Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Future

It's the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one and this song seems so apt for all kinds of reasons. Think of it as inevitable that it's ended up appearing on this blog:

It's been Leonard Cohen's year in many ways and this performance (from 1993) is stunning. For TV, he had to change "crack and anal sex" to "speed and careless sex" (you can tell he's a poet though - crack/anal, speed/careless - not just any words), but they let him sing everything else.

Gambia and the Fultons

Massive media publicity was extended to Vince Acors and Michelle Palmer who were said to have had sex on a Dubai beach, were arrested for indecent behaviour, and were sent home after appealing against a tough sentence. This couple had got drunk and one thing led to another. No doubt the hardliners wanted to make an example of them.

However, in the case of David and Fiona Fulton in the Gambia, publicity has been much lower key. The reason is no doubt because they did not have sex on a beach. They have been accused of ‘sedition’, which in this case means they wrote emails criticizing the Gambian government in some way. Also, they are ‘missionaries’, not necessarily in a traditional sense. Mr Fulton is a chaplain in the Gambian army. Mrs Fulton visits the terminally ill. Not sexy then, as far as the British press is concerned.

Their ‘crime’ of sending these emails (as yet, I have seen no information on what may have been in them. People who have received emails from them have testified only to some mild sarcasm. Transparency is not exactly something the Gambian junta have embraced) has resulted in a sentence of one year (one year!) in prison, with hard labour. Exactly what ‘hard labour’ means is unclear, but this sentence is ridiculous. Originally, the Fultons pleaded not guilty but changed their plea to guilty, presumably advised that, as they had little chance of a successful outcome, a guilty plea might have earned them a more lenient sentence.

All this has a background. The Gambian Government, which came to power following a coup, has cracked down on any hint of perceived dissent in the last few years, particularly following an unsuccessful coup attempt in 2006. A recent Amnesty International Report says that:

“the government’s disrespect for the rule of law and the judiciary makes the fight against impunity an uphill battle in Gambia. Lawyers are reluctant to take on human rights cases for fear of reprisals and families of victims are afraid to speak out. The media, for the most part, censors itself in the face of arrests, fines, threats and physical attacks on those accused of criticizing the government. All public protests have ceased.

“Fear now reigns in Gambia where any person considered to be a perceived enemy of the government is at risk of being arrested, tortured and even killed.”

The Fultons have 20 days in which to lodge an appeal. I’ve been trying to work out what to do, whom to send letters to etc, but I can’t find such a campaign, which seems strange. I guess polite letters to the Gambian President and the Gambian embassy wouldn’t go far wrong, but surely a coordinated campaign would go further than independent letters. Perhaps this will emerge over the next few days.

Edit: Well, here's what we can do. At the website of the Fultons' church, a Pentecostal Church in Bolton, there are email addresses to write to and guidelines on how best to do it, as well as background information. If you're not religious, ignore the call to prayer etc. This is a human rights issue, not a specifically religious matter.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Apocalypse in Poetry

My poem, Preparations for the Final Hours, is now up at qarrtsiluni, part of the ‘Journaling the Apocalypse’ issue – plenty worth reading in there.

You can read the poem and also hear me read it if you’re so inclined.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

You may be choosing to celebrate the traditional way, as I will be, at the midnight church service, followed by my homemade mulled wine and mince pies. On the other hand you might also choose to listen to an obscure classic from the John Peel show from the 1980s, a song I loved at the time and hadn’t heard in a couple of decades until today.

Have a great Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Zimbabwe Crisis

George Szirtes has a published a poem by John Eppel (with accompanying article by Mary Ndlovu), from Zimbabwe. It’s heartbreaking. I guess we can choose our own response to the crisis there – UNICEF, Christian Aid, and various organisations are taking donations to counter the cholera epidemic. But any chance of real change will only come with a change of leadership. The international community, especially South Africa, needs to act urgently.

Read This! Online

If you’re fed up preparing for Christmas and want a distraction, and if the possibilities for distraction include reading poems, you might consider checking out Read This! online. My poem, ‘Bananas’, is fourth down. Good also to see a poem there from fine young Indian writer, Aditi Machado.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Best Of 2008

Here’s my end of year list. Obviously, “best” means “best of what I’ve read” and there are millions of books I haven’t read. The lists under each heading are in alphabetical order. So for what it’s worth…

Best poetry collection published in 2008
Event – Judith Bishop
Me and the Dead – Katy Evans-Bush
Nigh-No-Place – Jen Hadfield
Zeppelins – Chris McCabe
Troy Town – Matt Merritt

Best poetry collection published in some other year
Stretch of Closures – Claire Crowther
Report from the Besieged City – Zbigniew Herbert
Yeah Yeah Yeah – Roddy Lumsden
Paradise Lost – John Milton
A Book of Lives – Edwin Morgan

Best Collected/Selected
Selected Poems (1977) – Zbigniew Herbert
Selected Poems – Michael Hofmann
Scales Dog – Alexander Hutchison
Without End – Adam Ragajewski
Collected Poems – James Schuyler

Best poem I've written this year

Probably ‘Derrida’, part 1 of a two-part poem called ‘Married Life in the Nineties’. Not that there’s been any great enthusiasm from magazine editors to publish it(!), but it will appear in my forthcoming collection.

Best poetry magazines
I’ve seen one issue each of Succour and Mimesis and both were very good.
The Dark Horse’s articles are of the highest quality.

Best poetry webzines
Horizon Review

Best poetry events
Every month at the Great Grog (As organiser, I wouldn’t want to single anyone out).
August Kleinzahler at the StAnza International Poetry Festival.
Frances Leviston and Ian McDonough at the Shore Poets in November.

Best non-poetry books
Black Sea – Neal Ascherson
Falling Man – Don DeLillo
Street Without a Name – Kapka Kassabova

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Like Sheep, But With A Shepherd

On a discussion board the other day, a well known small publisher related how, at a meeting of a major book publisher, the board categorised members of the public as different kinds of sheep.

It sounds rather contemptuous, but it's as well knowing how they think. You can imagine the categories – those who’ll come immediately and rush to the front, those who follow but keep veering off the path, those too stupid to follow who require extra attention, those who seem different but aren’t really, those who need to be chopped into cutlets… well, maybe not.

Is everyone a sheep? Is it possible to escape sheepdom? I fear that might not be an option. They will have a category to fit everyone somewhere.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Dangers In Reading Contemporary Poetry

Commenting on a recent post on this blog, ABJ wrote:

“…maybe it's easier to write original stuff if you're not surrounded by a zillion other poems by new writers and trying to conform to whatever 'craft' is being taught on creative writing courses in order to squeeze you into the Market Place? There's something rather utilitarian about that side of it (at its worst, I mean).”

I’m particularly interested in the first statement, the idea that originality is threatened when writers excessively read their contemporaries. More than that, Andy is suggesting that, in order to conform to the demands of the publishing industry, poets will use their contemporaries as a means to an end – they will write the kind of stuff that seems to be getting published.

Two things: as I understand him, Andy isn’t saying we shouldn’t read contemporary poetry at all. Any poet who advocates a complete boycott of new poetry is more or less telling you not to read his own work! Obviously, contemporary poets need a readership, and that readership will include other poets. But perhaps writers should be more choosy about what they read i.e. only read new collections which seem as if they might inform an existing direction a writer has chosen, independent of the marketplace, a direction informed by a deep, dark space within the writer’s soul (whether you believe in a ‘soul’ or not) and by great poets of the past.

Andy’s comments are directed only at poems by ‘new writers’. Originality never comes from ignorance, but takes off from where past originality paused. As Michael Schmidt so beautifully put it in his 2006 StAnza lecture:

“What we are includes, and depends upon, what we have been; what we have been can be changed not in pattern but in meaning by what we become. Life by the chronological clock versus life by values. Not to know what we are made of is not to know who we are, is possibly to fall victim to what we are made of. The poet who refuses to read other poetry for fear of being influenced has been influenced and will write without knowing how derivative the work is, for the ear is not innocent and memory is a faulty filter.”

