Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Back to the Wordface

I'm just emerging from a long dark tunnel brought about by a week at Arvon and moving house at the same time. I've got my computer up and running, my printer connected and my favourite books out - though not yet on shelves - and have at least a rough outline prepared for what I'm meant to be doing, work-wise, over the next few weeks.

My Arvon course was for writers of teen fiction. (I've had a teen fantasy novel on the back burner for the past year or so.) I turned up at Lumb Bank tired, preoccupied with the house move, and not really in the mood to write. On the first day, I considered myself an experienced writer who only needed help with the structure of teen fiction. By the last day, I felt I'd be better employed as a plongeuse in a backstreet café, so greatly had my sense of ability as a novelist been shaken.

But all this is good. I now have a far stronger vision of where my story is going and, importantly, why it's headed in that direction.

I have also learnt a few stylistic tricks from the two tutors, Lee Weatherly and Malorie Blackman, which will stay with me forever in every type of writing I attempt. For a writer, even a published novelist and poet, it seems there's always something more to learn.

Before I moved house two weeks ago, I was absolutely intent on building up a portfolio of new poems towards my third collection. That work will continue - my third collection is scheduled for publication in 2008 - but with less immediate emphasis, as I put the bulk of my efforts into finishing this teen fantasy while the inspiration and desire to write is still inside me.

Thanks to the Arvon course, I have a solid synopsis prepared, and a strong story structure in place; now all I need is to sit down at the keyboard every day for the next few months and grow me a novel!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Poetry Business: arts funding cut

I returned from a fantastic writing course up at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire today - more on this later! - to discover that the Poetry Business, based in Huddersfield, has had its local authority funding cut.

This is a serious blow, not just for the excellent Poetry Business, a well-respected and long-established organisation run by Janet Fisher and Peter Sansom, but for British poetry altogether.

Is this the tip of an iceberg? Are we going to start seeing other substantial cuts to grants for British poetry publishers and organisations over the next few years?

Here is the message from Janet and Peter in Huddersfield:

The Poetry Business has had its local authority funding withdrawn for the next three years. As from April 2007, NO literature organisation within the borough of Kirklees now receives any grant aid from the Council.

This is in spite of Culture and Leisure Services' stated aim 'to create a portfolio of partners which represent a good spread of art forms; a good spread of creative work with communities of interest; and a strong creative infrastructure'.

Writer Simon Armitage, who has close links with Huddersfield, called the move 'shortsighted' (Huddersfield Daily Examiner 21.7.07).

Twelve years ago, Ian McMillan, writer and broadcaster and a great supporter of literature, named Huddersfield 'the Poetry Capital of England'. Through its work with poets, the Poetry Business is now a flagship organisation both as publisher of Smith/Doorstop Books and the magazine The North, and as a promoter of poetry in the area, with our regular Writing Days and other help for local writers.
To many the name 'Huddersfield' is synonymous with poetry, and this is due mainly to the work of the Poetry Business.

What this means
Already we have had to make many cuts in our services, and that must continue. We are still supported by Arts Council England, but the Kirklees grant was nearly 40% of our total funding. This comes as a great blow.
But it's not just the lack of money that concerns us (all Authorities are having to make cuts to services - we appreciate that); it's the lack of belief that what we do benefits the borough in many ways. Two years ago they called on us to become 'creative partners' - their term, not ours. Hollow words.

How you can help:
… Write (by letter or email) to complain about the decision to withdraw our grant.
… A Kirklees Council spokesman is quoted in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner on 21.7.07: 'The Poetry Business Š is now not working as effectively as other applicants to contribute to the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of the district.' If you live, work, study, etc., here, or you visit the borough, can you let Kirklees know your opinion of this statement.
… People to write to:
o The Arts & Creative Economy team (adele.poppleton@kirklees.gov.uk);
o Director of Regeneration (ken.gillespie@kirklees.gov.uk);
o Councillor Smaje (elizabeth.smaje@kirklees.gov.uk);
o Chief Executive (rob.vincent@kirklees.gov.uk).
o Kirklees MC, Civic Centre III, Market Street, Huddersfield HD1 1WG.
o The Huddersfield Daily Examiner (editor@examiner.co.uk)
… PLEASE ALSO forward this on to any other people who may be interested.
… This isn't an appeal for donations. But if you can support us in other ways such as taking out a subscription to The North, or buying our books, we'd both benefit. Many thanks to all the people who have already responded to us.

For further information, contact: Janet Fisher or Peter Sansom, The Poetry Business, The Studio, Byram Arcade, Westgate, Huddersfield HD1 1ND
tel 01484 434840 email edit@poetrybusiness.co.uk, website:www.poetrybusiness.co.uk

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Away, Being Coarse

I'm off on a writing course next week so I'm afraid there will be a short interruption to normal service. I've moved house now - still utter chaos here though, including problems with the phone line which is stopping me from getting online as frequently as usual - and on Monday I shall be braving the floods to head up north.

