Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Exile's Return" and poetic ambition

Having decided to sell some of my thousands of books on amazon, largely in response to the dreaded credit crunch we are all experiencing, I've been trawling through old boxes and crates of books, some of which I haven't seen since my days as a secondhand bookseller in Cornwall.

One of the books I found, and have subsequently been re-reading - one of the hazards of selling books as a book-lover is the painful inability to part with some titles, at least not without reading or re-reading them first - is a slightly battered paperback edition of "Exile's Return: a literary odyssey of the 1920s" by Malcolm Cowley, first published in 1934.

Below is what I came across in "Exile's Return" last night, from page 110, and decided to post up on Raw Light, for the sake of interest and any thoughts that might follow, on the always thorny subject of reviewing poetry and being ambitious for one's own work - ignoring the typically sexist assumption of the time that any poet and/or reviewer must necessarily be male.

The comments below are roughly the same as those I have made myself, in other ways and with slightly different nuances, on poetry forums in the past, and been ridiculed for. What interests me is that I can find these sentiments in books on poetry, both in "Exile's Return" and numerous others I have come across over the years, yet when I voice the same ideas myself, I meet almost blanket disagreement from my peers. So, are those who disagree trying to hide something, from me or perhaps from themselves, or do they genuinely believe that thoughtful ambition and watchfulness in a poet is a Bad Thing?

Is it perhaps that contemporary poetry has turned away from the inherent romanticism of poetic ambition - as it was understood up until about the middle years of the twentieth century - in favour of a colder, slicker, and far more professional approach, one hedged about with serious workshop attendance and qualifications in Creative Writing, for instance? That a poet is no longer 'apprenticed to the Muse' as Malcolm Cowley puts it below, but is on a career path whose landmarks include an internet site, a blog, an MA programme, a few competition wins and the obligatory arts grant - the work itself, its deepest rigours and inspirations and origins, being no longer centre stage of a poet's career but a mere by-product of the process.

From p. 110, Exile's Return by Malcom Cowley:
If [a young poet] is called upon to review a book by Joyce or Eliot, he will say certain things he believes to be accurate: they are not the things lying closest to his heart. Secretly he is wondering whether he can, whether he should, ever be great in the Joyce or Eliot fashion. What path should he follow to reach this goal? The great living authors, in the eyes of any young man apprenticed to the Muse, are a series of questions, an examination paper compiled by and submitted to himself:

1. What problems do these authors suggest?

2. With what problems are they consciously dealing?

3. Are they my own problems? Or if not, shall I make them my own?

4. What is the Joyce solution to these problems (or the Eliot, the Pound, the Gertrude Stein, the Paul Valery solution)?

5. Shall I adopt it? Reject it and seek another master? Or must I furnish a new solution myself?

And it is as if the examiner had written: Take your time, young man. Consider all questions carefully; there is all the time in the world. Don't fake or cheat; you are making these answers for yourself. Nobody will grade them but posterity.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Online review of CVB at 'Poetry in Progress'

Apologies for the long absence. Christmas preparations have caught up with me and I've been rather neglecting the blog.

But here's a lovely review of my latest collection, Camper Van Blues, at the excellent site of a fellow blogger and poet, who blogs under a pen-name - but whose real name is Marion McCready - Poetry in Progress.

Wherever you are, I wish you all a very happy Christmas and peaceful New Year.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Under the Weather

I spent most of this morning working in bed. It's so cold here, and, like many people, I can't justify running the heating when it's only me in the house. So I sat up in bed, hatted and scarved, propped up on pillows, working on a lap-tray - Sallust's Bellum Catilinae, which has to be prepared for next term; some new poems, at various stages of revision; and notes on the next issue of Horizon.

I drove to and from a poetry reading in Leicester last night, which took just under an hour each way, accompanied by Jane Commane - friend, poet and editor at Nine Arches Press - and felt fine, though aware that I didn't give of my best at the reading. Breath very high in the chest, voice constricted and thinner than usual.

On returning home, round about midnight, I felt suddenly, inexplicably shattered. I went online very briefly, threw off my togs, crawled into bed and lay there in a daze. My heart was racing, I felt sick and light-headed. When I got up to go to the bathroom, I nearly fell down the stairs, I was so dizzy and nauseous.

By the morning - 7.15am start - the sickness had receded somewhat, though I was still a little shaky. Luckily, I didn't have to be anywhere this morning, so was able to retreat back under the covers for a couple of hours. But I still couldn't resist taking some work into bed with me!

Since I'm much better now, I guess last night's reaction wasn't due to any bug, but was merely the result of exhaustion, both mental and physical. It feels like an extraordinarily long time since the more relaxed days of summer.

Perhaps I've been overdoing it lately. But no chance of rest just yet. I'm still intending to go to the Salt Christmas Party tonight at the Horse Hospital, London - bought the train tickets now, and I'll be damned if I'm going to waste them - and next week has been pencilled in for writing. Something which I refuse to give up in order to loll about watching daytime soaps under a duvet.