However, I know some writers who feel that reading their contemporaries is vital. They feel that writing a poem is, in part, a conversation with other poems, and that includes other new poems. They also feel that getting a sense of what’s being published will indicate to them the kind of material readers want. They write for a perceived audience, not just for themselves.

But perhaps a poet has to hope for an audience, in vain if need be, rather than write for preconceptions – that’s if they want to remain true to whatever spark caused them to write in the first place. Certainly, what marked out the great writers discussed by Michael Hamburger in The Truth of Poetry was their singularity of vision. None of them wrote for a marketplace (although most wanted to build a readership, but on their own terms). In some cases, the marketplace eventually caught up with them (and in other cases has still do so). But Eliot, Pessoa, Baudelaire, Stevens etc – what they did is beyond the reach of most mortals! Isn’t there a sense that most writers have to be content with far lesser achievements? Or is that just defeatist talk?

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Original Hallelujah...

...or, at least, a (very good) performance of part of it by Leonard Cohen.

We'll return to poetry tomorrow, I promise. Although there is a fair bit of poetry in these lyrics.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

X Factor 2008 - The Winner Is...

Alexandra! And very well deserved too.

I don't know how she got through her reprise of Hallelujah. She was so emotional and could hardly speak. Her vocals disappeared at the end of verse 1, but she got it back and held it together - more or less. It was very moving to watch.

That open emotion is great in so many ways, but I get the feeling that she is a very nice and also a very vulnerable young woman. I hope people look after her well. She demonstrated tonight that she has the ability to move an audience deeply with her voice. That's what marked her out from the other contestants throughout the series, but especially in the final.

I'm honestly still reeling from her first performance of Hallelujah - it was just staggering. I am a big Leonard Cohen fan. He is one of my favourite songwriter/performers and I think Alexandra did him proud tonight.

And here it is:

I was a bit concerned that it might not sound so good this morning, after all the excitement had died down, but no, it's really good stuff.

And for good measure, here's her performance with Beyoncé:

X Factor Final 2008 - As It Happens

OK, I'll keep updating my thoughts on the Final, as it happens, during commercial breaks. It's just about to start. I'll go for Alexandra to win - she's not brilliant but she's easily the best. I've a feeling JLS might win, which would be unfortunate, as they are very ordinary. Eoghan is hopeless but a combination of the granny vote and the 'High School Musical' vote might hand it to him - that would be a travesty.

**That's the first round over - three Christmas songs. Eoghan sleepwalked his way through 'I Wish it Could Be Christmas Everyday'. JLS sang a fairly tight version of 'Last Christmas'. Alexandra hit the emotional centre with 'Silent Night'. On those performances, Alexandra is just ahead of JLS with Eoghan a poor third. All that talk of fame, adulation and being superstars is worrying though - is that the main reason they want to win? Or does it mean much more than that to them?

**Second round: duets - Eoghan sang with Boyzone and suffered by comparison. Unfortunately Boyzone, despite being a typical boyband, can actually sing. JLS sang with Westlife and, to my ear, sang better than their famous counterparts. Golden rule: in the duets round, alaways pick a band you can outshine. If Alexandra is about to sing with Beyoncé, she's going to have to be very good... Well, she was good, but Beyoncé sang much too well! She did Alexandra no favours there, I'm afraid - unless people vote for someone because they like the co-star. Maybe. Alexandra got very, very emotional, which might pick up votes. Having said all this, she sang very well. However, Beyoncé was something else - she certainly has the 'X Factor'! I still think Alexandra ought to be miles ahead.

**Third round: personal choice - Eoghan sang a High School Musical song. Shrewd choice, of course, and will pick up votes. But he doesn't deserve to. His voice has no energy or passion, which is why they have to fill the stage with dancers every time he sings. Surely Eoghan must go. JLS sang a boyband song (can't even remember which one - Take That?). It was OK. Tight, but ordinary. Alexandra sang a ballad and again cranked up the emotion to just the right degree.

**Really, Alexandra is way out in front. She won every round. Eoghan flopped every round. JLS seemed OK. I predict a final two of Alexandra and JLS. It goes without saying that Alexandra will do a much better version of Hallelujah than JLS. So a foregone conclusion? Not really. After all, the UK public vote the winner. It could go any way. There's an hour's intermission and then we're back.

**What happened to the adverts?! Anyway, a lot has happened. Eoghan got voted out and was gracious in defeat, to his credit. Then both JLS and Alexandra performed Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. In my opinion, to sing that song successfully, you need either Cohen's gravitas or Jeff Buckley's passion. JLS's vocal performance was adequate, but they lacked both those qualities. They were a boyband trying to sing an adult song. I thought Alexandra would sing this well but, I have to admit, she way surpassed my expectations. It was stunning! Really astonishing version. Gravitas and passion in abundance. She sang it as if she was inhabiting the song. She must win after that. If she doesn't, there's something seriously wrong.

**About five minutes from the announcement of the winner now. Can you feel the tension? Before the show began, I wanted Alexandra to win. After her performance of Hallelujah, I need her to win.

**And she did win. It was a storming finish too. My commentary on this year’s X Factor continues and ends in a new post (including two of Alexandra's best performances). It’s been fun.

Word of Mouth Café - December 2008

I went yesterday evening to Edinburgh’s Word of Mouth Café in Albert Street. It’s an open-mic event for music and poetry, and I didn’t know what to expect. The first thing to say is that it’s a great place, intimate and atmospheric. The MC, Mira, seemed really nice, as did most people in the audience. Charlotte Runcie was there and told me that the home-baking was terrific.

Unfortunately, the event was marred (but not ruined, as I’ll explain) by two dimwits who can go by the names of 'Tom Waits Wanabee' (TWW) and 'Drunk Moron' (DM). TWW was on first with a couple of musicians. He wore a hat, just like Tom Waits, and sometimes he attempted to reproduce a throaty growl, but to little effect. The songs were unadventurous 12-bar-blues of a kind you might find in any pub populated by six paralytic, leather-jacketed, fifty-something, lonely men after eleven at night on any weekend. It was like Status Quo might have sounded before they learned to sing or play their instruments.

I was on next. TWW and DM obviously didn’t appreciate the switch to poetry and decided to disrupt my reading by shouting out stuff and talking loudly while I read. The audience would say, “Shhhhh! Shut up!” which only seemed to encourage them. To be honest, I’m more than a little annoyed at myself for allowing it to rattle me and I didn’t read very well although, in my defence, it wasn’t easy. I had planned to read two poems, but read a third just to piss them off – that probably wasn’t a good idea either… My set-list (although I might as well have been reading a telephone directory) was:

1. Hangover Hotel
2. The Deconstruction Industry
3. Taxi

After my set, Mira asked them to stay quiet during performances. TWW (or perhaps DM) shouted at her that she was behaving like a schoolteacher. Actually, that’s the first sensible thing he said all night, likening himself, I guess, to an eight-year-old spoiled child.

The thing was, there were some terrific acts to come. A band called All at Sea were brilliant. I even bought their CD. I picked up some Smiths influences, a touch of Pulp – great songwriting. An un-named duo comprising of a bass-player and a woman singer – something between Ella Fitzgerald and Mary Margaret O’Hara – were also superb.

Drunk Moron started getting annoyed at this guy who refused to shake his hand, not unreasonably protesting, “I’m not your friend!” DM became verbally abusive. Luckily, before Charlotte went on, Mira helpfully ejected DM, explaining that this was one advantage of being a woman. She could eject drunk and disorderly men from the premises without it seeming like an act of aggression. Very true. Charlotte read some excellent poems and read them very well.

