Saturday, March 31, 2007

NaPoWriMo 2007

I’ve given in to temptation and have started a NaPoWriMo thread – this will be my third year running. The idea is to write a (draft) poem every day through the month of April.

This year will be tough. This coming week is incredibly busy, and I’ll be away for a week later in the month – but I’ll try to keep up.

If any of you want to have a shot, feel free to join Pffa and start a thread there too, even if you’ve never posted there before. Everyone is welcome from beginners to experts. The atmosphere in the NaPoWriMo forum is fun, fun, fun.

Chocolate Jesus Cancelled

The “chocolate Jesus” exhibit has been cancelled from the art show due to open on 2 April at a New York gallery.

The gallery’s artistic director, Mark Semler, said the decision to cancel was a result of "strong-arming from people who haven't seen the show, seen what we're doing.” I wish he’d taken the decision to explain what they were doing rather than simply cancelling (although I don’t think the cancellation will be of any great loss to art history).

However when he says that “the timing of the exhibition - when Christians mark the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ - was coincidental,” he really has to be kidding!

He didn’t realise it was Holy Week? He forgot? I wish people would at least be honest… Is that too much to ask?

But I'm equally dis-satisfied with the attitude of the Catholic League. Their spokeswoman says:

"They would never dare do something similar with a chocolate statue of the Prophet Mohammed naked with his genitals exposed during Ramadan."

True enough. But if the issue is the showing of genitals, then they have no grounds for objection. Criminals were crucified naked, without a loincloth. One of the main theological motifs of the crucifixion is its offence - the symbol of a humiliated God who was stripped of all dignity and still died forgiving. The loincloth is a symbol of human inability to face up to that.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Chocolate Jesus

Artist, Cosimo Caravallo, has created a life-size crucified naked Jesus
made from chocolate, titled My Sweet Lord. It’s to be exhibited from 2 April in the Lab Gallery at the Roger Smith Hotel in New York.

The sculpture has attracted criticism, both from critics and from religious groups such as the Catholic League, which has called for a boycott of the gallery and hotel.

It’s unclear to me precisely what the Catholic League find offensive, even after reading their website. It might be that Jesus is naked on the cross, without a loincloth, but this is historically accurate. The humiliation of nakedness was part of the punishment.

It could be that the League views the very idea of a chocolate Jesus artwork as offensive in itself, but why that should be is hard to explain. Trivial and stupid perhaps, but not offensive.

Apparently Caravallo has invited members of the public to eat the statue at a certain point, but this invitation has only recently been made and can’t be the reason for objection.

The exhibition has been timed to open during Holy Week, which is an obvious provocation. I suppose it makes me suspect the motives of the artist. It looks like a cheap shot at publicity. He no doubt hopes that shock value might get more people through the gallery doors and get him in the public eye. I don’t find that kind of thing offensive, only pathetic.

The gallery’s Creative Director Matt Semler says, ''The sign of any great artist is how their work affects the observer." It’s that word “how” that’s the key. If it merely offends people’s beliefs, or if it gives viewers the impression of a publicity stunt, I don’t how that’s any sign of a great work of art.

So what is the point of it? I guess ideas like society's over-indulgence, faith (or perhaps postmodern art? heh heh) as transient commodity, religion as a sugar-coated pill etc might be banded about as giving meaning to the piece. But such labels are just psuedo-intellectual commentary. Looking at the picture at the link, and trying to imagine it real-size, I can’t say it says much to me.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Publishing a Novel

I’ve written a couple of novels in the past (well, three, in fact, but I tore one of them up and binned it) and have ideas for writing another one, should my schedule ever make that possible. But chances of publication are remote, and according to this article in The Guardian, they are getting more remote by the second.

“…the idea of a novel quietly selling itself now, with no sense of the writer behind it, is far-fetched. Kate Saunders, one of the judges of this year's Orange Prize for fiction (the longlist, just announced, has half-a-dozen first novels on it), says: 'It is harder for first novelists to get noticed now. They will find, increasingly, that they are judged alongside their work - and are less likely to be taken on if they are not photogenic or newsworthy.'”