Back by the end of the month, fingers crossed!


Thursday, July 19, 2007

Three books from Salt Publishing in the Forward Prizes Shortlist 2007

As most readers of this blog will be aware, my second collection Boudicca & Co. was published in 2006 by the Cambridge-based poetry specialist press, Salt Publishing.

This year, Salt have no fewer than three books in the recently announced shortlist for the Forward Prizes, one of the most prestigious prizes on the poetry calendar. This is a superb achievement for any imprint, but perhaps particularly for one of the newer independent presses on the poetry scene, and I'm sure everyone at Salt - not to mention the three poets concerned, Luke Kennard, Melanie Challenger and Eleanor Rees! - must be very proud of themselves.

So it's congratulations to Salt Publishing, and I look forward to seeing this level of achievement for many years to come!

Forward Prizes 2007 Shortlist

Best collection prize (£10,000)
Domestic Violence by Eavan Boland (Carcanet)
Gift Songs by John Burnside (Jonathan Cape)
The Drowned Book by Sean O'Brien (Picador)
Birds with a Broken Wing by Adam Thorpe (Jonathan Cape)
The Harbour Beyond the Movie by Luke Kennard (Salt Publishing)
Beasts of Nalunga by Jack Mapanje (Bloodaxe)

Best first collection prize (£5,000)
Twenty Four Preludes and Fugues on Dimitri Shostakovich by Joanna Boulter (Arc Publications)
Galatea by Melanie Challenger (Salt Publishing)
Look We Have Coming to Dover! by Daljit Nagra (Faber and Faber)
Andraste's Hair by Eleanor Rees (Salt Publishing)

Best single poem prize (£1,000)
The Hut in Question by David Harsent (Poetry Review)
Thursday by Lorraine Mariner (The Rialto)
Dunt by Alice Oswald (Poetry London)
The Day I Knew I Wouldn't Live Forever by Carole Satyamurti (The Interpreter's House)
Goulash by Myra Schneider (The North)
The Birkdale Nightingale by Jean Sprackland (Poetry Review)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Farewell, dear Study!

Since discovering, about two years ago, that the kids' box room upstairs had a dreadful damp problem, I started using that room as my study and turned a downstairs room into a bedroom for them. This is one explanation for my current chest problems - recurring bouts of chronic bronchitis which occasionally shift into difficulties with breathing, as is the case at the moment. Another is that I smoked for too many years and ought to have given up sooner. But any study, even a very damp one, is better than no study at all.

As we prepare to move house this Thursday, I'm aware that I'll be moving into a much smaller house with no spare room where I can work.

Instead, I'll be forced to set up camp in a corner of my bedroom again - something I've only done once before, whilst living in a commune in the Isle of Man. Even when we were in Boscastle, in a tiny windswept house high above the harbour, I managed to convert the front porch into a study. But now - and for some years to come, perhaps - I will be working in a refugee-style situation, possibly without even space for a desk.

It's possible that such cramped conditions may concentrate my mind. It's also possible that they will drive me crazy and leave me unable to work. The likeliest scenario is that I will have to become a 'mobile' poet, moving from the bedroom to the living room when my husband turns in for the night - he nearly always goes to bed earlier than me, since he has to get up earlier - so that I don't disturb his sleep with my typing or scribbling.

Some writers always work like this, of course. Some actively prefer a smaller and less formal space. But although I wouldn't feel comfortable with a large study, the prospect of not having one at all is a little disturbing.

Still, if my corner of the bedroom isn't too damp, I shall be grateful for that at least.


Spot the familiar poet leering down at me from the wall behind my computer? Maybe one day I too will sport eyebrows of that calibre ...

And yes, that is an old pasting table I'm using as a desk. What you can't see is the tower of books underneath, supporting the table where it sags in the middle.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Books Just Arrived

Having a little spare cash after putting down the required deposit and whatnot for our new tenancy - starting next week - I decided to treat myself to some new books.

Well, I say new, but only one of them is genuinely new and that's Common Prayer by Poetry Review editor, Fiona Sampson (Carcanet Books, just out).

Some are copies of poetry books I've had out on loan from the library and want to actually own, like Don Paterson's delicately written Orpheus (Faber, 2006) and Vicki Feaver's The Book of Blood (Cape, 2006).

Interestingly, The Book of Blood was one of a number of possible titles for my own second collection, which eventually became Boudicca & Co. Vicki Feaver got there first on this occasion, but since I consider Boudicca & Co. an inspired choice of title, there can be no hard feelings!

:wry grin:

Also in this category is Paul Farley's excellent Tramp in Flames.

Yet another book, Peter Dickinson's Changes, is not poetry at all, but science fantasy: a trilogy of short fantasy novels I loved in my teens, now published as one volume by US publisher Dell. Merlin re-awakens and 'changes' Britain back into the Dark Ages, a land where modern machines are considered the work of the devil and those who try to use them are treated as witches. I'm looking forward to re-acquainting myself with the Changes trilogy this summer - as a break from the deadly serious work of poetry!

