Thursday, July 31, 2008

Liz Who?

I hadn’t really planned to say anything about iconic actress, Joanna Lumley’s comments on poetry, written as an introduction to a friend’s (Liz Cowley) debut collection. She says some of it is obscure and self-indulgent, which is self-evidently true. She also says that less demanding poetry can be humdrum and commonplace, which I agree with wholeheartedly.

I suspect her knowledge of contemporary poetry isn’t that great, which is why I didn’t think her comments worth responding to. Also, I used to watch Sapphire and Steel when I was 15-years-old and thought JL was the sexiest woman alive. So I have reason to be grateful to her.

However, I was struck by Liz Cowley’s comments:

“Poetry is so obscure and inward-looking that it loses people - Carol Ann Duffy, for example, is almost impossible for anyone who has not been well-educated to understand”

Wait a minute – Carol Ann Duffy, one of the UK’s most popular and accessible poets, obscure?! It just shows – what’s obscure to one person will be highly accessible to another. A good education is bound to help with reading anything (otherwise what’s the point of education?), but she seems to be suggesting that poetry should be written only for those who have been badly educated or uneducated, as if poetry should ape the basic language of a tabloid newspaper and avoid all complexity like the plague: poetry as sound-bite or slogan, at a remove from real life which is, like it or not, extraordinarily complex.

Good poetry is worth the effort. OK, so Wallace Stevens can be ‘difficult’ (more so than Carol Ann Duffy – whose work I often like, incidentally), but there are great rewards for perseverance. You have to learn how to read someone like Stevens, but the effort is entirely worth it. There are many lines in Stevens’s poetry that I don’t understand but still think of as strikingly beautiful and affecting. I now ‘get’ more of it than I could have five or ten years ago. It’s not as though my intelligence has miraculously increased in those years. It’s just that the more I read, the more I learn how to read.

People like Liz Cowley, and others who demand that poetry should be easy, simplistic and ‘accessible’, do poetry a huge disservice. They are the true enemies of the written word. They want everyone to conform to their own limited and limiting standards. God only knows what LC’s own poetry must be like, but she certainly doesn’t make me want to find out. You don’t hear these people calling for all novels to aspire to the low literary standard of Jeffrey Archer or Barbara Taylor Bradford. They reserve their patronising judgements for poetry, which they want to be spoon-fed and to make no effort for whatsoever.

Except, of course, when it comes to the classics. When Liz Cowley says, “With rare exceptions, I stopped enjoying poetry written any time after the 18th century,” I can only presume she doesn’t think such pre-19th century poems demand an education. Otherwise they wouldn’t be ‘accessible’ enough for her, would they?

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Break-Out

Interesting extract from a conversation between architect, Hans Kollhoff, and filmmaker, Wim Wenders:

WW: All types of planning, by definition, are attempts to impose some kind of homogeneity, whereas for me a ‘city’ means the opposite of that. A city has to embrace contradictions, a city should be an explosive kind of a place.

HK: You have a similar problem in film, don’t you? A film, as I understand it, aspires to some kind of unity, but it also tends to want to burst at the seams.

WW: Yes, agreed. Just like every other kind of expression, a painting or poem or whatever. Everything aspires to that closed form, but excitement only happens when it breaks out, when something slips out of control. If everything is seamlessly whole, there’s no room to experience anything. That’s as true of films as anything else.

HK: Although perhaps unity is more easily achievable, so you need to be more wary of it…

Wenders is right to apply this specifically to poems.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Piano Has Been Drinking

Tom is playing Edinburgh and I don’t have a ticket, so this will have to do. So many rock singers cultivate “attitude” and it’s always the same shruggy moodiness. In contrast, Tom displays the sharpest sense of humour ever, in both the song and interview:

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a…”

Friday, July 25, 2008


As you can tell, a revamp of this blog is underway. I have a new template (not sure whether I'll keep it or not). Blogger said my content would be preserved, but all my links seem to have disappeared. I saved my old template, but the html links from that old one doesn't seem to work in the new one. Does this mean I have to reinsert everything manually?! Aaaargh... I never would have started if I'd known that!

However, one way or another, I'll eventually get the links back up.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Manuscript and I


I wasn't going to blog until next week, but my wife caught me with my manuscript today and thought she would snap us getting on so well together.
Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Not Blogging

It’s been fun not blogging over the last week, so I’ve decided to take this week off too. It makes me wonder (not for the first time) whether I really want to blog at all, but this doesn't seem like a good way to end! I’ll start again next week, probably on Monday. This post is just to save people coming here to find out if I’ve updated.

