Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Financial Lives of the Poets

Probably the biggest barrier to reading more is having to do other things with your time. Novels pass at glacial speeds if the only occasion on which you read them is when you are lying in bed. In the sun, in Egypt, on an island in the Nile, and a week before the troubles erupted, I managed to consume five books in six days. E G Farrell on The Siege at Krishnapur, Peter Guralnick on the early life of Elvis, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Nicholas Murray’s Real Bloomsbury, Jess Walter’s hilarious Financial Lives of the Poets. With a title like that how could I not pick it up.

Luxor, which is where I was, has its literary attractions. Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile was set here, filmed here and written after a stay at the Winter Palace on Corniche el Nile Street in the heart of the town’s heat and dust. Given the association you think you’d see tourists about, camera in one hand, paperback in the other. Copies stacked high in the local Agatha Christie Museum. The author’s name cartouched in hieroglyphics and sold as a papyrus souvenir. But no, the world has moved on.

Down at the Luxor Temple, however, I did find the decadent French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s signature. Rimbaud, genius bard of the deranged senses, had written all he needed to by the age of twenty-one. His Seasons in Hell and Illuminations, works which would eventually spur a whole generation, were abandoned. Libertine Rimbaud, hashish smoker, absinthe drinker, forwent authorship as useless and set off for Africa never to write again.

His graffitied signature is there, atop one of the pillars in the Temple of Thebes. Why do we do this? Leave our names on the rocks of history, scratch who we are onto the brick, carve our initials into trees, write our names on the covers of our books? Once we know how to write it is as if the desire to scribble becomes unstoppable. The Egyptians were masters. Their hieroglyphics cover almost every extant ancient world surface. They are studied by tourists nowadays themselves covered in tattoos. Once you let the world loose on the land there’s no turning back.

Back at the hotel I return to the Financial Lives. Walter’s protagonist is a failed journalist with a young family and a wayward wife who turns to the offering of financial advice to earn a buck. His angle is to package his advice with poetry. Haiku on how to close a business deal. Sonnets on market investment. Free verse talking up hedge funds.

Naturally this approach fails to work. His business falls over just ahead of the world financial meltdown. Like Rimbaud he gives up, cuts and runs. Is the world ready for poetry that works? According to both these guys not yet.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #186

Monday, 21 February 2011

How To Vote On March 3rd

I agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly.

I have thought about this and can guarantee my view.

Do you think the Assembly should be larger with whistles?

Do you want the Assembly to have the power now to pass laws on all the subjects which are devolved to Wales?

Do you agree Assembly is lively apricots tick box twice.

Do you agree that the Assembly should acquire the powers laid out in the Government of Wales Act 2006 (Part 4)?

Do you agree this act by tattoo reality wall poster mini series clarity? Leaflet available.

Should the Assembly have powers similar to the Scottish Parliament? Headquarters decorated like a celtic reservation craft shop. Hand-turned desks knitted flags bobble and icon 8% support for ingerland. Edible daffs.

Which Assembly o there are oooo oh. real virtual voted appointed administrative bracket ((((((h’m)))))) and (((((stilts))))) – also fire - if you think this question unfair leave box blank.

Should the Assembly relocate for ease of access eg Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant Llandybie Llanystymdwy Maes Parcio Asda Merthyr.

Do you think completely dwyiethog neu sod gog dim my right rural comisiynydd bilingual commodity victim?

The Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly have the power to make laws for Scotland and Northern Ireland on devolved matters. The National Assembly for Wales can also make some laws with the consent of the Westminster Parliament. Do you support the proposal that the Assembly should be fully responsible for Welsh laws on devolved matters?

an earlier version of this posting appeared in a recent issue of Planet

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Projective Verse Still Flies

You can get the Sunday Times in full colour on your iPad and now read fiction on your android while standing in a bus queue. So why would you want to continue with print? But history is slow to change. The past in which new writers tried things out in the small mags and pushed the culture forward in back rooms continues. The small mag, that hands-on, anarchic, partisan and delightful invention of early modernism which you might have expected to vanish at the first sign of a free digital future is still very much with us.

If the system won’t make you famous then change the system. Rhys Trimble’s ctrl+alt+del does just that. This is a distinctly avant-garde half-way house between a traditional small mag and online equivalent. The magazine arrives by pdf and you print it out yourself. Folding instructions come via YouTube. How you read it is up to you. Issue Four has a couple of mainstream left field contributions from a relaxed Chris Torrance and a philosophical Johan De Wit. Torrance reruns his creative writing class experiences aided by “furtive slugs from a vacuum flask”. Is this a fresh Torrance poem or a cut up of his classes’ reactions. That’s the joy of the avant-garde, one is never sure.

Elsewhere the cutting edge runs to wilder places. Damian Sawyer’s Blast! Crossword with its arbitrary clues, Alys Conran’s new definitions of Wales – “wind cornering on two wheels”, and the editor’s Open String Field Theory As Projective Verse – concrete ambiguity and Miltonian particles. If you find that hard to understand see how you get on with the original. Available for free at

Down in Cardiff’s Richmond Road Nick Fisk has published the ninth issue of his magazine Square. Neat, in colour, and rich with illustration Square tracks the irregular, the underdog and the new. Martin Daws avoids the cracks, Michael Pedersen takes deep breathes while Fisk himself makes an amusing found poem from descriptions of the first ten emerging Chilean miners. And there are reviews too. Disarmingly honest, acutely unstudied and bearing elements of truth if you read between the lines.

