Enitharmon Press 45 Aniversary Reading
I was fortunate to be at the Enitharmon Press reading in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall last night. Entiharmon has managed to survive for 45 years, producing beautifully made books. The line-up consisted of Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Dunmore, Simon Armitage, Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney.
The huge hall was packed with a cross generational audience. Carol Ann Duffy was first on, a commanding performance that made the vast space feel intimate. She used humour and irony to playfully joke about her role as laureate while embracing and inhabiting it with the power of her delivery, suggesting at one point that she had written a protest poem for the Queen, only to look up and say quietly ‘not really’. Duffy moved from the broadly political to the personal and intimate, reading poems from her latest collection ‘The Bees’.
Next was Simon Armitage reading a selection of new and old poems to the audible delight of the audience who laughed and clapped and ‘ooohed’ as was fitting for the mood of each piece. Armitage read a powerful poem from his Enitharmon collection ‘Out the Blue’ which dealt with the 911 tragedy in which the narrator is falling from one of the buildings. Helen Dunmore closed the first by urging the audience to fight for small presses before finishing with another faultless selection and performance.
Michael Longley followed with poems about his father’s role in the first world war, reminding us that these are ‘sorrowful times. We are currently at war’. He also read a wonderful poem in which a swan’s neck under the water appeared as ‘a bar of light’.
Then Seamus Heaney was at the podium opening with a translation of the fifteenth century Scottish poet Robert Henryson. Heaney, a charming raconteur who seamlessly links his poems together, spoke of the great pleasure he takes in reading other people’s work, in this case a poem which he described as being driven along by ‘little pistons of metre’. Next he read ‘The Underground’, (see favourite poem of the week page), one of my favourites by Heaney, and then ‘Kite for Michael and Christopher’ which ends with the line ‘Stand in here in front of me and take the strain.’ Heaney murmured as a footnote, ‘not very heart some but there we are.’
Interrupted by applause as he paused in one longer poem, Heaney looked up to quip, ‘No, there’s no mercy, this goes on’.
It was almost as if Heaney had read my mental ‘greatest hits’ list as he continued with the beautiful ‘The Railway Children’, ‘The Baler’ and then poems from District and Circle and Human Chain before finishing with ‘A Kite for Aibin’, the name of his first granddaughter, which contrasts with the earlier kite poem written for his sons in that the last line sees the kite take off ‘…itself alone, a windfall’.
Watching Heaney read was a delight, his poems soaring up into the high hall like skilfully flown kites, seeming to hang in the air long after he had left the stage.
In Dispraise Of Poetry by Jack Gilbert
When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,
he gave him a beautiful white elephant.
The miracle beast deserved such ritual
that to care for him properly meant ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.
Footnote. And on a good day the gift of poetry is a pair of build it yourself fully working wings, a clear sky and a calm ocean to soar over…
I’ve written a couple of new paragraphs on the Poetry submissions page of this blog., a subject close to my impatient heart.
The mysterious art of translation
I had a go at translating poetry last year and really enjoyed the challenge. I chose a modern Italian poet, obtained his work in the original and in translation, and sat down with an English/Italian dictionary to come up with my own version of his poems. I have a small amount of Italian but am by no means fluent and have never written anything in the language. But that’s O.K; anyone can have a go as long as they have time, patience and motivation. Why would you want to do this? Because, as Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams point out in their chapter on the subject in Teach yourself Writing Poetry (Hodder Arnold 2003)
‘ The practice of translation helps you to get inside a poem in a way that no reading or classroom analysis can achieve.’
My own brief experience taught me about the main dilemmas the process involves. How literal should one be, what choice of words are available and which to choose, should words be dropped or added. Should the structure be altered and if so how? Should the appearance on the page be faithful to the original?
There’s an interesting article relating to the various translations of Nobel prize-winning poet Thomas Transtromer here.
N.B A number of Persian Poets are reading in Birmingham in May.
The readings also include discussion with translators. Information regarding this event on Events page of this blog.
I heard Stewart Sanderson read ‘A Teacher’s Words to Mark Alexander Boyd’ at launch of Magma 52. This is a bold and striking poem, with lines that seem to speak directly from a deep understanding of history, and Stewart delivered the poem with the authority it deserves. Here is Stewart’s Biographical note , reprinted from Magma 52.
