar is normally packed, the atmosphere is chaotic and MC Graeme Smith’s introductions contribute, engagingly, to a welcome lack of slick and polish. The next Caesura is on Friday 8 November, 7pm.

Syndicate is an altogether different kind of event, even if half the audience appear to be the same people that attend Caesura. It meets at Inspace, a university building, but this is no anonymous lecture hall. It’s a sparse, artistic space, the perfect venue for an events series that seeks to showcase performances in which the spoken word meets cutting-edge technology. Film, music, theatre, poetry, digital technology – all tinged with the avant-garde – combine to create an experience for an audience that’s unlikely to be replicated anywhere else in the city. Like Caesura, the experiments sometimes work astonishingly well and other times they fall flat, but what doesn’t work for me often works well for others. You won’t see or hear anything mainstream here. It’s an event to expand the imagination and it nearly always does that for me. Syndicate doesn’t have a regular day/time, even though it meets most months. It pops up when it feels like it. The next Syndicate is on Tuesday 22nd October, 7pm.

Poetry at the Sutton Gallery is organised by artist, poet and editor, Colin Herd. The gallery, situated on Dundas Street, also runs art exhibitions that change regularly. It's a small, intimate venue and you can look at the artworks during breaks between readings over a glass of wine. The first poetry event featured Andrew Spragg and McGillivray. The second takes place this Thursday 17th October, 7pm and will feature Samantha Walton, Lila Matsumoto and Jane Goldman.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Neutral Post on Scottish Arts

Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, has said that the festival next year will not feature events concerned with the Scottish referendum on independence, so as to preserve the festival’s political neutrality.

This announcement has come as a great relief to everyone. The idea that the arts might have any connection to the world around them was obviously absurd. The idea that people might be influenced by anything other than professional politicians and opinionated journalists was clearly to be resisted in the name of common sense. The festival next year will feature only artists who have nothing to say about anything, which is as it should be.

Already booked to appear is George, infant son of Edward and Kate. His (ghostwritten by Justin Bieber) autobiography, ‘First Months as a BRITISH King-in-Waiting’, is set to become a bestseller. George, named after the patron saint of Britain England, has the middle name, James, and will be known as ‘Jimmy’ when he comes north in an attempt to simulate stimulate political neutrality.

Of course, it is not just the festival that aspires to neutrality. No one in Scotland ought to have thoughts about anything in the lead-up to the referendum. Ideas are dangerous! In the name of neutrality, television stations in Scotland will be required to broadcast only an endless loop of repeats of ‘Eastenders’, ‘I Love My Country’ and Jessica Ennis being presented with her gold medal at the London Olympics. Such neutral programmes will keep Scottish people from dwelling too much on the independence question. This is for our own good. To ask why it is good is an invalid and biased question. It is clear that the only people who know what is good are (a) people who do not live in Scotland, and (b) people whose bodies exist in Scotland and whose souls navigate a parallel universe.

Finally, the entire population of Scotland will be enlisted during September 2014 to re-enact the First World War in celebration of its centenary. George Square in Glasgow will be the venue for the Battle of the Somme, and similar battles will take place all over Scotland with live ammunition until most people have been wiped out. The Edinburgh International Festival will stage a patriotic operatic war jamboree, heavily subsidised by the taxpayer, at the end of which an empty tram will glide down Princes Street and the union jack will be raised from Edinburgh Castle by David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage, who will join to sing the national anthem, 'We're All in This Together' – all in the name of neutrality...

Monday, July 08, 2013

Poetry Sales and The Point

There are moments in a poet’s life - few and usually far between - that begin to take on a surreal quality, when a poem you wrote seems to grow legs independently of you and gallops off into the distance. That must be true for writers like Jenny Joseph and Sheenagh Pugh when poems they wrote became incredibly famous and popular – not necessarily their best poems, but poems that struck a chord not with traditional poetry readers but with the general public. It must be a weird feeling, especially when people don’t flock to buy everything else you’ve written – all the better stuff you’ve written! – the way they might do with a novelist. It seems that poems come as individuals.

I had a very minor taste of this over the weekend when a poem I wrote, a pantoum called ‘The Point’, was featured in the Guardian newspaper as its Saturday Poem. It’s a political satire, and isn’t ever going to have the same level of appeal as a poem about growing old and wearing purple, but (at the time of writing) it has been shared on Facebook 115 times (most of them not FB friends of mine) and retweeted 16 times. Not a lot really. I’m sure an article on Jessie J would get that many shares inside a few seconds but I am also sure that ‘The Point’ has now been read by more people than any poem I have ever written. It shows the power of The Guardian and the Saturday Poem brand. Just think how popular poetry could be and would be seen to be, if more high profile newspapers and media (TV, film, Amazon etc) published or presented poems in ways designed to extend their readership. The audience would grow rapidly, I'm sure of that.

