Thursday, December 20, 2012

My Favourite Books of 2012

Les Murray – Fredy Neptune (Carcanet 1998): if the very idea of a novel-in-verse puts you off reading it, don’t let that put you off getting hold of this one. Fredy, minus a sense of touch, travels through some of the darkest moments in 20th century history: it’s both a great, pacey narrative and an intensely emotional journey. Look out for continual killer one-liners.

James McGonigal – Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan (Sandstone Press, 2012): a fascinating prose biography of one of the last century’s greatest poets, which also manages to convey its subject’s infectious enthusiasm and sheer energy for poetry, experiment and translation. I also appreciated it because JM picked out Morgan’s brilliant and underrated poem, The New Divan, as one of his favourites.

Nuar Alsadir – More Shadow than Bird (Salt, 2012): a step into the numinous and mysterious where nothing quite comes the way you expect. Sparse but beautiful language and an acute sense of line. I reviewed this book on Surroundings in May of this year and would still recommend it.

Ghassan Zaqtan – Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems (Yale University Press, 2012): a complete new collection and selections from two others from this celebrated Palestinian poet. The poems seem to speak to one another even across collections, not just as echoing phrases but with ever-deepening resonance. I reviewed this in this winter’s Poetry Review (vol. 102:4).

Deryn Rees-Jones –Burying the Wren (Seren, 2012): yes, believe it or not, a collection that was nominated for a major poetry prize (The TS Eliot) this year, and deservedly so. It’s beautifully written, ingenious, ambitious and moving. And, unlike some books that contain line-breaks and white space, this one really feels like poetry, in the true sense (whatever I mean by that. Don’t ask me to explain! I know it when I experience it).

Ben Lerner – Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press, 2011): A novel in prose about a poet, which spends some time reflecting on the place of artistic endeavour in society. That, to some, might sound unpromising. But it is somehow hard to put the book down after the first few pages. The main character tells the story in a haze of drugs and tranquilizers so that you’re always on the alert, suspecting things probably aren’t the way they seem to be. It’s funny and serious, comic and tragic simultaneously, and always feels on a knife-edge, even before the explosions.

Jules Supervielle – Homesick for the Earth (Bloodaxe, 2011): I hadn’t known much of Supervielle’s poetry before reading these ‘versions’ by Moniza Alvi . My French isn’t good enough to vouch for them on issues of accuracy etc, but they read really well as poems in English (although the French is on facing pages). He is especially good at finishing poems with great final lines - surprising and yet bewilderingly inevitable.

Jane Yeh – The Ninjas (Carcanet, 2012): This collection is vastly entertaining. How about that? About how many poetry books could I honestly use ‘vastly’ in this context? The poetry is humorous, a touch surreal, imaginative and shows powers of oblique observation. There's also a little bit of chill mixed in. There are robots, androids, witches, ghosts, jellyfish, great paintings and, of course, ninjas. Shades of early Selima Hill too, and I mean that as a compliment.

ed. Geoffrey Brock – The FSG Book of Twentieth Century Italian Poetry (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012): I should confess that I am in this book, although only with a ten-line translation of a poem by Salvatore Quasimodo on pp. 232-33. It is simply a treasure trove of amazing poems. It might seem expensive but, given that an average 70-page collection can set you back around a tenner, this anthology’s 736 pages isn’t such bad value at £29.95 or so, and it is a beautiful, sturdy hardback that will last you all the years it will take you to read it and read it again and again.

I’ve only included books I have actually finished, which means some very promising books on my 'still to finish' and 'still to begin' piles will have to wait until next year. Included in this is Adonis's astonishing close-on-400-pages 'Selected Poems' (Yale University Press), which I have been reading slowly and carefully and am now more than halfway through. Amazing stuff, unlike anything I've ever read.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Romney for Scotland

Fix News have sensationally named failed U.S. presidential candidate, Mitt Romney as hot favourite to take over as manager of Scotland’s international football team, following the departure of Craig Levein. Romney is said to be excited at the prospect of moving to Scotland. “Donald [Trump] says the golf is good there and the land is anyone’s for a price. Sounds like my kind of place.”

Romney confessed that Obama’s election was the best thing that could have happened. “Now I’m freed up for the Scotland job, and I have plans. First of all, I want to make sure the players wear sacred underwear so as to hide their nipples. I don’t want those huge crowds of scarf-wearing men to be tempted into becoming homosexuals due to nipples showing through shirts. Secondly, I’ve noticed that the team are good at kicking high into the crowd. That’s good, but they need to learn to pick the ball up and run with it more. I haven’t seen them touchdown yet.”

Concerns have been raised over Romney’s promise to scrap the women’s team (“these women, as a minority group, ought to practice minority pursuits more suitable for their status – like preparing modest refreshments and not giving opportunities for abortion”) and by his insistence on bringing Sarah Palin over as his “running mate” (“She gives good tea parties”).

The Scottish Football Association were unavailable for comment, but a spokesman for something or other said that Romney’s interest was welcome, although he would face stiff competition from Barbie, from ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and from pop star PSY, who promises a new brand of “gangnam style” tactics.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Best Living British Poets #95

#95 Malcolm McRammie

Malcolm McRammie is, in his own words, “a plook in the face of everyone everywhere”. Born in 1952, in a disused rabbit warren next to a rubbish dump where his family of twelve lived for years before emigrating to a cave, McRammie learned to read from a battered recipe book he found on the dump.

At the famous Edinburgh Poetry Convocation of 1973, he made his famous declaration that “Poems are spaghetti, prose is sauce,” to which the chairperson replied, “And yours are inedible.” A conviction and jail term for aggravated assault followed, but this only encouraged McRammie’s literary productivity. His Collected Poems vol.1 (1997) came to an astonishing 2,368 pages, and he has since written 3,457 pages of poems inspired by discarded ingredients found in Scotland’s wheelie-bins.

