Saturday, December 31, 2005

Highlights of 2005

1. Sideways - great movie about drinking fine wines and women.

2. Gilad Atzmon concert at the Green Room - fantastic sax player, who did a wonderful piss-take of the execrable Kenny G - great album too: Muzik.

3. Sarah Broom's book about contemporary poetry in Britain and Ireland is one of the few that actually straddles the mainstream/avant-garde/performance poles successfully.

4. A weekend of avant-garde poetry in Cambridge.

5. A trip to South Africa to meet lots of poets and a visit to Soweto to meet a jazz-loving taxi-driver, playing Hugh Masekela in his car.

6. Geraldine Monk's Escafeld Hangings.

7. Chris MacCabe's The Hutton Inquiry.

8. Ashbery's latest book - and, from the end of last year, his Selected Prose.

More later...

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Ideology of No Ideology

Here's a claim that I read on the back of Miracle & Clockwork. "Other Poetry has sought to present excellent poetry in an attractive form without regard to ideology or fashion." I wouldn't want to quarrel with the "excellant": there's some good stuff in the anthology; I want to argue about that last phrase: "without regard to ideology or fashion." This makes such massive assumptions that it has to be questioned.

It seems to me that there are two kinds of poet: "just poets" and "label poets." You can, for instance, be a really good poet, like say John Siddique or EA Markham, a truly inventive poet like Edwin Kamau Brathwaite; and when people come to critique your work, you suddenly acquire a label: "Black poet." All poets of the female gender are automatically "women poets", whether, like Elizabeth Bishop, they protest against the label or no. You can choose to be an "avant garde" poet, I suppose; but then quite often it's not so much a choice as a question of chance. Most avant garde poets, like most other poets, fall into their categories because of factors such as who they meet, where they study, what really turns them on; not because of some self-conscious desire to be different.

But the "just poets": the "I'm just a poet" brigade. Well, they tend to be white, middle-class and mainstream. There is nothing wrong with that; but it's every bit as much of an ideological position as would being a gay avant garde post-modernist poet of colour (such as Timothy Liu, to take an American example...) It's just that it pretends not to be. The "mainstream" is the normative position. The word "poet" without a label is usually assumed to be white, male, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, who writes poetry that is relatively closed, relatively comprehensible and doesn't do anything silly like "open-form." It can be a bit surrealist, but not so it frightens the horses. It can rhyme, but shouldn't use archaic poeticisms. It tends to be fond of the lyric eye, doesn't go in for fractured narratives, cut-ups, oulipean games playing, visual effects etc...

Anything that doesn't fit this mould is an "adjective poem." It's a "black poem" because it's about the legacy of slavery and it's written by a black man. It's a gay poem because it's about being picked up in a bar in San Francisco and the author is gay. It's "avant garde" because the editor can't understand it. Anything that is not mainstream is assumed to come with a label, anything which is mainstream is assumed to not need one.

The very notion of excellance assumes that the person making the claim to only like "excellant poetry" knows how to pick out the excellant poetry from the bad poetry. An "excellant poem" is one that confirms the idea of excellance that is in the editor's head. What is excellant to the editor of Other Poetry might well be dull, pedestrian stuff to the editor of Parataxis magazine. Yes, Miracle & Clockwork contains some excellant mainstream poetry (I don't include my own poem here, as I'd love to have had the opportunity to edit it) but to claim to not have a position, to be free of ideology, is nonsense. It's like saying "I'm not interested in politics," then always voting for the party that's in power.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Miracle & Clockwork

I've just had a poem published in a new anthology. It's in the magazine Other Poetry's Miracle & Clockwork anthology, and I've put in the link to the magazine's webpage above though it doesn't yet show that it's now out. It's being launched in Newcastle on the 16 December. I won't be there (too far to go.) I find it slightly odd revisting that particular poem, especially as it's probably the unedited version from the one that's in Calling Myself on the Phone (I only received it this morning; I haven't had a chance to check it.) But I'm in good company: Anne Stevenson, Sean O'Brien, WN Herbert, Jon Silkin, Geoffery Holloway and a host of others.

It wasn't entirely a surprise, but only because I had read my name on their website when doing an ego-google on my own name. They didn't let me know by mail, though they probably didn't have my e-mail.

Anyway, it's a nice Christmas present.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


I must try updating this place more often. I've come to the end of term, but I still seem to have lots of work to do, and the possibility of more work to investigate (it never gets any easier; but anyone out there needs a poet/workshop leader for their writing group/course, send me a message.)

I did another workshop with the drugs/alcohol rehabilitation unit recently, something I can't help but enjoy enourmously. There's something about working with people who have no personal interest in the literary world, especially the poetry wars, that is remarkably refreshing. They always come up with something remarkable, not for its literary sophistication, but for its openness and honesty. Is it good literature? Who cares?

It does me good to remember where it all comes from: not from some desire to be famous, to be published by the "right" publisher, but to seek some kind of truth about your life. In today's post-modernist world, that word truth is a problem; but I'm not refering to some big grand narrative truth about God or Fate or capitalist hegemony, but the little truths about who we are when we strip away the labels ("mainstream", "school of quietude", "traditional", "modernist", "avant garde", "post-avant," all that stuff.) It's about being human - not with a big "H" but a little "h" - that's why I like working with these men and women who are trying to better themselves, to get back to families and to do their best for their children.

Last Trof Open mike of the year last night too; where I met a guy called Dave from South Africa, who plays a funky kind of guitar and writes poetry. John Calvert and his Yamaha was in good form too. I like that place too, though the DJ played too much prog for my liking. On Thursday, I hope to go to "how many days before Christmas" at the Horse and Hounds on Shude Hill.

Monday, December 05, 2005

I've been pretty busy of lot, and not had that much to say. I don't think I have much going on in my head beyond the usual stuff about identity, anyway. I've been reading a few interesting people - a new Salt collection from Chris McCabe called The Hutton Inquiry, which has some interesting takes on the contemporary scene, for instance. Then there's Geraldine Monk's latest from West House, The Escafeld Hangings. She just gets better and better.

I've also been reading a lot online of Landis Everson, a poet publishing his first book in his early 80's. He'd given up writing for forty-odd years when he lost contact with the poetic community that nurtured him (basically, the Jack Spicer group round Berkley and San Francisco), but then he was contacted by someone who remembered his name and started writing again. The new poems are open, generous, meditative reflections on the past, on friendships and on the quotidian details of his life. A little Frank O'Hara, perhaps, and charming.

But it's interesting, what would I have been like without the poetic friendships and encounters I've had over the years? I came to Manchester in 1980 from a small town in North-East Lancashire called Accrington. I was under the influence of Ted Hughes at the time, and the local library supplied me with a few interesting books, mainly Movement-y poets like Larkin and Elizabeth Jennings. I'd got every book of Sylvia Plath's, and Lowell's poems were in there too.

Then I came to Manchester, discovered O'Hara, Ashbery and co, started going to writing groups (I'd gone to one in Blackburn though) and Manchester Poets group, and here I am years later, this strange half-Modernist creature you see before you. C'est la vie! Had I stayed at the accountants in Accrington, I might have had more money, but would I have given up poetry? What's the point of writing if you don't have an audience? Anyone out there still listening?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

I Dares Ya

There was an interesting comment on the Ron Silliman blog to the effect that poetry should be "daring." I find this odd. I mean, yes, poets should be challenging themselves I guess; but what does it mean to be "daring?" Mandelstam's Stalin Ode was pretty daring - it got him killed, but short of declaiming poetry whilst walking across the Niagara Falls on a high wire, in what way is poetry daring? It's certainly not life-threatening to write Language poetry, for instance, though Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler (not to mention our own Sean O'Brien) might come round and bop you on the nose.

But there is a certain amount of "dare" involved in doing things different from the way you did them before, or the way anyone else has done things before. Putting a canvas on the floor and dripping paint over its surface takes a certain trust in the process; you could make an absolute mess of things and end up with something that looks like an explosion in a paint factory. Instead of which, you end up with great art. So I find, when I think about this, that once again I contradict myself.

And poets can sometimes get themselves into ruts: this works well, I'll keep doing it till it starts becoming pure rote. Then you get to the stage where you even bore yourself; but everything's done well and nothing is "bad." It might even be admired.

"Daring" can itself turn a revolt into a style though. If you're so determined to be "different", you can often end up sounding just like everybody else, like rock stars so eager to be "real" they turn out to be clones of each other. Being true to whatever you you're playing with at the time is much better than trying to find some mythical authentic self among the rock-star postures. For all I'm not a real fan, Robbie Williams is still better than Coldplay because at least he doesn't take himself too seriously.

I was at an open mike event yesterday, and they played lots of Motown records: the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson. Pure commercial gold, not in the least experimental or daring it might seem. Certainly not prog rock, which proclaimed itself as so very advanced and meaningful but which now seems as stodgy as wet bread. But you could dance to them, they had killer bass-lines and were as sexy as Brifgette Bardot. And, along the way, quite a lot more adventurous and daring than some of that self-consiously experimental muso-music beloved of middle-class prog-fans.

So daring is not about choosing the most extreme technique; it's stretching yourself, trusting the process, seeing what you can do, in poetry as in all the other arts. And if you've never written a sonnet, then dare yourself to try.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Embracing all forms?

Irish Poets said:

By embracing all form the poet cannot fail, as s/he will not be restricted and
can engage with all the schools and groupings.

But I wonder if that's possible. I have to say that everyone has their biases and I'm not alone in this. I don't think I'm going to go back to writing regular iambic pentameter any time soon. I like sonnets, but my sonnets owe as much to Ted Berrigan as to Shakepeare, and they certainly don't "scan." Yet I do have that skill, because I taught it to myself early on. You choose the techniques you use to suit the kind of person/poet you are, and because of what the writers you admire have chosen.

