Saturday 30 December 2006

Books of the Year etc

As I mentioned the other day, an awful lot of my reading and listening these days is what you might call back-catalogue stuff, usually catching up with books and records that have been acknowledged as classics for decades (at least) yet which I've somehow managed to avoid without even trying.
That's meant there's been precious little room for new material, and of course there's also the fact that new books are so expensive. But anyway, here goes.
As regards poetry, I've bought a lot, but very little of it new. Andy Brown's Selected Poems, Fall Of The Rebel Angels, was a pleasure, particularly as it's good to read a poet who makes no bones about keeping feet in all the (supposedly antagonistic) poetry 'camps'. It's eclectic enough to ensure that there's something in there for most tastes. Geoff Hattersley's New and Selected, Back of Beyond, was enjoyable enough too, although I suppose it would be fair to say I was disappointed with the newer work, and happier with the older material (especially the stuff I hadn't seen before). Simon Armitage's Tyrannosaurus Rex vs The Corduroy Kid was a difficult one to work out. In fact, Andy Brown had given it a rave review in Stride Magazine but again I was a little disappointed, feeling that there was maybe too much filler in there. That said, there was a refreshing willingness to try new directions too, so I suspect one or two of the pieces that didn't hit home first time round might grow on me on second reading.
That leaves Peter Sansom's The Last Place On Earth (see earlier post) and Hugo Williams' Dear Room as my two favourites. Now the latter certainly didn't explore new directions, or take obvious risks, instead picking up pretty much where the excellent Billy's Rain left off, and I suppose it was the sort of book you'd hate if you hate Williams' poetry, if that doesn't sound blindlingly obvious. But the point is, I do, like it that is, precisely because, in its own understated, unobtrusive way, it's as individual as any poetry being written in the UK. Williams consistently pulls off a very difficult balancing act, of being wryly funny even as he dissects failing relationships, and best of all, of creating an elegant, almost foppish poetic persona that is seemingly him but that couldn't really be (no one could write such honed, taut poetry and actually be as bemused as all that, could they?).
Three more to mention. Of the pamphlets (and I read a lot, either through reviewing or because I like the look and feel of a chapbook far better than a full collection a lot of the time), Gill McEvoy's Uncertain Days was the highlight. I make no apologies for picking a fellow Happenstance poet - buy it and you'll see what I mean. Intensely personal, but perfectly controlled too.
Finally, there were two books by a Nebraskan poet, Matt Mason. I got his chapbook, When The Bough Breaks, through an online pamphlet exchange scheme (more on that and Matt in a few weeks) and intially wondered what I was in for, given that it's about the death of his father from AIDS. In fact, it was wonderful - very moving, but also very funny, and with some imaginative leaps that really take you by surprise. His full collection, Things We Didn't Know We Didn't Know, was just as good, if more wide-ranging in its subject matter, but as I say, I'll post full details of how to buy both books early in January.
Where the back catalogue is concerned, Lee Harwood's Collected Poems is proving a favourite. There's plenty to puzzle over, plenty to dislike, even, but also huge amounts to inspire and delight.
My reading of novels was pretty restricted (although I've got a few good ones saved up for the New Year), and few stick in the memory. David Mitchell's Black Swan Green was good enough, but a big letdown after Cloud Atlas, which I loved. Lavinia Greenlaw's An Irresponsible Age had me spluttering with annoyance in a handful of places (mainly when she strays from her pleasingly spare prose to be self-consciously poetic), but was otherwise excellent, not least because most of the characters were so well drawn.
Music? Well, predictably, I loved Yo La Tengo's I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, which returned to the inspired genre-hopping of 1997's I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. It's maybe not quite up to the standard of that particular classic, but it still contains more ideas than a lot of bands have in a lifetime. It's the only album this year that I can honestly say I can't stop listening to, so it'll have to be my number one.
And that's it. Happy New Year to everyone - see you all in 2007

Friday 29 December 2006

Buy now!

A friend of mine, Mark Jones, has his first novella out now, from ISMs Press. It's called The Garden Of Doubt On The Island Of Shadows, and you can read more about it, and order it, by clicking here.
The way publishing is nowadays, it's even harder to get short stories and novellas in print than poetry, so it's always nice to see someone you know managing to pick out the difficult path to publication. I've not read it yet, but if his previous short stories are anything to go by, it'll be right up the street of anyone who likes well-written macabre fiction (think Ray Bradbury, maybe, as well as the names mentioned on the ISMs website).
Actually, Mark was my boss when I worked in Cardiff, and a jolly good boss too, albeit one with a dark and twisted imagination, or as dark and twisted as sub-editing the Pontypridd Observer and Cynon Valley Leader allowed.

Wednesday 27 December 2006

Stinking turkey

I always feel that way by about the 27th - there are only so many sandwiches you can have, after all.
Actually though, I just used that title as an excuse to publish a picture of my favourite bird of the year. It's the hoatzin, known by the locals in Ecuador as the Stinking Turkey, on account of the foul odour it gives off because of its bizarre digestive system, which would be more at home on a cow than a bird the size of a chicken. Its crop is so big it struggles to fly, and it spends most of its time perched while its stomach churns huge quantities of leaves.
Until quite recently, it was thought to be the direct descendant of the feathered dinosaur archaeopteryx, because the young birds have claws on their wings in a dinosaur fashion. It's now accepted that isn't the case, but nevertheless, seeing them stumbling about in the lower branches of the rainforest, it was impossible not to feel that there was something very primitive and other-worldly about them. A birder like me could hardly fail to enjoy a trip to Ecuador, but even the absurdly colourful macaws, tanagers and cotingas paled by comparison with this living fossil. The good news, too, is that having been around for millions of years, they're still not doing too badly, seemingly having carved out a unique ecological niche.
Anyway, I'm convinced that anytime now, I'm going to start writing poems about hoatzins (let's face it, it only takes a few winter thrushes to start me off usually). But if anyone else fancies trying it, send them here, and I'll post them. It's about time the hoatzin had its moment in the spotlight.

