Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Get your summer reading from Salt

From Chris at Salt:

The JustOneBook campaign continues with a further sensational August deal.

In order to keep Salt on track through the wet British summer, we're offering you another special deal throughout August. All Salt books are available from us at 33% discount yet again. That's a third off all Salt titles, and free shipping on orders with a cover price of over £30 or $30. Offer ends 31 August 2009.

Simply enter the coupon code HU693FB2 when in the store to benefit.

As before, all we ask is two things—

1. Buy one book. Or perhaps another one ... go on.
2. Pass it on. Share this offer with everyone who loves gorgeous books and likes a bargain (whilst saving independent literature).

Happy shopping!
I'm trying Lisa Jarnot's Ring of Fire, Luke Kennard's first two Salt books and Sian Hughes' Forward-nominated first collection.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Me book's webpage at Salt

The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street now has a page on the Salt website - it's not available to buy yet, since it doesn't yet exist in physical form, but you can see the cover (which, er, you can see above too), read the blurb and perhaps most spiffingly download a generous PDF sample (the last page of which cuts off mid-poem, in case anyone reads it and feels that poem ends rather abruptly...). Hurray!

Polyverse, Pedigree, and the British Transport Police

Had a good time at the Polyverse Festival yesterday, meeting Jane Commane and Matt Nunn of Nine Arches Press, and Matt Merritt. I enjoyed readings by Matt N (his new book's out from Nine Arches later in the year) and Pat Jourdain. I read too, to a very small but friendly audience.

Afterwards Matt M was kind enough to give me a lift to Loughborough station. I was early, so I wandered up for a quick pint of Pedigree at a pub (the Greyhound, possibly). It was deserted, so I stood with the landlord in the half-light of the rainy afternoon, discussing the sulphurous delights of Pedigree kept properly and within a decent distance of the brewery (beyond the Midlands it becomes nondescript), and the pub's inexorable decline. An intensely pleasurable quarter of an hour. Then back for the train – which was delayed for an hour in Derby 'waiting for the British Transport Police to attend following a very serious complaint'. It can't have been about the sandwiches, as the buffet car was closed (boom boom!). It gave me time to read Matt M's book Troy Town, a beautiful hardback full of birds, flat and mountainous landscapes, air and light. 

Friday, July 24, 2009

Claire Crowther on The Clockwork Gift

Claire Crowther's The Clockwork Gift is published by Shearsman. It's her second collection, the first, Stretch of Closures, having been shortlisted for the Jerwood/Aldeburgh Best First Collection prize in 2007. She also published a pamphlet, Glass Harmonica, with Flarestack in 2003. Her work has received plenty of praise, and it's not hard to see why – it's original, unsettling, charming stuff. The Clockwork Gift examines the figure of the grandmother, the older woman in contemporary culture and the fallible faculty of memory.

I interviewed Claire as part of her virtual tour (the previous leg, at Matt Merritt's Polyolbion blog, is well worth looking at); questions and answers are below.

The book's focus on grandmothers seems to me original. Were you conscious when writing the poems of working in relatively empty territory? Can you say something about your precursors in this territory?

I began the project thinking there were very few grandmother poems. As I researched, I found lots. Many poets include one in an early collection. Or when a grandmother dies, there might be an elegy. I made an anthology for my own use. These poems may be about a real grandmother or an imagined one or a literary forebear. There is a marvellous one by Geoffrey Hill in 'Mercian Hymns' that begins:

Brooding, on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera,
––I speak this in memory of my grandmother, whose
––childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the
––nailer's darg.

However, very few full collections focus on grandmothers. Anne Stevenson has one, a brilliant collection called Granny Scarecrow.

You deal with the grandmother from both her point of view and from the point of view of grandchildren. The former gives her a voice but the latter makes her less accessible than ever. She becomes an ambivalent, powerful, elusive figure – was it your intention that the book should create a figure who ultimately escapes it?

I think that's well put. The major point I felt about the grandmother figure is that she is almost invisible – we invent her to suit ourselves. So, as soon as you think you've captured her, you realise you have lost her again or replaced her with some aspect of yourself. Also, I like widening the range of point of view, even within a single poem. In people's experience, granny is often the figure who provides your first experience of death. That's powerful and ambivalent.

You seem pessimistic about history and memory – the one can't be reclaimed, the other can't be trusted. But you try anyway?

