Sunday, 30 December 2007

The Best of 2007

I don't intend to do any sort of comprehensive personal literary review of 2007 - my memory is far too poor for that. Instead, I'll just pick out a few highlights...

Of those actually published in 2007, I've got two contenders. First is Canadian poet Karen Solie's Modern And Normal, which I've read again and again since it came out. It's a hard-to-place book, sitting somewhere between the mainstream and the more experimental, but it's confident and assured in its own little niche. Secondly, I'll go for Colin Simms' Gyrfalcon Poems. I've only had my hands on it for a few days, but it's absolutely superb. Simms is a very fine naturalist and observer of birdlife, and writes about it in a style that owes something to Basil Bunting. It's not always easy going (although it's rarely tough either, and never wilfully obscure), and at times the delight in words is every bit as dizzying as the flight of one of these uber-predators. Honourable mention to Luke Kennard's The Harbour Beyond The Movie - a really dazzling book.

Of poetry collections I read this year (but which were published previously), favourites included Jane Routh's Teach Yourself Mapmaking, Helen Macdonald's Shaler's Fish, and The Great Enigma: Collected Poems of Tomas Transtromer. Macdonald is a real one-off, but well worth the effort, while Routh's book is a lesson in how to patiently develop themes throughout the length of a collection.

I didn't get through many novels, but I thought Jon McGregor's So Many Ways To Begin (actually published last year) was excellent, while where non-fiction was concerned, Ron Powers' Mark Twain: A Life beat all-comers.

And that's it. I'll do a poetry chapbook round-up on Tuesday (I thought it was a good year), but in the meantime, Happy New Year!

End of year arrivals

I've done precious little birdwatching in December, and absolutely none on my local patch until the last few days. It was good, then, to get over to Cossington Meadows today and be met with not one but two unexpected arrivals (and ticks for the year list).

First was a Water Pipit, picking its way around the margins of a flooded area in the company of two Pied Wagtails and a Green Sandpiper. It's been there a few days, apparently, and seemed to be feeding well.

Second was a Great White Egret, in the company of a Little Egret and no less than eight Grey Herons. It too seemed to be feeding well in a small pool and along some flooded ditches, although it did draw the attention of a pair of Mute Swans, who moved it on from their little corner of the pool. Its pure white plumage and orangey-yellow bill seemed to have antagonised them, either because they thought it was some mutant swan, or because they just don't like to see another species using their colour scheme.

Those two ticks take the year list to a not very impressive 140-odd. Of course, birders being what we are, we're all desperate for the pipit and the egret to stay until Tuesday, so that we can make them among the first ticks on our 2008 lists.

In the papers...

There was a good piece in yesterday's Guardian about Nottingham-based writer John Harvey, who is probably best known for his Resnick detective novels but who is also a fine poet, and was the moving force behind the poetry press and magazine Slow Dancer. I've got one of his books, Bluer Than This, from Smith/Doorstop, and it's excellent.
There was also this article about Charters and Caldicott, the cricket-loving old buffers in Hitchcock's classic The Lady Vanishes. Nice to see one of the great director's more overlooked films being taken seriously.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Merry Christmas!

An excess of festive cheer has kept me away from the screen for the last few days, and will continue to do so, I hope, for a while yet. I might just about put together a Best of 2007 in time for the New Year - until then, I'll just wish everyone a very Merry Christmas, and may your God go with you, as Dave Allen used to say.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Copyright conundrum

Good debate over at Surroundings regarding Wendy Cope's Guardian piece on poetry copyright, which I only got round to reading last weekend.
I think I'm firmly on the side of those who think that reproducing poems on the internet is likely, in the long run, to mean more sales for the poet concerned, although obviously it's entirely up to the individual poet what line they want to take regarding their own work. For my own part, I think nearly all the poetry I buy now (and the already groaning new bookcase I shifted into my back room two weeks ago tells me I buy a lot) is purchased after I've sampled the writer's work online. It doesn't happen nearly so much with the non-poetry books I buy, purely because they're usually much easier to find in bookshops, where you can spend hours flicking through them while you decide (Borders even provide sofas and coffee to help, for heaven's sake). So, is internet browsing of work really so different to hiding yourself in quiet corner of Waterstone's while you read all the best bits?

