Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sono Più Sereno

More Italian pop this weekend: Le Vibrazioni with ‘Sono Più Sereno.’

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Third Great Grog Taster - February 2009

At the Poetry at the Great Grog site, you can now read a bio and poem from Alan Gay.

Full details of the event (Sunday 8 February, 8pm at the Great Grog Bar, 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh) are at the link.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In and Out

Who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ in the world of poetry? I’m going to offer a definitive answer today on this blog. You can apply these pointers to your favourite poets and can also decide whether you yourself are ‘in’ or ‘out’.

1. If you enjoy reading Hallmark cards, but feel embarrassed to mention it, you may be in. If you tell everyone how much you love Hallmark cards, then you are maybe out.

2. If, when asked for your favourite poem, you reply with a song lyric, you are in.

3. If you desire your poems to be ‘accessible’ above all other considerations, then you might be in. If you then don’t succeed in being accessible, you are definitely in.

4. If you can’t understand your own poems, but people you don’t know seem to like them, you might well be out. If you start then believing your poems mean what these people say, you’re in danger of becoming in.

5. If your poems only get laughs when you perform them, you are in.

6. If you think reviewers are the enemy, you may think of yourself as anti-establishment and therefore out. In fact, you want only to be loved and are therefore in.

7. If you think strong drink tastes of meteorite, then you are out, even if a few people occasionally mistake you for being in.

8. If you have written a poem concerning a centipede which brushes your teeth using 100 dishwater tabs, then:
a) if it ends with a burst of light, water, death, or wind, you are in
b) if it ends in any other way, you might be out.

9. If you describe yourself as ‘avant-garde’ but are unable to write a metrical, rhymed sonnet inside 40 minutes, you are definitely in.

10. If you can write in metre and know the rules of scansion inside out, but a) regard TS Eliot as overrated, or b) hear voices in your head whispering ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum whenever you read the ingredients on cereal packets, you are in.

11. If you can write a 14-poem sonnet sequence, traditional or innovative, but can’t knock together an IKEA wardrobe from scratch, you are in.

12. If you think your poems’ forms or layouts determine whether you are in or out, then you are in.

13. If you think of yourself as adrift, a lone, unique voice unheard above a cacophony of poetic racket, then the louder and shriller your voice sounds when you think this, the more in you are.

14. If people who describe themselves as out describe you as in, then you are possibly out and they are probably in. If people who believe themselves to be in describe you as out, they are probably right.

15. If you think you are out because publishers have rejected your poems and book manuscripts, then you are either in or you are both a genius and out.

16. If you have never submitted a poem anywhere and don’t want anyone to read your poems, not even a tiny little bit, then you are out. But if you begin shouting about that from the rooftops, then you are in again.

17. If your poems resemble therapy sessions from new age gurus, then you’re in in in.

18. If you send nasty letters to editors of literary magazines who have rejected your work, then you desperately want to be in, and are out for all the wrong reasons.

19. If you enjoy poetry readings, you may be in or out. If you habitually buy the reader’s book, you might well be in, unless you often then read it from cover to cover, in which case you could be out. If you always tell them what you really think of it, you’re out, for certain.

20. If you have never as much as thought of writing a poem, then you are out and may even be happy about that.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Second Great Grog Taster

I’ve just posted a bio and poem from Andrew Shields to the Poetry at the Great Grog site. Andrew will be reading at the Great Grog Bar, 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh on Sunday 8th February, 8pm, along with Tim Turnbull, Jane McKie, and Alan Gay.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Robert Burns 250th

It’s Robert Burns’s 250th anniversary. So here’s a song written by him, sung by Eddi Reader.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Un Mondo Diverso

When I lived in Turin, I bought an album, Black Mokette, by a band called Mao. It's a terrific album. I came across it because I kept hearing this song, 'Un Mondo Diverso', on the local radio and thought it was excellent - very clever too. I hadn't seen the video until tonight. Is that IKEA? Looks like it. I like the way he treats himself with a sense of humour, unlike most pop people.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Discover The Opposite Of Cabbage

The Salt webpage is now up for The Opposite of Cabbage.

You can look at one of my author photos, view the cover (small or enlarged), check out the titles of all the poems, read a sample poem, astonish yourself by the very nice things people have said about the book, and even download a .pdf of the first eleven poems or so.