Stewart Sanderson was born in Glasgow in 1990. He is currently a research student in Glasgow University’s Department of Scottish Literature. He writes in Scots and English and has had poetry published in both tongues.
Stewart has kindly allowed me to print a new poem, ‘Parapet’
on my favourite poem of the week page. I’m sure you will agree
we will be hearing much more from him soon.
I was in London on Monday for the launch of Magma magazine at the wonderful Troubadour. You can read Greg Freeman’s review of the night here , as well as a description of the venue and some comments on the magazine.
The results of the Alan Silitoe poetry competition, judged by Ruth Fainlight,
are on the Alan Silitoe committee website. You can read my poem
The Bow Saw, which I’m delighted to say was a runner up, here, as well as the winning poems.
I entered the poem the day after writing it. When I was contacted by the competition secretary, Viv Apple, she asked if the poem could be posted on the website. I wrote back to say ‘yes please’, but would she consider a new draft of the poem which I considered much tighter and better? Viv kindly offered to have a look at the new version, then fed back that in her opinion the first version was better, and gave her considered thoughts as to why. She also offered to show Ruth Fainlight the new draft; Ruth also prefered the original.
I find this interesting; after all my drafting and redrafting, alterations t0 line length, and structure and words, I had convinced myself that the poem was greatly improved. But the first draft was preferred by Ruth and Viv. I’m still not sure which I prefer. I think I may be happy with an as yet unwritten version of the poem that will lie somewhere between the early ‘competition draft’ and my new paired down version. I’ll put ‘Bow Saw’ away for a while.
I should say that this is one competition worth entering regardless of result as the proceeds raised will be going towards a statue of Mr Sillitoe in his home city.
A Crystal Clear mini-review
I want to write about the amazing journey that brought me to stand before an attentive and audibly appreciative audience to read from my pamphlet of poetry; but this experience is too new to make sense of.
My pamphlet and I are on honeymoon, and when we get back we might share some memories. Or maybe not; maybe some things are private and personal and should be left that way. If this sounds narcissistic then it probably is; but Narcissus was a youth who pined away. I am middle-aged and hopefully have more in common with Shakespeare’s
‘.. justice, in fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
with eyes severe, and beard of formal cut
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.’
Although maybe I’m not there yet, perhaps there’s a trace of my previous incarnation, ‘Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannons mouth’
From As You Like It, Act II Scene vii.
I will write some mini-reviews of the work of the other Crystal Clear pamphlet writers, one of whom, Jess Mayhew, has given her permission to reprint a poem from her CC pamphlet on the Favourite poem of the week page of this blog.
I’d like to start with Andrew ‘Mulletproof’ Graves. In her preface to ‘Citizen Kaned’, Deborah Tyler-Bennett has highlighted the historical literary context from which Andrew’s work comes and how it fits into the ‘Nottingham-Internationalist tradition of wry and relentless commentary’. In-fact, the preface highlights the strengths of this pamphlet so well that I can only suggest you get hold of a copy to read instead of me reproducing excerpts here.
I enjoyed everything in ‘Citizen Kaned’, not least for the breakneck speed and energy that leaps and surges through like a Small Faces 45,(I should explain that Andrew is a mod), and for the descriptions of real twenty first century lives in real twenty first century landscapes. Ostensibly this is performance poetry, (the best-selling festival tent filling genre that gets bored kids hooked on poetry for life because of its vitality, humour and accessibility, all dirty words to some). There is more here than first meets the ear.
One poem in particular has haunted me, a poem which benefits from a footnote which explains ‘The Blue Bench’ of the title; a poem so raw, controlled and unflinching in its detail that it brings the true human cost war shockingly and heartbreakingly to life. ‘The Blue Bench’ transports the reader to a moment almost a century ago so that it feels like the present. Here, overwhelmed by feelings of bitterness, pity and shame at the treatment of disfigured soldiers, we are once more asked to confront the truth beneath the old lie
‘ Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’
Andrew Graves gives brutally honest warts ‘an all descriptions of his cast of characters, including himself. The inhabitants of this book are not here to be judged, only shown to us as reflections of possible selves, our children and our neighbours, ‘brave and ridiculous’ in all our humanity and hoary glory.
Citizen Kaned by Andrew ‘Mulletproof’ Graves, available from Crystal Clear Creators
You can see a new poem of mine, TRIPTYCH on londongrip.co.uk. along with poems by Ian Parks, Deborah Tyler-Bennett and many others.