In 2010 he boasted proudly that, despite his status as Scotland’s best-selling author, he had failed even to be shortlisted for a poetry award, only to find himself in the running for all the major prizes that year. “They must think I’m about to die,” was his response. “This is the first year ever that I haven’t actually published a collection.” No one seemed bothered by this and McRammie won more or less everything. He ritually burned all the plaques and trophies at a hastily arranged news conference on the peak of Ben Lomond, but kept all the money.

[photo from sheeldz's photostream, used under a CReative Commons License]

Monday, November 05, 2012

New Reviews of 'Fleck and the Bank'

A few reviews have appeared on my pamphlet, Fleck and the Bank, to add to Harry Giles’s review at Ink, Sweat and Tears. Harry’s review was as close to a dream review as I’ve ever received, not just because it was mainly positive but because he seemed to 'get' more or less everything I was trying to do. For example:
‘The poems are a series of signs pointing not to Fleck but to other signs, because Fleck himself is not there, is someone of whom even an imagined newscaster’s imagined dress is “more solid than himself”.’
‘... the themes themselves are unusual, or at least have unusual clarity: to write more about a specific absence than any real moment or presence seems new to me, especially when achieved with such grace. And there will, as I’ve suggested, be many more ways to read this book than mine, it is far bigger than its size suggests... Fleck couldn’t hope for a better offering, wherever he is.’

Three new reviews
have gone up now at Sphinx and these reflect the huge variety of thought and opinion that constitutes Contemporary Poetry PLC these days. Jake Campbell doesn’t care much for the pamphlet, describing it as having ‘crystalline moments of greatness, but also elements of drudgery’. He goes on to say:
‘I want to be angered; I want to feel Fleck is angry, or at least alive. Instead, he feels like a wet lettuce.’ :-)
Rosie Miles, on the other hand, finds the poems and themes interesting. Rather self-effacingly, she says:
‘I am not this collection’s ideal reader. I don’t entirely “get” it. But I assent to the world it creates and Mackenzie’s use of language is inventive and full of a kind of demotic energy.’
Actually, her readings of the poems seem perfectly fair to me.

Matt Bryden finds it “satisfying” and “generously dense and experimental.” And he makes the interesting point that
‘While some of the fun in reading is to make out Fleck a little more clearly, in one sense he is the MacGuffin that keeps you reading to figure out his world.’
And, finally – on Andrew Shields’s blog – you'll find not a review as such, but more a reflection on how juxtaposition and disorientation are used in some of the poems to create new meanings.

Thanks to all the reviewers for taking the time to set down their thoughts, whether positive or negative. It’s all much appreciated and I certainly hope Salt and I sell a few pamphlets as a result...

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Best Living British Poets #96

#96 Smurf K.

Smurf K’s work has divided critics ever since his unforgettable debut, titled simply ‘Smurf’, which contained only the word ‘smurf’ employed in an almost infinite variety of forms, shapes, sizes and fonts over 117 pages. The collection was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the fury of the avant-garde was unleashed like never before, one prominent member from Cambridge calling it “typical mainstream nonsense: self-referential, unimaginative balderdash which might have appeal only for readers with the emotional structure and restricted vocabulary of a two-year-old kangaroo.” However, poet laureate at the time, Andrew Motion, wrote in The Times that it was “possibly the most intriguing debut this decade...”, although he did add, “...apart from [a 28-page list of other notable debut collections of the decade]”. A second collection, ‘One-Word Poems that Never Use the Word, Smurf’, was published the following year to similar consternation, but Smurf K argued strongly that the radical switch in direction was vital to his development and range.

He is currently running workshops in the Seychelles for dropout students from the Faber Academy and is working on a third collection, ‘I Am Not a Hobbit, but Would Like a Part in the Movie, Peter Jackson.’ Last year, he won the inaugural €250,000 'Award for the Deployment & Advancement of Poetic Theories in Small European Towns' for a sequence painted on paving stones, based entirely on words and lines used by celebrated twentieth-century European bureaucrats.

[photo from jonasholmstrom's photostream, used under a Creative Commons License]

Sunday, October 28, 2012

UK Poetry Awards and Gender

Just a few harmless statistics on UK poetry awards and gender:

Forward Poetry Prizes from 1992-2012:
Main Prize winner - women 4, men 17.
First Collection prize - woman 9, men 12
Best Poem – women 11, men 10

T.S. Eliot Prize from 1993-2011:
winners - women 4, men 15

Costa Award, poetry category, from 2000-2011:
winners - women 4, men 8

Scottish Poetry Book of the Year (2007-11):
winners - women 0, men 5

There are various conclusions we might draw from these statistics.

The first alternative is that that women do not often write good books. They very rarely write the best poetry book of any year, and never do in Scotland. Their first collections are usually stronger than anything they do afterwards. But they do write good individual poems, even slightly better individual poems than men.

The second alternative is that something is slightly askew with the awards systems.

The third alternative is...oh, I don’t know...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rhian Gallagher on the National Poetry Competition

Surroundings is pleased to be hosting an article from New Zealand poet, Rhian Gallagher, in support of the National Poetry Competition, which you can still enter here before the end of the month.

Rhian Gallagher lived in London for eighteen years and returned to NZ in 2005. Her first collection Salt Water Creek (Enitharmon Press, 2003) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for First Collection. Gallagher received the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award in 2008. Her second collection, Shift, was published by Auckland University Press, NZ, in 2011 and by Enitharmon Press, UK, in 2012. Shift won the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry.

Her fine poem, Embrace (scroll down), took third prize in the National Poetry Competition in 2001, and her article reflects both on writing poems for competitions ('Big Day Out') and the effect this can have on a writer's life ('Where It Took Me'). It's part of a National Poetry Competition blog tour, the full details of which can be found here.

