Sunday, December 31, 2006
The storms are gathering force and in the last 10 minutes, we've discovered that water has opened a crack in our bedroom ceiling – presumably the winds have blown some slates off the roof – and has soaked our bed! I don’t suppose I can really complain. At least I have a roof over my head. But it’s not an ideal start to the New Year.
Scots used to celebrate New Year by watching Andy Stewart sing traditional, patriotic songs on the telly. Then they'd go out to "first-foot" (visit) family members and friends after the midnight bells and spend most of the night drinking whisky and eating shortbread.
These days, people gather in town squares and listen to DJs playing club records. Or in cities like Edinburgh, pay a great deal of money to listen to major international rock groups in near-blizzard conditions.
Anyway, this video - The Corries, singing Scotland the Brave, with somewhat altered lyrics - is a blast from the past and seems perfect for Hogmanay. It's of its time of course (early seventies) and not exactly pc...
Happy 2007 when it comes!
Saturday, December 30, 2006
Best Poetry Collections published in 2006
After – Jane Hirshfield (Bloodaxe)
Bad Shaman Blues – W. N. Herbert (Bloodaxe)
Best Poetry Books read in 2006 (but not published then)
The Emperor’s Babe – Bernardine Evaristo (Penguin)
New and Selected Poems – Philip Levine (Knopf)
The Good Neighbour – John Burnside (Cape)
Lives of the Animals – Robert Wrigley (Penguin)
Each Happiness Ringed by Lions – Jane Hirshfield (Bloodaxe)
Scattering Eva – James Sheard (Cape)
Twenty-Three Poems – Michael Mackmin (HappenStance)
Books Published in 2006 I haven’t read yet, but want to soon
Orpheus – Don Paterson [versions of Rilke] (Cape)
District and Circle - Seamus Heaney (Faber and Faber)
Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid - Simon Armitage (Faber and Faber)
Horse Latitudes - Paul Muldoon (Faber and Faber)
Favourite Poems Published in 2006
Found Audience – Sarah Wardle (Poetry Review)
Fire – George Szirtes (in his blog, around July/August, I think)
Favourite Poem read in 2006 (but not published then)
Bear Dreams – Robert Wrigley
Favourite Poem posted to a Workshop
Paper Dolls – Paula Grenside (during NaPoWriMo)
Favourite Poetry Magazines
The Red Wheelbarrow
Favourite Poetry Webzines
Most Cringe-Inducing Comments on Poetry
One of the judges of the Forward Prize calling Sean O’Brien’s (very good) winning poem “as close as it is possible to come to a perfect poem.”
A critic commenting, in a major UK magazine, on a poet’s debut chapbook (best to leave both nameless), that a certain poem “suggests just why everyone is so glad of [this poet’s] arrival on the scene.” (who is “everyone”? Whose "scene"? What is meant by “arrival”?)
Best Essay on Poetry
Michael Schmidt – StAnza lecture: What, How Well, Why?
Best Live Poetry Gig
Jackie Kay, at the Shore Poets in Edinburgh
Thursday, December 28, 2006
then you find another girl.
The words of a song by Roy Moller (it may have been co-written with a guy called Rob Smith - perhaps not), who I haven't seen in years, not since I moved to Italy six years ago. At that time, he was playing in a band called Meth O.D, who were really excellent, a kind of psychedelic rock/pop hybrid. They released two fine albums, Texas God Starvation (particularly good) and Dry Riser, and there's a third one, unreleased, which was quite amazing - not everything in it worked, but it was never boring and the good bits were very good. I also played in a band, Pure Television, and for a while we collaborated in an event called the TV O.D. Club, which featured ourselves and a special guest each month in a Glasgow pub. My band never got anywhere, but Roy was really talented, as you can hear at his MySpace site.
Click on First You Fall in Love, which is a terrific pop song, and would have been the Christmas number one, had there been any justice in the world. The other songs are good too.
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
I got woken up at 7.30am, went to the living room, which is next to their bedroom, and played this, from PJ Harvey, at a loud volume.