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

New at Stride

Couple of noteworthy posts over at Stride. First, there's these very fine poems by James Midgley, who you might also know as the editor of Mimesis. I found myself printing them off to read again at home, which is always a good sign with poetry I read on the net. They're well worth the company's ink.

Secondly, there's Stride editor Rupert Loydell's picks of the year. I can't claim to have read much that's on the list, although that's more down to lack of funds than inclination, but I did enjoy the Mike Barlow and Luke Kennard volumes, and I'll take this chance once again to sing the praises of Karen Solie's Modern And Normal. When I come to do my own pick of 2007, I'm pretty sure that it will be occupying top spot. Still just about time for that to change, I suppose, but whatever - it's a really excellent book.

Monday, 10 December 2007

An autobiography of America

If you mention the American author Thomas Wolfe to anyone in Britain, you will almost certainly have to stop two sentences later to explain that no, he isn't TOM Wolfe, the 'New Journalist' chronicler of the seismic social upheavals of the 1960s and author of 'Bonfire of the Vanities'. No, not at all; someone very different, in fact.

Born as the 20th Century got under way in 1900, Thomas Wolfe wrote during a period that many Americans regard as the 'Golden Age' of the American novel. He began as a playwright, and also wrote short stories, but it is his four long, unashamedly autobiographical novels that he is remembered for.

Packed with adjectives and adverbs, his opulent language communicates the life he saw through the shapes, textures, sounds, colours and odours around him. His writing career lasted a mere nine years, but during that time he produced a body of work quite unlike anything else in American literature.

Wolfe's books are highly lyrical, and his vast vocabulary can sometimes be overwhelming, but any effort required in reading the four volumes is more than repaid.

And the skin wrapping around the books, binding them all together neatly if not entirely coherently, is Wolfe's own life in a very light disguise.

Standing in 2007, Wolfe's books now seem like a huge autobiography of America itself in the early years of the 20th Century, during some of its darkest times. Somehow, he gets under the surface of that huge country and manages to show us what is going on there.

Sprawling is a word that is often used pejoratively, but in his case it would merely indicate how the books capture the enormous variety and diversity of American life during the Depression.

From his native North Carolina to the political excesses of 1920s and 30s Europe as seen by an American abroad, and back again, Wolfe's books present a vista of life at that precise moment, yet ever-changing. Huge, shifting, yet dependable; presented with an eye that captures detail incredibly.

Yet, despite the worst of all he sees, there is never a sense of despair in Wolfe's writing. At the end of 'You Can't Go Home Again', he sums things up honestly but with defiance: "What befalls man is a tragic lot. There is no denying this in the final end. But we must deny it all along the way. Mankind was fashioned for eternity."

Seemingly making more of a criticism than a comment, Nobel Prize-winner William Faulkner once said of Wolfe that he was "trying to put the entire history of the human heart on the head of a pin".

Ironic in a way, when you consider that the books that Faulkner read were far shorter than those Wolfe had originally written.

In a prescient foreshadowing of the current debate surrounding the 'restoration' of Raymond Carver's short stories, the books on which Wolfe's reputation rests were the result of long hours spent by editors with judiciously applied blue pencils.

His first novel 'Look Homeward, Angel' began life as a much longer work called 'O Lost' and was more experimental in nature than the work we know.

His last three novels - 'Of Time And The River', 'The Web And The Rock' and 'You Can't Go Home Again' - were all edited sections of an enormous multi-volume work called 'The October Fair'. The original was in fact of a similar length to Proust's 'A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu'. And that's a lot of pages.

The final two novels were culled from this enormous manuscript following Wolfe's death in 1938 from tuberculosis of the brain.

'O Lost' has since been 'reconstructed' and published. 'The October Fair' has gone forever, so scattered among various editors at the time that we will never learn the shape that Wolfe intended for it.

Following Wolfe's death, at the tragically young age of 38, Faulkner spoke up again. This time he praised Wolfe as his generation's best writer, placing himself a mere second.

