Saturday, January 29, 2011

America - Horse With No Name

Like Todd Swift, I'd have the Fleet Foxes eponymous album from 2009 as one of my albums of the decade. I'd think of the Beach Boys as their main inspiration but, on listening to America's 'Horse with No Name' live, I get a sense that Fleet Foxes have been listening carefully to the tone of those harmonies (and getting tips for their beards too):

Friday, January 28, 2011

Pure Television

I recently acquired the technology to convert humble audio cassette recordings into MP3 format and I’ve managed to dig out a few recordings of my band, Pure Television, from the 1990s. You can listen to them at this page – at the moment there are six songs, but I will upload more as I track them down. I'll also try to post more lyrics (only lyrics to 'Bicycle Balladry' are currently up there), which I confess are all mine.

The songs were recorded on an 8-track portostudio in the bedroom of my house. We recorded them live, rather than by individual instrument, to preserve the energy of the moment. I think we just about succeeded in that, but we also didn’t bother to eradicate mistakes, of which there are many. So, it’s about as un-slick as is possible to imagine.

Our first gig was at a party. We had been playing our instruments for exactly four days. We played three songs, all of them total chaos – including a cover of Joy Division’s ’24 Hours’. In fact, I don’t think we even bothered to tune up beforehand. Audience members amused themselves by trying to pull the leads out of our amps, while we raced around putting them back in again.

We did get better, although how much better is a matter of debate. The band never achieved much success, but we did play a number of gigs around Glasgow and Edinburgh with some people who did go on to achieve considerable fame and fortune. At one gig, most members of Belle & Sebastian were in the audience, although they’ve probably erased this from their collective memory by now.

If you like lo-fi, warped jangly pop, you might find something to enjoy. I am unaccountably glad I’m now able to preserve those digitally in any case.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Salt Books Winter Sale

Until the end of January, you can buy books direct from Salt and get 33% off the price – the real price, that is, not the inflated Amazon one (see below). The Opposite of Cabbage is listed at only £7.19 in the Salt online store. With 33% off, that should be less than a fiver. Use the code HGW45R13 for any purchases at Salt.

From a review in The TLS, by Carrie Etter:
Rob A Mackenzie's first full collection inhabits present-day Scotland in all its livliness, banality and bad weather... Mackenzie's vigorous urban language, often employed in declarative sentences, vivifies it all... The Opposite of Cabbage impresses with its distinctive style and energetic exploration of 'the way we live now.'

Now, something very odd. Amazon UK appear to have doubled the price of books published by Salt. The paperbacks are on sale for anything from £15 to £18. It must be a mistake, but Amazon are rather taking their time to sort it out. In connection with this, I had a weird dream two nights ago. I won a competition. The bizarre prize was that the winner had to buy both The Opposite of Cabbage and a rail ticket to Newcastle, by debit card. It cost me £26 for the book from Amazon, and the rail ricket was for the next day, when I was working and couldn't travel.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Happy Burns Day 2011

It is Burns Day, and I’ll be tucking into haggis, neeps and tatties tonight. Always a good thing when a duty is so pleasurable. My haggis will be of the normal variety. I have tasted vegetarian haggis and it wasn’t so bad but, nevertheless, Alexander Hutchison’s poem, Surprise Surprise!, written in 1984, always makes me laugh every time I read it. It’s from his outstanding New & Selected Poems, Scales Dog, which would have been a massive bestseller in a better world.

I have a vague hope of making it to the Burns flashmob at 1pm today outside St Giles Cathedral, where anyone can join in an improvised rendition of A Man’s a Man for A’ That, but time may be against me. Peggy, from the Scottish Poetry Library, shows you how it’s done below.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Reading at the City Arts Centre, Edinburgh

I spent a highly enjoyable evening yesterday at a reading organised by Colin Herd on the fifth floor of the City Arts Centre, Edinburgh. The venue is a little like being in a university seminar room, without atmosphere, but it has great acoustics (no need for microphones) and is so high and away from everything that no background noise, which can sometimes plague bar events, was able to interfere. There is no perfect venue anywhere in Edinburgh! At least not an affordable one.

The readers were Andrea Brady, JL Williams, Richie McCaffery and Sandy Christie, and A W Singerman contributed a few songs. To say there was a contrast in styles – both in terms of poetry and reading style – would be a huge understatement. Eclectic is the word.

