Thursday, 31 January 2008

The Man With The Lightbulb Head

Having read Martin Stannard's post the other day about Robyn Hitchcock's gig at the Rescue Rooms in Nottingham (and having missed said gig thanks to the dreaded norovirus, which has now left me with a kidney infection – happy days), I’ve been playing Hitchcock’s back catalogue non-stop in the car. As the post says, he’s been so prolific over the years that I’ve got nothing like every album he’s made, but I still have a fair few.

Chronologically, I suppose the best place to start is with The Soft Boys’ classic 1980 album Underwater Moonlight (Hitchcock was their main songwriter and singer). The main influences are definitely psychedelic, but there’s more than a little post-punk flavour too, especially on the glorious guitar roar of opener I Wanna Destroy You. I’d guess that the longer pieces, such as the title track, got them eyed with suspicion by punk fundamentalists at the time, but it’s an album that stands the test of time very well, I think. The reissue from a few years back, with several bonus tracks from the sessions and a 2nd CD of demos, is worth having.

One of the most bizarre things about The Soft Boys, of course, was that alongside Hitchcock was Kimberley Rew, who evidently decided he’d had enough of being critically praised but unsuccessful and went on to form Katrina and the Waves, who had a huge hit with Walking On Sunshine and then, many years later, won the Eurovision Song Contest.

I’ve written before about Hitchcock’s two superb solo albums, I Often Dream Of Trains (1984) and Eye (1990). I can’t recommend either highly enough – Eye would probably be narrowly my favourite.

The other two I’ve been listening to this week are Fegmania (1985) and Element Of Light (1986), Hitchcock’s first two studio albums backed by the Egyptians. The first is actually fairly upbeat (musically, that is; lyrically it’s as dark and twisted as ever), with lots of neat little guitar-pop songs like Another Bubble and Insect Mother – you can hear why Hitchcock became a big favourite with REM-ish college bands. There’s also The Man With The Lightbulb Head and My Wife And My Dead Wife, which have remained Hitchcock favourites to the present day. I like the understated, moody Glass, too.

Element Of Light is, I think, one of his most underrated albums (it’s quite difficult to get hold of, unfortunately). Bass is a great song, with its stream of fish (get it?) and bird references, and its propulsive bassline, and both Winchester and Raymond Chandler Evening are fine too. But the highlight has to be the absolutely sublime Airscape, all genuinely poetic lyrics, backwards guitar, harmonies and glass harmonica, the latter giving it an almost ethereal feel. It’s probably my favourite Hitchcock song, and that’s against some pretty stiff competition.

There are loads more albums, but I’ll have to get round to them some other time. Suffice it to say that, as Martin Stannard suggested, Hitchcock is a must for anyone with an interest in words (OK, he can be self-consciously weird at times, but it’s worth sticking with him), saying nothing of the music. He’s a real national treasure.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Poetry Daily

I was pointed in the direction of the excellent Poetry Daily by Alison Brackenbury – it features a lot of US poets, in particular, and it’s always well worth a look.

A poem from Alison’s forthcoming new book, Singing In The Dark, will be Poem of the Day on the site on February 18, and she’s got another, 6.25, appearing in this Saturday’s Guardian Review. I've just pre-ordered the book from Carcanet - I can't think of anyone better at mixing traditional form with very modern concerns.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Reviews and news

There's an excellent review of Colin Simms' Gyrfalcon Poems by Mike Barlow over at Stride. I think most of what he says is fair enough, really, especially about the field-note feel to much of it, and I'd guess that's always going to appeal to birdwatchers more than the casual reader. The thing about reading it in small doses is a good one too, although I tend to do that anyway, or rather to get a bit worried if I plough straight through a book of poetry too easily. Poetry, for me, is a fine single malt to be enjoyed after the meal (novels, history or whatever). There - how pretentious does that sound?

But he's right. It is, in effect, a Selected Poems, albeit all on one subject, so reading it like a single collection probably isn't the way to go.

I'm also indebted to Eleanor Livingstone for pointing out this, in the weekend's Scotland On Sunday (go down to the poetry review section). Always nice to get a mention.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Appallingly literal

I always rather liked Ruth Padel's poetry columns in The Independent. I didn't always agree with her interpretations, but at least that's what they were - interpretations, based on a close reading of the poem. At the very least, they sent you away with some ideas about the piece that hadn't occurred to you before, to adopt or reject at your leisure. They didn't waste too much time telling you about what the poem said, or what effect it might be intended to have on you - they just got straight on with telling how she thought the poet went about achieving that effect.

Unfortunately, this regular poetry column in The Times, by Frieda Hughes, misses the mark entirely. It seems to be a very literal retelling of the content, without ever going into the mechanics and magic of the poetry. I struggle to see what the reader gains from it that they couldn't get from just reading the poem carefully a couple of times. If you've seen it on a regular basis, you'll know that this is pretty much par for the course, and not a one-off. Shame, because there's little enough space given over to poetry in newspapers as it is. A missed opportunity.