“According to the latest edition of Private Eye, first novel The Thirteenth Tale by ex-teacher Diane Setterfield (author's advance £800,000) has sold 13,487 copies to date. Only 516,129 to go and the book's paid for itself...”

The average hardback first novel sells only 400 copies in the UK, and the average advance is only £12,000 for the first two novels . The subtext: Don't give up your day job.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Deleted Poem



Mimesis is a new print magazine that should be worth checking out. It’s edited by James Midgley and the first issue contains poems by myself, Jee Leong, Julie Carter, and lots of other stuff.

There’s also an interview with fine UK poet and editor Michael Laskey.

Monday, March 26, 2007

HappenStance Launch

I was at the launch of the two new HappenStance chapbooks on Saturday. I was going to write a report, but one has just appeared on the HappenStance site, which says everything that needed said. I do like Rachel Fox’s poem (quoted in the report)!

StAnza 8 - 100 Poets and the Pamphlet Poets

The 100 Poets Gathering featured, in fact, 103 poets, each reading a single poem. It lasted 5½ hours. I missed about half of it as my own event overrun this one, but I was impressed that so many poets stuck around through most, or even all, of the day. There were many highlights. I loved David Kinloch’s hilarious (anti-) sestina, Mike Stocks’s poignant Two Boys, and Jim Carruth’s desperate search for a plate when Alastair Reid set his poem alight and then realised he couldn’t drop a fire hazard on a bar floor.

But it was a great event full of good poetry, some funny and some serious, and Jim Carruth’s vision and organisation that made it happen should be commended.


My event went well. The venue wasn’t full, but felt reasonably well populated. It was cosy and atmospheric. I kicked off. I read 9 poems, 5 from The Clown of Natural Sorrow and 4 others. The titles were (for those who like pointless lists):

Hangover Hotel
The Actress
The Babysitter
In the Last Few Seconds
A.M.F. Davighi (translation)
While the Moonies are Taking Over Uruguay

People laughed in the right places and gave me a positive reaction, although I didn’t sell many copies of the chapbook. It’s hard to sell. Quite a few people told me they’d enjoyed the reading. But they didn’t buy the book…

Lyn Moir came next. Her poems were very well crafted – again someone who manages to convey humour and seriousness at the same time. She expressed her astonishment that some people thought sex was over by the time one reached a certain age, and some of her poems proved that it wasn’t.

Diana Hendry began with renditions of psalms she’d translated from some Scots versions. She was trying to convey the same power she’d found in them. They were pretty good, as were her poems in reaction to them – subtle and thought-provoking. Then she moved on to other poems, including one memorably structured in twenty parts – one for each length completed at the swimming baths.

So a good event.


This is my final report from StAnza. Book your tickets to St Andrews for March 2008!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

StAnza 7 - Alastair Reid, Scotland, Fire, and Calvinism

Alastair Reid’s famous poem, Scotland, concerns a man around 1971 walking around St Andrews. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, the colours of the surrounding fields and hills make a strong impression on the narrator. He is in a very good mood. He runs into the woman from the fish-shop and says “What a day it is!” The poem ends with the woman’s reaction:

Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
‘We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it.’

This is the Scottish psyche speaking, not just a woman from a fish-shop. We Scots laugh, and wince, at this recognition of who we are – or were.

At StAnza, Alastair Reid finished off the 100 Poets Gathering by reading it, because he had been instructed to. He then held up the original manuscript, pulled out a cigarette lighter, and set it on fire. It was a wonderfully theatrical moment to end on.

A couple of days before in a fascinating discussion with Tom Pow (one of the festival highlights), Alastair Reid had said that Scotland no longer described the nation. Things had changed, he felt. Scotland was no longer in the grip of Calvinism, with its iron Sabbaths, its dourness, and inability to enjoy itself without thinking of the inevitable payback.

