Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Snow and Schools

Schools in Edinburgh have been closed for two days and won’t open tomorrow. Conditions are set to worsen up here over the next few days with temperatures dropping to well below zero along with chill winds from Siberia, which will ice up the snow on the roads and pavements.

All this is astonishing, as I can’t ever remember schools here being closed because of snow before, and it makes me wonder why this year. It must be because most schools can’t guarantee a minimum number of teachers will make it into work and it’s easier for the council to close all schools than to have parents ringing in thousands of times to enquire on the state of play in particular schools. But this must surely have been the case in previous years. I’ve read that gritters are out on the streets 24 hours a day, but even the main roads seem kind of slushy (and when it freezes tonight, they could become very dangerous) and the side-roads haven’t been touched.

Ironically, my wife does have to go to work. Normally she goes by car and drives around quite a bit, but today she took a bus. She is an Educational Welfare Officer and gives support to pupils and families where non-attendance is an issue. Well, nobody is attending this week! I guess it means she can catch up with paperwork etc. However, I can’t help wondering how she can make it into work and so many teachers can’t. Perhaps teachers gravitate to the far suburbs and live on hills or even mountainsides or down lonely country roads where no buses venture? Well..., teachers have a tough job these days and don’t really want to criticise them too much. When can the schools re-open? This is the point - the weather looks set to worsen and I bet the council are now kicking themselves for closing the schools on Monday. The council can hardly justify opening them until something improves, and there's no sign of that.

We will of course suffer an onslaught of poems about snow. I considered writing several dozen hopeless snow poems and sending them to my least favourite poetry magazines, but there’s always the risk that one of them might be accepted. Wallace Stevens and Louis MacNeice have done a fantastic job anyway and the rest of us may as well get on with writing about virtual train timetables or fruit-bearing bobsleighs or whatever the big subject is these days. I have been asked to name my three favourite books of the year. Now there’s a task to occupy a free few minutes...

What I've Learned

what I’ve learned I think is
how everything under language
slips and slides and bites
and how in the end
language makes its excuses
and leaves for the beach
where every wave is new and gone

from ‘on nomenclature’ in Alasdair Paterson’s collection, The Governing of Empires (Shearsman 2010)

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Future for Live Poetry

Poetry at the..., one of Edinburgh‘s regular live poetry events, is three years old. I founded the reading series three years ago because, at the time, there were few opportunities for Scottish central belt poets to read their work in the city. The Scottish Poetry Library hosted excellent reading events, but these were often from ‘touring’ poets or groups of already established names. The Shore Poets was the only regular reading series. It was (and still is) an excellent series but, of the three readers in any month, one was always a ‘big name’, and one a Shore Poet member, which left eight or nine opportunities per year for anyone else to read. Nothing much was happening in Glasgow at the time or in the smaller towns and cities, so opportunities to read were sparse, to say the least. For young poets and new poets to the city, it was almost impossible to find places to read to an audience.

Things have changed a great deal since then. Glasgow has the Mirrorball series, Words Per Minute, Vital Synz and others, and Edinburgh has a far livelier poetry scene and with far wider participation than was the case three years ago. I’ve been thinking about whether ‘Poetry at the...’ is still necessary. Audience numbers would suggest otherwise. They are enough to keep the series afloat, but not much more than that. The exceptions have been the ‘themed’ events, in which I’ve asked a group of poets to write original poems on a theme – Valentine’s Day’s selection of love poems based loosely on verses from the Song of Songs was one such occasion, and the Norman MacCaig celebration was another. Both times, the attendance was way up and these have also constituted two of the most memorable poetry events of the year for me.

So my thoughts are those, which are tentative, not cast in stone. Comments very welcome:

1. It’s been suggested (by Stuart Kelly, somewhere on his site, I think, but I can’t remember where) that live poetry events, in which reader follows reader follows reader, ought generally to be given a swift burial.
2. Events like the Golden Hour in Edinburgh combine poetry with fiction, live music, animation, film etc. I like it, but I imagine it takes huge organisation and massively time-consuming networking skills.
3. There are several events more attuned to the ‘performance poetry’ scene. I’ve no problem with that, but I don’t want to go down that route with ‘Poetry at the...’
4. I will, of course, continue with ‘Poetry at the...’ to fulfil existing commitments – I have already booked readers for February, March and April of 2011. It looks like a great programme to me!
5. I could hold two themed events a year in Spring and Autumn, starting from October 2011, each featuring many poets writing to a theme.
6. Maybe I could hold a more conventional reading the month after the themed readings, each featuring three or four poets – a mix of well known names (whether ‘mainstream’ or innovative’) and new, original talent. So just four events each year – quality rather than quantity.
7. The idea of creating an Edinburgh Poetry Festival occurred to me - not on anything like the scale of StAnza etc, but an autumn festival over a single weekend, featuring relatively local poets and poets with debut collections. But would such a venture attract an audience? It would need to, if it were to survive.
8. Any other ideas for structuring unique, affordable, regular poetry-related events are welcome. Where are the gaps? Are there any?

