Tuesday, September 30, 2008

More on the 5,000 Books

Anyone thinking over the issues raised in the YouWriteOn.com controversy, discussed a few days ago on this blog, ought to read the articles flagged up by Jane Smith during the comments – at her own blog and at Writer Beware. Fascinating stuff!

I guess that ACE must have granted its money in good faith, but I hope it's paying due attention to what’s being done by this organisation.

St Mungo's Mirrorball, Thursday 2nd

This Thursday evening, I’ll be reading with eight other poets published by HappenStance Press as part of the St Mungo’s Mirrorball reading series in Glasgow. The readings begin at 7pm and take place at the poetry club at the Glasgow School of Art in Renfrew Street. Full details at the link.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The New Sphinx - Issue 9

The latest edition of the excellent Sphinx - issue 9 – is just out. Sphinx is unique among poetry magazines because it doesn’t publish poetry. But it’s as full of good stuff as ever. This time, there’s a really interesting interview with Rupert Loydell of Stride magazine, an overview of artist/poet collaboration at Knucker Press, and reflections by Gordon Jarvie on self-publishing. Also an article by myself – on poetry blogging…

In addition, Sphinx’s new online chapbook reviews are now up at this link. My two are at the bottom – of Deryn Rees-Jones’s Falls and Finds and Ken Sutherland’s When the Fighting is Over. I love the “young reader’s” reaction to the second of these. Heh Heh. No danger of that young reader not getting straight to the point! Sphinx is excellent as usual and, more than almost any poetry-related magazine at the moment, well worth getting hold of.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Belated 60th

I had meant to post this on Kate Pierson's 60th birthday, a date she shares with my daughter. I remembered my daughter's birthday, but forgot Kate's. So this is 60 years and 5 months - footage taken only last year. Never too late to listen to this one:

B52s - 'Roam' (KP is the redhead)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Free Money

Something for the weekend, courtesy of the Patti Smith Group from 1976. Perhaps if the financial bail-out negotiations started the day with this several times, people would find themselves in a better frame of mind? Or can anyone suggest other songs that might help to end the current financial crisis?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Public Funding and Self-Publishing

I was astonished to read a story on the blueblog (the blog of bluechrome press) about YouWriteOn.com, a group offering to produce books for the first 5000 people who apply from either the UK or USA free of charge. They’ll produce the books before Christmas so, essentially, this is a Christmas present for the 5000 to give to friends and family. Anyone wanting an ISBN has to pay a small sum (less than £40) and their book will become available in the usual outlets.

It’s self-publishing. Nothing unfamiliar about that these days. But how can this organisation do this free of charge? The answer is that ACE, the Arts Council of England, has funded the project. This is the real controversy for me. Why should public money be used in this way? It’s no longer possible to argue that the project is democratic, that it gives people a chance to publish a book who otherwise couldn’t have done so. Groups like Lulu.com enable this very same thing. Lulu charges, but doesn’t rip people off like traditional vanity publishers – the charge is reasonable. So why should UK taxes be used to fund a self-publishing project without any attempt at quality control? Funding isn’t easy to come by. Other literary publishers will have lost out on the funding that has been given to this organisation. I’d like to see the Arts Council try to justify this decision, and they ought to justify it – it’s UK taxpayers’ money that finances them.

Self-publishing has become a controversial topic in recent times. Anthony Delgrado (at least I presume the blueblog is written by AD – if not, I’ll make a correction) asks what has driven the change in attitude over the last few years, given that organisations like Lulu are now seen as “cool rather than seedy.” Well, there are no doubt many answers to that question. One can argue, for instance, that the presence of organisations like Lulu make it less likely that naïve writers will fall victim to the worst vanity press merchants. Why pay a fortune to have your book published by a traditional vanity press when Lulu will do it for a relatively small sum? The worst vanity presses might be kicked out of business for good.

Also, while most books published via the likes of Lulu have no literary merit and will largely sell only to the author’s friends and family (if that), some writers of genuine quality have taken a deliberate decision to self-publish (even though their writing is of sufficient quality to have had a chance with literary publishers) – people like Julie Carter, Rik Roots, and Nic Sebastian, for example. They have the capability of selling copies using their profile on the Web, and their work is of good quality. Their motivations may vary. It might be simply because they can (successfully), or because they distrust the ‘win-our-competition-and-be-published’ scene in North America (high charges for entry and a [allegedly] suspiciously large proportion of winners from specific college MFA programs contribute to this distrust), or because they can’t be bothered to submit in the traditional way, or because they regard their work as too unfashionable to interest a publisher etc.

Of course, a recognised literary publisher can offer things that self-publishing can’t, and I think it's true that there is an automatic suspicion of self-published books, an expectation that the quality will be poor (usually, but not always, justified). Most literary awards won't consider them. There's a sense that they don't "count" as publication, not really, and I can see why. If publication means no more than "printed" (to use the blueblog's phrasing), then publication means nothing, given its technological ease. However, I’d hazard a guess that quality, self-published collections by such as Rik, Julie and Nic will sell more copies than many books published by traditional publishers. And this is the key factor - for those with a quality product and the ability to market themselves, the World Wide Web has opened up new avenues to sell books far beyond the usual family and friends who bought self-published books in the pre-Internet world. I don’t see that changing.