But do young poets writing now need it? Irish Poets again:

the crop of young and thrusting urban poets scrambling about the world today,
are all concerned with making a name for themselves, but very few of them have
metrical ability.

I'm in a dilemma. Does a video artist, or installation artist, need to know how to draw? Apart, that is, from the ability to storyboard the video, or come up with a reasonable sketch of what they want the installation to look like? So if a poet uses, say, a lipogrammatic technique, rather than rhyme, does that person need to know how to rhyme?

But then writing poetry is different from visual art...

well, yes, unless you're talking visual/concrete poetry. It's also different from music, unless you're talking sound poetry a la Bob Cobbing. Rhyme and metre are part of the poet's toolbox, available for use should you feel inclined; what if you don't feel inclined? Picasso could draw by the age of fifteen, but gave up on the ability to draw what he saw in front of him and became a Cubist. Can Damien Hirst draw? Is Tracy Emin deliberately a bad drawer, or just a bad drawer, and does it matter?

Yet it matters that we have the skill to rhyme and do meter, even though we never use it. Hmmm... I'm still in a dilemma. Maybe a basic skill is required, like even punk bands have to learn a couple of chords to play even a note. To play the freest of jazz, though, you have to know your instrument inside out, and you have to know music probably better than your average orchestal player, because you have to keep the sound together even while you're tearing it apart.

In the end, the more knowledge of technique, the better. Three chords always gives you more options than two. But technique doesn't make you great. There has to be passion - but therein lie a whole host of questions - what is passion? for starters.

Someone else can answer that one for today.

Monday, November 14, 2005

I sort of half-watched the second Lord of the Rings film on television yesterday. I read that book years ago, about three times, which is a lot less than some do. I can't say I'd read it again, though the big Battle of Helm's Deep was pretty good and I liked their portrayal of Golum/Smeagol. The ents though did look vaguely ridiculous. It's all good spectacle and straightforward storytelling; but nowhere near a great film. I know that there are fanatics who can't get enough of things like that; but however much I used to like fantasy, now I just find its addiction to straight story-telling boring. And all those elves...

Ah well, back to poetry. I've been thinking again about the much-vaunted category of the "authentic" and what it means. Is there such a thing, really, especially in this day and age when everybody from poets to pop-stars are putting on masks? I watched the BBC's programme about sex and rock-and-roll, and it was interesting to see the way in which male pop-stars either rooted around in the fancy-dress box (Bowie) or went all macho-authentic (Led Zeppellin.) Of the two, I've always prefered the former; I actually find it more true to (my) life than the thrusting cock-rock of blokes in jeans with guitars.

I caught a newspaper headline that said that men always wanted to be cavemen even if they pretended to be "new sensitive men". Well, that's not true of me. I don't even like jeans. I don't like the idea that I'm supposed to go to the pub, like football, get drunk and read the Sun if I read anything at all. I am (stand up and say it!) a sissy, and I'm proud of that fact. I read books, I read poetry on buses, I write poetry and go to jazz concerts and art galleries, prefer romantic comedies to action films and postmodernism to straight narrative. I drink wine not beer. I'd rather engage in a nice intellectual conversation than watch reality TV or Pop Bile. And I like intelligent women. No really, I do. Even if you're more inteligent than me.

And I like leather jackets. Hey, I contradict myself, so I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Prize, John Siddique

(Rialto, £7.95)

First, the one objection. The print is too small and difficult to read as it's not the clearest print.

Maybe that means he can cram more poems in. Which would be great because on the whole this is a very readable and very thought-provoking collection. There is a quiet force to these poems that is rare to find in much English poetry. "Quiet" is not always a complimentary adjective in the poetry world: there are a lot of poems that are as undemonstrative as a dull day in Blackburn; but these poems are often full of feeling, emotions lying not very far from the surface, as here:

Cherry Tree

We are carving wood together,
I turn the head and Chris shapes with each beat.

The room is filled with cherry scent & schoolboys.
Every moment is its own. There is no talking,
no cause of pain.

I can smell the patcouli oil she wears.
We operate as one. I wonder do the schoolboys
notice our oneness. They are quiet too
shaping the pieces, rasping and smoothing,
carving shape. Constantly running their hands
over the limbs forming from each stroke and beat.

There's a sensuousness, even a gorgeousness about his language that drags you into the poems in this book, and a sense of enquiry that I find compelling. Even in the poems that deal with his own life as an Asian/European man living in England, I never see any striving to "put the message across" in a forced or artificial way. There is anger here; but there is also love.

He is, in fact, a very good love poet. I particularly liked his Ninety Day Theory, which manages to be both erotic and caring, and to reveal a truth about relationships that in the end you know aren't going to go anywhere. His poem about his father's smallpox (Variola) and the three sisters that died again manages to be both revealing and moving. It's a difficult task to be both, I feel; so many poems either pluck at the heartstrings or give us some information or play games with language that may be interesting but ultimately don't move us. There are poems here that are very direct, and others such as Horsebones which are more mysterious, like fragments from stories overheard but not completely; but always, there's an emotional charge, and an exploration of feelings that is very rare in a male poet.

John Siddique is published by a small but enterprising press from Norwich. All power to their arm if they continue to produce work like this.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Stop Making Sense

One of the things that I like about the poets from the New American Poets camp is that there is an attitude that anything goes, and that you don't have to be sensible all the time. You are allowed to be silly, or to do things that are not logical but which lead to insight; you can be surreal without being pompous, and you can stop making sense.

There is, of course, a tradition of "nonsense verse" a la Lear but that's not what I mean; that's still too tied to a basically logical way of reading the universe. For me, though, what I find in poets like Kenneth Koch or Ron Padgett is the idea that anything can become poetry if you let it. So I recently had a bad cold, and wrote a poem about it. Which was fine; but it still made way too much sense, so I turned it upside down to see what would happen. Poets like Rupert Loydell are using cut-up techniques - again to re-introduce an element of surprise into their poems.

It's that surprise, those unexpected shifts and turns in a poem that make you want to read past the first line. So here's my new poem:


The next stop is Bessie’s o’ th’ Barn
or a sneeze dismantling the universe.
Is that a break in the clouds
next Friday? Nostalgia sets in at 50.
I feel every week of my age,
some sweet green tea and a tissue.

I need an injection of sun.
Because I’m a man it’s my job
I’m taking this illness too far.
What’s that mobbing the lampposts?

The sky’s an ache overhead. Pigeons.
Metaphysical with snot,
I sit by the window at the front:
my head needs truth, and Nurofen.
It's a kind of unrhymed sonnet turned upside down. There's also the sheer childish pleasure of getting the word "snot" into a poem. It made perfect sense the other way around, and if you feel like reconstructing it from the bottom up, feel free. But here you get some unexpected connections, I hope; something that opens up the poem: plus a last line straight out of Alvaro de Campos (Fernando Pessoa.)

Monday, October 24, 2005

Open Letter to Sean O'Brien (and others)

I read your article on Rilke in the latest Poetry Review, and very excellant it was too. I'll spend some time next week re-familiarising myself with the Picador translation of Stephen Mitchell's. Thanks for that. I liked your poem too.

But you just couldn't resist a quick jibe at the avant garde could you? "These problems are mirrored among the avant garde, where the pleasure principle is tirelessly punished." What does that mean exactly, that all avant garde poets are basically puritanical over-serious disdainers of the pleasures of language and they all look down their noses at people who still find pleasure in rhyme and metre? Or what? Don't the avant garde believe in giving their readers pleasure, only in making their readers' heads hurt?

It was certainly a comment that had little or nothing to do with Rilke. It was tossed off casually, rather as one might say in the middle of a conversation about the driving skills of Ayrton Senna, "of course, women can't drive to save their lives."

There are no doubt huge arguments to be had over whether the range of avant garde techniques and schools that are currently around have anything to offer the world of poetry. But I for one have recently experiencecd great pleasure in reading the poetries of Geraldine Monk, Alan Halsey, Robert Sheppard, Rupert Loydell, Elaine Randal, I've just discovered Chris MacCabe, then there's John James and Lee Harwood, and the inimitable Tom Raworth. Quite a range of poetries there, and I've just confined myself to British names. I saw a terrific set of readings by people like Micheal Haslam & Vahni Capildeo that was most pleasurable. Difficulty has its own pleasure.

There's plenty of mainstream poetry I like; I'm the ultimate fence-sitter. Mathew Sweeney, for instance, John Hartley Williams. Jean Sprackland for another.

Vague remarks about the avant garde this, or the avant garde that, are not criticism. I'm not even sure these days what exactly constitutes an avant garde: how can poets who've been around for forty years still be considered avant garde (Harwood, Raworth - and Prynne, of course?) It's about time we got some proper criticism in this country, that wasn't about making snide remarks in otherwise useful essays. That's just petty; and is unworthy of the art.

There is a debate to be had about the various poetries in this country, or even across the world, but it would be helpful if people were at least polite with one another.

Anyway, I've got that off my chest. I'll return to Rilke now. "You must change your life." Phew! Gets me every time.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

John Siddique

I went to Manky poets last night, where John Siddique was giving a reading, promoting his new book, The Voice. I was full of a cold, have been since Tuesday, but I still enjoyed myself. The read-around was full - 21 readers - and I read my poem about a train ride to Bristol through fog. The others were often good - including one by Rosie Garland, and poems by Helen Clare, John Lindley and others. It was really good to see John Lindley again - I don't often get to see him and his partner Jane. They read good poems too. Some of the poems went through my brain without impacting on my brain cells, but that was more to do with my cold than anything else.

Jon's reading was good - I like his poems a lot. Their quietness has a man in them, to quote Frank O'Hara - sensitive, but tough, often musical but in a very unobvious way. A full review of The Voice will come to these pages soon, but suffice it to say that a first collection has been a long time coming. I've always thought that the really good poets are not the ones that are published by the big boys, Faber, Picador, Cape (FabPicCap?) but the ones published by smaller presses - Salt, Rialto, Smith/Doorstop, Shearsman, Arc etc...