There’s also a button that says “Buy Now” but don’t click that, as the book hasn’t gone to press yet. I love the cover. I just got first sight of it earlier today.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Poetry at the Great Grog Taster

If anyone out there has been suffering withdrawal symptoms from the lack of Poetry at the Great Grog gigs in December and January, it’s back with a bang on Sunday February 8th from 8pm (at the Great Grog Bar, 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh – details at the link). The line-up is terrific – Tim Turnbull, Jane McKie, Andrew Shields, and Alan Gay.

Jane McKie’s bio and poem are now up at the site. It was heartening to see her win the First Book category of the Sundial/Scottish Arts Council 2008 awards. Great for Jane herself, but also great for poetry. If you look at the shortlist, you’ll see her debut collection won despite stiff opposition from an office romance novel and a non-fiction memoir.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Scotland vs. England

I had missed Andrew O’Hagan’s article on The Age of Indifference in the Guardian last week, but found it through George Szirtes’s blog this morning.

Is it racist? Andrew O’Hagan writes:

The old wars show us what it was like to be a people willing to resist a vast encroaching power. It is not a posture that comes naturally to the English. Usually, the ordinary people of England only have one word to say to authority, and that word is "yes". Orwell would not be surprised to see such forces at work over the English, but he might be shocked to see the extent to which the English themselves lacked, as time went on, all political resolve to change it. The populist mode in England is silent paralysis. No to change.

In itself, that’s not a racist statement, simply a statement of belief in the paralysis of the English working class. The problem is that, at times, O’Hagan compares them unfavourably with their counterparts in Scotland and in other parts of Europe.

But my first experience of the English left me with the beginnings of a theory - that whereas the Scots and Irish were a people, a definite community, innately together and full of songs and speeches about ourselves, the English were something else: a riot of individualism with no real sense of common purpose and no collective volition as a tribe.

However, it seems to me that nearly all his references to “English” could be replaced with “British”. I see few differences in attitude and condition between one part of the UK and another. To take only two of O’Hagan’s examples: the unreflective hatred against the killers of James Bulger was shared in Scotland as much as anywhere else; many Scottish people I know were caught up in the Diana hype as much as anyone in England and some even travelled all the way to London simply to lay a wreath.

The anti-Thatcher lobby in Scotland from the 80s and 90s had impact because of a national perception that Scots were more community minded and less selfish than the English. Thatcher’s policies were seen as detrimental to ‘society’, which Margaret Thatcher once claimed no longer existed. These were policies with ‘English’ values, inimical to Scottish mentality. However, when studies were done, examining attitudes north and south of the border, no real differences were found. The perception was useful for political ends, but had no basis in reality.

I also suspect that the paralysis Andrew O’Hagan finds in today’s English working class is not at all exclusive either to the English or to the working class. Paralysis is found throughout our society in the UK. O’Hagan bemoans the passive acceptance of financial collapse over the last while (“As we have seen in the banking crisis, the English people call for sedation not sedition…”). However, no one anywhere has really protested about this. No demands have been made on the streets for people to be brought to account – neither by the Scottish working class, nor by the English middle class. The feelings of powerlessness go deeper than nationality and class. I don’t think it’s simple apathy or indifference either. More a sense that no one is going to listen, no matter what people say or do, a sense of lack of accountability among those who have been granted power to make decisions.

The allegation of xenophobia against England is compared to a “romantic nationalism” in Scotland, which “despite its many failings and fantasies, did manage to capture the essence of the common people.” I’ve no idea what reality Andrew O’Hagan is on about here. Racism is rife in Scotland as much as in England, and always has been. For example, it’s been recognised as a huge problem in Glasgow with its large population from the Indian subcontinent and measures have been taken to combat it. The large rise of immigrants from Poland and other Eastern European countries has currently unleashed a new wave of racism. I hear anti-Polish sentiment expressed openly all the time. Sometimes it ends up in violence. Articles that suggest Scotland has a more enlightened attitude to other countries are unhelpful and ridiculously complacent.

That said, O’Hagan does make some points that are worth reflecting on. Powerless, indifference and despair are realities in our country (by which I mean Britain as a whole) and need to be addressed. It’s just a shame that Andrew O’Hagan addressed them as if they were problems only for England to solve.

There has been a backlash to Andrew O’Hagan’s article in letters published over the weekend.

O’Hagan writes:

There was, and is, an English arrogance which resides in the view that they are naturally dominant within the British Isles.

Tim Lott replies:

But the English are naturally dominant - 84% of the British Isles is English, 8.5% Scots. It is Scottish arrogance that finds this simple - and neutral - fact so painful to acknowledge.