Sunday, December 24, 2006
Two poems of the season by George Herbert (1593-1633) below:
After all pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray;
I took up the next inn I could find.
There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to Him, ready there
To be all passengers' most sweet relief?
Oh Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night's mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is Thy right,
To man of all beasts be not Thou a stranger:
Furnish and deck my soul, that Thou mayst have
A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.
The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul's a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipped suns look sadly.
Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev'n His beams sing, and my music shine.
Friday, December 22, 2006
I have both movies on DVD and it's been a pleasure watching them again and reflecting on them. Every time I watch Lost Highway, I notice something that escaped my attention before - the number 26, the music playing on the garage radio, Mr Eddy's shift of identity - it's an astonishing conception.
The deadline for poems is 31 December. So not much time.
And as well as famous names, there are ‘up-and-coming’ poets (I’m never quite sure who qualifies for that accolade and who doesn’t), and those who are simply coming, whether up, down or in between.
I am on, under the ‘Pamphlet Poets’ banner in the 'readings' section, on Sunday 18th March from 11.30am-12.30, along with Diana Hendry and Lyn Moir.
In addition, there is the 100 Poets Gathering. I am number 55 in the cute multicoloured diagram, a shade of pale green.
Poet, Colin Will, who designed the website, explains why you should go.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Her poem, In Praise of Coldness (from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions: Selected Poems) is a case in point. It’s considered a virtue in modern poetry, particularly its North American variety, to exhibit coldness, to draw back from explicit emotion, particularly if you are writing on an emotional subject. If you turn up the emotional volume in a poem about death, illness, or depression, you’ll be accused of manipulating the reader.
For instance if you talk about “tears scalding your cheeks in waves of despair,” you’ll find readers telling you (rightly) that you’re going over-the-top – that tears don’t actually “scald” and that “waves” contain far more liquid than those falling tears at a funeral. Your images attempt to manipulate the reader into feeling the depth of your grief, but they aren’t true. They are sentimental manipulation. If you want to move the reader, you need to find some other way.
So Jane Hirshfield begins her poem by observing this “preserving dispassion.”
In Praise of Coldness
‘If you wish to move your reader,’
Chekhov wrote, ‘you must write more coldly.’
Herakleitos recommended, ‘A dry soul is best.’
And so at the center of many great works
is found a preserving dispassion,
like the vanishing point of quattrocento perspective,
or the tiny packets of desiccant enclosed
in a box of new shoes or seeds.
“Desiccant”, which contains ideas of both dryness and preservation, is the perfect image here, and illustrates this poet’s penchant for precision of image. I don’t understand enough about 15th century Italian art to fully comprehend the previous image, but “vanishing point” has an ominous air about it, a duplicity of meaning – the central area of coldness and dispassion is also the place of disappearance and evasion. Yet, the coldness is to be praised, and this tension inherent in the poem's title is tightened more and more as the poem continues.
She continues the next stanza with a typical deceptive simplicity.
But still the vanishing point
is not the painting,
the silica is not the blossoming plant.
And the coldness and dispassion is not the poem. It is the means by which the poem paints or blossoms, but not the end in itself. Paradoxically, the coldness helps to produce the heat of colour and scent and beauty.
As an aside, I love the effortless use of sound here – the point/painting/plant alliteration, distanced enough to have its effect without the loud –p becoming too loud, and the echo of desiccant in silica. Again, that precision with words.
What comes next is unexpected. At least it was for me.
Chekhov, dying, read the timetables of trains.
To what more earthly thing could he have been faithful? –
Scent of rocking distances,
smoke of blue trees out the window,
hampers of bread, pickled cabbage, boiled meat.
Scent of the knowable journey.
Nothing could be more dispassionate than a train timetable – those lists of numbers and place names, neatly tabulated, hardly stimulating material. And yet, Jane Hirshfield looks behind the surface of the sheets of paper, the tables and figures, and sees the “knowable journey” – its smells, movements, colours, tastes, images. The timetables become a map of memory and an image of faithfulness to the earth, even as death approaches.