However, I don’t think this will adversely hit the more traditional literary publishers, particularly those who use the Web to good effect. They should always be able to extend a writer’s audience wider than he/she could have managed if self-published and – if they typically publish good books – they create trust in a list among writers and readers. Good writers will always want to be published by good publishers and, if you read a few books from bluchrome and enjoy them, chances are you’ll be interested in more. That will never be the case with Lulu!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Maths Maths Maths

It feels as though I have about a million things to do, few of which concern poetry. I’m trying to focus on specific tasks, knocking them off one by one, as the ‘whole thing’ is enough to induce helplessness. This morning, I sent out information to those reading at the Great Grog in October. I’ve proofread some minutes for work. I need to plan a few things in advance or I'll be in big trouble come the weekend. My daughter is on holiday today as the school catering and cleaning staff are on a day-long strike, so my next job is to supervise her maths homework. My wife works in the mornings, but when she gets back they’ll be off to Butterfly World. I then have work to do and a work-related event this evening. I have first proofs to read for Salt and I’ve already spotted a few edits , but I’ll start noting these down when I get back tonight. Time is so important, but it keeps slipping away far too fast. I am a useless multi-tasker. I must now rescue the guinea pigs from the clutches of a six-year-old. I need to eat some porridge. Or would Rice Krispies be a better idea? Maths, maths, maths…

Monday, September 22, 2008

Here's to 2009

Well, I decided I’d had enough of messing about with my poetry collection manuscript and submitted it. I suspect I’ve left a few poems out that should have been in, but perhaps not. I have plenty of poems, but wanted to choose only the best. However, these decisions are never easy to make.

Anyway, it’s been accepted! Salt are going to be publish it sometime in 2009. Its provisional title is The Opposite of Cabbage (from a line in one of the poems). I had to either add a few pages or cut a few pages and I chose to cut. That’s very much my nature when it comes to poems – I’ll cut every time.

I’ve really enjoyed many Salt books in the last few years, but never believed I would be part of that list. It’s a good feeling though…

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Duncan Glen 1933-2008

Colin Will has posted a short tribute to Scottish poet, publisher and activist, Duncan Glen, who died yesterday. Unlike Colin, I didn’t know Duncan well. I met him only on a few occasions, but he was a really nice guy, very encouraging to me, and had a great sense of humour. On two occasions he gave me a copy of his magazine Zed2o and refused my attempts to pay for them. Recently I read his editorial in the Spring 2008 edition of Zed2o, which reflected both his deep passion for poetry in Scotland and fearlessness in speaking his mind.

In my report on the By Leaves We Live 2006 event at the Scottish Poetry Library, when Duncan teamed up with Gerry Cambridge to talk about their respective publishing activities over some 40+ years (Duncan published poetry, criticism and history with his Akros Press since 1965), I wrote that they both exhibited “an emphasis on quality, a passion for making good poetry available, and a drive to surprise their readers and – no doubt – themselves.”

He’ll be greatly missed by many people.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Zagajewski on Religious Poetry

Fascinating interview with Adam Zagajewski (who I mentioned in my previous post on Adam Kirsch’s criticism) at the Poetry Foundation site. The whole article is worth reading, but I found the section on how religious/spiritual poems might be written in the 21st century particularly interesting.

Milosz once said that “we are in a largely post-religious world.” He recounted a conversation with Pope John Paul II, who commented upon Milosz’s work, saying, “Well, you make one step forward, one step back.” Milosz replied, “Holy Father, how in the 20th century can one write religious poetry differently?”

Zagajewski concurred: “I don’t want to be a New Age vague religious crank, but I also need to distance myself from ‘professional’ Catholic writers. I think poets have to be able to find fresh metaphors for old metaphysical objects and longings. I’m a Christian, a sometimes doubting one (but this is almost a definition of a Christian: to doubt also). In my writing I have to be radically different from a priest. My language must have the sheen of a certain discovery.”

His view is a counterpoint to the current fashion of irony, which he decries. “I adore irony as a part of our rich rhetorical and mental apparatus, but not when it assumes the position of a spiritual guidance,” he said. “How to cure it? I wish I knew. The danger is that we live in a world where there’s irony on one side and fundamentalism (religious, political) on the other. Between them the space is rather small, but it’s my space.”

Most contemporary openly-religious poetry I have read has been terrible. Perhaps that's because the writers take two steps forward rather than one back? Perhaps because the poems outline something already discovered rather than their language contributing to an ongoing discovery process? Perhaps because they haven't found that space between irony and fundamentalism (much easier to jump to one or the other)? I think Zagajewski is onto something.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Modern Element - Adam Kirsch

The Modern Element, by U.S. poetry critic, Adam Kirsch, examines the work of a wide variety of modern poets – Derek Walcott, Jorie Graham, Geoffrey Hill, Billy Collins, Richard Wilbur, and many more. The essays are stimulating, provocative, and well written. They don’t get bogged down in academic-speak, but aren’t just simplistic examinations of content. When I disagreed with Adam Kirsch, which I did frequently, he still gave me something to think about, and he rarely made points without backing them up.

