Monday, 11 February 2013

Gleaming Cutlery

Geraldine Monk. Pendle Witch-Words. Knives Forks And Spoons Press
Paul Sutton Cabin Fever. Knives Forks And Spoons Press
Stephen Nelson. Lunar Poems for New Religions. Knives Forks And Spoons Press
Nicky Mesch. A Cold Woman. Knives Forks And Spoons Press

   Neat and uniform books from this catchily-named press. There's clearly an intention to get down to business: for example, no information on the authors, although at least Geraldine Monk and Paul Sutton have done the rounds, Geraldine with well acclaimed books, Paul Sutton with pamphlets in his native Tyneside. The principal objective in the case of all these authors is to deliver the texts, which have contributions to make to the poetry scene. There's a sense of strong content in all of them.

Geraldine Monk's poetry about the Pendle witches of Lancaster is well known. Her previous book Interregnum (Creation Books 1994) was well researched, and while mainly concerned with the story of the Pendle witches it also referred to the Quakers' founder George Fox, to Gerald Manley Hopkins and the Birmingham Six. With the 400th anniversary of these infamous events, and with Interregnum out of print, in the context of better historical research and the misiniformation generally offered by the tourist industry, Pendle Witch-Words comes as a timely re-working of the witches' poems.
    Monk now gives words to the country characters caught up in the events. These were ordinary lower-class victims of the hysterical reactions of the time. Words being the essence of the accusations, these poems are both sympathetic and informative. Not many poets could even attempt this subject with any hope of success, but Geraldine Monk's poems are fair, illuminating, and respectful and bring a sort of peace to these dreadful events of history. Her unassuming poems in such authentic voices are a major achievement.

Paul Sutton has been an active poet on Tyneside for a long time, and well deserves for his poems to be available in book form. These poems are collected from a number of booklets including some from the Knives Forks and Spoons Press itself.
    Described by Luke Kennard as “the antidote to the writing workshop” Sutton is a poet of protest and performance, a justifiably aggressive poet of social and sometimes poetry politics – as in The Death of the Poet, where certain high-profile poetry characters are summarily dealt with in a quick scuffle after which the poet is

          Dragged back,
      last seen in Bedford, a traveller's “camp”,
      then traded on between rival gangs.

In the following poem, a long sequence really laying into the 'bourgeous' poetry of residencies etc, he counterpoints descriptions of Amalfi with powerful satire on the system:

      Morning like a slap. Circulate at breakfast, distribute copies,

      My first poem is an utter joke.

In another section:
      Angrily he accepts a copy of my Amalfi poem, now translated into Italian.

In the title poem Cabin Fever, with its hints of a sort of poetry busking life,

      Do you see me from the top deck?
      I dread the language-school trash,
      shoplifting gangs

he hits a splendid whammy at the too-bourgeois audience:

     “Thanks. I did enjoy this, but, well, I just want to ask
     what language is it? I do like a raw yeasty tang of
     vernacular, and think that some rap is almost

I've been trying to think of the right term for Sutton's poetry, the opposite of bourgeois, not working class, not lower class... This is what people write when they are not grantsucking.

Stephen Nelson writes in Scots of varying intensity, and in English. Some of his Scots is much the same as conversational English tarted up with the odd fae and wis. Some is in stronger Scots.
     It is brave of any English publisher to publish poetry in Scots. Actually it is very difficult to get it published in Scotland at the moment. What with MacDiarmid and his followers having somewhat receded into history and the demands on present day editors of including Gaelic, Scots has been squeezed a good deal. Scots is very complex and beset by dialect, so English publishers will probably have to take Scots on trust from any poet who approaches them. One wants to know what kind of Scots each poet writes. Nelson's is central belt Scots, certainly, Glasgow and Edinburgh urban Scots, at time very reminiscent of the late Sandie Craigie, the Edinburgh/Glasgow performance poet:

       & the wirld birls roon again
       mixin sea an sky an air
       fur aw time ir wan time...

   This is the longest of the four books.
   Look Up, the main sequence, to me reads like a story, rather than a narrative poem. Most narrative poems are supported by a formal structure or metre that gives them that difference of intention from a story. The conversational tone here sets the scene for a long soliloquy about everything and nothing, a perfectly suitable subject for a poem, as told in a pub perhaps, or with one or two listeners in a kitchen, while working through to end on the approved lines about love of country and the Scottish coast.
   Crescent begins with almost blank pages and moves on to long narrow poems, punctuated by prose poems which I like better. I'm not convinced Nelson is a master of placing line breaks. He often has recourse to patterns which do the job of line breaking, however the strength of his writing shows up better in the prose pieces. This poet has plenty to say, and his short lines don't entirely match his sense of direction and conclusion. It is true we can write about worlds without direction and conclusion (The Waste Land perhaps) but to follow any philosophy of deconstruction seems a little at odds with the sci-fi references of the title Lunar Poems for New Religions and the sections The Moon from my Windowless Heart and Crescent.
   There are six prose poems in this section and to me they are the best things in the book. Again they remind me of Sandie Craigie, and that's a compliment. The end of the last of these prose poems possibly sums up the whole book:

     ...a comedy of in betweens or rebellion in a cup. How tired I am of inarticulate drunks 
     waving banners of peace over fallen women! I've pledged my allegiance to space travel 
     and flightless birds, less a surrender of will than a submission to the inchoate.