More importantly it fixes the reader both on his/her journeys and also on his/her mortality, for we all know where our knowable journeys end. The coldness of the image is belied by its associations.
Then a further jump.
Neither a person entirely broken
nor one entirely whole can speak.
Now here, the poet tantalises the reader. How can she say this, on the basis of what’s come before? It’s a clever technique. The final line, which is still to come, holds the key to making sense of this, in the context of the rest of the poem. At the moment, Jane Hirshfield has succeeded in cranking up the tension to breaking-point. Then comes the final line, which is like a proverb, and proverbial endings are so unfashionable in contemporary poetry that she deserves bravery points for attempting it:
In sorrow, pretend to be fearless. In happiness, tremble.
So you’re not to let it all hang out. Just as Chekhov’s timetable was only the surface of a multi-scented, stimulating journey that he clung to in the face of death – his faithfulness to life was not broken by death’s approach, but he was unable to release himself wholly to the unknown journey either – so the reader is asked to live within a similar tension between life and death, holding on and non-attachment, emotion and tranquility; that preserving dispassion, which is vital to the painting or plant, but which is not it.
Jane Hirshfield asks for pretence, calls for lies even, so that the truth may be revealed. It’s the kind of poem that invites the reader to revisit it and to ask its questions again and again, as many of her poems do.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Do you feel more inclined to go if the event is:
b) Costs about £3 / $5.
In other words, does free mean a) great! Just what you always want!, or b) that what’s on offer can’t be worth hearing?
And does payment indicate a) a degree of quality, or b) nothing whatsoever?
Monday, December 18, 2006
For only £5 per year, you help to support one of the most enterprising poetry chapbook publishers in the UK, and you also get:
advance notice of each new publication, by post or by email with at least one sample extract
warm and appreciative invitations to launches
15 percent off the cover price of each publication
the chance to order a pre-signed copy of new publications
a chapter of The HappenStance Story each year (very entertaining publication)
one free copy per year of a HappenStance publication
courteous and helpful feedback on your own work, if submitted, though chances of publication remain exactly the same as everybody else’s.
If you’re in the UK, send a cheque for £5 to the address here, detailing your name, email address and postal address, and the chapbook you would like a free copy of (there’s a list of publications at the site).
If you’re outside the UK, and can’t pay in pounds sterling, it’s probably best to email Helena Nelson and make an enquiry at the email address here.
What better way could you spend a fiver?
Saturday, December 16, 2006
They both had to sing the same song to finish off the show, A Moment Like This, which I understand was a Kelly Clarkson hit - that might explain why I don't remember it. The song was entirely forgettable, but Leona wiped the floor with Ray. Ray sang it with warmth and expression, but he couldn't get anywhere near Leona's vocal performance.
Here's Leona’s version. Here’s Ray’s version. It does strike me that the song was obviously chosen with Leona in mind – a touch of unfairness perhaps?
And here's the announcement of the result and Leona’s reaction. At first it’s surprise and obvious joy, which quickly seems to change to complete shock. She can’t string two words together, although she was able to sing again.
Credit to Ray for being the best of losers. He seems like a nice guy. Now Leona will get a Christmas number one and put out an album with the X-Factor crew. I'd like to see her sing original soul songs, but she probably won't be allowed to - a shame, as she has an amazing soul voice. Maybe one day.
On the night Ray entertained well. He has a great career ahead of him on the stage, on variety shows, maybe on TV. But if he makes an album, who is going to buy it? Leona sang a nervous Whitney to start off with, a few uncharacteristic dodgy notes that the judges generously overlooked. Then she sang two ballads perfectly. I think Simon has made a mistake in not giving her an up-tempo soul number tonight.
My prediction - I think Ray will win, even though Leona is much better. Results are due in just over an hour's time.
Friday, December 15, 2006
Shades of Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs, but no one’s totally original.
