Friday, 8 March 2013

Stewed Rhubarb

Harry Giles. Visa Wedding. Stewed Rhubarb.
Jenny Lindsay. The Eejit Pit. Stewed Rhubarb.
Tracey S. Rosenberg. Lipstick is Always a Plus. Stewed Rhubarb.
Katherine McMahon. Treasure in the History of Things. Stewed Rhubarb.
R. McCrum. The Glassblower Dances. Stewed Rhubarb.
Hurray for Stewed Rhubarb. It is what the Edinburgh poetry scene has been needing. Far more natural for such ebullient writers to publish these fresh and unstuffy books in a world increasingly peopled with poets, than to wait humbly  for an old-fashioned establishment to come along, publish them, fund them and praise them, yes and edit, shape and sanitise them.

They have twigged they could wait forever, and they have got on with it. This is the sort of breakthrough poetry needs.
When people ask me what the difference is between performance poetry and page poetry, I am nowadays inclined to say it is age. Just as young people have been squeezed out of jobs amd housing by a greedy, short sighted and selfish senior population, so new writers now find themselves high and dry. Older and arguably duller writers have taken all the positions and are hanging onto their ascendancy grimly.  University schools expect you to fork up to go on their creative writing programmes, from which wealthy graduates will continue to be the favourites for the tiny traditional extablishment sector. This situation, which has changed so much in a generation, is changing more and more, and what with the internet, youtube, and the ease of book production (with some savvy and a little money), new poets, encouraged by their peers in city groups, have begun to find ways of  getting through.
The best performance poetry and the best page poetry are the same animal. Page poetry can be more serious, reflective and yes, boring. Performance poetry can be nothing but a string of jokes. But get the balance right, and a good page poem can be performed to an audience that will not go to sleep, while a good performance poem will shine on any page.
So here we are. Five smashing pamphlets, all beautiful and freshly designed. (Who's the main designer? It doesn't say, but it might be James T Harding.) These booklets  have oomph as objects, you enjoy the handling of them before you get down to the poems. They are not many pages long, easy to read, light to handle, and cheap. They should sell well and race up the pamphlet stakes. And as these are all 2012 dates, I expect more in 2013.
I believe they are all first books apart from that by Jenny Lindsay. Her experience of previous publication has undoubtedly helped her select these poems of confidence and substance. She can be expansive or minial, cheerful and funny, or less cheerful but still funny (The Truth)
You left me for the world.
What competition.
I miss your socks.
Jenny Linsdsay loves writing about people. She quoets Adrian Mitchell: 'Most people ignore poetry   because most poetry ignores people', though in that poem, Mirror, she doesn't write about people. She does so in Things you Leave Behind, I Promise I Will Not fall in Love With You, and other poems, and she is very good at shining a wordy light on relationships. She is good at writing  in Scots, but here does so only in the last wee poem, The Eejit Pit, which is also the title poem.
Many of Harry Giles' poems depend on wit, as in the sermon about the problems love causes in the world. There is a subject theme of weddings and twosomes, as in Vows: 
I will obey you whenever
it accords with my wishes
and further down the same poem, hitting hard for so many young couples:
for better     for worse
in good times and in bad
whether we see the inevitable collapse of globalised late capitalism
or continue to live in a world characterised by the essential conflict
between capital and labour...
and of course the title poems, which have a Scottish-American slant.
The two 'bookend' poems are in Scots. The last poem, Brave, turns into a formidable rant about the Scotland of youth in cities. There might be a slight reflection on Tom Leonard's 'unacknowledged thingummybobs' in this line, but it's a good line anyway:
Acause fur aw that wur aw Jock Tamson's etcetera, are we tho? Eh?
Well, look out for Harry Giles.

Tracey S. Rosenberg's pamphlet contains more conventional poems than the others, more poems of a style one might find in standard poetry books or magazines. This is probably because a good number of these poems have been previously published.
There's Couples, there's Canyon Conversation, and there's the neatly observed Bookseller Love, though I'd like to put out an incidental plea to writers to abandon the hoary cliche of dusty tomes. In this poem we have soft with dust, second-hand soot, and a dusty coat. Apart from this, I love the way the books come first:

they look at the book before they look at me.

A prevalent subject again is couples and dating, bringing this book firmly into line with the Stewed Rhubarb ethos. There's a good line in stories, well told, and a Because poem. The Time Lord's Job Advertisement swipes at the glamour lead in so many films, being delightfully condescending and anti-feminist:

After the danger,
I can explain their importance,
and pat you on the shoulder if you cry again.