That rather misses the point, I think. The complaint is not the dominance, which is indeed self-evident. Arrogance does not have to follow from dominance any more than humility has to follow from oppression. I don’t think that the English are any more arrogant than the Scots. It’s a universal human trait and we are all guilty of it on occasion. But arrogance from a dominant power tends to leave a more bitter aftertaste than arrogance from a minority with little power. The usual palliatives may be trotted out on these occasions about how more has been spent on Scottish health, education etc than in England – how lucky we were! We should be thankful that other people took such decisions for us! – but those are just fuel for the fire.

In George Szirtes’s comments box, Shuggy writes on Hagan’s article:

There's everything - well not quite everything - that is wrong with Scottish nationalism right there. Doesn't it just reek of complacency?

Yes, it’s that nationalist desire to mythologize people, the idea that we don’t share the negative traits of our neighbours, that we are a less conservative, more inventive, and less indifferent society. That’s a complete illusion, handy only for political manoeuvring. In the drive towards devolution, it was useful to exploit the Scottish sense of being different, for obvious reasons, and the same strategy will be useful on the way to an independence referendum. But it’s an illusion. Not that there isn’t radicalism, inventiveness and passion among Scots, but we’re not alone in possessing such traits.

That said, I still believe that independence is the best way forward for Scotland. There’s something to be said for having the ability to make our own decisions and our own mistakes. That way, at least we can’t point the finger at anyone else, let alone other nations we mistakenly begin to regard as more arrogant, passive, or accident-prone than ourselves.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Author Photos Revisited

Further to my post of a couple of days ago on author photos, here’s Chris Hamilton-Emery with Salt guidelines, official or otherwise, on 10 Ways to Take a Bad Author Photo.

These tips are invaluable for anyone wanting to have a bad author photo. Such gems as:

If the passport photos are unavailable, wedding photos make great author photos, especially where you feature in the background in a crowd of revellers dancing the conga. Or shots at an office party, where Gwen had her jacquard tights on and you have your arm around her thighs.

But there are plenty more vital, inspirational nuggets of wisdom at the link.

(I should add that the image of me in this post is NOT a photo I submitted to Salt! But I think it's a useful illustration for some sections of the advice.)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Who By Fire

Ok, something a little special for the weekend. Leonard Cohen performs his classic song, 'Who by Fire,' with the legendary Sonny Rollins on tenor sax!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Author Photos

What makes a good author photo? Or a bad one? That, I guess, is what Salt authors are currently asking themselves after comments from Salt that perhaps more guidance was needed for some people (without specifying anyone in particular!).

I submitted my photos a while back. They were taken by Gerry Cambridge. We spent hours taking hundreds of shots over two afternoons, from which we extracted six photos. I liked them a lot, but today I came across this, also from Salt:

"Our guidance specifies landscape format shots, as in wider than tall, some interpret this as photo in a landscape and head out to their nearest leafy landmark!"

Damn, I hadn’t picked that up at all but, to my relief, four out the six are in landscape format. They are all in black & white. One of them is of me crouching in a huge bed of dead leaves. Behind me is a stained wall. To my left, also in the leaves, there’s a large cracked urn toppled on its side (very Keatsian). I am reading a book called Dawkins’ God. It was Gerry’s concept and it’s a poem-as-photograph in itself. Whether it qualifies as a “leafy landmark,” I’m not sure. It’s in a church graveyard, which is, I suppose, a landmark of sorts, but the leaves are all dead and brown.

I don’t like being photographed. In fact, I am the world’s worst person to take for a photo shoot. I can remember my parents hiring a photographer to take pics of me as a child and he got only one forced smile out of me in the entire hour. Gerry did a great job in that regard. I do actually smile in a couple of the six.

One of the photos, the only close-up, makes me look as solemn and intense as Geoffrey Hill’s author pic (well, almost). I actually quite like it because of that. It’s humorous in its po-faced stare. One of the others has me grinning beneath a stone skull. So a range of moods. The idea was to go for an edgy, alternative vibe with a touch of black humour, but in a place of depth and tradition (hence the churchyard).

My Salt author page isn’t up yet, but when it is I’ll let you know. You can always gaze at Andrew Philip there in the meantime. Looks like a leafy landmark to me! Our books both launch on March 1st.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Jen Hadfield’s Nigh-No-Place was on my list of 2008 favourites, so I’m delighted that it won the T.S. Eliot Prize last night. It was a surprise result, I think, but a welcome one. Her work is distinctive, impossible to categorise, daring, and packed full of energy.

