Wednesday, 28 March 2007

New magazine

Mimesis is the latest arrival on the poetry journal/magazine scene. I can't tell you any more about it than is on display at the website, but it looks well worth a read, not least because the editor is James Midgley, whose blog was always entertaining and highly informative reading. As you'll see, it's sort of defunct, but you can still link to its successor.

Migrant time

I've been making the most of the glorious weather this week to get out and about in search of the first summer visitors. Chiffchaffs are everywhere, and Sand Martins too, but I've yet to see a Swallow or, to my surprise, a Wheatear, despite them being reported all over the place.
While doing all that searching, though, I did see and hear my first Willow Tit, which was a very pleasant surprise, and watch a male Grey Wagtail attempt to fight his reflection in the wing mirrors of a car parked on the dam at Swithland Reservoir. The fact he seemed to be a bit of a plank didn't harm his chances in love though, as a female watched him adoringly from a few feet away throughout.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Saturday morning reading

I've probably mentioned before that I'm not a big fan of James Fenton, but I enjoyed this piece in today's Guardian. In particular, I found myself agreeing with what he says about theories on the authorship of Shakespeare's plays being a lot less important than the actual plays themselves. There's a similar thing going on nowadays with, for example, the whole Plath/Hughes saga, in which the life stories of the poets seems to obscure the actual poetry.
There was another good article, on Paul Muldoon. I do like his work a lot, although I usually find I can only take so much in one sitting, so rich is the gumbo of puns, wordplay, learned allusions and pop culture references that he serves up. But what I really liked about the interview was the fact that he doesn't make writing poetry sound like something to which he's been sentenced, as some writers do. Of course, the whole process probably IS a lot more enjoyable if you're a genius like him, but it's still good to remember that the reading and writing of it are always supposed to be, at some level, pleasurable.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

There goes April...

As I mentioned the other day, until last weekend, I'd done relatively little writing for about a month, mainly because of being extremely busy at work and with the cricket coaching course.
What better way, then, to get the creative juices well and truly flowing again than to commit to writing a (draft) poem a day all the way through April? That's what NaPoWriMo2007, at the excellent Poetry Free For All site is all about. You go there, register, start a thread, post your poems on it, and get all sorts of valuable feedback. And of course, you can read other poets' work and offer them your thoughts.
I've got a couple of ideas for themed sequences I might pursue, but both would involve a certain amount of research first, so if I don't get time to do that, I'll just go with the flow and see what happens.
Thanks go to Rob Mackenzie for pointing me in the direction of this. He reckons that, out of 60 poems he wrote for the 2005 and 2006 events, 22 have eventually been published. I think that's a fantastic success rate, and just goes to show that, whatever the romantic ideal of waiting for the muse to strike, poetry is often about disciplining yourself to get something down on paper. Like anything else, practice makes perfect, although it obviously helps if you've got the sort of ideas and craft that Rob has in the first place.
If you go to his blog, Surroundings, there's also currently all sorts of stuff relating to last week's StAnza poetry festival, well worth catching up on. Its reputation is growing all the time - not surprising when you see the variety of events it involves - so check it out and start making plans for next March.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

The Last Englishman

Literary heroes generally come in two varieties, I've found. There's those whose writing you love, and who probably influence your own writing hugely, however much you try to avoid it or at least temper it, and then there's the other kind. The type whose whole life is in some way inspiring.
For me, JL Carr fits into both categories. I came across his novels some time in the late 80s, I think, when I found a copy of The Battle Of Pollock's Crossing in the local library. It's not his best, but it's still a memorable and odd book, so I sought out the rest. At first I could only find A Day In Summer, his first, which is both very dark and, by his standards, not that great. It didn't put me off, though, and I eventually read all eight of them. They all have something to recommend them, especially A Season In Sinji, The Harpole Report, and his masterpiece, A Month In The Country.
Occasionally, especially in the later books, you get the impression that the author is simply using his characters to make speeches on his behalf (even in the best books, there's a strong undertone of wish-fulfilment), but the writing is always a treat - wry and witty and wholly distinctive.
Intriguingly, Byron Rogers' excellent biography, The Last Englishman, showed that the more outlandish events and characters in the novels were generally taken straight from life. Carr had a long career as a teacher and headmaster, during which he developed highly individual (but successful) teaching strategies in which the traditional and the progressive co-existed happily. And that career was punctuated by a year teaching in a Great Depression-hit town on the South Dakota prairie, and wartime service in flying boats in West Africa, meaning that behind a seemingly quiet and unremarkable exterior was a wealth of material just waiting to be mined.
There is, I think, a trace of that opposition between the traditional and the progressive in his writing. For all that his books seem pretty straightforward 20th Century English novels, they occasionally take big risks. The Harpole Report, for example, is told entirely in the form of journal and logbook entries, letters and other official documents. Pretty odd, when you really look at it, although as you read it you just enjoy the rather Pooter-esque humour. And then there's the way that characters wander from one novel to another, without dates and ages ever quite tallying up. Possibly it was just a way of disguising the real-life models, but it all goes to help create a world of his own, slightly and subtly out of sync with our own.
And the novels are not the whole story, if you'll excuse the pun. Carr was also a one-man publishing industry, producing and selling mini-anthologies of classic poets, idiosyncratic pocket books on subjects as diverse as royal consorts and forgotten cricketers, and lavish pictorial maps of English counties. He retired early from teaching to allow himself time to write, and made a meagre living from sales of such products through Quince Tree Press. There was the campaigning, too, to save neglected churches, and to bring to public attention long-forgotten historical figures such as the intriguing Captain Pouch, Carr sharing my own fascination with 17th Century radicals (and earlier rebels, of which more very soon).
I've been re-reading the novels lately (it doesn't take long, because Carr evidently believed Polonius's assertion that brevity is the soul of wit, making every word count to the extent that none of his books are real doorstops). For the next few weeks, I'll post little mini-reviews of each one, and maybe you'll be inspired to discover a writer who, while not really underrated (he generally got glowing reviews), is inexplicably overlooked.