When a critic makes a negative assessment of a writer whose work I don’t know well, I tend to focus in on what he says about writers I’m familiar with. Adam Kirsch certainly pulls no punches when it comes to Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, and Louise Glück, for example (all women, of course. Only five women are covered in the book, and only one, AE Stallings, gets a positive review). Graham, he claims, is too often obscure, writing in a private code. Olds, it seems to Kirsch, just can’t write well. Glück is egotistical – between her self and the world, her self always comes first. But are those assessments correct? I can't tell for sure because I don't know the work of these writers well enough - I do a little, but not enough.

Well, Kirsch says of John Ashbery that, although his occasional flights of lyricism are impressive, his lyricism is buried under mounds of humour and tedious non-sequiturs. Kirsch wants to re-model Ashbery as a lyric-poet-that-could-have-been if only he’d kept control of himself, but this surely misses the entire point. People read and enjoy Ashbery precisely for those qualities which Kirsch isn’t interested in, and his lyrical moments are simply a bonus. If John Ashbery had written only traditional lyrics, there wouldn’t be anything remarkable or unique about his oeuvre, even if some of his lyrics were good. Kirsch also suggests that Geoffrey Hill’s early work was marred because Hill keeps himself at a remove – e.g. he writes not about ‘faith’ but about ‘religion’. By the end of the essay, Kirsch has Hill virtually an atheist in his later work, Hill’s ‘god’ no more than a concept, which seems to me a fatal misunderstanding both of Hill and of the nature of faith. Kirsch also writes off C.D. Wright, saying she’s difficult to read and the effort required to read her doesn’t pay off – there’s nothing much there. That’s compared to an ‘generous’ poet whose complexity repays effort. However, I think he’s simply wrong that there’s little behind CD Wright’s verbal fireworks.

So I don’t really trust Kirsch, especially when it comes to poets he dislikes. However, I would still thoroughly recommend his book, as it’s always entertaining and thought-provoking, and he makes me want to read many of the poets he discusses for myself - that’s surely one role of a good critic: even his negative reviews make the reader curious.

His essays on two poets whose work I didn’t know much about – Frederick Seidel and Adam Zagajewski – sent me to their respective ‘Selected Poems’, and both have been a revelation. Seidel’s poems are astonishing. There’s a touch of Stevens about them, a warped view of the world, a wilful urge to push at the boundaries of language, a demonic wit. The Zagajewski book, Without End: New and Selected Poems, which I only started yesterday evening, has made me wonder why I’ve never read him before. How did I miss this stuff? It’s very serious, very funny, and actually lives up to its blurbs – “one of the most interesting poets of his generation writing in any language” (Jaroslaw Anders). Adam Kirsch is enthusiastic about both of those writers, so I can’t be entirely mistrustful of him. I’ll have to read Louise Glück soon though. I’ve only read a few of her poems, but I quite enjoyed them and was surprised at Kirsch’s hostility. Of course, it could be there’s more to that than meets the eye.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Poetry at the Great Grog Report

Another excellent evening at ‘Poetry at the Great Grog’ last Sunday – Charlotte Runcie, Dorothy Baird, Helena Nelson and Michael Schmidt were all on great form. Colin Will has reviewed the whole evening with characteristic thoroughness.

I know one or two people aren’t happy that music filters through the walls from the main bar area during readings, but there’s not much can be done. The music isn’t loud but, clearly, any noise can be distracting when listening to a poem. One person told me on Sunday that I should find an alternative venue, but that’s easier said than done. Most bars charge a lot of money for a room, or they demand a hefty deposit and only return it if £250, for example, is spent at the bar. I can’t afford that kind of risk! Also, I like the Great Grog as a venue. It’s intimate and comfortable, and the staff are always friendly and helpful. Personally, I don’t find the music much of a distraction, although I sympathise with those who do.

Anyway, to those who would like another venue – I’m open to suggestions. If you know of a geographically central Edinburgh venue which offers good facilities, silence, fine acoustics, a reasonably-priced bar, doesn’t cost anything to hire, and is happy to make a room available for poetry on the second Sunday evening of every month, then please let me know.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Horizon Review

The first edition of the webzine, Horizon Review, edited by Jane Holland, has just gone live.

The range and quality of content is astonishing for a first issue – poems, short fiction, an opinion column, articles, interviews, art, critical reviews, and a piece on translation. I’ve only managed to read a handful of poems and reviews so far, and they’ve all been very good. I have a couple of poems included ('Voices' and 'Visiting Hour'), and other contributors include Andrew Philip, Andrew Shields, Alison Brackenbury, George Szirtes, James Midgley, Katy Evans-Bush, Tim Love… and many more. A zine to bookmark, I should think.

Oh, and George Szirtes makes some great points on Horizon Review and on Salt’s current contribution to poetry online and on paper.

What George says in his article is all good, but I particularly liked this, linking Salt, Bloodaxe and Carcanet:

“In so far as Salt is concerned - like Bloodaxe and Carcanet before (and still) - it is a force for good in that it prises poetry from the grip of those who regard themselves as its narrow brotherhood of custodians.”