I reviewed Nigh-No-Place in Magma, issue 41. One thing that stood out for me was Jen’s ability to transform the way we might look on a landscape or object, particularly through metaphor and simile, so often overused or used without much point as a default mechanism in contemporary poetry. Nigh-No-Place contains so many good examples that it’s hard to know what to pick. Here’s a brief quote from my review:

In Prenatal Polar Bear, the bear “hangs in formaldehyde/ like a softmint or astronaut.” In Blashey-Wadder, the narrator crackles in her waterproof “like a roasting rack of lamb.” The wind, set free from its backpack prison in Odysseus and the Sou’wester is “a rising loaf of shuffled feathers/ struggling from the haversack/ like a furious swan.” In Hedgehog, Hamnavoe, the hedgehog is “a kidney flinching on a hot griddle,/ or like a very small Hell’s Angel, peeled from the verge/ of a sweet, slurred morning.”

Definitely a book worth picking up and reading closely.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mick Imlah (1956-2009)

I was planning to make a last minute prediction for the winner of this year’s TS Eliot Prize for Poetry. The ceremony is being held tonight.

However all speculation has been overshadowed by news that hot favourite, Mick Imlah, whose collection, The Lost Leader, won this year’s Forward Prize for Best Collection, has died today, aged only 52. He had been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease just over a year ago.

Desperately sad news

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Against Blogging

Writers who blog are well used to being told by critics and journalists that they should pack it in and leave literary evaluation to the professionals. It’s a stale argument, as many bloggers write criticism which is more in-depth and less compromised than their professional counterparts.

However, a few nights ago, via a tip from Helena Nelson, I read an article against blogging, by writer and blogger, Morris Rosenthal, which made me think, not for the first time, on whether blogging is a good idea for writers. MR begins with an argument that most writer-bloggers must have considered at various points:

“Blogging sucked three years of creative writing out of my brain, and it can do it to you as well.”

He then continues:

“If I could sum up the problem with blogs in one 90's concept, it would be the lack of closure. Blogging never reaches a logical conclusion, it just goes on and on until the blogger breaks the vicious cycle and walks away, or finds a sort of peace six feet under.”

Of course, blogging is a form of creative writing. It does mean that you are writing a blog rather than a poem or a novel, but the blog is only the problem if that very fact begins to feel like a problem. Some writers (not me) might view their blog as a more valuable artform than anything else they have written and will have no regrets on writing it.

MR says that visitors for archived posts tend to be very few in number. All that effort, all those words you’ve written over several years, will go largely unread – that’s Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail” theory examined in the article. Compared to static pages on a traditional website. MR found that an archived blog post gathered very few hits. One problem is that search engines are attracted to, or repelled by, titles. Come up with a clever title and, once the post has left your blog’s front page, you’re unlikely to get many hits on it. However, when a blogger realises that, he/she should be able to title his posts to attract search engines and still write good content for readers. The title may be boring so that search engines aren’t put off by apparently hermetic or confusing terms, but the content can be as intriguing as the blogger is capable of.

One central aspect of MR’s argument is that blogs don’t help writers to market books. I guess most writers think that blogs do help. I know I have always thought that, but without any hard evidence. MR argues that a good static website is far more effective. Blogs, he says, can help writers who have already produced books if the blog is an occasional update on progress and content (although not too much content, or readers might feel they no longer need to buy the book) attached to a static website. However, he then says:

“But if you're unknown, have yet to produce your first book or write non-fiction as a work-a-day author, entertaining a fan base just isn't relevant.”

That may be true in general terms, but I wonder if poetry is an exception. The market is small anyway, the poetry ‘world’ is small, and perhaps a blog can be useful in creating and entertaining a ‘fan base’. That said, people will only buy a poetry book I write if they like the poetry. Whether they enjoy the blog is irrelevant. They may read excerpts from the book on my Salt page, when it goes up, and decide on that basis. They may read some of my poetry through the links on the right-hand sidebar here, but that’s static content which could just as easily be on a traditional website. MR is blunt on this point:

“In terms of visitors received and books sold for the time I put in writing, blogging is the worst return on investment I get.”

I have no idea how many copies of my pamphlet sold due to this blog. I’m sure some sold on that basis, but perhaps a static website would have helped sell as many and for much less work.

A blog, however, isn’t just a marketing tool. As MR himself said, he is an author, not a telemarketer. I’d see my blog as something I author, much like a book. It has value to me in its own right, irrespective of related pamphlet and book sales. It’s put me in touch with many writers and readers I might not have come across otherwise. On the other hand, I now wonder what I might have written if I hadn’t been writing the blog, although there’s no point in thinking too hard on such ‘what ifs…’! MR’s article also makes me think about the future, about the issue of closure, on whether I should have a website, and on whether a blog really is the best medium for sounding off on literature.

