About Eyewear the blog

Eyewear THE BLOG is among the most read British poetry blogzines, getting more than 20,000 page-views a month. It began in 2005. The views expressed by Canadian-British editor Todd Swift are not necessarily shared by the contributing poets and reviewers, and vice versa. Eyewear blog is archived by The British Library. Any material on this blog infringing copyright will be removed upon request.


Monday, 28 September 2009

Still Ill

I am doing my best to recover. Find this more challenging than expected. Have a lot to say about new poets and collections, hope to do that when better later this year. Will write more in 4 weeks hopefully. Yours, Todd. ps thanks for the comments.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Eyewear Wide Shut

Until I recover from my illness, I won't be posting here. Hope to return in late October or November. In the meantime, please do enjoy the numerous reviews, features and essays already provided. In its small way, Eyewear has become a resource. I hope to be able to continue adding to this resource in the future, with many good reviews and features in the pipeline. Thanks to all those who have followed this blog over the years.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Dan Brown's Lost Art

Dan Brown's new book, launched at midnight, has sold more books in its first seconds than all the poetry books in the world will sell this month. Or than all the Booker books will sell this year. This is a fact - combined with his relatively artless prose - used to demonise Mr. Brown in certain quarters. But as a film buff and creative writing teacher, I have thought about this. What Brown does is eventing. That's right, a new genre title: eventing. That is, it isn't just writing, or entertainment, but creating an event. It's not just event publishing - the event is the sort of book it is. The use of plot, the style, is pre-cinematic, or post-cinematic, or maybe supra-cinematic - the book-as-movie-as-shared-experience. The popular interest means there is no use in saying it shouldn't be popular - it is popular. We can analyse why and how. But perhaps it is not a bad thing that it happens. I don't think it adds to literacy - people are not reading but consuming these books. But this kind of format, this hyper-fact and complex sort of engaging thing, makes a book an informative game. Borges knew this a while back. Most poets make books that are thoughtful games too. But Brown seems on a different sort of track. Should he be emulated? I say, go ahead. It is harder to combine elements like he does than it looks. Otherwise, there would be more such books. But then again, he has a niche, and the brand name, now, too. How many code-breaking books does anyone need? At least one more, I suspect.

Mainstream love hotel launched and update

Thanks to all those who came, or wrote, or called, about last night's launch. It was a resounding success, and very moving. The Calder Bookshop on The Cut was packed, we sold almost all the books we had, and many of my dear friends, and very fine poets, were in attendance - and on a night of monsoon-like rains. I must thank especially Emily Berry, Les Robinson, and my wife, for making the night so special. The book is now on sale at the tall-lighthouse site, for those who couldn't be there. And, thank you to those who have written about my health. I have a painful but treatable condition which can usually be resolved in a few months, without surgery, and there is no current worry it is pre-cancerous (though it can go in that direction). My spirits were raised by the launch. But the weeks ahead will be a challenge. I am juggling teaching, co-editing a Carcanet anthology, finishing my PhD, and the usual writing and organising. I may well have to take it easier. I move back to Maida Vale on Friday, after 6 months of renovations on our flat. Looking forward to that to. I will try to start to post the backlog of reviews and features in October, sorry for delay.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Belated Review: Only By The Night

I suppose in a year I'll like the new Kasbian, too. On that note, let me admit, I finally fell under the spooky spell of the Kings of Leon, whose 2008 Only By The Night, reveals itself, now that I have listened to it, as 11 dumb, sex and religion fuelled, unbelievably catchy cornpone clearance style American rock songs that together make up a soundtrack that could easily have underscored all the best Miami Vice moments. It's cool music for people who think cool means trailer parks, shot guns, mojo, torn t-shirts, biceps, tats, rattlers, beer, gals, and the darkness of the devil that must be obeyed and resisted in equal cross-roads measure, with a goatee, beard, or one of those beardy things under the lower lip. A great album of its range and aims. Very satisfying to listen to when very ill and on meds, and feeling a swooning menace all around.