Another problem with Edinburgh at the moment is the shortage of cheap-hire, decent venues. When I visited London the other week, there were loads of venues doing live poetry, and most of their function rooms were either given free or for a token charge. In Edinburgh, most venues are costly to hire. Alternatively, the free venues are either out-of-the-way or staffed by bad-tempered idiots who hire you a room and then do all they can to cause as many difficulties for the readings as possible! I know London is unique, with several poetry events every day of the month, many having substantial audiences. It could be that Edinburgh has already reached saturation point for poetry events, especially during a recession. Admission prices, drinks and raffles, combine to reduce how many events people will want to attend - but without those accessories, the events couldn't happen at all. Perhaps in Edinburgh, and in other cities of similar and smaller population, less might be more. Might fewer events lead to bigger audiences and higher quality for those which remain?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Poetry Readings and Setlists

Good reading last night at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle, despite the inclement weather and my sense of direction that turned a dead straight two-minute walk from the train station into a twenty minute circular tour of the city centre. The audience wasn’t huge but they had my admiration for turning up at all in the middle of a sleetstorm, which I’m sure would have kept some people from making it. The building itself is impressive and, although I didn’t have time to do more than glance at what must have been tens of thousands of books in its library, it looked like a splendid archive. There were four Red Squirrel poets (Tom Kelly, Eleanor Livingstone, Kevin Cadwallender and Alistair Robinson), and two of us from Salt (Andrew Philip and myself). Sheila Wakefield, editor at Red Squirrel and organiser of the event, for which grateful thanks, was MC. My set-list was:

1. Sky Blue
2. Everyone Will Go Crazy
3. Plastic Cork
4. Theology
5. Voice Mail
6. A to Z Route Map for the Soul
i) Ahem
ii) Baby
iii) Car-less
7. Nocturnes I and II
8. Fallen Villages of the North
9. How New York You Are

The first three and last two are from The Opposite of Cabbage and the middle section is new-ish.

And here’s my set-list from the Betsey Trotwood in London, from last week:

1. i. m. Norman MacCaig (working title)
2. The Look
3. Moving On
4. Fence
5. Soundings
6. Bladerunner
7. World Class
8. Untitled
9. A Creative Writing Tutor Addresses His Star Pupil
10. While the Moonies are Taking Over Uruguay

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Poetry Reviews and Revenge

If you’re anywhere near Newcastle, please come along to the Lit & Phil on Wednesday evening (24th November, 7pm) where I’ll be reading with Red Squirrel poets Kevin Cadwallender, Tom Kelly, Eleanor Livingstone, Alistair Robinson, and Salt co-conspirator, Andrew Philip. It’s a benefit gig for the Lit & Phil, so well worth supporting. I should mention my trip to London last week. I’ve written about the launch of Magma 48 on the Magma blog. My reading the next evening at the Betsey Trotwood with Simon Barraclough, Claire Crowther and Roddy Lumsden was also very enjoyable. Not a massive crowd but they seemed to like what they were hearing, and it was great to hear fine new poems from the other readers.

I did a quick podcast with Ryan Van Winkle yesterday, which I guess you'll be able to hear online some time soon. One question he asked was about reviewing, whether some poets respond to criticism by taking ‘revenge’ and if I have ever suffered from that kind of attitude. I answered by saying that I thought poets didn’t tend to react in that way. They might smart at a negative comment in a review, but most get over these things quickly. Also, that I wouldn’t know if anyone, for example, had blocked me from a festival, prize or magazine because they were miffed at something I’d said about their work. It’s not as though they’re going to tell me, as that would obviously make them look pathetic. I certainly haven’t noticed anything like this so, if it’s happened, it’s not made any difference to me.

