Wednesday 27 July 2011

King of cowpunk

There's no surer sign of middle age sinking its false teeth into you than realising that you can't remember the last time you went to a gig. I'm thinking that it was about two years ago, at least.

Fortunately, help is at hand, as a quick scan of The Musician's website earlier today revealed that cowpunk legend Jason Ringenberg is in town once again. So, that's my Tuesday night sorted.

Ringenberg was the front man of Jason and the Scorchers, who, back in the early 80s, were briefly bracketed with the likes of REM as the Next Big Things from the USA. You have a pretty good idea of what's happened since - Michael Stipe and band went on to world domination, while Jason and his boys faded into near-oblivion. That was a shame, because their foot-to-the-floor brand of country rock (more like The Ramones backing Merle Haggard than The Eagles harmonising blandly) was a breath of fresh air in the Spandau Ballet and Kajagoogoo-bedevilled landscape of the mid-80s. Their first mini-album, Fervor, was an absolute blast, with a great cover of Dylan's Absolutely Sweet Marie, and their next two albums were in much the same vein.

Ringenberg now pursues a schizophrenic solo career, performing children's songs as Farmer Jason, and bashing his way through new material and some old classics at gigs like next week's. And The Musician is a great venue, however unpromising its location tucked away down a side street just off the ring road. Last time I saw Ringenberg there, he ended the night playing a couple of songs standing on the bar. I'd settle for that sort of night again.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

The long and the short of it

A few things this last week have set me thinking about the length of poems, and to what extent there's a sort of default size preferred by editors and publishers (not necessarily entirely consciously - in fact, almost certainly not).

It was all sparked by this blog piece by American poet LouAnn Muhm at the excellent Loft Literary Centre blog. I think LouAnn makes a great case for the short poem (I'm thinking 10 lines or less), and hits on pretty much all the reasons why I like them. But, looking back through my own poems, the vast majority clock in at more than 10 lines, but less than 40. Why is that?

In part it's because, as you start out as a poet, you see a lot of UK poetry magazines full of poems that fall within that range. Some specifically ask for poems of no more than 40 lines (that's certainly true in many competitions), and seeing this, you naturally try to fit in with what's gone before.

At the other end of the scale, I can remember feeling that, in a submission of maybe four poems, it doesn't make sense to send something that's barely there at all. In fact, I can remember having felt that despite the fact that, frequently, editors took the briefest (but almost certainly the most tightly written) of the selection I sent them. Clearly, then, a large part of the problem is mine - I should get used to the fact that a good editor can tell a good poem regardless of its length, and fire away with the short poems.

Having talked to a few other poets about this, though, it does undoubtedly seem to be harder to place really short and really long poems in magazines. I suspect it's purely because editors are seeking to strike a series of balances - give too much space to one epic poem, and you'll get complaints from readers who wanted more variety, and leave too many of your pages as a snowscape with a tiny poem huddled in the top-left corner, and you'll get readers telling you your magazine isn't worth the money.

I get the impression that things are changing a little, maybe partly as a result of the gradual breaking down of divides between different schools and styles of poetry. For a start, sequences seem to be much more common than 10 years ago, and they can allow the poet to have the best of both worlds, with each section being highly concentrated, but effectively adding up to a single, long poem. I've been tinkering with one myself, using very short verse forms to make up a connected whole.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this ("you don't say?", I hear you thinking), except to say that I'd be interested to hear any views. Are short poems seen as somehow less substantial (in terms of literary merit, rather than quantity of ink on a page)? Are long poems seen as inevitably overwritten? And why, if I'm preaching the virtues of concision, can't I make my blog posts a bit shorter?

NB LouAnn's also running an online workshop on writing short poems - you can read more about it, and sign up, here.

Friday 22 July 2011

Enchantment, by David Morley

Carcanet, 2010, £9.95

Recent years have seen David Morley mining a rich seam of inspiration from his Romany background – the results, in terms of both quality and quantity, have been enough to make any poet envious. This latest volume shows no sign of a drop-off in either department.
Enchantment does exactly what it says on the cover, fully living up to every sense of that word. In the modern sense, it draws the reader in immediately, delights and intrigues, and doesn’t stop doing so until you put it down.
To do so it draws heavily on worlds of myth and magic (as in the Latin incantare), and most importantly, it sings (cantare). The straightforward simplicity of the title is reflected in poetry that’s serious, ambitious and challenging, but never wilfully obscure.
Its early poems celebrate both friendship and the natural world, and as you’d expect from an ecologist, Morley has a sharp eye and a knack for exact, economical phrasing to conjure it up for the reader.
He also has a gift for evoking nature in a far more impressionistic way, though. In Chorus, a favourite at recent readings, there’s a sparrow sorting “spare parts on a pavement” for every turnstone doing “precisely what is asked of them by name”.
Enjoyable as they are, though, these poems are merely the warm-up before the main event, the “lit circle” in which Romany myths and circus stories are unfolded in sparkling, shimmering language.
This section contains the highlights of the collection, for me. There’s Hedgehurst, telling the story of a half-human, half-hedgehog creator-king, The Circling Game, in which a blacksmith creates a girl from fire, and Spinning, which considers the whole process of story-telling and translation of experience into words, bristling with lines such as:

What’s fabulous might be a hedgehog spiny with rhyme
or a bride born from gnarled nouns. What’s fabulous might be
darkness drowsing over a woman of words beside a waterfall
of words. What’s fabulous might be an anvil hammered white-hot
with hurt, or Lippizans held or hurtling on the harness of a verb.

Now while the Romany background is much in evidence, for me these pieces also recalled Anglo-Saxon poetry and (appropriately enough for the Midlands-based Morley) the Gawain poet in their heavy use of alliteration and their physicality. That’s a difficult knack to pull off – however much I like it, I’ll admit that in some Anglo-Saxon poetry, the metre makes it very difficult for the language to really take flight – so all the more credit to Morley for keeping his lines so supple. Passages such as this, from The Circling Game, beg to be read aloud for the sheer pleasure of the sound:

The masters stank of rancid bank-notes. Their palms were plumy.

Their palms were planed purple with done deals and sure things.
John played a circling game with the horse masters, sending

himself off when wanted most, shying on the end of a lunge line
of their flattery, letting himself be talked back to the fair with a drink

before coming back and laying out the tackle and terms of his trade.

It adds up to an intoxicating brew, and I’ll go back to that word ‘fabulous’ that’s so  crucial to the passage quoted from Spinning. As with his collection’s title, Morley’s good at getting you to consider a word’s whole lineage – he takes you back to an older meaning while keeping all its current connotations alive.

I’ll be surprised, and disappointed, if this book doesn’t end up in the running for one of the big awards this year, but regardless of whether or not it does, it’s a superb piece of work. Read it.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

In the footsteps of Drayton

Last night I dashed down the M42 to read at The Fizz 8, at Polesworth Abbey Refectory, in North Warwickshire.

As I noted in the preview pieces about the event, it was a particular thrill to be reading in Michael Drayton's hometown. In fact, both Drayton and John Donne are thought to have read in front of the same fireplace (pictured above) that's now part of the Refectory, and Shakespeare is rumoured to have spent time as a page at nearby Polesworth Hall. The chair that's pictured, by the way, isn't an Elizabethan torture instrument - it was built by one of last night's poets for use while he's playing the guitar.

In keeping with the setting, I tied to give my set a bit of a historical slant, and all went very well (except for a coughing fit in the middle of Troy Town - fortunately it's short enough to start again). There were excellent and varied open mic readers, including Barry Patterson (pictured) and Gary Longden - nice to catch up with both of them again - and Mal Dewhirst, the driving force behind Fizz and Polesworth's poetry trails.

My set (divided in two by the interval) was:

Prelude for Glass Harmonica
The sea at Ashby-de-la-Zouch
Drinking With Godberd
Dreams From The Anchor Church
Leland's New Year Gift To The King, 1546
The Meeting Place
In St Martin's Square
West Leicester Lullaby

Fantasia for Glass Harmonica
The American version
Worst Case Scenario
Troy Town
Nocturne for Glass Harmonica

If you're ever in the area, Polesworth's well worth a look. As well as the Abbey Church and its 14th century gatehouse (below), there's the Polesworth Poets Trail I mentioned. Also, despite the fact that you're a stone's throw from the motorway, Tamworth, and the great sprawl of Birmingham beyond it, there's a lot of remarkably unspoiled countryside within walking distance. 

Monday 18 July 2011

The Fizz 8, at Polesworth

A quick reminder that I'll be reading tomorrow night (Tuesday, July 19th) at regular live poetry/spoken word/open mic night The Fizz, just over the border into Warwickshire. It all takes place at the Polesworth Abbey Refectory (on the High Street), starting at 7.30pm, and refreshments are available. As I've mentioned before, Polesworth was Michael Drayton's hometown, so it's a real honour to be able to read there.

Monday 11 July 2011

An interview with Michelle McGrane

Michelle McGrane's third collection, The Suitable Girl (Pindrop Press), was one of the highlights of the last few months for me, a strong, unified piece of work whose poems utilise a wealth of evocative detail to build their many layers. I got the chance to talk to her about it and poetry more generally just ahead of the Cape Town launch of the book, and she also shared a couple of the poems from the collection.