Nicky Mesch's Cold Woman is really an ice woman. A couple of minimalist poems about early girlhood precede a substantial poem On the Lake, which has a distinct fable-like story to it,with plenty of detail of a lake/island and a woodsman with dogs. Cold wild country, if it says where it is I've missed it – could be Canada. Then comes The Night of the Ball, a similarly styled six page poem, then Ma's Tale, then Blood Moon, then an Epilogue of six minimal lines 
    There are a lot of the elements of a novel here. It's all seen through a very chill glass and includes the maturing of the girl, sex, having babies, and various adventures and misadventures, against a strong background of men, forests, dogs and horses in a harsh, inhospitable world. It is very much a picture of womanhood from a male point of view. And this may have some historical value, against the contemporary background of gender experiences merging into each other more and more.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

A Poem and its Editors

Kenneth Steven. A Song Among the Stones. Polygon.

This unusual story in verse deals with the little known (in UK) Papars, an early sect of Christian monks who sailed the northern seas around the 6th century. It is primarily about the sea and its moods, its way of taking over the lives of primitive sailors and of the sailors' need for landfall.
    Clearly I intend to praise this work, because I liked it enough to publish it in its entirety in Poetry Scotland (Issue 68, 2010). This previous publication is acknowledged, along with its original commissioning for BBC3.
    Since it is basically the same work I saw and liked after first seeing it in typescript, and it has now benefited from in-house editing at Polygon, I am going to say a little about editing.
    I don't usually edit the poems I select for Poetry Scotland. Poems are expected to arrive complete from the hand of the poet. Though one may see requirements, for competitions, that poems should be their writer's unaided work, this would normally go without saying.
    A poem that reaches a magazine editor in less than finished state would not be acceptable, except that people cannot always see whether their work is finished or not. So I do sometimes suggest alterations, if there are obvious improvements and I know the poet concerned will accept my suggestions constructively.
In the case of a confident and experienced writer like Kenneth Steven, my job would be only to arrange the poem on the page. This we did over a four-page single-sheet issue. Kenneth was sent a proof and he probably made one or two tiny amendments as he saw the poem's layout, and small queries may have arisen between us. I cannot remember.
    In many ways it was easier to see the structure of this poem spread across the broadsheet pages than it is in this very attractive little book, where page-turning separates parts of the poem from one another, so that perhaps the readers will be at sea, along with the monks of the story, until the conclusion is reached. And perhaps that's appropriate.
    Reading through the text of this book and pencilling the changes onto a copy of my version was an exhilarating experience, because much, much less than I was expecting to see, had been altered. This confirmed my original feeling that Steven had produced a tight and unified poem, worthy of publication as it stood.
    In the 375 line poem, barely a dozen lines have been altered, mostly in very minor ways, and another half dozen lines deleted or abbreviated. The punctuation, utterly minimal, has not been changed in substance or detail.
    The revision has been done with a careful eye. Pearls of rain become glistenings of rain, presumably because they weren't actual pearls, and the writing of the whole piece is descriptive, exact and sparse. The monk who stays solitary, on the rock, only needs to explain in one statement:
      I won't go with you. Tell them I stayed
      that I went further north, to what
      I cannot know.

His earlier line,

      I have no choice, I'm going on

is deleted.


      the woods splayed with yellow patches, thatched with birdsong,

(a line very typical of Kenneth Steven's nature poems) is reduced to

      the woods splayed with yellow patches,

– no doubt suggested because the poem achieves its effect without such extravagance of language in the detail.
    Apart from one or two changes of breaks in the lines, that's about it.
    It is good to see it so little altered, so much the same poem, because I appreciated the work very much when I published it. I did not see it as an unfinished draft. I have seen a great deal more of Kenneth Steven's work over the years, and I am glad this lovely poem was essentially complete when it first came my way. Polygon's editors have also passed their test: they have not gratuitously changed this very capable poet's work. Indeed they have heard the song among the stones as the poet relayed it to them and to myself and the reader.
    The poem has approximately thirty page-length sections, some being very small page lengths, even a couple of lines or one line in places, and some being more substantial. It has been turned into a full book, as justified by the strength of the text, by the addition of white paper and blank pages that go well with the sense of a voyage, being lost in the waves. Indeed it is the quality not the length of a text that makes a book.
    Full marks all round.