I find it bizarre that some people appear to think of Bloodaxe and Carcanet as an “establishment” to stand against. In fact, the anti-establishment roots of these organisations still run deep. From Carcanet’s website:

“In an age teased by post-Modern relativism and post-millennial uncertainty, where literary value sometimes plays second fiddle to the demon profit and that other demon of ephemeral political imperatives, Carcanet takes its bearing from Modernism. It bases its activities on the best practice of the last century, during which great lists were forged...”

Bloodaxe’s editor, Neil Astley, wrote this introduction to the 1988 anthology ‘Poetry from the Edge’ (even the name tells a story):

“Right from the beginning Bloodaxe’s role has been of working for writers and readers. There was at that time what I can only call a malaise affecting poetry publishing. None of the publishers seemed to pay any attention to what readers wanted and poetry was losing its readership because few people cared anything for what they were being offered by the publishers.”

It’s worth remembering, I think, that however successful Bloodaxe, Carcanet and Salt (let’s hope!) are, they are not the ‘establishment’. They all come from different starting-points and have their own distinct take on what poetry publishing needs, but they each produce quality literature in accordance with their particular vision. The ‘establishment’ is the dull, mediocre nonsense that fills the shop windows of bookshops – celebrity memoirs, TV chefs, populist fiction etc. It’s disposable pap and is against anything serious or provocative, anything indeed that asks for a genuine human response. The pressure to embrace it and dumb down everything is greater than ever, but nothing acts against that tendency more than publishers dedicated to the production and selling of quality poetry, allowing it to be seen and heard in however modest a way. There’s nothing ‘establishment’ about that.


I’ll be at the Great Grog Bar at 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh, tonight from 8pm, introducing Michael Schmidt, Helena Nelson, Dorothy Baird and Charlotte Runcie. I’ll see some of you there and, for those who can’t be, you can read poems by all four (and more besides – the archive is well worth a delve) at the Poetry at the Great Grog website.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Reginald Shepherd, 1963-2008

Like many people throughout the poetry blogosphere, I was shocked to hear about the death of American poet, critic, essayist and blogger, Reginald Shepherd.

In a pre-Internet world, there’s every chance I would never have come into any contact with Reginald Shepherd, but that would have been my loss. He wrote about poetry (and other subjects) with intelligence, clarity, and wisdom, and always came over as a fine person. He died on 10 September after illness, aged only 45. If you haven’t read his blog, do check it out and bookmark it. It’s packed full of terrific stuff.

I don’t normally like to breach copyright but, in the circumstances, I hope I can be forgiven, as this poem of his seems very apt. I’m indebted to Hedgie at The Compost Heap for bringing it to my attention:

A Handful of Sand

I'm always putting thing in poems
where I think they'll keep, lying
to the lying gods to make a way
out of whatever ways I have.
The rooms we wander through
on a day of no significance
are white, are beige, are gray, nothing
of any importance will happen
today. A fake fragment of Greek frieze
frames three plaster women in pleated chitons
sitting on a bus, or so it looks
from here, a krater holds a plastic plant
(saw palmetto, perhaps) that's following
them, but they don't seem to be
moved. Graffiti on the men's room stall
reads "TEXT," reads "SIGN,"
and also the word "DEUCE"
scratched into green-painted metal.

Think of all the blunder and fault
in the world, a noisy lexicon
of mistake, hoots, jargles, squawks,
and rasps, think of all the bending
and breaking of oak boughs.
Think of the quartz beach wrecked
by recent hurricanes, driftwood
and seaweed beginning to stink,
plastic cup lids I mistook for shells.
(We have seen the wind
by what it leaves behind, its wreckage
and detritus, but the water
won't be wounded.)

File this pearl-smooth conch interior
under no, press it against your ear
as if it were the spirit radio,
and you were walking down the street
tuned to just one voice, wading
waist-high through shallow light.
The minutes continue their shine, the shapes
of color change and turn; a wind
blows through my skin
and you renew the weather.
I will not entirely die.

(from Fata Morgana by Reginald Shepherd,
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007)

Poems of the Day - 12

The end of week 2. I’ve decided to take two weeks off doing this and then return for a further two weeks. Just so I have time to do a few things that need done and to blog about a few things that are on my mind.

What loves, takes away by Eleanor Wilmer is this morning’s offering at Poetry Daily. Another gloomy one. The premise is that love “takes away what it aims/ to preserve.” Resistance against the inevitable is futile according to the final stanza, although I suppose there is a glimpse of hope in the brief “brilliance and heat” the sparks can create before they turn to ash. The poem takes the form of a meticulously structured argument. The poet knows what she wants to say and makes the poem say it. The strongest part for me was the bridge between the penultimate and final stanzas:

to do more than wear down the marble
steps to the altar, smother the fire
we would keep from the wind's extinction,
..................................................or if, afraid
of our fear, we lift the lid from the embers…

Whether we smother or lift (“afraid of our fear” is very good), things end up the same. However (and this may be a matter of taste?), I found this poem very clinical. Its use of “we”, positing a truth that includes myself, the reader, produced only resistance within me. I also had a serious problem with the use of the mother-and-baby imagery juxtaposed between the mythological Venus and the art image. The dreadful human tragedy of a mother inadvertently causing the death of a baby is equal in terms of argument to a smile being wiped off a painting! The images all contribute to the poem’s argument, as if that’s their only use.