Big Day Out

• Be serious about the writing and light-hearted about entering the competition. The freedom of being anonymous can be very energizing — an opportunity to be playful and exploratory; generally it’s more daunting to submit work with your name on it to the editor of magazine you respect.

• Poets are a suspicious lot. You may be a dab hand at hexameters but if the poem has nothing interesting to say then no matter how technically correct it is I suspect it won’t grab a judge’s attention.

• Read competition winners from the last couple of years. Purists will say ignore anything that’s gone before but if you’ve never entered the NPC previously how else will you get a sense of the quality of the work that the competition yields.

• It’s not a body of work that’s being judged but a single poem – it’s a bit like an audition in this regard. You might want to ask is your poem memorable: read it aloud – if you get bored half way through you’re in trouble. A fresh take on a subject, precision in word choice, musicality, a sense of energy being sustained through the whole poem (even the saddest poem needs energy); the x factor I suspect is a degree of originality – not something that can be defined.

• Road test your poems before submitting them: have a friend read them. At the very least this will help avoid sending work with obvious glitches.

Where it took me …

‘Embrace’ gained third prize in the National Poetry Competition in 2001 – I’m not sure where this took me, aside from to some swanky law offices in the city of London where the prize reading was held! Ian Duhig and the late Michael Donahy were on the panel of judges – I hold both poets in high regard and their acknowledgement of the poem did make a difference. I was working towards a first collection — ‘Embrace’ is a love poem and, for better or worse, through the competition I gained confidence to write more love poems.

In a strange kind of way the competition also helped in my negotiations to cut back to a four-day week in my day job. Although my poetry had been published in magazines, the competition gave a different kind of visibility and this registered with my boss in a favourable way. One free day in the week made a huge difference and enabled me to finish my first collection.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Best Living British Poets #97

#97 Philomena Béserk

Philomena Béserk is an acclaimed poet-critic – acclaimed, at least, by poets she has herself acclaimed, which comes to very many indeed. Her major critical works, My Canon: Everyone's Canon and Nepotism for Beginners were marked by trashing poets who had offended her (whether the offence had been deliberate or not), even omitting famous poets from subsequent editions if they had inadvertently won prizes she knew she ought to have won. Generally, she favours writers who approximate her own style and several times has accidentally quoted lines from her own poems to illustrate their strengths. Each of her sixteen collections has won prizes, coincidentally always the year after she herself judged them.

(photo from Cea's photostream)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

From Blank Screen to Hamlet

I’d had a few thoughts on this blog over the past few months: how to revive it or how to give it a decent burial. I contemplated erasing it entirely, which may actually happen at some point. But, instead, here I am with a new post, mainly because I have been trying to write a poem and have come up with a blank screen, a highly attractive shade of luminous white.

The poem is a new opener for my next collection, as I feel there is no real opener among the poems already written. What makes an opening poem? Well, there’s no formula, although it has to be really good and has to act as a doorway into the rest of the book. Perhaps those twin demands have simply made its writing impossible up till now. Also, it’s the last poem I will write for the collection (I may delete poems, but not add any more) and, somehow, the final step towards completion of anything is often the most difficult of all.

And there’s Hamlet. Yesterday evening was a chilly, damp affair and I spent most of it curled up on the sofa reading Hamlet and thinking of how Shakespeare managed to knock off over a hundred pages of brilliant poetry, full of memorable lines and deep thoughts, whereas I have been struggling for days to write a poem that will fit inside a single page. Perhaps Shakespeare had those kind of days too. “Write something!” the creative writing tutors shout in near-unison, but “To be or not to be...” was not just “something” and may have needed days or weeks of silence before it all poured out. I have written something – this blog post – and I am thinking of Ophelia. Ophelia was a sap, wasn’t she? While Hamlet makes his “to be or not to be...” speech for himself, Ophelia ought to have listened in more carefully. She chose not to be in the end but, really, she chose that with every decision she didn’t make and farmed out for other people to make for her. Hamlet is quite nasty to her as time goes on. If it were a modern play, Ophelia's character would be condemned by many as an example of misogyny. She is certainly a tragic figure, all the more so because of how easy she is to identify with for more or less everyone, including me. But even poor, conflicted Hamlet finds making his life count for something almost impossible, even though he articulates his dilemmas with an emotional clarity most people can never approach. We don’t all have Shakespeare’s help. Only the clown, who also happens to be the gravedigger (a Shakespearian masterstroke), seems to find fulfilment in life, a fulfilment that comes from immersing himself in death. His work, at least, will outlive all the others.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Best Living British Poets #98

#98 Miss B. Field

Miss B. Field, sensationally stripped of the T.S. Eliot Award in 1977 on a technicality because, in the words of a letter published in The Lonesome Echo and signed by 83 leading poets, “she ain’t no human being,” nevertheless continued her meteoric rise to poetic superstardom by winning the Ted Hughes Award. Given her status as a field, she is unable to read or write. Nevertheless she has overcome such challenges as might have defeated those of lesser ambition. Field conjures poems as structures of grass and wind, cowpats, weeds and flowers, punctuated by lost sheep and broken fences. She has no collections. “My life is a poem in progress,” she told The Economist. “My new collaboration with Ruby Rabbit is my most politically charged work to date satirising the house-building industry. Who needs words when you have grass?”

[photo from StevenM_61's photostream, used under a Creative Commons License.]

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Fleck, Magma 53 and Two Readings

The sun has sneaked out from the heavy cloud which has made June feel autumnal so far in Edinburgh, and already I feel positive about the day. I am definitely not suited for this country’s climate. Anyway, a few recent happenings...