That only leaves two other books: Lavinia Greenlaw's Minsk (Faber, 2003) and Ian Duhig's The Lammas Hireling (Picador, also 2003). I've read neither of these before, though I have browsed Duhig's book in a branch of Waterstones, intrigued by the superb painting of a 'Hare' by Albrecht Durer on the cover, and put it down mentally on my list of books to be bought when I'd got enough in the bank. Me and hares ... suffice it to say, we go way back.

I haven't put links up for any of these, as I wouldn't have wanted to leave anyone out and there are rather too many for a quick blog entry. But I hope you google at least one or two of them, if you're interested in contemporary poetry, and maybe buy a few yourself. Unless you own them already, of course, in which case do leave a comment below to let me know your favourites or the most disappointing reads among those books mentioned here.

Packing up the house recently, I discovered that I own several hundred books of poetry published over the past few decades. I haven't managed to read them all, of course, though I've sampled most. Some I know intimately, and those are the books of poetry which have gone into my OPEN FIRST boxes during the packing process, the poems that sustain me both as a writer and as a person.

But it's an odd thing. The more contemporary poetry I read, the less I seem to know or really understand about poetry.

In that respect, at least, poetry is like the TARDIS in Doctor Who. It's bigger on the inside ...

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Happy Birthday, Boys!

Left to right: Dylan, Mo & Indi, making music

In a very short time, it will be July 13th, which marks my twin sons' fifth birthday. Hard to believe it's only five years, it feels much longer since they were born.

At 38 weeks, I was in induced labour for about twenty minutes, after problems with the lead twin's heartbeat fluctuating over a series of days, then suddenly the room filled with people and I was handed a consent form for an emergency caesarean section. Dylan's heartbeat, as lead twin, had dropped through the floorboards because of cord compression, and they told me if he wasn't delivered immediately, he would die. It was an awful moment, not least because I'd been hoping to give birth to them naturally.

An incredibly short time later, probably less than half an hour, I was sitting up in a recovery room with two tiny red-faced babies on my chest.

Now they're five years old, and both beautiful, high-spirited and extremely affectionate boys. Mo is the one under the bucket!

Here's the poem I wrote for that birth - and thanks to Anon (see comments below) for showing me how to indent the line!


(for Dylan and Morris)

We do not know you yet, you are nothing
but bone and fluid and mass to us.
They lift you out through your necklace
of cord, slippery and indignant,
and suddenly you’re inspired, all lungs,
pure beetroot. Your brother,
tucked up tight beneath my breast-bone,
does not want to wake. His mild eyes
open in surprise to a world of gowned figures
and white masks.
and emptied from the waist downwards
like a breakfast egg, I lie back
with my arms full of babies. Your father sits
with a perpetual grin on his face
like a man in a Greek comedy.

These lights above the bed are your first stars.
Urgent with milk-haze, you root
for the breast and I gather you in, begin
with your own names.


This poem appears in my second collection, Boudicca & Co, published last year by Salt Publishing.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Does the Male Muse exist?

Tomorrow morning, Tuesday 10th July, from 11.30am - 12.00 noon, you can catch My Male Muse on Radio 4. In this potentially controversial programme, "poet Clare Pollard dispels the popular female image of a muse. She argues that men can also be a source of beauty and inspiration, and contradicts poet Robert Graves, who famously claimed that the male muse doesn't exist."

The programme is produced by Clare Pollard and Tamysn Challenger. Other poets taking part will be Eva Salzman, Catherine Smith, Annie Freud, Melanie Challenger and Penelope Shuttle.

And as if the excitement of finding so many women poets on Radio 4 at once wasn't enough for one week, you can also listen to Fiona Sampson, poet and editor of Poetry Review, on Woman's Hour, Thursday July 12th between 10am and 10.45.

On that programme, Fiona will be reading from her brand-new poetry collection, just out from Carcanet, entitled Common Prayer. The programme will also feature discussions on the dreadful problem of endometriosis and 'how to moan without losing friends and alienating people'.

It could be worth my while to listen just for that last piece alone ...

Cat-Fight Bloggers

I've just emerged from a bloody and unpleasant cat-fight on another blog of mine, where I dared to criticise a blogring owner for an action she took, who then posted an entry on her own blog about it and claimed to have left some sweet little comment apologising for and explaining her action on my blog, adding that I would probably not publish it though.

This supposed comment never appeared on my list of comments to be moderated, so I can only assume that she did not post it to my blog as she claimed.

Naturally enough, I had to respond to her accusation of censorship, and so suffered a gang of outraged blogring supporters trolling along to the rescue of this 'gentle and harmless' soul, and leaving extremely inflammatory and unpublishable comments on my site.