We went to the pub afterwards, where I talked for a bit to an old friend, Julian, who I haven't seen for ages. He's forty now - and I'm going to be forty-seven next Friday! I'm going to the final Matt Welton workshop today, so a report on that will come soon, methinks!

Monday, October 17, 2005

Matt Welton's workshop & stuff

I did another workshop with Matt Welton at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Saturday, which was most enlightening in some ways. We looked at an extract from George Perec's A Void (the English translation by Gilbert Adair) which is a lipogrammatic novel that misses out the letter "e" altogether - even in the translation. The short extract we read sounded over-the-top and overly vatic but was quite fun. Then we were asked to write something about the Thomas Joshua Cooper exhibition using the same technique.

I came up with this (revised since):
Still air. A vast and liquid loss. Look.
What do you know? What draws
to this coast, this wild placidity? Nothing
but light, that burns and
coils, that calls
to nothing down in a darkful hold. A sun
finds its horizon off to south, to north,
to all points. What world is this? The sky
I sail a cloud across.

It sounds a bit like WS Graham, circa 1945 - no bad thing I guess. Maybe I should continue it.

We got into a discussion about whether poems have to have meaning. Matt's a kind of formalist of the Stevens school - poems are about things like sound, the feel of the language, they don't have a specific meaning. Well in one sense, I agree that sound is an important factor. But meaning happens even when you look at abstract pictures - people create meaning, even where the poet intends none. That doesn't have to be narrative, or rational meaning; it can be a purely (is there such a thing?) emotional response; it can trigger off a train of thought, a memory, even if the writer has no idea that it means or can mean that. I often find myself incorporating other peoples' interpretation of my poems into my interpretations.

Just a few final thoughts on Prynne: I suspect that there is a lot of deeply organised thought in his work that I'm just not getting, and I'm perfectly fine about that. I don't think he's a bad poet; he may even be a brilliant poet, and I'm missing something vital. Well, fine. We can't like everyone, and why should we? We identify with the poets that move us, that stimulate us to feel and to think; and if someone doesn't do that, we move on. Too often, we get angry about the so-called dross of "post-avant" or "school of quietude" poets we just don't take to. OK, Andrew Motion is the most boring poet on the planet and he's the poet-laureate and I'm not (that's £10K a year I'm not getting...) but that's not everyone's opinion. "Always accept the possibility that you might be wrong" as the Quaker Faith & Practice has it.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Prynne and Dandy

I keep sneaking the odd look at JH Prynne, and wondering why I don't find him in the least bit conducive. I'm reasonably open to a lot of modernist and post-modernist poetry; but I can't warm to his poetry. Maybe if I have a really good go at, give him space, etc etc... But, while I sometimes find bits and pieces uncannily beautiful, I'm not sure I really want to engage at a really deep level with him.

Which is probably terrible; how can I just dismiss him like that? I can read, and love, Tom Raworth's equally difficult poetry. I love the work of Geraldine Monk, and a lot of other so-called post-avants. If anything I prefer to read the post-avants or poets influenced by them to poets of the School of Quietude. I'm probably not thinking hard enough for Prynne. Well, so be it.

I read a comment recently about poets who just write lots of poetry and never sit down and write criticism and reviews and such. It was a remark made by someone form the Philly Free School blog. They were saying it's not a good thing; except I know a lot of people who are like that. They don't write reviews and they don't write critique, sometimes because they aren't confident of their own views, sometimes because they don't want to be unduly influenced by someone else.

The second objection can be easily dealt with. Writers should be unduly influenced. They should be obsessed by poetry - maybe not to the extent that Ron Silliman is, recieving as he does hundreds of books a year - and they should be widely read and interested in things outside of their own artform too. Whether this be the news, or visual art, or music, or philosophy, or the language of conversation, there should be things going on in their heads beyond the details of their personal lives.

Louis MacNeice said something to that effect when he said that poets should be readers of newspapers. They don't have to be drily intellectual, or to be experts in this or that, just interested. Open to influence. Open, in fact, to the world. Otherwise, what are you going to write about except yourself? And after a while, that just gets boring. In fact, you get bored with yourself.

I've got sidetracked from Prynne, I guess. Which is what happens when I read him, so that's OK.

Monday, October 10, 2005

This weekend

Good grief - less than a week and I'm back again!

Well, I had an interesting week. I've been doing some workshops with recovering drug addicts at a centre here in Manchester. I really enjoy it - and I hope even if it's only for a bit that the people me and Tony are writing with manage to escape for awhile. There's also a lot of stories in what they're doing; and I sometimes wonder if I don't prefer working with these people than with ordinary writers. They do have something to write about, and can be a lot more imaginative than they think they are. But there's often the same problem: "I can't write." By this, they often mean they can't spell, or use good grammar.

Well, good grammar doesn't make a good writer. It helps with presentation; but being able to spell imagination doesn't mean you've got one, and not being able to do good grammar doesn't mean you haven't got a story to tell. A story or a poem or any piece of imaginative writing doesn't become better if it's written in complete sentences; in fact, sometimes, it sounds more interesting if it's more fractured, more basic than sentences.

I like doing practical workshops where I get people writing. But I went to one on Saturday at the Whitworth Art Gallery around the photographs of Thomas Joshua Cooper. We seemed to spend an awful lot of time talking about writing, looking at a William Carlos Williams poem and an article on "ekphrasis" (writing about paintings, basically) and precious little time actually writing. I'd have preferred more time writing; but then I'm not doing much at the moment. There is a need to think about writing, perhaps; but I wanted to write. I went with Fran, and I think she agreed.

I also went to the closing party of the last ever poetry festival in Manchester. Next year it will become a "literature festival." I'm sorry if I sound cynical about this, but does this mean we're going to get some bloody soap star promoting their biography, or the latest Booker prize winner touting their ever-so shiny fiction? Methinks it's being taken over by the bums-on-seats brigade and we'll get all the usual fluff and hype. I hope I'm wrong about this.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Manchester Poetry Festival

I'm doing only ten minutes in it myself - at a performance evening on Monday at Trof in Fallowfield. It's called Verberate. Be there or be square.

But I did go to the launch of Citizen 32, a magazine with a political agenda and lots of poetry in it. It's the usual left-wing stuff, of course; but from what I can tell, quite reasonable in quality. Of the guests reading on the night, Helen Clare was good as usual, and Todd Swift was too, more political than he was at Manchester Central Library, and Aoife Mannix whose work is new to me was a really good performer. There were people from the magazine reading too, including Geraldine Green and Cath Nichol. A good event, apart from the openers. You know you're going to be cringing when a group of poets call themselves the "Wylde Women Poets." Oh dear. Well, they weren't as bad as that sounds. But it's the kind of self-conscious supposed transgressiveness of that title that makes me cringe - like some boring accountant type telling you they're "crazy". Just because you can neck ten pints of lager in an occassional evening of "letting yourself go" doesn't make you crazy, and calling yourself "wylde" doesn't make you any less middle-class and dull. Sorry. Try again.

I don't believe in dressing up to be wild. I suspect all the best poets are wild inside; they have things burning to be said, and nothing they ever do quite says it. They're not wild for an audience. And they don't misspell words to sound "crazee" either.

Anyway, enough of that. I also saw the great Pat Winslow give a storming reading from her latest book. Had I some money on me at the time I would have bought it. Todd Swift said that all the best poets in the country are not well-known enough, and this is surely the case with Pat. Passionate, humane, sometimes funny sometimes serious, and always immaculately controlled. Beautiful.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Typecasting, Bob Dylan & stuff

I've got a lot to say in this one I think, as I've not been around here for awhile.

Firstly, I watched the Martin Scorcese documentary on Bob Dylan last week, and it was really interesting not so much for the stuff about Dylan itself as for what it revealed about the audience and his early "radical" promoters. I've always thought there was something terribly po-faced about folkies, and my opinion wasn't altered by that documentary; it was in fact reinforced. Everybody wanted Bob Dylan to be the voice of their generation, to speak for them rather than having to speak for themselves ("Don't follow leaders, pay the parking meters" as the man said.)

I loved it when he called himself "a song and dance man." So self-deprecating, so Jewish somehow (I wonder if anyone's done a study on the Jewish influence in his work.) Of course, he's more than that; his words and music work so well together and he's written some terrific songs ("Tangled Up In Blue", "Like A Rolling Stone", "Dreams of Johanna" etc...) but he's not what anyone wants him to be. No real artist ever is. Van Gogh was never mad when he painted; Sylvia Plath was not a feminist; Mayakovsky was not a very obedient communist etc... Artists don't fit into anyone's pocket.

It's even evident in the so-called radical anthems like "Blowing in the Wind:" full of poetic phrases, not political analysis. The picture of Bob Dylan looking embarassed at all the "voice of his generation" stuff, avoiding questions or making funny remarks when people try to pigeonhole him, tells it all. Avoid the pigeonholes. Don't let them pin you down, a moving target is harder to hit, etc...

Next, I got a couple of interesting responses to my talking about thinking in terms of a book, rather than just poems. Todd: I sort of agree that putting random poems together is as good a way as any, that it can produce good books. But I want to try and work slightly differently this time, to work on the book as I'm writing the poems as it were. It will keep on changing shape as I work on individual poems, and I'm not about to start writing my version of Cantos or the Maximus poems. It's somewhere between the two extremes: I'm writing individual poems, then seeing where they might fit and alter the overall shape. Maybe for the next book after that, I'll go back to random. Anyway, it's a while off yet.

I agree with Scjallah too that there's an awful lot of avant-garde so-called poetry that leaves me cold. In the end, a good poem isn't just a bunch of words that don't hang together, it's something that sets up a resonance in the heart and the head. Fragments can work, but only if they add up to an interesting picture.

Anyway, I think I'll leave it there. More thoughts later.