I feel there is no personal reality you can fully claim – only a set of claims you prioritise as you wish, differently at different stages of life. And as a member of a group, you can agree with a dominant set of 'facts'. It's one job for the poet to expose the fragility of claims to facts. So that may account for the pessimistic mood you've picked up on. Also, there is a sense of loss in the book, not for any one grandmother but for Utopia – the state we can never have but think we know and certainly deserve! That's what I was trying to describe in 'Experience', a poem about 'the woman let off Death Row'.

Can you say something about the landscapes – urban, rural, coastal – which the poems inhabit?

I have lived for many years in an urban setting but also lived for 22 years in a small village. In a way, I see those settings as converging – suburbia is not quite, but almost, the setting I am imagining. It reflects my formative experiences. I grew up in a sprawling estate built after the war – on one side it touched the edge of a large city, on the other it touched the countryside. I could walk between the two landscapes. 'The Virginity of Decay' and 'Summerhouse' melt urban and rural landscapes together.

The texture of your verse is noticeably strange. It feels both contemporary and other-worldly. What reading, poetic or non-poetic, has informed your style?

Some writers who have influenced my style are Lorine Niedecker, a modernist yet pastoral early twentieth-century poet, Geoffrey Hill, Selima Hill and the traditional poetry of the Indian North Americas (through, among other writings, a collection edited by Jerome Rothenberg). All those influences are strong but indirect. I read huge amounts of every kind of writing. There's almost nothing I can't read with pleasure.

And can you say something about your approach to lineation? You use three- and two-line stanzas quite a lot, but also patterns of indentation and of very short lines contrasting with longer lines. Do you agonise over this kind of thing, or does it fall into place more or less intuitively?

Every poem is different. I dream of writing a collection of sonnets. Every poem groans and moans through several versions while I find the lineation that suits it best. It's the sound I'm after matching with the lineation. If that seems mechanical, it probably is, a bit. So it's not an intuitive process. I speak the lines over and over, change their position, length, over and over. In the end, there seems to arise a strong substance like bread dough that gradually sinks into a final form. That's how I experience the process of writing a poem – not rising but sinking!

Finally, what next? What are you writing now?

I'm writing a third collection. This is focused on the sun and though in some ways the poems are celebratory – the sun is a solution for us – I have a predominant emotion of fear running through the poems so far. But things could change. It will take me at least three years to complete it, I think.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Impulsive quotation from The Twilight of the Idols

It's some years since I read Nietzsche at any length, and a good five years since I bought my copy of The Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ from Mahers in Welwyn Garden City (I'm unable, in the end, to resist the vacuous joke that WGC is the Bayreuth of C20th England). I never got round to reading it, and it's sat on the shelf ever since, till last night at least, when the fancy finally took me.

Three gems culled from the first 50 or so pages:

He who does not know how to put his will into things at least puts a meaning into them: that is, he believes there is a will in them already.

I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.

Only ideas won by walking have any value

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Polyverse Poetry Festival

This weekend the Polyverse Poetry Festival is running in Loughborough, with about a million great poets reading and giving workshops. Carol Ann Duffy is headlining. It looks really good. I'm reading some time after 5 o'clock on the Sunday - if anyone's going, come and say hello!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I will not go into how I feel

From Jorge Luis Borges' great story 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius':

Some days before, he had received from Brazil a stamped, registered package. It was a book, an octavo volume. Ashe left it in the bar where, months later, I found it. I began to leaf through it and felt a sudden curious lightheadedness, which I will not go into, since this is the story, not of my particular emotions, but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

There's a lesson here for beginning writers, who on the whole always do stop and go into their or their characters' emotions instead of remaining disciplined and focused on the story they have chosen. Except that Borges, in his brazen way, goes on in the very next sentence:

In the Islamic world, there is one night, called the Night of Nights, on which the secret gates of the sky open wide and the water in the water jugs tastes sweeter; if those gates were to open, I would not feel what I felt that afternoon.

You can break any rule, even one you've just put forward, if you do it well...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Edward Lear, il miglior fabbro

My favourite Edward Lear poem:

The Akond of Swat

Who, or why, or which, or what,
Is the Akond of SWAT?

Is he tall or short, or dark or fair?
Does he sit on a stool or a sofa or a chair,
–––or SQUAT,
The Akond of Swat?