Todd Swift For Sale

I cannot hope to compete with The Beatles, who roll out this week their video games and remastered mono tracks. How many fans got mono from the fab four fellers? Anyway, I too am rolling out my latest (sometimes music-themed) collection of love poems, and poems that love poetry (maybe too much). For those abroad, or bored, or all-aboard, they can go here to the mainstream love hotel site and order a copy. Thanks! Canadian orders will be possible soon, too. I'll suggest they do a US thing too.

Guest review: Parmar On O'Mahony

Sandeep Parmar reviews
In Sight of Home
By Nessa O’Mahony

It would be too simple to evaluate Nessa O’Mahony’s most recent work, In Sight of Home, on the basis of whether or not it succeeds as a ‘verse-novel’. And yet with the current surge of interest in the form (to the great excitement of ever-present forefinger-wagging genreists) each verse-novel sets itself a near impossible task: balancing the presence of often tedious narrative (see Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life in Poems) with the exploration of character through lyric. The trouble, in the case of Padel’s book, is the spectre of Charles Darwin, transmuted through the poet-biographer, whose voice clangs over epistolary prose. O’Mahony could have operated via a similar procedure: we know that some of her book is based on what appears to be twenty-two letters from Margaret Butler, a nineteenth-century Irish emigrant to Australia, but thankfully O’Mahony departs from the day-to-day recounting of domestic life to make an implicit inquiry into the nature of the archive and the relationship between the reader/scholar and the historical subject. She inserts a figure of herself, the author—in the form of a twenty-first-century Irish woman, Fiona Sheehan—as discoverer, hoarder, and voyeur of a woman’s ‘failed’ life.

In Sight of Home brings together three narrative strains: Margaret’s departure from Kilkenny with her brothers and sisters and their subsequent life in Australia; Lizzie, another young Irish emigrant who finds herself in service of the Butler family; and Fiona, a poet who is seduced into writing Margaret’s story by letters she receives from a Butler descendant. Fiona has her own self-exile to contend with—she moves to North Wales to sever family commitments, only to find herself identifying heavily with Margaret’s life as a spinster, overburdened by a woman’s responsibility to her kin. Contemplating leaving her life in Ireland behind, Fiona is drawn to the letters:

I picked up the pack of letters
I’d been flicking through
for the past few days.
Although the writing was faint,
the slanting scrawl near illegible
I could still glean some of their meaning.

And one can see what this ‘meaning’ is. Margaret’s life is entirely wound up by the living and dying of her relatives; her own fears, at least for herself, are harder to articulate:

Dead heat
damp clothes
dead weight
breath
caught
in my ribs
no shift
in sails
Must we stay
in this wood
tomb
yet I dread
the jolt
that takes
us further
nearer
what

O’Mahony has inserted Fiona’s thoughts whilst reading these suffocated, tight-lipped letters (and trying to shape them into poems) in the right margin: ‘Exile is easier now. / An hour in a car queue, / two hours bounced / in a tin-plate catamaran, / a day-trip to a new life.’

The pull towards archetypal femininity is evidenced by Fiona’s superimposed romantic indecision; she resists settling down and moving in with her lover, preferring instead her crumbling quarters, her stacks of dusty books, which are all there to evoke her obstinate grip on individuality. After a pregnancy scare, Fiona finds mixed comfort in the return of her menstrual flow:

Drought over,

so why
no smile
today?

O’Mahony’s book is compulsively readable, especially for those who are attracted to the possibilities of archival research. To those who feel somehow cheated by the actual existence of Margaret Butler’s letters or who are wary of their fictionalisation, I would say that O’Mahony never makes claims to factualness and the result is far more beguiling and intelligent than verse-biography—that supposedly unbiased, murky sentimental mask-wearing. In Sight of Home veers between wry cynicism (on the part of the ‘biographer’ Fiona, who becomes increasingly possessive over Margaret) and genuine beauty, observed off-handedly:

On the sand-bar
shadows search for pickings,
fill their bags, move on.

