Thursday, 29 August 2013

Subject and syntax to fear and enjoy

Helen Ivory, Waiting for Bluebeard, Bloodaxe
Ira Lightman, I, Love, Poetry. Knives, Forks and Spoons Press

“I would like to extend my thanks to everyone who has ever liked my poems,” writes Helen Ivory in her acknowledgements. This is an eminently sane remark for a sane, witty and slightly discomforting poet. If you are both attracted and repelled by her subject matter, so you should be. The first half of the book is about women and death, and women's conspiracies with death, and the second half – dealing with Bluebeard – is about, well,. Women's attraction and repulsion for death.

Written concisely and in short poems and stanzas (with the occasional equally short prose poem), it is all about subject with Helen Ivory. The book can be read as a horror story or as single poems which would often be hilarious but for the creepy draught of skeletons,suspicions and omens. These controlled and detailed poems, fearlessly dealing with human and physical small sufferings.

Each poem shows a mastery of nerve as layers of survival are unravelled. Matchboxes are coffins too small for their content: skin comes off people ion layers. Even the colours are sinister: lemon, grey-silver. Ordinary things like “a decent cup of tea”or waiting for buses have us looking over our shoulder in terror; the television walks out of the house with Bluebeard. Vertebrae can be unbuttoned, jelly rabbits come to life. Nothing is as it seems, and after a few of the poems nothing seems able to be trusted, either.

Helen Ivory is also an artist. There is something neo-Victorian in the kind of miniature assemblages she produces, from photographs and objects. They are fascinating and precise. Her poems are exact reflections of this outlook. You can hardly get more Victorian than your female ancestors' submission to Death, nor the Jekyll-and-Hyde, Jack the Ripper type of Bluebeard whose wives disappear. We can all; imagine how, but not as precisely and chillingly as Helen Ivory, whose incongruous mixture of sadness and humour can freshen the dusty corners of our muddled fears. I can see why she has been compared to Stevie Smith in this respect, and there are time when her conciseness brings Emily Dickinson to mind. Those are fine women masters, indeed – and look at our language there – for who would dare call Stevie and Emily mistresses?

Another connection with her art is the awareness of the human (or animal) body – often expressed as parts. There's the little girl padding out the bra of the ball gown, and even the “thinly sliced tongue sealed up in wax paper” from the butchers. Indeed, in this way of anatomy, she links people and animals – there's that flash of insight where she is filing her nails “so they wouldn't catch on things. She wasn't, after all, a beast.” She can even turn the earth and stars into creatures. In What the Stars Said, she tells us the stars

heaved themselves under the bed
and began to burn holes in the rug.

What does the author make of men in this book dedicated to women? She makes Bluebeard a privileged man with a leather desk – the old master-of-the house image, divorced from the women's life as they are divorced from his. There a re constant suggestions of the werewolf. Gender relations are so relatively equal nowadays, it is salutary to be reminded of the ancient confederacies of women who, excluded, exclude men.

Helen Ivory's impact is all in the content, rather than the language itself. Not a word is out of place. Language is used superbly to obtain the effects she seeks.

When you look at the work of another poet/artist, Ira Lightman in I, Love, Poetry, also a book of predominantly short poems, you'll see a total contrast in the use of language. Ivory entertains and instructs by what she's saying. Ira Lightman's work is all in the language. It's about how what you think or see is affected by the way in which you say it. Full of grammatical hiccups, puzzles, tricks and puns, Lightman's work defies translation (a great definer of poetry) and provides collections, strings and blocks of words that dazzle and confound with meanings that could not be got without these exact words. And to take the meaning you have to absorb the words as the poet gives them: you must be receptive to poetry. Take a simple example, Restorant:

on our tablecloth
the besuited drops /
leatherbound tomes
for madame, monsieur
to raise, consult
weigh with frown
on page five,
smile at fifty
as if that's
all the order
they can sustain

It's a simple grammatical sentence describing the waiter as “besuited” and the menu folders as”tomes” adding weight and formality to the small incident of choosing from the menu, taking you right there as they choose their numbered course, and “restoring” sense (the pun).
A few pages on, As the petal splashes also takes you to the heart of a tiny incident, this time even less concerned with intrusive complex syntax:

Chins down, the roses are
(stems blithe children) picked
into air, car, bath
and (seabound river's) bed

Yet these and other statements in the poems, the contracted, their essence extracted, are precise. One needs to get the feel of such nuggets from Lightman before embarking on larger pieces where the language is seen to work the same way. Snack on meaningful evening is a sonnet (well, fourteen lines) in four sentences. Each convoluted sentence is packed with information on a summer evening walk round Leicester. Not just any walk: this particular walk: the nitty gritty of the sentence identify it overwhelmingly, and fix it as unique. The first sentence runs:

in Leicester, hardworking deco New York
shops marketry fonts the fronts that
want money not serfdom from the super
economics under English June evening.

