Thursday, September 30, 2010

New Walk Magazine, Issue 1

The first issue of New Walk magazine is just out, and very interesting it is too. It really is wide-ranging: David Mason, Mark Ford, Alison Brackenbury, Tom Leonard, Peter Larkin, CJ Allen and Matt Merritt all thrown in beside one another, so you have a curious mix of styles and methods from full-rhyming metrical formalism to experimental modernism and everything in between. The editorial makes it clear that this is a deliberate policy.

There is a also a short story by Janice D. Soderling, a conversation between Alex Pryce and Gwyneth Lewis, and a batch of essays and reviews. And yes, my jaw dropped at the negative review of Mark Halliday’s HappenStance pamphlet, although the reviewer, Nicholas Friedman, succeeds in anticipating objections before they appear, for which he ought to be granted a degree of kudos – “Some may question the pertinence of a review that criticizes a collection for failing to achieve something – earnestness, for example – that it never claimed to achieve in the first place. “ Yes, they will, for certain... I’m not even convinced that earnestness is a virtue.

The magazine kicks off with three poems by me – ‘The X Factor’, ‘Online’ and ‘Soundings’. I was a little surprised the magazine chose to place these at the beginning, as they are strange, but maybe that was the idea. Matthew Stewart promises to review the magazine in the next few weeks, so you might get a fuller report from him.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Derivative, Solipsistic or Lacking either Freshness or Ambition"

The 2010 Aldeburgh Poetry Prize shortlist has been announced (and nice to see Tony Williams flying the flag for Salt on that list). The comments by one of the judges, Neil Rollinson, will raise a few eyebrows:

“Most of the books I read were either derivative, solipsistic or lacking either freshness or ambition. There were, however, a few splendid books which were a joy to read and which I’d be happy to recommend to anyone.”

The Aldeburgh Prize is for first collections, but I suspect that comment could safely be extended to poetry books generally. Some of the collections that have most lacked freshness and ambition that I’ve seen recently have been by established poets. But do only a few new collections make it into a ‘joy to read’ category each year, or is he being harsh?

I tend to read quite widely, and not always the very latest stuff, so I don't read all that many new collections in the year they are published . Basing it on books I'm asked to review, I suspect Rollinson is right. I don't often think the books are 'bad', but many seem a bit flat, and it's great when I get one that really bowls me over. On the other hand, collections I find really boring appear to be a 'joy to read' for many other readers: in fact, at Neil Rollinson's website, you can read excerpts from reviews of his own collections - intriguingly, both positive and negative reviews, which all goes to show... If taste was uniform (and uniformly refined), the job of publishers would be easy.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Nevada's Miss Breadlove

I was reading John Berryman’s Dream Song, 208 and came across these lines in the second stanza. Berryman is reading the TLS

Vozhnezsenky was good on watermelons
and Nevada’s Miss Breadlove outstripped the felons
to be crowned Narrative Poet Laureate of North America.
Groovy, pal.

That’s quite a title for Miss Breadlove! I googled her name to see what I could find, out of sheer curiosity, and turned up Mildred Breedlove, Berryman mischievously switching a letter in her name. Quite a story she has. It seems she was commissioned by the State Governor to write a poem about Nevada and she spent the next three years travelling about to research information for the poem. Must have been a generous grant!

When the book was published, she was indeed almost given the title Berryman relates in his poem – except it was ‘Narrative Poet Laureate of Nevada’, rather than North America – a minor difference, of course...

She was also nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature (surely that can’t have been a serious candidacy?) and won a special award presented by the President of the Philippines (you couldn’t make it up). Finally, she got embroiled in some dispute over the book with Nevada’s officials and threatened to leave the state, as you can read in the colourful letter at the link:

“But the suppressing forces underestimated both the work and me. I do not crush easily. My backbone is made of forged steel, and I spit at tigers.”

I tried to find some of her poems online, but found nothing. The bio at the link tells us that her birth year and year of death are unknown (I suppose it is possible she is still alive). Has anyone read her poems? Was her Nevada any good? I certainly wonder why those who had commissioned it were so keen to suppress it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Geoffrey Hill's 'Odi Barbare' Excerpts

Poetry magazine has just published a new batch of Geoffrey Hill poems, always an event, of course. Hill has never been easy reading, but his work often repays close attention. However, these new ones are hard-going, even by his standards. Let’s have a go...

