Monday, August 30, 2010

My Edinburgh Festival 2010

I’ve not been exactly highly productive on this blog over the last couple of weeks, but I’ve been busy locally. The Edinburgh Festival has been in full swing. I read at the Book Festival with Ron Butlin, Brian Johnstone and Jane McKie, which was a most enjoyable event. The rain came down in torrents during my reading and drummed loudly on the marquee ceiling, but the microphone and sound system was more than equal to it. It added atmosphere. A little thunder and lightning would have helped even more, but we had to be content with a firework that someone let off during Jane’s reading. I was given a pass to the author’s yurt, which contains rivers of free wine and whisky, and haven’t been back since. Must do better next time...

I did a reading as part of Utter! Spoken Word - a two-hour extravaganza of Salt poets. It was a terrific night, featuring Julia Bird, Simon Barraclough, Isobel Dixon, Mark Granier, Andrew Philip, Eleanor Rees, and Ryan Van Winkle, as well as myself. I got home about 2.30am that night... I’ll post something soon on the reading. I’d certainly recommend anyone to check these authors out and buy their books.

I also co-MCd two events called ‘Chaos Raging Sweet’ with Andrew Ferguson, part of the PBH Free Fringe, which featured poetry, prose and music, and sometimes blurred the boundaries between the genres. Some great performances at these events. I think, though –if I was too do something at next year’s Free Fringe – I’d prefer to do something more planned-out and sustained over a week or so, rather than just two performances.

I enjoyed the festival, as ever, but I’m glad it’s over. I have a few poems I want to write, one of which is edging its way towards completion at an alarmingly slow rate. And there is a deadline – tomorrow! But the poem won’t move forward any faster than it can...

I’m going to the celebration of Edwin Morgan tonight. He has been vastly influential on my own writing. I will try to say more soon, but the sheer range of his work, the bridge he makes between ‘mainstream’ and ‘innovative’ poetry, his ability to write both directly and with astonishing oddness on important themes, his simultaneous playfulness and seriousness, and the combination of both intellectual and emotional resonance in his work – all this, and more, makes him one of the most important poets of the 20th century, and also one of my own favourite writers.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Edwin Morgan 1920-2010

Footsteps and witnesses! In this Glasgow balcony who pours
such joy like mountain water? It brims, it spills over and over
down to the parched earth and the relentless wheels.
How often will I think of you, until
our dying steps forget this light, forget
that we ever knew the happy glen,
or that I ever said, We must jump into the sun,
and we jumped into the sun.

(from ‘From a City Balcony’ by Edwin Morgan, Collected Poems p.183-84)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Smiths - `Frankly , Mr Shankly`

"Frankly, Mr Shankly, this position I've held,
it pays my way and it corrodes my soul.
Oh, I didn't realise that you wrote poetry.
I didn't realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry..."

Monday, August 16, 2010

The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary Scottish Writers

First there was Anis Shivani’s list of 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers, which has generated thousands of comments, links, tweets, Facebook shares, a great deal of amusement, and a barrelful of outrage. Now, inevitably, a journalist has done the same for Scottish writers. I won’t dignify the shocking article with a link, but the list of 15 overrated Scottish poets, novelists and non-fiction writers has already got literary types steaming mad. One top Scottish poet articulated what many others must have been thinking privately:

“Who in the hell does this Philistine hack think he is? Some of the people on that list may be overrated, but none of them are anything like as overrated as me. Does my name appear? No! It’s ridiculous.”

A petition issued from the Scottish Authors Union, signed by 57 Scottish writers, demands that their names should be added to the list with immediate effect, complete with pithy put-downs. So far, the journalist has refused to cave in to their demands, but pressure is building. A spokesperson for the SAU declared:

“We have the RIGHT to be overrated. My book sold 37 copies over five years, which means that at least three people I don’t know must have bought it. Who else can say that? It ought to guarantee me a place on the list.”

A little-known debut novelist, who didn’t want to be named for fear of reprisals, outlined the paradox for me:

“If you’re on that list, it obviously means you’re highly rated by thousands, perhaps millions of people. Anyone who hadn’t read your work before is now checking it out and probably enjoying it. It also means that a certain journalist can’t stand it. That’s not something anyone is going to lose sleep over. Millions of people love you, one guy doesn’t. Why worry?
“But if you’re not on the list, it might be because few people rate you. It might even be that the journalist has never heard of you. That’s why there’s been such a furious reaction.”

