Thursday, 22 December 2011

Olson, Ormond and the Energy Flow

I was in the front bar of the Conway. This was back in the days when the Conway had a front bar. It was here that the great Anglo-Welsh poet and filmmaker John Ormond held court. Ormond had risen to fame by making unparalleled documentaries about the poet R S Thomas, by writing verse good enough to get Oxford University Press to publish, and for knowing Dylan Thomas personally. There’s a photo, somewhere, of a barely recognisable Ormond sitting on some rocks with a few other people. One of them is allegedly Dylan.

John was generous with his time. He’d looked at my amateur verse on a number of occasions and actually bothered to make suggestions which helped me improve it. “Why not take the beginning and put it at the end” was one of his better ones. I was the new white hope. This mainly because I was young, omnipresent on the nascent literary scene and full of energy.

“The trouble is, Finch,” he told me, “that they won’t be putting ‘he had energy’ on your gravestone.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about so he explained. “You need to start writing something of worth.”

The big literary subject of the age was the battle between form and content. Being full of enthusiasm for poetry but not actually having very much to say was anathema to John. Much of the theorising went back to Charles Olson (1910-1970) and his Black Mountain College in the Appalachians. His manifesto on Projective Verse had much to answer for. “A poem is transferred from where the poet got it, by way of the poet, all the way over to the reader.” Poetry as energy, poetry as flow. “Form is never more than an extension of content,” as Olson’s pupil Robert Creeley put it. Much of this was taken to mean that form on its own was sufficient. Not really what Olson meant, I believe, but what many of his followers actually carried out.

In my case that translated into an enthusiasm for the art of verse itself rather than what verse could do. Nothing much, the saying goes. Ormond begged to differ. “You must have a message,” he insisted. “Celebrate, describe, honour, encourage, excite, manipulate, promote. You need to do those things.” So I did.

I suppose that as my ability to work in a range of forms has expanded over the years I’ve learned that the content of what I want to say usually dictates the form it will eventually take. Some things are prose fiction, some extended verse, some post-modern shake-ups in sound and letter. The idea arrives first then you work out where to take it.

Olson, revered as one of the great twentieth century American poets, was never readily available in the UK. You could read about him and the work of his pupils but rarely could you get your hands on the poetry of the man himself. I was once standing on the poetry balcony at the second iteration of the Welsh Arts Council’s Oriel Bookshop. The one in the Friary, Cardiff, at a time when commerce was beginning to rear its difficult head. I was manager. I was showing Andrew Motion around. “What I’d like to see,” I said, waving at the endless shelves of titles, “is something like a collected Olson appear from Penguin. Wouldn’t that be a great idea?” There was silence. Motion was still. Then he spoke. “No. I don’t think so,” was all the future poet laureate said.

Monday, 12 December 2011

First Words Best Words

For some Allen Ginsberg, at the heart of the last century, is the man who started it all. He was the one who made poetry thrilling, who made it vital, who made it something that the young wanted to engage with, who used it as a weapon of resistance that had authorities rushing to investigate and ban him. The man who made poetry so bloody appealing and who made it so easy to get on board. For others he was simply a bearded, balding hippie who smoked too much dope and took himself far too seriously. Not me, not Bob Dylan, nor a host of others. For us Ginsberg set the motor running.

He invented things. Breath length. A long verse line that went on for as long as there was breath inside the poet to read it. Once the breath ran out so, too, did the line. A poetry that filled the page. Then there was first words, best words. Get it down as fast as it arrives and in the order that it comes. Hold back from rewriting, the spontaneity and energy might dissipate. That led to a whole raft of followers churning out their first thoughts and leaving them as they were, unamended, unmoulded, sitting there in their ragged and unfixed glory. Easy poesy. Too much really. But the Beats were into spontaneous bop prosody, ways of making their thoughts align with the horn solos of the bebop jazzmen they so admired.

Yet despite Ginsberg’s teachings it’s my belief that rewriting is about as essential as coming up with the words in the first place. Nothing ever arrives complete. Everything needs some consideration. How much is what poetry is about.

First words, bets words, one side of the argument. “On the other is the belief that intuition provides only so much raw material, which the revision process shapes, much as a sculptor shapes his stone. Baudelaire mocked those writers who “make a parade of negligence, aiming at a masterpiece with their eyes shut, full of confidence in disorder, and expecting letters thrown up at the ceiling to fall down again as a poem on the floor.””” That’s from Stephen Dobyns’ Best Words, Best Order: essays on poetry. Like Baudelaire Dobyns is no slouch when it comes to verse. And here I think he’s got it right.

For me I’ll go through any number of changes. Leave the thing lying and then sneak up on it and see how it looks. Inevitably something not spotted before will now need fixing. But there’s a limit. Robert Graves made a virtue of rewriting and there are tales, apocryphal no doubt, of him making fifty drafts and even then not feeling he’d made the poem work.

Readings help. You try the thing out in the air and suddenly it starts sounding so different from how did back there on the page. Bits don’t gel, don’t slide, go on for far too long. You take the text home and you change it ready for next time. And next time if the bumps are still in place you take it home and change it again.

If you have a look at Ginsberg’s original manuscript for his masterwork, Howl, you’ll see that he’s made any number of changes himself. Howl did not arrive in the night, fully formed, even if that’s the myth some like to promote. It was the result of concentrated effort and a considerable amount of editing.

First thoughts, best thoughts. It’s a great idea. But for poetry first words, best words – maybe ultimately not.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

How Old Do You Need To Be?

Do you need to be young to cut at the edge? Maybe the best thing is to burn bright and soon and then vanish. Arthur Rimbaud did this. J D Salinger too. Not quite one hit wonders but writers who said what they had to and then removed themselves from the literary scene. Other concerns, other fears, other things to do.

The alternative is to die. And to do that while still at the precipice of promise or, certainly, with still a lot in there to give. Jimi Hendrix, Shelley, Byron, Hart Crane, Emily Bronte, Sylvia Plath, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, Buddy Holly. Not many from Wales. Round here in the rain we tend to resolutely hang on.