First of all, my pamphlet, Fleck and the Bank has been out now for about a month and seems generally to be getting a good response from readers – thanks to all of you! It’s available from the Salt shop or from me. I have just installed a ‘Buy Now’ button (PayPal or card) below the image of the pamphlet’s cover near the top right of this blog, and also one for my The Opposite of Cabbage full collection. I hope someone will soon be the first to try it! Tell you what – for the first ever button order of the pamphlet, I will send a free copy of the collection. First come, first served...

Secondly, Magma 53, edited by Kona Macphee and I, has been published and is available from the Magma website. The launch at the Troubadour Cafe, London, on 4th June, was a fantastic occasion, and the first of two photo-enriched reports on it will be going up at the Magma blog very soon, hopefully later today. We are delighted with how the issue turned out – from the poems, reviews and articles to Hugh McEwen’s excellent cover and M J F Chance's illustrations.

Thirdly, and finally, I am doing two readings in the next week. I’m reading tonight, Wednesday 13th June from 8pm at ‘Verse Hearse’, Rio Cafe, Hyndland St, Glasgow (near Kelvin Hall underground station), along with the uniquely creative nic-e-melville (expect plenty of high-quality cut ‘n’ paste and Tippex), followed by an open mic. Then, I’m reading next week, Tuesday 19th June, at the Fruitmarket Gallery, 45 Market Street, Edinburgh (at the back entrance of Waverley Station) from 7pm, along with Chris Emery and Andrew Philip (£4). [Unfortunately, we've had to cancel this reading. Apologies for this. We hope to reschedule it for a later date] This will be the Scottish launch of Chris's new book, The Departure, which is well worth getting hold of.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Best Living British Poets #99

#99 - Vicci Kone

With her Gregory Award winning pamphlet, I'm Not Bitter!!!, and Forward Prize shortlisted British Poetry is Shit, Vicci Kone quickly established herself, in her own words, as “the enfant terrible of World Literature.” Her celebrity party gatecrashing-on-horseback exploits and trademark headgear earned her instant media notoriety and a weekly astrology column in the Daily Mail. Eminent critic E.R. Silverspoon described her sixty-eight page ‘insistent sonnet’ which, controversially, filled an entire issue of Poetry Review, as “Rambo let loose in a pig sty.” She is married to one-time Stockport County ballboy trialist, Philip Prance, with whom she has co-written an autobiography, All Nobodies Without ME. She is currently studying for a Creative Writing diploma at Shilbottle University.

(photo from ukslim’s photostream, published under a Creative Commons License)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review: 'More Shadow than Bird' by Nuar Alsadir

The bio note on More Shadow than Bird tells us that Nuar Alsadir is training to become a psychoanalyst and this I can well believe after reading her poems. Her subject is the unknown self, fleeting glimpses into the hidden depths of motivation and personality. Her characters often have difficulty in understanding who they are and where they’re going. They are at the mercy of events, misunderstanding others and themselves, and yet a hazy kind of clarity emerges: “more shadow than bird”, it’s true, but the habitually invisible can hardly be held in easy focus.

The attempt to focus results in remarkably clear and striking images; the connections between them aren’t always immediately obvious but they aren’t arbitrary either. Some poets juxtapose outlandish images for reasons of humour or even stylish obfuscation, but Alsadir is trying to express things that aren’t ordinarily expressible. ‘The Ride Home from Mourning’ begins with the phrase, “My underwear is my backpack/ and I feel true” and later, with a desire for accuracy, “grey, with thin strings”. The mood evoked from such imagery is not self-pity, but a desire to express the impact of loss. The narrator asks the questions people ask at such times: “Where do we go when we go/ no more? The unmooredness puzzles”. There are no answers to such questions, but the narrator reflects on how we mourn:
the unintelligible inside us
and the accurate on our backs.

This final couplet clothing unintelligible unmooredness (which is nevertheless somehow moored deep within us) with the weight of accurate expression sends you back to read the poem again, and it’s true that these poems, like all good poems, need to be read more than once. Her images are perfectly clear but produce complexity in combination. The most similar UK poet I can think of would be Claire Crowther and, perhaps behind both, we might detect American poet, Lorine Niedecker.

‘Disquiet’ is a fairly riveting sequence of short independent prose paragraphs. They read like aphorisms but seem less certain of themselves than traditional aphorisms. It is about disquiet, but some lines could be read as describing Nuar Alsadir’s poetics:

What blooms does so in the space that breaks from knowing.


Reason is like light, it comes in quanta. There are no lines connecting thoughts, only packets and leaps.

Making the leaps and connecting without drawing hard-and-fast lines certainly brings rewards here. Most of these poems can’t be explained or summarised but I was always convinced that something interesting was going on. ‘Breakfast’ would be one example. Phrases repeat and echo throughout the poem – images of eggs, roads, and three characters (one man, one woman, and the first person narrator) having an argument are all jumbled up. Some change has occurred. Anyone who can write lines like

.............He thinks she’s a trail
of cigarette butts to something human


Morning. We crack eggs in the pan,
wait to see what creature will rise

has my full attention. The characters appear disorientated and curiously estranged both from their own selves and from those around them. The man’s perception of the woman as a trail is countered in the final line. He doesn’t notice, but “she’s not the path, but where it begins.” What exactly is being said here isn’t clear to me, but I find the poem intriguingly mysterious and strikingly well written, worth continuing to ponder on.

Other poems are more immediate, such as ‘Walking with Suzan’ and ‘Bats’, both of which you can read in full at Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon site (along with several others). ‘Bats’ again may tell us something about Nuar Alsadir’s approach to poetry. The bats, “not like you/ or the other rodents” are unashamed and “share their darkness like a piece/ of delight”. The crawlers have to “rise for breath, belief”. In contrast:

The bats do not need applause.
If you clap, they will change direction.

Echoes of W.S. Graham there, of course, from the end of his famous poem, Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons:

...keep your finger-stops as light
As feathers but definite. What can I say more?
Do not be sentimental or in your Art.
I will miss you. Do not expect applause.