Monday, 21 January 2008

People's poet

Terrific article on Rabbie Burns in Saturday's Guardian Review (the first one in ages that I've read almost cover to cover), going a bit deeper into the reasons for his greatness than is usually the case in the pieces that inevitably get published at this time of year.
Otherwise, it's quiet. Almost too quiet...

Friday, 18 January 2008

Further reading...

Couple of interesting poetry-related pieces in the Guardian this week. Firstly, this, which eloquently addresses the question of Arts Council funding. Immediate reaction to the funding review from a lot of sources was wholly negative - as this shows, it's really a very complex picture. There's already a good thread discussing it developing at Poets On Fire.

Secondly, there's Sean O'Brien's refutal of Giles Foden's assertion that it hasn't been a good decade for poetry. I might disagree with him about some of the names he includes (and leaves out), but I think his basic point is spot-on, as is pointing out that the mainstream isn't some monolithic, homogenous grouping (any more than the avant-garde is, for that matter). Foden's remarks, meanwhile, are so throwaway, with nothing to back them up, that they probably don't deserve the attention they're getting.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Doing the double

Sean O'Brien has added the TS Eliot Prize to his Forward Prize for The Drowned Book, completing a unique double (he ought to do an open top bus tour, balancing the trophy on his head, to complete the football analogy).

As with all awards, there's been much talk about the shortlists and the eventual winner, and if the point of such prizes is to get people talking about poetry, then it's a job well done. I'm not really a big fan of O'Brien's poetry (I think it's that the language is SO unrelentingly murky and menacing, as the Guardian writer puts it, although by the same token that's a strength in other people's eyes), but it seems to me the judges have a pretty thankless task, given that they're going to upset someone whatever they decide.

And that's what I don't quite understand. If you've read a writer, given them a really fair chance, I mean, and still not been grabbed by their work, why should it matter to you if they then go off and win awards? Life's too short to read and write all the poems you WANT to, without wasting time worrying about writers you've decided aren't to your taste. Try it, decide, and move on.

And if this seems like a wet, woolly, live-and-let-live plea, it is. Poetry, like any artform, ultimately comes down to personal taste, so trying to figure out why some people like poetry that I don't would be like trying to understand why some people support Derby County.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Plover lover

When it comes to birds, a lot of my favourites are in the large family that we Brits call waders (shorebirds, for any readers across the pond, where waders are heron-type species, I think). Trouble is, living as I do as far from the sea as it’s possible to get in our little island, I don’t get to see that many, both in terms of number of species, and actual number of birds.

Looking back at last year’s year list, I saw 14 species on the local patch – Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Golden Plover, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, Ruff, Snipe, Whimbrel and Curlew. Of those, LRP, Lapwing, Golden Plover Redshank, Snipe, Oystercatcher, the two Sandpipers and Curlew are pretty much guaranteed to turn up at some stage each year, while the others are less predictable. Spot Red and Greenshank, in particular, were great birds to see, but I wouldn’t count on them coming back.

The weather has meant a slow start to my birding year. On Saturday, with a few brief hours of clear skies and crisp, dry weather finally in prospect, I went for a long walk round Sence Valley Forest Park to thoroughly check it out.

The streams and pools were in full flood, and the wader scrape had long since disappeared beneath the water, but without even leaving the car, I could see a sizeable flock of Lapwings and Golden Plovers on one of the adjacent farmers’ fields.

All things considered, though, it was quiet. Metaphorically speaking, that is, because the air was full of the whistling of Wigeon and the constant bickering of Black-headed Gulls, all the more so when a Sparrowhawk made a low pass over them. There were a few Gadwall, a dozen or so Shovelers, plenty of Mallards and Tufties, and on dry land (what there was of it) a handsome male Stonechat. The latter are winter regulars at the park now, and are always good to see, with their rusty breasts, confiding nature and air of barely-contained nervous energy.

Nothing too out of the ordinary, maybe. Except, when I turned my bins on the skies, and really looked, there WAS something amazing going on. High up, beyond the occasional gulls and corvids, hundreds and hundreds of Golden Plovers were flickering and shimmering across the clear blue. Great, wispy clouds of them, with stragglers here and there and the occasional breakaway group, some of which formed very precise-looking V formations. And why? Your guess is as good as mine. This went on for about an hour, well before dusk, with no obvious reason why they shouldn’t have been down on the fields, feeding, or gathering around one of the isolated pools on the sheep pastures. But whatever, it’s the nearest we get to the sort of wader spectacular that’s commonplace on many coastlines, so you just have to make the most of it when you can.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Renew, renew!

