Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Poems Of Sidney West

I’ve been reading Juan Gelman’s The Poems of Sidney West. Gelman is one of Argentina’s greatest living poets, although this volume was the first time I’d heard of him.

First thing to say is that the book presents an immediate oddity. The poems are ostensibly Gelman’s Spanish translations of work by a U.S. poet, Sidney West, but it’s also clear that West is an entirely fictional creation. The book therefore, consists of notional translations into Spanish of non-existent English poems, which have then been translated into English by Katherine Hedeen and Victor Rodriguez Nuñez.

The poems are all laments for people Sidney West has known, but these aren’t conventional elegies. They use surreal images, which recur in different laments throughout the book. Also phrases and unusual syntax patterns echo one another from elegy to elegy, as if the collection as a whole converges around Death as well as a series of deaths.

What I really want to talk about here is the first poem, ‘lament for the death of parsifal hoolig,’ a poem that really knocked me sideways and set up a foundation for the rest of the book. You can read the poem (in both Spanish and English) at pp. 20-23 of the book’s .pdf sampler (the introduction to Gelman’s life and work is also well worth reading). It starts off with a surreal description – ‘it began to rain cows’ – and then narrates the effect of this on various characters. A man is then found ‘dead several times’ and the surreal descriptions continue, now centring on the dead body. In many surreal poems, I find the surrealism frustrating, as an excuse for not fully engaging with reality rather than an angular commentary on it. However, in this poem, Gelman’s ‘Sidney West’ uses the crazed backdrop like a foil to the vulnerable humanity at its centre:

that rain fell years and years on the pavement of Hereby Street
without ever erasing the slightest trace of what had happened!
without dampening one of the humiliations not even one of the fears
of that man with hips scrambled tossed in the street
late so his terrors can mix with water and rot and end

I just find this incredibly moving, that the rain (cows or not) can’t dampen or dilute the man’s fear and humiliation, but he isn’t seen by others as a humiliated man:

and so died parsifal hoolig
he closed his silent eyes
kept the custom of not protesting
was a brave dead man
and while his obituary did not appear in the New York Times and the
...........Chicago Tribune paid no attention to him
he did not complain when they picked him up in a truck from the city
him and his melancholy look

and if someone supposes this is sad
if someone is going to stand up and say it is sad
know this is exactly what happened
nothing else happened but this
under this sky or vault of heaven

I like the way Gelman withholds judgement here. We don’t know who the dead man was, the source of his humiliations, whether he was right or wrong not to protest, but he is, I think, a kind of everyman/everywoman (I wondered if there were also allusions to the 'suffering servant' passage from Isaiah 53). He is all of us, or a side of all of us, and Gelman creates for him a particular kind of sympathy and dignity, whatever his faults. It made me think of Denis Johnson’s poem, ‘The Circle’ which recounts a helicopter crash and the reaction of people to the dead pilot, trying to explain what might have happened. Johnson’s narrator walks through the scene of chaos:

the machine burst ajar like a bug,
the corpse a lunch pail
left open and silly music coming out –
I couldn’t seem to find a way
that didn’t lead straight to the heart of the trouble
and involve me forever in their grief.

I think that’s what Gelman has found too and the rest of his collection reflects on what that means using both surreal and realistic imagery – the silly music that plays the heart of the trouble.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Reviews, Ratings and Sphinx

I just noticed that the reviews for Sphinx magazine, issue 11 are beginning to appear - just four pamphlets under review so far. The system has changed a little. Instead of a single review for each pamphlet, there are now three.

I suppose it means that, if one reviewer has a very negative reaction, the other two might be very positive. Even the best reviewers can have an off-day or, for whatever reason, can’t see the good in poems which are actually OK. The flip-side of this policy is that a pamphlet might get not one but three(!) negative reactions. The poet can’t say it was ‘just the wrong reviewer,’ although I suppose he/she can always feel that all the reviewers are talking nonsense. It does weaken the poet’s case just a little, mind you…

One of my reviews is up, of The Terrors by Tom Chivers, along with two other reviews of the same pamphlet, so you can see you how it works.