So I’d recommend this place as a café and as a venue. It was just unfortunate that TWW and DM were around. TWW sat down at my table and started asking those present whether, if they were trapped in a room with a red-hot floor, they would step on their daughter to save themselves. What insight he had into this moral dilemma was never made clear. When given answers, mainly from women (e.g. “No, that’s horrible”) he tried to intimidate them by saying, “What do you mean, “horrible”? That’s no answer. Give me a proper answer!” – that “Are you talking to me or chewing a brick?” routine, in which any answer you give is going to be the wrong one. One woman refused to say yes or no, and he became angry. I got angry too and decided it was time to have a go at him:

TWW: Give me an answer. You can’t refuse to answer!
Me: Why should she answer? Why should you control this conversation and tell people what they can and can’t do? They can do anything they want.
TWW: (for the first time, taken aback, and discomforted – yeah, triumph at last!) eh…um…by the way, your poetry is really bad.
Me: Not that you listened to any of it! In any case, your music was total crap. It’s the most boring stuff I’ve heard in ages.
Nearby Woman: Yes, it’s like you were trying to be Tom Waits and couldn’t get anywhere near (or words to that effect).

The conversation swiftly turned to politics and TWW asked people to name their favourite politician. No one had a ready answer for that one. Then someone said ‘Nelson Mandela’. TWW replied, “No. no. I’ll tell you who my favourite politician is – Robert Mugabe!”

It took a few seconds for everyone to register that TWW was, in fact, being absolutely serious. It wasn’t irony or a joke. He really believed Robert Mugabe was a good guy. Coming from TWW, that makes prefect sense. Of course, he would admire Robert Mugabe.

I had to leave before Anita Govan and Fiona Lindsey performed their poetry sets – a shame, as I like Fiona and Anita, but I had to get home. I’ll be back to the Word of Mouth though. I want to stress that, despite how this article might sound, it is a great place with some really interesting poetry and music going on. Definitely a venue well worth supporting. Thanks to Mira and everyone else for their kind comments on my set (!) and for the delicious mince pie.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Who Will Win The X-Factor 2008?

Tomorrow is the X-Factor final. Who will win? I think it’s between JLS and Alexandra.

(***See my live commentary on the X-Factor Final here, as it happens.***)

I don’t much like JLS. They are a tedious singing group and nothing stands out with them. Their main singer has a decent voice but, beyond that, they make me shrug. See for yourselves:

Then there’s Alexandra, by miles the best singer in the competition. However, what she does isn’t really all that interesting. She is too often risk-free. When she lets herself go, she can turn it up a notch, but she doesn't always do that. As you can also see:

The third contestant is Eoghan. I can’t bring myself to actually include one of his videos on this blog, but here’s a link to one if you’re feeling particularly masochistic. He might win with the ‘granny vote’, I suppose. That must be a significant vote on this show.

I reckon that the X-Factor struck gold with Leona Lewis a couple of years ago, but it's never got anyone as good as her before or since. The show has run into a cul-de-sac, the way anything does when it peaks too early. No rearrangement of judges or presenters is going to do the trick. Maybe they need a new approach – an indie X-Factor or singer-songwriter X-Factor. A poetry X-Factor?? Maybe then they’d find something to really wake me up again.

My vote would be with Alexandra if I could be bothered picking up the phone. The usual annual running live commentary will take place on this blog tomorrow evening…

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Scottish Poetry Pamphlet Party and Fair 2008

Yesterday evening, I went to Edinburgh’s annual Poetry Pamphlet Party and Fair. It’s now in its seventh year and has grown a great deal in that time. You could browse pamphlets, most self-published (many of the established pamphlet publishers were absent this year), and buy whatever appealed to you. Every so often, there was a series of readers, each reading one poem.

It’s a good event for hanging around and chatting, or ‘networking’ as someone put it to me. There’s free wine, crisps and mince pies. I met Hugh McMillan in person for the first time. I’m very impressed by the look of his new pamphlet of poems and etchings (the etchings are by Tom Bryant). However, I have stopped buying poetry books until January at least. Maybe then…

Tony Lawrence gave me a copy of his pamphlet, Quantum Gravitas: A New Theory of Poetry. It’s a mathematical approach, an attempt to capture the essence of poetry by various formulae e.g. Δp = W – ΣPi where W represents a whole, Pi a part, p represents poetry, and Δ and Σ signify ‘change in the amount of’ and ‘sum of’ respectively. In other words, the poetic content of a poem can be defined as the amount by which the whole exceeds the sum of its parts – and this is just from the first of twelve pages. I’m not all that sure how serious Tony is, but going to the event was worth it for getting this alone.

Some decent poems were read. Nothing really blew me away from writers whose work I hadn’t been familiar with before, but maybe that’s only to be expected. If there are any brilliant unknown geniuses out there, they are still hiding in their garrets. However, some fairly new poets got the chance to read one of their poems in public and the Fair did afford an opportunity for discovering some diverse material.

I’ve just found Colin Will’s take on the Pamphlet Fair. Colin is positive about the event, but asks why there so many poets and publishers there and so few members of the general public. Also why so few young people – both good questions!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Great Poets of the 20th Century

In his article in Magma, The New Imagination, Lauire Smith argues that Britain produced no great 20th century poets. He claims seven American and Irish poets as “indisputably” great, and suggests several UK poets who come close.

I think all his lists are very open to dispute. I’ve written about it at the Magma blog. If you’ve any comments to make, please get stuck in there. I’m going to write another piece addressing some of the main issues in Laurie Smith’s article. It’s a well written and provocative essay, I think, but that doesn’t mean I agree with him (although I do agree with some of it).

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


I’ve spent the last few days in the Sick Kids’ Hospital. Before anyone gets concerned, my daughter is OK. On Sunday evening she got a high temperature and was very sick. It was the cold hands and feet and the beginnings of a rash that was most concerning for us and the hospital agreed, sending an ambulance to take her to hospital.

The doctors did tests and ruled out meningitis, to our relief, but wanted to keep her in anyway as she was close to clinical dehydration and nothing was staying down. They put her on a drip to keep her hydrated. I stayed with her through the night and my wife stayed last night. She seemed a bit better yesterday evening and hadn’t been sick since Monday morning. Once she starts to eat, I think the hospital will allow us to take her home. The plan was for her to have a slice of toast this morning. I’m just going in there. I’ll find out the current situation, but I’ve a feeling we’ll all be back home by the afternoon.

***Update*** We're all home now and my daughter is much better. I noticed the Daily Mail's front page headline today was about how crap the Scottish National Health Service is - but it seemed pretty impressive to me over the last few days.

Friday, December 05, 2008

HappenStance Christmas Party, Launch and Blog

Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll be at the HappenStance Christmas Party and Launch of new pamphlets by Paula Jennings, Frances Corkey Thompson and Anne Caldwell. It’s at 3pm-5pm at the Mai Thai Bar restaurant in Crichton’s Close (off the Canongate), Edinburgh. I’ve read Paula’s book and thought it was very good indeed. I haven’t read the other two yet.

HappenStance now has a blog. In fact it’s almost more like an anti-blog. I don’t mean it’s against blogs or anything like that. More, it’s an anti-blog in the same way as people write sestinas which are really anti-sestinas – they use the form to write a good poem which is, in part, a comment on the form’s limitations.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Editing Magma

Jacqueline Saphra talks about the experience of helping to edit Magma, a magazine that gets thousands of submissions for every issue, on top of a job, a family, preparing her own collection, and various other literary commitments.

Would she do it again? There’s only one answer to that.

Fleet Foxes

My choice for Song of the Year, ‘He Doesn’t Know Why,’ by Fleet Foxes. I guess it’s possible that someone might release a better song before the end of 2008, but I don’t think so. This is brilliant stuff. Who have these guys been listening to? Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys? Love? Simon & Garfunkel? Among contemporaries, maybe Belle & Sebastian? Anglican choirs singing Evensong?

The Fleet Foxes’ eponymous album is also one of the best releases of 2008.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The State Of Scottish Poetry 1 - The New Generation?

It’s about 15 years since a Scottish poet won an Eric Gregory Award (not including Frances Leviston who left Scotland at the age of 9) – awards made to poets under 30 who show particular promise. Before anyone assumes this is due to southern prejudice, Scottish poets won the award regularly in the years beforehand. The question of why so few young poets of talent have emerged in the past while shouldn’t be talked away. I’m told by one Scottish-based publisher that most of the strongest submissions are coming from outside Scotland. Major UK publishers seem to be queuing up to publish collection debuts by poets under 30 (some, I think, have rushed into it a few years too early, but that’s another matter), but none of the poets are Scottish. Major Scottish publisher, Polygon, has started to publish poetry again. Its first book was by Sam Meekings, a young English poet. Its second will be by an English woman, albeit one currently based in Scotland.