Normal service will be resumed

Blogging, birding and writing have all taken a back seat in recent weeks, mainly due to my having to do a lot of last-minute revision and paperwork for my UKCC2 cricket coaching assessment. It was entirely my own fault. The actual course finished in November, so I've had since then to get up to date, but in true kid-with-homework fashion, I left it all far too late.
There was a happy ending, though - the assessment at Trent Bridge on Sunday went pretty well, and I passed, despite having a very stiff neck. I might have struggled if I'd had to do any bowling demonstrations, but I got lucky and pulled out a fairly straightforward fielding one.
All day Saturday was spent coaching at an ECB roadshow in the Victoria Centre, Nottingham, which was a lot of fun, but it was a relief to get back to some reading and writing on Sunday afternoon. I 'finished' a poem that had been giving me trouble for ages, and I've been enjoying Ros Barber's How Things Are On Thursday and a few recent pamphlets.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Yo La Tengo!

It's that time of year - veteran New Jersey purveyors of noise pop and all-round greatest band in the world Yo La Tengo are doing their annual fundraiser for their community radio station, WFMU. Listeners call in to pledge money and make requests for cover versions, which the band then attempt to play without rehearsal. The results can be, well, entertaining, as last year's Yo La Tengo Is Murdering The Classics made abundantly clear.
As I expected, over the last few weeks, playing it virtually non-stop in the car, I've gradually warmed more and more to last year's 'proper' album, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. It does pretty much all the things I've come to expect from YLT, with my only major quibble being that the last track, The Story Of Yo La Tango, doesn't really quite come up to the standards of previous epic album-closers.
Otherwise, though, it's a gloriously eclectic gumbo of pop, rock, jazz and just about every 'alternative' sub-category you can think of, an album that, moving from guitar feedback freakouts to ambient instrumentals, just begs to be played at full blast.

New issue of Sphinx

A while back I mentioned that I was reviewing Michael Mackmin's Twenty-Three Poems for Sphinx magazine.
You can read it here, along with another review, of
Alan King's Transfer.
Mackmin's book really is an absolute delight - I keep going back to it and finding new things to intrigue me. You won't spend a better £3 on poetry this year.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Great pics

Just browsing on Andrew Shields' blog and found this link to some splendid nature photography by Manfred Delpho. Enjoy...

Have a go

Bluechrome have launched their poetry, novel and short story competitions, which look interesting.
Regardless of the publication oppportunities, I enter the odd competition because the deadlines help to concentrate my mind on writing, and because most of them put money back into literature, which can't be a bad thing. This type, where you have to submit a mini-collection, are particularly good for making you think about how poems work off each other.

Cricket lovely cricket

Deep joy - at last the Cricket World Cup is underway. OK, so the first couple of weeks are likely to be spent weeding out the minnows (although Ireland and Zimbabwe will both fancy their chances of upsetting the brilliant-or-awful Pakistan, and Kenya have a long record of giant-killing), but watching cricket from the Caribbean is always a pleasure. In part it's because the time difference makes it so convenient - you can get home from work in time to see most of the day's play, rather than going through all that getting up in the middle of the night nonsense you get with Antipodean or Subcontinental tours. In part it's because cricket in the West Indies is how the sport should always be - lots of sun, some spectacular scenery (Port of Spain is rivalled only by Cape Town in that respect), and an emphasis on entertainment.
Last night's opener confirmed what I thought might be the case - scores a little lower than predicted, thanks to slowish, low pitches, meaning that spinners and crafty medium-pacers might rule the roost, rather than real pace. For that reason, I'm tipping India or the Windies to win it, not the much fancied Aussies and South Africans. Obviously, I'm cheering England on, but although I can see them making the semis I think they'll need a run of luck to actually go all the way.
And good luck to Scotland against the Aussies later today, which gives me another chance to plug Scotland's first cricket store, Cow Corner.
Oh, and you can go to the Stick Cricket site and play their new World Cup Super Eight game. Good luck getting any work done for the next six weeks.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Room for debate