The sound crackles in all these poems. Sound is more primary than syntax, though syntax is never lacking even when it has to be hunted for. However I set out by giving examples of the more traditionally well-behaved syntactically of these poems. Others, having gathered their confidence on how to proceed, give a whole lot more ammunition for any surviving fossils of the old schoolteacher mentality to grumble about. Here's how Air on A starts:

It stood dum dum for groin dum dum
their ver-er-er-er-er-tices' tether,
to peg there
and be, dum dum
the tie that fixedly dum dum dum dum
bound the crotch up dum dum dum dum with animal skin.

In this poem you can see how much Lightman is enjoying the sounds and rhythms, so that it makes sense he is now regularly writing songs. His writing is surprisingly sexy. This is poetry to enjoy rather than understand. The vivacity and freshness of Ira Lightmans poetry is a direct result of the verbal freedom to which he has laid claim.

The invitation to enjoy rather than understand poetry has to be got across to readers before we can regain a general readership for poetry. There's a general belief out there (not discouraged by review writing) that you always have to understand poetry. This is already resulting in people only buying what poetry they are told to like, and/or baby poetry.

So, Ira Lightman is a poet and artist who, a rebel with words and sound, makes you listen and hear what you weren't expecting. He offers invigorating and different poetry, putting words together in a jolting, unnerving but highly enjoyable way and taking you to the heart of language. By contrast Helen Ivory, equally poet and artist, comes over as well behaved, sticking to simple form and traditional syntax, while actually having unnerving (and secretly enjoyable) things to say. Thus she tales you to the heart of her subject.

Both these poets are highly contemporary in outlook and offer important ways forward for the current poetry scene.

Monday, 1 July 2013

A view of Omnesia

Omnesia (remix) and Omnesia (alternative text) by W N Herbert.
Bloodaxe, £9.99 per volume.

Even as Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle, WN Herbert, known universally to poets as Bill Herbert, has been slightly out of the sourthern English picture until recently. "So far north" and given to writing in Scots (well represented in this book), and to provocative verbal play in his well known and generously written blogs, he hasnt been particularly noticed as a major writer in a larger field. I am glad to see this changing.
This pair of books is a publishing milestone. It's amazing how the severe recession, which is slowing and stopping publication of so many ordinary books, can bring out something completely unexpected, almost untoward and with capacity to take us forward. This is the second such book (if you can call it one book) that has really excited me this year.

Omnesia is two apparently very simlar books, with identical prefaces and acknowledgements, identical back blurbs, of equal length, and both dedicated to the memory of the great Somalian poet Gaarrye. It is an at first daunting galaxy, unless you are simply going to read the poems, without worrying about the arrangement. If you do just read the poems, you'll find the unusual phenomenon of a writer really writing, pushing his boundaries eveyrwhere. But you'll soon be hankering to follow the structure of these half-identical books.
The books may be opened by various keys, the best I think being the Pilgrim Street sequence that runs identically thorugh both books, concluding the various but corresponding sections. Pilgrim Street, as Tynesiders know, is an important street leading down to Newcastle Staion, from which pilgrimages around the world, and around the poetry world, have been made. This powerful seqeunce starts in a Spenserian/Keatsian/Byronic traditional romantic metre, which with its rhyme is maintained throughout.  By the final poem however, the ancient Greek rhythms, decasyllables and hendecasyllables are winning through. Being variants of sylable patterns or dance steps they can merge into English formal metres, and just in case you were in doubt, the subsequent and last poem in alternative text makes a mention of Pindar.
Herbert can flit in and out of formalism from a great height. (It seems to me that is what the flying fish on the cover is doing.) Famously at home with the Scots "habbie", he can do anything with rhyme and meter, those oft neglected tools of the poet's art.
But what to say? Aha! Greece (strongly) and and the many places of Herbert's poetic globetrotting provide inspiration and surprises. Cheifly perhaps Somalia, where he collaborated with and translated for the famous Gaarrye, has added to the depth of his written work. I cannot think of another poet who has made so much real poetic capital out of state suported international shenanigans, and this is possibly the reason such an unprecedentedly substantial pair of volumes has appeared: almost 350 pages of new uncollected poetry, much written in the flush of what the poet has learnt from his travels. Look! It works! the establishment will say.
Political explanations aside, it is great to see work of this power being published properly. Poetry is full of disestablishment fire. Here for once is some establishment fire, greatly needed if we are to get non specialist readers on our side.

