Thursday, January 22, 2009

In Bed with John Keats

I forgot to say, by the way, that the shortened version - almost an extract, really - of my radio play In Bed with John Keats was indeed broadcast on RaW last Friday, the University of Warwick radio station, and while the production was not entirely as I had envisaged it, it did leave me eager to write more radio drama.

Consequently, I've been working on the first draft of a new radio play, set slightly earlier than the Keats one, in the late eighteenth century, aboard a sailing ship of all places. It's an idea I've been playing with for a few months, though I'd originally thought of it as being a stage play.

Now, however, I can see how some great sound effects would be possible with that setting, though perhaps without much variation as the play progresses: creaking timbers, roll and lap of the waves, sails slapping against masts, etc.

I could always work a talking parrot in somewhere, I suppose.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The life of a literary editor

I've removed this post because I've had some success with the abusive email I'd posted here, having tracked down the sender's ISP and reported him. Since I also now know who he is, and have received three more abusive emails from him - utterly unpublishable, I'm afraid - it might prejudice any chance I have of pursuing this rather sad character if I leave this post here.

Pity. I was rather enjoying roasting the idiot in public.

Thanks for all your support!

And do visit Richard Dawkins' excellent site, as I suggested, for a taste of what I've been putting up with for the past day or so.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Poetry Reading in Warwick, Tuesday 20th January

Sorry it's so small, you have to click on it to enlarge!

Some excellent news. I heard today that I have a new poem going into the next issue of Poetry Review.

I wrote it during my Arvon retreat at Totleigh Barton, late last summer, when I was supposed to be writing my novel. I did, in fact, manage several thousand words a day, but also squeezed out some short poems during those long afternoons in my bedroom, listening to the cooks arguing in the kitchen below.

Good to know, since my novel has not yet found a home, that at least this little poem - a very slender piece, 'after Sappho' - will be published out of my efforts that week.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

One more from Gawain

One more from the putative Gawain sequence; this time, contemporaneous with the original setting of the poem, i.e. Britain in the Dark Ages.

Still not sure how the two times - medieval and modern - would or even could merge in the finished sequence, but that's not worrying me too much at the moment. The whole thing may not get written at all, so finer details like that - how far can I push this idea? will it work? what am I trying to do here? - are entirely academic at this early stage. Better just to concentrate on getting the poems out.

That's the point of a sequence, after all. To squeeze the poems out like a litter of kittens, not worry about how they'll get on together once they're older.

So here's another Gawain poem for those who may be interested (and one specially aimed at all those Hughes fans out there, she adds shamelessly).

Did the indent this time. It looked too odd without it.

Wind’s eye narrows on mud-ruts and fields

Wind’s eye narrows on mud-ruts and fields
frowsy with hoar-frost.


Air bitters deep snow-sallies
bleak over crenellations.

Arthur, hood back, brisk in white ermine,
paces the hall at Camelot.

Young man, new king.

A draught ripples the curtains.

Still his, still perfect, not yet lost to him,
she enters the hall.

                      Becomes light

a shadow aslant tables.

So love lifts out of the dull evening
a star

through the flood of the dark.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Keats and Gawain: a Dynamic Duo?

I fell ill last Thursday with a really nasty illness of some kind, which I can only describe as 'bronchial flu', and am only just recovering. Still a little groggy, light-headed, and am on the verge of losing my voice, I fear.

So apologies for my absence from Raw Light, but since we've been discussing the writing of poems in the voice of the opposite gender, amongst other things, here is a sneak preview of the poem sequence I've been playing with.

This is one of the less successful poems, out of about ten that I've written so far, in the voice of Gawain - or a modern-day Gawain-like character - from the anonymous Middle English verse romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (I'm posting up a possible reject to avoid publishing one which I might subsequently like to place somewhere else, i.e. in a print publication.) It's just to give you a taster of what I mean, really, and to open up the topic for discussion, if there is any discussion left in this topic.

On Friday, by the way, at 9pm, a shortened version of a radio play I wrote on spec a few years back will be broadcast on RaW, which is the University of Warwick radio station. They don't yet have a Listen Again facility, but may do later in the year, but for now, if you click on the following link to RaW just before 9pm on Friday 16th January, you should be able to listen to the play live!