Three song videos:
Amore di Plastica
Parole di Burro
Thursday, December 14, 2006
The “party” element was free wine. The fair itself was quite busy, despite the stormy, miserable weather, and the HappenStance stall sold fairly well. There were lots of poetry reading sessions, each poet with a two-minute slot. As always at these events, some read well and others really need to stand in front of a mirror and take a long, hard look at themselves reading poetry.
I bought a few chapbooks and exchanged several. Namely:
23 Poems – Michael Mackmin (HappenStance)
The Theory of Everything – James Wood (HappenStance)
The Small Hours – Tom Duddy (HappenStance)
Under the Threshold – Dorothy Lawrenson (Perjink)
Landing on Eros – Tony Lawrence (Tiplaw)
The Faithful City: Visual Poems - Stephen Nelson (afterlight)
Pillars of Salt – Judy Brown (Templar)
Peeling Onions - Apprentice (Tyne and Esk Writers)
Also, I can report that the new edition of Sphinx (number 5) is just out, and looks very interesting, with articles on Shoestring press, Dreadful Night Press, and Donut Press, along with a hatful of chapbook reviews, including my review on Here, a chapbook by Shetlandic poet, Lise Sinclair.
In addition, a cute publication titled The HappenStance Story: Chapter 1, by Helena Nelson, is hot off the press. It tells the story of HappenStance and all its writers from the editor’s point-of-view. It gives an insight into the workings of a small publishing press, and includes an example of work from each chapbook. A good, entertaining overview.
I bumped into the editor of a Scottish literary magazine on the way home, and we took the bus to Princes Street. We’d both had a few glasses of wine, and…let’s just say the editor was forthright on the dire state of Scottish poetry today. I don’t agree, but it made me think on whether the top Scottish poets today will still be so admired in 20 or 30 years time. It’s hard to know, of course.
Ashley Cole, Melanie Phillips, Victoria Beckham - what a brilliant year it's been for fine literature
"...Even intellectuals must relax from time to time, though, so I made sure to pick up a copy of That Extra Special Little Bit Extra: Victoria Beckham's Guide to Fashion, Healthy Eating and All-Round Psychological Stability. As soon as I read about it on Amazon ("Customers who bought this book also bought The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins") I knew it was one for me. And I wasn't disappointed: apart from all the bits about high heels and lipstick and women's clothing, it is a richly imagined tour de force, astounding in the sheer scope of its ambition…"
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
I’m particularly impressed by the Blackbird web journal.
And it’s good to see that Chapman, Scotland’s top literary magazine, now has a good website, as the previous one was awful (I suspect that was due to lack of funding). The same goes for Poetry Review, as their previous design was a real mess. Much better now (in comparison), although the clash of colours is strange. Is the yellow the main culprit?
Monday, December 11, 2006
This made me think of how poems progress, from that elusive initial spark to getting something down on paper. I tend to draft a lot of my poems on my computer these days, but now and again, I resort to paper and pen. The sonnet I wrote for this week's Sonnet Sunday, Bethlehem, began with two-and-a half lines in my head that I transferred to the computer screen, and then I switched to pen and paper. The resulting chaos is below.
As you can see, my mind was not in good shape on Sunday (I think you can tell that, even if you can't read any of it - but if you click on the picture, you can read it, I think)! I then switched back to the computer again. When I feel I have a reasonable degree of coherence in a poem, I call it a first draft. And if it's Sunday, I post it to this blog. The poem isn't at all finished, but I am often surprised at how persevering with a page full of scribbles can at least eventually end up with 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Bethlehem (early draft)
The soldiers staggered from the Empire’s fringes
with reindeers, sleighs, and lager crates, the sour
perfume of the town’s christingle oranges
drawing them forward, closer by the hour.
Between killings, they raved through crazy days.
Drunk on cheap booze and the adrenaline
of violence, they partied nights, and those delays
cost vital hours. But when they reached the inn,
they sensed their power. People followed on,
guided by starlight, each of them afraid
of emptiness, of flight, of being alone,
of God being gone, or lost, or left for dead.
