Friday, 29 January 2010
Wednesday, 27 January 2010
Sunday, 24 January 2010
by Angela France
Occupation is one of those words with many applications. In the case of Angela France’s new collection, from Ragged Raven Poetry, it can stand for the different named occupations explored in poems through various voices: the bookbinder, the mortician, the florist and the office worker. But it can also stand for those whose life’s work is a calling, a pursuit: the violinist, the witch and the shapeshifter’s wife. The other meaning that is explored less overtly, is that of the occupied – the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed – in poems which explore the idea of the invisible woman, the older woman; the life’s repository of knowledge, and even beauty, that older people have and which our culture chooses to ignore. This strand is subtler, but nevertheless extant for the reader to divine, through the use of vibrant language and sonic devices that make poems ring across their meaning.
Indeed it is this rich use of language which keeps the poems grounded, even when the subject is making a fair leap, as in ‘Rejecting Gravity.’ This Crouching Tiger style poem reveals the imagistic possibilities of the positive in a new twist, whilst rejecting the labels cast upon women: “My first thoughtless soar ended / in daylight on a car park roof; left / me shaken, possibilities fizzing / under my skin.” Here the sonics point towards good prospects in self-discovery, but it is the “pot shots from hunters / clay pigeons shooters, boys with air guns,” that make the subject cautiously move to cover themselves. We are forced to ask if we have to hide both ourselves and our talents; especially when the last stanza reinforces this; the “ballast” of “other weighted women” points towards the idea of having to remain invisible in some way, in order not to be made feel Other; outside society’s perceived norm. The last lines “We know / what we could do” beg us to supply the rest of an imagined if: if only we were let.
Throughout the collection, France consistently sides with the disenfranchised and the lower registers of hearing, those we might not hear in the cacophony of life’s river. A quiet unspoken love is investigated in ‘The Light Beneath,’ where a relationship between a “dour” man and his wife is weighed through the acts of small kindnesses from him to her, rather than his verbal expression. These small acts are what make marriage more than bearable: “how he got up first for thirty years / to make the coffee, how he’s always folded / his warm legs around her feet on winter nights.” Separately, the curse of the writer – that almost unhinged state that writers sometimes occupy – is explored in ‘Victor Knows the Danger of Words.’ Anyone who writes and has felt their words take wing only to land like the first flight fledgling, would identify with this line: “he feels his heart jump / into a verb, waits for it to straight line.” Sometimes all a writer can do is to hope they channel the words correctly.
As Michael Longley has wryly remarked on writing poetry: “If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.” France’s poems in Occupation seem understated at first read, almost quiet, but the real strength of the collection lies in her ability to create imagined realities where the reader isn’t told what, where or how to read. The ambiguities of the English language and its deployment, whether in everyday speech or in the heightened locus of meaning in poetry mean that the reader must always pay close attention to the multiplicity of meaning layered in her poems. Paying attention to the wider meanings of occupation has reaped many poetic rewards for France, both literal, in the competition sense, but also in the wider sense of a heightened lingual tool-kit, which is personal and exciting.
In her own words from ‘Learning to Play the Violin by Holding a Bow’, one must “Move always from your centre to master / the owl’s dark swoop if you would release / the lark ascending.” This is an apt musical metaphor that speaks to the idea of poetry in all of us. Enjoy this collection as a series of pearls chosen specifically for their right place of belonging in the strand of ‘Occupation’.
Barbara Smith is a frequent contributor to Eyewear, and a poet, creative writing teacher, and leading Irish literary blogger.
Thursday, 21 January 2010
Tuesday, 19 January 2010
Sunday, 17 January 2010
A Human Eye - Essays on Art in Society 1997-2008
by Adrienne Rich
Adrienne Rich’s essays over the last decade are wide-ranging in scope and inclusive in nature. They are clever, yet accessible.
A Human Eye contains 13 essays, which broadly cover the politics of gay and lesbian poetry; modern Iraqi poetry (and who does and doesn’t gets translated); Jewishness; Adrienne Rich’s poetic imagination; essays on Muriel Rukeyser; James Baldwin; Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Che Guevara; June Jordan; James Scully; LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka); and on the correspondence between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov.