When I was young I firmly believed that it all happened then. Now I’m no longer I don’t. Big Bill Broonzy, I often quote, did not learn to play a guitar until he was forty. That gives credibility to the state of the late starter. Everything is still possible – and that despite your eyes starting to fail and the fat arriving. Although it turns out that Big Bill was nearer thirty when he bought his first guitar. He actually played the fiddle before that.

No matter. Can we still be at the cutting edge in retirement? Bob Cobbing was, roaring his sonic poetic wonders until well into his eighties. Although it can and has been argued that his ground-breaking all happened when he was much younger. The latter-day work was mere permutation, extension and repeat.

I’m really not sure.

But I am certain that the future should be firmly in the hands of those who are going to occupy it. That includes the whole digital text, end of the book as we know it rigmarole too. I’ve said it before and I’ll do so here again, critical articles in Planet notwithstanding. The ultimate future is no longer with hard copy print. Those who love paper will be safe until they die out. But then the keyboard thumb will become master.

Meanwhile the older person still rocks. Just about.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Performance - Standing Up or Sitting Down?

Performance, what is this? It’s a label that sometimes gets used for what I do and it happens increasing often these days. It isn’t something I’ve sought either. In fact, being labelled a performance poet sets up an audience expectation that I often don’t really want. Calling what you do performance creates an expectation of arm-waving entertainment, histrionics, in-your -face politics, up-front humour, shouting, stage dominance, strange costumes, and most of all, instant gratification. Immediacy. Performance poetry equates with instantaneous access. With material that requires little distillation and hardly any subtlety. Material that works at the moment you hear it. Bang. Like that. And that is often just not what I do.

How did we get from there to here? There was a time when poetry readings were delivered in quite, considered mode, in front rooms and small quiet halls, in places where people with hats would sit and not, where poets would stumble and mumble and read with their heads down tight into their books rarely ever engaging the audience’s eyes. Poetry would seep. It would flow into the air like a kind of fog. Readings were attended because, why, who knows? Maybe because it would be an opportunity to see the face behind the word. It would be a chance to show solidarity with an arcane art. It would allow poetry lovers to hear how the lines were meant to fall, as delivered by their creator. That would be someone who might also add a few introductory remarks of illumination and explanation. A scene setting for verse. If you needed such things.

Some poets could do this and some did it fairly well. Dylan Thomas had the reputation although I only ever heard him on record. I did witness A G Prys Jones in action and Harri Webb, John Tripp, Glyn Jones, Gwyn Jones, John Idris Jones, Gwyn Thomas, Bryn Griffiths, Roland Mathias, Raymond Garlick, Tom Earley, and others central to the then Anglo-Welsh cannon standing up in halls and side rooms and having a go. Most of what they did was unedifying, poetry that seeped out and stumbled across the floor, that had you reaching for the relevant book to get a handle as to what was going on. I’m talking here about how they presented their material, of course, and not the material itself. John Ward turned up on stage once in a stylish working man’s donkey jacket. A breakthrough I thought. No chance. The organiser castigated him for not looking the part. Bloody hell. The part. Poets as bankers, poets as ministers. There had to be a better way than that.

Nobody seemed to care much about stage presentation, working out what they were going to read (their set lists), finding ways of doing this without spilling their books all over the place and dropping papers on the floor, about actually engaging with their audiences. It took a new generation of stand-ups like Adrian Mitchell and Brian Patten to come into wales and show the world the way to go. Even then the shoe gazers on the Welsh circuit carried on more or less as they were.

My interests were actually in the European avant garde. A place were writers made sounds for the sake of hearing how their voices came over in the actual air. Ernst Jandl. Bob Cobbing. Henri Chopin. Edwin Morgan. ZZxxbghghgh hick hooo ahahhh. To do this you had to push your voice out to the back of the hall, had to arm wave, have confidence, engage your audience by looking them in the eye. Famously we brought all this to the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre in the early 70s and blew the sedate Cardiff poetry world into the corners. Some of it anyway.

For me that approach led directly to the one I use now. Standing up, using the voice, making it work for me as a prat of the poem itself. Adrian Mitchell told me that you can use your voice to slide across a faulty verse once or twice but that after a time it gets so you have to fix things. This has proved to be the case. Public readings always lead me into rewrites. I always use text, too. My poetry is a written thing. For some present day stand-ups that isn’t the case.

These days however, I often long for the old ones. Those times when you could quietly move through your work, sometimes explaining sections, letting the words themselves rather than the way they sounded do the work. Hard to manage amid contemporary expectation. Occasionally I announce that for my next reading I will sit. Sit and read. Harder to project then, less likelihood of histrionics, but still delivered with strong voice and for the audience rather than at them . Works too.

I’ll be at The Promised Land doing some of this again on the 5th December, 2011. I might sit on the other hand I might also stand.

That's not me but the late Henri Chopin at the top of this posting.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Recording The Unrecorded - Has To be Done

It’s good to see that after all these years there are moves out there to preserve who we are and who we were, to hang on to our literary heritage. Some of it, at least. After decades of allowing the best readings to pass unrecorded and our great readers to move into their fractured-voiced dotage without any of their performances being kept change is afoot. Lack of record hasn’t happened to everyone, of course. There are recordings out there of some of the historical world-beaters, certainly. W B Yeats sounding like an Irish rain dancer wailing The Lake Isle of Inishfree, TS Eliot coming across as a banker, Tennyson (yes, really) charging the light brigade in his Lincolnshire drawl and Dylan Thomas using the sort of received English that might have worked well when he was making albums but would get you nowhere fast today.

Yet of the many top readings I’ve witnessed over the past four decades scarcely one was put on tape. Jackson Mac Low at No Walls. Sorley Maclean heart clutchingly supporting R S Thomas. Ted Hughes at the height of his powers at the Sherman talking about being in Wales. Henri Chopin making body sounds at the Reardon Smith. John Tripp in full diatribe mode upstairs at the Marchioness of Bute. George Macbeth in the Blue Anchor. Yevtushenko at the Conway. John James and Bill Griffiths at the Central Hotel. D M Thomas at Oriel. Seamus Heaney at the Bute Theatre. There were scores more. All now lost in the air.