There’s also a stripe rating. That comes from an average of the marks out of ten given by each reviewer for three categories: the look/feel of the pamphlet, the quality of the poetry, and… something else I can’t remember at the moment. I wasn’t too keen on the idea when I first heard about it, but I’ve warmed to it. If it’s good enough for music, why not poems? I notice that Don Share has blogged on a rating system used by rock critic Robert Christgau for assessing albums.

It wouldn’t be hard to adapt this for poetry collections. Reviewers could still use their favourite adjectives like “brilliant”, “significant”, “groundbreaking” etc, but I’d hazard a guess that we’d see few A+ ratings (at least, we ought not to). Also, I suspect we’d see few E- ratings, even in apparently negative reviews. Ratings give reviews perspective.

I would certainly give far more weight to the quality of poems than the look/feel of a book/pamphlet when assessing it. It’s the same with an album. The cover might be rubbish but, if the music is A+, all will be forgiven. A good cover means I might pick the book up in the first place (so it is very important), but I feel reviews ought to be based on the contents rather than the marketing.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

By Leaves We Live 2009

This Saturday, from 11am-6pm, I’ll be at the Scottish Poetry Library for its annual By Leaves We Live book fair. It’s the kind of event you can walk in and out of at any time during the day, although there are scheduled seminars (see link). Many artists, poets and small presses will be displaying their books, pamphlets and who knows what else. I’ll be there for the whole day because I’m staffing the Magma stall. If you’re interested in browsing the magazine or in a discount subscription, then come and speak to me!

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Travellers

When I was about 5-years-old, I liked to visit my great-uncle. He had a large record collection, mainly folk and Scottish traditional music. I loved it and asked for an LP record for Christmas – my first ever record! When I unpacked it, I played it, probably non-stop for months. Until recently, I had presumed the band were a ‘cover’ band, who’d made one of those ultra-cheap records popular in the seventies – not really a ‘band’ at all, but a bunch of session musicians playing songs for people who weren’t bothered about having the hits by the original artists.

However, I’ve found out that my assumption was wrong. The album was ‘Blowing in the Wind’ (1969) by The Travellers (just compare that album cover to the professional slickness everyone expects today!), who were very much a real band. They were Canadian and (according to various Internet sites) well known in Canada. One site calls them a ‘Canadian institution’. Their cover of ‘This Land is Your Land’ was a hit and they had others in Canada from the fifties through the early seventies. How and where my great uncle picked up their record is a mystery to me.

I can still remember several of the LP songs – the title track, of course (I wouldn’t have heard of Dylan, but I knew every word to ‘Blowing in the Wind’ at the age of 5), the two songs at the link, 'Early Morning Rain', 'If I Had a Hammer' etc. I suppose that’s why the death of Mary Travers last week meant something more to me than many other deaths of famous people I don’t know – from an early age, I knew and loved a number of the songs Peter, Paul and Mary played, through this Travellers record. It was only much later that I heard the Peter, Paul and Mary versions.

It was great to find those two tracks at the link. One of them, ‘Freight Train’, was my joint favourite song on the album, along with 'If I Had a Hammer'.

Friday, September 18, 2009

New Mimesis

I had a backlog of stuff that had been queuing up for attention and this week has been really busy – hence the lack of blog posts. Not that I’ve had nothing to say, there’s just been no time to say it.

One thing I should mention is that the new issue of Mimesis is out, issue 6. It features poems and articles by several names that will make this issue well worth reading. I’m pleased to have three poems in there.

I don’t have any poems under consideration by editors at the moment – I haven’t submitted anything since June, and I really ought to send a few out. I have several publishable poems all ready, but I’m unsure where to submit them.