The title, Odi Barbare (Barbarian Odes), is a reference to a work of the same name by Giosuè Carducci, a 19th century Italian poet. More on Carducci here – it’s an online translation from the Italian, so reads strangely in places. One interesting thing I learned from this article is that Carducci’s ‘Odi Barbare’ was an attempt to marry Greek quantitative metre with the rhythms of Italian (which would have seemed ‘barbaric’ to many Italians at the time). Now, Hill’s poems are in Sapphic stanzas, a Greek metre. In English, Sapphics tend to work as three lines of trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee, followed by one line of dactyl trochee, but I imagine Hill is also trying to work in the Greek quantitative values with the accentual English feet. I don’t know if that’s what he is doing, but I’d be surprised if he wasn’t. Some expert on this ought to check, if it hasn’t already been done.

The first of the poems, number xxiv, starts with an image of going back to a beginning. I like ‘moves unlike wildfire’. We’re going to take our time and start with this rustic image of a ploughman in line 3, which is also a reference to Micah 4:3 from the Bible – “they will hammer their swords into ploughshares”, an image of future peace and hope. But in Hill’s poem, the ploughman simply hammers his ploughshare. It’s brutal reality, hard toil. The ‘durum dentem’ in line 3 is another great phrase – the durum conveys hardness, but durum is also a kind of wheat. ‘Dentem’ I’m not sure about – is it some kind of enamel, something toothlike? In any case, it also gives a picture of the plough, the teeth it uses to break into the soil. And in the fourth line, we discover it’s digging not into ordinary soil after all, but into Virgil, presumably representative of classical literature, knowledge etc

Just to dip my toe into the second stanza – Hill might be referencing this poem, Heavensgate, by Christopher Okigbo, which is apparently the greatest Nigerian poem of the 20th century. I think this might be the case not only because of the mention of Idoto Mater (Okigbo’s poem begins, “Before you, Mother Idoto/ naked I stand” - Idoto being goddess of the oceans) but also because of the reference to Igboland, which is part of modern Nigeria. Exactly how this relates to Greek mythology ("the great-/Stallioned Argos") is unclear to me. Neither do I really understand what’s going on in this stanza nor how it relates to the first, if at all.

It’s the kind of poem I’d need an expert commentary to get anywhere with. There just aren’t the hours in the day to do research into every word in every line. While there are some great phrases and interesting wordplay, there are also several convoluted sentences with deliberately mangled syntax, but not with the distinct voice of, say, Berryman, where you can virtually hear the poet’s voice addressing you.

Anyone for the third stanza?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Millions, or Perhaps Billions, or Trillions

You know those email scams, which spin some convoluted story and ask for your bank account details so that the emailer can supposedly deposit millions of pounds/dollars in it? Well here's one with a difference at Mark Doty's blog. A classic.

Publication Routes, First Lines and Literary Identity

Apologies for the relative lack of activity here for the last week or so, but that’s partly because I’ve been writing on other blogs. Firstly, an article on my route to publication for Mairi Sharratt’s blog, A Lump in the Throat. The article has a part 1 and a part 2. Secondly, I conducted an experiment on first lines and continuations over at the Magma blog. And thirdly, this morning, I wrote a long comment (sorry about the length) for a fine article by Claire Askew on literary identity. My comment is currently awaiting moderation, but the article and comments made so far are well worth reading.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Don't Sleep

No, don’t sleep while the governors of the world are busy!
Be suspicious of the power they claim to have to acquire on your behalf!
Stay awake to be sure that your hearts are not empty, when others calculate on the emptiness of your hearts!
Do what is unhelpful, sing songs from out of your mouths that go against expectation!
Be ornery, be as sand, not oil in the thirsty machinery of the world!

(from Dreams by Gunter Eich, in Angina Days: Selected Poems (Princeton University Press, 2010), translated by Michael Hofmann)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Papal Tour

In the next hour or two, the Pope will pass within a few hundred metres of my house. I’m staying well away. I am no fan of Ratzinger/Benedict. As a highly intelligent young man, he was one of the architects of Vatican II which sought to change both the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church for the better. A few years later he must have had some kind of unfortunate ‘conversion’ experience because he has spent his life since trying to reverse everything that Vatican II might have achieved.

To an extent, he is more transparent that Pope John Paul II. JP II was an arch-conservative, but he was good with the public, so people tended to overlook the rigidity of his views. Benedict hasn’t a PR bone in his body, so what you see is what you get. On the other hand, JP II was very probably a compassionate, decent man in practice, despite his increasingly dogmatic views. Words like ‘calculating’, ‘ambitious’, ‘two-faced’ and ‘downright nasty’ could never have been fairly applied to him, but they don’t seem inappropriate for Benedict. It is shocking, of course, that someone who is supposed to represent Jesus might be associated with such words, but there is plenty of historical precedent for it.