It was worse at more local readings where poets could rise to fame and fall from grace without ever cutting a single track. Admittedly occasional recordists brandishing fuzzy cassette recorders would appear. They’d ask if they might leave their microphone out front. Latterly, we’ve often witnessed men (and it was usually men) using tripoded video cameras from the corners of halls. Where their collected recordings ended up I’ll never know.

Of the poetry of these lands the conventional usually got the better deal. If a University set up a specialist department (such as the one with a certain amount of flair and prescience spearheaded by Tony Curtis at Glamorgan) then when recordings were made is was the central cannon who were invited in. Glyn Jones, Harri Webb, Leslie Norris, Emyr Humphreys. The innovators, experimenters, edge pushers and the frankly and boldly new were left to manage their own rock and roll.

But out of left field now come our online saviours. The new generation archivists have a particular interest in poetry of innovation, that broad left-field of writers who spent most of the 60s, 70s and 80s out in the literary and academic cold. The British Electronic Poetry Centre at the University of Southampton has captured a range of the British hard core including Ken Edwards, Thomas A Clark, Caroline Bergvall and Frances Presley. At what was once the Academi and is now Literature Wales the online writers database is slowly being populated with mp3 files of Welsh-based writers reading. Some of these come from live gigs other are by special arrangement. A thin presence right now but it’s thickening slowly.

The Archive of the Now – started by Andrea Brady at Brunel and now operating out of Queen Mary, University of London - styles itself as constituting ‘a scholarly, aesthetic, social and political resource for writers and readers of innovative poetry’. Its range is wide and increasing. A glance down their extensive list of contributors revealed loads I wanted to listen to. They ranged ranging from Britain’s answer to John Ashbery, J H Prynne, to the land’s hardest working non-metropolitan innovator, Geraldine Monk. But there were also literally dozens of names new to me. Quite a few of those I’ve clicked on have been a revelation.

My contributions, online next month, are a mixture of material captured down the years at live performances, stuff made in electronic music studios plus new material, recorded standing up in my living room, giving it a good blow.

Reading to an audience of one certainly creates an austere atmosphere. The language shifts and fractures along with the bent vowels and mashed consonants were a breeze. Most of the jokes, however, fell flat. We’ll edit those out a leave the core intact. Finch, after all these years, once again Now. Check it out. It’s an honour. Put your speakers on high.

Monday, 31 October 2011

The Instant Gratification of Poetry

I do the walk right across Rest Bay with Minhinnick. This is surprisingly successful given the condition of my muscles. Rob is pointing out the local landmarks and giving me a running gazetteer of their Welsh-medium place names – Gwter Hopsog, Gwter Gryn-y-locs, Bae Pinc. These places feature in his books, are inspiration points for plot turns in his novels. We’re heading out beyond the surfers’ paradise of the Lifeguard Station towards Sker Point. There are sea caves there with rocks that are full of lights.

Most people know Robert as a poet – recently successfully back on the scene reading with Sean O’Brien for William Ayot’s Poetry On the Border series at Chepstow and again for Ali Anwar’s H’m Foundation – but his recent successes have been essays and fiction. Sea Holly, his novel of Porthcawl low-life set among the dunes and the Treco Bay Caravan Park was short-listed for the Ondaatje Prize. And there’s a sequel in production.

Poetry, however, remains an obsession. Carcanet Press will bring out a new and revised Selected Minhinnick next year and Seren have a full length literary study of Robert’s work set to follow. 2012, Minhinnick year and well overdue.

Many people know Robert for the years he edited Poetry Wales. Forty-three issues, enough to bend the enthusiasm out of the most dedicated verse obsessive. Poets have thin skins, we agree. Sensitive souls ready to fall on the slightest misconstrued word as a signal of failure and of rejection. I can remember all this from days as editor of second aeon. I did twenty-one issues, less than half Robert’s total, but that was enough to tell me all I needed to know about how poets think of themselves. Nobody has any confidence it seems. Every previous success was somehow a fluke and the new work a desperate trial to see if the trick can be repeated. If the plan falters then the end of the world starts to loom. Poets want instant gratification, bangs on the back and their names in lights. Nothing less will do.

Performance poets are worse. Here the gap between the work and fulfilling exaltation has been reduced from perhaps weeks to something like seconds. The poet stands up, the poems get read and the audience react. If they don’t then the piece clearly hasn’t achieved its objective. But I think we need to remind ourselves here that some work, in fact a great deal of work, needs just that bit longer than a single out loud reading to give up its glories. By the same token much material provokes no response simply because no audible or visible response is actually appropriate. Not everything in life is designed to make you laugh or whoop. Some things burn slowly, from the inside.

Robert Minhinnick’s current book, launched this coming week, is The Keys Of Babylon (Seren) a set of linked short stories that cover much of Robert’s concerns with the end of dictatorships, the life of the planet and wider sustainable world. It isn’t poetry but then again in a way it is. Any instant gratification going on? Certainly not.

From Sker Point you can see over Kenfig Burrows and right up the coast to Port Talbot. It’s the end of October and the sun is still shining like it was summer. Soft seas out there and hardly a breeze. On this long and fragmented estuarial walk I’m ultimately bound for Gower. Worms Head. Standing on Sker Rock I can almost see it. But it’s too far. We turn back and do the return ramble into Porthcawl instead. Surf’s up. The gulls over Rest Bay are cawing.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Liverpool Returns

It’s 1968 – the Cardiff streets are full of grit and darkness. Old men wear flat caps and shabby raincoats. The lights in the shops are there yet they don’t shine quite like they do now. But there’s hope. The kids are alright. I’ve sold six copies of my world-beating avant garde poetry mag second aeon outside the venue. I’m in Charles Street, half way down on the left, where the young are streaming into the Estonian Club. Just about the only place we’ve got that’s bookable for gigs. It has a basement cleared of internal walls and a small stage. Upstairs, guarded by ancient men with accordions and suits, is a tiny bar.