Has the publication of ‘The Point’ sold a single copy of The Good News, the collection it comes from? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it hadn’t. People will read a single poem in a newspaper or newspaper website quite happily and may even really enjoy it, but only few people, most of them seasoned poetry readers, will read a poetry collection for fun. That’s not a problem unless you’re a poetry publisher trying to make a living or, indeed, unless you’re a poet who believes that collections are a good thing. I am one of these and would prefer a world in which more people read Dante than Dan Brown. That said, I did note that Clare Pollard’s ‘Ovid’s Heroines’ was the number 10 best seller last week at the Guardian bookshop (presumably the result of a favourable review in the Guardian not long before) in a list dominated by novels and popular non-fiction. It was good to see a poetry collection in there, a little chink of hope.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Forward Poetry Prize 2013 - Surprises?

I now can't find the link to this, but the judges of this year's Forward Poetry prizes have said that there will be 'surprises'. This is good news - if it comes to pass. There are always a few surprises in the First Collection category - it's impossible to predict the shortlist in that one, but surprises in the main shortlist have been very, very thin on the ground for the last few years. The biggest surprise would be if that changed in any way! But let's test it out. There are no surprises if this is the shortlist (books need to have been published between 1 October 2012 and 30 September 2013 - presumably the summer 2013 books come to the judges in ms form):

Michael Symmons Roberts – Drysalter (Cape)
Anne Stevenson – Astonishment (Bloodaxe)
Dannie Abse – Speak, Old Parrot (Hutchison)
Robin Robertson – Hill of Doors (Cape)
Kathleen Jamie – The Overhaul (Picador)
Fiona Sampson – Coleshill (Chatto & Windus)
Glyn Maxwell – Pluto (Picador)
Anne Carson – Red Doc > (Cape)
David Morley – The Gypsy and the Poet (Carcanet)
George Szirtes – Bad Machine (Bloodaxe)

In addition, I wouldn't bat an eyelid of any of these ones were on it:

Ahren Warner – Pretty (Bloodaxe)
W.N. Herbert – Omnesia (Bloodaxe)
Jacob Polley – The Havocs (Picador)
Andrew Motion – The Customs House (Faber)
Fleur Adcock – Glass Wings (Bloodaxe)
Nick Laird – Go Giants (Faber)
Alison Brackenbury - Then (Carcanet)
Maurice Riordan – The Water Stealer (Faber)
Matthew Francis – Muscovy (Faber)

Now, some of these books are extremely good and would deserve their place on a shortlist. Some of them - in my opinion, of course! - definitely wouldn't... I have probably missed several non-surprises, forgetting they've been published etc, so feel free to add to the list.

The shortlist is announced this Monday 8 July. I hope I am surprised!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A David Bowie Retrospective - 2. Never Let Me Down (1987)

I wasn’t looking forward to listening to Never Let Me Down. Bowie himself said it was the worst album he’d ever made and that opinion seems to be shared by many fans and critics, but let me say from the outset that I disagree. I’m not suggesting you rush out and buy the album, but it is actually quite listenable – very much more listenable than the boring, bland Tonight.

The opening track, ‘Day In Day Out’, and a couple of other songs – ‘Zeroes’ and ‘87 and Cry’ – are quite decent. The problem is the production and arrangements. I hate the drum sound and some of the keyboard and guitar licks, which should hang high in the hall of rock clichés. Bowie was pretty fed up with what he was doing by this stage and took little part in the making of the album other than turning up with some tunes and singing them, and the lack of engagement shows. This is an album sounding as if it’s been made by dutiful session musicians – skilled musicians but lacking creative spark.

The stand-out track is ‘Time Will Crawl’. At least, unlike on Tonight, there is a stand-out track. It wouldn’t make a list of Bowie’s greatest achievements, but it is a catchy number that gets into your head and not unpleasantly so. The song’s video shows Bowie looking like he’s turned up for a Wham audition several years late, a concession to commercial demand rather than someone at the centre of musical style (let alone substance).

The rest of the album is relatively forgettable. ‘Glass Spider’ is intriguing with a spoken intro and an untraditional structure – it’s just not that good, but it is a welcome advance on Tonight’s lack of adventure. The title track and ‘Shining Star’ would fit nicely onto that album! The other songs aren’t interesting but not terrible either. One track, ‘Too Dizzy’ was removed from future pressings of the album. I found it on YouTube and it is pretty awful! Basically, if you have listened to all Bowie’s classic albums, this album is worth a listen on Spotify, but don’t get too over-excited at the prospect...