I thought about the question afterwards (I often compose better answers to questions after an interview). I still believe what I say above, but I guess there are some people who react to any negative opinion on their work with life-long hatred and will take any opportunity to damage the critic, often in ways well out-of-proportion to the perceived ‘offence’. Well, that’s the way it goes. It’s vital for critics and reviewers not to bother about such things and to write what they think with a degree of integrity. Such revenge-poets, who believe themselves beyond criticism, who somehow think their work is perfect and without any weakness worth mentioning, are still living in Toddlerdom, stamping their feet on their bedroom floors for all eternity. They’d be better not to publish at all if they assume the reaction is going to be universal hero-worship.

It’s with this in mind that I made a solemn vow a while back (unfashionable as solemn vows may be). I promised to myself that I would never allow personal feelings about an author to influence any review I write. If that person has made negative or positive comments about my work, I won’t allow that to affect how I read or comment on their work. If I find that impossible, I simply won’t review their book. Someone else can do it. The same goes for reviewing well-known, ‘influential’ poets. I determined not to allow their position to affect a review, either positively or negatively. I’ve seen reviews published in journals by Poet X on Poet Y’s new book, on how ‘wonderful’ and ‘brilliant’ it is, and then six months later there’s Poet Y reviewing Poet X using those exact same words. That represents the death of criticism and I don’t want any part of it. To paraphrase Morrissey, 'It paves my way, but it corrodes my soul.'

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The X Factor - Week 7: Live Commentary

It’s X Factor time again. I will comment live as the show moves along. I should warn you, I was at Helena Nelson’s book launch this afternoon and was waylaid afterwards by the Tolbooth bar and two pints of Kronenbourg. So I may have less patience with Matt’s desperate attempts to impress etc.

And guess what? It’s Matt first, with ‘Come Together’, probably my least favourite Beatles song ever. Matt is attempting to rock out. He says he wants to develop a ‘swagger’. No Matt, you either have swagger or you don’t. And you don’t. It was a shrieking, horrible version of a dud song. The judges loved it, apart from Louie. They are idiots, apart from Louie. I’ll say 4. Daughter says 9.

I should have said – it’s Beatles night. Cher says she’s not going to let anything get in her way of winning, as if that's what music is about. She’s singing 'Imagine'. Crikey... She is over-singing it. Too many trills, as if Mariah Carey, without the vocal range, had been let loose on a Joy Division song. She’s trying too hard to er...‘improve’ a song that thrives on a simple approach. Horrible. Cher has showed her age and her lack of perspective. It’s all about ‘hear me sing’ rather than the song. Oh dear. I’d give that 4 as well. Daughter says 8.

Now here come One Direction. They will surely sing early Beatles, something cutesy. But no, they’re doing 'All You Need Is Love' – but an up-tempo version. It’s very different from the original, so points for that. But I don’t care about it much. In this case, I do like the original and that version didn’t cut it for me. It’s hi-energy, but lacks the original’s warmth. And warmth is everything in this song. Well performed though, to be fair. I’ll say 6. Daughter says 9.

Not the best start, to be honest. But Rebecca is next. My wife says, "Bet she’ll sing ‘Let it Be’." Maybe. Hard for her flying the Liverpool flag – pressure...It’s ‘Yesterday’. Slightly dodgy start for Rebecca too! She has been great up until now. But this sounds kind of strained. Like Cher she’s over-singing it, to show what she can do. Sounds a little uncontrolled. She is better with a swing. Harsh, tight hairstyle too, which isn’t her fault of course – a softer style would make her look much better, in my opinion. Not terrible, but not as good as we’re used to. I’ll say 7 (first time I've given her less than 9, I think, and it was 10 for the last two weeks)). Daughter says 9.

Now we have Mary who has bored me for ages now. Can she sing a Beatles song? Let’s see. She’s singing ‘Something’ and is singing in the style, even the intonation, of Shirley Bassey. I hate it when people do songs in the style of already inferior covers. She sings very powerfully, but it’s so derivative that I can’t warm to it. I am being very catty tonight, I realise that. Anyway, I’ll say 6 for that. Daughter says 7.

Paije and Wagner next, after the break. Not something to look forward to, although Paije now and again can surprise me. Can he tonight?

Paije was stung by Simon last week saying he had no chance of winning. Amazing how they take the judges’ words so much to heart. What power those judges must feel they have! Not over anything important though. Anyway, where are we? Paije is singing ‘Let It Be’ and, as ever, he is adequate. Adequate Paije. But nothing special. Really I could give Paije a 6 or 7 every week for all eternity, and so what? The judges all liked it. Adequate. I’ll say 7 this week. Next week it could be 6. Or 7. Daughter says 10.