The structure of the books, quite apart form the structure of individual poems, has taken poetry book making to a new level. This is not wordsmithing so much as textsmithing, and could revolutionise the concept of a book of poems if other poets acknowledge this feat and respond to it.
The two books are self- and inter-referent and you will find parallel (occasionally, in the last section, the same) poems in the equivalent position in the other book, give or take a page or two of slip to add to the challenge. This presentaion has the jeu d'esprit of Nabokov's Pale Fire, or B S Johnson's loose leaf novels, or Durrell's Alexandria Quartet perhaps, before that idea was so over-copied. These are techniques of fiction not often applied to poetry, where we are accustomed to the sequence, the long poem, and the collection (never a favourite concept of mine). Here we have a composition, and a refined one at that.
Without going into detail over the individual poems and sections (people will register for PhD's to do that), there you have it. All the same, we won't leave the subject without noting the thrust of the Pilgim Street sequence, from
   "My voice immersed
   itself in others' work like lakes"
"this travelogue of an unravelling voice
which can't go home again."
It's not diificult in the nitty-gritty, but it's important, though often hidden/forgotten. And there's so much fun in the overflowing packages of the sections. There's room for a MacGonigall skit on "the Silver Bridie" (V&A Dundee if you didn't know), room for travels in Somaliland deserts with armed guards; all of it too real and divergent to start nipping with "cricitcism."  Further I will not go.
Bibliographically the books are parallel, and you can only tell if there is a first one by the ISBN. If you want to buy just one, I suppose you'll have to choose between the epigraphs to the sections. Remix has Richard Burton, Heidegger, Gwyneth Lewis (To make the poem work in English, I had to change everything, the plot, characters and outcome, in order to give a sense of the original), Glen Gould (Something really does happen to people who go into the north) and others, while alternative text includes Borges, Lowry, Bruno Schulz,  Rumi, and Gaarrye himself.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Cultured Llama

Cultured Llama

Strange Fruits, by Maria C. McCarthy
A Radiation, by Bethany W. Pope
Unauthorised Person, by Philip Kane
The Strangest Thankyou, by Richard Thomas
Unexplored Territory, edited by Maria C. McCarthy

A huge amount of energy has gone into launching these new publications by the new press Cultured Llama, and it has obviously mostly come from Maria C. McCarthy. To start publishing with six full books demands courage, and there is little sign of inexperience in the finished articles.

Strange Fruits, by the editor of the series, is in memory of a friend who died of cancer with proceeds going to MacMillan Cancer Support via Word Aid. The poet genuinely remembers her friend Karen McAndrew, with poems about clothes and shopping, and the everyday life of a town including dentists and hairdressers.
The title poem is about litter in the hedge of a new housing development, alongside an old house with an orchard.
In Car on a Country Footpath there's a similar theme:
a bramble-clamped car
though human placed, is not out of place.
As much a part of the landscape now as the lines of planted poplars.

There is quite a lot about Ireland in this book. The poems are personal in a generous, friendly way and her interest in Irish women shows. This is almost a poetry of social journalism. McCarthy is also a writer of short fiction and the last piece in this book is a short prose account of her last meetings with Karen McAndrew, describing their joint shopping trips, and particularly their rendezvous in a favourite café. This piece is beautifully written without a word out of place and for that reason fits well in a poetry book.
In my view editors of poetry presses have every right to include their own work in their lists. It shows their starting perspective as an editor, for one thing. But one does sometimes notice ploys to make this practice more acceptable, and in this case the collaboration with the fund raising charity Word Aid and Macmillan Cancer Support, gives Maria McCarthy an additional reason to place herself on this list. Her work needs no apology and she needs no excuse.