Penguin have just published volume ten of their ground-breaker Modern Poets series – The Mersey Poets. Verse that they don’t teach in school, poetry you can read for actual pleasure that’s about the world you come from, the one you live in. Roger McGough, Brian Patten and the amazingly plump jean-wearing painter, Adrian Henri. On stage tonight is Adrian’s band, The Liverpool Scene, poetry with guitars, electric stuff, poetry about love and lust and art and life.

They come on, all six of them, looking like beatniks. Andy Roberts on dazzling amplified acoustic guitar and vocals, Mike Hart a drop-out Liverpudlian Dylan, Mike Evans on sax and a poet too. In front the bohemian bulk of Adrian, not a singer, not a player of instruments, but a poet. He does it, mike in hand, “You keep our love hidden, like the nightdress you keep under your pillow, and never wear when I’m there”, intoned over Robert’s modal picking. Takes us all somewhere. Poetry you want to make soar in your head like it was a song. The album they’ve just recorded was produced by John Peel, The Amazing Adventures Of. My copy gets played to flatness, so often the grooves barely work.

Could be that Henri, in this persona, the public poet, the entertainer (as opposed to the painter, the surrealist, the lover, the political activist, the avant gardist, the literary creator), was the lode from which many future stage-stuck performance poets took their direction. Even without hearing him or even knowing of how the Liverpool poets moved verse right up the popularity stakes Adrian Henri’s influence today, unsung as it may be, is deep and long.

He died back in 2000 but not before painting the amazing Entry of Christ into Liverpool 1964 (after James Ensor), writing a poem of the same name, and getting the freedom of the city in 1999.

The band vanished from the racks and seemed, too, from the entire reissue market. In an age when everything is available again the Liverpool Scene for decades remained lost. But you can hear them again now, if you are interested in the roots of how poets on stage got up the courage to be so in your face, so moving, so entertaining, so rhythmic, so unfazed by their shuffling audiences and so full of spirit. An expanded version of the original album containing reruns from their later recordings has been reissued as a double CD. The Amazing Adventures of the Liverpool Scene is out on the Esoteric label and available through Amazon (where else). Get it for Adrian’s Love Story, his Batman Poem, Made in the USA or from Mike Hart’s transcendental Gliders, Parks.

Adrian had a Welsh grandmother there was funding found in the seventies to have him read in Cardiff, on his own, as funny and as challenging as ever he managed fronting his band. If you wonder who I’m talking about it’s time you checked him to see how entertaining and relevant he was. If you were there you’ll already know.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Frangipani And The Drift Of Kretek

Coming into Indonesia from Singapore was uneventful enough. Admittedly the guy at check-in at Changi Airport had pulled a face and told me that he wouldn’t actually be able to forward our luggage directly to our Garuda internal flight onwards from Jakarta. But it should all be okay. I’ll label them for special handling, he offered, whatever that meant.

Off the plane and into the crazy queues to buy entry visas. No signboarding anywhere to explain what was going on. Milling hoards of mixed Australians, Malay, some Britishers and, standing next to me, a hairy, misshapen Dutchman looking like a character from Robert Crumb. He didn’t like queuing, you could tell, so he pushed and shoved and got to the head by sheer obnoxiousness, banging his case into everyone’s shins as he went. The rest of us hovered and fidgeted for half an hour as the line inched every slowly forward.

It has always amazed me that the level of bureaucracy in a given country usually operates in inverse to its world status. Try flying into Zimbabwe and see how long you have to queue for entry and how much their customs fiddle with your bags. But then again try the US Border point at Newark. You can be there for a day.

Visas done we moved on to a whirling melee surrounding a single check-in, unconnected to any sort of baggage belt system, and with one tired and shirt-sleeved operator doing his best to deal with the surging crowds. In this new queue, if you can call it that, I was joined again by Robert Crumb’s Dutchman. He looked dazed. He banged his case onto my foot and then shouted loudly that he wanted a flight to Jakarta. But this is Jakarta someone told him. He stood there, puzzled, taking this unexpected information in. Then his eyes widened and I didn't see him again after that.

This vast Indonesia is a Muslim land, of course. Largest Muslim nation in the world. You’d expect the women not to smile at you but they all do. The huge airport sells no alcohol, has no designer shops and no air conditioning. In the tropical heat locals walk past wearing knitted jumpers with jackets on top. Passengers have their cases wrapped in paper, carry bundles on their heads. Everyone has a mobile, everyone smokes. The onward flight arrives. What chance is there that our cases, left miles back at the beltless baggage check-in, will follow us? Not much.

I’m two thirds of the way through Francis Spufford’s splendid re-telling in dramatized form of the ultimate failure of Russian communism, Red Plenty. It's a Faber paperback. Send for yours now. I’ve got to the bit where Khrushchev has been ousted from the Kremlin and sent back home in an ordinary car rather than his long-serving limousine, the deluxe Zil. For the first time in his political life he has to sit next to someone and actually rub shoulders. Never happened before. Humanity you engage with. Flying Garuda’s like that.

Half way there I get given a packed meal and a bottle of water. The pack contains a tiny melting chocolate bar, a meat roll that’s seen better days and a second, mini bottle of what turns out to be water from Wales. Seven thousand miles away and the stuff still follows me round.

Malang airport, under development and certainly not there yet, is bolted onto an Indonesian Airbase. There are guns and soldiers and air force personnel in strong evidence. Access to the terminal is a walk down the steps and a stroll across the tarmac. Inside baggage reclaim is a bear pit. Cases being unloaded from the plane’s hold by hand and slung through an open door, just-arrived passengers pushing and shoving and grabbing. Being a westerner means that I’m taller than most of them so I can at least see what’s happening. I spot our bags, amazingly reached here on the same plane that we used. I get them with a swing of my arm. Then we run.

Suddenly there’s a hand on my shoulder. Can I see your baggage claim, sir? A polite, uniformed English-speaking official with a clip board. He’s asking me this at the point where I’m loading the bags into the waiting car boot. I show him our receipts and he checks them off and thanks us. Despite everything the system works.