The phrase “here is the place to fall/ silent” (nice line-break) effects a sense of poignancy, but what place? There is no context here at all, as if the reader is being kept at a remove. I’m sure the writer was attempting to convey an authentic emotion, but there’s no sense of real human suffering in this at all, just a theory of suffering – an “if” poem. The concluding image of ash is surely a tired cliché. The editors of Poetry obviously didn’t agree with my assessment, as they published it. So, if you want to be published in Poetry, ignore me! 2/6

Interesting one from Micki Myers at No Tell Motel. The two stanzas of New Spectacles, 1727 both parallel and contrast one another. It’s clever stuff, and the imagery in both stanzas is effective, illustrating the potential beauty and ugliness involved in ‘seeing’. The final phrases in both poems give a particularly strong sense of contrast. A strong end to the week for Micki Myers, whose poems I have found quite enjoyable and well-structured. 3½/6

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Poems of the Day - 11

Two poems again from Poetry Daily, this time by Susan Stewart. I have an immediate prejudice against cat poems, but I can overcome this if they are any good. The first one is a cat poem, but is well written with close attention to sound and the short lines give the impression of hesitant, but deliberate, movement, both physical and intellectual. The poem asks the question as to what we mean when we think of ignorance as bliss, and what we overlook. It’s fairly well done, I think, although I tend to feel suspicious of poems that finish with a key question. In this case, I suppose a few answers are suggested in the body of the poem. It’s a domestic poem, but the issues raised are global. I’m not really convinced that the issues are raised with sufficient complexity here. Her second poem, Three Geese, seems fairly unremarkable. But for the first one, I’d give 3/6.

No Tell Motel gives us another poem by Micki Myers. The Death of Venus: Florence, 1476 concerns Simonetta Vespucci, modelling as Venus for Botticelli. There are a few moving, bittersweet touches in this poem – the cough “shaking her/ like a sapling in the breeze,” (not exactly original though – that kind of image goes right back to Isaiah 42) the pathos of “for now, at least, she’s his,” and Botticelli's request to be buried at her feet, which was indeed honoured. The sadness of the final line is subtly prepared throughout the poem. I wondered if “blonde bombshell” might have been replaced by something more specific: a real 20th/21st century woman who died too young – unless Micki Myers is gambling on readers thinking straightaway of Marilyn Monroe (if so, mind you, her gamble might be a good one). I had doubts over the switch of Point-of-View towards the end, from Botticelli’s inner world to the observation:

She wipes the blood of her hand
on the back of the pink cloth

where he can’t see.

Like most of Micki Myers’s poems so far, I enjoyed the read, without feeling particularly taken aback. 3/6

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Great Grog Taster - Michael Schmidt

At the Poetry at the Great Grog site, you can now read a bio and poem by Michael Schmidt, and if you’re in the vicinity of Edinburgh this Sunday 14th September from 8pm, you can hear him read along with Helena Nelson, Dorothy Baird and Charlotte Runcie in the Great Grog Bar, 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh. This should be a really good night!

Poems of the Day - 10

Simon Armitage has two poems, both titled Sympathy, at Poetry Daily today. Both reflect on the limitations of the justice system and, in northern vernacular, suggest ways in which guilty parties might be brought to account for their crimes. Simon Armitage is unpopular in some quarters, mainly because he has been commercially successful, but I like a fair bit of his material. I’m not really into these poems though, despite the presence of a few great details – the “burnt-out Vauxhall Nova/ for a garden shed, one dead cooker on t’lawn” and “outrunning a dark belt of summer rain/ in his soft-top Merc with the roof rolled down.” The idea of getting people to face up to the reality of their crimes is good, but the narratives in these poems, while they had their twists, didn’t make for particularly striking poetry. 2½/6

Aelgifu of Northampton Falls for The Leader of the Pack, 1016 is Micki Myers’s offering at No Tell Motel. The real Aelgifu was King Canute’s wife. Here she’s recast as a sixties chick who falls for the Leader of the Pack from the Shangi-Las song. It’s a great idea of course. Not sure if Micki Myers really pulls it off, especially at the close where the tears blurring the name on the slate seems rather unlikely, and I couldn’t see how they could turn Cnut into Canute in any case. This poem didn’t grip me or make me laugh and the images it used seemed fairly ordinary, other than the “F in Norwegian” line, which I liked. 2/6

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Poems of the Day - 9

Much stronger start from Poetry Daily this week! The Fatal Shore by William Logan is gloomy but the images are imaginative and thought-provoking, not easily summed up. The final image of the Myrmidons plays on the fact that they were Achilles’ fiercest, most disciplined warriors. However, the word over time became synonymous with robotic behaviour, activity without creativity. “Myrmidons out of work” takes a little unpacking, but it works really well as an ending. Everything in the poem tends towards death and intimation of mortality. I didn’t think the “cracked jam-jar” added anything to the picture and wasn’t a particularly striking simile. I’ll have to think further about the “lost Renaissance studies with a sepia cast” image – no more time at the moment – but I thought this poem was good work. 4½/6

