Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hidden Door

If you're anywhere near Edinburgh, don't miss Hidden Door at the Roxy Art House this weekend (full programme, details, cost etc. at the link). It's a huge event of genuine cultural significance. I'll be reading a few sets of poems, but I am only a tiny dot among 9 other poets, 10 film-makers, 30 bands, and 40 artists. Should be a fantastic event.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Voice of Geddy Lee

I was following an online conversation about book jacket photos when the subject of Rush singer Geddy Lee somehow came up. I was never a Rush fan. I lived through punk and you either liked Rush, Yes and Genesis or Buzzcocks, Clash and Wire - but no one at the time could admit to liking both sides of that 'or'. I am grateful to Rush neverthless. For one thing, my own band did a cover of 'Spirit of Radio', a parody of course (if truth be told, we weren't remotely good enough on our instruments to have played the real Rush version), which gave us no end of hysterical fun. For another, Rush inspired one of my all-time favourite lyrics, from Pavement's 'Stereo':

'What about the voice of Geddy Lee.
How did it get so high?
I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy.'
'I know him, and he does.'

I never saw the video at the time but I was glad to discover it this afternoon. Classic stuff.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Angus Calder, Chapman Issue 110

Well, this is the first day in the past week in which I’ve actually felt positive about a new day. I haven’t been well and this will be my third day on anti-biotics, which do seem to have kicked in this morning. Not out the woods yet, but much better. I am now behind with everything – work, emails (sorry, everyone), blogging, reviewing, poetry (I had plans to write poems for one or two specific projects and haven’t written a word) and everything else.

Firstly, I was delighted to get my copy of the new Chapman, issue 110 (the website is still well out of date). Chapman has been over several decades one of Scotland’s central, important literary magazines. This is the first issue for about three (?) years, due to various reasons explained in the magazine’s editorial. The hope is that Chapman will be published again every six months - I hope so too. It contains the usual mix of poetry, fiction and reviews, some of which I liked and some of which I didn’t – the same would go for any issue of any magazine. There’s a very moving set of “memories and reflections not ‘tributes’!” of writer and poet, Angus Calder, which are fascinating in that they seem to talk about a real human being, not a sanitized version. I liked the anecdote on the value of the arts, from Alan Riach. Riach asked Calder whether the one person without whom the 20th century would be unimaginable was Hitler. Calder became passionately angry:

“No,” he said. “Because I care about Stravinsky, I care about Picasso, MacDiarmid, Joyce, Shostakovich. These are the people who make the 20th century possible to live in.”

Some people, probably the majority of people, will disagree with that. You know how it is when public money is allocated to fund a poet-in-residence rather than something useful? The tabloid newspapers go crazy and you’ll find no end of outraged people to complain about it. But the gap between expediency and value grows over time and if we neglect what’s truly valuable, the next century may become increasingly impossible to live through. It’s hard to measure the contribution that, say, Picasso, has made to our lives, and even to the lives of people who have no interest in his artworks. But without him and others of his great creative vision and skill in fields of art, poetry, film, literature and so on, somehow we would all be diminished, life wouldn’t be the same.

I have more to say about the Chapman issue, but this will do for now.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

TS Eliot Prize 2009 Winner

Space Bar tagged me on Facebook, asking for my views on this year’s TS Eliot Prize, which was decided yesterday. The winner was Philip Gross for his book, The Water Table. Well, I can’t really say anything about the award itself, as I’ve only read two of the ten shortlisted books – The Burning of the Books and Other Poems by George Szirtes and Over by Jane Draycott – both strong collections. All I can really offer is congratulations to Philip Gross.

Apologies for the lack of posts on this blog recently – a combination of things – but I have a few lined up.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hofmann on Reviewing

Some readers don’t trust reviewers. And who can blame them? Plenty of reviews are only settling old scores, or helping to cement a status quo. Some may tell you plenty about a reviewer’s opinions and enthusiasms, but they miss out the book under consideration. Some are badly written or send you to sleep. So I ask myself once again what the point of reviewing is.

This isn’t a theoretical question. I have several books and chapbooks to review in front of me. I’ve heard the argument, from several people, that the best review for a book is simply to print one of the poems. The reader can then judge whether to investigate further on that basis. Who needs a reviewer’s opinion, which is, after all, just an opinion?

However, I’m not convinced that ‘opinion’ ought to be the central focus of a good review in any case. Reviewers may offer opinions, of course, but if all they do is add to the dry mass of public opinion, not much is being achieved.