She’s got a point. To be honest, I wish Anis Shivani would put me on the American list, even for a day or two, as I would no doubt sell numerous copies of my book as a result. I appreciate that I’m not American, but I can do a pretty good impression of Beavis and Butthead after three pints of Guinness.

The editor of a leading UK literary magazine phoned me yesterday and asked me to write an article titled, ‘The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary British Journalists’. There was a brief silence on the line. ‘Uh... OK, then,’ said the editor. ‘Scrap 15. How about 2? Surely you can manage that?’ But no, I can’t think of any journalist highly rated enough to be overrated. Looks like the poets won’t get their revenge on the papers after all.

Friday, August 13, 2010

My Edinburgh Shows, August 2010

I thought I’d post a list of my appearances during the Edinburgh Festival, in hope that there will audiences at these events! I am lucky enough to be part of some great line-ups and I hope you can make it along to those.

Saturday 21st August, 8.30–9.30pm, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Peppers Theatre, £10/£8, Poetry Showcase – I’m reading with Ron Butlin, Brian Johnstone, and Jane McKie.

Sunday 22nd August, 2.50–3.50pm, Free Fringe, Banshee Labyrinth (Niddry St, off Royal Mile), Chaos Raging Sweet - I’m co-MC (with Andrew C Ferguson), introducing terrific poets, prose writers and musicians such as:

Tribute to Venus Carmichael
Joy Hendry
A.B. Jackson
Mairi Sharratt
Tim Turnbull

Monday 23rd August, 6.30-8.30pm, Free Fringe, Banshee Labyrinth (Niddry St, off Royal Mile), Utter! Salt Two-Hour Special - I’m reading with a fantastic line-up of Salt poets:

Simon Barraclough
Julia Bird
Isobel Dixon
Mark Granier
Andrew Philip
Eleanor Rees
Ryan Van Winkle

Wednesday 25th August, 2.50-3.50pm, Free Fringe, Banshee Labyrinth (Niddry St, off Royal Mile), Chaos Raging Sweet - again, I’m co-MC (with Andrew C Ferguson), introducing a great line-up of poets, prose writers and musicians, including:

Claire Askew

Sophie Cooke
Gavin Inglis
Jane McKie
Andrew Philip
Andrew Wilson

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Reading Difficult Poetry

“When you interpret Ashbery at all, you risk having skeptics tell you that you made it all up: that the poems demonstrate ingenuity not from the poet but from his interpreters, who find music in static, meaning in randomness, synthetic silk in a succession of sow’s ears. The same objections used to be (and occasionally still are) levelled at people who spent time rereading Eliot, or rereading Gertrude Stein (whom Ashbery admires). No one can prove that Ashbery’s poems mean anything. But no one can prove that your life means anything, either: on a good day, you feel able to keep on living it, as John Ashbery has kept on writing, following a plan where a plan seems to fit, but otherwise making it up as you go.”

- Stephen Burt, in 'John Ashbery: Everything Must Go’ from Close Calls with Nonsense (Graywolf Press, 2009) p. 246

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Marjorie Perloff's 21st Century Modernism - Part 2

This is part 2 of a post on Marjorie Perloff’s book, 21st Century Modernism: The New Poetics. Part 1 is here. From TS Eliot and Gertrude Stein, we now move to Marcel Duchamp and Velimir Khlebnikov.

It’s difficult to do justice to Marcel Duchamp’s conceptualism in the space and time I have here, as the ideas involved are complex and not easily explained. Much better to read Perloff’s chapter on him, as she does an admirable job. I liked the illustrations of Duchamp’s work in the book – really interesting!

Duchamp asked, “Can one make works which are not works of art?” and created pieces (‘readymades’) using found objects. He often made several copies of a work. The original has usually been lost, and the small differences between each surviving work are central to Duchamp’s ideas. The ‘aura’ of an original, the artiness of an artwork, is no longer key. Difference, even tiny differences, the idea of ‘infrathin’, is central to his outlook. In addition, Duchamp pioneered the concept of ‘delay’, a deferment, so that when one looks at one of his creations, what’s important is no longer what’s immediately seen, but how it is processed in the mind. The aspect of self-expression is negated too although, given that he could take months of painstaking work to produce his works, there surely is still an element of self-expression, no matter how hard he tried to expel it. I guess this led later to more populist forms of mass-produced art, such as Andy Warhol’s baked beans etc, but it was also crucial for less populist experimental work, including poetry.