A Radiance, by Bethany Pope, is the début book of a very strong and powerful poet with a voice of her own, searching valiantly for a style she is coming into. It's going to say visceral on the back cover – yes it does. The poems are both long and long-lined and the poet is totally unafraid.
The poet uses family events as her subject. This heightens the drama and you are soon thinking What a family! though you should be thinking What a writer! because the American country life described, although foreign to us, is no doubt not out of the ordinary where it happened.
I am looking for descriptions of mangrove swamps and alligators. There is barely room for them among the family dramas but here they are:

we lived by a river that fed mangroves,
where the herons speared black snakes
and infant alligators, and the city municipalities
in the cheapest of wisdom, allowed sewer water
to flood into streams...

I swim through the currents, a knife in my teeth,
bone-handled. It came from my great grandfather. I slaughtered
nothing on these swims, save for
the dragons which rose in my mind.

Further on in this poem (Selkies, the River's Daughter), the poet stretches even further:

observe the moments I first loved light, in the glory
of Zeus poured out on Danaë, made pregnant
by light.

56 pages like this add up to a far outstanding first book.
Bethany Pope also writes novels, and has recently left London for New York to take up a publishing post. I hope her exciting new job won't take up too much of her time, for this woman must write.

Unauthorised Person is a collection of poems by artist and surrealist Philip Kane, clearly an arty man about town in Medway and Rochester, and brought onto this list as a character, someone with something different in the line of verse to contribute. Basically there are two sections in this book, first the entertaining sequence of poems about Carole and Johnnie, who lurch their way precariously through outer London chic while clinging defiantly to their housing scheme background. It is in a dated, spare, deadpan free verse and it is saved by being all too true. Here are two snippets from their life:

Now that operas are trendy
Carole would like to visit one
she is trying to find
an opera about motorbikes

Johnnie suspects
that Carole is going broody
he worries that babies
would end his musical career.

The second part of the book is a long ballad-like poem about some big-hearted ruffian called Bill who goes out for a drink. Things get much worse, and he eventually heads off from Rochester for London, leaving the lights of the place behind him. This 14 page poem, Among High Waves, has four full page drawings by Wynford Vaughan Thomas, and there are other illustrations and photographs by the author spread through the book.
On the whole, this book shows evidence of its 27 years in the making (as stated on the back cover), while the title itself contributes to the impression that Kane is the mischief maker in the pack, not your product of C W courses and what have you. He's Medway's Mephistopheles!

Richard Thomas' The Strangest Thankyou is a simple book of collected up poems, many of which have had outings in magazines, the old style format of a standard first collection. They are good poems. A lack of consecutiveness in the poems can seem a problem today, when we are trying so hard to turn poetry into books that will appeal to general readers. We have themes, sequences, objectives. The best of one's pieces to date including those published in good magazines, can only be a start. Add to this the wide range of styles offered by this poet and the confusion deepens.
Still, Richard Thomas can produce a poem, and I liked many of the individual poems. Cézanne and his critics:
and I can hear Cézanne.
rolling in his grave with laughter,
'That'll show the bastards.

Or in Life as a Poem :
Sometimes writing poetry is hard,
I go to grab it but it's gone.

There is good control of language, there is facility and exactness, but the shadow of the CW degree hangs over it, with some poems under suspicion of being exercises and just too many wares laid out. There is plenty of evidence that Richard Thomas can write, but I look for more than evidence that someone can write in a book nowadays. I look for structure. And this is why I prefer the term book to the term collection.

Unexplored territory, an anthology, contains poems which are included in the other books above. It also contains fiction. It is a lively, enthusiastic and personal presentation of writers with some connection to Cultured Llama or known to the editor. It has a slight balance in favour of women, and indeed everyone knows there are more good women poets around who have not been picked up by any establishment presses, than there are men. And the contributors are not all from London and suburbs (I see Rosemary McLeish who was living in Glasgow not so long ago though she may have moved on.)
The book is well designed and produced and has a nice cover illustration. It ought to sell well around the Medway, in London and further afield.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Squeaky Clean Presses

Wonderland, by Fiona Sinclair. Indigo Dreams
Everything I thought I knew, by Jo Gibson. Calder Wood Press
The Year's Six Seasons, by Colin Will. Calder Wood Press.