I think reviews are an art form in themselves, as much as poetry or any other form of literature. I can read a poem from a book and appreciate it, but a good review may challenge my reading, get me thinking again about a book’s virtue and vices, and enrich my knowledge. Even if I don’t know a thing about a book under review, I’d still expect a good review to get me thinking about poetry, and deepen my understanding of it in some way.

I’ve been reading, off and on, Behind the Lines – a collection of Michael Hofmann’s essays on poetry, fiction, art and film, which certainly does all the positive things in the previous paragraph. He is fearless too and doesn’t seem in awe of anyone’s reputation, but his enthusiasm and thoroughness is obvious. In his chapter on Robert Lowell’s prose, Hofmann has this to say:

“In an illuminating piece on Yvor Winters, he speaks of him not being ‘adequately praised’, and it seems to me it this ‘adequate praise’ (a dubious, stiff, almost paradoxical notion) that he is most often giving. Lowell is not a proselytizer, not an unraveller; he seems to keep a constant distance between himself and his subjects: his reviews are not discoveries.”

It’s the enthusiasms (positive or negative), the unravellings, and the unexpected discoveries that bring reviews alive and help me read poems with fresh eyes, those moments when another person sheds real insight on a poem or on a few lines, and reveals something I would have overlooked.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Neil Diamond Week - 5. Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show

Dolly Parton this time and she certainly puts her own stamp on Neil Diamond’s Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show. Pretty well done, I think.

For comparison, here’s a Neil Diamond version.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Neil Diamond Week - 4. Song Sung Blue

I’ll be honest, Altered Images’ version of Song Sung Blue hasn’t aged too well. It’s fun, mind you, and I did like it at the time. I met Clare Grogan once. For some reason she was signing albums in the foyer of an Aberdeen bank one lunchtime. I went along with my friend, Ritchie, expecting to queue for ages but maybe the publicity hadn’t been good, as we were almost the only people there. Clare was very chatty, good fun, despite being trapped with two adoring teenagers for an hour (thinking about it, we were only a couple of years younger than she was!). I suppose we passed the time for her and we were doing our level best to be as witty and interesting as possible. She even invited us to a Hogmanay party but ‘somehow’ forgot to give us the address.

So, OK, ND’s version is better, but I enjoyed hearing the Altered Images cover again after all those years.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Neil Diamond Week - 3. Red Red Wine

I bought UB40s first album on vinyl (still have it, in fact) with the great Unemployment Benefit Card cover, which included a free 12" 45rpm record with a few extra tracks. It was their best moment, I think, but they did quite a bit to popularise reggae in the UK, including a number one hit with this Neil Diamond cover.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

White Noise

I couldn't have got a better soundtrack for this film than the snow falling on the camera. I fluff a word ('or') about halfway through, but Jamie (the cameraman) and myself were too cold by this time to consider filming again. The full text of the poem is at the YouTube link. It's also the fourth poem in The Opposite of Cabbage.

Neil Diamond Week - 2. Sweet Caroline

Another classic. I suppose you know you've really made it when you can say that Elvis Presley covered one of your songs...

Monday, January 04, 2010

Neil Diamond Week - 1. I'm a Believer

It's Neil Diamond week at Surroundings. He wrote some classic songs. I feel he blanded out for a while after his success in the seventies, but I heard a few tracks from an album he released last year and they sounded pretty good. I'm going to post a song each day this week, not always ND's version. To begin with, here's one of his most famous pieces. He could probably live happily from the proceeds of this alone:

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year!

The last poem I read in the previous decade was Comus by John Milton. Wouldn't it be great to actually perform this Masque live? Let's say June this year - at the GRV. I have one reader booked, but the rest of the programme could be a performance of Comus! Anybody up for doing this - I'd need a group of people involved, who wouldn't necessarily have to be poets - just good readers. Not sure whether it's best done off by heart; probably an impossible task for most of us...

The first song I listened to in this decade, other than the boring stuff on the TV Hogmanay show, which has already (thankfully) slipped my memory, was Neil Diamond's 'Holly Holy'. Despite Diamond not being exactly hip these days, I love this song and several others he wrote. This morning, I found this performance of the song, from 1970. I prefer the studio version in a musical sense, but I wish people still danced like this in the 21st century:

Here's an excellent live version of the song from a year later, in 1971.