Saturday, September 29, 2007

Deciphering the Rejection Letter

I feel like having some light-hearted fun this weekend, after a week of tremendously hard slog leading up to my Ancient Greek exam on the 10th October, so here's a humorous poem I wrote a couple of years ago, in response to that most depressing of missives to come through a poet's letter box - a rejection!

The rejection came on a postcard from a poetry magazine editor with dubious handwriting and was almost completely indecipherable. My husband and my teenage daughter both had a go at deciding what it said, then I had my turn, rather more satirically, and once our sides had stopped aching with laughter, I wrote the following little poem in response.

Even more amusingly, this poem was later published by the magazine editor in question - a good sport!

Deciphering the Rejection Letter

Doc Ian
Thankly for these homely carrot honeyful pies.
In rally arry I woolit quit loot ay in -
oh fell I’ve hit a too lorry.
Plare de sil rue!
Very wisest, Feng Shui.

Door Jam
Thoroughly for these only correct bountiful yams.
I’m roulley army I woubbit quilt fot any is -
al fch I’ve hid a too loony.
Plane di ail muc!
Very wormey, Frere Lecteur.

Dour Jim
Thankway for these oily concrete lentiful pores.
I’m really angry a rabbit quiet fat again -
if such I’ll hole a too lazy.
Please don’t send more!
Very worst, In Horror.

Dear Jane
Thank you for these lovely concise? beautiful poems.
I’m really sorry I couldn’t quite fit any in -
and feel I’ve held on too long.
Please do send more!
Very warmest, The Editor.

This poem appeared in 'Boudicca & Co' (Salt, 2006).

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Verb, Radio 3, featuring David Morley and THE INVISIBLE KINGS

Until Friday 28th September, I think, you should be able to catch the latest Verb show by clicking this link to Radio 3.

I've just been listening to the programme myself online and particularly enjoying the delights of David Morley reading from his brand-new Carcanet book of poetry, THE INVISIBLE KINGS, which Ian MacMillan, poet and Verb presenter, describes as 'a book that seems to redefine the things that poetry can do.'

THE INVISIBLE KINGS is a book of poetry about the Romani. David Morley is a Gajo, which means half-Romani, and has long avoided writing about his Romani heritage because discussing Romani business is considered 'bad manners' as he puts it on this radio show, with most family history kept secret or passed on orally. Following a reading in Sweden, however, he met an old family friend whose comments inspired him to go home and write these poems about his rich and often tragic tribal heritage, poems which are highly musical, declamatory and steeped in the Romani language. David Morley says, in fact, that this book 'completely wrote itself'.

I am in the middle of reading THE INVISIBLE KINGS myself, so was very interested to listen to this programme, not least because I felt it shed much-needed light on some of Morley's unusual and stirring poetry.

Listening to David Morley read the title poem here was a revelation. For a start, the lines are riddled with Romani words - translated on a separate page - and I was able to hear how they should be correctly pronounced and emphasised. I was also fascinated to learn that the title poem is written in the voice of a tribal shaman who is, like Morley himself, a Gajo - half-Romani. His thoughts, dreams, visions, stories and declarations make up the long poem - written in couplets and divided into several sections - that lies at the heart of THE INVISIBLE KINGS.

Here's the full line-up for last week's Verb (Radio 3):

David Morley
Ian McMillan talks to David Morley, the author of what promises to be one of the most thrilling volumes of poetry published this year - The Invisible Kings. Written partly in English and partly in Romani his poetry moves and sounds like music ... it zings with images from the natural world and gives voice to a culture that's emerging from the shadows.

Sarah Hall & D.J. Taylor
There are also two brand new pieces of writing inspired by water in general and flooding in particular. A short story by Sarah Hall, whose novel, The Electric Michelangelo was on the Booker Shortlist not so long ago and a meditation on words and water by her fellow novelist, D.J.Taylor.

Peter Blegvad
Peter Blegvad has composed one of his inimitable audio cartoons on the perils and pains of persistant scriptorum carborundum, also known as writer's block.

The Verb resonates to the sound of Beat Boxing - we have a short, not to say punchy guide to the history and practice of Beat Boxing from the acknowledged master, Beardyman.
You can buy David Morley's THE INVISIBLE KINGS here.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Poet as Magpie

I haven't written any poems for some days - maybe as long as a week - so I trotted off for a quick coffee and poem-writing session today and left my husband with the kids. Unfortunately, nothing new came of it, but I did feel able to rewrite an old 'abandoned' poem that's been bugging me for ages. It's less a poem, actually, than a mish-mash of poorly connected rain-and-flood images and phrases out of which a more confident poem, 'Flood at Boscastle', published this year in Poetry Review, eventually grew.