Sunday 24 December 2006

Merry Christmas!

I'm vaguely trying to put together my Best of 2006 (poetry, music, novels, maybe films). It could be tricky, though, given that most of my purchases this year seem to have been back-catalogue stuff, but we'll see. It'll give me something to think about tomorrow afternoon in between sleeping off a huge dinner and waiting to watch Some Like It Hot for the umpteenth time.
In the meantime, a very Merry Christmas to everyone!

Wednesday 20 December 2006

Splash out

For just a fiver a year, you can now support one of the UK’s best poetry chapbook publishers, Happenstance (I know, I know, I WOULD say that, but it’s true).
So what do you get for your hard-earned brass?
* Advance notice of each new publication, by post or email, with at least one sample extract.
* Invitations to all chapbook launches.
* 15 percent off the cover price of each publication.
* The chance to order a pre-signed copy of new publications.
* A chapter of The Happenstance Story each year.
* One free copy per year of a HappenStance publication.
* Courteous and helpful feedback on any work you submit – your chances of publication will remain exactly the same as everybody else’s, but it's hard to stress enough just how valuable good, impartial feedback is.
If you’re in the UK, send a cheque for £5 to this address, detailing your name, email address and postal address, and the chapbook you would like a free copy of (there’s a list of publications at the site).
If you’re outside the UK, and can’t pay in pounds sterling, it’s probably best to email Helena Nelson and make an enquiry at this email address.
Go on – it’s the price of a couple of pints, but with the advantage that it won’t make you start thinking that a shish donner mix with extra chilli sauce is a good idea.

Monday 18 December 2006

Big Green Man

Interesting article in Saturday's Guardian by Simon Armitage on his new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I've only ever read the old Tolkien version of the poem, and enjoyed it, but it's strange that there seems to have been so many recent translations. WS Merwin and Bernard O'Donoghue have definitely done it in recent years, and Armitage does make the point that the anonymity of the Gawain poet makes the piece particularly attractive to modern writers.
I think he's right that it has a lot of modern resonance, and the little bits I've heard have sounded excellent, so I'll be listening to Sir Ian McKellen's reading of it on Radio 4 this Thursday at 2.15pm, and putting it on my ever-increasing List Of Books To Buy When I've Got A Few Quid Spare.
To read the article click here

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.

Thursday 14 December 2006

More on our man Drayton

First off, after practically accusing him of being a one-hit wonder, I thought it only fair to post Drayton's finest hour, the afore-mentioned Since There's No Help. I think Don Paterson hits the nail right on the head in the notes to the Faber anthology of sonnets he edited, when he points out that its timeless appeal is down to the fact it's a very human poem. That said, it's technically pretty dazzling too, which rather makes you wonder why he wasted so much time on vast, unreadable epics like Polyolbion. Anyway, here it is...

Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part;
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me,
And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart
That thus so cleanly I myself can free;
Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love's latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes,
Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life, thou mightst him yet recover.

Incidentally, that book, 101 Sonnets, is worth buying for Paterson's very perceptive notes alone, although the selection's a good one too. I bought it earlier in the year, in a bookshop in Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, which rather inexplicably had four secondhand copies of it. It's not a book I'd be in a hurry to part with.
I've been to Drayton's birthplace, Polesworth, a handful of times, but there's no trace of him there. It's a sleepy enough little place, despite its proximity to Birmingham, but can claim to have got a mention in 80s pop star turned acid casualty turned alt rock legend turned megalith-hugger Julian Cope's excellent (though barking mad) song Reynard The Fox. He grew up nearby, as detailed in his autobiography Head On, just about the best rock 'n' roll book I've ever read.
See? Told you I'd end up rambling.

Monday 11 December 2006

Magma 36

Last Monday (December 4th) I went to the launch night of Magma issue 36, at the Troubadour, in Earl’s Court, London. It’s a lovely venue (the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Jimi Hendrix played there in the 60s), although its L-shape makes it quite difficult to know which way to look while you’re reading. But it was great to meet and hear some of the other poets featured in the magazine, because poems always take on an extra dimension in the flesh.
The standard was so high it would be hard to pick out a highlight, but I did particularly enjoy hearing Paul McLoughlin. I reviewed one of his chapbooks last year for Sphinx and liked it a lot, and he’s got a great voice for poetry. Other readers included Fiona Sampson and Penelope Shuttle, but as I say, the overall standard was really excellent.
As always, once I actually got up there I enjoyed reading, even though coming to terms with a microphone was something new, and I thought I was shaking so hard that it must have been visible from the back row.
Anyway, I was already thrilled to have been included in a magazine that also features the likes of Seamus Heaney and Billy Collins, but to read in such company was the icing on the cake, and reminded me that I have to get out there and read more often, so that can be my first (and only) New Year’s resolution, three weeks early.
And if anyone fancies it, Coffee-House Poetry, organised by Anne-Marie Fyfe (who also edited Magma 36), is at the Troubadour every Monday, from 8-10pm.