I was interested to read JG Ballard's comments in Writers' Rooms in yesterday's Guardian, especially his assertion that no great novel has yet been written on a PC. It struck me that I've absolutely no idea whether he's right, simply because I've no idea how most writers write. Was he being a bit of a grumpy old man (why should a PC be considered less 'authentic' than a typewriter), or was he making a point about the particular way a computer allows you to write? I know a lot of writers, even if they have no qualms about computers generally, like to get their first drafts down on paper by hand, maybe because it makes you think that little bit harder about every word if there's not the option to delete and rewrite straight away.
For my own part, well, it all depends. I DO like to write by hand wherever possible, and type things up much later, but it's not always possible. What about when you're sitting in front of a PC at work and a few lines come to you? Straight onto the screen, I reckon. But I'd be interested to hear people's preferences...

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Poetry in motion

There are a certain number of birds that, although I know they're almost certain to show up on my year lists sooner or later, are still a huge thrill when they do. Red Kites, as I've mentioned before, are one - some weeks I see them every day on the eay to work, and yet there's still something slightly unreal about it.
Down at Sence Valley Forest Park today, I came across another. I'd gone down to see whether, with spring seemingly upon us, any early summer visitors had arrived, particularly Sand Martins. No luck though, and despite the very mild and pleasant conditions, there was very little around at all, with fewer ducks and gulls than usual.
But, heading back to the car, I was on the bridge over the little stream when a flash of blue emerged from under it and arrowed away from me. A couple of minutes frantic searching later and I managed to find the Kingfisher's hunting perch, on a tree 50 or so yards upstream, and was able to get great views of him until he headed away towards the top pools.
As I say, it's not unusual to see them there (often perched on the Sand Martins' wall, in fact), but it's never less than exhilirating. For a start, their iridescent plumage looks so out of place in a country where plumage is generally on the dull side, and I often wonder why our Kingfisher is so ridiculously bright compared to others of his family overseas. But there's also something about the way they go about their business, all that keeping absolutely still for minutes at a time before exploding into lightning quick action, seemingly aware of nothing other than the fish they're lining up for their next meal. They're one instance where that hackneyed old phrase "poetry in motion" truly does spring to mind.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Peaks of perfection

On Saturday night, I just saw the end of a Top 100 TV Dramas Ever type programme on More 4, or E4, or one of those channels. As it happened, just as I turned over, it had reached 8 or 9, and was talking about Twin Peaks.
I could argue that it should have been far higher (it'd definitely make it into my top 3 TV programmes ever), but that's obviously pretty subjective.
One thing it didn't say, though, and that I haven't seen mentioned in any of the various David Lynch articles that have been in the papers in recent weeks (he's got an art exhibition in Paris at the moment), is just how it changed the face of TV. They all acknowledge it was influential, but mainly in the way it made 'weirdness' more mainstream. I'd argue that even more important was the way in which it showed you could make a TV series with genuinely cinematic production values. All those big US dramas such as The Sopranos, The West Wing, Lost and 24 owe it a huge debt in that respect, I think.
My own love for the show is such that I found myself putting Agent Cooper's line "Damn fine coffee - and hot!" into my poem Cafe Italia, which is in the current issue of Poetry Nottingham. But my favourite character? It would have to be ultra-sarcastic FBI pathologist Albert Rosenfield, magnificently played by Miguel Ferrer. His "Sheriff Truman - I love you" scene is just about my favourite in TV history.
Here are some of his most memorable torrents of abuse - cynicism has rarely sounded so eloquent.

Monday, 5 March 2007

Fair swap

I got my notification emails from the Poetry Super Highway Great Poetry Exchange this morning.
My own chapbook will be heading to Christina Pacosz, in Kansas City, while I'll be getting a chapbook called Dear Immovable, by LouAnn Shepard Muhm (of Minnesota, as far as I can see). I like the title, so that's promising. I'll post a review up here a bit later.
I'm looking forward to receiving it, and a few poetry books recently ordered on Amazon, and getting stuck into them. I'll probably review them (and the books I bought at PN last week) too.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant!

Wales being the land of my fathers (or my mother, to be exact), I thought I'd wish you all a very happy St David's Day.
I'm not a huge fan of leeks, or daffodils, but Welsh cakes stand as one of the finest culinary inventions ever. My mouth is watering just thinking about them. I'd have to say, they turn out much better if you've got a proper bakestone (I like them almost burnt), but a heavy griddle or skillet will do at a pinch.
Staying with St David, Katy Evans-Bush has some very interesting things to say about him, Wales and pigs at her always-compelling blog, Baroque In Hackney.
And on a different subject, I've got four poems appearing in the new issue of Umbrella, which, if I've not whole-heartedly recommended before, I will now. My fellow Happenstancer Rob Mackenzie was the featured poet in Issue One, and the interview with him is well worth reading.