On the ground, I am a committed ecumenist. It’s important to overlook the idiocy of leaders. Just as Americans were not all George W. Bush, so not all Roman Catholics, priests, and bishops are Pope Benedict. I don’t have any problem with him visiting the UK and couldn’t care less whether it’s counted as a state visit or not. The UK Government entertains many even more unsavoury characters, and my taxes pay for them whether I like it or not. But I do wish the RC Church would take a liberal turn in the near future, after Benedict has gone. Leonardo Boff, liberation theologian who was a thorn in the Vatican's side for many years (and has now left the RC Church), wrote on Ratzinger's accession to Pope in April 2005 - "I believe in miracles. Let's hope Benedict XVI becomes again the theologian I used to respect, who elicited hope, not fear." Sadly, the miracle hasn't happened yet...

Anyway, this is the poem I wrote the day Ratzinger was elected Pope, published in the now unavailable The Clown of Natural Sorrow:


The bell tolls. I slop my hair in shampoo.
On the radio Ratzinger breathes Latin like a bell
tolling. The letterbox clicks like a book snapped

shut. Blessed art thou, mother of God. An envelope
greys the welcome rug, the scrape of my name
in fading ink. Abortion a grave and sinful

mistake. Kate’s sloping script. ‘Papa Ratzi,’ a DJ sniggers
at his own wit. The time and date for the funeral,
the child’s name. Last scraps of Catholic hope. No

flowers. Donations to the hospital please. I shape my hair
with wax. Bells and smoke. The umbilical rope round
the tiny neck. The Pope is dead. Long live the Pope.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Poetry at the.., and Three Books

It’s been a fairly busy few days with a few more to come, but I am at least reasonably on top of things. Poetry at the...GRV was excellent on Sunday evening. All the readers showed why they are seen as intriguing, distinctive voices. To people I’ve heard suggesting that too many contemporary poets sound similar to one another – well, you should have been there on Sunday evening to hear Eleanor Rees, Martin MacIntyre and Michael Pedersen. They are carving out their own territory and it was exciting to hear living proof of that on Sunday evening.

I’ve been reading three books simultaneously, all with a German connection:

Last night, I finished one, Cursing Bagels (can’t believe that £99 second-hand price-tag. I got mine for £3.50 about a week ago!) by Alfred Brendel. Brendel is a world-famous pianist. His poems have a light touch but they are also surprising in a similar way to those of Charles Simic. And the lightness is always in tension with darkness...

Then there’s Angina Days by Gunter Eich (translated by Michael Hofmann). The blurb says, “Eich was rivalled only by Paul Celan as the leading poet in the generation after Gottfried Benn and Bertolt Brecht.” It’s certainly been an interesting read and the further into the book I go the more interesting it seems to get.

And finally, James Sheard’s Dammtor arrived in the post. The poems may be made in Keele, England, but they are distinctly European. I've only read the first four poems, so far, and those have certainly whetted my appetite for the rest. The good news for the people of Edinburgh (whether they yet know it as good news or not) is that Jim will be reading for Poetry at the...GRV on Sunday 10th October, as a special guest poet – part of a collaboration with Gutter magazine.

All three collections share dark humour and twisted imagination and aren’t afraid to tackle big themes, even if they each do so in radically different ways. I’ll try to say more soon.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Prefab Sprout - Elegance

One of my favourite Prefab Sprout songs. I believe the album sleeve was designed by Bloodaxe poet, Matthew Caley, whose enjoyable collection, Apparently, was published earlier this year.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Reviews and Newspapers

I was recently sent listings of what books were being reviewed in newspapers and a few top magazines. For the week from 16-23 August, here’s how it breaks down in terms of publishers:

Faber - 38
Penguin - 15
HarperCollins - 14
Bloomsbury - 11
Vintage - 10
Canongate - 9
Hodder - 9
Jonathan Cape - 8
Chatto & Windus - 8
Picador – 8

The single most reviewed book was a poetry book, which might briefly amaze you until you remember that Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain has just been published. It was reviewed 6 times in that week, in the Daily Telegraph, The (Glasgow) Herald, Independent, Irish Times, Sunday Times & The Times. This week, incidentally, it was reviewed twice in the same newspaper – The Telegraph, not content with one review, published reviews both by Nick Laird and by Adam O’Riordan.

The book which had the most written about it (in news articles, as opposed to reviews) was Tony Blair’s The Journey, with more than 60 articles covering its launch in various ways. It was also reviewed five times – in the Daily Express, Financial Times, Independent, Observer & The Times. Needless to say, it’s now number 1 in the Amazon Bestsellers list. That's notwithstanding the Facebook campaign urging us to place a copy of the book in the Crime section of our local bookshop.