Being an editor - and also a student now! - is wonderful - but if I no longer have the time nor energy to prioritise my own poetry, what's it all for?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Latin & Leicester

Driving off to Leicester later this evening to read from my new book of poetry, Camper Van Blues, at the Friends Meeting House, Queen's Road, Leicester. About 7.30pm, if you're able to come along.

Jane Commane and I are travelling in together, so wish her luck. I mean, us luck.

It's a pity I'm driving, as it means I won't be able to toast - with alcohol, at least! - my good news of the day, which is that I've just had the final result through from my Open University Latin course: a Distinction, or First Class Pass.

I'm still kicking myself though for ruining a record of straight 100% scores by stupidly leaving three lines out of a translation on my last tutor-marked assignment. Although it wouldn't have made any difference to the overall bracket I was placed in, the class of pass being calculated by adding up the assignment scores along with the examination result, I do hate getting things wrong, especially through carelessness.

I'm beginning to sound a bit ... obsessive compulsive. Hmm.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

On Rhyme

Working on a new poem tonight, it occurred to me - not for the first time - that a poem without rhyme stumbles about in a kind of shadowy half-life, looking in vain for completion ... for the suggestive, resonant closure that rhyme provides.

Rhyme is what launches the poem off into space, the white space of the page, the tense, humming space of the ear. It both confirms and undoes the poet's intentions, putting its finger on significant meaning whilst simultaneously pointing beyond it into a dark glimmering barely glimpsed or understood before the poem began to take shape. An awkward position to be in. But not all rhymes are equal. The full rhyme satisfies the listener with the certainty of the absolute, but closes off further echoes and possibilities in a way which risks deadening the poem, like beating a drum that's been muffled. The half-rhyme is delicate and ever so slightly shakes the poem off-balance, but its recovery is swift and the new path - the swerve in the plan - energises and inspires. Beyond those are the quarter-rhyme or sound echo: assonance, consonance, the tease of alliteration, the eye-rhyme, the breath falling on the air as it fell a bare moment before. Together, these all play their part in creating a living entity, something no longer inert on the page, the poem by a stranger that reaches into our memories and pulls out an emotion we didn't believe we possessed or that we'd put behind us years before.

If the verb is the soul of the language, the rhyme must be the soul of the poem. Without it, nothing ascends. Nothing transcends.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Two Links and a Protest

Ben Wilkinson has an interesting blog post on Mick Imlah's T.S. Eliot-shortlisted poetry collection The Lost Leader, with link to a Newsnight discussion of the book. Catch it while you can!

He also points towards new critical perspectives he's written on poets Leontia Flynn and Zoe Skoulding for the British Council site.

Now, call me cussed, but I find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that Leontia Flynn, a poet with only two collections to her name (the second published earlier this year), should be given a spot on the British Council site when there are so many other poets, well-established poets, who are not there and are unlikely to be there for some time, if ever. Yes, Flynn's first collection won the Forward Prize in 2004 for Best First Collection, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread, but one swallow does not a summer make. Her publisher is Cape, however, a mainstream publisher with a solid reputation and a reliable presence in high street bookshops, and perhaps we don't need to look much further than that.

Not that Leontia Flynn herself is in any way undeserving of praise. I've read both her books and I'm sure many people thoroughly enjoy her poetry. But some of the omissions on the British Council website are astonishing, and it's important to periodically stop and question why the work of some poets, both there and in other places, should be ignored or dismissed, while that of others - not necessarily any better, and often indeed mediocre or negligible in comparison - is trumpeted and held up as an example of good writing.

There are other oddnesses on the British Council site too; I'm not singling Flynn out in particular. The undoubtedly talented Daljit Nagra is also there, for instance - with only one published collection behind him. With a critical perspective, no less, already in place, also written by Ben Wilkinson. But Nagra's publisher is Faber & Faber. So that must be okay.

As far as these injustices are concerned, things are changing - though slowly, very gradually - for the better. The internet is behind the greatest changes, allowing people to disseminate information about poets more quickly and readily than ever before, and to challenge accepted orthodoxies with showcases of neglected or less glamorous, less well-publicised poets. But in book publishing terms, it is still too often the name of the publisher - the logo on the spine - rather than the name of the poet, which appears to determine which collections of poetry make the prize shortlists, or are reviewed in the nationals and featured on establishment poetry sites for general readers like the British Council.

Many disagree with me, I know. And there will always be useful exceptions to be held up against my argument. But I would suggest, politely, that a desire not to rock the poetry boat is behind most such protests. Not the truth.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Geoffrey Hill Zinger!

Strictly for slavish followers of Geoffrey Hill, I found this blog earlier this evening.