Apart from the essay on Marx, Luxemburg and Guevara, which added little to what I would imagine most politically-aware people would know, this is an inspiring collection of essays. I particularly enjoyed her discussion of James Baldwin ‘The Baldwin Stamp’, partly because I’ve long been a fan of his prose and partly because Rich shows new ways of considering his work. I read it with delight. I loved her little digs, for example, about Black History Month being ‘the shortest month in the year’. She has a talent for choosing forward-looking excerpts from Baldwin’s prose. It is hard to believe that so much of what she discusses here was written so long ago. How about this, from The Harlem Ghetto (1948):
‘In America…life seems to move faster than anywhere else on the globe and
each generation is promised more than it will get; which creates, in each generation, a furious, bewildered rage, the rage of people who cannot find
solid ground beneath their feet’.
Or this from Many Thousands Gone (1960):
‘Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all
bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform
their moral contradictions or public discussion of such contradictions, into
a proud decoration such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.’
As Rich points out:
‘Baldwin was a moralist, a role with which many writers today are apparently uncomfortable, since morality has become the hostage of various fundamentalists, or Hollywood TV “good guys” and “bad guys”…’.
His take on nationalism is of particular importance, as Rich discusses:
‘Baldwin held…that the artist needs to dwell “within the experience and outside of it at the same time”. His own awareness of this difficult positioning
(if I am, despite all, an American, what does this mean for me and for America?)
was, I think, a supreme artistic strength…’.
I was also particularly interested in the ‘Permeable Membrane’ essay, in which Rich discusses some of her own poetic practice. I found myself underlining as ‘essential’ for this review something in almost every paragraph, so have had to be sparing in my choices:
‘Working on a draft, I move by touch through what I can’t see clearly. My finger on the shoulder of the ghost who first touched mine. As my eyes adjust
to dimness, the shape of what I’m doing declares itself. The poem makes its
needs felt, becomes both my guide and my critic.’
And perhaps my favourite quotation here: ‘Art is a way of melting out through one’s own skin…A poem is not about; it is out of and to’.
When I began reading this book, I hoped to learn a good deal about poetry and the art of it, according to Rich; reading closely, I wasn’t disappointed. In her essay on ‘Thomas Avena’s Dream of Order’, a poet I hadn’t previously heard of, whom Rich discusses in relation to his poetry on HIV/AIDS, she states that: ‘Poems in very short, broken lines can become tedious’ but argues that Avena’s poetry doesn’t seek to soothe, ‘it keeps producing tension in the poem, tension in the reader’ and she finds a solid integrity to his work. I imagine most poets would wonder how far their work fitted within definition of integrity: ‘Integrity is hard to isolate or measure except in negatives: the absence of posturing, manipulating, claiming what isn’t earned.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rich isn’t afraid of sacred cows. While she admires Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’: ‘Howl transposed despair and alienation from individual pathology onto that society itself. In this it is one our great public poems,’ but she goes on to denigrate other Beat poetry in a way that I found I agreed with:
‘But a lot of Beat-influenced poetry, catching on to the expressive open-form
Whitmanic model and the un-Whitmanic machismo, minus Howl’s social
insights, easily devolved into self-indulgence, penile narcissism, tantrum.’
British and North American audiences, will find many new voices being promoted in these essays, and I wonder if this isn’t one of the main points behind this collection: to challenge the mainstream, to search for inclusivity. See excerpts from the long poem ‘A Woman is Talking to Death’ by Judy Grahn, whom Rich describes as ‘a working class lesbian’. An early section from the poem includes these immensely powerful lines: ‘death sits on my doorstep/cleaning his revolver…’. I also responded to a question in the poem ‘have you ever committed any indecent acts with women?’: And in response: ‘Yes I have/committed acts of indecency with women and most of them/were acts of omission. I regret them bitterly.’
Rich says of Grahn’s work:
‘What’s notable is the freedom of line and voice, a colloquial diction with surges of intensity. A great public poem, emerging from a new and vital
women’s movement, expanding the political imaginary of Whitman and
Duncan, enlarging the potentialities of gay and lesbian poetry.’
