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?