Wagner!!! What Beatles’ song could he possibly sing? Octopus’s Garden? Back in the USSR? Ah OK, it’s ‘Get Back’. And suddenly it’s the Hippy Hippy Shake. And suddenly it’s ‘Hey Jude.’ It’s TERRIBLE. Just embarrassingly bad. So I guess all the anti-X Factor people will be more committed than ever to vote for him and keep him in the competition. Cheryl is angry because she'd read some comment in the press Wagner had made about her coming from a council estate. Wagner protets that he had said she was a role model for kids because she had made something of herself despite her background. This at least shuts Cheryl up, but doesn't save the performance. I’ll say 1. Daughter says 1.

Last tonight, Katie. She’s been in the bottom two four times now. I don’t think that’s because of her performances. She’s better, more interesting, to watch than most people in the show. So it must be because she’s ‘irritating’, although she doesn’t strike me as more irritating than any of the others. She’s singing ‘Help!’ – but as a ballad! No wig tonight. Great for the first minute or so. In fact, great for most of it. A few unnecessary histrionics, but the best tonight – easily. Danii wants to know the ‘real Katie’. Katie probably doesn’t know the real Katie, and why should she? Shut up, Danii. Surely Katie can’t be in the bottom two again after that? My wife has said for weeks they should style her less rock-chick, and I think she’s right. I’ll give her 9. Daughter says 10.

Who should go? Well, it's been a poor week. Some people who are normally good, like Rebecca, Matt and Cher were quite weak, but I suspect they'll be OK. Obviously Wagner should go, but might not due to mischievous voting. Katie shouldn't go, but on past voting patterns, she might... OK, I think Wagner is for the chop this time. He only needs to finish in the bottom two, against anyone, and he's toast. This week is his final week.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Helena Nelson Book Launch

I'll be at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon, 3pm, for the launch of Helena Nelson's second full collection, her first for seven years, Plot and Counter-Plot. Should be really good.

New Sphinx Reviews etc

I have a couple of reviews now online at the current issue of Sphinx: Roz Goddard’s The Sopranos & Other Poems, and Richard Handley’s Rain & Traffic. Interesting, as ever, to compare all three reviews on each title. On some occasions when I’ve written reviews for Sphinx, these can be quite diverse. This time, there’s a very full measure of agreement with reviewers independently making similar points and sometimes picking out the same lines to quote. Either way, the approach of three reviews per pamphlet is a fascinating one.

Also, I’m delighted that Terrance Hayes has won the U.S. National Book Award for Lighthead. It’s a really terrific collection, which I'd thoroughly recommend.

Finally, the new Magma, issue 48, is out. It's an excellent issue. Matt Merritt gives a useful summary of some of the key moments.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ryan Van Winkle Is Here Today!

Here's a short interview I conducted with poet, Ryan Van Winkle, part of a blogtour to promote his excellent debut collection, Tomorrow, We Will Live Here, published by Salt today! The launch is at Blackwell's Bookshop, South Bridge, Edinburgh, tonight at 6.30pm, followed by a party afterwards from 8pm at the Forest Cafe - to which all are invited.

1. The poet Katherine Gallagher said in an interview: “Certainly, in the post-modern world, there’s a lot of joking going on. Often tongue-in-cheek. I think I tend towards ‘seriousness’ in poetry somewhat as per Theodore Roethke’s idea, ‘Poem: one more triumph over chaos’. But I like jokiness too” – any thoughts on this?

I probably have too many thoughts on this. Comedy is hard to get right and I'm super critical of people / poems / performers which try too hard to be funny. I find that earnestness isn't funny, trying to make someone laugh is painful.

Yet, I strongly believe poems should represent life and, certainly, life is funny. Funny to me means – awkward, uncomfortable, honest and maybe a little dark. When I saw Tom Waits he said he likes his songs to have some weather, a map in case you get lost, and something to eat in case you get hungry. I'd add humor to that list – “a joke, in case you need to laugh.”

However, because I think trying to be funny is not funny – I also tend towards seriousness in my work. I'm told some poems are funny. To that, all I have to say is: I've never set out to write a 'funny' poem. I think some poems have humorous moments but they all started deadly serious. Which, if you know some of my funnier work, is kind of funny.