Packed inside among our clothes are the things you just can’t get in Indonesia: bacon, cured ham, Cheddar cheese, jars of Marmite. And you need that stuff.

Beyond are the smells of frangipani and the drift of Kretek cigarettes and the Indonesian Java sun up there beaming and rolling.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Literary Monsters

At the end of the street is a huge banner mounted on steel poles. The bottom half is a confectioner’s swirl of sponsor logos – ANZ, Casa Luna, Planet Wheeler, ExxonMobil, RBS, Intercontinental, Jakarta Post, The Egyptian Embassy, the Australian Government. Above are the faces – Nurri Vittachi, Chris Abani, Andrew Fowler, Alicia Sometimes, Fitri Yani, Jaya Savige, Marieke Hardy, Rebecca Starford, DBC Pierre. It’s the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, mounted on a scale of which Hay would be proud, and starting next week. In an act of reverse serendipity my ticket home is dated tomorrow.

Bali is one of the most unlikely places imaginable in which to hold a predominantly English language festival. A lush, tropical, Hindu island almost as far away from the Western world as you can go. They speak Bahasa Bali here, frighten off the bad spirits with endless ceremony, make offerings to volcanos, waterfalls, trees, tend the tourists with meals of fried rice and stringy chicken. You can get beer but books don’t loom large.

Yet this is the eighth time they’ve run the festival and even if tickets cost more than they do at Glastonbury people come. Their lists of stars from the literary firmament are almost entirely unknown to me, world-striders Tariq Ali and DBC Pierre excepted. Australians dominate, Hong Kong Chinese, Japanese, New Zealanders, Indonesians. This is, after all, an Aussie back-yard. A place, now the bombings have been and gone, to be nurtured.

What’s surprising is the format of the events they run. Change the names from Om Swastyastu and Djenar Maesa Ayu to Twm Morys and Robert Minhinnick and this could be Bay Lit or the Dylan Thomas Festival back in Wales. How to write folktales. Journalism and Creative writing workshops at the local library. Turn your blog into a book. Words in motion – lose yourself in a lust for language. Storytelling: the secret society of the dragon protectors. Latin rhythms – sip on margaritas, graze on tapas, listen to Latin American words. The sun may be different here but what’s under it remains much the same.

We head back up the road to Nyoman Sumerta’s family temple where, for the first time in thirty years, the world is being purified. The twenty-eight strong Gamelan orchestra, suited and squatting, make Philip Glass sound old fashioned. The masked dancers act out Balinese morality plays, hands bent backwards, moustaches flying. Family members, and there are more than a hundred of these, are dressed in unison – the men in orange collared white polo shirts; the women in silken green blouses. Everyone is saronged. The men wear headscarves, the women flowers. They dance, they offer rice, blossom, chickens, water, fruit, roasted pig and fish to the gods. They sing, they chant. They photograph each other on their mobile phones. They all smile, they never stop.

In the corner on a raised platform two Bob Cobbing clones read from the ancient books as if this were a Cabaret Voltaire dada performance. I can’t understand a word but it sounds like Schwitters or Hugo Ball or Tristan Tzara, syllables bent and stretched, consonants crashing. Someone hands me two cakes and a bottle of water. If I’d wanted a cigarette I could have had one of those too. Almost every man present is smoking. There is nothing bad here now, shouts Nyoman, face a mass of smile, it is all banished. He claps me on the back. Beside him a small boy is imitating the leg bends of one of the masque-wearing dancers. His friends are laughing. Solemnity doesn’t feature in this religion.

The meal which follows, and to which we are invited, has rice and a raft of other unlabelled dishes all of them laced with high grade chilli. I’m given another bottle of water but one certainly isn’t enough to drown the fire. I feel like a dragon on the walk back to the hotel. Ogoh Ogoh – Balinese Monsters, a photographic guide to what they are and how to deal with them, gets launched next Friday. I’d have enjoyed that. But by then I’ll be back to reading the Western Mail and coping with changed rubbish collection days and the first of the new season’s rounds of endless drizzle. Next year, then, next year.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

It's Such a Dangerous Medium This Photography

I’m off along the Estuary, camera with me. The big one rather than the compact. With the big one they all expect something of you, even though you are just a snapper. Something to do with cost and size and expectation. Big cameras make you look professional even when you are not. Trouble is my Nikon D90 does take good pics. The long lens brings in distant subjects. The wide angle takes brilliant landscapes. When you point it you have an idea of what you are going to get.

With the Lave fishermen – these are the guys who sail out into the muddy Estuary below the Severn Bridge and fish with nets that look like something from the Sea of Galilee – it’s all laughter about how I might go flat on my back in the mud fields – glutinous stuff everywhere but on the camera. “He’ll protect that, you see.” Says Martin to his fishing companions, “just like that TV documentary man last week.” I don’t fall, in case you wondered. But I did get out there in the boat on the tidal waters and I took some great pics of men up to their chests in waders, hunting salmon. Didn’t catch any. Not a thing. “I’m off next week on holiday, “ Martin says. “Anywhere nice?” “Going to Ireland. Fishing trip, you know”. What else.

Going round Aberthaw Power Station is another matter. When there’s someone talking to you then you just can’t concentrate on taking pictures. It’s as much as I can do to point and shoot, hoping something I wanted will get in through the lens. This is where the compact comes into its own. Unpretentious. Easy to hold. Weighs nothing. Works every time. Don’t line anything up, to hell with the light and the focus, just hope. I use this as a sort of aide memoire, a notebook, I tell them. Saves me from having to write things down. “You go ahead”, they say, “take what you want.”

At Port Talbot it’s different. Here I have the big Nikon because I need it to see into the distance, because I want to try to make something of this industrial intrusion among the perfect sand dunes, because what’s there in front of me is so amazing. Full of fire and smoke and flying dust. I’ve walked up along the beach, top of the bund the Tata steelworks have built to keep the marauding sea back. The beach is a long yellow gleam of a thing and it’s totally empty. Not even a man in the distance digging for worms. I’ve got here on a public path and, far as I know, I’m still on it. Although I have to say it’s beginning not to feel quite like that. What with the thunder of heavy lorries and the grind of the conveyor belt and proximity of emissions and smog.