Friday, September 16, 2005

My Next Book

I've not been much around computers this week, what with starting teaching next week. I haven't been doing much in the way of writing either, not since a poem what I wrote called "Every Planet Has A North." But I've been doing a little thinking, in particular about my next book. I have given it a title now; a very provisional title, but a title nevertheless.

It's something I learnt from a week at Totleigh Barton with Sheila Murphy and Rupert Loydell: don't just think in terms of individual poems, think in terms of books, or collections of poems. So many of us just write lots of poems then put them together in a book when we've got enough. It worked for my last book, though there's a few poems that didn't get in that didn't really fit with the feel of that book that were still good poems. But I think for the next one, I'm already beginning to shape the idea of the book, so that when I have enough, I can present a package that works, rather than one that has to be found.

Ron Silliman and others write what he calls the "longpoem": the poem that goes on and over several books, like the Cantos, or in his case it's the Alphabet. I don't think I'm capable of that kind of organisation; but I think I can try and see some general shapes. For instance, there are a lot of poems that involve travel in some ways: trips to Prague and South Africa, one that comes from Barcelona. Even the poem "The Westerner" about a man I knew who wrote Westerns and had never visited America is a kind of mental journey. Which brings me back, of course, to "Every Planet Has A North", a poem sort of set in space.

Planning the next book, even in the general terms in which I'm doing so at the moment, does give me the opportunity to look a little closer at what I'm writing, to see what it is that interests me, where I might be going. At the moment it's called "Travelator"; but watch this space; that title might well change yet.

Friday, September 09, 2005


I got a really long response to my previous blog about influence. I'm not sure I got it all, but basically he was saying that poets need to have some kind of "poetics". I think that's right, we all need to have some idea of why we're doing what we're doing. Not, I think, so that we can go around feeling intellectually smug that we're doing the right thing, though. There is a kind of "poetics" that says, for instance, that "I think poetry should rhyme/be free verse/be political/be apolitical" etc that actually limits the writer because, instead of forming your own poetics, which can subsequently be developed/change over time, you're signing on the bottom line of someone else's manifesto. Maybe it's my Quaker dislike of creeds and formulae, but I'm not going to sign anything.

But I do think we should sit down and do some thinking about why we do what we do and what it is we want to do; even if it's only for a temporary period. Why, for instance, do I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with the poems I write which are straightforward narratives? Why do I feel the need to take a pair of scissors to them and cut them up and rearrange them, introducing a chance element into my poems?

Well, it's partly in order to stay interested; but it's also because I think reality is much more fragmented than a lot of poetry written these days. Memory doesn't operate sequentially, and life includes dreams, it includes thinking odd thoughts that don't seem to connect, it includes parataxis. Life doesn't work according to logical principles, and I want to acknowledge that. But on the other hand, it's not totally meaningless or chaos either; even if some or all of that meaning is invented rather than inherent, human beings are meaning-makers or discoverers.

The beauty of this blog is that I can start to work out my own poetics as I'm going along. And it will be a going-along kind of poetics; hopefully, it'll change a little with each new poem. And part of my poetics will be the idea that poetry can be enjoyable.

Speaking of which. Someone sending to Brando's Hat the mag thought that I meant "light verse," when I said I didn't like overserious poetry. I don't; "light verse" is largely trash and full of obvious rhymes and jokes you can see coming for miles. Not to mention the dull suburban subject matter. What I don't like is pomposity, "kiss-me-I'm-poetical" junk etc (for reference, read Ken Koch's Fresh Air and The Art of Poetry.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Friday, September 02, 2005


I've been thinking again about inluence, especially early influence. Everybody's influenced by somebody, nobody exists in a vacuum, but our reading tastes change over the years so the number and range of our influences change. When I started writing, it was what was in the local library and what I could get from bookshops locally. Accrington & Blackburn not being at the time very cultural places, this was of course a very limited range. Larkin was in there, and the Liverpool poets, and Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes. Tony Harrison arrived very early, and Tom Paulin, especially his first two books.

Since coming to Manchester, I've discovered the New American Poets: Black Mountain, Beat, and principally New York School. And they profoundly changed the direction of my poetry. I wonder what would have happened if, instead of the Americans, I'd read some Polish or Czech poetry and that would have altered my writing? Ron Silliman's comments about Christopher Middleton (scroll through - I think it was in July) are interesting. He claims to distrust Modernist traditions that are not NAP in origin; but of course, there are many different streams to Modernism, not all of them culminating in Frank O'Hara or the LANGUAGE poets. If I'd been good at, say, German, maybe I'd be more influenced by Gunter Grass or Hans Magnus Enzsenberger than John Ashbery.

It's funny how much all this relates to your life experience. You set out wanting to write as well as you can, so you look for mentors. You find some poetry in the library, it seems to be what's required, so you try to write like that. Then you find something that really excites you, that is so different and yet so like you that it becomes something you want to do yourself. New York poets enabled me to write about my situation in ways that Larkin never could, because they gave me permission to "write outside the box" to use what is rapidly becoming a damnable cliche.

But I can't quite throw out Larkin and Hughes and the rest and jump head first into the avant-garde pool, because they still have something. Larkin's craft and Hughes' mythification of his own life are still present, deep below somewhere as a kind of buried stream (not unlike the avant garde as a buried stream in British poetry) or as a not-so guilty secret I sometimes like to pretend isn't there. I think it's time to write another sonnet.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Reading, Films etc

I'm still reading John Murray's Radio Activity, which is proving very enjoyable and inventive. Before that, I read The Code of the Woosters, my first introduction to the world of Jeeves and Wooster, and great fun it was too. I wanted to go around for the rest of the day saying "What ho!" and "Egad!", but I resisted the urge. It's pure frivolous fun with no depth to it, and the situation was perfectly ridiculous (they were trying to steal a silver "cow creamer" from a rather nasty judge) but it made me laugh.

I don't know if I'll read another, though. One can have too much ice-cream.

On Monday, I saw the film Primer, made on a shoestring budget, with unknown actors. It involves a couple of geeky inventors who invent this machine that takes them forwards - or was that backwards? - in time and involves lots of time paradoxes and doubles. It was utterly compelling - while worth the five quid - and totally, utterly baffling. It was, in some sense, a perfectly post-modern film - with lots of suggestions of plot but no actual plot, lots of tricky turns and ideas that hung together less like a conventional plot-based film and more like a bricollage of scenes that somehow hung together.

Then I stayed up to watch The Magic Christian, an obscure piece of British 60's surrealism about a millionaire (Peter Sellers) who adopts a tramp (Ringo Star) as his son, then proceeds to ridicule everyone's greed for money. Very strange, and very 60's, but sort of compelling in its way.

I'm also enjoying some Canadian poetry in New American Writing 23, along with some Vietnamese poetry and translations of Cesar Vallejo. And the new PN Review has just popped through the door - which often has some very interesting articles alongside the poetry. I'm not very good at reading books of criticism; but I do read articles. Sometimes they give me ideas, and introduce me to writers I don't know much about.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Sestina Addendum

I just discovered today that a sestina written by me and John Calvert one evening when we were bored has been published on McSweeney's Internet Tendency Sestinas project. It's a very silly poem using words from literary theory, but I hope y'all enjoy it folks:

Reading etc

I went to Stockport Library yesterday and borrowed a few books, including John Murray's Radio Activity, which I'm looking forward to reading. I read his Jazz Etc. some months back and very good it was too. But I bet nobody's heard of him out there in blogland. Which is a shame because he's very interesting indeed, very good comic novelist who comes from Cumbria.

Yep, you read right. Is there anything good that comes from Cumbria? Well, there's John Murray for starters. And the late Geoffery Holloway came from there too: a very good, plain-spoken but deceptively so poet from the Lake District. This one appears to be set in Workington - a place that from my one brief visit there as a child lives up to its drab name.

Which set me to thinking about reading outside of the box. How many people go into a library and pick out a book that nobody has reviewed, nobody has included in a list of the "100 best novels with cooking in them" or something equally inane, and nobody from a book club has recommended? How many people create their own taste in literature rather than have it created for them?

John Murray's novels are published by Flambard - a small publisher in the North East that's decided to start its own Northern Classics list; but how successful will that be when the London-based media dominate the reviews and never read anything set or published outside the South-East? Manchester's own Dewi Lewis Press produces a great fiction list, and Comma Press recently produced a great collection of David Constantine's short stories. There's all kinds of good things happening outside the metropolis. Find their websites, click on a book you like the look of and make small publishers happy.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Religious Poets

There was a time when I used to be unsure about whether poetry was a "good thing" to spend my time in. I was in the grip of fundamentalist religion at the time - though even then I was squirming around in an iron glove that never fitted me. I looked about for Christian poets to confirm that it was OK. I discovered a few: Steve Turner was a kind of evangelical Roger McGough, for instance; and one or two others.

But it wasn't until I discovered Elizabeth Jennings that I realised you could be a Christian and write poetry that wasn't just a sermon in disguise; and sometime later got in touch with Rupert Loydell of Stride. Even then, he was probably more liberal theologically (I think I've probably caught up with him on that score) than me; but we at least shared an interest in the possibility of expressing one's faith, or even discovering one's faith, through poetry.

I read RS Thomas for his bracingly mordant faith, that seemed to be all silence with little or no communication from above. I discovered the religious poems of David Gascoyne, which I think has fired an interest in the neo-romantic and Apocalyptic writers of the 40's. There were others, and even now, if I find a decent poet who is also religious, I'm drawn to them.

I don't try and write to persuade anyone of my beliefs; I very rarely write specifically religious poems. But it does come through: one reviewer of my last book called it the "beast with two books", which was probably terribly supercillious of him. I don't you should try writing religious poetry to persuade; poets are not advertising execs, leave that to the evangelists in their glass cathedrals. But when you write down your life, your faith comes through; sometimes because your poems are as much a dialogue with the divine as much as they are anything else.