It could be that these things come in waves and that the Gregory Award recipients from the seventies, eighties and early nineties represented a peculiarly talented generation of Scottish poets who fed off one another. A few young women in their late teens and twenties are currently emerging who show promise and it’s vital that such promise is nurtured. Where the young Scottish male poets are is another matter! Perhaps it’s also worth asking where a new generation of poetry readers is likely to come from.

The emergence in Glasgow in the last couple of years of movements such as St Mungo’s Mirrorball and Vital Synz (their website seems to have disappeared), who offer mentorships and high-level workshops with skilled poets and editors, as well as programmes of live readings, might eventually lead to new, young poets breaking through. I don’t see anything on the same level happening in any other city or town. A few years ago, almost nothing was happening in Glasgow, but it’s now at the centre of things. Edinburgh’s complacency may well be its downfall.

This is the first post in an occasional series. I’ll take a look at
other aspects of the Scottish poetry scene every so often over the next few months.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Should Frances Leviston Visit Scandinavia? - Shore Poets Report

As I had hoped, I did make it to the Shore Poets last night. I braved the sub-zero chill to make the trip into town and was glad I did.

I had come straight from work and, unfortunately, I missed the first poet, Susan Tichy. I was told many of her poems were about Vietnam. Years after the war, she and her partner (a Vietnam veteran) had visited places where he had fought. The poems were political without any attempt to leaven the politics by symbolism or metaphor the way so many poets do. She also read poems of grief and loss. The word that kept recurring, as people described her reading, was “sombre,” but most also found it interesting.

Next up was Ian McDonough. He was on terrific form – just the right mix of humour, irony, and serious content. His poems on the unpromising subject of physics and those from his latest collection, The Vanishing Hitchhiker, were excellent. I meant to pick up a copy but forgot. However, I will do so at the earliest opportunity. I’ve heard Ian read several times and he’s always good, but this was the best ever.

Frances Leviston kept up the standard. She read mainly from Public Dream. Her chat between-poems worked well and she seemed very much more relaxed than when I’d seen her about 18 months before at the StAnza Festival. A new poem – about her aunt (I think) who kept countless jars of unused, home-made damson jam in her basement – contained an image of “the frozen heads of millionaires” (I can’t be sure I’ve quoted that correctly) and these moments, when poems went beyond where they seemed to be going, showed me why she’s regarded as such a talent.

Before her final poem, Scandinavia, she recounted a story of reading the poem, which imagines what Scandinavia might be like. Afterwards a Norwegian woman had approached her, telling her she should come and visit her in Norway. Frances felt she could never now visit Scandinavia or it would spoil the poem. But I don’t know. Should she go or not? It’s a bit like those tabloid or online opinion polls where you get asked questions like, ‘Should Charles marry Diana?’ or ‘Did Madonna deserve Guy Ritchie?’ – you’re asked to comment on things you have no real knowledge of at all. I think she should go – she might even get a ‘Scandinavia II’ poem out of it (maybe even a III and IV – who knows?) to complement her current one.

So, probably the best Shore Poets reading of 2008.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Shore Poets, November 2008

Tonight, I hope to be at the Shore Poets, from 7.45pm at the Canons Gait pub in the Canongate, Edinburgh. I know I’m going to be late due to a work commitment, although how late is still unclear. The line-up looks really good:

Frances Leviston
Ian McDonough
Susan Tichy (all the way from southern Colorado)

with music from ‘The Kitchen Stools’. I’ll be there, although never by 7.45pm.

X-Factor 2008: There Goes Ruth Lorenzo

I have little to say about the X-Factor last night, mainly because I missed the live show. I had an event I needed to be at. However, I was back in time for the results. My wife told me that Alexandra had been by far the best – yet again – and that JLS had performed better than usual. I guessed that Ruth Lorenzo was doomed and so it proved.

Ruth sang very well in her final song, Always, after being ejected, perhaps enough to make the judges wonder whether the public might have done them a favour and booted out the passengers, Eoghan or JLS, instead. She made the error of saying what they all say, “This is not the end for me. It’s just the beginning.” Hmmmm, I think it’s more probably the end, as it has been for so many.

Just to add, I saw the much-hyped Britney Spears appearance on the results show. She mimed her new single, which, incidentally, is crap. So how come Britney, the supposed 'expert', mimes, and the X-Factor wannabees have to sing her songs live?! Clearly, she is unable to pull it off, but isn't it disturbing that the crowd gave her a huge cheer anyway?

This year is surely a two-horse race between Alexandra and Diana. I hope for Alexandra because I find Diana positively annoying.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Christmas Poetry

I imagine that poets prefer to receive anything other than a poetry collection for Christmas, if only to assure themselves that life exists outside the small thin volumes on their shelves. Or perhaps just because people making such a gift invariably choose badly. Or because, in the case of some poets, they don't read or even like poetry (apart from their own of course, which they badly want other people to read and buy).

On the other hand, many people who enjoy poetry aren't quite sure of what to buy. They don't know many of the names and don't want to risk alienating friends by buying them poetry books they might hate.

However, it’s possible to think about this in another way. You could buy yourself or a friend a poetry collection for Christmas, partly as a gift to a small, hard-working publisher. That way, you (or a friend) receive an enjoyable book and also help to keep a poetry press in business through the credit crunch. Everyone wins.

If you’re not sure about what to buy, I would brazenly suggest a book from Salt. Salt is publishing my collection (and Andrew Philip’s) on 1st March next year. However, there are many sound choices at their website at the moment. Even better, if you join the Salt Fanclub Facebook page, you get a discount totalling 33% off every book from now until Christmas Day. There's a UK and USA store for buying online.

If you can’t decide, here’s a list of my top 5 Salt poetry collections, in alphabetical order. You can read about each of them and a sample poem at the links. Of course, there are hundreds of books at the site which you might prefer to these ones:

Me and the Dead – Katy Evans-Bush
Scales Dog – Alexander Hutchison
Cossacks and Bandits – Katia Kapovich
The Harbour Beyond the Movie – Luke Kennard
Travelator – Steven Waling

I’m going to pick up Chris McCabe’s Zeppelins and possibly Andrew Duncan’s Origins of the Underground. Is the latter book as good a read as it sounds? Anyone read it?

Monday, November 24, 2008

X Factor 2008 - Hallelujah

I’ve managed to avoid mentioning The X Factor this year so far but now that we’re getting near the final, I thought I’d say a few words. Alexandra is the best by far, although nowhere near Leona two years ago – that about sums up this year’s series.

It’s reported that the other contestants are unhappy because the song chosen for the winner’s single release will be Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. They’re not unhappy with this song but because one contestant, Diana Vickers (people keep saying she is original – to me she sounds like Dolores from the Cranberries), sang it at bootcamp to qualify for the show.

On the evidence of that performance, Alexandra and the rest have nothing to be worried about. Horrible!

Compare it to this rendering by Leonard himself - altogether more believable. Add in this one by K.D. Lang, a more understated Damien Rice, and several more versions from a blog post I made last year (not all the links there still work, but you can find the song by all those people at YouTube), and you can see how Diana suffers in comparison (at least, I hope you can).

The X-Factor, the very fact that Diana is taken seriously as a ‘great talent’, really makes a mockery of all that’s vital in music. The show still works as entertainment, of course.

Poetry and Good Looks

If you’re a poet, does it also help to be fantastically good-looking?

Clearly, it doesn’t count so much as in the rock, television or movie industry where so much depends on looks. The best poets vary greatly in their aesthetic appeal. People buy their books for their words and don’t care what the poets look like.