I’m not going to review the readings – suffice it to say that I enjoyed the evening and had a good time in the Waverley Bar afterwards. However, I will draw your attention to the fact that JL Williams has a collection coming out in February with Shearsman Press called Condition of Fire. She only read one poem from it last night, but it whetted the appetite for more (let that be a lesson for the over-loquacious!). Also, Andrea Brady’s latest book is Wildfire. I didn’t have enough money in my pocket to buy the book last night, but I plan to order it. It’s far from straightforward material, but I kept hearing snatches of lines and phrases I really liked at the reading and would like to slow the pace down and read them in a book.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Finding New Poets

Interesting article by Don Paterson in the Guardian on ‘Finding the Best New Poets’. I’ve read enough hopeful Facebook updates from people “seeking publisher for my new manuscript” to know that seeking publishers isn’t the way it works for poets. A good few years ago, someone said to me, “Don’t look for a publisher. Let the publishers look for you,” which seemed more than slightly optimistic, but the title of the Guardian article bears that out.

The background here is the Picador poetry prize, won in its inaugural year by Richard Meier. It’s partly a matter of what style of poems you like, of course, but Meier looks like a worthy winner. A prize is only one way for publishers to find their poets. While Don P exaggerates just a bit in suggesting that a new talent will find themselves linked into poetry networks from only “one casual appearance at the most obscure local workshop,” he’s right that “you really have to work at being a recluse of a rare and dedicated variety to avoid being on the radar.”

Probably, poets fret too much about publicising themselves. There are thousands of poets all competing for the tiny poetry market, and the tendency is to feel you have to shout pretty loud to be heard. Increasingly, I’m not so sure about that. Strong work, activity in support of a book (readings, interviews etc), a little word of mouth from other people, and a growing sense that there’s something distinctive about you is mostly sufficient. Some books sell far more than others – not always the best books (Wallace Stevens’s first collection, Harmonium, sold terribly when first published, for example) – but the hope is that, in time, at least some of the best books will keep selling while the others fade away.

Interesting that Don P picks out blogs and Facebook as ways of “helping enormously” in maintaining good networks. I was at a reading he gave not so long ago when he said (tongue-in-cheek, of course), “What is Facebook anyway?” Nice that he picks out Baroque in Hackney as an example of good poetry blogging (it certainly is). As for “many anonymous others which resemble farty wee boys' gang-huts, and where membership is conditional on hating the right people,” I suppose the advantage of blogging is that the only farts you can actually smell are your own. The others are all scentless cyber farts. I would like to see the list of the right people to hate too, so that I can send them all a special Surroundings Valentine card. Anyone on that list is a friend here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Horizon Review, Issue 5

Issue 5 of Horizon Review, edited by Katy Evans-Bush, has just gone live. Poems, reviews, articles, short stories and much more. I have a poem in the issue called Eggy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The TS Eliot Prize 2010 Broadcasts

Here’s a competition – no prizes, but it might be interesting. The BBC has been broadcasting poems from the shortlisted poets for this year’s TS Eliot Prize. The result is due next Monday. I’d like to know:
1. Who reads their poems best (based only on those broadcasts at the link)?
2. Which of these poems is your favourite? Was it by the poet you expected to like best?
Only six of the ten shortlisted poets have contributed at the time of writing this blog article, but you can change your votes if those who come afterwards change your minds.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Helena Nelson: The Teller

Like Rachel Fox, I’m won’t review Helena Nelson’s new collection, Plot and Counter-Plot. I know Helena and she published my first chapbook with HappenStance Press. However, this is my blog and I can do things here which I couldn’t do anywhere else: I am going to look at three poems – one today, the others will come later in the week.

When I first started to read Plot and Counter-Plot, I rattled through it at an alarming speed. The poems seem to invite this approach, as they employ plain language, ordinary syntax, and punctuation in all the right places. I thought the poems were ‘OK’ but there was a voice in my head shouting, “Slow down! That’s no way to read poetry!” And when I slowed down and started again, I realised how much I had missed first time through.

Take ‘Teller’, as example, an eight-line poem in couplets, set in a tight iambic tetrameter and full rhyme scheme – AB CD AD CB. On my initial quick read-through, I wasn’t much impressed by this poem. The narrator tells her story to the rain, the rain tells it to the trees, the trees recount it, and the narrator is left with an empty breeze and has to begin all over again. “Hmmmm, so what?” I thought.

So, quite a lot... Reading it again, I wondered how it was possible for me to have missed so much, but that’s what happens when you blast through a poem without giving it due consideration. The first line should have alerted me that something odd was happening – “Umbrella-ed here in Autumn light”. I am thinking Mary Poppins, an uncanny entrance – not literally Poppins, but certainly magic-realism of some kind. It could be the narrator simply is carrying an ordinary umbrella, but the oddity of “umbrella” being used as a verb and acting on the narrator, who appears to have no choice in the matter, speaks against that.