I think I probably needed to know that there were other poets out there with faith once. I still need to know that there are poets doing things that are in the same or similar ballpark as me; poets need to feel part of a community.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Fran Pridham

Been away for a bit. A weekend in the Lake District and personal stuff to sort out. Anyway, I thought I'd come back with a couple of poems by Fran Pridham, who's my fellow editor on Brando's Hat. Here's what Amanda Dalton said about her:

'Fran Pridham creates vivid domestic landscapes... Weaving through these places are her often painful explorations of emotion and relationships. The poems enter dark territory as they look at transience and our attempts to cope with loss; eruptions of violence, and a sense of the alone. But these are not entirely bleak poems: Pridham writes of hope, of moments of beauty, the leveling common-sense of children and the 'oneness' "sometimes unexpectedly" discovered..."

Air to breathe, water to swim

The sea breathing on the
in deep asthmatic stone filled breaths
like winter breathing,
sucking warmed air
through rough blankets to ease
constant chest pain
and the cough.

Scrubby wind tugged daisies, leaf stripped
growing in
the slag and coughed up mine dust;
coal rimmed eyes and blue scars that are
not water washed.

Deep sea diving to swim away
the trapped and
breathless sweat of mining.
Finding no clear sunlit water playing
in the
rock filled bladder wrack pools,
only blocked sewage pipes in the harbour's
silted depths.

Alien suited and spluttering
on the man made gas
bubbles, a reckless wish
to wash life away in alcohol-stained
breathing in of man made lead.

Sunday Praise

Each cup of tea he makes she leaves undrunk;
she says he cannot even
tie his laces well.

They meet, eat tacos, sour cream and read
papers spread across the table top.
Sunday passers by can glance and through
the steamy cafe's window blur make out
the leather jacket of a man who
the dark hair of a woman move to turn
and call the waitress for a
glass of milk.

Unremarkable and yet she knows
his flesh; it's
searching movements
which remind her of the oneness that
unexpectedly she can possess.

There's a beautiful poise about her poems, though sometimes they seem almost unbearably sad, and at occasional times almost unbearably happy.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Nothing to Say

"I have nothing to say and I am saying" - a quote by John Cage, used by Edwin Morgan in one of his concrete poems and kind of appropriate for this blog. I thought I wasn't going to write anything because I didn't have anything to say. So I thought, well, why not write about having nothing to say?

Some people have a lot to say in their poems - they are going to write a poem, for instance, about the bombing of Hiroshima & Nagasaki (we've just had the 60th anniversary of that atrocity), or about global capitalism. If you come from a society where corruption is pandemic (as many of my African friends do) there you are with a subject right on your doorstep. I find it really difficult to write if I have that definite a subject. When asked to write a poem for Conscientious Objectors' Day, I wrote a very bad piece of propaganda that won't ever see the light of day again if I have anything to say about it (quick - chuck it in the bin before the literary executors get hold of it and publish it in a variorum edition!)

Mayakovsky wrote propaganda - and I wonder if he really liked doing it because his best poems are very personal, as well as radical and revolutionary. I don't have any big themes and I don't tend to write big poems. Well - I recently wrote about Hitler and my latest poem namechecks Hector Peterson - so I don't leave them out either. But I can't sit down and write about anything in particular. I write around subjects, mix and match things and am getting very fond of using bricollage as a technique - even collaging my own words, and there's very often hidden quotes in my work. I read some David Schubert on the recommendation of John Ashbery (in his Other Traditions) and liked the way he made poems up from fragments written in notebooks. My latest (a poem about Soweto) uses something from the poems I wrote some time ago using Oblique Strategies cards. Well, it seemed to fit.

What I try to do (and don't always succeed) is to find the emotional heart of whatever nothing I'm trying to tease out. That to me is poetry.

I'm going to try and solicit a few other peoples' poems on this website I think. I'm getting tired of the sound of my own voice.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Finally, a new poem. I think it must be a month since I've written anything decent, then I get out a poem about the photographer Lee Miller. She was a great photographer, and a tricky personality, so I've read. She produced some fantastic images, both as a fashion photographer and as a documentary photographer. Associated with the Surrealists, she was a lover of Man Ray, and became the wife of Roland Penrose, the sadly almost forgotten British Surrealist artist and critic.

We're not very good at promoting ourselves in Britain, when it comes to the arts. We think we have the right to the World Cup, though we've only won it once, but we never trumpet the talents of artists as diverse as Paul Nash, Ivon Hitchens, Ceri Richards, Penrose himself, Eileen Agar and a host of others. Instead we have to put up with grimly-nostalgic LS Lowry, or the Pre-Raphealite brotherhood of bores.

Anyway, Lee Miller was American by birth, but ended up living with Penrose in England. I met her son in Whitworth Art Gallery, at an event involving readings from her writing and a slide show of photographs. He used to not like his mother (she could be difficult, and drank too much; partly through Traumatic Stress Disorder after her experience of the war in Europe.) Then he discovered the rolls of film and her writings in the attic; now he's her greatest champion. Check out her archive at:

I'm not going to put the poem up here; I'm going to send it to a magazine, so you'll have to buy it, or download it if it's online. Besides, I suspect it needs a little time. But it's good to be back in the saddle. A poet's never happy except when writing.

But you can go to and read my review of Robert Sheppard's Lore if you wish.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005


I've got two more magazines through recently - the latest Orbis which has a review by me in it of Mathew Sweeney's Sanctuary, and Agenda, which has a large selection of new Australian poetry in it. I'll confess to having a bit of a fondness for Australian verse - I have John Kinsella's Landbridge anthology (Arc) and it's full of really interesting poems. This one looks good too - with Alison Croggan, John Tranter and Emma Lew, and loads of others, it has to be. There's a spirit of adventure in their poetry which I sometimes find lacking over here.

I guess that spirit of adventure is here too, but it's harder to find. I mean, I quite like Orbis; it has a nice friendly spirit about it; but I often find myself not terrifically excited by the poetry. It's often well-enough written, but... It also has American poets in it, and at least one Australian, so I should be satisfied.

It could be over-familiarity. Maybe I read so much non-English poetry because I want something stranger than most English poetry magazines provide. Maybe I need to read so widely in order to keep myself interested, especially as now when I'm not writing so much. Ah well. I do look forward to reading both magazines; it'll be interesting to compare and contrast.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Recent Reading

I've been reading David Gascoyne's A Short Survey of Surrealism, and a biography of Elvis Costello, as well as some of the prose poems of Micheal Rosen (In The Colonie.) A pretty eclectic mix; but then that's the way I am. I also am working my way through Ruth Padel's The Soho Leopard. She has an article up at at the moment which is the best defence of mainstream poetry I've read (it was first in PN Review.)

I went to a concert given by the saxophonist Gilad Atzmon on Wednesday, after Mike Butler (jazz critic) let me have a complementary ticket. It was great, full of some amazing playing from him and the band. The band included an acordian player, and a vocalist, who replaced the violinist. It was all very tightly played and Gilad's inbetween songs banter in dedicating songs to Bush, Blair and Sharon, or to Kenny G (owner of Starbucks, and boring MOR sax player), was wonderfully irreverent (Starbucks sponsor Manchester's Jazz Festival.)

He's also a writer, and I must try and read one of his novels.

I like the Manchester Jazz Festival: it never has names from the stratosphere of jazz like the Marsalis clan, but it always has some great music by small groups and big. And I don't miss the big names really; especially not Wayne Marsalis, who's a great trumpet player if you want something that's been done before.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Difficult for Difficulty's Sake

One of the ways that lazy critics get around admitting that they don't understand someone's work is to accuse them of being "difficult just to be difficult." This is a version, of course, of "you're just being awkward," or "you're just being perverse." As if there are all these poets out there who, instead of following whatever line of inquiry feels most neccessary to them, wake up in the morning and think, "How can I write something that no-one will understand?"

I don't buy that. There are lots of poets I don't understand and don't in any way "get", even emotionally. JH Prynne is an example - probably the most "notoriously" difficult poet in England - although John Wilkinson and Drew Milne could probably join him in the "don't understand" box for me. Well, are they just being awkward? I don't believe they are; they have agendas and interests that make them write the poems they write in much the same way as, say, UA Fanthorpe or Carol Rumens have agendas that they pursue. I don't have to like what they do; but I can at least accept the possibility that they are pursuing their own goals in their own way without accusing them of bad faith.

That's what accusations of being "difficult for difficulty's sake" amount to: accusing another poet of just playing games, of not being "serious", of not being interested in "communicating." Well, someone who writes a sonnet as opposed to a prose poem is also playing games, of course; the interesting thing about sonnets for the writer is trying to fit your thought into that little space. The writer is always at least partly writing for him or herself, to work out an emotion, an idea, a tricky formal question. This is true for "mainstream poets" and "non-mainstream poets"; it's just that they go about things in different ways.

Some of the difficulty of "non-mainstream poetry", especially in England where it's less visible, is unfamiliarity with the forms involved. Some of it may well have to do with the fact that the poet perhaps is so intent with following an idea to ground, they forget that there might be people watching. But that's not "difficulty for difficulty's sake", and shouldn't be seen as such. There are also some reasons usually behind the awkwardness of some poets: they may be wanting us to wake up to some new possibility, some new and maybe interesting route for feelings and language to go down.

Difficult poems are sometimes difficult because, well, life is difficult.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Brando's Hat mag

Here's the press release for the new Brando's Hat:

Is there any chance you could run a news piece on your newsletter and/or homepage on the long awaited (well, by some) return of Brando’s Hat magazine. Brando’s ran from ‘99 to 2002 as a unique little mag in the poetry circuit, in the way that it offered a rare opportunity for poets to showcase their works in short sequences or batches, rather than in just one’s or two’s. The idea of the magazine was not just to showcase new poetry, but to carve out a space in which readers could listen to, and get to know the voice of a poet over several poems. It also encouraged longer
poems and poem-sequences.