Should I be upset by this exchange? Or should I be enlivened? The former is probably more accurate than the latter, which is a shame. There was a distinctly 'hysterical' edge to the fight which I disliked, i.e. the remarks made to me were nearly all highly personal in tone and most did not even pretend to address the political ramifications of the blogring owner's action - which I'd sought to question in my original post. It was purely a 'you hurt my friend, now I'm going to hurt you' situation.

Their response bewildered me, though perhaps it shouldn't have done, as I know my own tone in blog posts is often abrasive, to say the least. But I did have a valid point, which nobody appeared interested in. I kept trying to steer them back to the reason I'd become annoyed in the first place, but no one was listening. By then, it had become a territory thing, a gang thing. By severing my affiliation with the blogring, I'd chosen to break from the gang and was therefore fair game for the nastier elements in it.

Meanwhile, the blogring owner herself carefully refrained from getting involved any further. She'd let them off the leash, then stepped back into the shadows, like the 'gentle and harmless' soul she is. No longer a simple disagreement between two people then, but an undignified online spat between one individual and someone else's gang of friends.

The poetry scene can be like that at times, I know. But at least most of us can spell the obscenities we're using.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sequences and Stand-Alones

The poet Ted Hughes considered the poem sequence an excellent way of getting 'at' the poetry, as though poetry is a rich seam of ore and the poet, through his or her working methods and inspiration, is simply chipping away at the dense rock that covers it.

I've always felt that Hughes's attitude towards the poem sequence indicates that he, like me, needed a bit of a run-up to writing poetry. That cold-calling poetry central is almost guaranteed to result in an engaged tone, or the phone being slammed down on you.

The good stand-alone poem is a miracle. It comes seemingly out of nowhere and finishes in a place no poet can envisage whilst scribbling the first line on the back of an envelope in a crowded train carriage. It doesn't happen often, that astonishing coup de foudre that results in the good one-off poem. Certainly not to a poet like me, anyway.

So in order to generate 'good' poems, to get up a powerful head of steam writing-wise, I tend to work my way gradually towards the poetry through the narrative structure of a sequence. Maybe partway into the sequence, or towards the end of it, I will stumble across a good poem. Or it will find me. And I'll know that it was worth the time and sheer effort involved in building a complicated narrative around it.

That's how my last sequence, Boudicca, evolved, and there are several poems there which work outside the narrative sequence: 'A Handful of Bones', 'Driving the Tribes', 'War Paint', 'History', maybe 'Purification.' Of course, it helps the poet to readily establish the premise of a sequence when the narrative is linked, as Boudicca is, to a well-known historical, legendary or mythological figure or story.

Often a poem like that will lose its peculiar power by being removed from the sequence and examined as a stand-alone poem. But sometimes it won't. And that test is usually one of memorability. Does that one poem stay in the mind long after the sequence around it has been forgotten?

I'm working on a sequence for my third collection. Not a lengthy sequence, at this stage. Maybe 20 poems. The number rises and falls as I cut earlier less-sustainable efforts or insert shiny new works. But it's already yielded two or three poems which might survive their inception to be lifted out of the sequence later and considered as stand-alone pieces.

I also have two other ideas for sequences, with a few poems already written for each. But nothing is decided. Those poems may appear as stand-alones in my third book, simply because the sequence never grew into something workable. Or I may jettison them altogether, perhaps returning to them another year, if I have enough time and it feels right to move back into that territory.

That's the beauty of sequences. They can grow with the poet or be laid aside and returned to, where stand-alone poems are either completely there from the beginning, all of a piece, or they tend never to be quite right. With the sequence, you can fuss and fiddle about under the hood for years, if necessary, without ever losing the initial impetus behind the story. But the stand-alone poem is a more fragile creation; if the initial inspiration dissipates for any reason before the poem can be completed, the poem has often lost its chance of authentic life.

Think of poor Coleridge and that ill-timed knock at the door ...

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Out of Control?

These days my time seems to be out of control. This is probably because I'm in the throes of moving house, which eats time more assiduously than any other activity in my life. Even now I'm surrounded by freshly written labels for binbags - sheets, washing basket clothes, tea towels, spare duvets - and stacks of book boxes as far as the eye can see (which is admittedly not very far, due to said stacks) ...

The worst thing emerging from all this organised chaos is that I'm finding less time and energy is available each day for updating my many blogs and websites, or for posting on my favourite forums.

Some people might think this a blissful state of affairs. Down with the internet! Abolish the forum! But cruising online is an activity I find both relaxing and exciting, so I'm really missing my daily 1 - 3 hour fix of blogging and interneting. Instead I'm having to make do with this miserly thirty minute stretch of updating every day. Pitiful! Pathetic!

How do I manage even this, though? Well, a few years ago I learnt that time management depends on one simple thing above all others, which is only touching a piece of paper (real or cyber-sent) once. When I get an email or letter which requires me to take some sort of action, I either immmediately act on it or, if I can't act on it straightaway (because it's connected to an event a few months ahead, for instance), I make a note in my calendar to act on it at the appropriate time. Then I promptly forget all about it.

