Thursday, June 21, 2007
Books I'll have with me:
The Best Man There Ever Was - Annie Freud
The Long and the Short of it - Roy Fisher
The Truth of Poetry - Michael Hamburger
Incidentally, I've just received the nicest rejection slip ever this morning. It reads - "I want to express my regrets that, due to limited space, we aren't able to accept your work for this issue. It wasn't easy making the final decisions. There were literally thousands of poems. And I want to inform you that you were among the top percent. Your poem 'walking out' was in the top 20. If only I could've taken a couple more!"
Just missed out. This keeps happening.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
The title hints at a half-lit world, a world dropping towards darkness but still framed with colour and beauty, a world of ambiguity where hope and despair co-exist, a world where one can’t quite see clearly but where vision is still possible. When the symbolic properties of the title are combined with the urban landscape of the poems, many of them set in London, the tension and passion that drive Tobias Hill’s work becomes apparent.
Hill brings the city alive through precise description, but not the dead precision we might find on a tourist’s postcard. In A Year in London, a poem in twelve parts – one for each month – Hill presents last-minute shopping in the January snow, old men in April playing chess in a scene more resembling Paris than anything I would have associated with London, an old fishmonger in the Chinese supermarket in July, fireworks and the memory of bombs echoing through the November air. The city can’t be pinned down, it thrives on its collisions. Metaphorically, it’s described in May’s nightclub scene, in which clichéd romantic longings co-exist with cold reality:
…the air is warm
and everyone is diamonded with stars,
where anyone can star in their own film,
a musical where star-crossed lovers meet
and dance, and slow-dance under the stars
until the stars themselves blush and wink out.
Tobias Hill employs a ‘plain style’ and combines that with a gentle surrealism, enabling him to look in on a scene from unexpected angles. In Nine in the Morning in the Station Bar, the ‘Old Masters’ on the wall tell the narrator that the trains will be a long time coming, while old men drink and a jukebox plays Relax, Don’t Do It over the Teletubbies on a silent TV screen. The poem ends on a despairing note, as if all possibilities have been closed off:
The Teletubbies rediscover shadows.
Frankie goes on and on to Hollywood.
Nine in the morning in the station bar,
and nobody comes in, and nobody goes home.
Several of the poems concern people who seem similarly trapped, although not all of them are without hope. The boy in the underground, lost in the world of his iPod and oblivious to all around him, could “disconnect, and all this will be yours, my son.” On the other hand, the woman driving away from a failed relationship in the deftly-constructed sonnet, Yellow, is left only with:
beautiful things. The perfect words you say
only later, too late, driving away.
One impressive aspect of these poems is how even the poems on domestic affairs connect to wider concerns. They don’t preach about the state of urban humanity, but render it visible, open it to enquiry, and often pierce the heart. The emotional core of a poem can often be translated from writer to reader through rhythm as much as through content. I remember first reading Eliot and being struck by how apparently simple phrases could affect me with the power of music, and Tobias Hill’s poems work in a similar way. Most aren’t strictly metrical, but there is an awareness of metre, a pulsing undercurrent, that succeeds in transmitting emotional depth. Combined with Hill’s narrative skill and ability to create tension, poems like Repossession have immediate impact from the opening lines:
The first we heard of it was the silence.
There was a morning with seagulls in it.
The air was grey, and held the smell of salt,
and when the rain began at last, at noon
a black van pulled in by the off-license,
so silently you had to look…
Who wouldn’t want to read on to the end after that beginning?!
The characters in these poems try desperately to make sense of the world, or at least to find a way to live in it with integrity. Different existences collide, just as they do in any city’s high street, and the poems strive to make their response. In The Wave, the narrator and his wife go about heir daily tasks while information on the East Asia tsunami disaster rolls in endlessly. They observe the silences and give to the appeals:
There is much more that we could know
and nobody can tell where it will stop,
or if it ever will. This is the news.
What should I do with this? you say, and then
What should I do with this?