2. ‘I’ and ‘we’ feature in many of your poems. Would you class yourself as a confessional poet? Or at least in the general line of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Sharon Olds?

No, I don't think I would though I at times I'd like to be. If my narrators or characters feel like an authentic 'me' that is great and amazing and I'd be really proud. However – and I'm not trying to hedge my bets here – they are and they aren't. Everything is a little or a lot made up. What is real, is how each narrator contains a genuine part of me and that allows me to understand the character.

While characters or situations may be fiction, I hope the emotion seems real. If I separated out the fact from fiction in the poems (I've never been on death row, experienced 9/11, had a son find a dead body – I have masturbated in hotels, cut my knee, run cross country in High School) it would probably be 50/50.
But, maybe Lowell, Plath and Olds would say the same?

3. I suspect they would! Anyway, who is your ideal reader? And would you be anxious if that person actually existed?

My friends. I am always anxious when they read anything. I desperately want them to like me.

4. You have a spectacular moustache. Have you sensed any kind of bond developing between yourself and other moustached poets?

Yes. Though, I support all the varieties of facial hair. I give them a little nod when we pass on the street. I say, “Hello, brother. Solidarity.”

Someday, I hope to appear on an all mustache / all beard poetry night. Get me in!

That's a great idea, Ryan! What I might organise is a Moustaches/Beards vs Clean-Shavens event, in which poets are commissioned to write poems which include reference to facial hair or lack of. And the audience could then vote a winning team...

Ryan will be continuing his tour on 20 November at Robin Grey's blog and then on 24 November as guest of the Scottish Book Trust

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The X Factor - Week 6: Live Commentary

It’s X Factor time again. I will write in real time and update as the show goes along. I think Katie is in serious danger tonight, even if she does well. However, I don’t find her boring. I hope Mary or Wagner get booted out as I’m now thoroughly bored of them – unless they pull off a major surprise tonight.

It’s ‘Elton John night’ – well, Tiny Dancer, Your Song, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road etc are great songs. He also has many terrible songs. Which will predominate?

Opening the show tonight is Paije. He’s singing 'Crocodile Rock' in a strange American accent. They’ve decided Paije is ‘fun’ so he’s dressed in a pink jacket and is surrounded by women with big-hair wigs. That isn’t enough to distract from the fact that it was a very ordinary performance. ‘Karaoke’ says Louie. Cheryl displays her encyclopaedic knowledge of modern music by admitting she’s never heard the song before. The judges argue. Simon says his chances of winning are zero. True. I’d give it 5. Daughter says 9. OK!

Now Aiden is about to treat us to one of his starey-eyed, funereal dirges. Well, actually he’s singing 'Rocket Man' and it’s almost up-tempo. His voice quavers all over the place but that’s his style. Louie says he knows Elton would love it. How does he know? Simon likes his ‘swagger’. Swagger? No idea what he’s on about. The performance was OK but nothing special. I’ll say 6, daughter says 8.

Mary says she was tired last week and didn’t have her mind on things. She is so nice and unassuming it seems churlish to criticise her. But here we go. Dodgy start. Like a stage-musical singer warbling rock music, and so it continues. Oh, this is bad – harsh notes, off-tune at times, oh dear... The cheering audience must have cloth ears. ‘Parts of that were shaky,’ Dani says. You don’t say, Dani? ‘Pub singerish, but because you have a heart, it worked,’ says Simon. No it didn’t. Although I agree she has a heart and seems like a good person. Louie says it was in tune. No, it wasn’t! I’ll give her 4. Daughter says 5.

It’s Katie! Come on Katie! It’s an automatic 10 from Daughter – let that encourage you. It's ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’- makes sense at an emotional level, but can she sing it? Sounds like someone down the local pub, I’m afraid. The elaborate dancing can’t disguise the fact. Entirely the wrong choice of song – whose idea was it? Cheryl’s choice, apparently. Katie is smiling and looks like she’s enjoying herself. Can’t say I enjoyed it much. Louie says it was a rotten song. Cheryl goes mad at him. Simon says Louie should be removed from the building. He loved it. He admires the way she bounces back week by week after being in the bottom two and receiving bad tabloid headings. Very true, actually. But I could only give that 6. Daughter says...10!