That frees up my time to concentrate on what I actually want to do. Which is writing ...

And this is where my great time management skills begin to break down and fall apart, because there simply isn't any way round the business of moving house.

I'm going to take a break from blogging after next week, right across the board on all my blogs, but will be back in operation around the start of August. Some advance warning there, so you'll know I haven't died but am just 'resting'. Between blog posts.

Mmm. I'm looking forward to that.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Visions of London: a reading to celebrate the re-opening of London's Poetry Library

Last night saw the re-opening of the Poetry Library at the South Bank Centre, after over a year’s closure for refurbishments. To celebrate there was a party for Friends of the Library and a special ‘London’-themed poetry reading, featuring Sean Borodale, Tobias Hill and Iain Sinclair.

The poetry event took place on Level Five of the Royal Festival Hall, with magnificent uninterrupted views across the Embankment to the heart of the city. And it was particularly significant, with all three poets reading from work inspired by the city, to be able to view London darkening into evening as the reading progressed: ruffled flashes of river winding through the trees, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and the nearby London Eye, overcast sky seen through the gigantic bicycle spokes of its wheel.

Sean Borodale was an earnest young man in a suit, reading from Notes for an Atlas (Isinglass), a hefty tome of a collection featuring 25 walks around London written in verse. His style is very filmic. There’s little mention in his work of how London smells, for instance. His work is about gathering visual snippets, half sentences, words shouted incomprehensibly across a busy street, traffic noise, weeds grey from traffic fumes and struggling to grow between paving stones, words on torn posters or shop signs glimpsed in passing.

The pace is unvaried, and is that of walking. Ambulatory verse, this. It’s also very flat poetry, by which I mean Borodale doesn’t seem interested in bothering us with how he was feeling on a particular walk, or what that area means to him personally. It compares poorly with Iain Sinclair’s urgent, almost mesmerising delivery and Tobias Hill’s thoughtful humour, but if you like your poetry extremely lengthy, presenting a scene rather than commenting on it, riddled with similes (though they are also metaphors here, often well thought-out, eg. ‘blackbirds tying knots of sound’) and highly cinematic, then Sean Borodale is your man. You certainly couldn't accuse him of a lack of ambition, and I'm all for ambitious poetry.

Tobias Hill came to the podium in tee-shirt and jeans, a little stubbly, his hair attractively dishevelled. He’s a people person, good at engaging the audience, and makes us laugh - with relief? - in the first few minutes, with a poem that describes class structure as shown by behavioural differences between types of taxi-goer. He also tells us how TS Eliot stayed in one of his favourite haunts, Cricklewood, back in 1911. ‘But Cricklewood is mine,’ he insists, with a hard smile. ‘I discovered it.’

His poetry has an eye for the grittier side of the city. In what can only be described as a ‘poetry voice’, hitting all the right inflections and emphases, Tobias Hill reads us his poem 'May', a lyrical piece about a now vanished Cricklewood night-club where clubbers queue to get in and ‘piss’ down alleyways when caught short outside - ‘May’ is from a sequence entitled ‘A Year in London’. Then he brings his father’s memories of the city at war eerily up to date with beautifully rhythmic lines about bombs in fog: ‘a sound like London’.

One of his own ‘walking London’ poems, ‘Nocturne’, brings us poetic decriptions coupled with emotional involvement, the poet’s take on what he sees, which compares favourably with Borodale’s less engaging monologues.

Last of the three poets to read was Iain Sinclair, a legendary poet and editor of the influential avant-garde anthology Conductors of Chaos. Looking very smart in a dark suit jacket, very much the poetic statesman, he reads to us from The Firewall, his new Selected from Etruscan Books.

According to Iain Sinclair, London is made up of a series of walls, designed to keep some things in and others out. These walls can be created by historic buildings at the heart of London, modern skyscrapers in the city, the river itself, rings of housing estates, the M25, and a real wall protecting what will be an ‘exclusion zone’ about the new Olympic village. He wants ‘to be possessed by London, to be ventriloquised by it’, his writing a kind of ‘memory Polaroid’.

‘The real London has gone,’ he tells us, indicating the darkening cityscape behind him, the glow of streetlamps along the Embankment, ‘and the virtual is overwhelming it.’ In his own ‘poetry voice’, transformed here by the urgency of his rhythms into something rich, visionary, mesmerising, he reads us what he calls his ‘journal-like poems of the workaday world, suddenly possessed by the high of the other London’ - presumably the magical city invoked by his work.

Iain Sinclair talks at length and with great authority of the history of London and his own involvement with it, how he cut the grass in London churchyards in the 70s, has walked the city for hours, admiring ‘old London, no London, the liminal landscape of the city’, once witnessing an elderly man’s clumsy attempt at a suicide. His passionate love for ‘London’s sacred geometry’ is inspiring. Then he makes us all laugh with a marvellous one-liner in one of his poems: ‘poet is another way of saying Irish.’