But such questioning doesn’t end in apathy and despair. Tobias Hill’s poems take despair seriously, but don’t wallow in it, and seek as far as they can to glimpse hope. Most of the time, the hope felt hard-earned, but now and again, such as in Horse Chestnuts, where a quarrelling couple make up, recognising the pettiness of their arguments compared to the bond they have, I felt a potentially good poem was spoiled by a contrived symbol – the chestnuts fall from the trees and “reveal themselves, not cold/ or spent, but bright as blood, beating hearts.” I guess some readers might like that, but to me it felt like meaning constructed by the poet – too neat to be convincing.
On the other hand, the final poem, Nocturne, gives hope and feels authentic, and is more representative of this subtle and moving collection. A man walks through London by night, and all around are images of closure and death. Someone asks, Are we there yet? a question that takes on existential scope “in the blind spot/ you didn’t mean to find this evening/ or any night.” This is where so many poems leave readers, that blind spot where everything stops – the nearest one can come to a destination. But Tobias Hill has a few lines left:
You must be leaving.
Don’t look back now. Pick up your feet,
and keep walking. And keep on walking.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
However, Laila Lalami no doubt speaks for the majority of Muslims. At least, I hope so.
This might be a good time for the Governments of Pakistan and Iran to consider giving their minority Christian populations full equal rights. I mean, if these governments demand consideration for their own feelings, they should show a similar consideration for those groups they currently oppress and, every so often, persecute. That makes sense, doesn’t it?
I’ve been thinking about this, but haven’t found anything compelling to say, other than that I really like Sarah Maguire’s poem, Passages, but that I, like Tony, tend to lean towards a longer line. I’m sure Tony would be happy to hear from you at his blog if you have any thoughts, and I’d like to read them too!
Monday, June 18, 2007
One draft sprawls all over the place. There’s a television showing news from an unnamed city on which bombs are raining down in the dark. The poem moves to an afternoon beach scene, back to the living room and TV, then to the narrator and his computer, then a panning out to a telescopic view of the living room and TV, then right into the TV and onto a scene from the bombed city not seen onscreen. The common thread is the emotional distance and helplessness of the cut-off narrator.
The other version is much simpler and thematically coherent. It starts from the telescopic view of the room, moves to the TV, moves to the image not seen by the camera lens. The theme is similar, but more obvious. The emotional distance and helplessness of the narrator is shown purely between himself and the TV screen.
This second version is much more direct, has a logical linear progression, and is much easier to understand on a single reading. It's how a textbook might tell you to write a poem. The first version makes more demands of a reader, is longer, and probably more puzzling.
I much prefer the first version. But perhaps that’s because I like being awkward and indirect. And maybe that’s not so much what readers like. Or editors.
It could also be that I am wrong and the second version is superior. Or it could be that neither version is any good!
Anyway, I’ll post both versions below, and leave them for 48 hours. Honest comments welcome.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
'The purpose of this book is not to prove God doesn't exist; it is to prove I am cleverer than Richard Dawkins.'
Saturday, June 16, 2007
Friday, June 15, 2007
I have two poems in it – In the Last Few Seconds and Lighter, but if that doesn’t tempt you, there are poems from the likes of Moniza Alvi, Robin Robertson, Fiona Sampson, and Henry Shukman, prose from Julian Barnes, Anita Desai, Alasdair Gray, Doris Lessing, Zoe Strachan, and a host of others – many names unknown to me who can certainly write really well.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
I think all poets should try to be great poets. This does not mean being a famous poet, or even being called a great poet, but it does mean a determination to try to tell the world as it is in all its misery and grandeur…Beyond that I am a sceptical and reasonable being. The moment that I begin to think of myself as a great poet I become useless and should be shot.
Poetry is always Elsewhere. It is beyond people (or you yourself, for that matter) proclaiming you either wonderful or rubbish. None of that really matters at all. You sit and write the best poems you can. You may play, compose rhymes and squibs and occasional verses. One should overflow a bit, nor ever be so solemn and po-faced as to think one must be 'significant' all the time. But there, at the heart of the project, there should for all poets, be a demand beyond career, beyond competence, beyond poesy, to half-sing, half-speak the world back to itself in language, to give life back in language to those who live it.
I like the bit about overflowing and not always being po-faced and about the demand “beyond competence", and all the rest of it too.
I don't think I will ever be a 'great poet', although I guess that if I ever started to believe I was on the point of becoming one, I should also be shot. Aiming to be one, in the sense above, is another matter.