So we’re whisked out of normality into an eerie half-lit world (“Autumn light” isn’t accidental), and the narrator tells her life-story to the rain – as you do... The rain passes it on to the leaves and moss on a tree-bark. The third couplet lifts the poem way beyond standard poetic fare:

The bark recounts, but not quite right,
the plot and counter-plot of loss.

It’s like Chinese Whispers. The bark isn’t accurate and the story comes out slightly wrong. The poem might be about communication, about what gets lost in telling, and the life story is itself both a ‘plot and counter-plot of loss’. Who thinks of their own life like that? The poem invites us to do so. A life has a story and also an anti-story: what gets missed out, forgotten, misinterpreted, told all wrong. It strikes me that the bark’s mistake mirrors our own attempts to tell stories, as getting it ‘quite right’ is virtually impossible.

The result is an ‘empty breeze’. The story is nowhere. The narrator’s attempts to tell it and have it soak perfectly into the world seem to have failed. Perhaps we could read this as a parable on writing (not the only way to read it, of course) – every poem is born to fall short. It tells us something and then someone like me comes along and recounts it, but not quite right, as the poem itself – the minute it is retold in someone’s head – ceases to be exactly itself.

Does the poet then give up? The narrator here starts “to tell my tale again.” That’s why we write poems, because the billions written before by ourselves and others weren’t enough to tell what needs to be told. There is value in doing so, necessity even, whatever is lost in the telling. The rain is waiting patiently.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Facebook and Networked Blogs

You could be forgiven for thinking that this blog is pretty dead, due to the lack of comments on most recent posts. Does anyone read it anymore? Well, yes, people do read it, but tend to comment on Facebook, a trend I’m becoming unhappy with.

I signed up for Networked Blogs some time ago, a Facebook application which posts a link on Facebook to every new blog article I produce. It sounded like a great idea, a convenient way for interested people to read the blog. In practice, it does bring readers, but not comments. The discussions take place on Facebook. After a few days they disappear into that huge, uninhabited desert of old Facebook status updates, links, videos and notes that no one will ever read again. The living record of a blog discussion is gone. Anyone looking at this blog in a month or two’s time would never know any discussion had taken place.

This seems to me to defeat the whole purpose of blogging. I could post articles to a non-interactive website, no problem. But a blog’s nature is interactive and, in its archive, the comments are often more interesting than the original posts.

So I’ve made the decision to leave Networked Blogs. However, I looked and couldn’t find any way to leave. There didn’t seem to be any ‘delete application’ button. But I’m going to do some research, as there must be a way. It’s possible I might lose a few readers by doing this, but I’d rather remain true to the spirit of blogging. For anyone who wants to keep up with things here – please add me to your blog feed, as I do want to keep as many readers as possible.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reviewing (and Reading) 'Difficult' Poetry

Apologies for the gap between posts. I’ve been busy generally and, on top of everything else, I’ve been making a determined effort to and allocate reviewers to books for the 50th issue of Magma. Almost there, but not quite.

I’ve also had a couple of chapbooks to review myself for another magazine. At the moment, I’m not sure about them. They are firmly ‘innovative’, or ‘experimental’, and half the battle is working out what they are trying to do. It’s obvious that they have ‘something’, as there are many fine lines and phrases. I’m not totally in the dark, but haven’t quite got a handle on them yet.

What the best approach for a reviewer? Is it best to be tentative and say you’re not certain about various things? Or is it best to stick to points you are fairly sure of? The first way is honest, but might make some people think you are incompetent. The second isn’t quite honest and may not get to grips with a book as a whole, but it does at least avoid making idiotic mistakes. I suspect many more reviewers go this way than would admit to it.

At the moment, I have time to hope things start to sink in. That’s often the way it is with poems, even those I do ‘get’ immediately. I never like to rush down a reaction because my brain seems to work subconsciously over a period of time and I find more in good poems than I at first thought existed.

Friday, January 07, 2011

How To Lose Weight

If you're trying to fight the post-Christmas flab, you can't really beat this regime, created by Boo Hewerdine. I have been lying on a big ball for the last few days and, I have to say, my shape is definitely changing, although not necessarily for the better. If anyone can supply four poodles and a few leotards, I'd be grateful.

You could do the exercises while listening to Boo H's Graceland, one of my favourite songs ever. I'm sure that would help. And here he is with Eddi Reader singing Footsteps Fall.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Review: 'Alex y Robert' by Wena Poon

I met Wena when she was in Scotland last summer for the Salt Scotland launch and then at various times during her residential fellowship at Hawthornden Castle. It’s possible that this novel might have sneaked under my radar if that hadn’t been the case, but I’m glad it didn’t because Alex y Robert is an absorbing read from start to finish.