The play is called IN BED WITH JOHN KEATS and is approximately 15 minutes long - condensed down from 45 to fit their scheduling requirements, believe it or not. I originally wrote it for a Radio 4 slot, but then couldn't decide if it was ready to send off or not, so just never sent it off.

I haven't heard it recorded, so can't comment on what it's like. But it's short and I wrote it, so if either of those things turn you on, I'd be really pleased if you are able to listen in and let me know what you think.

I remember mentioning the title of the play in a phone call to Barry MacSweeney once - that's how long ago I wrote the thing; he's been dead a good few years now, sadly - and he loved it, and the concept. But he was always a rum 'un, was Barry.

Remember, 9pm on Friday 16th January, at RaW.

Now here's that poem I promised you. I've chosen a 'modern' one, written in the first person, and the action - I suppose - comes from Fitt II, where Gawain is travelling through the forest - cold, hungry and desperate - just before he comes across the isolated castle of Hautdesert. Some of these lines are indented, but as usual, I can't be bothered to do the required HTML. Sorry!

Wheels spin in the deepening ruts

Wheels spin in the deepening ruts,
smoke-whine of an engine
going nowhere.

I clamber out, boots sunk
in morass,
to examine the failure.

Around me in the darkness
trees creak
and a stuttering ribbon of white light
flutters over the hills
directly across the valley hollows,
then vanishes.

No signal on the mobile.

I straighten from the wheel
embedded in mud.
It will take chains or thick rope
to get it out; a job for a tow-truck.

I stand a long while, uncertain,
searching the limits
of that drop-down thicket,
hunting for a light,

unseen ocean above me,
black tide washing
in and out.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Me & Michael Drayton - thick as thieves

Last year, I was commissioned to write a poem for Polesworth, a village (or small town, technically) in North Warwickshire. The poem has now been written and presented to the local council, and is soon to be displayed on the Polesworth Poetry Trail. There's also a poetry competition in hand - see link below for details - for which I will be one of the judges.

Now for the amusing part of this story. After researching the history of Polesworth, I chose to write about their local river, the Anker, blissfully unaware that the other poem they had already chosen for the Trail was the Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton's poem on exactly the same theme - apparently one of his sonnets from the sequence, Idea's Mirror.

Great minds think alike, clearly.

Here's a link to a local newspaper report about the poem and the Polesworth Poetry Trail & Competition, with a nice photograph of me in my back garden - looking oddly presentable for once - available online.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Mimesis, an excellent poetry magazine

Quick plug here for Mimesis, an excellent and restlessly inventive poetry magazine edited by James Midgley. I've been in Mimesis a few times over the past couple of years; this month I'm in Issue 05 with a somewhat flamboyant essay on the titles of poems.

Luke Kennard and Joanna Boulter are the other two essayists in that issue of Mimesis, which is well worth subscribing to. Poetry and artwork too, in abundance. Go check it out.

Blogger comment problem

Many apologies to those who have had problems posting comments on this blog recently - I'm pleased (though also annoyed, obviously) to confirm that this is a Blogger-related issue and not anything under my control. Hopefully the issue will be resolved soon, but as usual, there are no guarantees. However, I have had the last few comments through okay, as far as I'm aware, so that may be an end to the matter.

For anyone else on Blogger, or interested in the problem, it's mentioned here on Blogger: Known Issues.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Feminism & Creative Failure

Poetry critics waiting for the next batch of new collections [by men?]

Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum: verumtamen justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c. [Jeremiah: 12]

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! Lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

Sitting alone in the throb of a crowded university café, making notes towards a review of Patience Agbabi’s Bloodshot Monochrome for Poetry Review, my eye falls on the title of one of her Problem Pages Sonnets, based on a poem by Hopkins: “Send my Roots Rain”.

In a kaleidoscopic flash, I’m back in the flat despair and agony of that poem: ‘Birds build - but not I build'. Everything around me, so vibrant and intrusive before, falls away into silence in the face of every poet’s recurrent nightmare, the fear of not being able to write. Or, more accurately, of not being able to write well.

Plath knew that fear intimately: 'These poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis.' (Stillborn, July 1960) Like all writers, she feared putting pen to paper only to create the barren line, the images that lie fallow and 'stupidly stare'. For a writer, what greater horror can there be? Throughout literary history, the prospect of his or her own death has frequently meant less to the poet than the death of the Muse or the impossibility of continuing to write, for whatever reason.