Morris Rosenthal's Self Publishing blog is still very much active!

Friday, January 09, 2009

She's Your Lover Now

Really fantastic song, an outtake from Blonde on Blonde, which somehow wasn’t included on the album. It surfaced on the official triple ‘bootleg’ album in the early 1990s. Perhaps he never recorded a complete version – the song collapses, they all stop, and Bob says, “What?” Who knows how long it might have continued for.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

My Persona And I

I've begun writing a series of poems using a persona. The immediate difficulty is that I’ve read most of Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘Mr Cogito’ poems and it would be awful to write stuff that sounds a bit like them except nowhere near as good. The same goes for Weldon Kees’s ‘Robinson’ poems I mentioned the other day.

I’ve done this kind of thing before, writing as someone who isn’t me and holds opinions that may even be contrary to my own, but contains certain aspects of me. However, I’ve always used the ‘I’ before, even when I wasn’t writing as myself. I’ve never been clear, even in myself, whether that was a good idea or not. Several poems in ‘The Clown of Natural Sorrow’ worked like that – The Hedge Artist, The Actress, The Innocents etc. The poem about the Harry Potter launch featuring an unhinged, scissors-wielding JK Rowling stalker, was originally written in the first person singular. I changed it in case anyone really did believe I thought like that!

Creating a persona, a fictional character who ought to develop over a sequence of poems, is a new challenge. It releases me from the anxiety that people might habitually identify me with the ‘I’ of my poems, but it means I have to get inside the head of a fiction who, already, is quite hard for me to understand.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

It's A New Year, So...

I don’t make New Year resolutions for the same reason as most other people who refuse to make them. It’s an exercise in failure. I’m forced to develop SMART goals as part of my work. I know they are supposed to help improve standards and avoid complacency and I dare say they sometimes do, but the fewer acronyms in my personal life the better. That said, there are a few things I would quite like to do this year, in a literary sense:

1. Promote The Opposite of Cabbage (due 1st March – getting quite close!). Do readings. Be proactive. Sell at least enough copies for Salt to make a profit (so much depends on you, dear readers). Have fun.
2. Write poetry that goes beyond what I’ve done with that book.
3. Read more crime fiction.
4. Discover some good online poetry publications, apart from the few I’m already familiar with.
5. Submit reviews to online magazines rather than posting them to this blog. It’s less effort just to post them here, of course, but such laziness is limiting.
6. Along with the new team, create a great programme for Poetry at the Great Grog.

That’s enough, I think. Not much of a literary career path but, really, I only want to do stuff that I enjoy doing and that’s of the best possible quality. Otherwise there’s no point.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Plane Trees, Robinson, and After Dark

It’s been a busy Christmas and New Year period. Aside from family get-togethers, I’ve been working through most of it, but have managed to write a poem (not quite finished. Or, at least, I’m still not happy with it). I’ve also been reading, mainly my staple diet over the last few months – Zbigniew Herbert, Wallace Stevens, Denis Johnson, James Schuyler and W.S. Graham.

Over the last few days, I’ve also been reading a little Roy Fisher. His ‘Wonders of Obligation’, which opens his The Long and the Short of It: Poems 1955-2005 is really startling and I’ve also enjoyed some of the poems from his City sequence, especially ‘The Sun Hacks’ with its lines:

On the first bus nightworkers sleep, or stare
At hoardings that look out on yesterday

I love that description of the hoardings. Anyway, I read in one of City’s prose sections:

Faint blue light dropping down through the sparse leaves of the plane trees in the churchyard opposite after sundown, cooling and shaping heads, awakening eyes.

I then picked up James Schuyler’s Collected and, opening it at random to the poem, ‘Buttered Greens’, read at its beginning:

makes shade
acid blue
leaf work
of elms
they fell first

blown under
a big plane
tree lying
on tuftedness
the pattern
of its later

A happy coincidence to have plane trees and indeed blue light/blue shade in consecutive, unrelated poems - both very good ones.

I also re-read Weldon Kees’s four ‘Robinson’ poems last night. Quite brilliant, especially Robinson itself. As a portrait of alienation, a meditation on absence, a blend of reality and surrealism, and a multi-layered puzzle of an ending, you can’t beat it. Never a poem I could get tired of.

In the late hours, I’ve been skipping through Haruki Murakami’s novel, After Dark, which manages to be well written (and, I can only imagine, very well translated), gripping and hugely entertaining.