Also, if you're feeling particularly slavish, there's even a GH Facebook group you can join here.

Have a very Geoffrey Christmas!

Salt Christmas Party: Friday 12th December

EVERYONE WELCOME at the Salt Publishing Christmas Party

Poetry & Short Story readings from Julia Bird, Jane Holland, Sue Hubbard and Mark Waldron. Fill your Stockings at the Salt Book Stall. Pay Bar. Secret Santa presents for all the good boys and girls!
Friday 12th December 2008
6.30 onwards – readings at 7.30ish and 8.30ish
The Horse Hospital, Colonnade, Bloomsbury,
London WC1N 1HX

Julia Bird in her debut collection, there is a poem called "Five Years Trying to Win the Flower Show Vegetable Animal Class". Entries include an aubergine bird of paradise, and a potato humpback whale with "eyes for a blowhole, and also for eyes". Like her speaker's perennially highly commended sculptures, Julia Bird's poetry dismantles the everyday and builds it into new shapes. (New Statesman)

Jane Holland's new collection, Camper Van Blues, is a book of journeys, both real and imaginary. The title sequence is a British road movie told through poems, one woman and her dog alone in a camper van, each jump-cut taking the reader further into the interior of an addictive, self-destructive personality. In a sequence of brief and highly visual poems, Holland explores a midnight landscape of motorways, truck stops and lay-bys, touching by turns on the issues of loneliness, drug abuse and living with depression.

From Sue Hubbard's new short story collection Rothko's Red … 'Belle's apartment was above a Chinese restaurant on the Lower East Side, a tiny oriental island in the once largely Jewish neighbourhood. Whilst some of the old sweat shops and tenement buildings with their heavy iron fire escapes had been taken over by young artists, or turned into Tarot reading or tattoo parlours, there was nothing hip about The Lotus Garden with its murky interior, its cheap red lanterns and lurid gilt frames containing dayglo Chinese dragons. The stairway leading from the side door up to Belle's apartment smelt of cats and boiled washing. The visit had been a sudden decision. When the Christmas card with the snow-laden pine branches had arrived, Maggie had, on the spur of the moment, phoned Belle. She needed to get away, put some distance between the sense of rejection and confusion Adam's leaving had stirred in her, and Belle had seemed genuinely pleased …'

"Mark Waldron's poems are generally short, crisp and lyrical, but they are driven by a phantasmagoria of garrulous creatures, spectres and shapeshifters, alter egos and alluring women." (Roddy Lumsden)

This is, I suppose, the official launch of Camper Van Blues, though the book's been on sale a month or so now and I've read from it at various events.

For this Christmas Party launch though, I'll be reading sometime between 7.30pm and 8pm, for those who may be thinking of coming along and would like to catch me 'in the act', as it were. Signed copies will be available!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

"A dark and lovely book ... "

I was delighted to see a recent post by David Morley on his Warwick creative writing blog, recommending my latest collection, Camper Van Blues, as a Christmas present.

"Jane is an energetic poet with good taste, and she has an engaging way of talking to the dead (poets, historical figures) as if they were in the room with her (didn’t Blake do this for real?) ..."

Many thanks to David, and to everyone who has already bought a copy of CVB. If you do have a copy - erm, and enjoyed it! - it would be wonderful if you could leave a short review on Amazon, or if you have a blog, post your thoughts there and let me know so I can provide a link to it here on Raw Light.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Poetry in Motion

Possibly the first ever televised century by a woman snooker player: the World Mixed Doubles, 1993, with the legendary Allison Fisher partnering Steve Davis and Stacey Hillyard partnering Stephen Hendry.

Dodgy quality film, but still worth watching.

Allison, of course, was the women's World Snooker Champion seven or eight times, and since emigrating to the US has gone on to make a fortune there, scooping every major prize for pool and dubbed "Duchess of Doom" by the stunned Americans.

Presumably due to the lack of sponsorship for the women's game in the UK, Stacey - feel free to correct me if you know better, as I haven't been in touch with her for years - retired from snooker soon after this and went into business instead, despite having been a World Champion herself and the first officially recorded compiler of a century break (114 in 1985, during a Bournemouth league match) by a woman.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Reading from CVB tonight at the Foundry, London

I'm off to catch the train to London in a few moments; I'll be reading from my new poetry collection, Camper Van Blues, tonight at the Foundry, Great Eastern Street.

If you're in the area, the Foundry is at:
86 Great Eastern Street
London EC2A 3JL
Old Street tube (exit3)
t 020 7739 6900

All events at the Foundry start at 7pm and are FREE!

I've also been going through the Horizon Review inbox today, making final selections for the next issue of the magazine - both an arduous and an exciting task!

Horizon is now due out late February instead of early March, as I made the decision to bring the date forward to coincide with Stephen Spender's birthday centenary, which the magazine will be celebrating with various features.

And if you're reading this, Sorlil, well done!