Crystal Clear Pamphlets can be now be ordered directly from Crystal Clear Creators or from Amazon or Waterstones.
A Seasonal poem
Poetry is a medium that lends itself particularly well to the capture of seasons, of the sound, light, smell, temperature of the outside world.
If you have a moment to look at Robin Robertson’s poem on the Favourite poem of the week page of this blog you will see, or rather feel, what I mean. Robertson is a
master of his craft, somehow managing to choose exactly the right word over and over again to create an atmosphere. Robertson’s work can sometimes seem relentlessly bleak and dark. In the poem ‘Signs On a White Field’ there is danger, foreboding, but ultimately it seems to me, a sense of resurrection in the last lines; a man who was ‘drowned’ is awoken by the majestic resilience and regenerating power of nature.
Difficulty and reward
Poetry can be hard to understand for a variety of reasons, not least if it is written in a half-familiar language. And I’m not averse to accessible poetry, far from it. But poems which are not immediately understandable can bring great reward if the reader is prepared to put the effort in. For example, I avoided the Scots poems in Andrew Philips marvellous ‘The Ambulance Box’ until Burns night. Then I read and re-read aloud his wonderful ‘ The Meisure o a Nation’. As I struggled to pronounce the Scots, its meaning became clear. The mist lifted, and with the help of a reference note in the back, I understood and began to love this poem which gives a wry potted insight into Scotland as no documentary series, compilation album, or in fact any other medium ever could. Only poetry can do this! All in 31 lines. If you are reading this I may be preaching to the converted.
As Adrian Mitchel Famously said ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.’ But here is the good, and possibly obvious news; if you can make time and persevere with the less accessible stuff, the rewards can be tremendous. In fact, in a noisy, online, electrified world, there is no sanctuary quite like a poem. I once heard Simon Armitage describe a poem as a kind of coma. I’m not sure if he meant a coma for the reader or the writer, or possibly both. I know that I can be immersed entirely in a poem to the exclusion of all else, both as a writer and as a reader.
Novels can provide an imaginary space, other worlds and lives to enter into, but when we read a poem it is often an intense and brief glimpse of ourselves that we find there. By this I mean that the best poetry will reflect some aspect of the shared experience of what it is to be human. The experience in the poem may not be our own, indeed it may have been written in another time or continent, but we can still feel it and recognise our shared humanity. And to me this makes poetry endlessly fascinating.
Andrew Philip’s ‘The Ambulance Box’ is published by Salt Books.
In December I wrote briefly about the process of putting a collection together. Here is River Wolton on putting her latest collection together, taken from the Poetry Business website. If you haven’t seen River’s work I urge you to buy a copy of Leap.
On Leap (2010):
‘Leap started with double the poems needed. Read and re-read. Whittled and fettled. Took suggestions (tried to please everyone, dropped it, took one piece of advice per person). Shuffled. Ate cake. Let the unexpected emerge. Divided into sub-titled sections. Axed them. Re-read. Cut. Let poems speak to each other. Or not. Imagined them in long-term relationships. Re-read line by line backwards and from the middle out. Bred dispassion. Cut umbilical cords. Aimed to be true. Let loathing and pride take turns. Obsessed over grammar and punctuation. Gave in.’
The answer was blowing in the wind
Most modern poetry pamphlets are fairly plain in terms of cover design. They are often beautifully produced objects which utilise means other than illustration to draw attention; Smiths Doorstop, Templar, Flarestack and others employ bright eye-catching colours, Happenstance uses elegant and simplistic designs on high quality paper.
Crystal Clear pamphlets are to have illustrated covers. I wondered (and felt a slight sense of panic) as to how they would look. Although my publisher had already produced books and notably Hearing Voices magazine, this series of pamphlets was a new venture. How would my precious collection be packaged? Why not go with the flow, play safe, do something similar to everyone else in the pamphlet business? I am happy to relate that I need not have worried.
I was put in touch with Helen Walsh, designer, photographer and illustrator in order to discuss ideas. I’m afraid I wasn’t very helpful at first, speaking in vague terms about themes being related to ‘childhood and perhaps, Italy’. We also discussed our love of Monet’s Water Lilies. It was decided that Helen would read the poems, do some research, create the design and send me a copy.