At No Tell Motel, Micki Myers gives us OMG! What Hath God Wrought! Aboard the Sully, 1832. I enjoyed this one too. The first ever coded message sent out by Samuel Morse was “What God hath wrought.” The poem concerns the subconscious events that might have led Morse to the invention of his code. My favourite was the imprint of the canvas chair. I wondered if there might have been a better way to deal with the material than the repeated “if only” phrases? Easy for me to suggest that, of course! Not so easy to find alternatives. 3½/6

Monday, September 08, 2008

Poems of the Day - 8

I missed out the weekend, days 6 and 7, but I'm back again for a new week of poems. On Poetry Daily, there’s Springs by Philip Levine. I really like his poetry. I associate him with plain diction and narrative, but it’s less straightforward than it looks and what he says usually feels authentic rather than merely clever (although it often is clever too). In this poem, I find a sense of nostalgia, an interplay between earth and heaven, time and eternity, and slightly surreal tree and plant images – the elm and the rose – which are echoed towards the end when:

That world stamped into separate
but equal steel leaves we called

So much for “the music of eternity”, which reveals itself as only the mundane agendas of the presses. There are plenty of subtle undercurrents in this poem if you look for them. I’m not too sure about the ending. Like in Floyd Skloot’s poem featured last Friday, it’s important that Levine avoids making some big statement or fake epiphany, but this poem just stopped, as if it didn’t quite know what else to do. 3½/6

No Tell Motel starts a new week with Micki Myers’s Hedy Lamarr, Liz Taylor, and Elizabeth II Meet in the Ladies Room. Judging by the author’s statement, the poems will all be about people from different historical periods meeting up in unlikely contemporary surroundings, which sounds to me like a good idea.

The quote above today’s poem, from Hedy Lamarr, is so good that it would be hard to write a poem to match it:

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

The women check out each other and make their judgements in silence – husbands, beauty, jewels – then there’s Hedy Lamarr’s regret at riches lost. But she remembers she is dead and communication becomes impossible. The irony is that she introduced the possibility of this communication technology. It’s quite a chatty tone, but the undertone is that of weighing up life’s achievements, possessions and glamour, and assessing them in the context of what lies after. But from that after, nothing can be communicated. The poem is an enjoyable read. I liked the first lines, and thought “their nerve” was a good choice in L6. I felt that the first few lines of S2 entered just too enthusiastically into prose territory, and wasn’t really bowled over by the conclusion, although it’s effective enough, I suppose. 3/6

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Shakespeare's Knives

The Guardian reports that Carol Ann Duffy has written a poem called Mrs Schofield’s GCSE in response to the removal of her poem from the GCSE syllabus. Mrs Schofield describes this response poem as “a bit weird. But having read her other poems I found they were all a little bit weird. But that's me."

You know, I do think Mrs Schofield seems a bit weird.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Education for Leisure

Apparently the decision has been taken by one of the UK’s biggest school exam boards to pulp an anthology of poems. The anthology contains a poem, Education for Leisure, by Carol Ann Duffy, which features a teenager who flushes a goldfish down a toilet and then carries a bread knife onto the streets. In the context of a sharp increase in knife-related crime, the poem was deemed inappropriate or, in the words of Lutterworth Grammar School’s exam invigilator, Pat Schofield, “horrendous”.

It’s good to see the authorities finally getting to the root of the problem of street violence. For years it’s been obvious that studious poetry-reading youths have been terrorising our streets, and how it’s taken so long for the authorities to make the connection between poetry readers and knife crime is beyond me. In almost every knife-related murder in London this year, a copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem has been framed on the offender’s bedroom wall. In one case, a recording of the poem being recited backwards was found, with the words, “Kill for Satan” clearly audible around 1.12min. One knife-wielding teenager told me, “It’s all Duffy’s fault. Before I read that poem, I liked to play Risk every evening with my friends. And look at me now! I’m out on the street every night with my bread knife and a copy of Mean Time in my jacket pocket. My best friend, who’s just sawed a goldfish in half, he’s into Wallace Stevens, and he just can’t stop reading Harmonium when he’s not beating up innocent passers-by.”

The pro-gun lobby in the USA has welcomed the decision. A spokesman read this statement: “We’ve always known it isn’t guns or even people with guns that are the reason for all those homicides. The fact is – too many people are reading poetry that features weaponry, and most of it comes from the UK and Ireland. Wilfred Owen – he should be banned right away. Paul Muldoon and Seamus Heaney too. And Simon Armitage comes straight out and says in one of his poems, ‘Me, I stick to the shadows, carry a gun.’ He's on the syllabus too! Now it’s fine for folks to keep a gun, but writing poetry about it is clearly an incitement to trouble.” George W. Bush is said to be considering the idea of removing all poetry books local to Iraq and Afghanistan, believing that, stripped of such a source of violence, resistance to the occupation would crumble within hours. He himself swears by a page of Jewel’s poetry every night because "I know how to handle it. But explosive material in the hands of other countries, that's a different kind of egg.”

Several MPs are rumoured to be forwarding a motion to ban the reading and publishing of poetry altogether. One said, “Poetry publishers are among the worst offenders. Look at their names! Bloodaxe! Arrowhead! What kind of example is that to our youth? And though some may at first appear innocent, Cape is a clear reference to hoodie culture, and Salt is used by certain regimes as an instrument of torture. In any case, we now have clear evidence that Osama Bin Laden carries that Carol Ann Duffy poem everywhere he goes (wherever that is). If he hadn’t got hold of it, he’d be an insurance broker in Shropshire. Simple as that.”