I disagree. Partly I disagree that Calvinism really had much to do with it – the weather, an inferiority complex brought on by colonisation by a richer and more powerful neighbour, relative poverty, and a deep sense that nothing good lasts forever – all those factors play their part in the Scottish psyche.

And when he burnt the poem to express a liberation from the ‘Calvinist’ psyche, I couldn’t help wondering what we now felt free to do – to shop at Tesco and IKEA on Sundays? to pad around the near-identical shopping malls? to adopt a lifestyle of unfettered hedonism? to celebrate our devolved Parliament that most people I know do little but complain about?

I mentioned this over dinner last Sunday evening. One of my companions, a festival poet – not from a Christian background – agreed with me. She even felt that the Scottish psyche described in the poem was a good thing (to an extent), providing a counterbalance to the forces of materialism and globalisation.

I don’t think that psyche has gone. At least I hope not. There’s no sense in destroying who we are to become an unidentifiable part of a global village. We don’t need to be miserable in the face of a beautiful day, but that sense that the weather will change – here, probably sooner than later – is part of who we are as Scottish people. Let’s not burn it out of our heads until we’ve something equally distinctive to replace it with.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

'Allo 'Allo - Edinburgh People's Theatre

My wife is acting in this, wearing seamed stocking and suspenders, a mini skirt, and a waitress uniform.

But there are other reasons to go and see it too e.g. it's funny

StAnza 6 - The Poetry Readings: Highlights

I could write pages about the poetry readings at StAnza, but I suspect you’d need to have been there for it to be interesting, so I’ll keep it as short as possible and pick out a few details.

Jen Hadfield and Polly Clark were very different from another in both poetry and delivery – JH’s poems are odd and her delivery engagingly hesitant, PC is more traditional and she reads confidently – but I enjoyed both very much. A great start to the festival for me.

I thought that two of the Eric Gregory Award (made to five or so UK poets under the age of 30 each year) winners were very good, but I probably shouldn’t mention names.

Michael Laskey managed to switch really well between humour and sadness in his set, sometimes combining both in the one poem.

I enjoyed hearing the three Russian poets (Elena Falinova, Alexandra Petrova, and Maria Galina) reading in Russian – one of them deadpan, one sounding mysterious and lyrical, one almost singing like a bird at times before switching to a lower, sadder key. The translations echoed the sound of the poems.

Jack Mapanje’s microphone didn’t work, but that didn’t affect the strength and dignity of his poems, many written through times of dictatorship in Malawi. He spent 3 years in prison for writing poetry and his poems were political, humane, and moving. Ron Butlin also didn’t shirk from writing on politics, making connections from Thatcher through to Blair, and his wit connected well with the audience.

George Szirtes gave an excellent reading – poems rooted in real human concerns, full of depth, and yet not so heavy that the power of the language and subject-matter didn’t come across in a reading. Ruth Padel began with a spellbinding, new, long poem on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which must have lasted about 10 minutes. A piece of sustained power. Her reading was dramatic and theatrical.

Mario Petrucci was brilliant. He was very good at communicating with his audience, and like Michael Laskey, could switch from humour into the very deepest sadness without it seeming like too great a leap. The poems felt honest and authentic, whether funny or sad.

Matt Harvey and John Hegley were both very funny, halfway between stand-up comedy and poetry. Harvey is the nice guy, the comedian who says “Please like me, audience,” and uses that as the launchpad for humour. Hegley acts the cantankerous misery-guts and gets his laughs from that. I thought Harvey had one of the funniest stand-up acts I’d seen in ages and his poetry was very, very clever. He deserves far more recognition.

83-year-old Mark Strand began by instructing us “Don’t mistake any my poems for autobiography. None of it is true. This first one is called Old Man Leaving the Party,” which sounded like an ironic double-bluff. The poems were surreal and clever, the reading deadpan. He was grumpy and monosyllabic afterwards, but maybe he was just tired. Alastair Reid’s poems were accessible but not shallow, evidence of a fully-lived life, and his reading was a great way to finish off a superb festival.