Most claimed the shape of God remained, impressed
on hay. The soldiers shook in heavenly rest.
I’ve never liked Ray, but he did OK yesterday. He is from Liverpool, and his genuine tears of emotion after singing You’ll Never Walk Alone probably got him the extra votes he needed to take him into the final. This song was easily his best moment in the series (see how generous I am! I can’t stand him). I think he’s fine for staged musicals, but I don’t much of a recording career for him. We already have a Tony Bennett. Ray just doesn’t convince me.
Poor old Ben! The judges loved him. I didn’t. Last night he growled through the awful Bryan Adams song Everything I Do (I Do it for You), and then growled through U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. He growls roughly in tune, true, but it’s still a growl, a commercially-oriented growl, and it’s become really tedious. Although I’m sure he has miles more talent than Ray, I think, on the performances, he deserved to get booted out. He didn’t cry afterwards either, which may have lost him a few sympathy votes.
Leona was good, again way, way ahead of the others. It appears that a tiny margin separated all three contestants. If that’s the case, I can only assume that people vote for the style of music, the personalities, who they fancy most, and the songs they like best. If they voted for talent, Leona would win by miles. She sang a rather boring Whitney Houston song (I Have Nothing) effortlessly, but then did a terrific rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which showed how good a singer she is. Like Ray, she was in tears afterwards.
So the final is next Saturday – Ray vs. Leona. It should be a foregone conclusion. But it probably won’t go to plan. Whoever wins, only one of the contestants in the entire show has ever stood a chance of being a star, and whether she wins or not won’t make any difference to that.
Saturday, December 09, 2006
Friday, December 08, 2006
Not bad. Only 1,256,950 ahead of me. Dan Brown should look out. I’m closing the gap on him every day. Of course, buying from HappenStance directly is an even better idea.
Well, Christmas is coming. What better excuse to give the book a plug…
(the illustration is from a cover of Ambit magazine)
Thursday, December 07, 2006
I’ve read it a few times and I think it’s pretty good. And brave. A hard poem to write, still harder to live.
I might say more about it soon. A quick section from the poem –
…My darling, sleep well in your bed.
Don’t come out on the landing where it’s cold
because, you see, I won’t come home
in my long dress and necklace
and blow you kisses up the stairs.
I won’t carry you back to bed
to rub your blue feet better
or fetch blankets from the box.
No, you don’t need a bottle, cuddle,
special rabbit, teddy, bit of cloth.
You don’t even need to close your eyes.
They were born that way, sealed shut…
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
But surely if comparisons are going to be made, they should be made to the original, I thought, by Harry Nilsson, back in 1971. Nilsson’s version is terrific – a plaintive, desperate cry, combined with great vocal control. It’s poetry in a way – an example of how emotion can often be communicated more powerfully through well-timed restraint than by histrionics (like Carey).
However, when I looked at the sleeve notes on Nilsson’s album, I realised he hadn’t written the song. Then I realised there was an eerie story behind it.
The song was written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of the band Badfinger, and released as a track on their 1970 No Dice album. Nilsson recounts how he was wandering about his house humming the tune. He got out all his Beatles albums to seek out which album it was on, and found nothing. Eventually, he discovered the Badfinger album, recorded Without You in 1971, and Nilsson's version became a massive international hit. You can hear a snatch of the lo-fi, but interesting, Badfinger original here (towards the bottom of the page).
However, Badfinger didn’t benefit from the royalties for long. Their manager, Stan Polley, was allegedly embroiled in dodgy deals and the group couldn’t get an album released due to litigation. Pete Ham, in inexplicably desperate financial straits, hanged himself in his garden in 1975 and wrote a note to his girlfriend and her son, which read, “Anne, I love you. Blair, I love you. I will not be allowed to love and trust everybody. This is better. Pete. P.S. Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.”