The story is of Alejandra Herrera (aka ‘Alex’), a young American woman who wants to be a bullfighter in Spain. She has some pedigree in that her grandfather was a famous matador, she speaks fluent Spanish, and she has done some training in the USA, despite the misgivings of her parents-by-adoption (her mother and father were killed in a car crash when she was a child). She goes to Spain and makes contact with Roberto de la Torre, a rising star in the bullfighting arena, whose grandfather was a matador contemporary of Alex’s granddad.

It isn’t exactly plain sailing. Public opposition to bullfighting, at home and abroad, is growing. The majority of people in the bullfighting scene are opposed to women-matadors and will have nothing to do with them. There are close-shaves and crises of confidence. The recession is threatening many venues and promoters. The press is often contemptuous. Roberto has his own personal and public crises to deal with. Will Alex ever realise her dream of fighting bulls in the great arena in Madrid?

The narrative speeds along with real fizz and energy, but not at the expense of character development. Wena Poon artfully structures the novel so that it switches between present and past without the flashbacks seeming in any way obtrusive. They build up a sense of who Alex and Robert are and the issues that face them, including the issue of their own relationship, which is the subject of much gossip. You’ll end up caring about the fate of the two main characters (and some of the supporting roles), whatever your feelings towards bullfighting. The competing, passionate attitudes towards the art (not a ‘sport’, we are reminded) are dealt with in a fair and subtle way. Wena Poon obviously researched deeply, not just the bare facts, but the inner psychology of matadors, managers, fans, and those vehemently opposed to the whole thing, and weaves it seamlessly into the narrative. She questions too-easy assumptions of cultural superiority (from all sides) and revels in their inherent contradictions, perhaps well illustrated by the scene in which Roberto meets up with his friends, Paco and Ana. Ana has been reading VirtualPeña, a website for women bullfighting fans:

Paco asked her when she became interested in bullfighting. She retorted that she was not, but VirtualPeña was addictive. She added that she supported women in any kind of activity that men didn’t allow them in, even though she taught yoga, was vegetarian, and opposed the corrida, and yes she was a bundle of contradictions, and did the men at the table have a problem with it?

This is a literary novel which is also a page-turner, an exciting story which is intelligently organised and very well written. It also asks questions on identity, on how opinions are shaped and cemented, on tradition and modernity, on danger, beauty, cruelty and violence, and shirks nothing. My advice: get some olives, pour a large glass of fine Rioja, and imagine that it’s sunny outside. Pick up this book and start reading.

(Alex y Robert, by Wena Poon, was published by Salt in 2010, and is currently priced at £6.07 (free postage worldwide) at the Book Depository. The book’s Salt Page is here, and contains useful information, and the button to buy it there now works!

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Review of 'Mollicle' by Claire Crowther

My review of Claire Crowther’s pamphlet, Mollicle, published by Nine Arches Press, is now up at Sphinx magazine. It’s the third review of three on the page. And there are reviews of many other pamphlets too by a host of reviewers.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Supermarket Trolley: A Cautionary Tale

I’m in Sainsbury’s trying to choose between various packages on a shelf. A shallow trolley, in which I have placed a small grey backpack and a pair of trousers, is slightly to my left. There are too many packages and it’s hard to choose between them. What do I want for dinner tonight? What about my wife and daughter? I make a few choices, turn round to the trolley and... it’s gone!

I feel a sense of minor panic. Luckily there’s nothing financially valuable in the backpack – a pair of reading glasses, a copy of Arun Kolatkar’s ‘Collected Poems’ recently published by Bloodaxe (which has consistently been astonishing me) and my poetry notebook. Only the latter is irreplaceable but it’s quite new and doesn’t have much written in it. My bank cards are in a wallet in my pocket, so the thief is going to be very disappointed. I speed up and down aisles in the vain hope of catching sight of someone racing off with my stuff.

Instead, I bump into a young woman pushing my trolley. My backpack and trousers are still in it, but she is loading on cartons of juice and has already stacked it with milk, yoghurt and several vegetables. I point out that it is my trolley. She looks surprised. I point out my backpack and the trousers. She now looks absolutely shocked and blurts out apologies. If she is a thief, she is an astonishing actress. But she can’t be a thief. This woman was continuing her shopping, in no obvious hurry, only a couple of aisles down from where the trolley disappeared. I take her back to the disappearing point, where her own trolley, containing a single bag of potatoes, idles at the discount food section.

