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.