The guard who stops me, puts me into his gleaming, light flashing vehicle and drives me off site. He could demand my memory card at any second. He’s on the radio. “Pair of members of the public here illegally. Yep. One of them has a camera. Yes a camera. That’s right.” Hell, like being caught with dope or porn by your parents. I try to hide it, slide it round my back, hope it gets lost next to the daysack. You are not allowed to take photos here, I’m told, firmly. Sorry, I mutter. But to be fair he's pretty reasonable after that.

It was the same thing when we stopped the car half way across the site of the Dong power station outside Newport. John Briggs and I quietly shooting a road sign that reads DIVERSION WHEN FOGGY. Urban surrealism. Signs of the future. States of mind. A van arrives with lights flashing. “You can’t do that, you’re not authorised”. Hell no. It’s such a dangerous medium this photography. Shows the world the world and lots of people are not happy with that. It upsets people in a way that writing usually doesn’t. Why is that?

Peter Finch is currently researching his forthcoming Seren title Edging the Estuary – Where Wales Runs Out. Cameras, security guards, sea walls, wave cut platforms, gouts and fire, mud, menace, power and people will all feature. Watch this space for further details. It’ll be a while yet.

The Lave Fishing photos are here

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Beat Generation

Ah yes, the Beat Generation. Sounds so much like the past now, if it sounds like anything at all. Back then when the Rock’n’Roll fifties rolled into the Beatle sixties all we had here were the Angry Young Men. Men, you notice. Women had yet to be invented. John Wain, Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Stan Barstow, John Osborne, Colin Wilson. Angry, not really, not that much. Did they defy literary convention, compositional practice, plot line or form? No. Did they have good tales to tell, ones the young could relate to? That they did. But as a group they lasted hardly any time at all before moving on to other things. Their music was the pre-war jazz beloved of Philip Larkin. Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington. They were working class. They liked beer. They’d never heard of Buddha.

I read them. Hurry On Down, Lucky Jim, The Outsider, Strike the Father Dead. Well left of centre and with loads to enjoy but nothing that set the mind ablaze. It took the American Beats to do that.

Jack Kerouac in his List of Essentials gives some guidance as to how the business of writing ought to go. “Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy.” “Accept loss forever,” “Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind.” “Blow as deep as you want to blow.” “Be in love with yr life.” “Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in heaven.” You put Charlie Parker on the player, you find your records by Lester Young and you play them. The be-bop rocks and you follow where it goes. Out of the other end comes On The Road, Howl, Go, Gasoline, The Dharma Bums. These works were not just ideas on wheels but directories of where to look and what to read and how to live in this mad, naked, hysterical world.

When I turned around, over here, with Kingsley Amis already shifting to the right at a rate of knots and John Wain on a literary scholarship in the hillside heart of careful Wales there was not a single original beat in sight. We didn’t do that. Hang out where the music was, our minds expanded, the truth just there to pick up and touch. We didn’t have a Charlie Parker nor a Birdland. Instead we had Alexis Korner and Blues Incorporated, Klooks Kleek and the Marquee on Wardour Street. In Cardiff we had Top Rank and the Moon Club. The writers mixing with the musicians and the whole creative foam rising in a glorious unstoppable tide. No, we actually didn’t do any of that.

The nearest to a UK Beat Generation had to be the poet Chris Torrance and some of the writers in his circle – the haiku master Bill Wyatt, the mad saxophonist Barry Edgar Pilcher and at a distance the super cool Lee Harwood, the endless publisher Dave Cunliffe and that inheritor of Ginsberg’s breath pattern verse form, ex-pat George Dowden.

Torrance at least lived the life. Reached for answers like Gary Snyder, wrote in a Pound and Olsen inspired open field and moved himself out of Carshalton and then Bristol to a cottage in the back of everywhere at the head of the Vale of Neath. Cross two fields to get to him. Woollen hatted, infinity coming out of his typer.

Ann Charters’ The Portable Beat Reader (Penguin Books) is the best single volume beat intro there is. 650 pages that takes in the whole movement, includes slices from all the classics (and in some cases, Ginsberg’s Howl, the whole thing), work from fellow travellers like Diane DiPrima, Frank O’Hara and John Weiners, Tales of Beatnik Glory from Charles Bukowski, Brion Gysin, Ken Kesey, Ed Sanders, Michael McClure and others, classic commentary from Norman Mailer (The White Negro), Alan Watts (Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen) and John Cellon Holmes (The Game of the Name), material from the man who got inspired to glory by the whole deal (Bob Dylan) and, most importantly of all, hard core mainstream material from Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and more.

No Torrance, he’s a genuine outsider.

Beat inspired I’m at the player now hunting out my Charlie Parker. Anthropology. I'll add a bit of Mingus. Then some Monk. Transcendental. Just how Kerouac said writing should be.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Making A Lot Of Noise

The Formation of Literature Wales

How do you merge three organisations? Two up for total merger and with the third to be semi -detached? Do you bang heads, bribe, threaten, cajole, insist, plead, persevere, finally agree, or bury your head in the sand? All of those, as it turns out. Although maybe not the last one. We have reputations to uphold.

The Arts Council of Wales (ACW) in its Investment Review wisdom came to the conclusion that its arrangements for the funding of literature were, to quote the document, untidy. Its major client, the national player, Academi, literature promotion agency par excellence, deliverer of schemes and activity the length and breadth of the country, needed to be formally tied-in with ACW’s other literary clients: Tŷ Newydd, the writers centre in Gwynedd; Welsh Literature Exchange, the international provider. Neither of those two descriptors are quite accurate, either. Tŷ Newydd is more than just a centre for writers. Welsh Literature Exchange engages in a plethora of activity beyond simple provision.