Three poets with very different voices and visions of London. One superb event. And a newly refurbished Poetry Library waiting to be visited and enjoyed at the South Bank Centre.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Alan Johnston Freed Today

I've just seen on the news that the kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston was freed earlier this morning and handed over to Hamas officials in Gaza, after 114 days in captivity. He told reporters it was "the most fantastic thing to be free" and that he had been in the hands of "dangerous and unpredictable" people.

I'm exceedingly glad, and wish him all the best in his recovery from this "appalling experience" as he put it. And a massive well done, of course, to all those people who have been working tirelessly around the world on his behalf.

Now I can take that link off my POF site to the Free Alan Johnston campaign!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Mother Dear

This is a photograph of my mother, taken for the Daily Mirror in 1983.

Everytime I look in the mirror these days, I catch my mother looking back, at roughly this age, with the same number of kids, demanding to know what the hell I'm doing with my time.

Not making serious inroads on a writing career that will produce millions of sales worldwide and more than 150 novels, that's for sure.

I think I've written more than 150 poems. I wonder if that counts.

Good old Philip Larkin, eh?

Monday, July 02, 2007

Areté 22

I imagine that Craig Raine still receives visitors and students in his airy front parlour in New College Lane, Oxford, seated immediately beneath a strikingly realistic painting of Craig Raine seated in his airy front parlour in New College Lane, Oxford. It's a postmodern experience, gazing from the real writer to the framed one above, and suitably surreal too, since you're in conversation with the poet who invented 'Martian' poetry.*

In 1999, I was among fifteen or so students at Oxford who attended Craig Raine's yearly ‘poetry class’ that Trinity term. Once a week, we would meet at his place in New College Lane to discuss poets and poetry, a few of us adjourning afterwards to the college bar to continue our - often very lively! - discussions there. Sometimes Craig would come with us to the bar. He’s the sort of tutor who likes to mix with his students, to chat about poetry and perhaps influence some of them towards his way of thinking.

So what is Craig Raine’s way of thinking?

Well, his ‘Arts Tri-Quarterly’ magazine Areté may hold some clues, edited by CR with Deputy Editor Ann Pasternak Slater (his wife). Still being based in Oxford when the magazine was launched - around the millennium - I bought the first few issues and found them a difficult read, full of worthy but obscure articles on literary figures whose works I had yet to encounter. Last week, I sent off for a copy of the recently published Areté 22, with its smart red cover, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself not merely understanding it - in places, it has to be said - but enjoying it too.

There are quasi-comical pieces here, including an article ‘On Being a Film Star’ by Susan Hitch and a poem by John Fuller, ‘My Life on the Margins of Celebrity’, plus a poem extract (from a verse novel?) entitled ‘The Broken Word’ by Adam Foulds, which is so lengthy it would have taken me several hours to read. So I'm afraid that I've not yet attempted that. The whole book is due to be published by Cape in 2008.

There are also two hefty essays on contemporary poetry, one by Craig Raine, entitled ‘Little Big Man: The Poetry of Don Paterson’ and the other by Areté Assistant Editor, Adam Thirlwell: ‘On Bad Poetry: Daljit Nagra’. The magazine holds other delights - it covers Fiction, Poetry, Reportage and Reviews, over some 150 pages - but I will only be dealing with the two poetry articles here.

CR’s main objective - in his Paterson essay, at least - seems to be that of discomforting the reader. And not only the reader, but the poet under review, I should imagine, as the article contains such astringent observations on his poetry as the following, which comes after an unfavourable examination of his 1994 Arvon prize-winning poem ‘A Private Bottling’: ‘Worse than any of these specific flaws, though, is a general disposition to annex mystical territory, a grandiose pretence, a self-aggrandising weakness for talking things up. In a word, exaggeration, a kind of immodesty that relies on no one calling your bluff’.

When I first started to read Raine’s essay on Paterson, I certainly felt uncomfortable and was prepared to disagree with his findings before I had even read the whole article. Landing Light is among my favourite new(ish) collections at the moment, and I found many of Paterson’s observations in his 2004 TS Eliot Lecture, ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’, highly apposite and credible. In that much, therefore, Paterson is a poet I trust.

But I soon found myself having to reassess my knee-jerk reaction to the icy bucket of water Raine throws over Paterson’s oeuvre. He isn’t so much indulging himself in critical vitriol as making some salient points about lazy writing and unintended humour in DP’s work. By the end of his essay, in fact, I had been brought to a point where I was able to agree with Raine on several points, even concerning some of Paterson’s better-known poems which I had previously admired. As you can imagine, having my own judgement challenged in this way was a difficult but salutary experience for me.

It’s important for poets - and poetry critics - to have scant respect for accepted wisdom, beliefs and authorities, and to rely instead on their own instincts when reading poetry. Craig Raine, in his role here as critic, is like the little boy in the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the one who refuses to go along with the charade, not because he has superior intelligence or keener eyesight than the rest, but because he has strong instincts and has not been cowed into ignoring them.

