Friday, February 29, 2008

Freezing Up; Chilling Out

From the superb 'Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing' by David Morley, Director of the Warwick Writing Programme at the University of Warwick:

'Writers who do not feel self-doubt occasionally are lying to themselves. It comes with the job, like perpetual dissatisfaction. You grow used to the sensation of freezing up when writing, of proceeding in fits of stops, starts, ease and block. You find times when it is not only the words that will not come; the arc of the
entire piece disappears in your mind. When self-doubt strikes, you must proceed by nerve alone, and by stealth. This is a moment that is defined in action and boldness by your character, not only as a writer but as a person. No guts; no glory. Your only response, if you wish to continue, is to get used to its distress signal. You are not being held hostage by your work; this is your work; you command the situation. Choose to write with a colder eye, as if the task did not matter up. The feelings of self-doubt will pass: it is an intense but small wave of panic, and does little harm if you do not let it. Self-doubt's fiendish opposite, Overconfidence, should also be shown the door.'

Hard to believe that this marvellous description of creative failure was written by someone who is himself a successful and talented writer, the poet David Morley. And it doesn't stop there; the book is awash with paragraphs like this, engagingly written and packed with good common sense for writers in all disciplines, from poetry and novels to 'creative' non-fiction and academic work.

Highly recommended reading for all those who wish to or absolutely need to write creatively, and particularly perhaps for those who can't stop themselves writing but for whom meaningful publication is still elusive. David Morley's expertise as a creative writing tutor shines through on every page, as does his intelligence and sympathy for the struggling writer, both new and established.

This large, glossy, beautifully-presented book is an invaluable companion for teachers of creative writing; every creative writing department should own a copy, and consult it regularly.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


I bought a recent issue of Modern Poetry in Translation this morning, online, and almost instantly had a confirmation email through from the company handling the transaction and dispatch, Inpress Books UK.

Chasing up a link in their email, I discovered they sell a large amount of poetry on behalf of the smaller presses (you probably all knew this already and think I'm an idiot, but I mostly buy through individual publishers or via Amazon, so it was a revelation to me).

I highly recommend their poetry pages, which list a fascinating range of recent and older British poetry titles, all of which can be easily bought with a click - well, maybe several clicks and your credit card details - online.

So if you've got a minute or two for browsing poetry, visit the poetry pages of Inpress Books UK.

And no, I'm not getting a commission!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ecopoetics and Beyond: Can Poetry Make Things Happen?

Today on the Guardian website, the editor of Bloodaxe Books Neil Astley has some pertinent and uncompromising remarks to make about the infamous WH Auden quotation that 'poetry makes nothing happen'.

Describing an RTE radio programme last year in which he discussed poetry with leading Irish politician Trevor Sargent, Neil Astley tells us of Sargent's favourable reaction to ecopoems, including one which the former leader of the Green Party in Ireland felt should be required reading in Irish schools.

Astley writes:

"If our own politicians spent just a couple of minutes each day reading these kinds of poems, they might be better fitted to carry out their duties more responsibly. We might even be able to trust some of them then to act in our interest in what they do to tackle the problems of environmental destruction and global warming."

This article appears in the wake of a new anthology of ecopoems edited by Neil Astley, entitled 'Earth Shattering', and in promotion of a London Word Festival debate at the Bishopsgate Institute this Friday evening, when he'll be taking part in a discussion on 'Making Nothing Happen', chaired by Roddy Lumsden, alongside poets Mario Petrucci and Melanie Challenger, and Caspar Henderson.

You can find the full text of that article here and learn more about the London Word Festival here.

Personally I think poetry has every chance of making things happen, if by that we mean sinking it deep into the psyche of a country so that it emerges in other ways and places: in our politics, our relationships, our methods of child-rearing, our attempts to look after the planet, our attitudes towards foreigners and foreign wars.

Poetry can be propaganda - see much of Rupert Brooke's output, for instance - but the more complex it is, the greater its mental, emotional and political ramifications, the less likely it is that poetry will sink to the level of mere jingoism or eco-rap.

As we move out of the nebulous noughties, we may be entering a great age for political poetry. Unfortunately it's unlikely that we'll be certain of that until we're at least halfway through it, and maybe not even then. Which means that those of us who wish to write politically, who feel the need to address issues which extend beyond the home or immediate working environment of our lives - assuming we're not already living in a war-zone, that is, where politics rapidly becomes part of the daily structure of life - must press on regardless of criticism or fashion.