Friday, July 11, 2008

And Finally...

OK, that’s Nostalgia Week over. Over the next week or so, blogging will be ‘light’, perhaps non-existent. Everyone needs a break, including me.

I decided not to include anything from the late 80s/early 90s in Nostalgia Week – just too recent. But in the course of research, I found two videos that I just couldn’t ignore completely. I love them too much.

The first is from the early 90s. While that decade had its moments e.g. trip hop, we had to endure endless ‘Girl Power’ (whatever the hell that was supposed to mean), the Brit-Pop wars, the rise of MTV, and worse besides. However people like Iris DeMent were composing songs as amazing as Sweet Is The Melody in the midst of it all. I don’t know – this may be totally uncool, or perhaps it’s so uncool that it is now cool. Either way, it’s an unbelievable song, and contains the lyrics:

Well the dance floor is for gliding,
not jumping over ponies

You don’t say?! Really, one of the finest lyrics ever.

The second song is Mary Margaret O’Hara, a live version of Body’s in Trouble. Enough said!

The Specials

Most UK music fans will be familiar with this clip from The Specials live in Colchester, but if you’re from elsewhere or have somehow missed it over the years, you’re in for a treat. Firstly, the band are on top form. This was the age of 2-Tone, when everything the tiny ska record label touched seemed to turn to gold: hit after hit in the UK charts with bands like The Beat, Madness (for a couple of singles) and The Selector. And this is a stunning live performance. Secondly, the video features the most glorious stage invasion in rock history. Fantastic stuff!

English Scheme

The Fall, brainchild of Mark E. Smith, are pretty uncompromising. They were obviously inspired by the punk movement, but their true influences were bands like Can. I saw them live in Glasgow about 18 months ago and they are still inventive after more than 30 years.

English Scheme is from the Grotesque album, which must rank as one of their best, both lyrically and musically. The studio version is crisper, but the raw murk of this live version also has its charm. It’s not exactly chartbound fodder…

Street Without a Name

Tonight, I made it to the launch of Kapka Kassabova’s prose memoir, Street Without a Name: Childhood and Misadventures in Bulgaria and was glad I did.

Kapka explained that the street she grew up in was indeed without a name. It was in the suburbs of Sofia and the concrete blocks which housed the workers there were all simply given numbers – her block was known as Number 328. The passage she read was just wonderfully written, full of barbed humour. A book definitely worth checking out. It’s more than just a memoir, more than just a travel book – more a reflection on intense personal and political transformation. This review in the Guardian gives a clear picture of how and why the book works.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sense Sickness

I don’t know how many times I saw Del Amitri live in Glasgow back in the very early days when they were a jangly guitar pop band, but it must have been a hell of a lot. I got to know Bryan Tolland (the fair-haired guitarist with the sticky-up hairstyle) through my own band’s drummer who had been at art school with them. The songs were intricate affairs, fragile and clever, and Justin Currie was a dramatic, original lyricist. They played semi-regular gigs in The Venue at the west end of central Sauchiehall Street along with other up-and coming bands from Glasgow’s burgeoning scene, such as Lloyd Cole and the Commotions etc.

With the original line-up, they released a couple of singles and an excellent eponymous album. I have a copy on vinyl. It’s rough in places, but some of the songs are brilliant. You can hear samples from it here at

Following a bad-tempered U.S. tour and an album the record company declined to release, Bryan and Paul (the drummer) were booted out the band, due to “differences in musical direction” or words to that effect. If you listen to Sense Sickness or the first album and compare it to the rootsy rock that came afterwards, you can hear pretty clearly what those “musical differences” must have been! I'd guess that a refusal to grow big bushy sideburns might also have been a factor...

I bought the second album on the day of its release and (apart from “Nothing Ever Happens”) felt betrayed. Looking back, I can see that music wasn’t a game for Justin and Iain, but a living, and they had massive commercial success – deservedly as they were very talented. But I much prefer the early stuff. Sense Sickness was the debut single, which I also have on vinyl. There’s a hiccup in the video at 18 seconds or so, but the song still sounds really good to me.

Eine Symphonie des Grauens

OK, the Monochrome Set's best album was Strange Boutique, which I have on vinyl (to complement my broken record player). They had a fantastic song on it called Espresso (chorus: "I'm going to heaven, baby").
Their lyrics were sharp and witty and they had an ear for a catchy hook-line.