The evasion of applause or indifference to it. An immediate change in direction at the first hint of populism. Art, not Commerce. So let’s not clap, at least not loudly enough to be heard. More Shadow than Bird is an extraordinary collection: beautiful, reflective and provocative in equal measure. It deserves readers and perhaps the turn of a page, that near-silent form of applause, is all that matters.

More Shadow than Bird by Nuar Alsadir is published by Salt, 2012, in paperback, currently £7.99.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Best Living British Poets #100

#100 – Gordon ‘The Onion’ Rummy

Born in a field in North Derbyshire, Rummy is one of a new breed of young poets (anyone under the age of 57) whose risky references to both pop culture and University Challenge make them perfect material for patronising comments from jealous and less talented middle-aged duffers. A key member of ‘The New Acerbity’ school, his seven collections revolve around only two themes: sex and vegetables, sometimes both simultaneously. He is not called the onion for nothing. His “fierce kiss will stay on your lips,” said Carol Ann Duffy. He is number 100 in the Surroundings list of 100 Best Living British Poets, which is a great honour indeed. I might consider revealing the identities of those at numbers 101, 102 and 103 at some point, because they really have done very well indeed and only just failed to make the grade.

(photo from kapongo's photostream, used under a Creative Commons License)

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Fleck Pizza

Look, here comes a flying saucer, FLECK
on top in chopped tricolour peppers!

He has arranged them this way:
the pizza a self-addressed valentine,
rehearsal for the real thing.
- from 'The Bank, part 2' in Fleck and the Bank

This pizza tasted pretty good!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Jessie J, Price Tag and Poetry

Here are a few statistics. Two years and four months ago, I made a video of myself reading a poem. It wasn’t a professional job, just my stepson holding a video camera and me standing in a blizzard reading ‘White Noise’. I guess there is a certain humour about it as the snow beats down on me and the book (which I had to cover in clingflim to save it from disintegration), but there is no other concession to the entertainment industry. I uploaded the video to YouTube where it has received 421 views. Not bad for poetry – that’s about one view every day and half.

Contrast this with a video uploaded one year and four months ago of Jessie J’s Price Tag, the official video of the international smash hit single. The video helpfully reminds us that the money doesn’t matter – just as well for me, although I suspect its budget would have been just slightly more than mine. Even a vertical strip torn from one of Jessie’s outfits would have cost more than my video camera. In case anyone thinks I’m being cynical about her, I’m not. She’s obviously a highly talented songwriter and singer (unlike some of her contemporaries) and Price Tag is an extremely catchy song. I’m not surprised it was a massive hit. And the viewing figures? Well, I measured them over the last four days:

Today - 208,692,483
Friday - 208,405,142
Thursday - 208,250,000
Wednesday - 208,133,000

Basically, the views are rising at a rate of anything between about 120,000 and 300,000 a day! By the time you read this, they will have risen significantly again (edit: 16,000 people have watched it in the 1 hour and 20 minutes since I posted this article). At the time of writing, nearly 209 million (209 million!!) people have watched this video and that’s only the official video. It doesn’t count the hundreds of live and acoustic versions of the song, some of them very high quality recordings.

So there you have it: 209,000,000 versus 421. In fact, if you add another year’s viewing to Price Tag to catch up with me, it would be more like 421,000,000 to my 421. A Jessie J song is officially one million times more popular than one of my poems!

Clearly, there are tie-ups between poetry and music – lyrics are obviously a close relation, and good poems are built on rhythm, sound, music etc, but none of that seems to have entered popular consciousness. Poetry suffers from complete lack of exposure. Most people wouldn’t know where to start. And most of them wouldn’t want to start. The latter is fine by me – I wouldn’t want to start doing all kinds of activities that other people find fascinating e.g. playing computer games, watching basketball, cricket etc. I am also resigned to the fact that poetry is a minority and non-commercial activity, and that brings its own creative freedom from commercial pressure, for which I’m grateful. There is also no point in competing for space with genuinely popular art forms like pop music – there is simply no competition, as the figures above demonstrate.

But somehow, I still believe that good poetry is important and that a society is diminished when it loses sight of it. Good poetry is not entirely invisible yet, even if it is about 99.9% of the time, but I do think that the 0.1% is vital to build on. I don’t think poets should pander to the commercial side of things – poetry is more akin to an obscure Scandinavian trio, with a cult following, playing weird music in 5/4 time with terse Norwegian lyrics, than to a new Lady Gaga single with accompanying superficial ‘shock’ banalities. But I’d bet the Scandinavians would still succeed in reaching a bigger audience than an average Faber poet (let alone everyone else). I also believe there is no reason for that to be the case.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Reading, Two Magazines, and Literature Night

This Sunday, 13th May at 7.30pm, in Henderson's @ St John’s Cafe – that’s the Henderson’s beneath St John’s Church on the corner of Lothian Road and Princes St, Edinburgh – I’ll be reading along with AB Jackson, Roddy Lumsden and Kona Macphee. Entry is free. We will have books/pamphlets on sale, but you have my word that no one will be refused exit if they haven’t bought anything. Thanks are due to the Shore Poets who have allowed us to use their PA system - much appreciated. We could do with an audience though, so please come along! It's a fantastic, atmospheric venue with clear acoustics and terrific local beer and lager bottled behind the bar.

On the subject of publications, I had a poem (‘To Occupy an Absence’) from Fleck and the Bank published the other day on the Ink, Sweat and Tears web magazine. And I have three 'Nocturnes' published in Shearsman magazine’s latest double-issue – 91 & 92.