After shutting up in 2002, we’re delighted to announce that it’s finally returning this October, under the editorship of Steve Waling and Fran Pridham (former co-editor Sean Body is standing down). The magazine will be quarterly, as before, and will be
published under the auspices of Manchester’s Comma Press.

If you could run a small piece about the mag’s return, or simply the call for
submissions below, that would be great.

The kinds of things we're looking for are poems that excite and interest us and move us; we're not looking for the merely clever or the kinds of things that anybody could say. I've more of a bias for the avant-garde than Fran, which will make the discussions interesting. Fran says she's looking for 'simplicity', but by that I don't think she means 'easy to understand': a good poem is as difficult or easy as it needs to be. I think she means that, at its heart, there's a kind of emotional truth in it that makes you sit up and take note, something that communicates from person to person. From the 'I' to the 'Thou', as Martin Buber might put it. 'Honesty' is my word for that; not that you have to be factual, but that it does reach in the heart. I recently read that a poem that doesn't somehow make you feel uncomfortable (which is not the same thing as making someone feel queasy, so no horror poetry!) isn't really working.

Send poems (with stamped-addressed envelope) to me (up to 8 pages because we take sequences and groups of poems rather than individual poems) to me at: Flat 1a 17 Mauldeth Road Withington Manchester M20 4NE. E-mail are not possible at the moment, as I don't want my personal inbox flooded, but we might set up a new account soon.

Friday, July 15, 2005

I did an interesting little job on Wednesday evening, over at the Irwell writers' group in Bury. They are a lovely bunch of very down to earth people who have no real interest in the usual arguments and intelectual disputatiousness of the poetry world (much of which amounts to a bunch of theologians arguing over angels on pinheads.) They just write.

Beforehand, I asked them all to bring a pair of scissors (then promptly forgot mine...) because I wanted them to write something and then cut it up. I give them a line from a South African newspaper I just happened to have a copy of, then said they could also choose a line at random from the paper as well, but they had to write in verses.

After they'd cut up their verses, they had to rearrange them, preferably in as random a way as they could. I've used this technique for my own poems several times now, and I used it for a poem that I'd brought along with me. It worked really well; people who usually rhymed ended up with something stranger than they'd usually go for, and there were some wonderfully suggestive open-ended poems that came out of the exercise.

The other exercise was to take a poem entirely from the South African newspaper, taking lines out that seemed to fit into something poetic.

These techniques might sound terribly avant garde to some, but I think they can be great generators of the unexpected. I gave them my theory of why the arts in the 20th century changed quite as suddenly as they did. It's my "Boredom Theory": that Picasso thought up Cubism because he was bored of doing it the usual way. The same with TS Eliot, Ezra Pund and WS Williams. I think it's as good a reason as any.

Other news: I read a portion of Nancy Cunard's Paralax in the Oxford Anthology of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry the other day. I thought it was an interesting curio, and shows that modernism in England wasn't just TS Eliot; but I can't say I was impressed enough to look out the whole poem. But I'm glad I read it; it gives a fuller picture of modernism, and makes me aware that there is more interesting stuff out there in English poetry than simply Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Up Yours, Bin Laden!

I haven't had much to say about poetry the last few days. Compared to the deaths of 49+ people, it all seems rather trivial. I guess there'll be some mostly bad poems written about it, though, as poetry for many people is a good way of getting things off their chest. No bad thing either; whether we like to think of it or not, poetry writing can be good therapy for some. It doesn't solve anything though; the people who need to read it never do.

I'm quite a religious person in my own quiet way, so to see the way that fundamentalists drag the name of God through the mud by blowing people up really makes me angry. Fundamentalism is about control: not just of your self, but it's an attempt to control the world around you. It's about fear: both in the fundamentalist soul, whose view of God is as some kind of tyrant who wants to control even your thoughts, and of the world. The old Mannichean dualism: spirit good, world bad.

Of course, when your world looks pretty bad, when you're poor and powerless or when America is tramping its heavy boots over your culture and values, it may seem more attractive. But it's ultimately a heresy: when God created the world he declared it "very good." We might have done all we could to muck it up and turn it into a chemical wasteland, but that doesn't mean it's not good to be alive in it. So when I heard about the bombings, my response was to buy a nice bottle of Pinotage from Sainsbury, and lift each glass up to say "Up yours, Bin Laden." And maybe that's the good thing about poetry: that it's ultimately about pleasure and praise and even if it can't solve the problems, can at least help us to live through them.

Over the last few days, it's been very hot and quite sticky. I went to a leaving-do for a man called American Dave on Saturday night, and even with the windows fully open the room was hot as a boiler. There were some poems from Mike, and Julian Daniel attempted to be funny. I don't think he's quite there yet; but he could be a good comedian in the end. Though not a poet, despite his "funny" verses.

I ought to say that Brando's Hat magazine is coming back, in print form, but I'm a bit reluctant to put my address details on the web for all to see. Watch this space though, I might find an alternative.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Beyond All Other

Shearsman press this autumn will publish a major collection by Elaine Randell, so it led me to go back and reread a collection I've had for several years, her wonderful Pig Press collection, Beyond All Other. Personally, I think she has all the virtues of the Objectivist movement of George Oppen et al, without the sometimes etiolated and over-careful faults. There's a scrupulousness and a cleanness to her poems that is married to a deep meditation on the emotions: this is a poet who thinks through her emotions and emotes through her thinking.

But instead of trying to convince you in my words, I'll let her speak for herself:

Beyond all other
that we will be unloved
lost faded in our lives without
the golden mark of youth on our cuff,
there is the knowing that always
we are part.

Beyond all other
love is
being wide open to another, total
vulnerability. An exchange of selves.

Beyond all other
there is the idea of eternity
we listen for its ghosts
finding habit, pattern.

Beyond all other
there is the extension of self
moving out against the inertia
that laziness we call work.
Moving out towards desire
value creates love.
Love then is a form of work
of courage.

"What massive stones. What magnificent buildings."

I love the way this builds to its unexpected last line; it's as perfectly poised as a Creeley poem. I think she's one of our best poets, but as is the way with things, she's hardly known. She belongs to the "non-mainstream" camp (but is that a "non-mainstream poem" or simply a great one? She doesn't publish often and doesn't do the circuit. She makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Oblique Strategies poems

107: Remember those quiet evenings

Remember those quiet evenings
sat before the fire
in the days before civilisation?

How we laughed at the stories
of streets paved with meat
and longed for the certainty of walls.

One day, one of our tribe
brought home an Idea.
We threw it on the fire, and it cooked.

"Delicious," said the chief
as he ordered another plateful,
"and so easy to swallow."

11. A line has two sides

A line has two sides.
I am on this side, you that.
What will happen when we have children?

Will we draw the line around ourselves
make a circle none of us can step over?

77. The most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten

if I could remember
where I put it.

2. Don't be frightened of cliches

when they come down from the mountains,
hordes of them, to drink at their
favourite watering-holes.

They will try to be friendly, smile,
offer the hand of friendship across
the great divide. Don't take it,

for chance you become like them.
Don't ask them for credit
as a refusal often offends

but watch them as they go
leaving a fine mess behind
we will have to clear up.

Nine months later,
your women will give birth to poets.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Had this e-mail from Angela:

Nice to see you reading an English poet for a change Steve -your love of the
Americans is well documented! (Did I say 'love'? I meant obsession! (though it
is quite lovable)). Meg Peacocke is superb! I was very daunted when I found
myself on the same course as her, the late much-loved Dorothy Nimmo and the
ever-strong Pat Pogson. But they were all so lovely to me I stayed and learned
things. What I admire most about Meg's work is the restraint, typically English
(though George Szirtes is fab at it too) of all she puts between her lines.
There's something Jane Austeny there - something lemony. The course was Roger
Garfitt's one at Madingly Hall, about 10 years ago.

Hmmmm, restraint isn't the word I'd use for Meg Peacocke's work, except in the sense that it doesn't talk very loudly. Respect is a much better word, I feel: what she does is to respect her subject and talk directly at the matter in hand. There's nothing wasted in her lines (in that, she's like the late Dorothy Nimmo - who also doesn't strike me as being at all restrained.) It's almost - though not quite so "restrained" as - Objectivist in its concentration (an American movement largely.) If Peacocke is restrained, it's because she wants to concentrate on what's in front of her and to record the scene as accurately as possible, not, I think, through making a virtue of that restraint.

And I'm really not sure at all what "typically English" means. It may well be typical of a certain kind of Englishness to be reticent about emotion, deadpan in diction etc, but it certainly doesn't fit with the "Englishness" of Blake or Milton, or even Shakespeare. And it seems to exclude the more Celtic imagination of a Dylan Thomas, a WS Graham or an Edwin Morgan, not to mention such poets as Roy Fisher and Ken Smith. All of them male, I note. I must include more women: ok, Denise Riley, Geraldine Monk for starters. None of them restrained, frankly by anything. "Lemony" I do agree with, though, and the Jane Austen reference is probably accurate too.

I wish I had more of these responses, they make me think about things more.

Anyway, back to the Cambridge Poetry Summit. What was interesting to me was how it was not unlike what I imagine a Star Trek Convention to be like, but for intellectuals. A lot of people with a very singular obsession gathered in one place to talk about what they love the best. That's the good thing about these events; it's so seldom that you get the chance to talk to people who share poetry in such a deep way. An obsession with words in more or less formal arrangement must seem strange to outsiders more interested in bargains in T-shirts or the cricket scores. I had some great conversations and heard some great poetry, but it was still a little world we were in away from the real world.

And it was so good to do that! Like going to Arvon, I guess: but without the intense writing and having to share the cooking. If I still have some money, I'm going again next year.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Cambridge Poetry Summit

Well, I've just returned from a weekend of spending too much money, and hearing far too much non-mainstream poetry for my own good. It was marvellous. Cambridge the city is beautiful and like living in a museum. But I met & heard some great poets: Tony Lopez, Alan Halsey, Peter Manson, Tom Leonard, Harry Gilonis. There was a great film of Robert Creeley reading and discussing his poems and life, made by Colin Still. Kelvin Corcoran was great too, and John Welch.