Although the anthology has been withdrawn, great concern has been expressed that unwary teenagers and unrepentant poetry fans might still be able to read the poem at the link posted at the top of this article (scroll to the bottom of the page at the link). Someone, I’m sure, will be looking into that even now, hoping that at least three complaints will come flooding in over the next year or two.

Great Grog Taster - Helena Nelson

Over at the Poetry at the Great Grog site, I’ve just posted a bio and a new poem by Helena Nelson. She’ll be reading there on Sunday 14th September with Michael Schmidt, Dorothy Baird and Charlotte Runcie.

Poems of the Day - 5

The Ensemble by Floyd Skloot is today’s offering from Poetry Daily. It’s about a theatre troupe rehearsing an amateur production of Hamlet. Skloot employs quite a tight iambic pentameter but skilfully varies the rhythm from line to line – the poem never succumbs to a ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum monotony. The tone is informal and humorous but not ironic. The foibles of the characters are celebrated rather than made fun of. Skloot succeeds both in sticking to his rhyme scheme without anything seeming forced into the pattern and also in using the line-breaks to create various effects – often of surprise e.g. “inner/ hothead”, “together/ tomorrow”. I loved the lines:

Meanwhile, the Gertrude whispering her way
through another chest cold still does not know
her speech from Act Three, saying No more sweets,
instead of No more, sweet Hamlet!

Skloot captures the seriousness, humour, attitudes, fears, and hopes that run through a cast like that, and makes it simply an object of celebration in the final lines. Perhaps he could have done a little more at the end? Maybe, but I don’t think he wanted to, and at least he resisted the temptation to leap for some fake epiphany. The poem isn't aiming to be cutting-edge stuff, but it is enjoyable, authentic and very well written. 4/6

A strong finish for Kim Gek Lin Short at No Tell Motel with Death Certificate. She succeeds in combining motifs from plastic surgery, religion and magic in what appears to be a scene of death and rebirth. The death certificate, presumably, is the “coiled piece of paper torn from a soup can” and Harlan, the bugman, is “induced,” a word that might admit more than one interpretation. There’s a constant juxtaposition of the sacred and profane throughout the narrative - plastic surgery is compared to the Sunday church service, the configuration of the heavens gives way to an image borrowed from a typical TV magician. So well handled shifts of imagery, a sense of mystery, and good writing. Kim Gek Lin Short’s best of the week, I think. 4/6

No Tell Motel doesn’t post poems over weekends and, even though Poetry Daily still continues, I think I’ll make these posts a weekday-only thing. I’ve made the marks out of 6 rather than out of 5 on the all the posts – just to give me a little more room for manoeuvre.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Poems of the Day - 4

The thing about Poetry Daily is that you never know what’s coming next. Every day is a surprise. But I didn’t expect this!

Today’s poem is Afternoon Nap by James W. Wood. I know James. His chapbook, The Theory of Everything, is on HappenStance Press, as is mine. I’ve read with James before and I’ll be reading with him next month. In November, he’s reading at Poetry at the Great Grog, which I organise. So, potentially awkward! If I say I love the poem, people will suspect bias. If I say I hate it, well…

Anyway, I read it and was relieved to find I didn’t hate it. He’s a good writer so that didn’t surprise me. It’s not one of my favourites of his, but I also know he’s not the kind of person to object to critical remarks. The poem concerns a man sleeping and, metaphorically, a man who has slept through life. He used to run miles round a track in school, but now he dozes off over a “picture of a scoring hero.” The irony of this is cemented by the desperate sadness of:

What would he now say he had missed? Nothing.

This is less self-satisfaction than complete apathy, as we see by the final stanza. I felt a little tightening wouldn’t have gone amiss at times – e.g. “What was it that he had wanted…” is surely better as “What had he wanted…” and "He felt weak" seems unnecessary... It’s a very sad portrait, which is fair enough, but I’m not sure what to take from it. Don’t end up like this guy? Keep your eyes open? The awful thing is that the eyes continue to stare into the garden even when they’re closed off to everything - a sinister touch. 3/6

Kim Gek Lin Short’s poem, Clone at No Tell Motel immediately piqued my interest with:

Later I win a diminutive version of myself in a contest I did not mean to enter.

I also liked the black-paint-eating maquette. The imagery and narrative is lively enough, but… I don’t know… today’s offering lacks a bit of spark. Poems in this vein work because of gratuitous surprise, humour, and often a heavy edge of irony or satire. This poem contains all three and it’s enjoyable enough without - as we say here - setting the heather alight. 2½/6

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Poems of the Day - 3

Linda Gregg’s It Is the Rising I Love, from Poetry Daily, begins like an ars poetica:

As long as I struggle to float above the ground
and fail, there is reason for this poetry.