Where are Salt, Bloodaxe, Carcanet etc? Well, nowhere in the papers. Exactly why the national press collude in the hegemony that afflicts British book publishing isn’t clear to me. Coverage doesn’t so much affect readers’ choices by argument as by appearance, so even a mixed or negative review can have a positive effect on sales (Tony Blair's memoir is a case in point). A book that’s seen all over the media countless times is almost bound to sell better than a book that fails to appear. As for the lack of space papers claim to have for poetry, perhaps the Telegraph might want to explain why it found two spaces for Human Chain and none for any other poetry collection. I know Heaney’s books sell extremely well and, as such, deserve to be reviewed, but not at the expense of everything else.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Reviews and Unseemly Praise

“Books are described as being ‘compulsively readable’ when they are merely ‘OK’; ‘jaw-droppingly good’ when they are actually ‘not bad’; ‘impossible to put down’ when they are really ‘no worse than the last three’. The same authors who mope and whine about a negative comment here and there are only too glad to accept praise that is not warranted, kudos they do not deserve. But how often does an author ever come out and admit that the praise showered on his book was excessive, inappropriate, ill-considered, unseemly or flat-out wrong? That’s the sort of thing that takes real moral fiber, real guts.”

(Joe Queenan in the New York Times 2008, quoted by Dennis O’Driscoll in The Dark Horse, issue 25)

Friday, September 03, 2010

New Poems

Quick news of a couple of publications. I have three poems in the new Ouroboros Review, issue 5. My poems are on page 26, but there’s plenty of good stuff throughout the magazine. I’m also in the Bugged anthology with a poem called 'What Friends Are For'. The anthology will be out soon. I’ve seen a .pdf with a selection from the contents and the book looks well worth getting hold of.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Edwin Morgan Celebration, Monday 30th August

I had feared that I might be disappointed by the Edwin Morgan Celebration at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday. Perhaps the readers wouldn’t do the poems justice or perhaps the talk in between poems would be awkward or perhaps it might otherwise prove itself faintly depressing. But I needn’t have worried. It was a memorable and genuinely affecting occasion. Poems were chosen from all periods, old and new, and everyone did a great job of reading them. Some readings (Douglas Dunn’s on ‘The First Men on Mercury’, Andrew Greig’s on ’Jack London in Heaven’, Don Paterson’s on ‘From the Video Box, No. 25’) went beyond the highest expectations. Robert Crawford’s enunciation in ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’ was quite brilliant.

Someone (annoyingly, I can’t remember who. David Kinloch, maybe?) remarked that most of the poems read had their centre in the expression of love, and that their vast range, their blend of experimentation and tradition, their playfulness, depth and everything else that makes up Edwin Morgan’s body of work, find a unifying principle in love – both the dark struggles and the hard-won joys. Well, I’m paraphrasing wildly, but it was something like that.

There were also two video-clips: one a BBC recording of ‘One Cigarette’, and another from the Arts Council archive, a home-made recording of ‘For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004’. In the latter, he clearly wasn’t well, but I could still detect the vitality and passion that infused everything he wrote. He was the first poet I ever saw doing a reading, way back in the eighties, part of a ‘breakfast and books’ series Waterstones bookshop did on Saturday(?) mornings. I didn’t know his work at all at the time, but I was amazed at the way he read. There was a very small audience, but my memory is of him almost bouncing around during the reading. His style is very different from Heaney’s but there was similar warmth of personality and direct engagement about him. When I read his poems from a book, in all their vast range of styles, forms and voices, I can still hear his very distinctive voice reading them in my head. People who write the same kind of poem over and over and call it ‘voice’ – read Edwin Morgan’s Collected Poems and you’ll really hear a voice.

The main tent was packed full. I don’t know how many it holds but, certainly, there were many hundreds of people. Everyone came out enthused, smiling, maybe also with a few tears but not altogether sad tears. They loved the show and there was plenty to love about it. I can’t imagine that many poets will die and find themselves loved so much by so many people they didn’t know personally – the audience that night just being a small cross-section of a much wider appreciation. It did make me wish that such numbers (or even a quarter of such numbers. An eighth!) would turn up for readings by other lesser known but still highly talented Scottish poets. I know Edwin Morgan was special, but people who loved that evening would find plenty to love about other evenings with other good poets too. And I bet Edwin Morgan would agree.

Nick Barley, new director of the Festival, gave the closing speech. His final act was to dedicate the 2010 Festival to Edwin Morgan. This event was certainly a great way to end it.

The Buyer

After my reading at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Friday 21st August, I did manage to sell a few copies of The Opposite of Cabbage from the signing desk. A day or two later, I checked how many copies were on the shelves. There were eight.

A week afterwards, on the final day of the festival, I checked again. There were seven. Of course, it would have been nice to have sold the lot, but the shelves packed with Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy etc represent stiff competition. To whoever bought that single copy, even if you never read this, thank you!