Helen wrote back saying that her feeling was that many of the poems dealt with nature and had picked out key words; wind, saplings, trees, blossom. To reflect this she had designed a cherry tree in bloom. Although beautiful, I did not feel the image reflected the poems. It did, however, have the effect of galvanizing me into action. I sat down and looked at my poems again, attempting to list the defining images from each poem. I was three pages in when I came to ‘Dandytime’, a poem which mentions blowing dandelion clocks with my son. This was it, the image of a dandelion clock, at once delicate and robust, propagator, survivor, growing on both scrubland and manicured lawn, airborne seed, reliant upon the breeze and the breath of children.
I wrote to Helen thanking her for the Cherry Tree and mentioning my idea. She went to work and produced another cover, this time better than I could have imagined. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Helen will produce for the other Crystal Clear writers, but I will have to wait until the launch in March.
A free online education.
A website that might be of interest; Open Yale Courses – Yale University. This website enables the visitor free access to a range of lectures by Yale professors. The one I’ve been looking at is Modern Poetry, a series of 25 lectures which covers many of the great names of the twentieth century in 50 minute bites. There is an audio or video option. I’ve ben using the video option as it allows the viewer to feel part of the lecture. The only drawback is that the visual images alluded to by the lecturer are not available on screen due to copyright. The positive aspects are; access to free university tuition (!),
the option to pause for a while when bored or sleepy or losing the thread, and not least the option of wandering off to perform a task, work, make coffee or go to the loo without missing any of the lecture. There is of course the added bonus of not taking the exam at the end. The set text from which the lecturer draws is The Norton Anthology. I don’t currently have a copy but luckily have enough Robert Frost, W.B yeats and T.S Eliot to see me through the first few sessions. N.B If you don’t have the texts many of the poems discussed are available on the amazing Poetry Foundation website.
December 9th 2011
A bagfull of books I’ve been reading in 2011
John Burnside. ‘Swimming in the Flood’ 1995 collection from Cape.
Fantastic. I’ve got this years ‘Black Cat Bone’ but I really love this.
Dominic Hibberd. Biography of Wilfred Owen,2003 Phoenix books.
A fascinating man.
Ted Hughes ‘Crow’. Simply incredible. I read this as a teenager. It’s even better now.
Stuart Maconie. ‘Hope and Glory’.Ebury press 2011. Maconie explores seldom travelled byroads of British History. He manages to pulls different strands together and straddle aspects of social change and popular culture, past and present. Brilliant.
Carlo Levi. ‘Christ stopped at Eboli’. Lent to me by a friend. Reading this when not reading poetry.
Clare Pollard ‘Look, Clare! Look’ Bloodaxe books. 2005 collection. I’m a fan. I buy everything she writes.
Andrew Philip. The Ambulance Box. Salt 2009. Poems. Well crafted, economical, moving.
David Jones. ‘In Parenthesis’. An incredible book. This copy I found in a second-hand shop. 1969 copy from Faber and Faber. How did I not know about Jones? Why isn’t he more celebrated? I’m in awe of this book. I don’t think an e-book version would be quite the same as holding this copy with its green red and black cover. incidentally I’m interested in how covers affect us and the importance of design. I’m going to write about this soon as I’ve started to be involved in the fascinating process of design for my pamphlet. Back to the list.
Peter Sansom. Selected Poems Carcanet 2010. Tender, witty, skilful, funny, robust.
Norman Lewis. Naples ’44. Eland books, 1978. My uncle Alf landed there. This gave me some idea of what he saw. A masterpiece.
6th December 2011
The book wot I didn’t write
Here is a poem which won’t be in my pamphlet.
Look for me under North London, 1990,
lost in the sacraments of John Coltrane.
Click again. Find a year spent as a flag
in a world with no wind and plenty of rain.
Skip to this unlikely vision; in a sky-blue
uniform at 3am, hands pressed
to a dead man’s chest, trying to push
the life back in.
A version of this poem appeared in the wonderful
Obsessed with Pipework magazine.