This song wasn't on it. I have it on some compilation tape. It's live, it's rough, but it's great to find!

For a smoother studio-based experience, some people might prefer Jet Set Junta, which also displays the Monochrome Set’s lyrical black humour.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Watch Your Step

Great performance by Elvis Costello and the Attractions of this song, one of my favourites of his. It's from the under-rated album, Trust. Great lyrics too.

In A Rut

Great song, I think, although tinged with the sadness that always accompanies early rock'n'roll deaths, particularly in view of the lyrics. I remember the day Malcolm Owen (the singer) died of an overdose and John Peel announced it on the radio. JP said he felt partly responsible, exposing people to the pressures of the rock industry they couldn't control; if he hadn't played the Ruts on the radio, MO would still be alive - so he felt. Of course, JP was being very unfair on himself.

Paul Fox, the guitarist, died last year of cancer. With this song and Babylon's Burning, the Ruts carved themselves a small place in music history.

I've chosen a list of songs for my self-proclaimed 'Nostalgia Week', and it's going to have to be two a day - no other way to do it. So another one coming later.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Damned

Well why not? I pronounce this week Nostalgia Week. One song per day all week. Then I'll stop.

Today, let's have 'Smash It Up' live on 'The Tube,' partly just for the audience.

New Reading and Writing

I’m just about to go on holiday from work (from tomorrow) for two weeks. I’d like to say that I’ll be in some warm, sunny place with infinite cold drinks supplied on demand, but I’ll be spending most of it right here in Edinburgh.

I have a couple of poetry deadlines looming:

Firstly, a short article on a pre-20th century poem of my choice. I’ll probably go for an excerpt from Paradise Lost. The problem is choosing which part. Saying something about it shouldn’t be hard.

Secondly, an article about poetry blogging. It should be light and humorous, but I should also try to say something worthwhile. Between 700-1000 words.

I have a poem begging to be written. I have the core image in my head. However, I haven’t yet managed to get the tone right – those vital first few lines – and until that happens, the poem won’t happen. But, I think, when it happens, the whole poem will almost write itself. Not quite, but it will feel like that afterwards.

I noticed that a famous Italian poet’s work has just gone-out-of-copyright, and I’ve just begun translating one of his poems – a six-pager. That might take me a month or two to complete. My Italian is getting worse by the day.

Both these poems might slide into my collection manuscript - it depends. Sooner or later, I'll have to make the decision on whether I should stop adding and subtracting from it.

And I have a few things to read. I sent off for Retta Bowen’s pamphlet, The Ornamental World, on tall-lighthouse press. I heard Retta read at the StAnza Poetry Festival in 2007 and thought (on the evidence of the readings) that she was the best of the five Eric Gregory Award winners that year. I've read the pamphlet (about 13 poems), thought some of the poems were terrific, and want to read it again. I’d also picked up Katia Kapovich’s Cossacks and Bandits, which looks like a very interesting collection. I’m going to buy maybe two or three of the latest HappenStance pamphlets, but not until the end of the month, post-holiday. I’m not sure which ones to buy either.

For my birthday last month, my wife gave me a novel, Two Caravans, by Marina Lewycka, and a friend gave me Exit Ghost by Philip Roth. It’s been a while since I read a novel, but holidays are the ideal time for it.

I’m talking about literary stuff because that’s mainly what this blog is about. I’ll have other kinds of fun too…

Monday, July 07, 2008

Friday, July 04, 2008

voXboX, July 2008

I spent an enjoyable evening at voXboX last night. It was an eclectic programme – various styles of poetry, music, and a few short stories.

Tracy Patrick (at the link, she is the one on the right, not the left as indicated, which is a sorrowful clown…) used music with a couple of her poems. I thought these ones worked best of all even though she described one of them as an “experiment”. Claire Askew read well and got a good reaction. The guy after her (sorry, forgotten his name – there were quite a few ‘floor spots’) read a very well-written and funny short story. Colin Donati was on good form. The guy who read last finished with a poem called 'The Only Glaswegian Dominatrix in Amsterdam', which was hilarious. The MCs, Kevin Cadwallender and Anita Govan, were relaxed, informal and humorous. So plenty of entertainment.

voXboX leans towards ‘performance poetry’, although I’ve seen all kinds of stuff there (this was my third time). I wasn’t sure how my material would go down, but tried not to be too anxious about it. As it was, the audience were kind and appreciative. If they were bored out of their skulls, they didn’t show it, which is good enough for me!