If any of the festival organisers read this – please invite me back. Anytime. I realise there will a long queue, but I will wait patiently.

Friday, March 23, 2007

StAnza 5 - Non-Poetry-Reading Highlights (Part 3)

George Szirtes’ Masterclass – six poets presented poems and the full text of each was given to each member of the audience. I liked the lack of nit-picking. Instead, GS invited the writers and audience to identify the heart of each poem. This often involved a moment when the poem moved up a gear, when something happened – a line, a phrase, an event – which inaugurated a shift, a reach for something greater than what had come before. Poems stand or fall by how well these moments are brought to fruition.
Reflecting on the poems with this in mind was instructive. Plenty of other ideas came up in the masterclass, but this is the one that has lodged most in my mind.

Film – a loop of films was shown throughout the festival. And other films were included in the official program. Some of them were avant-garde: a burst of strange images and words. Others were beautifully artistic. A few were funny, particularly a spoof film featuring a poet talking, with marvellously-timed pretension, about his work. Some films succeeded in being genuinely pretentious themselves. But showing the films was a great idea.

The Sing Song – some famous poets decided to celebrate St Patrick’s day by having an impromptu, wine-fuelled sing-song round their table in the Byre Bar. I missed a lot of it, as I was enjoying the performances of Matt Harvey and John Hegley in the Byre Theatre, but what I heard was quite funny. Some poets can sing and others definitely can’t. And no, I won’t name names.

Poetry Pamphlet Fair – this took place on the Saturday afternoon. Tables were laden with pamphlets/chapbooks, and I went off with a few. The quality varies wildly of course, but events like this are vital to give a profile to these poetry collections that the chain-stores won’t sell and can all too easily remain invisible.

New HappenStance Launch

Tomorrow, Saturday 24th March marks the launch of two new chapbooks from HappenStance.

If you are in the vicinity of Edinburgh, come along to the Scottish Poetry Library at 3.00 for 3.30pm. The books are Mackerel Wrappers by Martin Cook and Unsuitable Companions, a new anthology of light verse. I have one poem included in this and will be reading it at the launch.

From what I‘ve read so far, some of the funny poems have a barbed centre. They are not all as “light” as that word suggests – so much the better, in my opinion.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

StAnza 4 - Non-Poetry-Reading Highlights (Part 2)

Graves and Bishop - I only got to one Dead Poets session – Alastair Reid spoke on (and read from) Robert Graves, and Mimi Khalvati took on Elizabeth Bishop – it was a terrific hour. Both poets read some astonishing poems. Alastair Reid had known both Graves and Bishop personally, and Mimi Khalvati managed to channel Elizabeth Bishop as though she was present in the room that morning.

Alastair Reid in conversation – Tom Pow interviewed 81(?)-year-old Scottish poet and translator, Alastair Reid, for 90 minutes, but I could have listened for double that time. Reid has travelled all over the world and, as well as translating their work, was a friend of Neruda, Borges, and dozens of other celebrated writers, particularly in Latin America. He said he didn’t like the idea of working for a living and spending what little time he had left enjoying himself, so he decided to set his own agenda as a writer and traveller. He was lucky – jobs came up, mainly teaching and writing jobs at just the right time, and he heard about them through entirely chance encounters – but he took advantage of his luck.
His most famous poem, Scotland, was beamed onto various buildings in St Andrews throughout the festival, and he did read it at the 100 Poets Gathering – despite disowning it and then setting the original copy on fire live on stage! More of all that in another post.
He also took Jorie Graham’s headline spot on the final night. Jorie Graham was ill and her doctors told her she couldn’t travel. So we got Alastair Reid instead. More of that later too.