Or is that entirely true? In these days of live literature, YouTube, poetry on DVD, and increasing pressure to form an image around one’s work to provide a selling-point, would it help if you looked like the young Brad Pitt or Michelle Pfeiffer (photo)? Do people pick up books and pay more attention to them if the author photo appeals to them?

Saturday, November 22, 2008


It always seems strange to me when people talk of how poetry has (supposedly) alienated vast numbers of people and that poets really ought to create work that is more 'accessible'. Did the Talking Heads worry about accessibility? They still sound very strange to me - brilliantly strange - even 28 years later - and look at the applause they get from that big crowd!

Thursday, November 20, 2008


I have a couple of poems in the new issue, number 8, of print magazine, Succour. One of them is a sestina. I’ve heard so many people tell me that they have never read a good sestina, so I plug away at the form, no doubt out of sheer bloody-mindedness. I’ve enjoyed the poems I’ve read so far from the issue – highly eclectic. It includes another sestina, by Miriam Gamble, which seemed good on first read. The issue's theme is 'icons' and it's interesting to see how different writers have dealt with it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Would You Cross With This Man?

I was walking home yesterday afternoon and saw something strange – a lollipop man. Nothing strange about that in itself, but a) he was staffing a pedestrian crossing and allowed people to cross when there was a green man i.e. when people crossed in any case, and b) he was listening to music through earphones – surely that can’t be allowed!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thought for the Day

The third annual HappenStance Story pamphlet arrived today. It’s free to HappenStance subscribers (do consider subscribing or buying a HappenStance publication – mine has sold out, so I say this without any personal hope of gain) and, as ever, looks like highly engaging stuff. The final page contrasts the desire to write poetry and the desire to be a poet. The first of those is a laudable ambition, although it takes plenty of work and reading (and perhaps a degree of luck) for anything memorable to emerge. As Helena Nelson puts it, with just a touch of ironic humour:

“Sometimes, I want to ask the people who don’t write poetry, what’s wrong. Everyone’s doing it these days, it seems. Why aren’t they?”

But not everyone is reading poetry, developing knowledge of poetry, or buying poetry. Just like those who pin all their hopes on winning the X Factor or American Idol, there’s a sense that being a poet, being someone, is more important than poetry itself. The article finishes on a sobering question – whether it would be preferable to have your name and poetic achievement remembered by posterity, or to have lines you’ve written recalled with appreciation, without recollection of who wrote them.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


In my last post, I mentioned not writing a poem for around three months. In the last week, I’ve written seven poems, partly as a result of PFFA’s new Seven Seven forum. It was hard going to begin with, but I got into the swing of things as the week wore on.

Here’s the last of the seven.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

'Writer's Block'

I’ve heard several poets talk about having writer’s block after they had finished their first collection. Also, many novelists go through the same thing after completing their first novel. Where do they go after putting their heart and soul into a debut book?

I don’t believe in writer’s block exactly. It’s always possible to write something, to churn out a poem. But, after I finished the manuscript that was then accepted by Salt, I didn’t or, more accurately, couldn’t write a poem for about three months. I’ve been trying to work out why. It could be that:

a) the ideas I was having seemed like similar ideas to those I’d been working with on the manuscript – not much point in such repetition
b) lines that came into my head didn’t seem any good. In fact, they weren’t any good
c) I had nothing to say. This felt true. But how come?
d) I could have churned out poems. In fact I did churn out one, but I don’t count it as a poem as it didn’t amount to any more than an exercise

However, in the last week or so, I’ve been writing poems again, and have some interesting drafts (interesting to me, at any rate), poems I feel might be the starting-point for a second collection. They have similarities to some poems in the first collection (it’s still me writing them, of course, so that’s to be expected), but there’s progression too (I think).

Maybe time off between collections in a good thing. Three months isn’t so long, although it was beginning worry me and anxiety in itself can be a block to writing creatively.

However, I know of one writer who couldn’t write a poem for about nine years, but is now writing well and fluently again. Perhaps a break from writing, periodically, is a positive thing, even if it doesn’t always feel like it at the time?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Reports on Two Live Literature Events

First of all, I had a very good evening at the Linlithgow Book Festival last Saturday (4th November). You can read a fuller account of the festival at Tonguefire.

I began by hearing crime fiction writer, Alex Gray. She read a little from her new book, but talked for most of the session about how she writes, her research, and so on, which was very interesting. I don’t often have the time to read crime fiction, but it’s a genre I enjoy. Then there was the open mic, which was, quite honestly, one of the best open mics I’ve ever attended – some very good poems and prose. Afterwards, a few of us ended up in a Linlithgow bar. We sat at the table next to the band who treated us to Wild Mountain Thyme, The Jeely Piece Song etc at a volume just sufficient to guarantee that none of us could make out what anyone else was saying. Anyway, it was a very enjoyable evening from what appeared to be a highly successful festival.

Secondly, I can report that the readings (Patricia Ace, James W Wood, Colin Will, and AB Jackson) at the Great Grog yesterday evening were very good. I think it’s highly unlikely that anyone will ever forget being at this one! I was pleased that those attending their first ever live poetry event (and there were a few in that category) seemed really to like it. I didn’t get home until close on 2am, so stimulating was the post-gig discussion at The Standing Order, and I was up at 7am. Quite a way to end the 2008 Great Grog poetry season! A small break now until February when we’re back with a bang (Alan Gay, Jane McKie, Andrew Shields, and Tim Turnbull).

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Final November Great Grog Poetry Taster

Over the last few weeks, I’ve posted bios and poems from Colin Will, AB Jackson and Patricia Ace to the Poetry at the Great Grog site and, earlier today, I posted a bio from James W. Wood along with a small section of his long poem, Song of Scotland. If you want to read the whole poem (it’s five pages long), you’ll have to get hold of the new issue (vol 98:3) of Poetry Review – a disappointing issue generally, I thought, but James’s poem is worth reading.

I’m looking forward to Sunday evening (9th September from 8pm at the Great Grog Bar, 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh). Should be good.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

New Magma Website and Blog

The new Magma website has been launched. You may know that Magma is one of the best literary magazines in the UK, one of the few magazines that’s worth subscribing to. It publishes terrific poetry alongside stimulating prose pieces, and is (genuinely) always open to talented unknown writers as well as famous ones (In the interests of transparency, I am an associate editor with Magma, but I was a subscriber before that came about). Buy a copy to check it out if you haven’t read it before – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. You can also read a small selection of poems and articles from the latest issue at the website.

Part of the website includes a new blog. There will be three main writers – Mark McGuinness, who, in addition to being a Magma editor, also writes the Lateral Action blog for creative professionals (interesting even if you’re not a ‘professional’), Jacqueline Saphra, an excellent poet (winner of the Ledbury Poetry prize 2007 and author of new pamphlet, Rock’n’Roll Mamma, published by Flarestack), and… me.

The blog will bring news from the magazine but will also cover many other poetry-related issues and controversies. We’ll have guest writers on a variety of topics. It will be terrific, I promise you. In other words, I hope you’ll click those buttons at the Magma blog and subscribe either to the RSS feed or to the email update notification.

I’d be very grateful if those of you who have blogs and websites could consider adding it to your links. We’ve kicked off with some Magma news, to get things moving.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Blue Fone

Check out the latest initiative of bluechrome press - Blue Fone! This did make me laugh.

Great Grog Taster - November 2008

In anticipation on this Sunday’s reading at the Great Grog in Edinburgh, you can now read a bio and poem from Patricia Ace. The poem won 3rd prize in this year’s Mslexia Competition, judged by Carol Ann Duffy. Patricia will be reading along with AB Jackson, Colin Will and James W. Wood. See the sidebar at the link for further details.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Towards High School Musical 3

I haven’t yet seen High School Musical 3: Senior Year, but I’m not going to be able to put it off for much longer. My daughter (6) has the first two movies on DVD, knows all the songs, and now knows there’s a third movie at the cinema.

In some ways, it’s surprising that the movie appeals to tots. It’s set in a High School and the plot centres around the teen romance between Troy (Zac Ephron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) – not the kind of thing you’d expect a six-year-old to be interested in. But my daughter and all her friends are obsessed by it.