Matt next. Matt is a very good singer, but can you imagine sitting through an entire album by him without falling asleep? He is singing 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road', and he is singing very well. It’s a song that requires great vocal range, which Matt has in spadeloads. And he has a fine tone too. I can’t knock that, much as I’d like to... Easily the best performance of the night so far. Rebecca still to come, mind you. I’ll say 8. Daughter says 8, although she was barely listening to him - see what I mean about falling asleep?.

Cher Lloyd is about to sing. I saw a Cher-interview and she said that Cheryl having to choose between two of her acts last week was like a mother having to give away one of her babies, which would be “weird”, she claimed. Crikey... Anyway, she’s singing ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word,’ a laid-back version with beats. She is wearing strange leggings – quite liked them. Quite liked the singing too. I’ll give her 9. Daughter says 6.

Wagner. I hope he tries to sing this week. He can sing. He just doesn’t bother anymore and relies on the big stage choreography. Louie says the performance will be ‘very Wagner’. That doesn’t augur well. He starts with ‘I’m still standing’ – not one of my fave Elton songs. It’s a truly awful vocal performance. He segues into ‘Circle of Life’ from the Lion King – just bizarre, but not in a good way. Louie says it was fun. It wasn’t really. I’ll give him 3. Daughter says 1!!!! Ha ha ha!

Here comes One Direction. They ‘jumped on the song’ when they heard it was Elton week. I wonder which song. One of the good ones, I hope – not some crummy late-period nonsense... Here we go... They are singing in American – it must be Elton’s influence. Weird. They sang quite well. The audience are screaming their heads off. It was a tedious song though. An album full of stuff like that would be a total snore-a-thon. But they did perform it as well as they could have done. I’ll say 7. Daughter says 8.

Only Rebecca to go – save the best for last. At least, she has been the best every week so far. Will her bubble burst tonight? Rebecca doesn’t have that sense of entitlement to stardom that some of the other contestants seem to think they have. I like that. Wow, it’s 'Candle in the Wind'. Brave! It’s a super-charged emotional performance. I don’t even want to type during this... Goosebumps down the spine... Stunning. No stage dancers, no gimmicks, just fabulous. I’ll give her 10 for the second week in a row. Daughter says 9.

Well, on the performances tonight, Wagner should go. Mary was also poor, as was Paije. But I think Katie, sadly, is doomed. On the plus side, Rebecca is still way way ahead. The only threats are One Direction and Matt.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Three Poetry Readings and a Phone Call

Next week is the week of a thousand gigs; or three poetry readings, at any rate: one in Edinburgh and two in London. Here are the details:

Sunday 14th November
- Norman MacCaig Centenary Celebration, 7.45-9.45pm, the GRV, 35 Guthrie St, Edinburgh. It will be exactly 100 years since the great 20th Century poet’s birth. The evening will feature MacCaig poems, people’s own poems that have been inspired by MacCaig poems, original songs based on MacCaig poems etc. Part of the ‘Poetry at the...’ series. Here’s a highly entertaining radio interview, featuring Norman MacCaig and Aly Bain in conversation at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre.

Monday 15th NovemberLaunch of Magma, issue 48, the Troubadour Cafe, 265 Old Brompton Road, London, 8pm sharp. I’ll be MCing the second half of this launch, which will feature guest poets Philip Gross and AB Jackson.

Tuesday 16th November
– Reading: Simon Barraclough, Claire Crowther, Rob A. Mackenzie and Roddy Lumsden, at the Betsey Trotwood, 56 Farringdon Rd, Clerkenwell, London, 7.30-10-30pm.

I am hoping the Gas Board are able to fix the gas leak we reported yesterday. As those of you who avidly read Facebook status updates will know, I phoned the helpline to find a gaspipe engineer and found myself talking to a Voice-Recognition Technology automation. It asked me to speak my postcode into the phone. I did so, but it couldn’t understand my Scottish accent. I had previously seen this comedy sketch on VRT and had assumed it was all a joke.

But it’s not. It’s actually true. ‘I’m sorry, I cannot understand. Please repeat your postcode clearly.’ I must have repeated it around 20 times (I tried going slower, faster, louder, quieter, even fake American and English accents) when I gave up and handed the phone to my wife, who is from North Derbyshire, England. It understood her first time!

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The X Factor - Week 5: Live Commentary

We interrupt normal poetic service to bring you the nation’s favourite live commentary on the X-Factor. By 'nation', I mean 'nation of citizens liable to read Surroundings even in passing'. This week is week 5. On every occasion so far, Surroundings has correctly predicted one of the acts sent home (even on weeks when no blogging was carried out – you’ll just have to take my word for it). That this is a fluke, I have no doubt. Be prepared for a shock this week when I get it wrong. As ever, I’ll blog live and paste in commentary as the show progresses.