Correspondingly, his analysis of Don Paterson’s poetry is about exploding rather than exploring the man’s reputation. Let me be clear here. His essay is unnecessarily personal and is even guilty of wilfully missing the point on occasion in order to send up Paterson’s style - often hilariously. But that doesn’t mean CR is wrong on all counts. It just means he’s rude.

It becomes easy, when moving in particular circles on a regular basis, to fall into a pattern of responses to contemporary poetry which may not bear much resemblance to your earliest instincts as a reader. We call this process education, a useful by-product of reading a great deal of a certain sort of poetry and criticism, but it can also become indoctrination: one party imposing their beliefs on another, this latter usually less experienced and therefore more open to influence.

I consider myself open to influence on various levels, though far less than when I was just starting out in poetry. The most useful thing I learnt at Oxford was to question everything, regardless of appearances or reputation. This has bestowed on me a certain fearlessness on the one hand, but on the other a constantly shifting scale of literary values which can be confusing at times, liberating at others.

I enjoy Don Paterson’s poetry. At its best, it lifts and inspires me to write. But Craig Raine’s essay has shown me weaknesses in the work which had been obscured for me by that sense of enjoyment.

And since all things lead back to one’s own work - for poetry is the most self-obsessed literary form and poets the least interested in each other’s current work, beyond ambition or necessary politeness at parties - I am also indebted to Raine’s essay for highlighting weaknesses which exist in my own poetry too: ‘opaque syntax’, ‘sentimental and clumsy’, ‘verbal incompetence’, and even this sideways swipe at W.B. Yeats for similar crimes against poetry: ‘Padding, confusion, reprise. Usually in Yeats, the flaw is the separation of subject and predicate by unwieldy parenthesis. To be in such exalted company might cheer Paterson. It shouldn’t. A fault is a fault.’

But I'm not entirely swayed by CR's invective. There are a number of mistakes here, misreadings and misunderstandings. I don’t agree, for instance, that ‘the pearl sits knuckled in its silk’ in 'Letter to the Twins' is a poor description of a clitoris. CR may examine his own knobbly fingers at this point and fail to see the comparison, but let me assure him, a woman’s knuckles are not only far more petite, but an excited clitoris does protrude like a knuckle on a clenched fist. Not on the same size scale, of course, but enough to make the comparison allowable. Trust me, I’ve seen this.

: wicked smile:

And while it may seem a tenuous stretch to CR, if we use Paterson's own theory of a network of words and meanings suggested by the interplay of sounds within a word or line, the justification for 'knuckled' becomes stronger, reinforcing the sexual imagery here by hinting at: 'nuzzled, 'fucked', 'sucked' and, when taken in conjunction with 'silk' further along the line, even 'licked'. Craig Raine's own preference for the exact metaphor rather than the allusive, suggestive one hampers his ability to enjoy the range of Paterson's imagery here.

There are also flashes of delightful malice in this essay where I simply had to stop, read something out to my husband, and wipe my eyes before reading on. This, for instance, describing an unfortunately phrased line, again from Paterson’s poem, ‘Letter to The Twins’: ‘That last line is a minor miracle of ugliness. You want to take it to Lourdes.’

Overall then, an accomplished piece of critical thinking and sheer braggadocio from Craig Raine. Adam Thirlwell’s piece on Daljit Nagra’s debut collection, by contrast, is heavily defensive in tone and suffers from not really having understood the poet’s intentions. I’ve reviewed Look We Have Coming to Dover! myself, so have a fair grasp of the book’s style and contents, and I felt Thirlwell had decided on a theme for his essay first - in this case, ‘Bad Poetry’ - then tried to fit that theme to the collection in front of him, apparently oblivious to any mismatch.

There are also frequent bizarre echoes between Thirlwell’s phraseology and that of Craig Raine, as here when discussing ‘Bibi & the Street Car Wife!’: ‘I can ignore the hamfisted beefburgering: I can’t ignore the ugliness of these two lines’ (my italics). At another point, he uses exactly the same phrase Raine applies to one of Paterson’s poems in his own essay, describing Nagra’s work as ‘an allegory of deracination’. Thirlwell also throws the same complaints of ‘sentimentalism’ and ‘imprecision’ at the younger poet, complaining of similarly incompetent writing.

For Paterson’s extensive oeuvre to be attacked is fair enough. As an experienced poet with many accolades under his belt, he’s perfectly able to rebuff such critical attacks and probably expects them as a matter of course.

But to launch this entirely negative and thoroughly hostile 10 page rocket assault on a debut collection is, to my mind, unacceptable behaviour. To raise doubts may be a necessary thing, especially when a new poet has landed a contract with a publisher as internationally renowned as Faber. But it’s one thing to raise doubts and quite another to steamroller a debut collection into the ground.