The plots in the first two movies are virtually identical, and both are full of holes. The dialogue is unreal and packed with cliché. But Disney’s publicity machine knew what they were doing. Gabriella is like the star princess little girls want to be – pretty, sensitive, straight-talking and a great singer and dancer – and Troy is the guy who manages to overcome even his friends’ disapproval for love of his woman – when faced with the choice of leading his team to basketball glory or singing with Gabriella in the school play, he chooses… both. Obvious, really, but not to his friends. Not to him for some time either – he has to overcome huge hurdles, believe me. The girls love him for doing the right thing.

But is Troy tall enough to be a basketball champion? Basketball players all appear to be about 7 ft. tall, but Troy seems about average height – I don’t know, 5 ft 10? And when Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) makes her move on him in her typically cheesy way, why doesn’t he just tell her to get lost. He seems clueless, but maybe that’s another reason why the girls love him – he’s entirely un-manipulative.

Ryan, Sharpay’s twin brother, was portrayed as an idiot in the first movie, but becomes cool and sharp in the second movie, despite his daft hats. This dramatic change in character is almost as hard to accept as the fact that Gabriella is supposed to be a mathematical genius. She is never, at any time, believable as a genius. Of course, she doesn’t want to be that “weird math girl”, but someone should have told her that no one could have mistaken her for “weird” by any stretch of the imagination. She tells Troy that he makes her feel “just like a girl”, a line every guy wants to hear at least one in his lifetime. Gabriella is full of winning smiles and cute moves. Her voice is practically liquid.

Troy and Gabriella also prove that you don’t have to work too hard at being a star. The first time they meet each other, pulled from obscurity to duet in an end-of-year karaoke, they manage to sing in perfect harmony. Hey, they never realised before that they could sing. Gabriella has sung in a church choir. Troy had sung only in his shower. And yet they wow the crowd in three minutes flat. It’s magical, not something you practice or work at, but a gift. This could be you too, six-year-old! You can see how folk at the X-Factor and American Idol who’ve never sung a note in their lives are prepared to brave the TV cameras and the barbs of the judges – they never know, an unexpectedly angelic voice might just pop out by magic and propel them to stardom, like Troy and Gabriella.

So Troy gets his girl, he wins the audition, he captains the basketball team to the championship and scores the winning point in the last second of the game. What a hero! You couldn't have written the script, could you? Well, actually, you could have guessed it all, but at least you're never going to be disappointed or surprised.

One further reason why the movies have been so successful: most music aimed at primary school children is awful – bleepy electronic crap powered by horrible drum machines which sound like hangovers from the eighties. While High School Musical isn’t the kind of stuff that any self-respecting post-punk adult would listen to out of choice, the music is actually good. Disney must have picked up some very skilled songwriters and arrangers to write the soundtrack. In the first movie, particularly, every melody is strong. It’s not horrible to listen to. At least, it’s not horrible to listen to compared to the alternatives. And if you’re a parent having to listen to it about 20 million times, that counts for a lot. Again, Disney knew what they were doing.

If you haven’t seen this (i.e. if you don’t have any kids of the requisite age), here’s a song from the first movie. Sharpay and Ryan have performed their audition for the school show – a cheesy (everything they do is over-the-top), self-obsessed, egotistical rant about how they want to make it to the top by any means necessary. On come Troy and Gabriella to show them how it’s done. The other kids are soon on their feet dancing and applauding, Troy’s disaffected dad and Gabriella’s mum enter and you can just see that look of astonished pride in their eyes. And, of course, the happy couple really mean it. When they look into each other’s eyes, we’re all there with them, recapturing our own youth, our own missed opportunities, thinking, “that could have been me, if only I’d pulled Vanessa Anne Hudgens out on stage and sang my heart out to her at the age of 17.” I’ve heard that kids in the cinemas are passing round the tissues through sections of the new movie, such is the overload of sentiment as Troy makes the hard choice for his future beyond school – singing or basketball? Gabriella or his friends? What will he choose? Have we heard something like this before? Perhaps he will think back to this audition and win over his six-year-old fans yet again…

Friday, October 31, 2008

Bulgaria: Beyond the Poisoned Umbrella

Here’s a fascinating interview from New Zealand TV with Edinburgh-based, Bulgarian poet and prose writer, Kapka Kassabova. The book she’s talking about, Street Without a Name, is terrific, and unclassifiable – a portrait of Bulgaria during the Cold War and then years afterwards, a memoir, travel book, a meditation on memory, politics, history, a reflection on how the past and present interweave…, and more besides.

I’d certainly give it five stars at Amazon, like most of the reviewers there, but it’s amazing to see that one reviewer uses the word “treason” and another feels “shame” at what he perceives “she has done” to her native country. I say 'amazing' because it links up well with this story on actress, Olga Kurylenko, who has been criticised by the Communist Party of St Petersburg for starring in a James Bond movie – Bond, of course, the fictional scourge of the old Soviet Union. The Party say:

“The Soviet Union educated you, cared for you and brought you up for free but no one suspected that you would commit this act of intellectual and moral betrayal.”

The dishonesty in that “cared for you” is striking! It’s a shame that those minority Amazon reviewers who didn’t like Street Without a Name appear unable to see that Kapka saves her criticism only for what’s been wrong with Bulgaria in the past and present. The book brings the country alive and certainly makes me want to visit it. The statements concerning Olga Kurylenko only illustrate how spot on Kapka's book is on Communist bureaucrat paranoia.

Anyway, anyone around Edinburgh can catch Kapka as MC at Poetry at the Great Grog on Sunday 9th November from 8pm.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Another Great Grog Taster

You can now read a poem and bio (the bio is guaranted true 100 percent) from A.B. Jackson at the Poetry at the Great Grog site.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Translating Zbigniew Herbert

Translating Zbigniew Herbert's poems from the original Polish is not for the faint-hearted. I mentioned in a previous article here that there had been controversy over Alissa Valles’s translation of Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems. I'd advise taking a deep breath before reading this post...

It began with Michael Hofmann’s review of the book in Poetry magazine. Hofmann, although he admits to knowing no Polish, is an accomplished and admired translator and poet. He asks why John and Bogdana Carpenter’s translations (they have translated much of Herbert’s output up until now, but the books are out of print) were not used in the new Collected, and then compares their translations to Valles’s in several poems. In each case, he feels Valles does a poor job. His criticism is that the poems read – in English – as inferior to the Carpenters’ versions. He pulls no punches:

“Alissa Valles's Herbert is slack, chattersome, hysterical, full of exaggeration, complacency, and reaching for effect. The original (I'm quite sure) is none of those things. This Collected Poems is a hopelessly, irredeemably bad book. The only solution to its problems would be a bulk reinstatement of the old translations.”

The reaction in Poetry’s letters page in the following issue took up the issues raised in Hofmann’s review. They published a good balance of opinion, I think. Some letters (on both sides) were more to the point than others, and one offered a moment of unintentional humour:

“I know Michael Hofmann about as well as he knows Polish, which is to say, in translation.”

Hofmann, of course, writes poetry in English (unless the letter-writer means that he has read Hofmann's translations of other writers)!

The balance of opinions exhibited in Poetry's letters' page was complemented by Don Share’s blog post at the Poetry Foundation. He tries to get to the root of things, raising questions wider than those congregating around Valles’s translations and Hofmann’s review:

“What constitutes competence in translators... and in reviewers of their work? Do great poets deserve many translators - or, as Hofmann said, not. In what sense is a translated poem the same poem as the original?”

These are huge questions and people have been arguing over the answers since translation began. A translated poem surely sets out to render the poem as effectively in the new language as in the original, but quite how that comes about has been a source of endless argument.

In addition, David Orr assessed the debate in the New York Times in an even-handed way. His conclusion was that, while Hofmann may have overstated his case, nonetheless there are deficiencies with the Valles book (although he also asks how there couldn’t be deficiencies in a work of translation). Orr writes:

“Herbert is now a complete poet in English, and he’s not as strong as he should be.”