Missed Cher. Thought the show began at 8pm, but it was 7.45pm. The judges didn’t seem to like it, but what do they know?

Mary is next. She looks nervous and isn’t quite getting it right. Well, it’s getting better as the song goes on. But not all that good. She seems less comfortable. I think she has a musical career ahead of her and will never work in Tesco again, no worries there. Mary is tearful, despite fairly positive comments. I’ll give 5 out of 10. Daughter says 9.

Here comes Katie, so daughter will give her 10. She was in the bottom two last week. One commentator suggests that was because Katie can be ‘annoying’. I agree, to be honest. My wife says her styling might be putting people off, as it’s very harsh week by week. It’s a Madonna/Lady Ga Ga (interchangeable) wig this week with tight black leather suit. Looks fine. She sings well enough. Some negative comments from judges. Cheryl says yes she is a drama queen, but so what? I’ll say 7. Daughter says... 10!

Next is Aiden. What song will he turn into a Radiohead dirge this week? I wish the judges would stop telling him to smile and be 18 and have fun etc. He likes singing moody dirgey songs. His voice is different from any other contestant the X Factor has ever had. He’s started really well, singing ‘Nothing Compares to You.’ But it’s a boring song. Probably sang it as well as it could have been sung. Zzzzzzzzz though. Apparently they changed his song 24 hours before the show. OK, I’ll give it 8. Daughter says 9.

Paije did well last week, partly because of the Amy W. song. Louie wants to see the ‘fun, bubbly Paije’ tonight. Hmmmm. He starts with ‘I’m a Believer.’ Not just as Neil D/Monkees copy version, to be fair. He does look as if he’s having fun. He segues into oh... whatja call it... and would have been better to stick to ‘I’m a Believer’ all the way through. Louie says he’s a little Lenny Henry (?). Simon says there was an ‘Austin Powers vibe’, and meant it as a compliment. The judges loved it. I think they have rather over-estimated how good that was! I’d give it 6. Daughter says 8.

Rebecca, who has been consistently the best every week so far, now has to keep the momentum going. The song is emotional and she has been crying while singing it in rehearsal. It’s Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’. Fantastic song, of course. Rebecca is singing it brilliantly so far. I even think Bob would approve of this one. Nothing else to say – just superb. Louie says she ‘stands out,’ which is an understatement. I’ll give her 10. No one is going to top that tonight. Daughter says 9. Not often I give a higher mark than her...

Wagner! His vocals were seriously off last week, far more so than in earlier weeks, as if they no longer meant anything compared to the ‘performance’. This week, even worse, on ‘Viva Las Vegas’ – all over the place and out of tune. Loads of dancing girls doing a kind of can can, and now suddenly into ‘The Wonder of You’ without warning. He wanders around the girls who smile at him mock-hero-worshipfully. Simon says he liked it. Perhaps he feels that by criticising it, he might encourage people to vote for Wagner. I wonder if his run has come to an end. That was surely just too bad. He has a cult following, we’re told, and they may phone enough times to keep him in. Maybe. I’ll say 4. Daughter says 6.

Matt, now. Not too good last week, but had seemed like one of the favourites before that. I predict he’ll be back up there this week. Here he goes. Lots of falsetto. Very clear, perfectly pitched vocal, switching from high to low and back again. A song to remind everyone he can sing. Very much in his comfort zone. Louie says he is the one everyone has to beat. I prefer Rebecca, but I can see that he is very good and with a great recording voice in the X-Factor-mould. Simon says, “This is the Matt and Rebecca show tonight.” Of course, his own act, One Direction, are still to come. I’ll say 9. Daughter says 10.

Treyc enjoyed herself last week, but I thought it was too similar to the original. She looked great though in her little red Santa hat. I think she can probably sing as well as anyone, but needs to take a risk or two to stand out. A Bon Jovi ballad isn’t exactly what I had in mind as a risk. That said, she’s singing it really well. Simon says she needs passion and belief that she can win. Treyc says she has it but needs to show it. Hmmmm. Dunno if any of that matters. She just needs to do her best and sing really well and make songs sound like she's given something unique to it, surely? I’ll give her 7. Daughter says 9.