This sort of nonsense smacks of vindictiveness and is in very poor taste. Besides which, it’s simply not effective criticism to pick at every line for its supposed obscurity - most of these poems are deliberately written in pidgin English, for god’s sake - and then end with a pronouncement as painfully sententious as ‘bad poetry is the mausoleum of language’. The same, I'm afraid, can be applied to bad criticism.

Not that I would use that particular phrase myself, bowdlerised from Baudelaire; I’d be too embarrassed.


* 'Martian' poetry is a phrase coined by James Fenton in a review of Craig Raine's first collection A Martian Sends a Postcard Home. It refers to a way of writing which assumes no prior knowledge of everyday items and so employs unusual and striking metaphors and other tropes to describe such objects, as though the narrator is a Martian. As an entertaining aside, Martianism is an anagram of Martin Amis, also known to have employed this peculiarly vivid writing style.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Elegy for an Ashtray

Today marks the first day of a brave new era for England as it goes smoke-free in public places. How does this affect me? Well, it doesn't in particular. Not anymore. I gave up smoking a few years ago after more than two decades of daily rolling and hacking. But at one time this would have been a grim day for me, leaving me with the awareness that my civil liberties had been eroded yet further and that I desperately needed a cigarette.

Many writers reach for tobacco as a means of inspiration, to kickstart the creative process. Alcohol too, often in larger quantities than is good for our livers, but so far they haven't got round to banning that. Soon though, I have no doubt. Because the government knows best. They are not interested in the civil liberties of smokers, only those of pub, club and restaurant-going non-smokers.

And the outcome of this ban? That hardened smokers will now stay home in order to indulge their 20-a-day habits, stocking up on the single malt and filling their children's lungs with smoke.

I'm exaggerating, but the dangers of passive smoking have also been exaggerated. Human beings have been living in smoke-filled environments ever since the first cave-dwellers rubbed two sticks together and invented the cooked dinner. Now we are no longer entitled to light up in public for fear of damaging passers-by, but must take the smoke home and inflict it on our children instead.

I am a non-smoker. I am also an ex-chain-smoker. That means that barely a day goes by when I don't want to have a cigarette.

I watch people smoking in the street, in bars and restaurants, and feel a powerful desire to join them, to drag that dizzying grey crap into my lungs again and lean back with my eyes closed, secure in the knowledge that I'm killing myself legally.

In that sense at least the ban will be useful, helping me to feel clean and self-righteous in public, no longer tempted by the sight of others enjoying what I have denied myself. But my memory still works fine. And memory is a dangerous thing for the ex-smoker.

I remember days when I smoked almost non-stop, lighting one cigarette from another, writing with my hands shaking and my heart racing, falling into bed exhausted and happy and stinking of smoke.

I remember moments when there was nothing between me and the void but the single burning filament of a roll-up. A white flag, raised and lowered in silence.

I remember chilled nights with friends, sitting round a table or on the floor, drinking tea and sharing a few joints between us. The gift of the high, its other-worldly acceptance.

I remember the first cigarette of the day, that astonishing all-body relief of the nicotine. The abrupt brightening of everything, nerves and bloodstream clicking into gear, super-charged, even grateful.

I remember the dreadful fear of running out, the palm-sweats, the uneven temper. Scrabbling in long-cold ashtrays for butt ends to be ripped apart and cannabalised, smoking their bitter entrails with the pinched face of the addict.

I remember the endless attempts to give up, year after year. The fads and the patches. The pretend cigarettes and the gum. Then the tobacco again, like an old friend, an ex-lover. The cruellest of old flames.

I remember the frustration, waking up and needing to smoke above all else, throwing a full ashtray across the room, desperate to be free.

I remember the day I finally gave up. Twenty years stopped cold in their tracks. How my resolve weakened a few days later and I smoked a furtive cigarette in the garage. Stubbing it out again quickly, disgusted and nauseous.

I remember the night I realised that I was clean. Going to a restaurant and watching a friend light up after our meal, yet being unmoved by the sight. Not desirous of a cigarette, not sick with envy and restlessness.

Finally, I remember the moment it dawned on me that I would never be entirely free. Being offered a cigarette at a party and suddenly, desperately, physically needing to say yes, yet still managing to say no. Accepting a glass of wine instead and remembering when I was a smoker, the sheer ecstasy of nicotine and wine mingling, the death instinct and the perverse belief that I would live forever, the heady pleasure of the post-coital cigarette, the post-argument cigarette, the pre-interview cigarette, the writer's cigarette, the poetry reading cigarette, the after-dinner cigarette, the cannabis cigarette, the shared cigarette, the last cigarette.

Smoking is both a glorious pleasure and a deadly insult to our bodies. Today's ban on smoking in public places will change the smoking habits of millions of people, and perhaps many smokers will stop altogether, as I did.

But there's no getting round the fact that those who genuinely wish to smoke will continue to do so, whatever the social circumstances, just as those who genuinely wish to die will continue to kill themselves, undeterred.