That situation may need explaining. 'Flood at Boscastle' was a poem which just seemed to come loose from the rambling draft of a much longer poem. Having emerged in the centre of it, 'Flood' shrugged the rest of the lines away, leaving them on the floor of the page like shorn hair or wood shavings. So I've had these unfinished - or rather, abandoned - images lying about for some months, roughly in the form of a poem, waiting either for the bin or for the right moment to be rewritten.

I've talked about this tricky rescue process before on Raw Light, and in other places - in an essay recently sent to the magazine Mimesis, for instance - but it bears some repetition, I feel, being slightly different each time it happens.

With this particular draft, vaguely entitled 'Boscastle', I knew that I couldn't make a move on constructing its ruins into a poem until the right mood took me. By which I mean that I lacked the right approach or inspiration. Not in some nebulous 'Muse' sense but in the sense of having discovered the right tone or connector or structure which would draw all those loose threads and shavings back together into one coherent whole.

Today, skimming through John Burnside's 'Selected Poems' (Cape, 2006, and highly recommended), I found the right structure for that abandoned draft and shamelessly adapted it to my needs. It's not something people talk about at parties, but being a poet sometimes entails behaving like a magpie, lifting techniques and ideas from other poets, both dead and living. And that's precisely what I did today.

In John Burnside's 'Selected', I found a number of strong working models of how to manipulate disparate images and phrases - disparate but running along connected themes - into one coherent unit. I was especially interested in his way of shrugging off excessive punctuation. In some of his freest poems, you find the colon, the full stop, and the occasional long dash. Not much else to hold his lines together or apart - only the white spaces. It's a technique particularly favoured by avant-garde poets, but the majority of examples I've read appear to use white space in either an arbitrary way or to bolster and add surface value to a too weak linguistic structure. In Burnside's work, by contrast, the gaps between lines or words spring inevitably from the sense of the words, setting each image like a jewel in the rich cloth of the poem.

So I looked at this fragmentary draft of mine, this shoddy ruin of a disembowelled poem, and began to see - in the light of having just read John Burnside's 'Selected' - how these disparate images could be knit together without clashing or clotting, i.e. by using the white space of the page to create distance and clarity - a sort of spatial integrity - instead of falling back on standard punctuation and left-to-right margins, which can feel inadequate to the task in some poems.

The 'new' poem created from this process is still undergoing refurbishment, of course, and may take several more months before it's ready to send out anywhere, but I now have much stronger hope that it will one day be publishable. It would be easier in such cases, perhaps, just to let those abandoned drafts go. And I usually do. But a few of them refuse to be forgotten. And that stalwart refusal is what makes them interesting to me, and worth continuing to worry at. Sometimes for years.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Reading at the MAC, Birmingham

I'll be reading at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham later today. I think there are still tickets available if anyone wants to come along. It's a popular monthly open mic night with a guest poet - me, this month. I'll be reading from Boudicca & Co. along with a few newer poems, some published in magazines, some completely virgin.

The event kicks off at about 7.30pm, but I believe you may need to sign up before 7pm if you want to read your own work. Anyway, if you're in the right area and fancy some live poetry tonight, tickets and venue location details are available from the MAC website, here.

I'm knee-deep in revision for my Ancient Greek exam in early October but have still managed to look at a few poems this week. Just scraping at them, pretending to edit and fiddle with the bald little things when really I'm considering deeper issues such as 'Do I really want this poem in my next collection?' and 'Is this next book going to be a vague mish-mash or is it still possible to draw these threads together into some sort of coherent pattern?'

I think it could be a very important collection for me. Either that or it will be a failure in the worst sense, the sort where nobody notices it, not even the toughest critics, where I might as well not have put it out there at all. But although that sounds like I should be under serious pressure to get it right, I don't feel any. I have a fatalistic view of such things. Pushing hard for a particular outcome has never worked for me in the past, and in fact has often been counterproductive.

So I'm trying not to consider the potentially high stakes riding on this next book of poems. Instead, I'm concentrating on writing the book that I want to read, the book that I approve of. There doesn't seem to be any other way to do it. Just taking it slow and steady, one poem at a time ...

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Pond: another sticky ending

'Pond' is a short poem of mine that was written some eight or nine years ago. It's also one of the few poems I've written in 'form', not entirely successfully as you will see. It was published in Poetry Review in the late nineties (at that time still under the editorship of the excellent Peter Forbes).