I'll do a part 3, and then try to sum up the poetry in one short post. Then I'll say something rather against-the-grain about Scotland, Calvinism, and Alastair Reid. Then I'll report on the 100 Poets Gathering. Then I'll say something about my own event. Then I'll leave StAnza 2007 behind, as you're probably all getting bored of it already.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

StAnza 3 - Non-Poetry-Reading Highlights (Part 1)

Roy Fisher and Jill Turnbull on Gael Turnbull – GT’s wife, Jill, and long-term friend, RF, demonstrated poems driven by motors on spinning ceiling-high metal cylinders, random poems based on shuffled packs of cards, beautifully carved wooden books in which fragments could be wheeled around to create poems. GT’s creations often had whimsical results but there could be no denying the skill and love that went into creating them. The stories behind them were fascinating.

George Szirtes’s StAnza Lecture – this is now online and is bound to attract a lot of discussion over the next while. I am still trying to digest it.

The Bar – there were few tables at the StAnza section of the bar/restaurant and the area was a constant milling about of poets, festival staff, editors, friends and families. I guess this could get tiresome if you were ‘doing festivals’ all the time. You’d probably end up wanting peace and quiet more than anything. But I really enjoyed the social side of things. I expect it’s one reason why participants in shows like the X Factor and American Idol want to stay in the competition – they become part of a group with similar interests, many of the people they meet are fascinating, they are treated very well, people speak to them with the assumption they have real talent. Of course the X Factor and American Idol offer a six-figure prize, but I doubt that’s the main sense of loss when it all ends and people go home empty handed. It’s the buzz that goes missing.

Open Mic Session at the Bunker Bar, Golf Hotel – a group of us got lost, including stand-up comedian/poet, Owen O’Neill. There were lots of bunker bars in St Andrews and everything in the area seemed to be called Golf-something. Eventually we found the right place and wandered in late. O’Neill had the ability to tell this not-particularly-funny story at the mic and have everyone laughing their heads off. He needed only to open his mouth and people would laugh. A great ability.

I was asked later whether we had looked at the map, as the venue was clearly marked. Map? Poets don’t use maps. Poets get lost.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

StAnza 2 - What I Bought

What one buys at a poetry festival must say something about what stood out from the crowd. But for me it isn’t that simple. I was under strict constraints, partly because my bank balance this month is pretty hopeless, and partly because I’m trying not to buy anything unnecessary during Lent.

However, I felt it would be wrong not to buy books from fellow poets, especially when I was hoping people would buy my book. But what I bought doesn’t tell the whole story, as there were books I really wanted to buy but couldn’t, because I’d already fulfilled my quota for the day.

Sometimes I wanted to buy a book after seeing a poet in performance, such as Mario Petrucci, whose reading was terrific - particularly his poems on Chernobyl - and Mimi Khalvati, whose performance was reflective and engaging. Other times it was because I thoroughly regretted missing a performance after glancing through a poet’s book, or because (as well as the poems) I liked the poet as a person – Imtiaz Dharker, for example, on both counts, and Ron Butlin (whose reading I did see) on the second count.

I wouldn’t buy a book from a poet I liked personally but whose work was poor (well, not usually), but the reverse scenario doesn't follow i.e. when a poet is obnoxious and his/her poems are great. I did buy Mark Strand’s book, even though he came over to me as very grumpy. His poems were great though.

Two poets I did like personally: Jen Hadfield’s reading was a delight and her book looks excellent. Michael Laskey did a fine reading, which combined depth and wit.

The chapbooks all appealed to me because the opening poems were good. I bought each on the strength of that and I now hope the remaining poems will match up.

So here’s what I bought:


Selected Poems – Mark Strand
Almanacs – Jen Hadfield
Permission to Breathe – Michael Laskey


Smoke – Jenni Daiches
When Now Is Not Now – Alastair Reid
Three Little Ninjas – Chloe Morrish
Mackerel Wrappers – Martin Cook

And here are poets whose books I really wanted to buy, and will do in the course of the year:

Ron Butlin
Mario Petrucci
Imtiaz Dharker
Mimi Khalvati

Monday, March 19, 2007

StAnza 1

Yesterday evening at the end-of-StAnza party, a certain unidentifiable person with a vast knowledge of cows, who had organised a large gathering of over 100 poets that afternoon at an unidentifiable Scottish poetry festival, asked me if I would be writing about StAnza on my blog. I told him I would.

