Tuesday, 29 July 2008

A rant

First, I’ll declare a professional interest. I’ve spent the last 16-and-a-half years on both sides of the subbing desk. I’ve seen my own copy butchered, and I’ve done the butchering too. Not without believing it needed it, for reasons of space or whatever, but that’s not the point.

However many times I read this, though, I can’t see it as anything other than a very minor celebrity with a vastly inflated sense of their own importance throwing their weight around in the knowledge that their victims can’t bite back. Bullying, I think they’d call it in most workplaces these days, and if I was one of the subs involved, I wouldn’t take it lying down.

Where to start? Well, there’s the fact that poor, sensitive Giles has been lying awake worrying about a single word in his column, and the fact that changing it ruined his would-be joke. Well, if they had mangled the facts, or changed it beyond recognition, I’d be with him all the way (in terms of the content of his letter, not the tone). But get a sense of proportion, for God’s sake – the lameness of the joke is all the proof you should need that this is not worth worrying about. Why doesn’t he just suck it up and live with it, like any number of writers? There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your work, but it’s not poetry, it’s not a novel, it’s not an academic textbook or a manual on which lives will depend. It’s a cruddy restaurant review that will already be chip wrappers. If he really is as witty and funny as he clearly thinks he is, why does he have to spend so much time explaining his jokes?

Much more annoying is the way he chooses to make his point. I’d be willing to bet he wouldn’t be too chuffed if the subs at The Times chose to write ranting letters (and leaking them into public) every time they came across some careless error in his copy. Why does he think it’s OK for him to do so? Quite apart from anything else, if they’re like the subs on every paper I’ve ever worked on, they’ll have a great deal more on their plate each day than a single sentence in a single article. Giles, on the other hand, has a succession of free dinners on his plate, and then gets paid handsomely for writing about them, in a style that can only be described as a third-rate imitation of the already terrible AA Gill.

If the style of the letter is anything to go by, he’s clearly one of those writers who thinks that even the most basic steps towards making an article ready for the page (using capital letters, for example) is to be left to the subs as well. If he hasn’t got the courtesy to make an effort, why should the subs, especially when the time they should be taking in fine-tuning his article has to be spent tidying up his slapdash presentation?

Probably the most arrogant part of it is “I am insulted enough that you think you have a better ear for English than me. But a better ear for Yiddish? I doubt it”. Yes, because no one could possibly have a better ear for English than Westminster and Oxford educated Giles, could they (although you might think the foul-mouthed near-illiteracy of his letter makes a strong argument against that)? As for the Yiddish, how does he know that none of the subs know it better than he does? And finally, he’s writing in English, not Yiddish. Whatever the origins of the word ‘nosh’, the way the subs used it is just as correct, so tough luck if it ruins your pathetic pun, Giles. You’re writing for the mass-market, not your own private amusement.

As for demanding prior approval, and that the subs never change a word of his copy again without his say-so, well I guess that comes down to the contract he’s on. If he’s effectively a staff writer at The Times, though, I hope the chief sub is telling him even now where he can stick his prior approval.

“It strips me of all confidence in writing for the magazine. No exaggeration. I’ve got a review to write this morning and I really don’t feel like doing it, for fear that some nuance is going to be removed from the final line, the pay-off, and I’m going to have another weekend ruined for me.”

Can you feel your heart bleeding for him? Here’s an idea, Giles. Don’t write for the magazine, if you don’t want to. My guess is that your greed and lust for more and more media exposure will quickly overcome your scruples, though.

Last of all, there’s the put-on cheeriness at the start and end of the letter, so that he can always claim “it was just a joke” if anyone gets upset. And they will have done, I’ll be willing to bet, except they probably won’t fancy their chances in the editor’s office against this posturing fool, so they’ll stay quiet for fear of getting their P45. What they should do is get angry, angry enough to acquaint the pompous ass with employment law and their union rep. Or, failing that, the business end of a pair of Doc Martens.

There is one consolation, though, and it would have occurred to a restaurant critic whose head wasn’t firmly wedged up his own arse. I’d have thought every sub on The Times will now be queuing up to sub his column, giddy with glee at the prospect of coughing a large, metaphorical mouthful of phlegm into the tepid sludge of his prose. Good luck sleeping, Giles.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Poetry in the papers

It’s Monday, so it must be time to recap on the weekend's reading. The Guardian had a great double-page spread on Sharon Olds. She gets, unfairly I think, less attention than she deserves over here, probably because confessional poetry isn’t particularly fashionable or popular, but I think she proves that it’s the quality of the poetry, rather than the style, that’s what matters.