Closer to shore clockwork
oyster-catchers bob, then take to air
as a radio pips noon.

A black-backed gull
pulls at something
long-tailed.

A car kerb-crawls
for a spot on the sea-front,
fails, resumes the circuit.

I watch a man walk his dog, pause,
read the sing he has seen
every day for a lifetime.

O’Mahony success is that she doesn’t naively enter into her project. In fact she purposefully changes one basic premise to her story: the letters of Margaret Butler aren’t in the possession of a (self-proclaimed) unrecognised writer, they are in a library. By setting them in a private, unauthorised and highly subjective setting, O’Mahony indulges in a scholarly sin. But better that than pretend that the formation of ‘lives’ hangs from cornices of truth. The poet’s genre-bending isn’t a lack of skill or a flagrant misapprehension, it is what brings the story to life.

Dr. Sandeep Parmar is a leading American-British poet of her generation, and an expert on Mina Loy and Hope Mirlees. She makes her home between (in) London and New York. Her poetry appears in the new anthology from Bloodaxe, Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, which I hope to review this autumn.

America can go to heck

The way many Americans have treated Obama lately - calling him a national socialist, a socialist, or a non-citizen - well, it is just too much to accept. Americans, who somehow briefly contrived to appear brilliant and brave when they elected the radical man, now appear dim-writted and reactionary at their reluctance to support him. Kick the yes-we-can hard as you want, Obama is still great.

Foulds Up, Fry Out

Adam Foulds was a poet. Now he is a Booker nominated novelist who writes about poets - and a poet. Foulds is on a meteoric trajectory. Good luck to him. I think all poets should write novels. They pay better and get more attention. Do more people read them? How many poetry books get optioned? What is writing for in the 21st century of celebrity?

Poor Mr. S. Fry has begun to discover too much occasional tweeting is damaging his rep. A Sunday Times article lambasted him for being so obnoxiously omnipresent. Fry has the Welles status - media type with big brains - but sadly, looks more like Wilde than contains that man's genius. Good luck to him.

My father's anniversary

This is the third anniversary of my father's death from brain cancer. I miss him. I do feel his presence, from time to time. My faith is shaken, I confess. Tested but not lost.

I am currently facing a diagnosis of having a disease of the oesophagus, which, while treatable, can lead to worse things, and has some painful implications. Not a great time to take up throat singing.

There a few new poems for my father in my new collection, to be launched on the feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows.

I noted in the weekend papers that religion might be "hardwired" into our brains. The ambiguity continues. Some will see this as proof of God's design, others of the strictly mechanistic explanation of the universe. To my mind, since love, taste, desire, sight, and all other of the things that make existence rich and deep, stem from the brain and its chemistry, it can hardly be a small thing for belief or faith to reside there as well. Since neuro-chemistry is part of the fabric of the miracle that is being, how can it be used to disprove the mystery of things?

Squinting at Eyewear

Readers of Eyewear will have to squint to find my British debut poetry collection mentioned in the PBS (Poetry Book Society) bulletin for this quarter. Too many books get published, and editorial needs are many.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Wuthering Bites

The dumbing down of Britain and America continues, with ITV's broadcast, over the last two nights, of a new version of Wuthering Heights, destined to be aired in America, too, and then let loose on the world in the form of a DVD. That this latest heap of rubbish was masterminded by the creator of Desperate Romantics - a bodice-ripping series that lays waste to the Pre-Raphealites - should surprise no one. The media has discovered - again - that high culture and emotionality and poetry can sell - if commodified and repackaged to be all about sex and violence - which, as Frankie said a while back, were "the new gods". Though Tom Hardy is rather good at being handsome and menacing as Heathcliff, everything else about this adaptation is beyond poor. I don't want to flog a dead horse, but le me briefly explain.