That said, I haven’t actually written a new poem for about three months, which is a long time for me, although I have an idea that my brain, even now (with any luck) is working on subconsciously. I’ve learned that’s how I write best, if I don’t jump in too quickly when armed with an idea and a few phrases. Sooner or later, if I keep the idea in mind, a line or two will start to form and the tone/shape of the poem will become clearer. All this can change when I start writing, of course, but starting a poem too quickly usually produces substandard work.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Taster For 'Poetry At The...' - 13 September 2009

It’s Saturday morning. I have a few things to do, then I’m off-work for the day. Ivy Alvarez will arrive at some point, ready for her Poetry at the… GRV reading on Sunday evening (7.45-9.45pm, The GRV, Guthrie Street, just off Chambers Street).

Her poem and bio is already up at the ‘Poetry at the…’ site, along with poems from her fellow-readers Brian McCabe and Joseph Harrison. Should be good. The sky is blue and I am drinking my first morning cappuccino.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Gutter Magazine On Anonymous Submissions

Some of you may remember my recent post on anonymous reviews. Well, here’s the second controversial topic from the editorial of Gutter magazine (I’m saving the third topic for the Magma blog sometime over the next few weeks, as it seems more relevant for there).

The editorial says:

“We thank those who sent us work, and we reassure you that all pieces were assessed ‘blind’. We aren’t interested in encouraging literary cliques.”

Anonymous submission, then. The upside of that is made clear in the editorial. No favouritism. It’s about good poems, not names. The downside is that the very big names an ambitious magazine might hope to attract may not submit because of the anonymous submission element.

Gutter took a poem by me for their first issue, so I’ve no personal grievance with the process. Anonymous submission sounds like a great idea. Surely it means readers will get to read the best poems, not just those submitted by known names, but magazines like Anon and New Writing Scotland, while high quality publications, don’t seem inherently better (or worse) than other magazines to me. I suspect they would publish pretty much the same pieces even if the submissions had names attached. But might they get more submissions from the top writers?

Also, isn’t a better way of keeping literary cliques at bay simply to accept the best work and turn down work from friends that’s substandard? What, exactly, is wrong with literary cliques anyway? What might seem like a clique to one person will be seen as an exciting movement by another. Magazines often spearhead new shifts and movements. If what they spearhead is genuinely fresh and exciting, so much the better, but it’s harder to do with an anonymous submission procedure. If some people feel excluded from the ‘clique’, well, they can always start a new magazine for what they feel is vital.

Interesting times though – three important Scottish-based print magazines (those named above) use anonymous submission procedures. Most UK print magazines don’t. That’s intriguing in itself that Scottish magazines sense a need for anonymity.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Scotland will need a lot of luck to beat Holland. If we sit back and invite the Dutch to attack, we could end up in real trouble, so I hope hitting Holland on the break isn't the main tactic. We need someone to cause them a few problems, give them something to think about, but it's hard to see where that's going to come from tonight, given that McFadden is supended. My prediction, sadly, is a Holland win. Unless we manage to raise Archie Gemmill from the dead... (not that Archie is literally dead, you understand, in case anyone gets alarmed) Perhaps George Burley is working on that even now.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Utter! At Edinburgh On Video

This is a video, made as a record of Utter! during the Edinburgh Festival Free Fringe, by poet, Dzifa Benson.

It features performers such as Paula Varjack and host, Richard Tyrone Jones on the Royal Mile, valiantly attempting to bring the events to people’s attention. Great stuff!

Monday, September 07, 2009

'Poetry At The... GRV' Taster

I’ve just uploaded a bio and poem from Brian McCabe, who will be reading at the GRV, Guthrie Street, Edinburgh, on Sunday evening (7.45-9.45pm), 13th September, along with Ivy Alvarez and Joseph Harrison.

Should be a really good night, I think. There will also be four slots of poets reading for 3 minutes. Two of these slots have been filled. If anyone wants to read in one of the remaining slots, email me to let me know (address at my profile). It gives us the chance to hear some new poets, gives people a chance to read who otherwise wouldn’t be known to us, and may throw up a few surprises.