Is he wise or foolish, young or old?
Does he drink his soup and his coffee cold,
–––or HOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he sing or whistle, jabber or talk,
And when riding abroad does he gallop or walk
–––or TROT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he wear a turban, a fez, or a hat?
Does he sleep on a mattress, a bed, or a mat,
–––or COT,
The Akond of Swat?

When he writes a copy in round-hand size,
Does he cross his T's and finish his I's
–––with a DOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Can he write a letter concisely clear
Without a speck or a smudge or smear
–––or BLOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Do his people like him extremely well?
Or do they, whenever they can, rebel,
–––or PLOT,
At the Akond of Swat?

If he catches them then, either old or young,
Does he have them chopped in pieces or hung,
–––or SHOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Do his people prig in the lanes or park?
Or even at times, when days are dark,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he study the wants of his own dominion?
Or doesn't he care for public opinion
–––a JOT,
The Akond of Swat?

To amuse his mind do his people show him
Pictures, or any one's last new poem,
–––or WHAT,
For the Akond of Swat?

At night if he suddenly screams and wakes,
Do they bring him only a few small cakes,
–––or a LOT,
For the Akond of Swat?

Does he live on turnips, tea, or tripe?
Does he like his shawl to be marked with a stripe,
–––or a DOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he like to lie on his back in a boat
Like the lady who lived in that isle remote,
The Akond of Swat?

Is he quiet, or always making a fuss?
Is his steward a Swiss or a Swede or Russ,
–––or a SCOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does like to sit by the calm blue wave?
Or to sleep and snore in a dark green cave,
–––or a GROTT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he drink small beer from a silver jug?
Or a bowl? or a glass? or a cup? or a mug?
–––or a POT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he beat his wife with a gold-topped pipe,
When she let the gooseberries grow too ripe,
–––or ROT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he wear a white tie when he dines with friends,
And tie it neat in a bow with ends,
–––or a KNOT.
The Akond of Swat?

Does he like new cream, and hate mince-pies?
When he looks at the sun does he wink his eyes,
–––or NOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he teach his subjects to roast and bake?
Does he sail about on an inland lake
–––in a YACHT,
The Akond of Swat?

Some one, or nobody, knows I wot
Who or which or why or what
Is the Akond of Swat?

[Lear's] Note: For the existence of this potentate see Indian newspapers, passim. The proper way to read the verses is to make an immense emphasis on the monosyllabic rhymes, which indeed ought to be shouted out by a chorus.

The poem's orientalism (the mysterious Akond's luxury and despotism don't indicate that he might really have been a Muslim saint) and casual wife-beating mark it as very much late-Victorian nonsense. But that's OK – sanitised nonsense starts to approach dull old sense. And it shows how even nonsense can be read for the values of the culture it is part of.

Lear's delight in formal play is evident with the outrageous stanza shape – a rhymed couplet of metrically varied tetrameter followed by a rhymed couplet consisting of a monometer followed by a dimeter. Here its comic potential is mined, but I wonder if it could also be turned to non-nonsensical uses. The formality would always be ostentatious, but the way the rhymes fall over one another, with that insistent repetition in the last line, is strange and interesting. Lear wasn't just goofing around.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Bennett again

Following my eulogistic post on Arnold Bennett a while back I should probably say that I'm halfway through Hilda Lessways, the second novel in the Clayhanger trilogy, and it's, er, fairly rubbish. Is it that Bennett can't write from a woman's perspective? Possibly. But I also notice that while Clayhanger looked at the world from an architectural and public perspective, Hilda Lessways focuses on personal (usually abstract) emotions and domestic matters.

Maybe this is a deliberate strategy, the marrying of form to content. But Bennett's strength is his settings, the depiction of the social world. Focusing on Hilda's (fairly submissive) inner life is not only disenfranchising and dull, it also removes the main beauty of his novels, the relations of his characters, not with each other, but with the wider world.

I'm aware that this short post misses lots of critical nuance; and it's not so bad a novel as I have implied. But the more I think about it the more complex a subject this becomes, and I haven't the time to think about it properly. Heigh ho. You'll have to read the books and, as Kierkegaard recommends, Judge For Yourselves!