From these essays, I am left with the impression that Rich has that knack of seeming to know about every poet who has ever existed anywhere in the world, and extracting the finest quotations from their writings/interviews. After a discussion on why poetry is important, Rich uses Rukeyser’s words, who said (Rich’s italics): ‘Poetry can be: an exchange of energy, which, in changing consciousness, can effect change in existing conditions’.
Rich argues for the importance of inclusivity within art (primarily poetry and to a limited extent, prose) and wider society. She is impassioned and convincing in her thesis, and in her arguments about the importance of poetry, this ‘exchange of energy’. In a bid to embrace Rich’s sentiments, I would like to conclude with this gem from Edouard Glissant (taken from her essay ‘Poetry and the Forgotten Future’): ‘This is why we stay with poetry…We cry our cry of poetry. Our boats are open, and we sail them for everyone’.
Katrina Naomi’s first full collection The Girl with the Cactus Handshake is published by Templar Poetry. She is currently the Bronte Parsonage Museum’s first writer-in-residence.
Friday, 15 January 2010
You Are Here is produced by Jaybird, the live literature production, promotion and management enterprise run by Julia Bird. (Julia also works part time for the Poetry School and recently published her own first collection of poetry).
She says ‘I have worked as a poetry promoter for years, but I also have a love of theatrical sparkle and spectacle. When I produce live literature shows like You Are Here (and Tilting the Mirror with Jean Sprackland and Greta Stoddart previously) I am trying to find a way to introduce the pleasures and provocations of contemporary poetry to a theatre or arts centre audience. This I do by adding the expectations that a theatre audience might have (a show with direction, a set, lighting and music that takes place in a theatre rather than a literature festival tent) to the most interesting and gorgeous poetry I can find. The You Are Here rehearsal period has just finished - we dodged the snow, luckily. The poets and the director have worked fantastically hard to create an hour long show which is full of music, meditation, humour and beauty ... all you could want from poetry, really!’
The show is on tour, the first night in Norwich is on 20th January; the last night in London is on 26th April. Performances also take place in Bath, Cambridge, Chipping Norton, Hull, Lancaster, Liverpool, Newcastle, Stockton and Torrington. Dates & details are at http://www.blogger.com/.
Follow the show's progress on Facebook and Twitter ...
Facebook group: You Are Here - a poetry show http://www.blogger.com/
Wednesday, 13 January 2010
Tuesday, 12 January 2010
Tom Phillips on Spirits of the Stair by Peter Robinson
Having published more than a dozen volumes of poetry, translated Italian poets Vittorio Sereni and Luciano Erba, amongst others, and written a quartet of critical works, Peter Robinson’s Spirits of the Stair brings together more than 700 of his aphorisms: short, often sharp observations, remarks, ruminations, musings, notebook jottings, insights, witticisms and jokes. This isn’t the first time he’s travelled into this territory. As well as two sets of prose-poems, the 2004 collection Untitled Deeds (Salt) included a sequence of 354 aphorisms – all of which are included here – and further samples have subsequently appeared in both The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (2006) and Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists (2007).
For some of his readers, it seems, this apparently sudden diversion into sound bite-size prose has been something of a surprise. Robinson’s poetry, after all, has long been associated with mapping complex shifts in ‘emotional weather’ and exploring transitory margins through a subtly attuned and innovative lyricism. On the face of it, it’s not the kind of work which readily suggests the immediate punch of aphorism. And yet, even in his debut collection Overdrawn Account (1980), poems resolve on lines with an air of aphorism about them – “Home is the view I appropriate”; “It is not enough just to live” – and the consistently scrupulous attention to language detail and speech-act throughout his career is well-suited to the form. Besides which, as Robinson discusses in the Afterword to this current volume, these “less-is-more morsels” or at least the sudden surge in their formulation emerged from a particular set of circumstances. In the lead-up to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, he says, “I had perhaps reached a point in life where the self-censorship of a painfully-learned intellectual prudence collapsed under the pressure of the contradictions in my own and the world’s evident predicaments.” Teaching abroad, an interest in the prose-poems of Pierre Reverdy and the Japanese forms of haiku and tanka, not to mention a vicarage childhood, are also acknowledged influences.