Indigo Dreams, the poetry press run by Ronnie Goodyer is one of those smaller presses that comes out squeaky clean and with flags flying as against the vicissitudes and cutbacks affecting the higher profile poetry presses. Ronnie has an impressive backlist and is still introducing poets and printing second and in this case third collections by very good poets who are never described as “emerging” by the establishment, yet are able to develop their poetry and readerships helped by such presses as this one.
Wonderland is a catalogue of present day and largely urban incidents with close observation transformed into confident and sophisticated verse. All in an informal and eloquent post-beat style (no villanelles, no pentameters, no end rhymes), the style is cumulative and adds up to a very coherent book.
The blurb says Fiona Sinclair likes handbags, old movies and Fred Astaire – subjects that instantly bring to mind Deborah Tyler-Bennett, and there are touches of these subjects from the first poem on, but the people here are more everyday, confronted in their ordinary lives. In Time Traveller :

The girl on the Underground is a sartorial time traveller
yet there are no Sid James remarks from the suited men.

Fear of Letter Boxes will strike chords with anyone who has had problems via the post ( and who hasn't?)
“Sundays, strikes and snow, she is a school kid
whose bully has been excluded fro a few days.”

Among these perceptive small subjects, there are poems about jumble sales, lucky winnings on the horses, and also some very moving ones, such as Inherited Friend:

until her I don't want to be involved anymore
despite mother's boozy begging calls

and when she departed
the little dog smelt foppily of Chanel No.5

Then there's The Decorators have left for good which is both feminist and touching:

until at 50, she finds that her body has deducted every month
from the allocation of fecundity she thought infinite,
so Roberta and Oliver will always be fiction.

Many excellent and interesting poems in here, and they do translate an ordinary urban peopled world into a wonderland. Good title.

Another indefatigable small press, though not confined to poetry, is Calder Wood Press. Colin Will, the publisher, takes an interest in local poets. Jo Gibson, author of a new pamphlet Everything I Thought I Knew, was a founder member of Dunbar Writers Group and has had poems published in Scottish magazines. The language of her poetry is classically English.
The poems here are full of relationships: I and you, giving relevant detail without fully explaining the people. There are vignettes, as here, in Sitting :

You in your chair where, head bowed,
hair falls down while a waterfall
of words pitter-patter.

Me in my chair where, heavy-browed
frowns crumble while an ancient wall
of absurd resistance is un-wrought.

Many of the poems work by contrasts and similes, as in Lost :

as if I'll find you between the words
as if failure is a 'full stop'
as if our hopefulness is a rope
our fate a cliff face

Nothing is over-ambitious and everything works in these poems, and a 40 page pamphlet is a good way to present them.
Calder Wood Press allows strong participation by authors in the design of books. In this case the cover illustration, being a collage of family photos, seems to be the result of this participation, and to my mind, it is rather a mismatch to the book. Although very likely inspired by family, there is little explicitly about family in the text of the book. If anything this implies a lack of a wish on the poet's part to take poetry further afield.
Apart from this niggle, it's a nicely turned out pamphlet, well produced internally.

The other new poetry item from Calder Wood Press is Colin Will's own booklet The Year's Six Seasons. It is an extra to his full books (from red Squirrel and diehard).
It has an an agenda. The poems are local to his area, Dunbar, and it is intended for local sales. I'm all in favour of this approach to publication, books designed for readers. The poem are all vintage Colin Will, though all previously unpublished. Knowing Colin as I do, I see personal stories in some of them: the untitled I thought the sea would be...refers to his “retirement” move to Dunbar and his increasing busyness in poetry, gardening, family and other interests.

I thought the sea would be
a place to reflect,
and it is, but so much to do
leaves little time for quietness,
no space for silence.

I thought the sea would be
different from the place I left,
and it is, but hills and wood
are not too far for when I need them,
and friends are close.

Although not directly in Colin's usual style, this is a superb poem and my favourite. Nearly all the poems rely on a scholarly kind of description, as in this gardening poem, Adam's Way :

Straggly stems of goatsbeard
push between the cultivated flowers,
and self-sown foxgloves
erupt their surprising spires
in places that I didn't choose.