I thought of it yesterday when driving back from my cousin Spike's funeral in Kent. I was considering ideas for a poem about the funeral, and the need for a strong 'close' to such a poem popped into my mind, along with my many unhappy failures in that department. The following poem, 'Pond', is one of those failures. The last line in particular has been jiggled and wriggled for years, changing from one thing to another, and I'm still not happy with it. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the poem, of course, but I feel sure I could improve it with a tighter last line.

'Pond' has one of those endings that has consistently 'got away' from me in spite of lengthy and frustrating thought and effort. Looking at it now, I think perhaps the whole closing quatrain might need to be reworked in order to improve the ring of that last line which, at the moment, sounds a little too flat and clumsy to support the rest of this otherwise serviceable little poem about the last throes of a relationship.


Up to your thighs in our new garden pond –
or what will be a pond by half past five –
you seem less human, more amphibian.

To make inert black plastic come alive
with forms that creep, crawl, swim and reproduce,
you heave yourself around collapsing sides

with the ingenuity of an Odysseus.
Soil bouncing blindly off your spade like light,
you tack the liner down that’s working loose.

This muddy sluice is all we’ll have tonight.
The after-dinner speech is ‘Stocking Fish’.
Meanwhile, the garden’s a construction site.

It won’t be long before we come to wish
we’d never started this, neither prepared
to excavate so broad and deep a ditch.

You level up. The pond is nearly there.
One thing we can’t divide now if we part,
a place whose origins at least we share.
This mud will clear, reveal an empty heart.

First published in Poetry Review

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Boudicca on Blogger

I had a lovely surprise today when, logging into Blogger, I found a frequent browser here at Raw Light (Sorlil) had written a short book review on her blog of my latest collection, Boudicca & Co.

I'm off later today to the furthest reaches of Kent, to attend the funeral of my cousin Spike this weekend, who died from cancer a few days ago - only in his early fifties - and who shall be sorely missed. A sad and sombre trip.

While I'm away though, why not check out Sorlil's 'Poetry in Progress' blog and her post about 'Boudicca'?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Hearing Voices

I was at the Seam 27 launch last night in Foyles, which went very well indeed - although they did make us wait until the interval for the wine, which I thought a little unkind. It was quite warm in London and I was thirsty! But perhaps in the past they've suffered the horrors of poets slurring their way through a series of incomprehensible poems and decided to make us wait for the booze. Sitting hazily through guest poet Sheenagh Pugh's reading - she came after the interval - was no doubt preferable to that.

It was all excellent fun, however. I met Claire Crowther and various other poets I'd wanted to meet for ages, and some of us retired to a nearby pub afterwards for more wine and gossip, so I shall certainly go again if asked!

On the train home from London, I had intended to browse the estimable Duckworth Greek Primer - recommended to me by a friend and purchased in Foyles whilst waiting for the reading to start - but although there was much useful information to be gleaned therein, the tiny print defeated me, particularly in the matter of breathings and accents, and I decided to wait before tackling it.

Instead, I took out my little black notebook and started fiddling with some poem ideas. At the Seam launch, I read a short poem entitled 'Last Oak' from a (possibly book-length) sequence on the general theme of 'Apocalypse'. I began writing this sequence shortly after my second collection Boudicca & Co was published last October. To date though, I have only managed to write three poems towards it. This is ostensibly because other poems and themes keep getting in the way, but also perhaps because I'm finding it very hard to get a grip on the 'tone' or 'voice' of this new sequence.

Some people don't believe in a poet's voice, but I do, absolutely. To me, 'voice' is the very essence of a poet; it's an extension of their personality, and is what makes them write the way they do and make the often difficult choices we see in their work. Voices change, of course. A young poet's voice changes over the years into a mature poet's voice, and poets with revolving obsessions may change their 'voice' to suit a particular theme or subject matter. But deep down, that voice should still be recognisably their own. Even juvenilia tends to display the trademarks of the poet to come, roughly and unevenly, in embryo as it were.

Most of the poems I start writing for this new sequence fail early on and refuse to be 'fixed' because the voice I'm trying for in these poems keeps eluding me. I suspect this is because I'm not 100% convinced that I should be writing the sequence. Or, at least, not from the angle I've chosen. The 'voice' is that of a female character - a narrator, of sorts - but I can't get a fix on her. The poetry which emerges in her wake is loose, occasionally experimental, sometimes brutal and far too close to prose for my liking. There are other characters too whose voices I wish to employ in this sequence - though deploy might be a more accurate word - but I can't seem to reach their stories until I've connected more intimately with this elusive woman's voice.