Looking at the poem, my mentor for the pamphlet project, Wayne Burrows,
thought the poem needed something else. What he was looking for was the crack
of ribs, an altogether more visceral description of experience, and as we finally agreed, not the poem before him at all but one which I hadn’t written. I know what he was getting at. I will, one day write about my experiences as a coronary care nurse. Of course the experience has informed my writing, as all our experiences do. And that part of the eight line poem is only half of it, the first two lines dealing with the spiritual and sustaining power of music and the next two with feelings of stagnation and inertia. But I may not quite ready yet to explore all the areas of my life in poetry. I have found that thus far, it takes years for my subject matter to emerge, or at least for the subject matter, the language and the need to write to come together; the glacier is still shaping the rocks underneath and the summer hasen’t yet come to send it receding and revealing.
Experiences of a Poetry Pamphleteer Part 2
Working with a mentor
Wayne Burrows was laid back and easy to get along with. I’d send batches of poems to him via e-mail and we would meet up, usually in the pub prior to a spoken word evening. Wayne had sifted through the poems and gently suggested which one’s he thought would perhaps be left out. Others he would read as we sat on a garden bench, and I soon came to appreciate how quickly an editor can assess the strengths and weaknesses of a poem.
Wayne would make notes and write question marks where he felt an aspect of a poem needed to be clarified. He seemed to think most of the poems were fine. Where I found his input particularly useful was in working on line length, an aspect of my writing that I was struggling with. Some of the poems are untouched from my original, but others have been tightened up after input from Wayne. It can be difficult to accept some criticism, particularly of poems which have been published and which one therefore imagined to be ‘right’, but I took on board some suggestions and was able to respond to some of these without compromising my work. Questions and suggestions from Wayne enabled me to ‘argue for a poem’ and in doing so better understand my own writing and what I like about it.
Final tweaks, positive comments and helpful suggestions were provided by the ever supportive Jonathan Taylor, Crystal Clear co-founder, poet, author and lecturer.
Choosing a title
My original choice of title ‘Careers Advice’ was taken from a poem. Thinking about this I soon realized that the title seemed misleading; the poem was more about the lack of such advice. Further, the poem had little connection with the others in the pamphlet and was later left out.
The title ‘Gopagilla’ appeared. There is a little note of explanation with this title in the collection. I’m afraid you will have to buy a copy to find out the story behind this title.
Useful Info on putting collections together
Invaluable advice on all aspects of preparing poetry for publication is provided by Helena Nelson in her Happenstance publication ‘How Not to Get your Poetry Published’
Fiona Samson’s ‘Poetry Writing, The Expert Guide’ from Hale books has a chapter called ‘Into Print’ which has some tips on ordering a collection.
‘Writing Poetry’ by W.N Herbert (Routledge, 2010) has a section on Theme and contains interesting interviews with several well known poets.
Tim Love has kindly suggested http://jeffreyelevine.com/2011/10/12/on-making-the-poetry-manuscript/
Experiences of a Poetry Pamphleteer Part 1
‘Gopagilla’, my pamphlet of poems from Crystal Clear Creators, is now with illustrator Helen Walsh. Helen will be working on the layout, graphics and artwork for this pamphlet, along with those of my fellow competition winners. The pamphlets are scheduled for publication in March 2012. This seems like a good time to share a few thoughts about
the process of putting the pamphlet together.
Having happily been selected by the Crystal Clear judges, I was finally forced to sort through my poetry; untidy Word documents, drafts, piles and sheaths of paper, false
starts, nearly and also ran poems, and ‘triumphs’, i.e the poems I consider O.k and poems that have been published in magazines or done well in competitions.
I looked at pamphlets I have bought and saw that normal pamphlet length is 20-25 poems. Part of my prize was to be assigned a mentor to assist in putting the pamphlet together, in my case the widely published poet and editor of Staple magazine, Wayne Burrows.
Laying 60 or seventy hard copies of poems out on the floor (recycled paper folks) it soon became clear that some did not seem to ‘fit’ with the others. Some of these poems had ‘done well’ in that they had been accepted for publication in magazines, but they didn’t appear to ‘speak to’ the other poems around them. It was clear that this particular pamphlet was not going to be Greatest Hits, as I had originally envisioned, but more of an album, if not exactly a concept album then at least one that felt cohesive.
First advice from Wayne had been that a collection needs to flow, with poems connected by theme, undercurrents of meaning and/or style.
After watching me shuffling paper and getting nowhere for a while, my wife Rachel offered to help and used her keen eye for theme to bring some sort of organisation to the pile. I revisited the order several times until I was more or less happy. My advice to anyone who is at this stage is to try to savour the process. After all the hours of writing this bit should be fun!