This is all good work from a determined writer.
Katherine McMahon's book contains personal poems, many about relationships, many unfeignedly lesbian. They are well crafted and a bit less expansive than some of the more obviously performance poetry in the other books. McMahon's poems are never comic, always particular to relationships, almost introspective. The one I liked most, Labyrinth, is about a relationship with a man, almsot certainly her father, as she hopes to communicate with him on different levels, drives home with him for Christmas, remembers the names of birds. When she tries to broach her itnerest in poetry he plays her an old vinyl record of John Cooper Clark. I liked that touch (if it didn't happen, it should have). McMahon explains in the final poem that the performance poetry scene enables her to communicate in a way she cannot otherwise experience. 
This  booklet has the additional feature of  CD fixed in the back cover, with the poems read with musical breaks, in the same order as they are printed . When CDs first started to be put into  books this sounded like a great idea (and a cheap one for publishers) but I'm not sure that in these days of youtube and so many clips of poets reading on the internet, it is really necessary. A reader is going to enjoy these poems on the page, but it is not easy to imagine her sitting down to listen to a CD of the selection right through. It may be an idea that has come and gone, and perhaps CDs (with or without a word sheet) would be better sold separately for a different purpose from books.
Which brings us to Ms R McCrum, undoubtedly one of the forces behind this group. The Glassblower Dances, the title poem of three pages, comes at the end of the book.. In fact this book almost repays reading from back to front, like a magazine. McCrum's language is powerfully English. Her lines have splendid vowel sounds that are foreign to most writers in Scotland, and the book stands out for that sound in the language. Not only does she state her various cases and tell her stories in such well chosen words, but the sense that this is the perfect way to say something is never far off as you read her poems. This kind of English has sometimes been unpopular in Scotlnad because certain Scots poets emulated it and made it sound false, or they thought it was not suitably Scottish, or they just couldn't hear the vowel sounds at all.  But these attitudes are dying out, thankfully, and in any case the diction and sounds suit this poet's work so excatly that no one could find fault with it.
There's something else about these publications. This is not just a group of performance poets who have managed to publish pamhphlets rather wel;l. If you look at them carefully, you will see a new fashion of poetry coming out of them, a city-based fashion, open about relationships and difficulties, humorous, sardonic and straightforward. Unimpressed with the past, the establishment and the universities, it is almost a movement, a movement which is new but has an affinity with the American beats.
Edinburgh's young city poets have done very, very well to produce these pamphlets.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Poet to Poet: Palestine to Scotland

Iyad Hayatleh  and Tessa Ransford. A Rug of a Thousand Colours: Poems inspired by the Five Pillars of Islam by two contemporary Scottish writers each also translating the other. Luath Press.

A Rug of a Thousand Colours is a brave and unusual book. Both these poets benefit by collaboration in terms of their writing work. The history of the two poets' association is also of some relevance. Since founding the Scottish Poetry Library in the early 1980s, Tessa Ransford has been a well known figure in Scotland. She spent her childhood in India, a point that is relevant to her strong sympathy for others whose lives have moved them around the world. Iyad Hayatleh came to Scotland from Palestine with his wife and children as a refugee, and first met Tessa Ransford back in those early days through PEN and its efforts to help writer refugees. In due course Iyad and family received permission to remain in Glagow and became British citizens. Iyad has contributed considerably to the poetry community in Glasgow, and has wirtten and published many poems, often with Tessa's translations, in Scotland, while he is active in Arabic on the internet.

Tessa and Iyad have produced this interesting book as a result of that friendship.

The core of the book is the title sequence, Five Pillars of Islam.

With the Arabic language, most Scottish readers need to be fully guided by the translator. They do not have that option of a quick glance at the words opposite in a European language, that may make sense to them.  So the translator's work is more important.  Tessa's work has always displayed an interest in theological explorations, and explorations of ways of life and how they relate to belief. Ransford gives an assured and convincing version of this central poem. I would say it presents Mohammed as a god not unlike the Christian god, along with the writer's personal sense of struggle and loss, and a sense of dependence on the god among the difficulties of human life.

Because I don't have Arabic, I have had to depend entirely on the translatin to understand Iyad's poems, though I have on occasion heard him reading poems very impressively in Arabic.  I know the translations are reliable and good,  because of the collaboration and because of the introduction in the book. However it occurs to me that here is one advantage of the internet over print.  One can call up cheap and instant if faintly unreliable translations for any piece of work one is reading there.

The Five Pillars sequence is interspersed with several poems by Tessa Ransford. Hayatleh's Salah (Prayer) discusses the chanting of the prayer in his baby's ear, this baby born in Glasgow:

   and an astonished midwive with open mouth gasps
   What on earth are they doing here?
   What is he mumbling in the baby's ear?

is followed by Prayer Sequence by Tessa Ransford, which is both Christian and allusive: to Christianity: to Milton, to a childhood hymn (Now the day is over) , and shows, in contrast to the Islamic sequence, how the Christian will have more difficulty abdicating responsibility to the god.

   I have prayed in panic to the gods of chance
   let it not happen

In Hajj (Pilgrimage) Hayatleh considers the myths of the history of Islam -- some coinciding with Old Testament stories -- and places himself among the refugees who most need mercy.

Ransford's Pilgrimage uses a suitably different interpretation. She compares her own journey through life to that of Chacuer's Canterbury Pilgrims,

   not sure they want to get to know each other well
   but forced to get alogn the road together.

This is a good, if accidental,, image of the world's religions coexisting.
Throughout the book, Hayatleh's religion comes over as devout and precise, a net of myths and traditions to which he is completely attached. He even states that he had to consider, before agreeing to write these poems, whether from the point of view of his religion they conform to its rules of holiness.

Ransford's religion is different. Perhaps it should be described as a kind of post-Christianity, tailored to her views and reading of wider texts and interpretations, and essentially personal. Hayatleh does not personalise his Islam, he is a follower, and represents an example of what politicians call the integration of different faiths in a country.

Both poets present religion as a consolation and a refuge. When things are very difficult it is good to have such a conslation, no doubt, but it may be that this points to the essential difference between the outlook of religious people and of atheists. For the atheist there is nothing but the world and other poeple. For the atheist the world is less self-centred, other people on the journey matter just as much as oneself, one does not have the same sense of specialness (in God's eyes) as individuals. Not only does god not bring the bad things, he does not bring the good things either. We have to recover from our own ills and make our own good, and we cannot abnegate this responsibility.

However by merely publishing these poems, our poets show they are willing to share with others their most truthful conclusions about the world, the people nearby not just being co-travellers or witnesses, but friends and poet friends. Religion has to justify almsgiving (an atheist would find that concept odd).  Both these poets have been generous in giving of their own outlook to others.

I had intended to review this book alongside another two-poet book Poet to Poet 5: The Holy Place,by John Dotson and Caroline Gill, but I have had so much to say about this book that I will post the reivew of the other book separately, although they make interesting parallels.