Going private

In The Triggering Town Richard Hugo writes:

Please don't take this too seriously, but for purposes of discussion we can consider two kinds of poets, public and private. Let's use as examples Auden and Hopkins. The distinction (not a valid one, I know, but good enough for us right now) doesn't lie in the subject matter. That is, a public poet doesn't necessarily write on public themes and the private poet on private or personal ones. The distinction lies in the relation of the poet to the language. With the public poet the intellectual and emotional contents of the words are the same for the reader as for the writer. With the private poet, and most good poets of the last century or so [Hugo is writing in 1979] have been private poets, the words, at least certain key words, mean something to the poet they don't mean to the reader. A sensitive reader perceives this relation of poet to word and in a way that relation – the strange way the poet emotionally possesses his vocabulary – is one of the mysteries and preservative forces of the art.

Hugo's caveat indicates that it would be foolish, however tempting, to apply this dichotomy systematically in criticising contemporary poets. But I am inclined to say that the poets I have spent most time thinking about in the last few years have been public poets; and that on the whole I have been a public poet rather than a private one. In fact this dichotomy, crude as it is, helps illuminate for me the stage of development my work is going through. For the last six months or so I have been working on some poems in a new vein, on a subject which is peculiarly personal to me (Hugo's 'triggering subject' – almost literally a 'triggering town' in this instance). It isn't, as Hugo says, the subject matter which matters, but my relation to it. 'Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary', and since the vocabulary is being used obsessively and, strictly speaking, incorrectly, the language becomes private.

So now I see that in a sense I have been trying to move from being a public poet to a private one. Of course, the dichotomy being a crude and provisional one, I shouldn't hang too much on it. But it is useful to find a way of thinking and speaking about this difficult hurdle in my writing development. It isn't just a new project or subject; it's also a fairly fundamental shift, or extension, in my way of writing. Because the language shifts from lucidity to magicality (it is no longer being used easily, but impossibly), the technique that uses it needs overhauling; it isn't adequate to the new task.

Seeing this, I'm faced with a choice – do I persevere with the development, or do I pull back from it and find a new direction which consolidates my writing's existing strengths? Feeling greedy, I',m inclined to do both, quietly continuing to write poems in the old manner while simultaneously pursuing the new one in the writing of the main project. But is it possible to serve two masters?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Animated poems

Andrew Shields led me to a series of animated poems produced by the Poetry Foundation. They're pretty good – uncomplicated and accessible, and on the whole they add to the poems rather than getting in the way. I like the one by Geoffrey Brock that Andrew links to, but this one, of James Tate's poem 'In Search of Lost Lives', is excellent: the reading and the animation really dramatise the poem's imaginative flight: 

The Goncourt Journal part II

Well, I wasn't going to do this, quoting away merrily just for the fun of it, but it's been a few days since I posted and I can't lay my hands on the book I'm looking for (and haven't got round to writing the reviews I'm planning). So here's the latest gem from the Goncourt Journal:

Monday 22 October 1866

This evening at Magny's, the conversation started at an exalted level with the question of other worlds and hypotheses as to whether or not the planets were inhabited. Like a half-filled balloon, it touched upon infinity. From infinity, it was naturally led to God. Definitions of the Deity rained upon the table. Against us who, with our plastic imagination, could picture God, is He existed at all, only as a person, a figurative creature, a kindly bearded deity in the Michelangelo manner, Taine and Renan ad Berthelot countered with Hegelian definitions, showing him as a vast, vague diffusion whose worlds were just so many globules or crab-lice. And launching out into a respectful description of a living whole, Renan ended up by comparing God, his particular God, with all possible piety and seriousness, to an oyster. At this comparison, an enormous gust of laughter swept the table, in which Renan himself eventually joined.

I don not know whether it was on account of this Homeric laughter or not, but in any case wee went on to talk about Homer. And straight away all these destroyers of faith, all these critics of God burst into the most disgusting song of praise: these partisans of progress proclaimed that there was a time and a country, at the beginning of humanity, when a work as written in which everything was divine, above all discussion and even all examination. They began to swoon with admiration over individual phrases.

'The long-tailed birds!' Taine cried out enthusiastically.

'The unharvestable sea!' exclaimed Sainte-Beuve, raising his little voice. 'A sea where there are no grapes! What could be more beautiful than that?'

'An unharvestable sea doesn't make sense', said Renan. 'But there's a German society which has found another meaning for the words.'

'And what is it?' asked Sainte-Beuve.

'I can't remember', replied Renan. 'But it's wonderful.'