Not everything was great. I didn't take much away from Adrian Clarke's work, which seemed just too abstract for me. Some of the young male poets from Cambridge seemed to be competing in the "do the police in different voices" silly voices competition. Brian Catling - curiously - didn't do much for me either. A poem about a Scottish "idiot" and "hardman" seemed too much like a cliche of working-class life (we all drink and fight a lot) than something really eye-opening. It's a middle-class view of the lower classes, done in highly intelectual, Olsonite verse.

But the best has to be Micheal Haslam. Here's an extract from Venite Pheonix:

Venite Pheonix to the colours coast
the seaway in her phantom boat
and feather coat, a spectrum ghost.
Glass Black. Blue Swart. Dark Turque. Navy.
The Wine Maroon. A Royal Deed.
The Purples Violate a Mark of Heat.
Sun Gold. Egg Yolk. Sky Egg White,
a transparent glue. Sea Glass as green
or grey or blue. Green as the gorse
and yellow bloom. A lilac air,
a bluish blush. Shallow Sallow.
Lemon flora mallowish. Deep tan as from a cello.

Roll these words around your tongue; this is a poet with a wonderful ear for the music of the English language. I was reminded by this beginning of WS Graham's Nightfishing, of Basil Bunting's Brigflats. This is a poetry steeped in the mythology of the North of England. He's learned much, no doubt, from Robert Duncan and the Black Mountain poets in the States, but there are profound meditations on the matter of Englishness in his work. And profoundly unrestrained, yet concentrated on the subject, like Hopkins, like John Clare or Coleridge.

I'll no doubt return to the subject of this conference, but for now I'll leave it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


I'm off to Cambridge this weekend for a poetry weekend, so I'll not be writing much for the next few days. It's an event dedicated to the more avant-garde side of poetry so it'll be very interesting to see what I think. It will probably give me lots of ideas for poetry, and explode my head with new ideas. Though, knowing me, my initial response will probably be to write a sonnet. I did that as a response to the Text Festival in Bury: all that exploded text, words scattered about the walls made me want to go in the opposite direction. Since then, I've written a found poem and a cento, so it's also made me want to explode my own poetry a little.

I think that's probably where I am at the moment. I don't want to keep rewriting the same poems, on the same few themes, so I'm trying to get away from it. Explore other options. Well, maybe sometime next week, I can report back on what I've found.

Actually, I was reading something the artist Richard Serra said that was intriguing. He said that art isn't a democracy - that is, I guess, that it isn't for everyone. I half agree- but would want to say that "all art is not for everyone." Most people like some art: whether it's the music of Beethoven or Talking Heads, or Jack Vettrianno or Jackson Pollock, and whether it's "good" or "bad", it's still art. But there's always stuff we don't like too. I like some pretty weird stuff myself, but there's plenty of pretty weird stuff that does nothing for me. I've got reasons, somewhere tucked in my subconscious, but mostly it's just because it doesn't light my fire.

It's not elitist to say that not everyone will like what you do. It's a fact of life. You just explore the ideas that fascinate you and hope that someone else will find them as fascinating as you do. And if that's half-a-dozen people or half a million doesn't really matter.

Monday, June 20, 2005

More about miscegenation

The idea that poetry can mix genres and be both avant-garde and non-avant-garde at the same time is about due to take over. For far too long, we've lived with the usual binary oppositions of avant-garde good, mainstream bad; or vice-versa. Or rhyme bad, free verse good. Or that bunch of die-hard conservatives bad, this bunch of forward-thinking radicals good. Or vice-versa. We all like to spilt ourselves into these binary oppositions.

Tory vs Socialist, right vs left, Christian vs heathen, Catholic vs protestant, black vs white, etc etc etc. Civilised vs barbarian was one of the earliest, way back in the Roman empire. It's such a dumb game, and we've been playing it for centuries, and frankly it's got boring.

Don't get me wrong; I don't think we should all become some vast melting pot in which everything just becomes one bland morass of culture. I just think we should learn to appreciate each other more; like sampling different foods. A good rhyming poem is a good poem; a poem made of seemingly-random phrases can be a good poem too. A piece of prose can be a good poem too.

That's why I like the latest Staple magazine (Staple 62): aside from the fact that it has one of my poems in it, that is. I like the fact that there are mainstream poets in its Alternative Generation poets (Lynne Wycherley) and non-mainstream (Andrew Duncan and Helen MacDonald.) A lot of anthologies are very one thing or another; but then there's the Oxford Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry ed Keith Tuma, which puts Bob Cobbing next to Philip Larkin! It's a bit overserious at times, and some of its choices are a bit bizarre, but on the whole it's the best at getting the whole variety of English poetries in one book that there is at the moment.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Miscegenation Poetry

Poetry has its divisions like religion has its denominations and politics has its parties. Are you post-avant or School-of-Quietude, raw or cooked? Well, I was in South Africa recently and took a walk with a Quaker couple in J0'Burg to the Botanical Gardens. There, in the boating lake, were the usual ducks and geese - different species from home, but nevertheless. There were for instance, mallards and Egyptian ducks; and some ducks that were little bits of both. The same with the geese. That would have been illegal under apartheid, was the thought that went through my head. I did see mixed race couples in Jo'Burg too, which greatly delighted me. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's racial purity.

But it's lately made me think about these internecine wars in poetry. I know myself there's avant-garde poets who have always appealed to me; but there's plenty of non-avant-garde poets have interested me too. I met the poet and editor Todd Swift recently too, editor of nthposition magazine, who likes both George Szirtes and Charles Bernstein, and doesn't see why he shouldn't.

So my solution is to read both kinds of poetry, to let your poetry be affected by all kinds of influences, to sleep with the avant-garde and wake up with the School of Quietude if you want. Miscegenating poetry. I could, avant-garde style, write a manifesto about this. Or I could, School of Quietude style, just get on with it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Small Town Poetry

I was talking with my friend John Calvert the other day, and we were discussing the situation of the poet in a small town. We both come from Accrington, which has a reasonably stocked library and used to have one bookshop. But both of us pretty soon exhausted the stock of modern poetry they held, with its Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and Brian Patten, a bit of this and a bit of that.

How, if you're a writer, do you escape and find writers that might totally change the way you write, if the nearest bookshop is in the big city? Nowadays, there's the Internet, which is a fantastic resource but incredibly scattergun. How do you work out what's the best to read without some kind of guidelines? In some ways, guidelines are helpful, in other ways not. How many poets' reading list is confined to what gets published by the major publishers? How many poets feel happy to step out of the usual borderlines of poetry and try something new?

I was lucky: when I went to university here in Manchester, I discovered whole new vistas of poetry opening up. I found a copy of Lunch Poems in a bookshop. Some of my discoveries are happy accidents; and they all make up the poet I've become. I could have stayed with the small choice available in Accrington library; but there are so many poets I've discovered in well-stocked libraries, in sometimes obscure literary magazines and bookshops.

Guidelines can be useful in that they point in a direction; but they can prevent you from discovering things beyond what you normally go to. I wouldn't have discovered the New York Poets if I'd stayed within the usual boundaries of Hardy/Larkin Englishness. I wouldn't be the writer I am today without discovering Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, and so many others. Including Olson: however much I'm not a fan, his way of composition by field, of creating a poem as a unit of energy, still stays with me.

But what about those who still live in small towns with small libraries and smaller (or no) bookshops? How does that affect the kinds of subjects, the forms they use, the things they think possible in verse? Bury library, thanks to the Text Festival, now has a whole set of books of the most radical writing around, from Ron Silliman to Ezra Pound. Will that produce some amazing advanced writing in 20 years time? I wonder...

Monday, June 13, 2005

Venus Khoury-Ghata: poems from She Says

Without the wisteria
the garden would have climbed over the fence to move in on the posh side of the road

The wisteria is its guardrail against drifting
its belt of happiness
its counselor in judging cats and ceding the canary's cage to the chastest of them

Without wisteria
there would be no more autumns
only winters with umbrellas which pass each other without exchanging the slightest raindrop

The wisteria flattens out when angels cross it in a gust of wind
a pot of jam under each wing
and their shoulders the bread of grief


She carried her load of fog in all kinds of weather
The man who set his house up higher than the smoke lent her his five-knotted rope

like the fingers needed to drill a sparrow's grave
he reminded her before going round the bend in the road

On her daily rounds she learned that the roads narrow approaching poor villages
and that one cicada can deafen a whole family of broom

Those who heard her panting beneath her burden didn't offer her their shoulders which were as slippery as their slopes
All they knew of the stranger was her green shadow which stretched as far as their sheepfolds mixing up children and livestock
then crossed their beds in a burst of laughter

(trans. Marilyn Hacker, published by Graywolf 2003)

I love this book!

Anyway, just to let folks know, and to show off, I was chosen as an Editor's Choice for Staple 62, as someone who deserves more attention and is original. It's an interesting and provocative issue anyway, as it offers and alternative selection to the recent Next/New Generation lot, drawn from the Small Presses rather than the ubiquitous big publishers who get all the publicity. Buy small press! You know it makes sense.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Oxfam Bookshops and a heron

I walked to Chorlton along the Mersey today, and saw a heron on the riverbank. It flew across from one side to the next and then stood there, like an elegant and rather old-fashioned lady. Then, when I got to Chorlton, I couldn't resist the lure of the Oxfam bookshop.

It had three books that I should probably read: two Robert Duncan's and an Ed Dorn. However, they still remain on the bookshop. One day I'll get round to them, as I probably ought to. I like Ed Dorn's Gunslinger, so I ought to like his other poetry; but Robert Duncan has always seemed rather too oracular for my taste. So I left those on the shelf.