The Great American Novel is something that has obsessed the American literary etsablishment for longer than anyone can remember. There are those who claim that that fox had already been shot by the time of Wolfe's death - that he had done it and all bets were off. Others disagreed, and the debate still continues.

But Wolfe's prose, its elegant, impressionistic grace and at times its almost uncomfortable honesty, will live on whether that particular medal is pinned on its proud breast or not.

Though his name is not so well known this side of the Atlantic, the scope and breadth of his work deserves your attention and I urge you to pick up a copy and read.

Mark Howard Jones

Friday, 7 December 2007

Poetry in primary schools

It’s not often you’re going to see me talking about Ofsted on this page, but this report from the government education watchdog about the teaching of poetry in primary schools makes pretty interesting reading.

I’m not sure I’m in any way qualified to make any pronouncement on it, given that my own primary school career is 27 years in the past, but it did set me thinking back. I don’t honestly remember being taught ANY poetry at primary school, or at high school (11-14) for that matter. And both of them, I should say, were really pretty good schools, with excellent academic standards.

As others have pointed out, the report contains examples of poetry being written by schoolchildren, and it’s really rather good, which confirms an impression I’ve formed over the past few years. My own godson (aged 11) recently showed me a poem he’d written for school, and it was excellent, and a colleague was telling me earlier this week about the poem his young daughter had written at school. She’d taken the sort of imaginative leap that I can’t imagine we’d have made if we’d been set the same exercise 30 years ago. In fact, a couple of years ago I attended a workshop at which much the same exercise was set, and while some interesting poems resulted, I think we all played it much safer. Finally, when I ran a workshop in a primary school a couple of years back, I was surprised but delighted by the standard of work the children wrote. Best of all was the fact that the kids (they were 10) gave the impression of being familiar with both very traditional poetry and much more modern stuff, and of being able to read and write either.

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that in my very limited experience, poetry does seem to be taught rather better these days, at least if what the children are writing is anything to go by. And while widening the range of what is taught is probably a good thing, I hope it’s not used as an excuse for chucking out all the older stuff. Room for both, surely?

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

So Here We Are 8

Here's the link to So Here We Are 8, the latest of Tears In The Fence editor David Caddy's Poetic Letters From England. As ever, it's interesting stuff, taking in all sorts of diverse writers, including John Arlott.
On that subject, I know he's regarded by many as the voice of summer, but I was a bit too late to hear much of his radio career, and so Richie Benaud takes that title in my memory. Usually TV sports commentators are grating at best, but I always loved Richie's pithy way with a phrase. His exchange with Geoff Boycott on the last day of the 4th Test between England and South Africa in 1998 was magnificent, and his despairing exclamation that "it's absolute carnage out there now" as David Gower stroked 215 against the Aussies in 1985 was the stuff of legend.
I think I might be straying from the point a little...

In the workshop

The December edition of Writers' Forum used my poem Yellow Bellies in its monthly poetry workshop, to illustrate assonance and alliteration, among other things. The series of articles takes different poems each month and uses them to offer straightforward, practical advice to writers. The magazine also includes news, a wealth of contacts for submissions and competitions, and a monthly poetry competition, so it's well worth checking out. Many thanks to Poetry Editor Sarah Willans for using my work.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Arrowhead say yes!

Friday’s reading came at the end of a pretty exhilarating few days for me. Some time ago, I submitted a manuscript for a full-size poetry collection to Arrowhead Press, and they’ve just accepted it. The working title is Troy Town (although I have quite a few alternatives in mind), and publication is currently set for the middle of next year.
Of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done, but when Making The Most Of The Light was being put together, it surprised me just how much I enjoyed that editing, honing process (it helps when you have an excellent editor), so I'm really looking forward to getting stuck in.
Naturally, I’m delighted by all this and haven’t quite got my head round it yet. I can’t claim to be familiar with all of Arrowhead’s poets, but I’m flattered to be in the company of those I do know. Bob Cooper (whose work is sometimes described as “New York meets Newcastle”) is a really excellent poet, whose perceptive criticism at The Works has been a big help to me, and David Bircumshaw (another Leicester poet), had a really unusual and memorable collection published by them a few years back. Another Works regular, Poetry Scotland editor Sally Evans, is there too, and Jennifer Copley, Lyn Moir, Marita Over and Sue Vickerman are all poets I’ve read and enjoyed. And of course, Poetry Editor Joanna Boulter’s own On Sketty Sands is a really fine chapbook (she went on to be nominated for the Forward Prize, I think, for her recent collection).
Funnily enough, at Friday’s reading, I met Peter Rafferty, who has already had a collection published by Arrowhead, and who shares my predilection for birds in poems. I like the look of his book a lot. It's good to be on board.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

