Tuesday, March 25, 2014

'When Someone Goes Away, Everything That's Been Done Comes Back'

I really love this poem, 'When Someone Goes Away, Everything That's Been Done Comes Back' by Macedonian poet, Nikola Madzirov (translated by Peggy & Graham Reid, Magdalena Horvat and Adam Reed). You can find it and other terrific poems in Remnants of Another Age, published by Bloodaxe, 2013, a dual language edition.

"In the embrace on the corner you will recognize
someone’s going away somewhere. It’s always so.
I live between two truths
like a neon light trembling in
an empty hall..."

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Utter (And Three Other Books)

I have read four books, all completely different from one another and all brilliant in their own way. I will try to write more soon about Jen Hadfield’s Byssus (Picador), Tishani Doshi’s Everything Begins Elsewhere (Bloodaxe) and Gabeba Baderoon’s The Dream in the Next Body (Kwela/Snailpress).

But I have been re-reading Vahni Capildeo’s amazing Utter (Peepal Tree Press), a book with a tremendous range of voices and forms and with a beautifully iconoclastic sense of humour. It flits between mainstream and experimental enough to call the existence of such categories into question. I’m reading it again because once is not enough and twice may also prove insufficient. It is complex but rewards a bit of effort. I will write more coherently in due course but, seeing this is Saturday morning and you may need something to make you smile at the end of a long working week, here is Vahni reading a poem from the collection, ‘The Critic in his Natural Habitat’, which is probably the funniest thing I’ve read in ages. Funny in an uneasy sense, of course, like the best humour tends to be

“You seem to be serious about liking literature. Have you ever considered writing up some of these thoughts of yours? A poet like you could bring a fresh perspective to criticism. People would appreciate that. You needn’t worry: they wouldn’t expect scholarship...”

Thursday, March 20, 2014

We Could Send Letters

What came through my letterbox yesterday? A selection of leaflets advertising carry-out pizzas and other foods, two envelopes containing junk mail, a package with a book inside sent by a publisher for possible review in Magma, and a business letter. I can't remember the last time someone actually wrote a letter to me that wasn't to do with work or was carrying out some form of transaction. I can't remember when I last wrote such a letter either.

A few months ago, I wrote a fairly long article on a book published by Bloodaxe, Airmail: the Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer, an article which was commissioned and published by The Dark Horse magazine, issue 31 (which I would thoroughly recommend, whether my article interests you or not). The letters were written between 1964 and 1990 and they make for fascinating reading. They cover historical upheavals from the Vietnam War to the fall of the Berlin Wall, matters of religion and spirituality, the art of writing, translation, the pretensions and strengths of literary ‘scenes’, and they chart the growth of a close friendship. The two poets translate one another’s work and arrange reading tours. They are also peppered with sharp humour and quotable asides. It’s a brilliant book.

What strikes me about it though, something I didn’t mention in my article, is that such a book will be impossible in years to come. We don’t write letters any more. Of course, people still communicate through email and social networks, but it’s not the same. Anyone trying to chart connections between poets in decades to come by analysing Facebook activity will have a soul-destroying task. FB’s archive system is hopeless and I’m told the walls of the dead are often torn down, which will no doubt come as a relief to most people in that position.

Email isn’t really any better. It’s great for communicating events, meetings, transactions and for organising things quickly. It’s great for business and for any activity that thrives on getting things done fast. Theoretically, an email has as much scope for interesting exchanges as a letter. You write, the recipient writes back. But in practice, the dynamic is very different. I was once told that I ought to reply to emails within two days at the most and that any delay was bad form. This was in connection with work-related email but the sheer speed and immediacy of email communication creates demands and expectations that extend beyond the world of work.

If I was to try to write ‘a letter in an email’ full of news, thoughts, ideas etc, the sort of thing people used to set down into six pages of handwritten A5 paper and pack into an envelope, I am doing two things. I am writing in expectation of a reply. I also sense an awkwardness of imposing that on the recipient. I wouldn't want to make anyone feel that they must reply with speed but at the same time, if a reply doesn’t come within a few days, I’d be wondering what had happened. I’d know too that an email correspondence like that is almost impossible to maintain. It’s too fast, too much of an imposition. An old-fashioned letter to a penfriend, sent second-class or airmail, took days or even weeks to arrive. There was no sense of expecting an immediate reply by return post. You could post several letters in a week or none for a month. You could send off a quick paragraph or a 12-page tome. To keep the correspondence going did entail a degree of commitment, of course, but it was possible, a relatively laid-back activity. I think email is kidding us on that such things are still possible but it is a medium hostile to the kind of exchange Bly and Transtromer maintained over four decades. Can you imagine a book in twenty years time being published with the title, 'Email: the Communications of X and Y' (insert names of interesting poets), a selection of electronic transmissions between them over the last 40 years? I can't...