Finally, I’m quite interested in the Noc Literatury/Literature Night happening next Wednesday 16th from 7pm at the Scottish Poetry Library. Describing itself as an attempt “to offer a platform to European countries to present contemporary writing and new European literary voices in a creative way,” it sounds like the right thing focus on in Scotland at the current time. The best Scottish literature has looked outwards, internationally, while contributing to a distinctive, national (but never ‘nationalist’ in a narrow sense) body of work, and mainland Europe has been, and continues to be, a major source of inspiration for Scottish writers.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Magma, Fleck and More Shadow than Bird

I had been thinking of creating a new blog, a new start and all that, given that this one has been semi-abandoned in recent months, but that would make no sense. Instead, I’m going to re-launch Surroundings today and try to be more organised.

I have had a fair bit on in recent months, which has made it almost impossible to blog. Until the end of April, I was tied-up with the co-editing (with Kona Macphee) of Magma 53, which is now hurtling towards production and will indeed be published on 28th May with a launch on 4th June at the Troubadour in London. I can’t give anything away yet, but I do feel really pleased with the issue.

I was also revising poems for a new pamphlet, Fleck and the Bank, which has just been published. I still haven’t seen a physical copy but a package should arrive today. I know what’s going to happen. I have various things on today, to do with work, which will take me out the house for a fair bit of the day. The package will arrive when I’m out and I’ll have to collect it from the sorting office in the Gyle Industrial Estate, an area full of factories and warehouses. I’ll wander about for ages in search of the sorting office amid dozens of near-identical buildings and, by the time I find it, it will have closed down for the day. Anyway, it's just over five pounds from the Salt website, where you can also download a free pdf sampler.

Finally, just a quick mention of a book I’m reading at the moment. I spent April reading Rilke, WS Merwin and Durs Grunbein and thought nothing would top that combination this year. However, Nuar Alsadir’s first collection, More Shadow than Bird, is outstanding. I will try to say more in a future post, but for now I’ll just say the title is well chosen. The poems deal not so much with flickers of light illuminating the strange or obscured, as with shadows flitting briefly and quickly across a scene – often the shadows of the apparently unknowable self (if the ‘self’ is an iceberg, this collection focuses on the vast section below the surface). That’s not a prescription for vague writing – every word seems precise and vital – but for a persuasive and musical evocation of what usually remains unthought or entirely out-of-sight.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Cameron and the Donkey

Prime Minister, David Cameron, today seems to have found himself embroiled in yet more unwanted controversy. Following shock claims that Cameron may have unwittingly ridden a journalist’s horse, the British Humanist Society claimed that the animal had not been a horse at all and that Cameron had in fact been attempting to re-enact Jesus’ entry into a palm-waving Jerusalem by riding a donkey through a field in rural Surrey.

Although Cameron initially denied the claim, paparazzi from a British tabloid produced photographic evidence of the donkey (below).

It’s also been alleged that the Prime Minister has changed his name by deed poll to David Jesus Cameron and many witnesses have come forward to attest to miracles – five people were fed by 60 percent of the country’s produce while, amazingly, 60 million people had to be content with a seven year-old schoolgirl’s packed lunch. But sightings of Cameron entering a cafe on the donkey and devouring a pasty turned out to be Queen's Park Rangers striker, DJ Campbell - an easy mistake to make.

The humanists have demanded an explanation. Ed Miliband muttered something indistinct into the distance. And Michael Gove blamed words for putting daft ideas into people’s heads. “The sooner we follow South Africa’s lead and leave the European Community the better,” he said. “There are no donkeys outside the EU and no books about them either.” The donkey, said to be unharmed by the incident, pointed out that South Africa was nowhere near Europe ("the clue is in the 'Africa'", he brayed), but no one listens to a donkey.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cringing At The BRIT Awards 2012

A few days ago, I sat through half the Brit Awards 2012 because my daughter wanted to see Adele perform. It was obviously a lavish, expensive production. How much does it cost to bring Rihanna over to perform a song and pick up a prize? I don’t know, but I expect we’re not exactly talking a hundred quid here! And she was only one of many huge stars at the gathering. Why, then, the show is so painful to watch, so overwhelmingly amateur, is a matter for conjecture. I know people may look back to the infamous 1989 awards ceremony MCd by Mick Fleetwood and Samantha Fox as one of the most embarrassing moments ever to grace live music television, but at least that was genuinely (if unintentionally) hilarious. The ceremony this year wasn’t hilarious. I was cringing with disgust and sometimes anger.

The awards themselves looked like discarded souvenirs from a bargain bin on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a primary 3 class had been responsible for the paintwork. Cheap, tacky rubbish no self-respecting person would want to be seen dead with. When James Corden enthusiastically pointed out the guy responsible for the design, the complete lack of applause was more than noticeable.

But this was symptomatic of the whole affair. So much money must have been piled into that show, but you would never have known. The “tributes” to Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse were hopeless, especially the former: it was as though someone, half an hour before the show, had shoved together a few powerpoint slides with a barely audible selection of Whitney tracks, just to fulfil a duty. The Amy Winehouse one wasn’t much better. So little thought and creativity had gone into these that doing nothing at all would have been a massive improvement. It points to a crass lack of imagination, human warmth and empathy at the commercial end of the pop/entertainment market, which may not be a surprise, but I still found it amazing that such inadequacy was displayed so brazenly and without apology.

This theme continued when Emeli Sandé won the Critics Choice Award. The camera switched to her for about two seconds and then shot over James Corden who began interviewing last year’s winner, Jessie J. “Do you have any advice for Emeli?” asked the fawning Corden, overcome by Jessie’s charming hairdo, and forgetting within a few seconds that Sandé had ever existed. “Oooh, I could sit here all night!” It was just excruciatingly embarrassing and dreadful treatment of Sandé.