What I can't work out is whether that's because I'm trying for a voice that's too far divorced from my own natural writing voice, or whether the sequence is overly ambitious in its scope and I'm a little lost and out of my league. One poem at a time is probably what I should be advising myself; make it seem a less ambitious task by cutting it into bite-sized chunks that can be tackled individually. But each poem written for a book-length sequence which may never happen is one more poem that can't go towards my next collection, and writing time for poetry is always scarce here.

My third collection is due out next summer. It will hopefully contain another sequence - a shorter one - which I'm still working on, and a larger number of individual poems, some loosely gathered around particular themes. I find it easier to work with poetry in a themed way, even if only for my own purposes rather than with any official label attached to them. As the date for that next collection comes closer though, I'll start to look at the shape of the collection more closely and possibly mark out some formal areas or divisions within the overall book if that seems appropriate. Rather like dividing knives, forks and spoons into different sections of a cutlery drawer.

Ted Hughes used to say that writing a sequence helped get the poems 'out' and I know what he meant by that. Sometimes you can stare at the blank page or screen for hours and feel utterly empty. But when that happens, if you give yourself permission to hook into a theme or a sequence which demands a different voice or character to emerge, you may perhaps sidestep the horror of 'writing yourself' and more easily write someone else instead. That's how sequences work for me, certainly. By giving me permission to thoroughly explore a theme, idea or character without necessarily requiring too much reference to my own reality.

But when the voice for the sequence doesn't come either, or comes too hard and haltingly, what then?

Answers below, if any spring to mind.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

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Monday, September 03, 2007

What Need of Poems in the Dark?

Sean O'Brien's The Drowned Book

I’ve just enrolled on a course at Warwick, examining the influence of Dante in the poems of T.S. Eliot. That may be one reason why I kept catching echoes of both those poets in Sean O’Brien’s latest collection, The Drowned Book. His recent verse translation of Dante's Inferno provides another possible explanation to my feeling that the spirit of Dante presides over these poems, riddled as they are with references to the dead, the underworld and its rivers of darkness.

The Drowned Book is O’Brien’s seventh collection and a Poetry Book Society Choice. No stranger to such accolades, the prolific O’Brien has won the Forward Prize twice, for Ghost Train in 1995 and Downriver in 2001, and is wdely considered one of our most important living British poets. In this latest book, he certainly earns that status, his poetry skilfully written, richly layered and impressively accessible given the difficult themes and topics he tackles here.

O’Brien has, at times, the prophetic ‘tongues of flame’ and ‘knowledge like a skull inside a box’ of the ancient scholar he describes in ‘Serious Chairs’, though he often pretends otherwise, distracting us with the humility of the truly talented, most marked in his elegies for dead poets, as here in ‘Thom Gunn’ (another poet whose work at times signalled the influence of Dante):

Let those of us who longed to board but failed
Salute you in absentia, Captain Gunn,
Now attitude and argosy have sailed
Beyond the west.

Water and death seem inextricably linked in this book, as the title and suitably spooky-looking cover suggest. A glut of watery poem titles continue the theme, with ‘Water-Gardens’, The River in Prose’, ‘By Ferry’, ‘River-doors’, ‘The Mere’, ‘Eating the Salmon of Knowledge from Tins’, and his magnificent elegy for Barry MacSweeney, ‘A Coffin-Boat’. His elegies include work dedicated to the memory of fallen comrades in contemporary poetry: Ken Smith, Julia Darling, Michael Donaghy and Barry MacSweeney (‘... let the man rest by the waters of Tyne’). Within the subterranean world of this book, O’Brien’s erudition brings a fascinating complexity to the work, his diction both eloquent and contemporary: a heady mix for any reader.

In spite of this strongly themed content, however, The Drowned Book doesn’t flag or begin to sound homogeneous as it progresses. Not content to write the same poem twice - or fifty times as a few of his contemporaries have been known to do - Sean O’Brien is happy here to switch forms and voices, experimenting within his own idiom and making each poem new.

So references to Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’ and a heart-felt cry of ‘Thalassa, Thalassa’ (‘Sea, sea!’ from Xenophon’s account of fleeing Greek soldiers at last coming within sight of the sea) jostle for house room with these jaunty Skeltonesque rhyming couplets about death’s inevitability in ‘Timor Mortis’:

Join Zeno, Zog and Baudelaire
As conscripts of le grand nowhere -
Some on ice and some on fire,
Some with slow piano wire,
Screaming, weeping, brave as fuck
And absolutely out of luck.