This unidentifiable person then asked me if I planned to mask people’s identities when writing about them to avoid any impression of literary gossip – for example, “the artistic director of a large Scottish Poetry festival was telling me…” or “a man with a white beard who wasn’t Douglas Dunn and who recently helped to bring a whole load of dead poets to life happened to remark that…” or “a former American poet laureate with the initials MS happened to say…”

This was of course good humoured Scottish sarcasm. I do plan to write a short series of blog posts on the StAnza festival, but it goes without saying that Surroundings does not (often) indulge in gossip and innuendo, not even that of a literary nature. Who lunched together, what they were overheard saying, the romances, the jealousies, the bitter arguments – these I will keep to myself. But the poetry, the performances, and all the angles one could think of employing when reflecting on a poetry festival will receive full coverage.

You read it here first.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


It looks as though there is significant opposition to Tony Blair’s attempt to rush through a vote on renewing the UK’s Trident nuclear missile system.

But not enough opposition to stop the motion being carried with (ironically) the help of the Conservative party. I disagree with the UK having any nuclear weapons, but I have the sense that the Government increasingly pays no attention to what anyone thinks other than its own policy-makers. It’s hard to know what to do and the civil disobedience-style protests (cutting wire-fences, holding sit-down demos etc) are now so “expected” that they have no impact. But there must be something that can be done, beyond feeling apathetic and depressed.

I wrote a poem on the subject (both on nuclear weapons and on the apparent ineffectiveness of protest) a while back that was published in Chapman, issue 104:

Nuclear Yolk

The day after three middle-aged women
turned over Trident, lacing its insides
with syrup, bundling its computers
into the Gareloch, I read the morning news.

Magnifying glass in hand, I spied
a column somewhere to the left of page
nine, detailing anonymous arrests.
For some reason this made me hungry.

Passing over my usual cereal breakfast,
I boiled an egg so hard it mimicked
the texture of stone, smouldering like sulphur
in the salty depths, armoured against the stab

of ploughing cutlery, those who wanted
to split the whole shell open. I could do
nothing with it. Walls turned to rubber,
the rockery trembled like aspic jelly.

I bent a spoon over its head, its ashen
face staring like Medusa. One touch
and objects previously concrete became
flaccid and impotent reflections

of themselves, bouncing the egg back
like a bagatelle. I wondered whether
it could be used to soften up Trident.
The local activists’ committee warned me

to say nothing. Such tomfoolery, they said,
was bad for morale. As peace campaigns
were executed with military precision,
a stiff upper lip was required at all times.

Eggs then being no match for the nuclear
threat, we placed our trust in jumpered vicars
who strained their flimsy dog collars to the limit,
bulging adam’s apples with fruity hymns

set for guitars and fiddles. Even the navy
staff tapped their feet in rhythm, that old-time
religion and its half-remembered ritual
on the point of re-enacting itself, the snip

of wire, the snatch of arrests, and home
in time for Sunday roast; not before I pitched
my egg into the loch, and just as it struck
water, I’m sure it cracked a wicked grin.


I’m off to StAnza around lunchtime today. I might miss the Italian poets. For some reason I thought they were on at 3pm, but the brochure says 2.15pm, and I don’t see myself arriving on time. Damn!

I’ll try to blog from StAnza if I find the time and energy. Today I plan to see Jen Hadfield and Polly Clark at 5pm, and then Sean O’Brien (reading from his translation of Dante’s Inferno) and Mimi Khalvati at 8pm. I might go to the open mic later on.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

StAnza Readings

What to read at StAnza?

Each of the three poets have 18 minutes to read. I have a lot of poems but it seems important that more than half of them are from The Clown of Natural Sorrow, as the event is a Pamphlet Poets spot. I’d also like to read a translation. I’d like to get a balance of light (or as light as I get!) and heavy, a range of subject-matter, and yet for there to be a thread holding it all together.