I read afterwards that Adele was cut off 20 seconds into her speech for winning Best Album because the show had been allowed to overrun earlier. Doesn’t surprise me. For all the millions of pounds sitting round the tables at this event, the level of creative energy, professionalism, and basic good manners was astonishingly low, and that’s even before you get to the music itself: the ludicrous sight of Best Single of 2012 going to One Direction. I mean, even on the woeful shortlist, it’s pretty obvious to anyone who knows anything about music that Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ knocks One Direction’s pitiful effort out of sight.

But appreciation of the music at the BRIT Awards is hardly something you’d expect of a alternative pop person like me. My main point is the complete mediocrity (that may be too generous a word) of it all. NOT just the music but the lack of care and imagination that went into the presentation, the links, the timing, and everything else. It was hard to know whether James Corden was a part of that or if he himself was also inwardly cringing and couldn’t wait for it to end.

One final thing: I know poets sometimes argue and fall out, sometimes snub, sometimes aim words like ‘mediocre’ at one another, but watching the BRIT Awards helps me, at least, to regain a degree of perspective. Most poets I have met have been decent people. Some have huge egos, some have other faults – being human! – but most are people who have many admirable qualities too, and any level of mediocrity, amateurism or lack of ambition is still several cuts above that exhibited at the BRIT Awards. And that’s without the massive resources available to the commercial music industry. Maybe we should try to appreciate one another more.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Facebook, Blogging and Narcissism

I got into an interesting Facebook discussion yesterday on narcissism; whether or not poetry blogging was simply a narcissistic activity which stole time away from what was truly important – writing poems.

Well, the irony that this discussion took place on Facebook is not lost on me. Facebook is surely the most potentially narcissistic activity ever invented. Just as football matches may indeed help young males to scream away their latent aggression, Facebook can end up as an unbelievably massive pit of pent-up hubris. Do you need to say something about yourself, your opinions, products, beliefs or attitudes? Now you can throw it all up in public and no one will hand you a mop and bucket afterwards. In Facebook, self-reference is not only expected, it’s the entire raison d’etre – if you bypass those who use it only to hook up with old friends or get a date for Saturday night.

Facebook is a giant blog. Or rather, it’s a zillion different blogs all rabbitting on at one another endlessly. But even a poet’s most considered Facebook wall (is there such a thing?) or ‘Timeline’ will invariably lack the breadth and depth of the better poetry blogs, and will be a hundred times more narcissistic than most. If you went through this blog from beginning to end, you would find some entries I’d probably want to disown and one day I may delete everything I’d rather not leave future generations to snigger over, on the off chance anyone from a future generation actually stumbled in here – probably drunk and frittering away a research grant they got to study barbarian communication methods. But I wouldn’t delete everything.

Basically, saying that blogs are hubristic is like saying books are manifestations of mad egos or that songs are sung only by people who love the sound of their own voice. Anyone who publishes anything anywhere in any medium is saying, “I think this will interest other people.” The bad news is that most of it won’t. Some of it will for a few minutes, but almost nothing will last. Value resides in a tiny spoonful of this glutinous soup.

The argument runs that at least a book or album has been selected and worked on by publisher, editor, agent, producer etc, whereas blogs are mainly inane, self-driven ramblings of people who could have spent their time more productively. But most books are rubbish, most albums too, even despite this level of control and input. “Inane, self-driven ramblings” could describe many poems published today and I’m not talking about ‘confessional’ poems or any other kind of autobiographical verse (some of which is good), but poems which seem designed to offer the reader the promise of wisdom, insight, epiphany or joy and instead present him/her with an earnest exercise in cliché, or just scream, “Look how original I am! Look how fun I am! Look how clever I am! Look at this unique image/phrase/technique I created (and don’t realise has been used before by about five million other poets before me because I don’t read poetry so as to avoid being influenced by it)! But please save your applause until the end of my ninety-seven pages...” In other words, a blog is not necessarily any more self serving than a poem, even a poem that has been accepted by a magazine.

I suppose I could have written a poem in the time it’s taken me to slam down this article. But I see no reason to bring yet another poem into the world to join the millions of other poems no one wants to read just for the sake of it. I write a poem when it feels necessary to do so and I work hard on getting it just right. Every semi-colon of it. I write a blog post if I feel in the mood and people can take it or leave it. Leave it? Sure thing. Be my guest. Or don’t be. Facebook, after all, is waiting for your attention...

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Supervielle and the Smoke

I enjoyed this review of Homesick for the Earth, a selection of poems by Jules Supervielle, 'versioned' in English by Moniza Alvi. I know of Supervielle but have read more or less nothing of his work, and this review has made me want to read more. Doing that will have to wait for a couple of months as I’m snowed under at the moment, but I’ve enjoyed reading even the short passages that Sean O’Brien quotes and the two poems quoted afterwards in the comments box. ‘Rain and the Tyrants’ (translated by David Gascoyne, and not included in this new book) is terrific, and the title poem, ‘Homesick for the Earth’ (an Alvi 'translation') closes with the astonishing lines O’Brien quotes:

We'd pick daffodils, collect pebbles, shells,
but we couldn't catch the smoke.
Now smoke is all we hold in our hands.

Just great. There’s a very solid memory combined with regret and then the terrible loss in the final line, which makes the previous regret all the more tragic. In addition, there’s a sense of recognition because in today’s cynical world, smoke is all we hold in our hands, all we are allowed to hold. Maybe good poems keep our eyes open and attentive in spite of the smoke.

I was intrigued by Sean O’Brien’s comment that “the world of objects, places and ordinary events, to which poetry in English is habitually so attentive, is rarely a secure presence in the poems Alvi presents; reading them feels at times like trying to drop anchor in fog.” That lack of a secure presence also speaks to a contemporary sensibility, I think, so these translations may be timely. ‘Homesick for the Earth’, for all its imagery, is indeed hardly an “ordinary” everyday event, even if it does speak into the world of everyday. I do like the idea of dropping anchor in fog. Perhaps that’s what reading a good poem ought to feel like. If you are already clear on where you’re dropping anchor, a poem may not feel so necessary.