I was listening to Aztec Camera's classic Postcard single b-side, 'We Could Send Letters' on YouTube and noticed that someone had commented along the lines of "If Roddy wrote this now,would it be 'We Could Send Text Messages'?" The comment is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it made me think all the same. The reality is that such a song is unimaginable today. Texts, emails etc may keep people in touch but they are not letters. I'm not meaning to be hopelessly romantic or nostalgic about this, but I do think we have lost something vital with the demise of postal correspondence and I don’t think current forms of communication are anywhere near replacing that gap. While it’s unlikely that anyone will want to publish correspondence between most writers (no bad thing, I guess!), the ferment of ideas, inspiration and practical activity generated by the Transtromer/Bly letters is enough to convince me that we are missing something important.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Poetic Creativity and Hidden Door 2014

The last year hasn’t exactly been the most productive for me in terms of writing new poems. I have tried and mostly failed, with a few exceptions, but since the StAnza International Poetry Festival my mind has been buzzing. Buzzing too much really. I have begun to wish it would stop and just leave me alone although, no, I don’t really wish that because I know I have to write these pieces if I ever want an approximation of inner peace again! It’s partly the poetry and the creative inspiration from being in St Andrew’s and partly other things I’d rather not go into. I feel that talking too much about the content of a poem before writing it might either stall the poem or affect its fluidity i.e. fix it too early along a defined path. I like my poems to veer off the path, otherwise I could end up telling you what I already think or know, which probably isn't that interesting..

It’s strange how poems come. For the last week I’ve seen one poem form in my head, but only its shape. I could virtually see it on the page, an embryonic form, but there were no words at all (although what's inspired it is clear). That's until I woke up early this morning before 6am and, trying to get back to sleep, suddenly found four complete lines scratching themselves into my brain. I have now written them down on paper. I have modified them slightly from their initial near-dream state, but only for reasons of music and rhythm, not meaning. There a few small gaps as the line-breaks need to fall between specific words, but it’s the beginning of something. Not just a single poem, I’m pretty sure, but a sequence or cycle or series of connected poems.

Annoyingly, it’s not the one I most needed to get a move on with. I am appearing at the Hidden Door Festival on Tuesday 1st April. The festival is at the Edinburgh Vaults and promises to be the event of the year in the capital: art, music of all kinds, photography, poetry, other spoken word, all combining and often collaborating.

I am genuinely excited by the commission – to produce a poem to go along with a live performance by the Viridian Quartet of Steve Reich’s rarely performed work ‘Different Trains’, one of my favourite classical pieces. I have ideas and a few stray lines at the moment. It will be the first poem I have ever written that will require more than one voice to read it, that's a definite component. It’s quite a task to put it all together and the stress of having to produce the goods is building, not necessarily a bad thing.

I remember David Morley saying at a Stanza masterclass a few years ago that he likes to work on more than one poem at a time. If he can’t get one poem to inch forward, another one might do. Sound advice and one way to defeat writer’s block. What I’m hoping is that kicking off the first poem mentioned above will, in some alchemical way, feed into the creative process for the second very different kind of poem. Let’s hope...

Friday, March 14, 2014

Twenty Moments from StAnza 2014

I went to the StAnza International Poetry Festival for the first time in 2006, commuting for a day or two and knowing hardly anyone there, but I enjoyed it and have been back every year since. I was back this year as a participant – reading on the Friday afternoon with U.S. poet and playwright, Dan O’Brien, and being on a panel discussing ideas of ‘home’ on the Saturday morning. I couldn’t get to St Andrews until Friday morning but stayed all the way till Monday morning.

I can’t review everything that happened. Well, I could, but I’d be trying your patience beyond limit. Instead, I want to hold up a few special moments, times of happiness however fleeting, memories I will carry around with me, inspiration, humour, joy, a blend of hope and loss the way memories always are.

1. Alexander Hutchison reads the words of David Jones from ‘In Parenthesis’, part of a ‘past and present’ session in which a living poet talks about a dead one. The poetry is astonishing. Jones surely must be one of the great 20th century poets but, like W.S. Graham, he seems to have been shunted off to the margins of the mainstream canon. I wonder why that is, how it can possibly be.

2. My own reading with Dan O’Brien shoots past. I hadn’t read at StAnza since 2007 and the hour disappears as if it were five minutes. Time is complex, relative and irrelevant.

3. Tanya Shirley and W.N. Herbert discuss the phenomenon, as described in one of Tanya’s poems, of men who get a sexual thrill from fat women sitting on them and squashing them. The exchange happens during the changeover from Tanya’s reading to WNH’s and is hilarious. Both readings are great too, the best double act of the festival.

4. Going back to my bed at around 1.15am, Saturday morning, when there is the possibility of continuing to drink and dance with an assembled company of poets until after 3am. I’m told it turned into an amazing night. So that is a special time I don’t get to experience, but I have my 10am panel the same morning and, for once, good sense wins out over ‘the moment’. Sometimes it has to and there will be other moments. Moments like wakening up and feeling alive the next morning.