The proof of the poetry may well be in the way of happening, as Neil Astley's article suggests, rather than in any immediate changes brought about by individual poems.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Camper Van Blues

I have now officially finished Camper Van Blues, my third poetry collection, and apart from the usual fiddly last minute stuff that manuscripts always seem to demand, I'm free to start work on my next big project. Which is probably going to be a sequence of poems about Warwick Castle, in association with my work as this year's Warwick Laureate, though I haven't yet decided what final shape that will take.

I am also free to post up new review work again on Raw Light. I've got an ever-growing stack of poetry books that I'd like to mention here, so reviewing is near the top of my to-do list for March. I also have some commissioned review work to undertake for a magazine, plus a long critical essay to plan and discuss with another editor. So while I swing out of one tree, there's another creeper waiting for my hand ...

There she is above, my old seven-berth Mercedes camper van. Gone to the great parking lot in the sky now, alas, but she was a wonderful ship.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Creative Redrafting: a poetic methodology

Apologies. This post has been removed to allow the ideas to be published elsewhere.

Email me for a private copy, if desperate!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

In Response to a Nude Photograph of Mina Loy, 1905

From a 1917 interview with Loy in the New York Evening Sun

I'm massively engaged with revisions to my third poetry collection, running up against a deadline, so the review I wished to publish on Raw Light today will have to wait a few more days until I have time to type it up.

Meanwhile, here's something for the weekend ...

The following poem, published in Boudicca & Co, discusses and celebrates the nude photograph I found online here of the experimental poet Mina Loy.


In Response to a Nude Photograph of Mina Loy, 1905

Women poets are not supposed to look like that,
did nobody tell you? The one
with the cigarette is bullish enough
but this, taken naked, face
against the wall with one arse cheek
suggestively raised
is the portrait of a muse, my dear.
In later years, your beauty was eclipsed by age.
Here your skin’s like frost, that white back
and hourglass waist
crying out to be marked, to be photographed.
Did it feel safer like this, turned away
in your nakedness,
to be stared at, lusted after?
‘Leave off looking to men to find out
what you are not,’ you said.
Then let me take you to to bed, Mina,
to the ostrich feather bed
of our imagination. There we’ll smoke
and make poetry all day, decadent
in our sticky love,
looking each other in the eye, drinking
each other’s blood
like tea from a china dish, steeped
in what it means to be us, spawning
our poems like fish.


And to end, here's a rather lovely rough draft of Mina Loy's poem Love Songs I (1915)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On Don Paterson's 'Lyric Principle'

Last night I found myself reading the second part of Don Paterson's controversial essay, The Lyric Principle - having found it impossible to wade through when it first appeared (in Poetry Review Vol 97:3 Autumn 2007) - and decided to blog about it.

I had read Part I of The Lyric Principle and enjoyed it (though not as much as Paterson's equally controversial 'Dark Art of Poetry', the 2004 T.S. Eliot lecture, which struck many chords with me). I did try to get into Part II when the magazine came out, but at the time the prose felt torturous and impossibly weighed down with abstruse detail, along with voluminous footnotes worthy of a spoof academic essay. So I gave up the effort.

But last night, flicking through some of last year's poetry magazines in search of a particular poet, I came across the essay again (Part II) and began to read it.

This time, for some reason, the difficulties I'd experienced back in the autumn were no longer apparent. Everything, in fact, made good clear sense.

Indeed, his remarks made such good sense that, aware of the various outraged 'letters to the editor' that had appeared in the wake of their publication, I couldn't work out why The Lyric Principle was so very controversial. After all, what was there to argue about?

Paterson's main point in Part II, very basically, is that good poetry works because it takes account of our innate preference for pattern and surprise. Which is just another way of saying what all good writers know instinctively, that we should 'give them what they want, but not the way they were expecting it'.

I can't recall, and don't have the earlier Poetry Review to hand, how Part I was controversial, though from reactions in the subsequent issue, I suspect the furore may have been caused by claims that poetry should work in the same way as music, and/or that sound can't be separated from sense. I can't see anything to get upset about there either. But perhaps I missed the point ...

I can understand some people being more sceptical about all this, and perhaps feeling ruffled by the occasional note of hubris behind Paterson's writings, but I'm naturally excited by anything that combines the two great obsessions in my life: language (i.e. linguistics) and poetry.