The involvement of Adam Zagajewski in writing the introduction raises further questions. Zagajewski was born in Lvov, the same city as Herbert, but some twenty years later, and Herbert was a fundamental influence on his own development as a poet. It's surely unlikely that Zagajewski, who can also lay claim to being one of Poland’s great 20th century poets, would have lent his name to a book that was unworthy of his own mentor. That’s even if Valles did have the professional connection to him that’s claimed by some of the Amazon reviews.

The Amazon USA page offers comments of varying levels of insight, and includes one by well known poet, Stephen Dobyns, who writes:

“Believe me, I have been reading and teaching Herbert since the early 1970's and Alissa Valles' translations are a travesty.”

However, some reviewers there argue that the translations are, for the most part, very good. Valles's Collected Poems is also the only in-print, comprehensive Herbert that exists and anyone wanting such a book either buys it or does without entirely. If you’ve been dedicated enough to negotiate this labyrinth of opinion so far, you’ll realise that the only solution is to read the Valles, pick up the Carpenters’ books from the library or second-hand, and compare and contrast.

Alissa Valles has responded to the controversy in a fashion. She hasn’t quarrelled with any particular reviewer, which seems like the correct approach to me. Her article is well written and cool-headed, but the point she makes on the controversy is clear. The acerbic nature of this paragraph isn’t quite hidden by the measured quality of the writing:

“It isn’t possible to render a poet anew without disturbing many readers’ relation to that poet; I expected my own translations of Herbert, a poet much adored, to be controversial, and they have not disappointed me. Translations are the fruit of interpretation and part of a larger, complex process of bringing a foreign poet into view. I set no store by the notion of a definitive translation; like the term “spiritual leader,” as Herbert is unfortunately called on the dust jacket of his Collected Poems, it reeks of church authorization or a sales pitch. A truly great text—whether a Bible verse or a Paul Celan poem—has no final translation. It will go on inviting new attempts by arrogant young poets who want to measure themselves against the greats. At best, translators engage in the ongoing unfolding of a text, seeing their occupation, as the great philosophers of translation have, as a branch of applied metaphysics. At worst they are like old prostitutes arguing about who gave Napoleon his best night. The insights one may gain from these squabbles may be thrilling, but they are rather narrow if not informed by broader knowledge.”

Anyway, the Valles is now in my Amazon shopping trolley and I’m looking forward to reading it, although I will be keeping half an eye on the Carpenters’ two Selecteds as I do so.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Poetry at the Great Grog - November Taster

The next event for the Poetry at the Great Grog reading series will take place on Sunday 9th November 2008 from 8pm at the Great Grog Bar, 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh.

Featured poets will be Patricia Ace, A.B. Jackson, Colin Will, and James W. Wood and you can find links to each of them down the left-hand column at the above link. MC for the night will be Kapka Kassabova.

In addition, you can read a poem and bio by Colin Will of Sunny Dunny among other things. I’ll be adding poems and bios from the other November poets at irregular intervals on the run-up to the gig.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

First Thoughts on Zbigniew Herbert

Back from my October Week break in rural Perthshire – wet, windy, but nonetheless enjoyable in a “we’re going to enjoy ourselves no matter what” kind of way.

I was blown away, not by the wind, but by the Selected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert (Oxford, 1977), translations by John and Bogdana Carpenter. Astounding poetry. In their introduction, the Carpenters paint Herbert as having an “insistence on a clear moral stance which can resist the fluctuations of history and ideology.” They’re not suggesting Herbert was a dogmatist or that his moral stance was handed down by state or church – far from it – but that the history he lived through (1924-1998) made values important to him. “Rarely have positive values been won against greater opposition and with greater struggle” – the Second World War and its devastating effect on Poland, followed by decades of communism shaped his outlook. A moral vacuum, for Herbert, wasn’t an option.

In his prose poem ‘What Mr Cogito Thinks About Hell’, (‘Mr Cogito’ is a persona whose views sometimes correspond with Herbert and sometimes ironically contradict him), Cogito says that the lowest circle of hell is populated by poets and artists:

Throughout the year competitions, festivals and concerts are held here. There is no climax in the season. The climax is permanent and almost absolute. Every few months new trends come into being and nothing, it appears, is capable of stopping the triumphal march of the avant-garde.

The poem ends with similar irony:

Beelzebub supports the arts. He provides his artists with calm, good board, and absolute isolation from hellish life.

The whole idea of following trends, embracing moral relativity, or producing art simply for art’s sake must have filled Herbert with horror – understandable given the historical circumstances he lived through – and his stance is intriguing when looked at from today’s western world where offering a reasoned moral opinion can often be viewed, in itself, as taking oneself too seriously. He wrote (in prose) in 1970:

‘During the war I saw the fire of a library. The same fire was devouring wise and stupid books, good and bad. Then I understood that it is nihilism which menaces culture the most. Nihilism of fire, stupidity, and hatred.’

However, Alissa Valles, in a Boston Review article says that Herbert was very much a poet of “ontological uncertainty” and feels that the Carpenters concentrated too much on his moral side:

‘The fine later translations by John and Bogdana Carpenter did a great deal to fill out the picture, as did Bogdana Carpenter’s important scholarship. But it, too, tended to concentrate on Herbert as a “poet of conscience” rather than of ontological uncertainty.’

I certainly found both the morality and the uncertainty in Herbert’s work and that shouldn’t surprise anyone. All great poets play with the fire of contradiction and it’s partly those oppositions that give their work tension and power.

I borrowed the Selected from the Scottish Poetry Library and would like to buy some Herbert poetry. But what to go for? Valles’s recent Collected would be the obvious choice, but the controversy surrounding it has been considerable. I’ll leave that for now, but will return to the issue over the next day or two.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bernardine Evaristo's Blog

Poet and novelist, Bernardine Evaristo, author of The Emperor’s Babe, Blonde Roots and various other books, has started a new blog, which looks very interesting already. Her post on reviewing brings up many thorny issues: editors altering reviews after they’ve been submitted and so changing their entire slant, chance meetings with negative reviewers of your books, the balance to be struck between integrity and generosity, and:

“I have also been reviewed by people I know. Now if they’re nasty about my work, it’s no big deal. I just kill them.”

Yet another blog to bookmark.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Decent Family Man

The excellent Laila Lalami shows why the Daily Show rocks. Not that I know anything about the Daily Show, but this is great, satirical comedy.

A Day in the Life

I wrote an article on poetry blogging in Sphinx, issue 9. One of the first things I said was that I rarely write about my life because it is boring even to family and friends. But breaking rules is part of the fun, so this post is about my life, one day in my life. As days go, it's a little unusual for me in some ways, but not unrecognisably so.

I was hoping (in fact, desperately hoping) to get down to the Italian Institute tonight where Sandy Hutchison and various others are celebrating Sicilian poetry, translation, food and wine. However, we couldn’t get a babysitter, so I’m stuck here.

We’ll soon be away for a few days, leaving our house and two guinea pigs in the capable hands of Chris the bass guitarist and Sonic Youth friend, who will probably drive the neighbours crazy. I’ve been trying to get everything done that needs done before we leave, particularly work-related stuff. So I was up very early today and now I’m knackered.

I started off dealing with various emails and then I had a long and involved form to fill in, which took ages. I had about two hours left to write something worth saying about the ‘Kingdom of God’ – a slippery concept if there ever was one. But I managed it. Then I slipped a copy of Reel by George Szirtes into an envelope and addressed it to the winner of a competition I had helped to run. I had various things I needed to print and post off, but my printer cartridge decided to run out of ink. I also realised that I had hardly any white paper, so I went to Cartridge World to buy more, and then returned to the printer.

I phoned a few people – work-related. I then raced down to the Scottish Poetry Library to renew a book and pick up a couple for holiday reading (the first three below). I am going with:

Without End – Adam Zagajewski
Selected Poems– Zbigniew Herbert
Row – Tomaz Salamun
Sixty Poems – Attila Jozsef
Collected Poems – Weldon Kees
The Art of Memory – Frances A. Yates
Black Sea – Neal Ascherson

I do really like the writing of some UK poets, but I’m continually finding myself stuck in a Central and Eastern European/North American reading regime – a phase which has lasted longer than phases decently should.