I ought to choose the poems the audience are likely to enjoy most, but it’s impossible to guess which ones these are. Poems that have gone down well with other audiences could bomb with this one.

I need to just not think about it too hard.

In case anyone wants to take a trip to St Andrews on Sunday 18th, I'll be reading with Lyn Moir and Diana Hendry at 11.30am in the St John's Undercroft.

At least I know what I’m reading at the 100 Poets Gathering. We were told to choose our “best known poem”. Well, I have no best known poem! So I chose In the Last Few Seconds. It isn't in my pamphlet, but possibly got read by a lot of people over the weeks following the National Poetry Competition. Not that I have any way of knowing whether that's the case or not.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Must Be a Bit Frustrating...

Someone came to this blog earlier this evening after googling for “Andrew Philip naked”. I’m fairly sure there are no nude photos of Andy at this site, and although I haven’t noticed any at Tonguefire, it might be worth making a thorough search.

Someone also arrived here today after googling for "prostitutes at Voronezh", and would no doubt have been delighted to find a poem concerning Voronezh by Osip Mandelstam.

Five Hallelujahs

It’s Leonard Cohen’s song and the lyrics are terrific. But who does the best version?

Leonard Cohen
John Cale
Jeff Buckley
Allison Crowe
Rufus Wainwright

My order of preference would be:

1. Jeff Buckley
2. Leonard Cohen
3. John Cale
4. Rufus Wainwright
5. Allison Crowe

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Withholding Information in Poetry

George Szirtes has posted a draft translation of a poem, Lullaby, by Hungarian poet András Imreh.

It’s a really good poem, full of lyrical lines and with an atmosphere of mystery perfect for its subject of sleeplessness and the thin film that separates dream-states from reality. I liked the ambiguous attitude towards the coming morning – its predictability, which still manages to sound fearsome, coming as it does “dead on our doorstep/ grey as a pigeon… with a dull thud as if wrapped/ in silver paper.” As long as dreaming continues, the dull morning is warded off (and yet, paradoxically, mornings seem to arrive faster if the night passes by in dreams than if we spend time tossing and turning, awake on a bed).

What got me thinking was the withholding of information. It’s only in the last stanza when it becomes clear that a fever is the reason for the difficulties in sleeping.

I wrote a poem a while back where I withheld information that the poem’s subject was a child. When the revelation came halfway through the poem, it was clear the child was in danger in a way an adult wouldn’t have been. People who saw the poem didn’t like this aspect. They wanted the child’s identity to be clear from the beginning.

At first I justified the strategy to myself. But I soon came to believe my critics were correct. If the main tension came from the subject being a child, why wait? Why not crank up the tension from the beginning, give the poem an immediate sense of threat and danger. So I made changes.

In Lullaby, the revelation of the fever comes in the final stanza. Why wait? Why does Imreh withhold the information until the final stanza? Maybe it’s just the natural rhythm of this poem, a gradual build-up of repetitive words, sounds and phrases, balanced out by a controlled progression of new information?

Clearly, it’s impossible to legislate on a question like this. If you withhold information until near the end of a poem, it’s because it feels right to do so, and the poem works. But I wonder why I sometimes feel cheated, even annoyed, when a poet hits me with previously withheld information in a final stanza? And why I feel neither cheated nor annoyed when I read Imreh’s poem?

Any thoughts on this more than welcome.

New Poem (now deleted)

Probably this won't be up for very long:

and it's now gone.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Thursday, March 08, 2007

New Sphinx

Sphinx Issue 6 is out in print. On the website there are also reviews of chapbooks not included in the paper version. I have two reviews there:

first, of The Self in a Photograph by Lisa Dart. Despite my humming and hawing, I thought this was good in places and well worth a read;

and second, of Simple Words by Stephen Warrillow. Probably a case of publishing poetry a few years too soon.