She must have been in a dream not to notice my backpack in particular, which was standing up clearly as she placed food around it. I wonder when she would have noticed and whether she would have bought the trousers at a till without noticing. Next time I must follow her rather than confront her too soon. Good to get my stuff back but disconcerting to discover how easily I could have been robbed, if it had been a real thief, in a supermarket.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Review - Gulliver's Travels (2010 Movie)

I took my daughter to see Gulliver’s Travels mainly because I checked the schedule too late to see Animals United, but mistakes of that kind can sometimes be fortuitous. Not this time.

Gulliver, as you can hardly be unaware due to the massive marketing campaign from TV adverts and bus hoardings, is played by Jack Black, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Jack Black plays Jack Black. People call him Gulliver for whatever reason. He plays the generic character from all his movies – a wisecracking loser with a whiff of unpredictability, except that nothing unpredictable ever happens. With a hefty injection of menace, he might angle vaguely towards Jack Nicholson, but ends up more like a Build-a Bear with dodgy battery – ‘cuddly’, ‘limited range’, and ‘annoying’ are phrases which spring to mind.

The Build-a-Bear identity is the only way to explain the attraction between himself and the beautiful, sophisticated Darcy (Emily Blunt) - at least, from her point of view. Darcy works, like Black, for a newspaper but she is a successful travel editor while Black works in the mailroom and has done for the past 10 years. A trainee on his first day at work is promoted above Black. You get the picture. Perhaps Darcy likes the idea of buying Black a new wardrobe and dressing him up each morning. You can buy beds, jewellery and shoes for these teddies, and they are very willing to spend time in the shops, unlike most men. Even Black’s plagiarism of a travel article isn’t enough to put her off. The message of the movie seems to be – ‘Plagiarise from Hollywood! Don’t worry! We’ll forgive you and you will win that gorgeous woman of your dreams you lied to. Women appreciate good liars as long as they can demolish an entire fleet of micro-people with one sneeze.’ Good, wholesome stuff.

Black wisecracks his way through various battles on behalf of Lilliput, despite betrayal from an embittered Lilliputian general. Nothing can hold him back for long. His escape from a giant doll’s house in Brobdingnag is all too easy. He has to wear a doll’s dress, which is of course Jack Black at his hilarious 'best'. As for Swiftian satire, you may as well forget it. There is no hint of a political agenda in this movie. It is a threadbare love story with a few special effects and a pompous baddie with a posh south of England accent, who is, in fact, the only one to see through Black’s lies that he was President back in the far-off land of USA. The baddie gets scant reward for this intelligence and for his genius in building a giant fighting robot that does at least give Black a run for his money.

Does Black ever get out of the mailroom? Well, that would be a spoiler if I told you, but you can probably guess. After fighting villains for much of the movie, he manages to deliver a message on the evils of war, for which we can all be profoundly grateful. ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ ‘Tell lies to get what you want.’ ‘Plagiarise and you will be well rewarded.’ What would Jonathan Swift make of it all?

Sunday, January 02, 2011

A Book Which Doesn't Exist

OK, it’s New Year, a good enough time as any to get serious about my second full collection, the one which doesn’t yet exist. Poems begin life in a ‘Poems 2010’ folder (now 2011, of course) and move into the hallow of hallows – the ‘second collection ms’ folder – when/if I feel they’re ready. However, I have 55 poems there (most forming parts of sequences) and I am already itching to rewrite some of them and get rid of others, and there are some which, while good enough, don’t really fit in with this book and will either need to be left for a future occasion (by which time I will no doubt be thoroughly bored of them) or booted out.

I have a group of poems I call ‘nocturnes’ – my idea is to have 12 of these and, so far (in an entire year), I have written only 3. They are strange, hard to write, and it’s often easier not to think about them than work a difficult shift in which I may spend an hour and come up only with two or three usable lines. But that hour and other similar hours represent the difference between something being written or not written. This year, I am determined to write the final 9.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year!

As paper trumpets blare and toot,
as sirens wail and foghorns hoot,
and as churchbells toll all around me

– I wish a happy new year to you all

Breathing fire, coughing smoke,
spitting ash,
as firecrackers burst inside my pants

– I wish a happy new year to you all

As all my buttons pop,
my chest opens and lungs collapse,
as a feather of flame starts eating my hat

– I wish a happy new year to you all

As the Rajabai Tower cranes its neck
to see me reduced to a smudge on the road
and bursts into a joyous song

– I wish a happy new year t

[short excerpt from ‘Man of the Year’ by Arun Kolatkar, from his remarkable Collected Poems in English (Bloodaxe, November 2010).]