There is a maximum of four slots. If it’s over-subscribed, we’ll add people to the three-minute line-up for future months.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

World Cup Crunch

I have a bad feeling about the Scotland v. Macedonia clash this afternoon. The national squad's self-confidence is so low that they'll do well to go a win or even a draw, I think. Anyway, to send them luck, here's The Fall.

It's A Rough Trade

I watched yesterday evening’s BBC3 programme on the history of Rough Trade, astonished at how many significant bands the label had been behind. I felt exactly the same when I watched a similar programme a week or so ago on Island Records. Rough Trade had The Fall, The Smiths, Violent Femmes, The Strokes, Belle & Sebastian and a host of others. Island had Bob Marley & The Wailers, Black Uhuru, U2, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey etc. And they combined to bring us Pulp (Rough Trade managing and distribution, Island as the official label).

Not only this though. Their business sense was completely at odds with the typical corporate values. Rough Trade paid everyone on the staff the same, they didn’t have contracts for their bands (until The Smiths came along), and produced whatever they liked. This changed in time, but the ethos never became purely profit driven. It collapsed because The Smiths became so big that the label had to call in professionals and then finally caved in due to cashflow problems. Ironically, success led to their problems and the label went under during their time of greatest commercial success.

At this point, independent labels held 40 percent of music sales in the UK? Can you imagine? These days seem so distant now, but we're talking only about 20 years ago.

They reformed later and have continued to have success, still operating a very different approach to business. With Duffy, they ‘signed’ her on a nurturing basis. They paid her while she developed her style, without her signing anything. She could have taken the money and then gone anywhere, but she decided to stick with Rough Trade (lucky for them, eh? But this represents the whole Rough Trade approach to business) and gave them their first UK number one hit.

A similar thing happened with Island when one of their business ventures went wrong and they couldn’t pay bands their royalties for a while. Apparently, U2 could have bankrupted the label at that point by claiming what was owed to them but decided to forego their royalties. Later, when stability returned, Island paid them in full. Loyalty was crucial for the label's survival, but it was earned.

Anyway, James represent Rough Trade in two ways. They were a terrific (and underrated) band, both in the studio and live. And they had a huge hit with this song, but not when Rough Trade released it – it only reached number 85! A couple of years later, it was re-released by Fontana and got to number 2. Such is life… The words of the song and the audience participation blend in with all this seamlessly.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Poetry At The... GRV - Sunday September 13th 2009, 7.45pm

The first year of ‘Poetry at the…’ ran very smoothly. Nothing ever went wrong and organising it was a piece of cake. However, the same can’t be said of the second year! We’d just found a good venue in the Crypt Bar of the Jekyll & Hyde Pub and had used it for three months. I booked various poets for the autumn 2009 dates in September, October and November, and booked the venue with the manager. About 10 days ago, he got in touch to say that the owners had made the decision to close the pub every Sunday – the day ‘Poetry at the…’ takes place!

With the first date looming on Sunday 13th September, I had to find a new venue fast. I have done, but it wasn’t easy. That said, I’m delighted with the new venue – upstairs at the GRV in Edinburgh’s Guthrie Street (a lane just off Chambers Street, at the South Bridge side – it’s actually easy to find, about 30 seconds walk down the lane). The time has changed a little too: it’s now 7.45–9.45pm. And the cost is now £4 with £3 concession, which I knew I’d have to do whatever venue we used. Still great value, I think.

On September 13th, there’s a stellar line-up and I’m hoping for a big audience (please!) – Brian McCabe, Ivy Alvarez, and Joseph Harrison, whose poem and bio is just up on the ‘Poetry at the…’ site. In addition, there will be three of four ‘surprise’ poets doing quick 3-minute sets, which should be an interesting experiment.

SPL Quiet Slam

Tonight at the Scottish Poetry Library from 7pm, there’s going to be a Sotto Voce slam - a ‘quiet’ slam, with marks taken off for ranting etc. Some good poets are taking part, so it should be worth going to.

Literary Blog Symposium

At Patrick Kurp’s Anecdotal Evidence blog, there’s to be an ongoing symposium on literary blogging, which already looks interesting.