(Homesick for the Earth by Jules Supervielle is published by Bloodaxe, 2011, £9.95)

Monday, January 30, 2012

'Fleck and the Bank' Cover

The cover of my forthcoming chapbook, which will be published as part of the Salt Modern Voices series. It features a guy called Fleck, a bank, and poems which riff around themes of collapse, disintegration and disappearance via friends, virtual friends and obscure notes. Orignal lines square up to stolen ones, money makes a cameo appearance as a ghost, politicians leap into cauldrons of boiling fat, theology is done by mobile phone, and the Patron Saint of Plainsong Maledictions turns up with a little advice in song, which readers are welcome to singalong to if they wish. I also have a full collection coming out in 2013, although none of the poems in the chapbook will also feature in the collection.

There's not yet a definite publication date, but I'll let you know when that becomes clear. A good number of the other chapbooks in the series can be found here. So far, I've read Neil Addison's Apocapulco (for some reason, this doesn't seem to have its own page on the site) and Mark Burnhope's The Snowboy, both of which were really good.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Two Manuscripts and Three Magazines

I’ve been trying not to neglect this blog. I have ideas, no shortage of things to write about. But the last week or two have been so busy that I’ve had to prioritise other poetry-related activities.

First of all, I did a bit of work on a chapbook manuscript and then decided it was finished (or as finished as it was going to be before submitting it). I now have submitted it for publication and will just have to wait and see what happens.

Secondly, I’ve been hard at work on reading and evaluating Magma 53 submissions. I’ve enjoyed it at times but it’s been hard going too. The submissions never stop flooding in – a good thing, I guess – but there’s only so many I can read each night without my brain turning into mulch. I have to stop as it’s hardly fair to consider poems after that point. It’s been hard rejecting friends and people whose work I actually quite enjoyed, but it has to be done.

Thirdly, I’ve been sent three poetry publications I haven’t been able to resist reading. Richard Price sent me the new copy of Painted, Spoken (issue 22) and so far I’ve enjoyed some excellent poems by Chris McCabe, Dorothy Lawrenson and Gerry Loose, and a review of PolyPly, an event which involved innovative poetry and film. I’m a fan of Chris and Gerry and expect to enjoy their stuff. But I was also struck by Dorothy Lawrenson’s poetry, which seemed to me far tighter and more affecting than anything she was doing 5 or 6 years ago – what any writer wants to happen, I guess. No doubt I’m going to find out she wrote these ones 6 years ago now! I read through the latest edition of Poetry magazine – always one of my favourite reads of the month. And Chris Hamilton-Emery sent me the manuscript of his new book, which will be published in March. Yesterday was my day off and I took advantage by reading through the first 20 pages – some fantastic, distinctive poems in there.

Anyway, I have managed a blog post, even if not a particularly focused one. I have meant to write about BBC1’s recent adaptation of Dickens's ‘Great Expectations’, about the Scottish independence referendum, about Michael Gove’s cultural vandalism, about a Denis Johnson poem... So far, you have been spared.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

All the Rooms of Uncle's Head: Fact and Fiction

My review of All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head by Tony Williams (Nine Arches press, 2011, £6) is up at Sphinx issue 19, together with reviews of the same pamphlet by Jon Stone and Nikolai Duffy. Oddly, the same Nikolai Duffy review, slightly extended, also appears at Stride magazine.

One issue that emerges from the reviews is whether the background to the poems is fact or fiction. The description on the pamphlet’s back cover says:
The maker of these strange pieces was an inmate of an asylum somewhere in Central Europe in the first decades of the 20th century. His fevered versions of the sonnet form were painted on to ceramic tiles, since smashed, and now pieced together.

Sounds like historical fact – if that’s as far as you read. But I was convinced from the outset that this was a fiction – even if a fiction interweaved with certain historical facts. My reasons are as follows:

1. The pamphlet’s cover clearly asserts Tony Williams as sole author.

2. Nowhere does the pamphlet ever suggest itself to be a work of translation. The poems are © Tony Williams and no one else.

3. The pamphlet’s introduction says that in 1986, the building occupied by German psychiatrist, Hans Prinzhorn, was stripped for renovation, and it was during this that the ceramic poem-tiles were discovered. Prinzhorn, his landmark book on ‘outsider art’, and his accommodation in Munich, are all historically verifiable, but a Google search for ‘Prinzhorn ceramic tiles 1986’ or any other similar search directs the searcher only to Tony Williams’s pamphlet.

4. There is no reference to those tiles anywhere, or to their previous publication in their original language. That means Tony must have worked with the original tiles, which no one else had ever thought to publish either within a book or online. Surely that’s impossible, given their obvious literary quality.

5. The back cover description above continues with, “Inspired by the great artists celebrated by Hans Prinzhorn in his famous work The Artistry of the Mentally Ill, Tony Williams has explored what it might mean to create literature under such conditions of stress.” This seals it for me: those phrases, “Tony Williams has explored...” and “inspired by...”. In other words, these are original poems by Williams, inspired by his research into ‘outsider art’.

I am a fan of literary hoaxes. Ern Malley springs to mind, and I know of a few other brilliantly conceived hoaxes. But I don’t think Tony Williams is hoaxing anyone here. All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head is a fiction, not a hoax. The poems are obviously by Tony Williams but are written in a convincing persona and, like any strong work of fiction, it draws the reader into a spell so that he/she enters a world that feels absolutely real. One thing that makes this pamphlet so convincing is how well Williams evokes the style of central European poetry of the early 20th century and yet still manages to make it sound something like Tony Williams. I’d definitely recommend you get yourself a copy, particularly if you like poems that offer new discoveries with every read.