In the Telegraph, meanwhile, Nick Laird was reviewing Mick Imlah, Bernard O'Donoghue and Adam Foulds. I can't say the latter's book appeals to me a great deal, but the other two do. O'Donoghue in particular is another poet who too often seems to slip below the radar.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Another reissue

When Steve Earle first came along in the mid-1980s (although he’d been a jobbing songwriter for about a decade at that point), he was quickly co-opted into the ‘New Country’ camp, a grouping so loose it covered everything from folky guitar-strummer Nanci Griffith (I’ll fight anyone who argues that Gulf Coast Highway isn’t a marvellous song) to Dwight Yoakam (forget the big hats, and just enjoy Guitars, Cadillacs etc.).

His first album, Guitar Town, was country with rock flourishes, and lyrics that immediately had him described as the country Bruce Springsteen (they already had a ‘new Springsteen’, in John Cougar Mellencamp). It had at least one bona fide classic, in the form of My Old Friend The Blues, and some other great tracks such as Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left and Someday. The follow-up, Exit O, didn’t get such a good reception at the time, being perceived as playing up the Boss influence, but I think it’s actually pretty good. There are a couple of good Tex-Mex tracks – San Antonio Girl and I Love You Too Much – plus the understated No29 and the always enjoyable I Ain’t Ever Satisfied.

By album three, in 1988, Earle should have been hitting his stride, but the drug problems that have plagued him since were beginning to take their toll, so Copperhead Road is a game of two halves. Four of the first five tracks are superb, with a massive sound that just about makes the link between hard rock and country, but sadly, the rest is pretty much filler.

Still, the album’s just been re-released, and it’s worth having just for those four tracks. There’s Copperhead Road itself, a tale of a bootlegging, drug-dealing Vietnam vet that absolutely explodes when the drums kick in halfway through. There’s Snake Oil, a witty, honky-tonk piano-driven dissection of the Reagan years. There’s The Devil’s Right Hand, pure country with an anti-gun message. And there’s the wonderful Johnny Come Lately, with The Pogues adding their ramshackle magic to a song contrasting the lot of Vietnam vets with that of World War Two GIs.

There are some extra live tracks thrown in, but they’re nothing special. After this, Earle went down some very dark, strange paths, and they’re not always easy to listen to, but this is him at his best.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Two for the diary

On Saturday, September 6th, the Society of Friends Meeting House on Queens Road, Leicester, will play host to the launch of Leicester poet D A Prince’s Nearly The Happy Hour, the first full-length collection to be published by HappenStance.

Another Leicester poet, Marilyn Ricci, will launch her HappenStance chapbook Rebuilding A Number 39 there, and of course both poets will be reading and signing books. The reading starts at 3pm, and you’re asked to e-mail nell@happenstancepress.com to say if you plan to attend. Both are Leicester poets

Later in September, on the 22nd, I’ll be the special guest at the Zest! Open Floor Poetry Night, at Alexander’s Jazz Bar, Rufus Court, Chester, reading poems old and new (and of course selling and signing copies of Troy Town and Making The Most Of The Light). Admission is £3/£2, and the poetry starts at 8pm, and of course you can come along and read your own work in the open mic slot. The evening is hosted by HappenStance poet Gill McEvoy.

Monday, 21 July 2008

US Poet Laureate

The USA has a new Poet Laureate - it's Kay Ryan, not a writer who was widely tipped for the post, but a very interesting choice. I wonder whether the UK's next Poet Laureate will be someone similarly below-the-radar (admittedly, my relative though diminishing ignorance of the US poetry scene meant that whoever was chosen had a good chance of being below my radar).

Friday, 18 July 2008

Birds in poetry

In the latest issue of the American Birding Association's journal Birding, there's a long (and unfortunately rather dry) article about birds in American poetry, starting with Anne Bradstreet in 1659 and going right through until the present day.