And bought instead a book by Venus Khoury-Gatta called She Says, for the princely sum of £2.99. I've read some of her elegant, long lined and often sequential poems in magazines like PN Review and Banipal before and always admired their easy-seeming grace, their flights of reality rather than fantasy, and - well, I had to use it - their heron-like qualities. All her poems are rooted in her experience as an Arabic Francophone writer who's mother tongue is Arabic but who always writes in French. In an essay at the back of the book, she talks about her native tongue as the language that people die in, reflecting the terrible experiences of Lebanon in the '70's perhaps. These two sequences, Words and She Says, are, I feel, going to stay in my mind for awhile. There are French influences (how could there not be? She's lived in Paris 30 years) and a kind of very subtle surrealism in the poems; but there's also a very deep sense of her own Arabic culture in the poems.

I love finding these discoveries in bookshops, and Oxfam bookshops can be particularly rich: I discovered Appollinaire's The Poet Assassinated in Lancaster, and Lorca's Barbarous Nights in Didsbury. That's what second-hand books are for, I feel, and it's also great to feel that your obsession with books is also helping someone else.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Ron Silliman has a very interesting blog about Clark Coolidge that's still causing a bit of a stir. He says that with a poet who seems to use words that have no obvious referents, or have a strong visual or musical element that's seemingly abstract (that is, not refering to the world outside itself) that you should start by taking it for what it is.

It's a very helpful blog, because he makes the connection with other art forms such as abstract art (no-one - unless they're very stupid - looks at a Pollock and says "yes, but what's it about" anymore.) But of course, words aren't like sounds in music or colour in painting, they always do have a "meaning" out there if you put them into a combination of two or more. Even if you break them up into sylables. And I don't think that Silliman is saying that either. He's saying that you start with what's in front of you, not what you think it ought to be. If it looks like a bunch of words that don't have obvious links or referents, then that is how you start to read it. Assume that the writer knew what he or she was doing, or at least had a reasonable idea that they knew what they were doing.

That's really difficult to do if, like me, your instinct, trained into you by years of education and reading, is to try and find out what a poem "means" (which basically involves paraphrase: putting it in other words, as if the words themselves weren't adequate.) What I take him to be saying, though, is that it is the start not the end of the reading of that kind pf poem. Don't look for a narrative where a narrative doesn't exist ("Oh look, those squiggles look like a face"-like) and just look. "Don't think, look," as I believe Wittgenstein once said (strictly impossible; I don't think they can be seperated entirely.)

It may be that by giving it a chance, you'll come back to it later and see something you didn't see. Maybe not a narrative, but a context for a narrative. Or maybe you'll just get bored and not find the words in the least bit interesting so you'll go away and read something else. That's fine too. I think people feel guilty if they don't like a poet everyone tells them is great. Everyone may even be right about the greatness (they undoubtedly are about Olson, for instance, and I don't like Olson): but that doesn't mean I or you have to like it. There are no "have-to's" in poetry.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Long Poems

I'd love to write a long poem. A really big one, like the Cantos say, that covers everything, that pours in loads of ideas and images and whatever's going on in my head. A whole lot of fragments and asides and quotes that somehow hang together in one big metling-pot. But I guess I'm just not that kind of poet. I don't get those kinds of ideas.

Sometimes, in fact, I barely make it to 20 lines, and there's only two of my recent poems have made it past 50 lines. But then I think of the opposite end of the scale: those Japanese hiaku and their smallness which somehow contain largeness. Although mostly it seems to be of the Zen koan kind of "find the nothingness within you" variety. And I also like the sonnet, for some reason; 14 lines which at their best can contain an enormous amount. But of course, the sonnet brings me to another question: that of form.

Most of my poems are, I guess, free verse of one kind or another. Or they have regular verses but irregular line lengths, and I don't often write in any formal grid. But I like the challenge sometimes of confining myself to the little box of the sonnet, then maybe bending it or stretching it, to take in long lines or short, to break in the "wrong" place or to rhyme in an odd way. One of the things that attracts me to poetry is its sound, so I like to mess with the sound of it.

Oh, but it's such an old form - yeah I guess it is. Well, it makes me feel a little closer to Shakespeare and Donne then. That's no bad thing: two writers with whom you could spend a lifetime wandering around in their heads.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Olson again

I've been reading Olson's Projective Verse essay properly this time, and in many ways it's a great thing, despite the preacherman's CAPITAL LETTERS in parts. He talks about how perceptions should follow on from one another, not in some kind of logical argument sense, but instantly and without all the paraphernalia of explanation or rhetoric and a lot of that makes sense. And it's the first time I've begun to understand the thing about space in poetry, having been made possible by the typewriter: the space bar. Also, the use of different forms of punctuation like / . Though I suspect my own poetry will continue down the side of the page, mostly.

I wouldn't want people, therefore, to get the idea that I'm anti-Olson; on the whole, I like a lot of the things he made possible, probably more than I like his own poems. If I don't like the tone sometimes, it's because of that somewhat Actor-ish voice. I'd still rather read a poem by Olson than one by Larkin; or by the hundreds of Larkin-imitators around. Olson's influence has been largely benign: without him we wouldn't have great poems by Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Lee Harwood, probably not even Roy Fisher or Ken Smith. And O'Hara and Ashbery, however much they differ in tone and technique, would not I suspect have discovered their thing without being provoked into it by Olson.

I started off my poetic journey with Larkin, though; and I've been shaking off his shadow ever since. His are the kind of poems you know exactly where they're going from the first line. You might not get the same little insight into human life each time, but you know one's coming. Life's too long but death is worse. People are shits or sad on the whole. That kind of stuff.

It's the not quite knowing what to expect aspect of the Olsonian tradition that is so valuable. Because a poem doesn't have to fit into a neat little box already set out for it, it can go anywhere, be any shape it wants to be. Form follows function: or form follows the things of the world.

Though, thinking of that, what's missing is the way that form can actually be a box of magical things in itself. I'm thinking of the Oulipo poets, or Muldoon's distortions of the sonnet; or the Sestina, or the open-ended ghazal. That thought will have to wait though.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Taking Poetry Off Its Pedestal

Poetry is a serious affair. You can tell by the number of manifestos out there. Manifestos like the writings of Olson: Projective Verse & Letter to Elaine Feinstein and all. The arguments between what Ron Silliman calls the School of Quietude and the post-avant poets he favours rage like bush-fires over poetry. In the end, my sympathies are more with the post-avant; I like the use of collage, the parataxis and jump-cut; not the difficulty so much as the mystery of avant-garde poetics. It seems more true to life as it is today, than the little personal lyrics of the SoQ.

Nevertheless, I can't help it; I find Olson off-putting. I think that technically he was a big influence on Frank O'Hara; but temperamentally, he was put off by the preachiness of his poems. It was the big temptation that so many male American writers have to write the Great American poem/novel that somehow made a big sweeping statement about life in the 20th century. Frank O'Hara would probably have laughed at that; and, in acknowledging his debt to Olson, he did say that he found this desire for the 'significant utterance' as he called it, off-putting.

That goes for me too; I had my fill of preachers when I was an evangelical Christian and don't want to hear any more sermons, thank you. Also, it almost seems to make poetry a kind of idol that must be looked up to, or something that will somehow build a better structure than the one before. Charles Olson's poetry strikes me as still belonging to another long-running school: the school of High Seriousness. The same one, in fact, that Geoffery Hill (an otherwise totally different poet) belongs to. He has Something to Say. He attends to the things of the world, in a manner that O'Hara reflects when he says "the slightest loss of attention leads to death," but he does so with a serious expression, a furrowed brow, and at back, the wagging finger and the voice of a preacher.

O'Hara, however, could never take himself or his poetry so seriously; there's a brightness about it, a smile ("light clarity avocado salad") that, while being solidly true to avant garde traditions, steps off the pedestal. At times, his poems are positively frivolous; re-reading some early reviews, that's precisely what he was accused of. He has nothing to say, and he is saying it. It's this that turned me onto his poetry: he pays attention to the world not just in its important moments, but in its party frock, in its fleeting moments of joy. I have a melancholic streak in me, like a lot of poets; but I don't always want to be chin-strokingly serious. Sometimes I like to dance.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


I've been thinking for the last couple of days about the kinds of influence on my writing that have made me the writer I am. Of course, it's all kinds of things: everyone from Ezra Pound to Hank Williams has a hand in making the poet I am now. And it's still continuing: John Ashbery's advocacy of the tragic '40's poet David Schubert has led in a small way to the make up of my latest poem. He apprently wrote fragments in notebooks, then constructed his poems out of them, so there are these frequent changes in direction in his poems that are never completely smoothed out. I like that effect, so my new poem is made up of several poems put together.

Frank O'Hara was pretty open about his influences, and a lot less anxious than we've been led to believe we should be. The French surrealists, Pasternak, American modernists like Williams, are all there; but not with any striving for an individual voice, or any desire to get away from early influences and find his own voice. What is voice anyway? I've always been suspicious of the idea of "finding your voice"; it's a bit like looking for the gold at the end of the rainbow. It's a myth, not a reality.

And yet O'Hara is completely his own, and no-one writes quite like him. Partly, I suspect, because no-one else has that particular mixture of influences. And maybe that's what "a voice" is; not some big heroic individualist with a style unlike anyone else's, but a mix, a community of dialects and voices all thrown in, including not just poets, but musicians, artists, the girl who sells coffee in Nero's. That heroic individualist in any case often ends up sounding like every other heroic individualist, not unlike the kind of bloke who says, "Look at how individual I am" in Levi's and a shirt from Gap. All heroic individuals look alike: square-jawed, eyes firmly forward, facing the lonely landscape with the same grim determination as everyone else.

That's why I can never decide to be wholly one thing or another when it comes to poetry; I like being part-mainstream, part-nonmainstream. It's more fun. And who says poetry can't be fun?