Whatever the contributory factors, the result is a wide-ranging miscellany which, in engaging with topics from death, war and religion to money, love and friendship, has both the immediacy of just-grasped thought and the balance of more considered reflection.
Not surprisingly, the business of writing poetry and the poetry business form a significant and ongoing theme, whether that be thoughts on the paradoxes of composition (“In poetry the best way to fly is to be well grounded.”), what poetry does (“Good poems resolve emotions; bad ones provoke them.”) or the frustrations of the ‘literary game’:
“Dealing with some publishers, it’s only too easy to feel like a smuggler engaged in transporting contraband of no evident value across an iron curtain.”
These, though, frequently overlap with and lead into other themes, ideas that bear on other situations beyond the written page or its reception. There’s the bubble reputation (“Fame: it’s inevitably a case of mistaken identity.”), language (“What I like about the future is that it’s made of words.”), work (“Ambition is what people of limited talent use for motivation.”), identity and social relations (“My blind spots about myself, invisible to me as they by definition are, may be, nevertheless, what others’ behaviour in my vicinity allows me momentarily to glimpse.”).
The scope extends much further, too, as does the tone, with self-deprecatory jokes, exasperated one-liners and acerbic, forensic rage all mingling in a kind of literary salle des pas perdus while the more conventional platitudes of received wisdom whizz by on the mainline outside. Not for nothing has Robinson attracted comparison with as diverse a selection of aphorists as Samuel Johnson, Barthes and Baudrillard, and while reading Spirits of the Stair through as a sequence and tracing the ups and downs of its progress, its changing atmospheric pressures, offer their own reward, it’s the crisp precision and inviting open-endedness of individual entries which make this book so much more than a prose addendum to an already significant body of work.
Tom Phillips is a poet, playwright and journalist living and working in Bristol.
Contra continues the buried lyric references to military history (especially failed rebellions), and architecture, while keeping the songs mainly surface-level about love and privileged youth (as in the song "Diplomat's son"). Musically, the ten clean songs here are, if anything, an improvement- better produced, more complex and a teensy bit more varied. Still, the band's leitmotif is rich uniformity- the cover design of their new album is almost identical to their last- so the songs are almost identically upbeat and as fun as first time out.
The image of contradiction and mirror opposites plays well across the album as a whole which is bookended by the best two songs, the first the more romantic ('here comes a feeling you thought you'd forgotten) and last- pace Radiohead- the most wistfully haunted. Some query the band's non-Kleinian insistence on Yes Logo modishness- the pretty girl on the cover is branded by Ralph Lauren's polo player. Perhaps the contradiction between music from Soweto and casual glamour from the American mall sums-up our anti Copenhagen moment as well or better than Cormac's dystopias.
This will be a top ten album for 2010 unless something miraculous happens. But hard to imagine where they grow from here.
Monday, 11 January 2010
Wednesday, 6 January 2010
Saturday, 2 January 2010
The poet put forward must have the laureate's blessing, and Scotland's leading female poet, Carol Ann Duffy, clearly felt an affinity. Besides the Scottish, Picador and generational links, Duffy and Paterson were key mainstream poets of the 90s and 00s who saw off the threat of Heaney and Muldoon and created a new populist vernacular style.
Paterson, who doesn't - judging by his editorial and critical writings - much like the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Prynne, or amateur and anti-war poets, is as admired in the UK as he is controversial. Is he the new king of the cats or prince in waiting? Surely, his North American reputation is set to grow. I predict he will win the Nobel Prize for literature before 2020.
Friday, 1 January 2010
This decade, I returned to university and received an MA in Creative Writing from UEA. I became a poetry tutor and university lecturer, first at London Met, then Birkbeck, then Kingston University. I recovered from a car accident (one arm could not move for a year). I became associated via Martin Penny with Oxfam as their poet in residence. And poetry - this past decade saw me edit numerous international anthologies - 100 Poets Against The War, a famous ebook; Short Fuse, a New York book introducing the idea of fusion poetry; the Life Lines CDs, which sold tens of thousands of copies; an Oxfam DVD; and several others, such as Future Welcome and In The Criminal's Cabinet - as well as edited special sections of New American Writing, London Magazine, Jacket and The Manhattan Review. I also co-edited an academic study, with Jason Camlot, Language Acts, on anglophone poetry in Quebec since 1976.