I decided to play to my strengths. I know I can’t ‘perform’ my poems in the highly dramatic way some of them do there (not that I am po-faced and staring at my shoes either). In any case, that doesn’t work with my stuff. Equally, I didn’t want to do ‘performance-type’ poems just to fit in (I have written a few), as they would have just come over as not-very-good performance pieces. So I did the kind of set I’d do for any audience coming out on a warm, showery evening to hear poetry and picked poems I enjoy reading (along with a couple I hadn’t read before, just to see…). For those who collect setlists:

1. Back to Rome
2. Scraps
3. While the Moonies are Taking Over Uruguay
4. untitled hebdomad
5. Hospital
6. The Look
7. The Hedge Artist
8. Girl Playing Sudoku on the 7.15
9. Heat (poem written by Denis Johnson )
10. How New York You Are

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Tomaz Salamun

A few months ago, I picked up a book from the “Free! Please Take One!” box at the Scottish Poetry Library. It’s a Selected Poems by Slovenian writer, Tomaz Salamun, titled Homage to Hat and Uncle Guido and Eliot. I’ve begun reading it recently and really like what I’ve read so far.

Colm Toibin says Salamun aims “to give equal power to the cheeky voice and the soaring voice, avoiding always the obvious and the prosaically meaningful.” He does so using the tools of absurdity, the deceptive casualness of the New York School poets, a dazzling and endlessly inventive imagination, and a self-deprecating wit. All those aspects are present in his poem, History, which sends up the whole idea of public curiosity into a writer’s life. The poem was originally published in 1973 but it’s probably even funnier now than when it was first written, given the ‘celebritization’ culture that exists in book marketing these days.

The fascinating and personal introduction to the book, written by Robert Hass, is published in full online at a Poetry International website page.

Anyway, I reached a poem called Rabbit Oaxaqueňo and wondered what was going on in it. Oaxaca is a coastal Mexican town, and Salamun lived in Mexico for a couple of years. I wondered if the title represented some culinary speciality, but can’t find anything about that. The poem is odd and takes the considerable risk of presenting itself in a list of questions. I’ll type it below. I’ll take the poem down after a week or so (or if writer or publishers object, I’ll take it down immediately), but I’d be interested to know what you make of this:

Rabbit Oaxaqueňo

Rabbit is reading the Bible,
Why does your mother read the Bible too?
Why do you live in garbage, rabbit?
Where did you get these mirrors?

Rabbit, why are the children on the road boxing?
Rabbit, how come children on the road have boxing gloves?
Rabbit, how come your mirrors are six feet tall
and only a few inches wide?

Why don’t you have a chair, rabbit?
Why don’t you have a table?
Where do you wash your face, rabbit?
Where is your water?

Hey, oaxaqueňo!

You turn away from me and sleep.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Award with a Difference

This award gaffe is agonizing to watch, especially as the guy has made his way almost to the awards podium. Awful! In the end, nice to see a poet, Dannie Abse, winning the award, even if it’s for a prose memoir, but that must have been so embarrassing...

Amazingly, the Scottish Arts Council Book Award was also won by a poet, Edwin Morgan (with a poetry collection this time!) and the prize for Best First Book was won by Jane McKie for her debut collection on Cinnamon Press. Good to see poetry winning over the other genres.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

voXboX - July 3rd

I’m one of the guest poets at voXboX this Thursday 3rd July, doing a 20-minute poetry set. Tracy Patrick is the other guest poet. There will also be a few 10-minute spots, one of which will be filled by Claire Askew, who read very well at the Great Grog not so long ago. MCs will be the irrepressible Kevin Cadwallender and Anita Govan.

If anyone around Edinburgh is free that evening, please come along. The fun begins from 7.30pm until about 10.30pm, upstairs in the Meadow Bar, 42-44 Buccleuch Street, Edinburgh. I think there is an entry charge of about £3

POF Forums

Lots of interesting discussions going on at the Poets on Fire forums at the moment. I’ve got involved in the Poets and the Autistic Spectrum thread – an emotive subject for me – and, briefly, in the thread about Taking Criticism.

But you can also consider Todd Swift’s highly controversial blog entry about Salt Publications (I might get involved in that one too if I can summon up the energy - not sure I can, mind you), the debate on poetry and accessibility, and Roddy Lumsden’s poetry recommendations via a series of articles originally published in the Book Magazine…and that’s just some of the more recent threads in the 'Contemporary British and Irish Poetry' section!