In the same poem, O’Brien asks flatly: ‘What need of poems in the dark?’ Yet, whilst reminiscent of Marvell’s stance towards his coy mistress - ‘The grave’s a fine and private place/But none I think do there embrace’ - this question is not without its ambivalence. This is evidenced elsewhere in the collection, most notably perhaps in the superb ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’ - winner of the 2006 Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem - where the dead (presumably here miners) seem not only in need of such earthly pleasures but are actually still involved in them:

The singing of the dead inside the earth
Is like the friction of great stones, or like the rush

Of water into newly opened darkness.

I thought here of other subterranean worlds, of The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, and the sinister Mines of Moira in The Lord of the Rings, especially following O’Brien’s marvellously described ‘thud of iron doors sealed once for all’ and the miners themselves, ‘gargling dust’, ‘their black-braided banners aloft’. But are these real human men? Are they memories of those who used to work ‘in the underground rivers/Of West Moor and Palmersville’, or are these the ghosts of fallen miners eternally patrolling the ‘tiny corridors of the immense estate’?

Although most of these poems are not obscure or difficult in themselves, I sometimes felt that a few notes might have elucidated the content or origin of a poem. Not being fully aware of the historical background to ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’ was an obstacle to enjoying what is otherwise a tremendously powerful and transformative piece of writing. I did perform an internet search on James Wright which gave me some extra information, but should having to google be an expected part of reading a poem now? Some poets don’t mind providing elucidatory notes, others disagree vehemently with the need for them. Personally, I’ve always found more pleasure in collections which are annotated, even if only briefly at the back. In the groping search for understanding, misreadings and missed nuances are always a danger - and a largely unnecessary one, it seems to me.

Many individual lines in The Drowned Book will stay with me a long time, such as this complicated beauty: ‘The city runs like science fiction backwards’. Or this, at once Dickensian and as atmospheric as a Turner oil painting: ‘A boat burning out on the flats’. Echoes of Eliot too, most strongly in the short choral poem ‘Proposal for a Monument to the Third International’, where I couldn’t help thinking of the well-known sequence in Little Gidding, where the narrator is heading home after a long night (Eliot worked as a volunteer rooftop fire warden in London during the war) and meets ‘a familiar compound ghost’ in the street, rather like Dante meeting Virgil, his guide through hell. Is this now Eliot meeting O'Brien or was that not the poet's intention? Even without these inferences, the apocalyptic and other-worldly ‘dream-vision’ quality of the moment, in particular, is what struck me most on reading this:

I rode to the twenty-ninth floor
Of the Hotel Ukraina, then climbed the last steps
To the last locked room
Where a camera obscura portrayed the night sky
As Stalin might dream it himself
From one of the seven dark stars he cast
So high that the heavens themselves
Were extinguished.

I turned to descend and there by the door
Was a wizened old man, sitting smoking.
A red fire-bucket was full of his ash.
He wore two watches and between his eyes
A bullet hole.
He looked indifferently through me.
Brothers, this is all I can recall.

However, the poem which affected me most powerfully in The Drowned Book was ‘A Coffin-Boat’, his quiet-spoken elegy for the poet Barry MacSweeney; not least, perhaps, because I knew the man myself. It’s a slightly longer poem than most, and here, once again, we have to bend our heads to enter its dark landscape - or should that be ‘inscape’? - the sloping low-ceilinged passage that leads down to the underworld:

Today you must go for a walk in the dark. Go in
Where the stream by the graveyard falls
Into the tunnel and hurries off hoarse with graffiti.
You will be hauling a brass-handled narrowboat,
Mounted with twin candelabra, containing
A poet who managed to drink himself dead,
With heroic commitment, at fifty-one.
Packed up with books and manuscripts and scotch,
In his box from the Co-op, a birthright of sorts.

Later in this poem, we get again, foregrounded here, the idea that poetry stops with death. (‘What need of poems in the dark?’) Sean O’Brien makes a good case for that depressing reality - or blessed release? - here:

... down here’s the speechless
History of everything and nothing,
Poetry’s contagious opposite.

An elegant and elegiac book then, but not particularly sinister, in spite of its subject matter. O’Brien has managed to imbue his vision of death and the afterworld with terrible beauty but also a wry sense of humour which refuses to be cowed by its surroundings. To read The Drowned Book cover to cover at one sitting may be a strange and discomforting experience, but it’s one which managed to produce a certain calm inspiration in this poet at least:

On the gathering waters that slide
To the mouth of the Tyne, where the world

Is beginning and ending:
Three lighthouses wearing the weather,
In each of them a table laid

With rosemary and rue,
So that the dead may sit at peace
And watch with us tonight.


You can find The Drowned Book online at