When I thought about it untidy was a difficult word to precisely understand. ACW’s Investment Review’s recommendations did little to clarify. Take the lead, Academi, ACW officers instructed me. The train is leaving the station and literature needs to be on it, said Chairman Dai Smith. Press ahead, instructed ACW chief Nick Capaldi. But against a background of rumour and bureaucratic fog not easy. It took ACW a full six months to get round to formally instructing its clients to merge. Academi was given the task of leading on the creation of the new organisation. I would become Chief Executive. There would be a new apparatus of governance. Loose ends would be tied together. Literature in Wales would become whole. Providers, producers and public would be wrapped in literary joy and the sky would become full of cultural sparks. That was certainly a future worth having.

Significantly the Hay Festival was to be excluded from the new arrangements. Given its substantial increase in funding for 2011-2012 (from £40K to more than £100K) it is hard to see why. But that elephantine anomaly is for others to argue about . And given a fair wind and a deal of co-operation there may end up being nothing to argue about at all.

In the late 1990s when Academi, the Literature Promoter, was created out a reformed Welsh Academy/Yr Academi Gymreig, the society for writers, its trading name was chosen because it could shape shift. Academi. Easy to say. A word with resonance in two languages. Comes early in any listing. Precise meaning depends on where you stand. The Welsh Academy trading as Academi. Yr Academi Gymreig dan yr un faner. At an early giving of evidence to the Assembly’s Culture Committee then AM Cynog Dafis had it in one. Great work Academi, he said, but your name is dreadful. No one knows what it means.

I considered this. He might be right. It took more than a decade for the opportunity to arise but ACW’s Investment Review provided it. Academi put it in its business plan. All arts orgs have these now, this is a professional twenty-first century world. Academi would rebrand. We would become Literature Wales. Llenyddiaeth Cymru. Says what we do. Easy to understand.

In the event the whole deal has turned out to be considerably more than a simple name change. A new and much larger organisation has emerged. Literature Wales, a true literature development agency with national status and support to match. The Welsh Academy and Tŷ Newydd inside, Welsh Literature Exchange at arm’s length.

But What Does It Do?

Writers write, don’t they? And readers read. Do they really need support? They do. Were support to be withdrawn in a bi-lingual country such as ours then literature as we know it would all but collapse. Without aid there’d be scant Welsh-medium publishing, no school author visits, few festivals or readings or courses or workshops or prizes, little book razzmatazz, negligible writing in prisons, no work with the health service, no literary engagement with the disadvantaged nor the deprived. There would be very little opportunity. For anyone. Welsh cultural life would fade. The situation for Welsh writing in English, pretty invisible at the best of times, would be worse. It would be totally compromised by the noise coming from over the border. Wales would vanish. We would be depleted. Totally. When we read, if we read at all, then it would be about America or England. Marvellous, say a small minority but I don’t think the rest of us would agree.

The Academi, ever since I was appointed to lead it in 1997, has pressed for the professionalization of writers. Big in the world, with opportunity before them, paid appropriately, and delivering the goods. Amateurs in Wales have a very real place but they need something against which to be measured. This need to make our authors professional continues to be at the centre of Literature Wales. Rates may not have gone up much in a decade but opportunity and perception certainly have. Those among us who get by on income derived from their skill with words – Gwyneth Lewis, Owen Sheers, Menna Elfyn, Nigel Jenkins, Robert Minhinnick, and Gillian Clarke among them – struggled in the nineties. I’m sure that they still struggle today. No Rolls Royces. No pension schemes. Hard, still, to get from one month to the next. But better than it once was.

Literature Wales will put writers into schools, run competitions for fiction, verse and the art of poetry performance, offer bursaries for authors to take time out from other employment in order to write; manage festivals; organise tours; run courses for writers at the truly splendid former Lloyd George mansion of Tŷ Newydd in Gwynedd; in co-operation with partners across Wales take literature to places it rarely visits. It will work with the Health Service, local authorities, the Prison Service, and social services to increase the number of ways in which literature can help our society, heal it, remove its conflicts and its devastations.

How Did We Get Here From There?

The answer depends on precisely where there was. For me it was a 1997 conversation in a quiet corner of the Friary-sited Oriel Bookshop. It was owned at that time by The Stationery Office, a group of venture capitalist backed operators who were later to abandon the shop’s Welsh-cultural content and then close it as a loss maker. Twenty years of culture build down the pan. I was the manager. The conversation was with John Pikoulis who, with the backing of M Wynn Thomas, Gerwyn Wiliam, John Osmond, Ned Thomas and Harri Pritchard Jones, wanted to save the threatened Welsh Academy by bidding for the Arts Council franchise to run a new literature promotion agency . Would I like to front it? Too right I would. In the face of at least 14 other credible bids we won.

What I discovered inside the run-down, carpetless Mount Stuart Square offices was not One Wales. Far from it. The Welsh and English sections of the august Society for Writers (founded 1959) might have shared a kettle but that was pretty much all. They ran unconnected phone systems, had separate financial accounts, used different banks, kept different hours, and sat on unmatching chairs in separate offices. Even their computers did not communicate – Macs on one side, PCs on the other. No internet. The internet then was just being born.

Down the road at Crickhowell House the brand new Welsh Assembly was getting into gear. Companies across the country were rebranding themselves with Wales in mind. Dragon Cabs, Dragon Security, Dragon Couriers, Dragon Rescue, Dragon Pies. Shirley Bassey was ironing her red dragon dress. Make Wales one. Show it as it is. End the divisions, linguistic, social, economic, and cultural. That’s what the new Academi would do. Bring our literature together in one place and make it swing.

What do you think I should do first, I asked John Osmond, IWA director, and at that time an Academi Board member. Make a lot of noise, he replied. I’ve done my best.

Where Are The Enemies?

Not everyone loves you, even with something as all-embracing and ultimately satisfying as literature. There are writers out there who are forever uncovering conspiracies to keep them away from success. There are those who, in the face of uncontroversial evidence to the contrary, still insist that they’ve been ignored. Those who cannot understand that where more people live there is often a greater occurrence of activity. Those who think that despite us pouring hundreds of pounds into their literary activities that at bottom we really doubt their talent. Those who imagine others are stealing their plot ideas and masquerading them as their own. And those who somehow just don’t like what we do because, perhaps, it is us that’s doing it and not them. It’s an unfair world. Although I have spent these past thirteen or so years desperately trying to iron out the bumps.

