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.