In discussing Duchamp’s work, White Box, and the questions which arise from it, Perloff states:

“ clearly Duchamp understood what the function of poetry would be in the ‘age of reproduction’ and its seeming loss of aura. From the smallest linguistic difference (p / b), to the key deviation from a given metre or rhyme, to the synonymity which is never complete and the homonymity that produces puns, poetic language is the language that focuses on delay - a delay ordinary discourse is bent on erasing.”

Velimir Khlebnikov was interested in relationships between words, particularly at the level of sound. He wanted to:

“...find the unity of the world’s languages in general, built from units of the alphabet. A path to a universal beyondsense [zaum] language.”

Khlebnikov had, it seems to me, a hermetic approach to this task. It wasn’t so much the etymological roots of words he explored. He formed a system based on syllables. Even words which had no objective etymological connection were connected by Khlebnikov if they shared syllabic sounds. Words had content not on the basis of meaning but on how they looked and, above all, how they sounded. He made up words and related them to other real words on the basis of sound, and also made nouns verbs, adjectives adverbs etc. What a word represented in the real world didn’t matter, simply its place in the “language field” i.e. Khlebnikov’s system of connections.

His contribution to ‘sound poetry’ is clearly immense, and his experiments are fascinating. What I also found fascinating were other poems, written in a period of turmoil and famine (Khlebnikov later died from malnutrition). These poems were much more straightforward. ‘Russia and Me’ is comic satire – here are the first few lines:

Russia has granted freedom to thousands and thousands.
It really was a terrific thing to do,
People will never forget it.

His poems on the suffering during the famine are graphic and chilling, entirely lacking in self-pity (an excerpt from ‘Hunger’):

Women and children wander the woods,
gathering leaves from the birch trees
for soup: birch borscht, birch-bouillon.

He had two sides to him. On the one hand, the concept of zaum, a poetry driven by theory, which has been influential on many experimental poets today. On the other hand, a poetry driven from necessity. Perloff says of it:

“...Khlebnikov’s late poetry, threatened as it was by material and psychological constraints, dispenses with all theories as to what poetry should be.”

Both sides of him are important, I think.

Perloff’s book closes with a chapter on how the four central modernists – Eliot, Stein, Duchamp and Khlebnikov – have influenced poets writing today, an influence that is still playing itself out, of course – consciously or unconsciously – in the work of many interesting poets in the 21st century.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

New Writing Scotland

Well, there’s so much doom and gloom around whenever anyone mentions poetry that anything upbeat doesn’t have to fight for my attention, and I was pleased to read a positive comment on contemporary Scottish poetry from prose and theatre writer Alan Bissett in this year’s intro to New Writing Scotland, 28. Alan writes:

“What was most noticeable to the editors this year was the higher quality of poetry than of prose. Many of the poems sang, while relatively few of the stories did. Perhaps mass-market imperatives and the lack of opportunity for prose writers have led to an inevitable blunting of short fiction.”

So, I suppose we have to balance up the positive opportunities for poetry with the negative effect of marketing imperatives on prose. And yet, for poetry publishing houses to survive and thrive, they need to carve out a larger share of the market – without sacrificing quality. Quite a dilemma.

As a footnote, here are the submission guidelines for next year’s NWS (deadline 30 September 2010). I noticed one dramatic change:

“You should provide a covering letter, clearly marked with your name and address. Please also put your name on the individual works.”

Now, I’m sure no names have previously been allowed on individual works. Everything was anonymous, but that’s no longer the case. There are positive and negative aspects to reading ‘blind’ just as there are for reading with a name attached. It will be interesting to see whether it has any effect on next year’s issue and whether the editors prefer this new system over the old.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Backward Prize

I’ve returned to the article in the Guardian about the Forward prize 2010 shortlist a few times, with increasing astonishment. It’s not the shortlists that astonish me, although three Faber books on the Best Collection list, perpetuating the myth that *of course* anything Faber publishes is automatically better than anything else, is worthy of a withering put-down by someone. But the whole article comprises of one piece of nonsense after another. First of all, the article begins:

“An expected clash between Nobel laureates Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott on the shortlist...has been averted”

Expected clash? Who expected such a clash? The judging panel includes Hugo Williams and Ruth Padel. Padel has made no comment on Walcott’s omission – unsurprising, I suppose. Williams couldn’t hold himself back:

“I read his first book when I was 18. I thought it a bit florid, and I've stayed with that."