Here, Milton agonises on his dilemma:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless

and here Yeats, dramatically self-destructive, rubbishes his own creative impulse in The Circus Animals' Desertion:
... Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Laying aside my pen and Agbabi’s book, I pause to consider some of my own recent work. Primarily a sequence, hastily begun, though long thought of, slowing now to an uncertain trickle. Based on an ancient epic, its narrative voice is masculine, as is much of the subject matter, and having just re-read some strong feminist criticism (Vicki Bertram: Gendering Poetry and Kicking Daffodils), I’m suddenly dubious about the whole schema.

Is it a betrayal of sisterhood to speak with a man’s voice? And not just any male voice, but that of a poet. My opposite number, in other words: a rival under the same flag, a privileged opponent waving his advantages in my face. Am I selling both myself and my gender out through a lack of feminist backbone, a failure of imagination?

Yet poetry ought to be beyond all such nonsense. Poetry lifts itself above politics, one might say, whilst inevitably being written from a political standpoint. But does that make any sense in the face of the real, the everyday? There can be no such thing as a wholly apolitical poem, after all, anymore than a wholly apolitical poet. In life, every decision we take, every gesture we make - from what we buy in the shops (green, organic, secondhand) to what we throw out (or make do and mend) and even how we discard it (recycle, hand-me-down, flytipping) - reveals a political stance; logically, the same principle must apply to the poem.

Poets tend to believe in the apolitical poem though and see poetry as something apart from everyday life, largely because it suits our purposes to do so. Yet politics - particularly gender politics - has an unpleasant way of insinuating itself into poetry to such an extent that it cannot be ignored or sidestepped. From the moment the gender of a poet’s name is registered by a reader, it dictates whose work gets published, and subsequently rewarded with grants, awards, reviews and critical writing. In short, gender politics lies behind the building of poetic reputations and careers.

Here, Vicki Bertram in Gendering Poetry (Pandora Press, 2005), having acknowledged the usual exceptions - Carol Ann Duffy continues to attract critical interest across the board - questions the striking imbalance of representation of women poets in most critical volumes and anthologies in comparison to that of male poets:

If women poets do not get included in the 'general' analyses, overviews, and anthologies used in schools and universities, they will slip out of sight, and be forgotten until the next wave of female anger gathers and launches another period of recovery work. Currently women poets' writing merits a separate chapter, an easily accommodated tributary, while the main river flows on undisturbed. The lack of published criticism has a further damaging effect: it prevents the emergence of contexts within which the broader resonances of their work might emerge. (p.12)

Men, it seems, looking at Bertram's various graphs and studies, are still very much in control of the poetry scene. And here I am, a woman, writing in a man’s voice, an uneasy mixture of hubris and fawning obsequiousness.

‘Birds build - but not I build.’ Thus the supremely talented Hopkins, eloquent on what he deemed his own failure of eloquence. I have no such talent to fall back on, but an equal measure of despair. My unfinished sequence - at such a vulnerable stage of development, still embryonic, half-formed in my mind - taunts me with its potential for failure. Is it a creative dead-end?

Panic begins to set in as I consider that possibility. If I decide to abandon my new sequence written in a man's voice, made uncomfortable perhaps by self-accusations of male ventriloquism and the impotent recycling of archaic material - however original or audacious the treatment - where will I go from there?

To be 'between poems' - i.e. not actively writing - for any length of time is to be in a precarious, even dangerous, position. In the game show that is poetry, if one door closes behind you, another needs to open pretty smartish ahead of you, or you soon find yourself right back at the beginning. To extend the metaphor, if I leap off the wobbly raft of my sequence, will some greasy stepping-stone emerge quickly enough from the bubbling swamp to save me?

And even if it does, will it turn out to be a hungry critic - sorry, crocodile - in disguise?

I make a note on the Agbabi collection, sense the vague glimmering of a new poem at the back of my mind - not in the sequence, not in the sequence! - and allow the world to come back in a crash of plastic lunchtrays, the hubbub of students’ voices. Across the years, Hopkins’ self-fulfilling prayer has drawn near and reassured me - ‘Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain’ - with the reminder that there is nothing new under the sun. Male or female, this fear of failure, crippling at times, at times turning abruptly to defiance, is an inescapable part of what it means to write poetry.