Meanwhile, I published five books of my own poems this decade, three with DC Books in Montreal, then Seaway, a new and selected, from the Irish press Salmon, and a new book, Mainstream Love Hotel, with British press tall lighthouse. I also created the Swifty Lazarus CD with Tom Walsh.
Also, I became interested in using social networks and the Internet to promote poetry communities - something I was a bit of a pioneer in (before the technology was really where it is now) until blogs and tweets completely became the norm - hard to be the man with a megaphone in a town with telephones; cheerleaders aren't needed when the team is already winning. I started this blog five years ago. I edited the poetry at Val Stevenson's Nthposition from 2002 or so until last year, when Rufo Quintavalle took over the reigns. And, with Dan Mitchell, I began the first, and still largest, Poetry Group at Facebook.
During this time I also ran poetry readings in Budapest, Paris and London, and featured hundreds of the best younger and established poets. Poetic highlights of the decade might also include dining at high table at Cambridge with Seamus Heaney and Tamar Yoseloff; interviewing Al Alvarez; and having Les Murray as a houseguest. As well as studying with George Szirtes and Denise Riley, Jon Cook and Clive Scott. I myself read at Oxford and other venues, such as the Frankfurt Book Fair where I was a special guest. I also wrote reviews in The Globe and Mail, Poetry Review, Poetry London, and so on. My poems were selected for inclusion in Starnino's New Canon, Queyras's Open Field, and Bolster's Best Canadian Poems.
By decade's end, completing a PhD, teaching, writing poems, and struggling to break through the stuffy impasses of the poetry worlds, and dealing with many personal sorrows and losses, I became physically and emotionally exhausted.
I survey my decade of fortune and misfortune with some wariness and sadness. I see a young man blessed with enthusiasm, energy, and goodwill, open to many styles and kinds of poetry, who encountered a number of startlingly brutal gatekeepers and impediments. My will was broken over this decade - note the lack of prizes or nominations; for all my efforts, my poetry remains marginal, off-piste. Well, not entirely. I am mentioned in a few books, and a poet wrote an MA thesis on my work, but, frankly, Seaway not getting any published reviews in Canada was a blow.
Attempts to build a counter-stream online alternative to the mainstream, has mainly failed utterly. The net readers do not support each other as well as they should. If they did, more of the anthologies I worked on would have sold. Instead, this decade saw a sad decline into celebrity and marketing, where only the major established publishing houses can really compete, with their large budgets; oddly, and paradoxically, those who use the net do so to get things for free - but what kind of waves are they if only ruled by pirates?
Younger and emerging poets all seek mainstream and establishment kudos (as I guess I do too) and thus few truly excercise the power of the Internet for change and radical transformation of the system of poetic distribution; after all, the main awards still go to books, published on paper. Perhaps the decade of the ebook is upon us? When will new critics emerge, in the UK, with the intelligence of Eliot, Ricks, or Leavis? We have Peter Robinson, Fiona Sampson, and Tim Dooley - but I'd like to see the younger poets become active (and daring) critics too, unafraid of powerhouse shadows. They should learn from Carmine Starnino, who took on Atwood. Why do so few dare to query the facile cronyism at the core of so much UK poetry awardism? Why doesn't Dannie Abse have the Queen's Gold Medal - or Alan Brownjohn?
I sometimes feel as if I have wasted my time on poetry - especially poetry promotion, which bequeathed me sickness and despair. All that has truly afforded me joy in this life has been love. Love of God, love of friends, love of my wife, love of music, of film, of art, of nature. I hope to regain my love of poetry, and get my groove (and mojo) back.
This decade I look forward to becoming a Catholic, completing my PhD, and, with some luck, getting my disease under control with medication. I have a new poetry manuscript that may be published in a few years as well. Other pending projects include the Carcanet anthology of Canadian Verse, edited with Evan Jones. And, I have a book of essays on mid-century poets that, post-PhD, might be worth getting published. Dreams? A child, a novel, health. May this decade bless you.