I’d arranged to meet K. for a coffee. We had a lot to talk about, both funny and serious. The welcome break in the day turned into an hour-and-a-half very quickly. I went home, played with my daughter, talked with my wife before she had to go out, made the dinner, helped get my daughter ready for ‘Rainbows’ (‘Brownies’ for under-7s). In ten minutes it will be time to pick her up, go through her bedtime routine, and then… I really have more work to do, but I am flagging.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Maybe I'm the Only Person Who Hasn't Seen This Until Now...

I found this on Collin Kelley’s blog and thought it was very well done.

Poetry at the Great Grog - October 2008 Report

I felt a little nervous before Poetry at the Great Grog on Sunday evening, but it went really well. Eleanor Livingstone was MC and began by reading one of Alice Howlett’s poems, Before Dawn – Alice had been due to read but had to call off through ill-health. I liked how Eleanor did the MC job and I was thinking I might have different MCs each month. I’d quite like to get a proper organising committee together for these events. Not so much because of the amount of work (which isn’t all that much, to be honest), but I feel awkward in the role. It confers a degree of power (e.g. as to who gets to read and who doesn’t) that I don’t want to have. One person was needed to get the event off the ground, but I think it’s best if more people come on board now. So if anyone is interested, let me know…

I was on first and read mainly from the forthcoming The Opposite of Cabbage, due from Salt next year. I imagine they’re not always the easiest of poems to take in at a reading, but I made my best attempt to communicate. My setlist:

1. Edinburgh in Summer
2. Everyone Will Go Crazy
3. Derrida
4. Holiday at the New Butlins
5. Fallen Villages of the North
6. Concentration
7. Hospital
8. The Preacher’s Ear
9. Preparations for the Final Hour

In place of Alice Howlett, five people each read a poem written by someone else and explained why they liked it. Colin Will, Elizabeth Gold (halfway down the linked page), Ryan van Winkle, Claire Askew, and Margaret Christie took part. They read interesting and entertaining stuff – a success, I think.

Many people know of Hamish Whyte mainly as editor at Mariscat Press and it’s true that Hamish has put a lot into Scottish poetry with his editing and publishing activities. A new collection is rare for him, but there’s one due on 8th December from Shoestring Press. On the evidence of Sunday evening, it’s a must-read. Hamish reads without somersaults and pyrotechnics. He has a quiet, but assured voice. In other words, he lets the poems do the talking. I thought he had some terrific stuff in his set, even better than I had expected.

People had told me that Kei Miller was a brilliant reader and I now know what they mean. It was one of the best readings we’ve ever had at the Great Grog. Part of it is in the sheer quality of the poems, part of it in the musical sonics, part of it in his presence when reading and the connection he makes with the audience. Fantastic.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Final Arrears

I have been too tired today to string two sentences together and will have to leave a report on last night’s Poetry at the Great Grog event until tomorrow, but I found one of my favourite songs, The Final Arrears, by the Mull Historical Society, one of the best things to happen to music in the past decade.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Rocky Road to a Reading

Not the best few days I’ve ever had. Not the worst either, but I’m hoping things improve fast. On Friday I got an email from Alice Howlett’s mum explaining that Alice was ill and wouldn’t be able to read at the Great Grog on Sunday as planned. Of course, I’ll reschedule her for a future date, and I hope things improve for her soon. I emailed another poet about reading in her place, but she must be away. I’ve heard nothing. However, I have a plan…

Yesterday I took my daughter swimming with the idea of dropping into the Scottish Poetry Library for a ‘poetry and music’ event that was happening all day. We were just heading back to the changing rooms from the pool when I turned and slipped and came crashing down. I landed on my arm. Nothing broken, but I am sore – my wrist, elbow and ribs ache with any sudden movement. Ow! We got up to the SPL about 5.15pm and everything had finished, the doors were locked. I arrived home to a message from Sally and Ian, great supporters of the Great Grog events (I think they have been at every one). Their car has broken down and, as they travel from a distance, they won’t be able to make it this time round.

I’m not superstitious. If I was, I could see this in two ways. Either these events are an omen that the event tonight is ill-fated. Or that it’s going to be a most brilliant evening to balance all the bad stuff up. So superstition is entirely unhelpful, as ever.

Anyway, I’ll be at the Great Grog tonight reading poems along with Hamish Whyte and Kei Miller – from 8pm (The Great Grog Bar’s back lounge, 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh). There may also be another reader (there’s still time) or a special impromptu event I have in mind. Eleanor Livingstone is MC tonight. Eleanor, if you’re reading this, I’ll keep you up to date with events as they unfold today! For now, I have work to do.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Me and the Dead

For some time, I’ve been meaning to say something about Me and the Dead, debut collection from Katy Evans-Bush, a.k.a. Ms Baroque from the blog, Baroque in Hackney. This isn’t a review in the normal sense. I know Katy. I’ve even slept on the Baroque Mansion sofa after a memorable evening in London earlier this year. But it’s a very good book, so I thought I’d say something about it.

In the title poem, death is “an assemblage of fragments” with a sting in the tail, as life at times can feel like an assemblage of death-fragments. The poems in this collection have such variety in form and subject-matter that the collection might at first appear similarly fragmented, but it’s held together by clever sequencing and an eloquent, definable tone.

The subject matter ranges from narrative poems on love and friendship to an exploration of real and metaphorical eggs to a theological sweep through the history of London under the long shadow of its cathedral. Katy does narrative very well. In 'Cosi Fan Tutte', for example, the reader knows there’s an affair going on. The narrator walks off, leaving the man and the other woman to argue over her, and the resultant clash between innocence, guilt and upfront world-weariness spills over into the surrounding environment:

.................…Somewhere I heard a radio,
a different world. A sudden restaurant light
and a couple drinking under a pleated shade,
hands raised around thin stems, her bracelet gold
in the peach glow as she looked out at me.
Our eyes met and the moment froze. The crystal
set – I mean, the set-up – I mean glass coffin –
lurched, and out popped my particular poison.
She looked away and I went on, awake.

The poem is in blank verse, but the controlled variations in rhythm shift the narrative along like a page-turner. The narrative unfolds in a permanent state of tension. There’s a cinematic element to this and to many of the poems, a sense of being rushed from one image to another in rapid succession, each brief moment marking out its individual appeal to memory. ‘This is Happening’, a poem about a bus journey through the rainy city a few days after the narrator and her companion had visited the grave of a mutual friend, is a good example of this. The descriptions reflect more than the surface of what they describe. They make up the “sound of the universe” (there’s a risky phrase(!), but it works because its sense is so grounded in the quotidian), the constant living and dying and loving of the moment:

.....Beyond the teary windows of the bus
random elements form and unform themselves the shapes behind a theatre curtain – which always,
once it’s lifted, turn out to have been the stagehands
.....who set the whole thing up – and the city
peels back behind me as the bus cuts through puddles,
.....breaks reflections open, makes a noise
like the sound of the universe. We’ve never been closer.

Highlights of this collection for me were the lyrical chill of ‘Imitating Life’, the juxtaposition of astonishing scientific discovery and the amusing inability to find language to measure up to it of ‘Or Something’, the sheer ambition of ‘The Cathedral’, and the poems I’ve already mentioned above. You’ll find humour, irony, eloquence and death – plenty of death – in this book. And much that can’t quite be summed up in ordinary words because good poetry never can:

The snowball is hollow. Inside
is nothing and space for everything.
In the print of a painted pixel, that pixel holds
the pupil of your eye, and your eye holds me
as if I were hollow, as if I were a snowball,
as if I were a feather on a canal. (from ‘Imitating Life’)

What the poem says is clear, but not simplistic; the words and syntax are ordinary but not prosaic. It’s like an invitation to any casual reader, and says, “Read this. Read it again.” That’s what I’d recommend of the whole book.