The novel, on which this TV two-parter was based, is, as we know, one of the greatest books in the English language. Its passionate exploration of the psychology of intense, obsessive and transgressive love is exemplary, and comparable in darkness and power to the works of Dostoyevsky, and, in terms of insight, Freud. Nothing about this new version expresses this inner power. Instead, by divorcing the teleplay too often from the actual original text (not in terms of plot incident, but in terms of language) and displaying the fevers and bad behaviour too literally, almost all consequence and symbolic power is lost. Instead, one wishes to call the police and get Heathcliff slapped with an Asbo. He is just a moody good-looking stalker guy now, isn't he? Cathy is just someone who's "perfect guy is torn".

I understand the impulse to make this masterwork of romantic extremism relevant to "kids today" - but in the process, the love and depths have gone. I suppose the problem is, in Britain today, everyone is Heathcliff on a Saturday night, and everyone wakes with a Swinburne-sized headache on Monday mornings. The UK - secular, sexed-up and sentimentalised - is now about as Romantic as Byron could have hoped for - without much of the saving subtlety, pathos and vision of Keats. It will be fascinating to see what Bright Star is like when it opens this autumn. It will hopefully dumb up.

Meanwhile, the just-closed BBC poll to find out "the nation's favourite poet" left me cold. The longlist seemed rigged (no Elizabeth Barret Browning?!) from the start, with a certain slant of lightness. Five women, out of 30 poets? That seems barely acceptable, doesn't it, after the long struggle that feminism has endured in the 20th century.

Or: What does it matter what the masses think about poetry? Look around us, citizens: is this a landscape inwardly-shaped by a deep relationship with poetry and poets? No. Nor is it likely to get better soon. Figures in the arts like Carol Ann Duffy have begun to support the latest in what seems a never-ending series of initiatives to stop global warming - 10:10. It demands one cuts 10% of one's emissions during 2010. A good idea. Let's hope it works.

However, will the 10s of this century not, in some ways, mitigate against the sort of mindset that embraces poetry for the pleasures it instills, and the depths it helps trace and plumb? Myself an activist in the past, I have seen the dangers of letting good-willed people converge on poetry for their own purposes.

Poetry, maybe, should never be second fiddle to any cause, though it can join the party as it wishes, to help urge along a dance or march. Poetry is either blessedly above the fray, capable of swooping down like an angel or eagle, as it wishes, or it is nothing. If the world turns very committed and serious and austere, it may be hard to justify the luxury (of time, of learning, even of attitude) that poetry often requires. An odd irony is emerging - even as the popular image in capitalism of the poet-as-lover becomes founded ever more solidly - the swing against capitalism will require a different kind of poet - more radical, and less poetic. What percentage of themselves can poets trim off before they cease to be poets, and are civil servants, or campaigners?

Back To School

September's here again. Soon, students and teachers will be back to school. Ah, pencils! Ah, paper! The thrill of the new pencil case. The delight in choosing the right binders. Also, buying all those required texts. As a lecturer, I must confess to a mood-swing as soon as August ends - a swing to a different mode, that of module leader - new seriousness and alertness enters the bloodstream, just as the air turns crisper, and then, yes, leaves begin to yellow and fall. Before then, perhaps, an "Indian summer".

Eyewear, too, has snapped into a new form, and has new, post-summer purpose. Over the next weeks, I will hopefully begin to start featuring poets again on a regular basis. I also have many reviews to roll out. But not too quickly. The next few weeks are very full of other things to do. On the subject of reviewing, let me say this about that: I get many more offers for review copies than I do for reviewers. It is very difficult to persuade people to review books for free (even if they get paid with the review copy). One of the challenges of running a dirt-cheap blog on no-budget is finding willing and able guest writers. Eyewear is lucky to have built up a strong team of regular writers, but still needs more. If you feel you have what it takes, and the time, do contact me.