In 1983, Tom Evans and another member of the band, Joey Molland, had an argument, reportedly about the share of royalties each deserved from Without You. Immediately afterwards, Evans hanged himself, also in his garden.
Mariah Carey covered the song (what is she smiling about? And what’s with the choir? Does she have no respect for words?) and released it as a single in the USA on 15 January 1994. Harry Nilsson died of heart failure later the same day…
(this final coincidence appears to be disputed, as the date of Carey's release is given, by some sources, as 24th January, and one source also gives this date for Nilsson's death, which is wrong. So this may be an urban legend, however believable, or perhaps even inevitable, it might sound)
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
I remember a bit of advice about writing poems, which also applies to readings:
"If you can't make it good, at least make it short."
The worst types of readings are those the poet begins with, "I don't usually read in public my long, difficult poems about the fate of modern man, but tonight I'm going to make an exception..."
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Vacant Sonnet (first draft, with a few tweaks)
I waited long and finally, it has
arrived, and just as suddenly departs –
the vacant poetry of nothingness,
where lines push at the margin and collapse;
where assonance means –o and metaphor
is like, but never like enough, and rhymes
flaunt their verisimilitude. The fewer
words, the closer zero’s paradigm.
The void beckons, and some welcome its pitch
hollow. The pause between each phrase, each act
glossed over, fill the toothless gaps from arch
poets in love with their own intellect.
And I confess, I wrote these lines today
with no space left, and something still to say.
The contestants’ versions of Manilow’s songs were pretty forgettable. Even Leona didn’t sing with her usual intensity, despite the raves she got from the judges. The Macdonalds, Ray, and Ben were all dreadful. Manilow himself looked to me as though he had undergone several plastic surgery operations too many. His face stretched out like a rubber mask. I was amazed he was capable of speaking through that slit that once was a mouth, and there was something weird about the way his head rocked about when he sang, as if it had been stuck on at the neck with sellotape.
The second half, in which the contestants got to choose their own songs, was better. The Macdonald Brothers chose the Bay City Rollers’ Shang-a-Lang, which at least was a good laugh. They got booted out though. So the run is at an end. Will they go back to being a wedding band, or will they find some kind of employment in the music industry? It’s a hard one to call.
Ray sang My Way. It was terrible. I don’t like the song, but it’s like getting a 10-year-old to read The Waste Land with conviction. Ray is a teenager, he looks 12, and he’s singing about how he’s lived his life his way. Nah. And he didn’t sing it well either. Astonishingly, the judges all loved it, which makes me wonder about them.
Ben did an a cappella version (along with a gospel choir) of Queen’s Somebody to Love. Full marks for bravery. I don’t know that it quite worked all the way, but it was interesting and he sang it well, with more restraint than he’s shown in recent weeks. When he aims for high notes, he seems often able only to shout his way up to them. Nothing like Leona’s control. He definitely deserved to go through and he will surely be in the final against Leona. However, I detect something of the prima donna in him. I hope he doesn’t win.
Leona sang a truly great song, Without You. I love the original version and last night, I didn’t think Leona had carried it off, despite the great cheering of the crowd and the judges falling over themselves to say how brilliant it was. But actually, when I listened to it today, I realised that she had done a very good job.
If anyone other than Leona wins the X-Factor, there is something badly wrong. Although I still think she will have a better musical career if she comes second or third.
Saturday, December 02, 2006
This is the video of Watching Xanadu from the 2001 album, Loss. You might detect a late Beach Boys influence in this song, but the MHS takes its influences from a variety of bands and stirs it into something new. If you like it, you'll also like How ‘bout I Love You More.
Better than anything in the charts.
Friday, December 01, 2006
This means you can read nine poems by me, mainly (as you'll note) in mystical and spiritually questioning mode. And, in addition, I'm the subject of an interview conducted by Katy Evans-Bush.
It seems to me like an excellent debut for the zine. There are some strong poems and prose pieces in there, with a wide variety of poets and styles, and it’s very well-produced. Looks great! I’m really pleased to be a part of it.