The aim of writing great poems is also another matter. I think I would like to write a great poem, even just one great poem in a lifetime, more than I would like to be a great poet. I'm not sure which is the more difficult!
It’s my birthday. I got clothes from my wife. She is much better at choosing what I wear than I am, so I’m grateful. My daughter got me a double CD of punk rock originals – the Adverts, the Only Ones, John Cooper Clarke, the Members, along with all the usual suspects. I guess when children start giving you music from 30 years ago, it means you’re old.
…a stern old man
White-chest-haired, in his long johns rising to pee dark amber
In the reek of ammonia into a pot he kept under the bed,
Or waving his walking stick at me,
All stubbly threat, from his big armchair
But it’s details like this that give the poem its resonance, partly because they display an authentic affection for those who worked down the pits, but also because of phrases like “all stubbly threat”, capturing character and description with great poetic economy.
The poem isn’t just a memory of the past. It connects with the present and future. Light is a constant refrain, in contrast to the dark world of the pits and to the essential darkness of a lump of coal. The poem begins, ‘Lanarkshire’s built on light, of light,’ and leads some fifteen lines later to:
And what is coal? Coal is a terse, black language
You could translate to the rustling tongues of money.
It is stilled fire. It is a sunbird locked in an ebony cage.
It is light made solid.
Political exploitation, dignity in adverse conditions, the necessity of not taking anything for granted – Gerry Cambridge scatters these themes through the poem and makes the writing look simple, which is often the hardest kind of poem to make work. There's no modish irony or ambiguity, no unexpected personal epiphany. It's contemporary, but not in thrall to current trends. In so many ways, that's refreshing.
There were a few lines I felt weren’t needed, and the first simile seems imprecise (trees locking up the sun’s light “like a miner descending day after day into dark”?), but the poem unfashionably makes its point without beating about the bush, calling to memory those:
Who spat out their soul in black dust on the paving stones,
Whose ossified lungs permitted clear skin and flowers in vases.
Remember them, when the lights switch on.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Andy Philip picked up on my remarks on Scottish identity from the first interview, which gave rise to a little discussion.
The second half is mainly about Italy, where I lived until a couple of years ago, and what it was like to return to Scotland.
Thanks to Yang May for doing the interview and for her positive attitude towards poetry. Fusion View is always interesting – well worth subscribing to.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Amazon customer reviews are often fairly worthless. For example, I read an obnoxious review of a Collected Poems. The reviewer gave the book one star. He had studied this poet at school and hated the poetry. I felt certain he had never read this Collected Poems, by one of my favourite poets! The review, besides being libellous, should never have been published. Many “reviews” are at that level. I’ve just reported it to Amazon as defamatory (yes, it was that bad).
Do you buy books on the strength of an Amazon review? That’s if it was a five-star review from someone who sounded like he/she had read the book and had thought about it. Do they have any influence on you at all? Would a one star review put you off?
Monday, June 11, 2007
Of course, to make matters even more complicated, there is also "indubitably."
I did a Google seach for "undoubtably" and got 448,000 links, although a handful of those were pointing out the misspelling.
1. My Dentist, Aniela
2. Our Inventions
3. The Actress
4. Paint Marks
I chatted between poems as well, as the atmosphere was relaxed and informal.
The poets and audience then retired to a nearby bar. Afterwards I was waiting for a bus in a quiet Leith street. This guy shouted to me from the other side of the road. He wanted to know the time, but he had an unhinged quality about him that made the most innocent question sound like a threat. I told him the time. He went into a phone box.
When he came out, he looked over at me again. “Hey, pal,” he said, “See if that phone rings, don’t touch it!”
Who thinks to warn someone not to answer the ring of a public phone? I said I wouldn’t answer it, but when he turned the corner, I was left with a dilemma. If that phone rang, should I answer it? My bus didn’t arrive for another 8 minutes. The phone didn’t ring.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Sun 10 June 2007, 7.30 PM to 10.00 PM, (admission £4) at Lambs House on Burgess Street, just off the shore, round the corner from the Waterline pub - see the website www.leithfestival.com for a map.