I can't overstate that position, really. I am, and always have been, hugely resistant to anyone setting themselves up as a figure of authority. It's a knee-jerk reaction on my part to distrust whatever they might say, regardless. But to be given carte blanche by an acknowledged expert on contemporary poetry to continue doing precisely what I've been doing since I first started knocking out my own doggerel at c. 9 years of age, i.e. turning the dial until I can't hear the hiss of the static anymore, is both a relief and a great pleasure.

But not only that. Paterson's detailed list of which consonant and vowel sounds complement each other rather than clash in the poetic line leads neatly into my own personal observations on the similarities between languages, those startling correlatives you come across once you start looking in-depth at a number of different languages - even between languages not belonging to the same 'family'. And once you've been working with a heavily stressed medium like Anglo-Saxon poetry for any length of time, you do tend to respond favourably to the idea that some vowel sounds in some words - though this can also vary according to whether they are in a stressed or unstressed position in the line - are simply 'filler' and should be avoided; the poetic equivalent of fish paste.

So if anyone out there has a good idea why so many people seemed to react poorly to The Lyric Principle, perhaps they could enlighten me?

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Last Oak

Last Oak

Soot sunk oak tree, tarred question mark
it had stood
since the last forest burnt, blind old man
surrounded by stumps
still smoking creosote, an unlit tower
scoured and bare
yet proud in its final hours as mad Lear
in his wreath of dead weeds
or Ginsberg’s locomotive sunflower,
peering through red mist
to where sun was,
its last leaf-memory of green,
green things and wild.


This poem was published in Seam poetry magazine last autumn. The new issue of Seam is due out in the next few months (it's published twice yearly) so I'm hoping the editor - also a poet, Anne Berkeley – won't mind too much if I reproduce that poem now on Raw Light.

'Last Oak' was originally intended to form part of a book-length poem sequence based around a quasi-eschatological and environmental theme. That's how I envisaged it during the act of writing, anyway. This link will take you to a previous blog post about the Seam launch last year, by the way, where I discuss that unfinished sequence further.

In the end, of course, only four or five poems from that sequence - provisionally entitled End of Days - were ever written. And of that meagre handful, I imagine that only two will make the cut for Camper Van Blues, my third poetry collection, due out later this year from Salt Publishing.

'Last Oak' is definitely one of them ...

Friday, February 08, 2008

An Odd Week

Frost and swollen tonsils.
Broken-down cars and confusion.

Too many children with sick bowls.
Putting the third collection to bed.

Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi ad Anglos
(Sermon of the Wolf to the English).
Ovid's Metamorphoses.

And the new Ashes to Ashes:
"The prozzie's about to be rescued
by three armed bastards!"

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Warwick Castle: a first visit

My version of The Wanderer continues. Slowly, painstakingly. About four lines a day on average. This must be the longest it's ever taken me to write a single poem. Perhaps I ought to be worried. Still, this being a translation/version, I suppose it should be possible to take a good month over the composition without losing the thread ... after all, this poem's been kicking about for so many hundreds of years, it's not going anywhere.

The big news is, I finally organised myself to visit Warwick Castle this weekend. And I was impressed. The place had an immediate and profound effect on me; I could feel lines and phrases carving themselves out on the air as I wandered about its high-ceilinged halls and narrow stone passageways.

For those unsure what this visit is all about, I decided back in October - on becoming Poet Laureate for Warwick - that I wanted to write some poems about Warwick Castle - once in decline, now beautifully restored and one of the best examples of a 'working' medieval castle in England.

My friend Julie Boden, based here in Warwickshire and herself a former Birmingham Poet Laureate, advised me early on to decide what sort of legacy I wanted to leave behind once my stint in the Laureateship was over. And while I had all sorts of grandiose schemes in mind, the only one that's really stuck has been this simple idea of writing about Warwick Castle.

Oddly enough, David Morley was also there this weekend, a major Warwickshire poet and the writer in charge of the creative writing programme at Warwick University; I spotted him in the 'medieval' cafeteria, lunching with his family, and went over to say hello.

Apparently fancying himself as the man from Porlock, David stopped for a quick word a few minutes later while I was scribbling down some notes and phrases over a latté. Luckily, I have no intention of starting to write any of the Warwick poems until much later this year, so his efforts were in vain!

Basically, my visits this weekend have been purely preliminary, just looking about the place and setting my mind in motion. But it's proved an extremely worthwhile thing to do, far beyond what I had initially envisaged.

At first, I thought Warwick Castle might provide inspiration for two or three poems. But having received such strong vibes both from the castle and its grounds, I've got a hunch this could easily become a much longer-term project.

Time to start blocking in 'Warwick Castle poems' on the calendar, perhaps.