January always brings with it a little cluster of membership and subscription renewals. One that didn't take any thinking about was the HappenStance subscriber offer. For a miserly £7.50, you can get:

Advance notice of each new publication, with at least one sample extract;
Warm and appreciative invitations to launches;
15% off the cover price of each publication;
The chance to pre-order a signed copy of new publications;
A chapter of The HappenStance Story each year;
One free copy per year of a HappenStance publication;
Feedback on your own work if submitted (though chances of publication remain exactly the same as everybody else’s).

My free copy was of Cliff Ashby's A Few Late Flowers. I've only read the first couple of poems so far, but it's really excellent. I also ordered Ruth Pitter's Persephone In Hades, and look forward to getting stuck into it (the weather forecast maakes this weekend look a good bet for some uninterrupted reading).
Anyway, you won't spend a better £7.50 this year, and you might even get the bonus of a little HappenStance button badge.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Current reading and browsing...

Big new batch of posts over at Stride - I like the look of the Ivon Hitchens book, he being an artist I've liked for a long time, and Simon Foxell's Mapping London sounds pretty enticing, too. I love maps of any sort, to be honest, and I tend to love London too, when I'm not there, which is the vast majority of the time.

Where books are concerned, I'm still enjoying Colin Simms' Gyrfalcon Poems a lot, and having mixed thoughts about Mark Cocker's Crow Country. I absolutely loved his Birds Britannica, and I have a very big soft spot for corvids, but at times in this new book he does go over the top, rather. It's when he starts straining for 'poetic' effect, I think - a "rose-tainted sky", or a "junta of greylag geese" (why? in what possible sense a junta?) - that I lose patience a little, and when he tries a bit too hard to justify his obsession. Don't get me wrong, it's a very enjoyable read, and both fascinating and moving, but he could do with reining things in just a little at times.

Friday, 4 January 2008

So Here We Are 9

The latest in Tears in the Fence editor David Caddy's Poetic Letters From England is here. As ever, there's a text version on the blog. Also as ever, there's plenty of food for thought there, which of course is the only kind of food we should be thinking about now the excesses of the festive season are in the past.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Chapbooks of 2007

I read a fair few chapbooks in 2007, partly because I like the format anyway, and partly because I review them for Sphinx. And there were plenty of goodies. Let's recap on a few...

I'll start with HappenStance. The Small Hours, by Irish poet Tom Duddy, and
Twenty-Three Poems, by Rialto editor Michael Mackmin, came out at the end of 2006, but I only bought them in January. Both were both fine collections that have demanded re-reading. OK, I'm biased, but I think they both added greatly to HappenStance's burgeoning reputation. There's a new crop of books from HappenStance just out, too, so I'll be working my way through them ASAP.

Robert Hamberger's Heading North (I think that was the title - I can't find it online just now) was an excellent retelling of John Clare's journey from an Essex asylum back to his childhood home, while Peter Brennan's Torch of Venus was probably my favourite of the year, a taut, songlike sequence that blurred the line between the mainstream and the more left-field.

From across the pond, LouAnn Muhm's Dear Immovable was similarly pared-down yet musical, and packed a real emotional punch (there's a full collection to follow soon, too), and Celia Lisset Alvarez's The Stones was evocative and sensual, if a little overwritten in parts.

Finally, I loved Rob Hindle's Some Histories Of The Sheffield Flood, 1864. OK, it came out in 2006 too, but I was just catching up. It's a superb mixture of real history and poetry, with an accumulation of detail being used to excellent effect.

I think, and hope, that chapbooks are steadily gaining ground in the marketplace, not least because they offer a cheap way of tasting different poets. They offer new poets a chance to get their work out there, and more and more established, 'name' poets seem to be using them to publish stand-alone sequences, etc, that might not fit in a full collection. The more the better, I say.

New Year's Day birding

Technically, my first birds of the New Year were a Magpie, calling at about 12.10am, and a Robin singing happily in Whitwick marketplace not long after, but first actual sightings were a Carrion Crow and. of course, the Jackdaws on my chimneypots. They haven't dropped any half-eaten kebabs down into the grate lately, but they're a pretty permanent fixture up there. At times I've thought about getting the chimney swept so I can have an occasional coal fire, but the thought of displacing them puts me off.

In the afternoon, I managed about three hours at Cossington Meadows, attempting to get the 2008 patch list off to a flying start, and saw a total of 47 species (including the trip there and back). The Water Pipit was still around, which was a nice bonus, but sadly the Great White Egret was long gone. Still, although most of the others were what might be called bread and butter species, it was a thoroughly enjoyable way to blow off a few cobwebs in preparation for the big return to work today, and there were a few other good ticks which might save a lot of searching later in the year. Jack Snipe, for instance, plus a few Bramblings in a finch flock, and a Green Sandpiper (sometimes easy to find, others not).