An evening of new Scottish poetry. Rab Wilson, described as a "new voice" for Scotland by Edwin Morgan, presents the cream of new Scottish poets and poetry. Why not bring your work along - all new talent welcome! (proceeds to Friends of the Earth Scotland)
Saturday, June 09, 2007
A - This was OK. Good final image and decent, gradual build-up. But it doesn't stand out. It's a bit obvious. Well written though. As a side-issue, I think I heard this poem read during the StAnza Festival, although I could be wrong. But I think I know who wrote this one. If I'm right, it's not one of this fine writer's best poems.
B- I didn't think much of this. It's way overlong to make a point which I felt had been imposed on the images rather than stemming from them. And it needs cutting.
C - Interesting attempt to connect the snake skin and war, but I didn’t feel too convinced. Overheated metaphor.
D - I quite like this. I might give it my runner-up vote. In S3 there are adjective noun pairings in similar positions in each line, which I thought were noticeable, not in a good way. But the poem works well by clever implication.
E - Good poem. The images are strong and clear. There's good use of form and rhyme. The biblical allusions and political overtones engage with big issues, so the poem is more than just a clever piece of work. It gets my vote for sure.
F - Starts well with good humour. It collapses with news of the death. The line "those numbers don't add up to naught" is the worst line in the whole shortlist and should have disqualified this one from consideration. But the second half of the poem is poor generally.
G - OK, good use of form, strong detail in initial stanzas, nicely written. But no point being made. OK, it's an ordinary day when the bomb goes off. And...?
H - zzz...zzzz...zzzz...zzzz... Sorry, it's the shortest poem, but I fell asleep before the end.
I - Enjoyable, well written and humorous. Could win, as readers who like their poetry to sound authentically 1910-ish will vote for this one. There might be a lot of votes in that. It is genuinely entertaining, fun, and technically skilful. I'd give it third place.
J - So what? Black guy is vicar and his style doesn't fit this immigration officer’s expectations. Lots of casual, chit-chatty prose masquerading as contemporary "voice". Annoying poem that shouldn't have been shortlisted.
K - If Simon Armitage didn't write this (and I suspect he didn't), he should be flattered that someone else has so internalised his style. In a hundred years’ time, we might think of this sort of poem as an example of an "Armitage," as distinct from a poem written by Simon Armitage. It’s well enough written, so if SA did write it, it’s not one of his best, but still pretty good.
(and if your poem is in there and I've slagged it off, please don't get too mad at me. It's only one poem)
Friday, June 08, 2007
I’m with Michael Laskey who says, “Thank you for a fine festival and all the care and friendliness of your huge team of volunteers. I loved it all. Normal life's a bit flat.”
The results are now up (with links to the music) here and here.
I shortlisted six songs and found it hard to choose just one. But in the end, I chose the Patti Smith Group’s Gloria (George’s link to it isn’t working at the moment).
The other five on my list were:
What Goes On by the Velvet Underground
Marquee Moon by Television
Complete Control by The Clash
Suffer Little Children – The Smiths
The State I Am In – Belle and Sebastian
It occurs to me now that I should also have included Simply Thrilled Honey by Orange Juice (I should add that this isn't the original, superior version with James Kirk on guitar - I suspect second generation Orange Juice around 1982? Anyone know?).
Thursday, June 07, 2007
Tony Lawrence’s book, Landing on Eros, one of several chapbooks he’s self-published, is an entertaining read. There is an outer space theme, bringing unity to the collection. The real subject of most poems is the human condition – questions on love, metaphysics, loneliness.
Some make clever use of metaphor, such as Dark Energy. If the Tyrannosaurus Rex had, contrary to expectation, been successful:
he would destroy all of the others,
his meteoric rise burnt out
fall in upon himself;
a dark body
moving too fast
in the wrong place.
Many work with suggestion, implication, a hint of unsettling mystery, such as Barnard’s Star:
There are two kinds of space with their own stars,
the dark and light,
The dark stars wander like so many ghosts
blind among tombstones.
There is one near us now.
It will come close
until its night
enters our own day
in the absent soul of the ghost
the living eye on the dead face.
I’d guess the presence of an editor would have tightened up some of the poems, and sorted out a few technical flaws. Also there are 36 poems in this chapbook, often two to a page. I felt that, cut to 20-24 or so, the book would have been stronger as a whole. But I still enjoyed this stimulating trip through Tony Lawrence’s mind.