John Ash Profile

Extraordinary UK poet, John Ash, who has lived in Turkey for the past decade, has a new collection. At least it’s out in the USA, but isn’t published in the UK until April. The profile at the link is very interesting.

I liked especially:

Ash still loves to search for forgotten Byzantine towns in remote valleys of the Levant. In one new poem, he wonders if the many American males named Brad are aware that they share their name with a lost Byzantine city in northern Syria. "I have spent days amid stony hills/trying to find you but failed utterly, O Brad!" he writes. "I will not give up. You will be mine I tell you."

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Death's Waterfall

Stevie Smith said:

I love death, I think it’s the most exciting thing. As one gets older one gets into this – well it’s like a race, before you get to the waterfall, when you feel the water slowly getting quicker and quicker, and you can’t get out, and all you want to do is get to the waterfall and over the edge. How exciting it is! Why do people grumble about old age so much?

I’ve never heard anyone express quite that attitude before, and I can think of a few reasons why people might grumble. But there’s no doubt she meant what she said. Perhaps her attitude to death mirrored her attitude to life?

In any case, Stevie Smith died of a brain tumour on this date, 7 March, 36 years ago, aged 68.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Coffee Revisited

A new scientific study has decided that a first morning coffee doesn’t give you a buzz or give you an extra alertness, unless you rarely drink any. It only restores you to normality after the withdrawal symptoms from an entire night’s sleep without coffee.

I suppose I should be worried about this, as before my morning coffee, I’m dead to the world. Even the first taste appears to make a huge difference.

Bur according to Professor Peter Rogers:

“That alertness you feel is you getting back to normal, rather than to an above normal level.”

Tony Blair-Should I Stay Or Should I Go

Sunday, March 04, 2007


I used to drink instant coffee, like most people in the UK. When I lived in Italy, I moved onto real cappuccino and espresso. Since I've come back (and it's been nearly two years), I've failed to make the move back to instant. It tastes bitter, chemical, awful. I can drink filter coffee at a push, but it's only the stuff made in a proper machine that does it for me.

Anyone else fussy with their coffee, or is it just me?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Robert Crawford

On a rare Wednesday evening off work, I went to see Robert Crawford reading at the Scottish Poetry Library – the Scottish Robert Crawford, that is, not the American one - at an event held by the Poetry Association of Scotland.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d read a few of his poems, but I’m not familiar with his work. At present he has six collections and a Selected Poems, so I’m way behind. I knew he was Professor of Modern English Literature at St Andrews University, so I thought he might have been dry and academic, but nothing could have been further from the truth.

He was an excellent reader, dramatic without being over-the-top. His poems fell (from my point of view) into two categories. There were the poems reflecting on science, technology, identity, and language itself, which were clever, funny, and perceptive. And there were a group of more personal poems reflecting on fatherhood, death, and faith, which managed to find new slants and perspectives on their timeless themes.

One pervasive aspect of his poetry was the strong presence of rhythmic and sonic effects. You could never confuse these poems with prose, even without knowledge of where the lines were breaking. There was a music about them that immediately defined them as poems. Not that prose can't be musical (good prose should be), only that these poems simply couldn't have been prose! I can't easily define the difference, but I could hear it clearly.

Defintely a poet I plan to read more of. His Selected Poems is probably the place to start.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

New Umbrella

The second issue of Umbrella is now up.

The first thing I’d say is that even before reading any of it, the whole look of this zine is enough to convince me that there’s bound to be good stuff inside. Looks, of course, can be deceptive, but in this case I doubt it.

The second thing is that there is some good stuff! I’ve only managed to read a tiny amount, as it’s just up today and there’s a lot of material. But the four poems by Matt Merritt, who is a HappenStance author and is behind the Polyolbion blog, are all very good.

Finally, I am in the prose section with a review of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Deleted World.

New Poem - deleted

This won’t be on this blog for long – around 24 hours from now it will disappear – and I’ll no doubt tinker with it over the next while