It ends with a list of 11 recommended bird poems, namely:
Who Called That Pied-Billed Grebe A Podilymbus Podiceps Podiceps? - Ogden Nash
The Peace Of Wild Things - Wendell Berry (it features Wood Ducks)
Buteo Regalis - N Scott Momaday (features Ferruginous Hawks)
Shorebird Watching - Amy Clampitt (Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover, Golden Plover and Turnstone)
On A 3.5oz Lesser Yellowlegs, Departed Boston August 28, Shot Martinique September 3 - Eamon Grennan
Barn Owl - Ted Kooser
To The Saguaro Cactus Tree In The Desert Rain - James Wright (Elf Owl)
Twilight: After Haying - Jane Kenyon (Whip-poor-will)
The Author Of American Ornithology Sketches A Bird - David Wagoner (Ivory-Billed Woodpecker)
The Need Of Being Versed In Country Things - Robert Frost (Eastern Phoebe)
Shrike Tree - Lucia Perillo (Loggerhead Shrike and Northern Shrike)

That list told me two things. Firstly, that I know far too little American poetry to be able to make an informed judgement on whether that really is a representative selection. Second, that as I suspected, American birders tend to have better names for their species.

But it also set me thinking of a top ten British (and Irish) bird poems. I've already got a few, and I'll post my selection in the near future, but all suggestions are welcome...

Thursday, 17 July 2008


I've just received Inextinguishable, the third chapbook by Scottish poet James W Wood. It's a 32-page, full colour pamphlet featuring his poems, and responses to them by 14 young artists from the Edinburgh College of Art, and the result looks positively mouth-watering.

It's the first Knucker publication I've seen, and they do perfect justice to an idea that, in lesser hands, might have ended up looking a mess. I've written before on Polyolbion about how the physical appearance of a book or pamphlet can greatly add to my reading pleasure (if that makes me a fetishist of some sort, then so be it), and this is a perfect example. It's so beautifully produced, you can't help but want to keep picking it up and reading it.

And the contents fully match the surface richness. So far I've only flicked through, picking out two or three poems to read, but they maintain the thematic and formal variety, not to mention lightness of touch, that characterised Wood's excellent chapbook The Theory Of Everything (HappenStance, 2006).

I'll be posting a full review when I've had time to read the collection properly, and think about the artists' responses - watch this space...

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Kelham Kingfisher

I’ve not done much birding locally over the last few weeks, for one reason and another, so I got out when I had the chance for an hour last night.

It was grey and overcast, but dry and very still, so I had a stroll around Kelham Bridge. There were plenty of Sedge and Reed Warblers (although the Grasshopper Warbler that was there a month or so ago couldn’t be heard), a Whitethroat or two, and, from the second hide, a Kingfisher perched on one of the posts in the water.

I was very close, but it didn’t startle even at the considerable noise made opening the shutters, and stayed there for around 15 minutes, diving three or four times. Each time, it came up with a small fish, and did its familiar ritual of battering it against the perch to make sure it was dead.

What’s really interesting, though, is how Kingfishers can change appearance dramatically in an instant. When I first spotted it, for example, I could only see the orangey breast and the white cheek patch. Then, as it turned round, the blue plumage became visible, but it appeared dull, unremarkable almost, certainly nothing like the electric flash of colour you usually get when you see one dashing along a riverbank. It was only when it finally flew away that the blue seemed to kindle and spark.

On the way home, I finally caught up with my local Little Owls (they’ve been very elusive this year) down a lane about a mile from my house. They’ve been nesting in the same tree for years and years – I can remember seeing them there when I was about 9 or 10. Judging by the amount of noise they were making, they’re raising a brood, too, so I daresay they’ll be there for years to come.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Swan song

I've raved before on here about The Triffids, the best group ever to come out of Australia (yes, even better than The Go-Betweens). When they appeared on the scene in the mid 80s, they were rightly lauded by the music press, but like so many other great bands of that era, failed to quite cut it commercially, even when they moved from an Aussie indie label to Island.

Their best album, to my mind, was 1986's Born Sandy Devotional, on which they sounded unmistakably Australian (no, scrub that - unmistakably Western Australian). Great, poetic songs about loners and losers, all of them victims of an unforgiving, harsh landscape, with a country-tinged, occasionally epic backing.

By 1989, they were experimenting with drum machines, samples and programming, and although you couldn't describe The Black Swan as an unqualified success (it's far too eclectic, ambitious and thus unfocused for that), it's actually stood the test of time pretty well. And it's just been re-released, complete with loads of bonus tracks (it was originally intended to be a double album), although the best things about it are still probably the 'typical' Triffids tracks - the gorgeously languid Too Hot To Move, the poppy Goodbye Little Boy and the hugely evocative New Year's Greetings. The latter is based on a Les Murray poem, The Widower In The Country, and fully does its source justice.

The album had just come out in May 1989 when I saw them play at Newcastle University. In fact I remember walking past the students' union record shop on a very hot day (we had summers, back then) and hearing Too Hot To Move blasting out, and going straight in to buy the record and tickets for their forthcoming gig.