Finally, it’s One Direction, the boy band. I find them irritating, but they are full of energy and appeal to teenage girls. Simon reckons they’re about to ‘stamp out the opposition’ this week. With Kim Wilde’s ‘Kids in America’? The usual energy, smiles, girls screaming from the audience. Yes, they’re doing well. They’ve cheered Cheryl up, apparently. Safe as houses this week, I reckon. I’ll say 7, although they probably deserve more. A grouch like me can’t go above 7 for them though. Daughter says 7 too.

Who’s in trouble this week? Hard to say. I’ll predict that Wagner or Mary could be up for the chop this week. The novelty acts running out of steam. Mind you, Treyc doesn’t stand out and might not attract voters, even though she sings well, and poor old Aiden sang a rotten song. But I’ll go for Wagner or Mary. Results tomorrow. Will this be my first wrong guess? I hope so – the pressure to get it right every week is beginning to get to me!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Leopardi on Contemporary Poetry

I’ve enjoyed reading the excerpts from Zibaldone di Pensieri by Giacomo Leopardi in the new issue of Poetry magazine. Really thought-provoking stuff all the way through, not least his thoughts on poets being ‘contemporary’. The paragraphs on this are about halfway down the page at the link. Here’s a small section from them:

“I believe poetry is the one thing in our time that cannot be contemporary. How can a poet use the language and follow the ideas and conventions of a generation for whom glory is a pipe dream, when liberty, patria, love for patria, do not exist, when true love is childish folly and all illusions have vanished, when all passion—not only grand, noble, exquisite passion—is dead? How, I ask, can one be party to all this and still be a poet? A poet, a poetry, without illusions, without passion—do these logically go together? Can a poet, as poet, be entirely self-engrossed and private and still be a poet? Yet aren’t these the salient characteristics of our time? So how can a poet, as poet, be distinctively contemporary?

“Remember that the ancients wrote poetry for the masses, or at least for people who mostly were not learned or philosophical. The moderns quite the contrary: today’s poets have only educated, cultured readers, so when it’s said that poets must be contemporary it’s meant that a poet must conform to the language and ideas of this narrow class of people, not the language and ideas of the masses (who know nothing really about poetry present or past and do not engage it in any way). Now, all learned, cultured men these days are inevitably self-engrossed and philosophical, stripped of meaningful illusions and barren of vital passions. Women the same. How can a poet be contemporary in act and spirit, how can he conform to such people, and still be a poet? What is poetic in them, in their language, thoughts, opinions, tastes, affections, customs, habits, deeds? What did or does or can poetry ever have in common with them?”

- July 12, 1823

That may have been written in 1823, but it sounds remarkably contemporary in itself. It isn’t the usual criticism that’s trotted out regularly on how poetry has become too ‘difficult’. Rather, much poetry has become private, passionless and self-engrossed, because fashionable poets (whether 'mainstream' or 'innovative') have stripped themselves and (in particular) their work of illusions, even those that might confer meaning and passion. Any myth worth its salt, whether true or not, invites both commitment and passion.

Leopardi’s question has a distinct resonance for contemporary poetry:

“Now, all learned, cultured men these days are inevitably self-engrossed and philosophical, stripped of meaningful illusions and barren of vital passions. Women the same. How can a poet be contemporary in act and spirit, how can he conform to such people, and still be a poet?”

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

New Poem at Ink, Sweat & Tears

My poem, World Class, has just been published online at the Ink, Sweat and Tears zine, which has a sterling back catalogue. This poem is an ironic comment on postmodern irony, and turns ironically on itself. So if you don’t like irony in poems...

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Top Three

Ever wondered what the three most popular pages on my blog were between May 2010 and now? No? Thought not, but here they are anyway, in reverse order:

3. The Fifteen Most Overrated Contemporary Scottish Writers

2. Forward Prize 2010 Results

1. Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Odi Barbare’ Excerpts

Big drum roll for Geoffrey Hill...

Interview With Tim Dooley

Fantastic interview at Tony Williams's blog with Tim Dooley, who talks about his new book, Imagined Rooms, but manages to say all kinds of interesting things about poetry and the process of writing.

Great to see someone mention James Schuyler, who is often overlooked (compared to O'Hara, Koch and Ashbery) in discussions on the New York School's first wave, but who is one of my favourite poets.

Also, interesting reflections on impurity, untraditional line-breaks, and the tensions/links between private and public spheres.