5. The panel discussion is fascinating, each panelist bringing a unique perspective to the concept of ‘home’, although none of us are altogether clear on what home is. I had privately considered my own poems, ‘Horizontal’, (“our love remains where we move from// or move to, resistant to our hopeless/ DIY, our attempts to settle and stand”) and ‘Experience’ (“Every/ dose of reality// leaves the tang of absence. The moment/ I leave a place,// I taste it in the next bright thing: each capital/ city a mere simile// for others, each neon facade disguising the dark/ ache within...”). But I don’t mention them. The audience seem to enjoy the discussion and, if not, they at least enjoy the delicious coffee and croissants.

6. A wonderful 4-hour conversation over coffee and lunch in which all kinds of things began to fall into perspective regarding life and writing and poetry. Not on the StAnza programme, this ‘event’, but something of a festival fringe happening! Great festivals are more than events. Many true ‘events’ are beyond the reach of a catalogue.

7. Another inspired pairing: J.O. Morgan and Croatian poet, Tomica Bajsic. I refer you to Helena Nelson’s report, which I can’t better. It is a sensational reading. I really like the idea of pairing Scottish poets with those from other countries. It always makes for something varied and worked brilliantly every time.

8. Botswanan poet, TJ Dema, begins her Saturday night headline reading in the Byre with “Poems are bullshit/ unless they teach/ they serve absolutely no purpose/ unless they reach the audience they are written for/ unless they reach the ears they are meant for”. Whether that’s strictly true or not, I was glad to be among the ears.

9. Catching up with Gerry Cambridge, Sandy Hutchison, Ross Wilson and Marion McCready on the Saturday night in the Byre bar. Old friends, two of whom I see reasonably often, two not often enough. Plenty of laughter, a little gentle ribbing (mainly at my expense), and good local ale. Then we go hunting for another bar open till late and find The Criterion and more poets.

10. Gabeba Baderoon and Sheila Templeton read in the St John’s Undercroft. Both are very good. I am a card-carrying Scottish Calvinist and public displays of emotion (in a man, at least) are highly suspect. But I actually shed a few tears during one of Gabeba’s poems and that, seriously, never happens to me at poetry readings. I can’t say that any more though. I brush away the tears and glance round at poet/dancer Tishani Doshi sitting next to me, wondering if she has noticed, but she is also entranced, lost in the words, elsewhere. Where, of course, everything begins.

11. Yet another brilliant pairing: this time Katherine Kilalea’s subtle, beautifully connected and fractured poems with Brian Holton’s musical translations of Chinese poetry into Scots. Both fabulous readings.

12. Gabeba and I both want to see John Greening’s reading, but we have only 15 minutes to get from one venue to another and we are hungry. We order an egg mayonnaise baguette between us. In my rush I drop part of mine on the pavement. Ridiculously, I pick it up and stuff it into my mouth. We get to the reading on time and it is excellent. I don’t become ill later.

13. Gerry shows me screenshots he has taken of certain Facebook dialogues between rampantly egotistical poets (I will not divulge!) and I can hardly speak from laughing so much. Amazing we can laugh at such sadness, but what else can one do?

14. Nine of us talk and laugh over dinner in a restaurant. On the way, Tomica Bajsic and I discuss possible collaborations. Exciting stuff, as he is a fantastic poet. Something good is happening here. Good food, wine, new friends, what more could anyone ask for?

15. Menna Elfyn and Paul Muldoon – incredible readings in the Byre to finish off with.

16. But not quite finished. King Creosote are playing a live set afterwards. I try to copy Tishani’s dance moves but what she is doing is impossible and she’s not even having to try. I can almost hear my 11-year-old daughter’s voice in my head, “Dad, you can’t dance!”... But I am dancing.

17. Saying goodbye. The band have finished, the dancing is over. The bar aren’t even playing music through the speakers. It is the end. “It is finished!” The silence. The anti-climax. The euphoria and the sorrow.

18. I have an enjoyable breakfast with TJ. She is off to do poetry things in Copenhagen soon. She doesn’t like goodbyes but she is the last poet I see in St Andrew’s 2014. We don’t say goodbye though.

19. The train home. Books in my bag, not as many as I wish I could have bought. I have Dan O’Brien’s ‘War Reporter’, Tishani Doshi’s ‘Everything Begins Elsewhere’ and ‘Fountainville’ and Gabeba Baderoon’s ‘A Hundred Silences’ and ‘The Dream in the Next Body’. Tanya Shirley is going to send me her book, She Who Sleeps with Bones, by post. We carry something of people with us.

20. Not everything has to be shared. This isn't Facebook. Is this really a summary of a poetry festival? Or is it just that over three days and nights within a small blip in the universe, something happens and I go away feeling resolute and with a few changes in the offing. And I have poems fermenting that need to be written, and need to be written better than I think I am capable of. But I need to write them, exactly like that.