Perhaps the biggest problem is not the writers nor their audience but the bureaucracy that surrounds them. We live in a world obsessed with the collection of data. Of action plans, compacts, targets, visions, memos of understanding and tabulated projections. In my time behind the wheel I’ve seen, year on year, that vociferous data monster grow and grow.

I estimate a tenfold increase in ten years. For arts administrators the coalface moves ever further back. File your returns quarterly rather than annually. Provide attendance data on increasingly obscure population demographics. Demonstrate adherence to regulation. Prove that you have policies on everything including policies themselves. As I write the Assembly Government has told its ASPBs to reduce their running costs by 12% over three years. Do more for less. In response it seems as if the burden is merely being passed down the line. Forget the quality of the activity and what it does. Instead tell us the ages of all those in the audience, how far they have travelled, the WIMD analysis results for their postcode, if they used public transport, how many were vegetarians and how many of them wore a dress. I’m inventing some of this but you get the general idea.

Funding bodies should believe more in their clients and allow them to take risks. Regulate them less and trust them to deliver. Let them spend more on arts and less on filing. When I suggested this at a conference a few years ago everyone applauded. But that was then and to date, despite decreasing financial waistlines, little has changed.

What Next?

Set things on fire. What Literature Wales isn’t going to do is merely continue the existing programmes of Tŷ Newydd and Academi with a new logo on top and some economies of scale underneath. It will do that, of course, but there will a whole lot more.

What makes up Wales is its separate parts. What Literature Wales is now going to do is join them together. Writers are intimately connected with the places they occupy and the places they originally came from. Expect to see cross media literary ventures that wrap writers and readers together in co-operation with our heritage infrastructure: CADW, The National Trust, The National Museum, the National Parks, and that often overlooked resource, the Church in Wales. Work with young people will increase. They are the future. There’ll be more festivals, peripatetic ones, roaming the country to reach places we never knew we had. Expect to see a lot more glitter as writers the non-literary world recognises appear at venues not known for their cultural values. There will be endless opportunity to take part, as amateur writer, as newcomer, as interested party, as someone who simply wants to have a go, didn’t know they did but now they are in action turning out verses find that it’s uplifting, fulfilling, and fun. And where you don’t expect to encounter writing – hospitals, sports grounds, train stations, supermarkets – take note because soon you will. Internationally expect Rio to come here and for there to again be a Welsh feel to LA. Wales will make its mark.

me – I’ve now been with my head in administrative bucket for rather too long. When I joined the Academi as Chief Executive in 1998 I had this vague idea that after five years of changing the landscape I might reduce my office hours and spend some extra time writing. In the event that has proved impossible. Politics, policy, provision, vision, risk analysis, dealing with the difficult and administration rapidly fill any space you give them. I did manage a series of appropriately tiny poems, Haiku for the Academi, which are included in my collection Food (Seren Books, 2001).

Annwyl Syr, my last book appeared in 1965

but I have a backyard full of cherry blossom

can I join?

looked up cherry blossom in

the dictionary

not there

big new Wales a thousand flowers

hope and money

still as hard as ever

But now I need space to create something a little longer. I leave Literature Wales in landscape-changing form. John Pikoulis and Harri Pritchard Jones are joint chairs. Lleucu Siencyn is Acting Chief Executive and Sally Baker is at the helm in Tŷ Newydd. There is a great staff team, north and south. In Wales the A470 is no longer the only thing that joins us together.

An edited and shorter version of this piece appears in the current issue of Agenda, the magazine of the Institute for Welsh Affairs

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Bones of Blake

I’ve been thinking about bones, as you do. Last thing to go in the crematorium fire, apparently. The skull hangs on for quite a time and sometimes has to be bashed a bit by workers with a metal bar. Dust, got to get back to that.

When Blake was buried in Bunhill Cemetery in 1827 his body was interred over the top of at least three others. Later four more bodies were buried over the top of his. Land in London was in short supply. The current grave marker drops the usual Here lie the remains of William Blake in favour of the vaguer The remains of William Blake lie nearby. Bones everywhere.

When I travelled to Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire in search of the mortal remains of the Norman Lords of Cardiff – the founding dynasty of de Clares – I found all four of them grave marked in elegant brass clustering around the holy warmth of the cathedral’s alter. They’d been there since the eleventh century and they are still down there, replete with armour, jewels and burial cloth, tight in their lead-lined stone coffins. Waiting for god. Waiting for redemption.

But actually, no. People just can’t leave alone and down the centuries various grave robbers, disinterers, historians, record keepers, holy archivists and the simply interested have dug down to look, pull, shift and fiddle. What’s there today, apparently, is a mess of bust stone, the odd bone and a mess of mangled rubble. The de Clare eternity. As it should be. Wreckage and dust.

Bones might work as a poem, if I could made them repeat themselves regularly enough. I decided to make them flicker on the edge of the reader’s boredom by changing them slightly but not significantly. A bit like this:

These are the things
you go through
all white bone
chalk white bone
flake white bone
cream white bone
sea white bone
pale white bone
bone white bone
wash white bone
powder white bone
lime white bone
liberal white bone
soft white bone

That began to sound okay, as I created it. I wrote it down, sounded it in the air, changed it, wrote it down again. I then added more:

gloss white bone
bridal white bone
hat white bone
paper white bone
quartz white bone
light white bone
mist white bone
honk white bone
jet white bone
hard white bone
old white bone
cloud white bone
bleach white bone
thin white bone
dust white bone
weak white bone
woven white bone

I stood up in my long study, thought about the bones in my legs and straightened them just like I’d been told to in tai chi, got the body weight to run from the top of my head right down through my bones and into the floor. Weight disposed by gravity. I read the whole thing. Boomed it. Still worked, but still didn’t go anywhere. That was the problem. Not why but where next?

Blake white bone
Clare white bone
Gone white bone

Are poems small intellectual stories with a punch line? Should they prove something? Should they end and the reader know that the end had been reached? Should they always have a deeper purpose? Or are their patterns and the way the air bends around them enough?