HappenStance Border raid

From left: Myself, James Wood, Eleanor Livingstone, Trish Ace, Rob Mackenzie, Helena Nelson.

On Friday, I hot-footed it north to Carlisle for a reading, alongside five other HappenStance poets, as part of the Border Poets series.
I usually like to see a bit of the countryside on such jaunts, but it rained all the way up to Scotch Corner, and across the Stainmore Pass to Penrith, putting paid to my plan to do a bit of birding and stop off at the spot where semi-legendary Viking king of York Eric Bloodaxe (see the poetry connection?) was finally brought to bay.
We had one or two problems finding each other once we got there (and two or three excellent pints of Black Sheep), but were at the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in good time to appreciate what really is a lovely venue. And what followed was without doubt the best reading I’ve been involved with.
There was a good-sized audience, who were appreciative, knowledgeable and gratifyingly willing to part with their money for chapbooks (we were pretty much sold out by the end of the night). The variety of poets on show seemed to work particularly well, offering plenty of light and shade and both obvious and more subtle similarities (three of us, quite unintentionally, read poems with Robinson Crusoe connections).
Eleanor Livingstone, who launched her chapbook at the same event as me two years ago, read well from her excellent The Last King Of Fife. The title poem, in particular, is a favourite of mine, but she’s a very sure-footed poet, in an understated way, so there was plenty else to enjoy.
I’d only just met James Wood, but have been enjoying his The Theory Of Everything since it came out. He reads very well, with an engagingly animated manner, and his technical mastery and breadth of knowledge are worn lightly, both drawing the reader in and allowing him to surprise them when things take a darker turn.
Trish Ace was also a new face to me, but again I’ve been enjoying her book, First Blood, for months. We talked a little beforehand about attitudes to putting the domestic and everyday into poems, and Trish mentioned that perhaps the prevailing climate is against this, but her reading rather reinforced my view, that when it’s done well, as here, what is there to complain about? She makes connections between the personal and the wider world without signposting them or straining for significance, she distils emotion well, and she's another excellent reader.
Rob Mackenzie is another who manages to be animated without ever getting theatrical. It’s a style that suits his poems down to the ground, too, because he constantly springs surprises on you (in both style and subject matter) without ever reaching for easy, look-at-me effects. He read Concentration, one of my favourites from his chapbook The Clown Of Natural Sorrow, and his genuinely creepy At The Harry Potter Launch drew audible gasps from the audience.
For my part, I read five from Making The Most Of The Light, plus one from Winter Gifts, and a new-ish poem. The full set-list was:
1. Familiar
2. Man Overboard
3. Vocabulary
4. Poem
5. Redwings
6. At Home
7. Cure
In between times, HappenStance’s founder and all-round creative dynamo Helena Nelson read poems and talked about the experience of starting a chapbook press from scratch. I think every one of us would say we owe a great debt to her, not only for taking a punt on putting out our books, but also for her hugely supportive and instructive editing of said pamphlets.
We all told the audience a bit about our current activities and plans (more on mine tomorrow), and afterwards chatted with them while books were bought, drinks seen off, etc. If any of them are reading this, thank you too for making it an enjoyable and inspiring night.
I meandered back, via a secondhand bookshop in Penrith (£7 for two books, on 14th century poetry and medieval history), and RSPB Leighton Moss, where the wind was keeping the Bitterns and Bearded Tits deep in the reedbeds, but a very showy Great White Egret gave great views.