The Suitable Girl feels like a very unified piece of work – was it conceived that way, or did you find your writing leading in a certain direction?

I’d written a few persona poems when The Suitable Girl, the title of a previous poem, kept reappearing and waving at me from the wings, trying to catch my attention. At that stage I knew that I wanted to explore the idea of societal expectations in relation to women and I thought that the irony in the title might work for a collection of poems about ‘unsuitable’ women, women who had strayed from the paths of convention. Once this consciously became the bridging theme it was relatively easy to continue in the direction I’d envisioned the collection taking, although in the three years of writing The Suitable Girl I removed and added poems to the extent that only a couple of the earliest survived.

With a project like this, then, do you actively research the personae involved, or is it a case of accumulating knowledge about them over a long period of time to the point that you have to write the poem?

I try to discover as much as I can about the character and the period through biographies, novels, films, art and the Internet. The more I immerse myself in the character’s life and surroundings, the easier I find writing the poem. In a way, I imagine it might be similar to preparing for an acting role where you need to become the character in order to portray her. As a hoarder of miscellany, I find research endlessly fascinating, sometimes to the point where I have to steer myself back to the poem before I lose sight of it.

Could you tell us a little bit about your writing processes? Do you revise and redraft a lot? And do you have any particular conditions/rituals that need to be in place before you can write?

Until I have some idea of where the poem is heading and what form it’s taking I tend to draft in longhand on lined paper with a Pilot Fineliner. There’s something very seductive and satisfying about making loops and curls in black ink on clean white paper (and for me, the finer the pen tip the better).
When the poem is sufficiently shaped I transfer it onto my computer where I continue drafting and editing. In the early stages of a poem’s creation I need to be alone and I work best in silence. I’ve always envied poets who are able to write while listening to music but I find music distracting.
I don’t carry a notebook so occasionally when I’m at a café or restaurant I’ll write notes or a couple of lines on receipts and tickets found in my wallet; I tear pages out of my spiral bound logbook and scribble while I’m waiting for the traffic lights to turn green on my way to work.

Do you keep all the drafts of a work, even once you've started writing onto the computer? I heard Paul Farley talk about this recently, and he was saying that he keeps printouts of every draft. I sort of envy that, but I'd be terrified of being buried beneath a wall of paper.

An environmentally friendly alternative to keeping printouts of every draft might be to save them in a folder on a memory stick but, no, I don't keep every draft.

I can honestly say I've never read a poetry collection that's made me quite as hungry as The Suitable Girl did! It's a very sensuous book generally, but especially where taste and smell are concerned, and I thought you used them both very evocatively in a way many poets ignore. Are they always such a focus of your poetry?

Well, it depends what the poem requires. Thirteen Ways with Figs, Bertha Mason Speaks and The Remise of Marie Antoinette, aged 14 are more sensuous than the poems about my father's death. I think the senses provide a direct route to the reader's imagination and that by invoking them he or she can be transported from the comfort and familiarity of an armchair to undiscovered worlds.
Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses (Vintage, 1990) is a book I'd recommend to writers of all genres. She suggests that "Our several senses, which feel so personal and impromptu … reach far beyond us. They're an extension of the genetic chain that connects us to everyone who has ever lived; they bind us to other people and to animals, across time and country and happenstance. They bridge the personal and the impersonal, the one private soul with its many relatives, the individual with the universe, all of life on earth."

Moving away from the collection a minute, I wondered what your opinions are (as a very web-savvy poet, and one who's able to look at the UK scene from the outside) on the way the internet is changing poetry. My own experience is almost wholly positive - I think the internet has exposed me to the writing of poets I'd never have come across otherwise - but I wonder too whether it's breaking down some of the tribal divides that used to exist.

I think the Internet has opened up the world to poets not only in terms of having the opportunity to read work one might never have come across and being able to interact with writers living on other continents but because of the news, resources and information at one's fingertips. I really don't feel qualified to comment on tribal divides except to say that from what I've observed the virtual community is accessible to anyone who has an Internet connection and shows an interest in poetry.

It's probably the question poets get tired of being asked, but are there any particular poets you constantly return to for inspiration?

Louise Glück and Margaret Atwood.

Do you enjoy the whole process of getting out there to do readings to promote a book, and do you find the audience response feeding back into your next project? And is there any prospect of any UK readings somewhere down the line?