I pull out
only what I don't find interesting,
and welcome strangers
  • Herb Robert poppies, melon, toadflax –
  • not weeds, just bright-faced flowers.
The cover is a photograph of Dunbar, and the title recalls the poet's earlier title Seven Senses.

Poet to Poet: New York, South Wales

The Holy Place, by John Dotson and Caroline Gill, is published in Wales and New York as part of the Poet to Poet project showcasing 2 poets in a single volume, one American and one from UK. I guess they could equally have done New York and Wales. There are five of these volumes so far. There is no suggestion of the poets actually collaborating, and one has to work hard to suss out the links between these two particular poets.

Caroline Gill's poems form the second half of the book. They are a first collection, apparently all previously published in magazines etc. They are well written in a rhythmic, substantial way, rhyme coming more often than not, the language well handled and the subjects direct. There's a sense of the sea and the outdoor world. It's all like a lovely long outdoor walk.
    I would like to single out the way she uses Scottish vocabulary so effectively in a poem called The Ceilidh Place, which gives a very strong impression of storytelling on Skye. The well known Ceilidh Place is in Ullapool, on the north west coast opposite Skye, but we can listen to the stories anywhere with lines like these:

    the crofter enters his neighbour's parlour,
    rests on the settle while divots smoulder:
    a plaintive skirl fills the room with stories.

Mainly it is the Welsh seaboard that holds central stage, but there are also poems about Norfolk and Cornwall and one set in Rome.
    The final poem, Velvet Shadows in Venice, neatly compares Ruskin's discussion with Canaletto's painting, a twist which makes it something more than a mere ekphrastic poem:

    John Ruskin felt that Venice was a clasp
    of gold to keep the sphere of earth intact:
    but Canaletto made his viewers gasp

Complex but clear, Caroline Gill's writing is never wrongfooted.

    If the title from John Dotson's work, The Holy Place, applies to Caroline's poems it must be in this sense of the love of being outdoors. What do these two poets give to each other? On the face of it, you might well ask if there is any reason not to divide this book in half, which would be a pity as it is a very nice little book.
    The aim appears to be to promote the poets to each other's poetry community, a sort of cultural exchange perhaps. It may be wrong to look for parallels between the two poets, yes one does so automatically, as when two poets are placed together in a poetry reading.
    After all, they share the book title. Caroline's poems are landscape and seascape poems rather than nature poems, and while she says she is a Christian in her author's notes, there is no hint of another world or of secondary meanings in any of her poems.
    The poems here by Dotson are not previously published, which tends to make them a sequence rather than a collection, though the poems are variously dated, the earliest 1993 . The title poem is so minimal I had to check it was not a epigraph. It goes:

    the holy place
    is secret

    because it is
    so close

His other poems are also sparse, in a wholly American idiom. They appear to be about “self”, something that doesn't worry Caroline Gill. Is this yet another take on religion? Dotson thinks that self is holy and he is looking for it in his observations of the world, the stars, the kitchen –

    there are the mixing bowls
    there the saucers

    and pain is only what
    falls through the drainer
    into thin air

    when all of a sudden
    you know what

    you cannot know
    is what
    you cannot
    How do you look

Dotson's longest poem here is Trapezium in which he reflects on Ferlighetti's 'poet like an acrobat' – a well enough known poem but I felt it should have been acknowledged. It's still in those short, dry, spare and sometimes despondent lines:

    and what was the truth
    of that curse was

    there was no curse

So I'm left reading a poet I wouldn't have found just now if I hadn't read Caroline Gill, while Dotson's poetry circle will read Caroline Gill whom they would not very likely have come across either. Perhaps that's the point of it. Perhaps other groupings in the new series work better, such as Nightwatch by Aeronwy Thomas and Maria Mazziotti Gillan. (Poor Aeronwy, she's almost always referred to as Aeronwy-Thomas-Dylan-Thomas'-daughter.)
    Or First and Last Things by JC Evans (no relation) and Annabelle Mosley.
    I'm puzzled. I like both poets' work, especially Caroline's but then she is closer to me, what with our South Wales connections and indeed the same university course, which totally irrelevantly was Classics in Newcastle, in the same building where Bill Herbert now teaches poetry and creative writing. Or is this totally irrelevant? A poet of similar background, the same education, the same gender, as against a guy from New York with a much different history? Maybe we all need to move beyond our comfort zones.

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.