This illustrates a serious problem with literary awards. Even people who enjoy Williams’s work can hardly expect him to be more than a footnote in a history of 20th century poetic achievement, itself a triumph, as most poets won’t merit even that. Walcott has a serious claim to be considered one of the 20th century’s greats. This doesn’t necessarily mean his new book is great (I haven’t read it, so can’t comment), but for his entire output to be dismissed as ‘florid’ by an inferior writer calls the whole award system into question. Walcott’s style is simply not plain, unadorned and prosy. Whatever one’s preference in those matters, judgements on a book surely ought to be made on how well an author writes in his/her own style rather than demanding it ape the favoured style of a judge.

But Williams isn’t finished. Asked who might win, he replied:

"I rather fancy Lachlan MacKinnon."

I have never known a judge, especially one who is part of a committee of five, to publicise his own choice weeks before the result is due. This is very poor form, I think. It might  help to explain the betting odds, for anyone who fancies a flutter:

9/4 Lachlan MacKinnon
5/2 Sinead Morrissey
3/1 Robin Robertson
4/1 Seamus Heaney
6/1 Jo Shapcott
8/1 Fiona Sampson

Finally, Williams has a go at publishers and emerging poets. There were 147 entries for the awards:

“That's too big a number of books in one year in one country to put out. I think it's something to do with the democratisation of everything – that everyone's got a right to get a book out ... I've got the feeling that sometimes it's more about desire than worth."

Well, you know, from a publishing perspective, it’s worth considering whether such an output is sustainable, given that it represents only a tiny fraction of poetry books published last year. Books need readers and buyers if small publishing houses are to keep their heads above water. A greater number of titles obviously require a greater number of readers (so reaching more readers is the difficult, but positive, answer). But Williams’s comments are absurdly negative. Would Williams have felt like this if he had just published his first collection? Are some of his collections more about desire than worth? Some might now be tempted to argue the case! Anyway, Andy Philip (well done to Andy, for his shortlisting in the Seamus Heaney prize, by the way) and Tania Hershman have both addressed the topic and it’s worth reading what they say.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Marjorie Perloff's 21st-Century Modernism: part 1

On holiday, most people I saw were either reading magazines (not of a literary variety) or novels (ditto), if they were reading anything at all. I guess people feel they can relax more with a book that isn’t too demanding but allows time to pass quicker while the tan deepens. I’ve never been able to do this. I get bored by trashy novels and there’s nothing much I can do about it. So I was reading Marjorie Perloff on the beach, her 21st Century Modernism: the New Poetics, and found it quite gripping.

Perloff charts the development of 20th century modernism by analysing four key figures. She concludes by assessing their influence on a small selection of poets today.

The first of the four is TS Eliot. In my ignorance, I hadn’t realised that many experimental poets and critics today can’t stand Eliot, mainly (it seems) because they disagree with his political and religious beliefs. Perloff shows how ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was a complete shock to the literary world when it first appeared and reminds us how radical Eliot’s vision must have been. Form and content were perfectly fused (but not in a traditional way) and the poem could never be adequately paraphrased. Every word counted, and words led to ideas rather than being embodiments of preconceived ideas. Its music and its tenuously connected phrases were entirely radical for its time. She then asks what changed after the First World War, why Eliot became a far more conservative figure, and embarks on a fascinating and, I’ve no doubt, controversial journey into TSE’s life, psyche, and work.

She then moves onto Gertrude Stein, whose disrupted syntax and repetition posed awkward questions about conventional expression. Again, though, what struck me was Stein’s vision. Most people just sit down and write a poem based on how poems are normally written, and on how sentences are normally structured (with a little poetic license). Stein’s mind worked in a different and completely uncompromising way. For example, she declared that nouns were the least important of all words and made it her business to rid her work of them as far as possible. Her work increasingly shifted away from any sense of a subject to a language-experiment. Perloff’s analysis of Stein’s poem, ‘Glazed Glitter’, was really interesting. She reads the poem with great intelligence and teases out resonances, allusions and common roots between words, many of which would otherwise have escaped my notice. However, I confess that I enjoyed Perloff’s reading more than the poem itself. Is that a terrible thing to say? I feel this about a good number of mainstream poems too, when people say interesting things about them. Of course, without the words, the analysis couldn’t have been written. Perloff definitely succeeded in giving me ways to look into Gertrude Stein’s work, which can often be baffling even to people who are huge admirers.

Anyway, I’ll move onto Perloff’s third and fourth subjects, Marcel Duchamp, and Velimir Khlebnikov, over the next day or two.