It’s encouraging and humbling when people attend readings and I particularly appreciate when, at the end of an evening, someone takes the time to tell me why a certain poem means something to them. Still, I’m always more comfortable at my desk than in the limelight. As years go by, being the centre of attention seems less important, less real to me, than creating and writing.
I have good friends in England so, at this stage, I’d say the prospect of a few UK readings down the line is fairly good. I’ll keep you posted.


Finally, I was free to disappear
the day my husband
brought the young brush cherry home.
He settled her on the stand
between the firethorn and crab apple,
then mended the mossy wooden fence
along the property boundaries.

I knew she was different
by her tapering trunk,
glossy, red foliage,
heavy lower branches
and well-distributed roots.
Oh, she was ornamental enough.
He’d always had an eye for potential.

Through the bedroom curtain,
I watched her peel twenty years off his age.
He couldn’t keep the smile from his face,
spent the evening kneeling in the garden,
singing green heart notes
to her sprouting, elliptic leaves.

No more fingering,
pinching, pruning, bleeding,
every branch and twig wired,
brown and flexible, bent to the shape
of his fingers and thumbs.

Waking in the early morning, I left him
wrapped in dreams of sweet, red flesh,
the sunlight glinting off my node scars.

The Escape Artist

In our three-month acquaintance, Faolán was known throughout circus rings as the Lord of the Fleas. Faolán means ‘little wolf’. He was a hairy wee beastie. Agile, a born entertainer and ambitious to boot. Nothing short of global domination would satisfy the Lilliputian star. From tenth generation Saratov Circus stock on his paternal side, his mother was Muirne Mac Nessa, the Irish siphonaptera racing champion. People journeyed from as far as Argentina and the Macau Peninsula to marvel at his mesmerising chariot act, dazzling tightrope performance, virtuoso cannon routine and death-defying fire dance.

There was no one to blame but myself when he ran off with the ringmaster’s silver weimaraner. I should have suspected something was amiss. He stopped feeding when the laughing, long-haired bitch sashayed past his trailer, refused to turn cartwheels as I greeted him from behind the magnifying glass. Now, I’m training aerial silk artistes. Of course, it’s not the same. My heart’s no longer in the hyperbole. Does he miss the good times, he spotlight, the smell of roast chestnuts and candyfloss, the cheering crowds? I sleep with his gold-trimmed tophat and tails, his diminutive whip, in a snuffbox beside my bed.

Michelle McGrane lives in Johannesburg and blogs at Peony Moon. Her collection The Suitable Girl is published by Pindrop Press in the UK and Modjaji Books in South Africa.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Templar award winners

Just got an email to say that the winners of this year's Templar Pamphlet & Collection Awards are Clive Allen, Christopher James and Andrew Jamison.

Their short collections - Violets; The Manly Art Of Knitting; and The Bus From Belfast – will be published and launched at the Derwent Poetry Festival in November, along with the 2011 anthology Bliss.

The full Derwent Poetry Festival Programme will be available in August.

Monday 4 July 2011

Tears in the Fence 53: hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica reviewed

Issue 53 of Tears In The Fence arrived on Friday, so I spent large parts of the weekend dipping in and out of it. There's the usual excellent variety of poetry, but what sets it apart from many poetry mags is the amount, and quality, of reviews and critical articles included.

It was a nice surprise to find a review of hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica in this issue, and a very good review it is too, by Nathan Thompson. Of course, any poet likes being told nice things about their work, and Thompson does that ("full of some very fine descriptive and musical writing"), but he also talks in detail about what he wasn't so keen on, concluding "It [the book] is slightly overbalanced in favour of the self-contained lyric that doesn't provide (this reader at least) enough wriggle-room." He identifies two Matt Merritts, and prefers the one that "lets the roots hang out a bit and writes more open, multidimensional poems".

I think I agree, in as much as that's the type of poem I'm trying to write now, and enjoy writing most. That's not to say I'm trying to disown anything that's gone before at all, but I'd guess that the vast majority of poetry collections capture a snapshot in time, with the poet frozen for a moment on their way between two (almost certainly hard to define) points on the poetry spectrum. Which is probably a long way of saying that it's good to know that there's some evidence of development!

But anyway, I'm very grateful to Nathan and to Tears... for such a full and well-argued review, and I was particularly glad he chose Variations On A Theme By J A Baker to illustrate the sort of poem he enjoyed.

Elsewhere in the issue there's an excellent review of Gill McEvoy's The Plucking Shed, which reminded me that it's about time I got my act together and posted my own appreciation of a very subtle and surprising collection. And flicking through the latest Magma, I also noticed a review of Tom Duddy's new book. Like Gill and myself, he's a HappenStancer, and I loved his pamphlet The Small Hours, so I'll be seeking out this new collection, The Hiding Place.