There’s something unfortunately comic about this picture of attempted levitation. The heart of the poem (and easily the best bit) comes in the closing five lines, her sense that we are grounded in the world and can’t rise above it – suffering, desire, mortality. So what difference does poetry make? Perhaps the reason for the poetry is simply as a witness to the struggle, and as an expression of longing to rise above it? However, the poem itself suggests that’s a forlorn hope. Perhaps the failure to rise is meant as an antidote to the sentimentality of a Maya Angelou (“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear/ I rise/ Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear/ I rise” – from ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou). The Venus birth narrative is a reasonable illustration – divinity may rise, but not us mere mortals – but the whole section on rising “bathed in light and air” seems tired and hackneyed and nearly blinded me to the poem’s strengths. I asked myself (and feel unsure) whether a revamped version of the first two lines, along with the final five lines (from “I get on my knees…”), might have been more effective than the poem as it stands. 2/6

The good news is that I liked Kim Gek Lin Short’s offering, Glacier, down at No Tell Motel. I enjoyed the absurdist humour of the “papier-maché ducts” (that male psychology, trying to help, trying to do something, however fruitless), the glacier which “floats on the cement floor” and, especially, the spinning penguins. The strange detail of the "footed flannel jammies" makes sense by the end of the poem – the glacier’s “chilly discipline of silver” becomes an imaginative symbol of the father’s imminence. The tension exerted between humour and fear is well executed. 3½/6

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Poems of the Day - 2

At Poetry Daily, we find two new poems by Billy Collins, 'January in Paris', and 'Divorce'. The second of these is barely worth mentioning, playing on every cliché in the marriage/divorce book. The first poem is typical Collins, but not Collins at his best. He has a great idea: Valéry’s abandoned poems roam the early morning streets of Paris, and along comes a writer… The best section comes in stanzas 5-7 but, as often happens with Collins poems these days, the build-up is too long (and in this case not particularly funny or imaginative). After S8 we get a pointless (and no doubt unfair) description of Valéry, and the poem rumbles to an entirely predictable conclusion - whatever the appearances, Valéry is proved correct (is the 'completion' of the "gorgeous orphan" also the death of her? - the cigarette as smoking gun, together with the 'bed', 'head' and unspoken 'dead' rhyme - or is it just a post-coital cigarette?. Either way, the narrator is smug about it, as smug as Collins depicts Valéry, come to think of it). Collins is well capable of surprising a reader, even those critical of him, but not with this poem. A shame really, because I feel he could have done far better with his idea. 1½/6.

Over at No Tell Motel, Kim Gek Lin Short continues her angel’s datebook with Ms. Chatterley. The angel tells us about her loss of faith, her attempts to cover up what felt unacceptable, her efforts to tame herself into following the party line (all that symbolism about cutting wild strands of hair etc). So she no longer has spiritual aspirations. And she’s an angel! Oh, the postmodern irony… The problem with all of this is that the poem is a giant cliché – child brought up to believe denies her true self until finally the light dawns and she becomes a free secular woman. The image of the mirror and the back-story regarding the father are left for the reader to interpret, but form no meaningful context. How do they relate to spiritual aspirations? – you, dear reader, must do the guesswork. The final phrase about spelling out words for the dead is intriguing – but what words? That’s where you come in again, dear reader. Your job is to fill the gaps. As a reader, I don’t mind bringing my imagination to a poem, but the poem must have resonance within itself for that encounter to become more than an exercise. Here, despite the funny line about parking cars on a Sunday and the superficial oddity of some of the images, the poem follows a predictable path. 1½/6.

I have a wide and varied taste in poetry. I often like stuff posted at these sites. Maybe tomorrow…

Monday, September 01, 2008

Five-Day Weather Forecast

Oh, great…

Poems of the Day - 1

I thought I’d try waking up to two new poems every day this September – at Poetry Daily and No Tell Motel. Then I thought I’d try blogging about them.

This isn’t an original idea. A while back, Julie Carter did it, as did various others, although I think they commented on three. Anyway, here’s my first day’s reflections:

Poetry Daily offers A Farm in Virginia near the North Carolina Boundary by Kelly Cherry. It’s a ‘time moves slowly and nothing changes despite huge activity’ kind of poem, spelled out (unnecessarily, I thought) in the “it’s busy here; a lot is going on/ most of the time” line. There’s plenty of description certainly, but I didn’t feel that much was going on in this poem. No surprises at the level of vocabulary, imagery or metaphor. The need to rhyme results in fair bit of waffle (that’s an argument against waffle, not against rhyme, incidentally). Perhaps this one is just not my kind of thing. 2/6.

No Tell Motel offers a week’s worth of poems by the same poet. Kim Gek Lin Short explains in her helpful poetic statement that her poems are entries in an angel’s datebook. This first one, Potlatch, is a prose poem about the angel’s sixteenth year. The title stems from a Native American winter festival, but can be used to refer to any feast or gift, linked in the poem to “the wear in my panties,” which links to the previous sentence. I’d interpret sexual activity here. She’s been granted freedom by the elders, but that freedom seems fairly nominal by the end of the poem. She’s consumed by self-disgust (the meat)? The ending, those last three lines or so, is chillingly effective. I’m not so convinced by the first half. It’s trying too hard to be weird, but the attitudes seem entirely conventional in a 21st century secular milieu. Also, “Simple at first, I…” forced me into thinking of the “I” as initially simple, even though I suspect that isn’t what’s intended. I’m underwhelmed by this one, but nevertheless intrigued to read more. 2½/6.