Live, they were wonderful - intense and brooding one minute, poppy and playful the next. But sadly, that was it. They took a break, never intending it to become permanent, but it did. Singer and main songwriter David McComb released one patchy solo album, and dabbled in other bands, but died in 1999, closing the door on a sadly underrated band.

Do yourself a favour - buy the re-release, buy them all if you can. You won't regret it. In the meantime, here they are in their heyday, performing Wide Open Road.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Mystery poet

This story on the BBC News website is a reminder of just how many 'lost' poets there must be out there - it'll be interesting to see if they manage to track down any more information.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Kleinzahler review

There's an interesting review here of August Kleinzahler's Sleeping It Off In Rapid City: Poems New And Selected, which I mentioned a few weeks back. I think I largely agree with it - Kleinzahler is a poet whose work I often like a lot, but it's usually when he's a bit more empathetic. At other times, he can teeter on the edge of becoming a parody of himself, and it all gets a bit predictable and wearing. Still, either way, it looks like a book worth having.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Southwell Library Poetry Festival

Nottinghamshire seems to do pretty well for poetry events - Nottingham itself is home to a fine magazine, more than one press, and plenty of good poets, there's a book festival at Lowdham, and now there's this, just down the road at Southwell, which you may know better as a horse-racing venue.

My apologies for not having posted this sooner - I'd stored it up then was unable to get it online in time because I was between PCs. But late is better than never, I hope.

The Festival runs until Saturday (July 12th), and events include:
  • An introduction to Irish poetry.
  • A poetry writing workshop for beginners.
  • A talk on the poetry of D H Lawrence.
  • Four regional poets laureate reading together - Cathy Grindrod, River Wolton, Anne Atkinson and Sibyl Ruth.
  • Poetry and food from around the world.
  • Poetry by two visiting American poets, together with a concert of songs written by Woody Guthrie.
  • Readings of Shakespeare sonnets and an event for children.
Obviously, my tardiness means that some of those events have alread taken place, but a full programme is available from Southwell Library by calling Nicola Ellis on 01636 812148, and further information is also available by calling Ross Bradshaw on 0115 969 3597 or 07740 845 664.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Werewolves of London

I've just been re-reading a book called Hotel California: Singer-songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons, by Barney Hoskyns. It traces the history of all those Californian bands and artists of the era 1965-1977 (approx.), and there's not many of them come out of it smelling of roses. Joni Mitchell and Neil Young at least score more points for artistic integrity than most, but basically it's a tale of monstrous egos running out of control, and ideals being sold to the highest bidder.

I'm not a huge fan of many of the artists featured (aside from Young) - Jackson Browne and his ilk always came over as a bit too smug for their own good - but I do love the late, great Warren Zevon, who features in the book as something of a footnote. He was a bit like a more rock and roll version of Randy Newman (to be fair, I like Newman too), but sadly, even now, he doesn't get the credit he deserves.

Anyway, the book set me searching YouTube for vids of the Big Z, and here he is performing his (almost) novelty hit, Werewolves Of London. OK, so it's a bit silly, but listen to those lyrics. That line "Huh! I'd like to meet his tailor" makes me laugh out loud every time.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Latest at Litter

There's always something worth reading over at Litter, the online magazine edited by Nottingham poet Alan Baker. Incidentally, he also runs Leafe Press, which has put out chapbooks by the likes of Lee Harwood, CJ Allen and Martin Stannard (and his own Not Bondi Beach, which is excellent).

Anyway, at the moment, Litter contains plenty of good stuff, with poems by Peter Riley, Todd Swift, Rupert Loydell and Andrea Brady, plus a review of three Rupert Loydell titles. The test of a good online mag, I always think, is how much of it I want to print off to read again at my leisure, and this has been keeping the inkjet busy for a while now.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

So Here We Are 14

The latest in this series by Tears In The Fence editor David Caddy is now available here as a download, although as usual you can also read the text here, on David's blog.

As you'd expect when the subject is JH Prynne, it's a pretty weighty read, but it's well worth it. I was immediately struck by what David says about Prynne's poetry frequently getting described as "difficult" and "arid". Difficult is fair enough (not that difficult is ever necessarily a bad thing), but arid seems far too perjorative. Whatever else Prynne's poetry is, I'd have thought it's extraordinarily fertile with possibilities.

But anyway, have a read yourself. If you're already reading Prynne, or thinking about giving it a go, this puts his work in some sort of context.