There’s no information on how to buy this chapbook. It costs £4. If anyone wants to get hold of a copy, let me know by email (address at my profile) and I’ll let Tony know.
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
And to bring things full circle, Andrew Shields has also reviewed Sushi and Chips, the latest collection from Colin Will. I’ve read this too and it’s very good.
It’s worth taking a chance on any of these collections, even if you’ve never heard of the authors. Details of how to buy them can be found at the links. I’ve heard it said that personal recommendation sells more books than anything else. This is your chance to prove it!
Monday, June 04, 2007
“Moreover, I've come to an understanding of the nature and purpose of lyrics that satisfies me, while incidentally explaining the collapse of poetry as a popular art form. Nowadays, if we picture the poetic muse at all, it's as a superannuated folkie, sitting in the corner of the literary lounge bar, holding his ear and yodelling some old bollocks or other. Whatever need we have for the esemplastic unities of sound, meaning and rhythm that were traditionally supplied by spoken verse, we now find it supplied in sung lyrics.”
That “nowadays if we picture the poetic muse” – who is this “we”? Will Self, I suppose, and whoever else, obviously with little experience of hearing or reading poetry written in the last thirty years, but who are ready and willing to nod heads in ignorant agreement with his prejudices.
Really, Self may be correct on how many people view poetry. But his argument could have continued like this:
Cave’s oeuvre supplies something similar to poetry at its best, and people who enjoy the complexity of thought and feeling found on a Nick Cave album would do well to overcome current prejudices against contemporary poetry and buy a few collections to read in between albums. Those readers are unlikely to be disappointed.
Instead Self has bought in to a populist caricature of poetry. His refusal to challenge it is pathetic - all the more so given his status as an important literary writer.
Self ought to read a few quality, contemporary poetry collections and see a few quality poets in performance before making his daft assertions. I’ve been a fan of Nick Cave for many years, for longer than Will Self by the sounds of it. I agree that Cave’s lyrics work well when sung. But quality poetry can supply the unities of sound, meaning and rhythm that Self seeks, and the good stuff can do so with far more humour and depth than ninety-nine percent of music lyrics.
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Saturday, June 02, 2007
It features a Book Fair, with books by such fine poets as Julie Carter, Matt Merritt, Eleanor Livingstone, Jim Carruth, Maggie Butt, Alison Brackenbury etc. You can also find details of how to order their books.
How about a challenge? Order at least two books from the list, read them, and then blog about what you thought of them. That way, the word will spread even further.
As for me, I sent details of my chapbook to Snakeskin three times, and each time, my email came back marked “undeliverable.” So I gave up after that. I don’t know what went wrong.
Friday, June 01, 2007
Nice to see it. But there’s a typo in the title, and (more importantly) the poem should be in stanzas of three lines, not one long splurge. I’ll have to get in touch with them.
“But no, I don’t think that calling someone a “Scottish writer” is per se to ghettoize them, as you put it… It is a truism that the cultural values one inherits permeate one’s work and even give rise to it. Naturally, I am against flag-waving in literature as I am any kind of overt political agenda, something that vitiates much Latin American literature. Nor am I ever going to defend parochialism. In fact, I would contend that the best literature is a conflation of the local and the universal—one at no time negates the other. But it is a delusion to believe that you leave your culture behind, even in cases where you might try to renounce it, and you are in fact indelibly shaped by it. As I said, I live in several countries and, every time I travel, I am conscious of entering a different reality. Humanity is not a lumpen, homogeneous mass.”
Robertson has grouped together twelve of Scotland’s leading writers (including several poets, such as W.N. Herbert and Robert Crawford) under a Viva Caledonia! banner in an online magazine I hadn’t previously heard of, the Mad Hatters’ Review (the link to Viva Caledonia! is at the bottom left-hand corner of the zine). Robertson is the UK, Spain and Argentina editor.
He also plans to start a new Scottish literary journal this winter coming, and the Mad Hatters’ Review will feature an Eclectic England section in the next two issues, again featuring poetry e.g. Patience Agabi, Simon Armitage, Mimi Khalvati, George Szirtes etc.