Saturday, 16 December 2006

The Business

Right, enough of the 17th century. Back to the present day.
I’ve often wondered just how difficult it is for editors of poetry magazines to write themselves. I’d imagine what would have been their writing time is easily eaten up by the process of producing a regular publication, and it can’t be easy to hang on to your own personal ‘voice’ (I’m not always keen on that word but it will have to do for now) when you’re constantly exposed to vast quantities of other people’s writing, some of it inevitably pretty bad (although on second thoughts, it’s probably the good stuff that’s even more of a problem in that respect).
So, while most people in poetryworld are familiar enough with Peter Sansom in his roles as co-director of The Poetry Business and editor of The North and Smith/Doorstop Books, his poetry has often seemed to slip below the radar. I’d read his first three collections – Everything You’ve Heard Is True, January and Point Of Sale – and enjoyed them, but I suppose it’s fair to say that none of them were quite consistent enough to really grab me by the throat and make me think he deserved more attention than he was getting. Occasionally, too, you got the impression he was trying a little too hard to impress.
I think that’s changed now. I’ve just finished reading his new collection, The Last Place On Earth (Carcanet, £8.95), for the second time (it came out in September), and he’s raised his game a few notches. It’s not that there’s anything radically different in there, just that it doesn’t seem to include anything that doesn’t have to be there. And although that results in a book that, at 50 pages, is barely more than pamphlet-sized, he makes every one of those pages pull their weight.
Some of the previews and reviews of it said it reflected a growing preoccupation with mortality, and it does, but it’s done with such a lightness of touch that the effect is often moving, and almost always uplifting. He does this, I think, by zooming right in close on the details of everyday life, giving as much weight to the little pleasures and small victories as he does to the pain goes with love and inevitable loss. There’s also a perfect balance between the need to remember, to hold on to those invisible ties that link us with people and places, and the need to move on and live in the present.
His style is highly accessible and chatty, with only the very occasional dip into the surrealism deployed by the likes of Yorkshire contemporaries Geoff Hattersley or Ian McMillan, but even when he does take chances (and he’s not afraid to), there’s nothing forced or self-conscious about it. There’s a sure-footedness about all the writing that makes it a very coherent whole.
The heart of the book is The Wife Of Bath’s Tale, as retold by Gladys Ruth Sansom (eighty-six) of Sutton-in-Ashfield, Notts, a seven-page story/prose poem which pulls off the difficult tricks of (a) using dialect in a wholly convincing manner, and (b) being both very funny and very sad. Possibly one of the reasons it strikes such a chord with me is that the dialect is not so different from what you might hear in the pubs round here, but I hope and don’t think I’m letting regional bias sway me.
Anyway, it is expensive for a small book, but I certainly didn’t feel short-changed. Well worth a spare book token if you find one in your wallet come Boxing Day.

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