Mike Jenkins’s Red Poets is bold, A4 and as left leaning as it ever was, even when aided by a Books Council grant. The radical hard core – Alun Rees, Tim Richards, Alan Perry, David Greenslade, and Herbert Williams are joined by Ivy Alvarez, Emily Hinshelwood, Alexis Lykiard and others. How red is it all? There are letters to Che Guevara, calls for Afghanistan withdrawal, complaints about bankers, politicians, warmongers and capitalism. There are memories of how it once was in industrial Wales, laced with regret and pain and glory. The whole thing is uneven but proud, unsettling but engaging, and certainly worth seeking out. £4 a copy.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #185

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Hot Poets

In Pontneddfechan, head of the Neath Valley, out in the fields beyond where the frosts grip in any usual winter stands Glynmercher Isaf. Poet’s cottage. Built on a ley line that runs from the standing stones on the top of the Brecon Beacons, through the grave marker on the Roman Road of Sarn Helen to the Christian sites of the valley itself. A place of strange power. Here lives Chris Torrance, bard, Welsh resident since the 1970s, and an inspiration to hundreds. Yet in this age of rampant everything and massive permanent availability he’s still without the Torrance Collected Poems he so richly deserves.

Chris Torrance, Carshalton Beatnik and Bristol hippie, has been working the mystic for as long as I can remember. His open and engaging poetry has appeared in pamphlets and small collections sporadically through the decades. He’s a champion of the open field, a way of writing derived from North Carolina’s Black Mountain poets such as Charles Olson, Ed Dorn and Robert Creeley. Here the finished poem is not the end. Rather each line is poem itself. The sound of speech is vital. Engage in immediate perception and then move on.

In a world constrained by form and addled by convention Torrance’s poetry is a liberation.

For years he inspired others with his series of Adventures in Creative Writing classes taught evenings at Cardiff University. Pupils would come back year on year for the sheer enjoyment of using the Torrance method, of finding themselves able to write without fear of rejection or failure.

A decade ago the classes failed, a victim of steadily increasing regulation and budgetary constraint. When we have something great going for ourselves in Wales we usually manage to mess it up. Could we find a way of accommodating Torrance’s brilliant but eccentric approach? No. He retired and retreated to his National Park cottage and the open skies.

His lifework is The Magic Door, a sequence, written sporadically over a period of some 35 years. Citrinas. The Diary of Palug’s Cat. The Book of Brychan. Slim Book / Wet Pulp. The Book of Heat. Path. Loosely autobiographical. Rich with Arthurian legend, Welsh mysticism, Egyptian mythology, stretches of geology, weather watching, personal loves and losses. There’s a touch of Ginsberg, Pound, and of Gary Snyder in the Torrance approach. But mostly it’s him.

And despite celebrations put on by William Ayot at On the Border in Chepstow and a rich cult fan-base you still can’t buy him in Waterstones. You need to watch the small presses and pounce when something comes out. There’s another opportunity soon. Working with guitarist Chris Vine and in his PoetHeat poet and rock band persona Torrance releases a new CD titled RORI. The launch is at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, 23rd February, 8.00 pm.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #184

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

No Zips They Scratch

I’m in Crewe. I’ve just been collected from the rail station by a uniformed chauffer piloting an elite Bentley Mulsanne. I sit in the back in isolated splendour and am driven the ten minute glide to the factory at Pyms Lane. A car works gleaming like a freshly glossed hotel. New limousines stand in the yard, cocooned in white plastic shrouds. Clean, clear post-Industrial assembly. None of the workers wear anything held together with a zip or a button. Bentley keep clear of things that scratch.

I’m here to write a feature for Blown magazine, Wales’s new and glossy magazine of image, text and cultural intelligence. “Swearing, Murder, Gypsies, Pies, Bingo, Torture, Drinking, Lies” are bannered on Blown’s cover. Inside there’s as much avant-garde fashion as there is Llwyd Owen and Paul Granjon.

The Bentley Piece is a joint amalgamation of my work with that of photographer Paul Avis. I’m listening to the guide telling me about how Bentley’s bling quotient is low. Mos Def doesn’t have one. The rappers go for Rolls. Bentleys are made to order, every single one. You tell them just where amid the tooled leather and polished walnut you’d like to fix your iPod and they do it. Paintwork to match the colour of your shirt? Done.

I cover the detail, find out how much of Germany there is in this quintessentially British car (the company today is owned by Volkswagen), check the lamps, stare at the machined radiator grills. Their planes and lattices. Their Cricklewood forms. Paul shoots on a digital half-plate, lamp lit, slow and sure.

The result, a car review like few others, fills the pages of Blown issue two. This is a print magazine that stakes new cultural ground, crosses genres, really does make new. The thrust is to forget that visual artists rarely mix with writers, dancers with film-makers and that fashion photographers live beyond art on a platform of their own. It’s a high risk strategy. Do you really want to wade through twelve full plate colour fashion shots by stylist Danielle Rees and photographer Jeff Orgina just to get Richard Huw Morgan and Sam Hasler’s interview with Bill Drummond? Fans of the Superfurrys reading Emma Price’s conversation with Gruff Rhys about his new film Separado! will they also read on into Sian Melangell Dafydd’s hunt for the answer to water and aging in Bangor and in Bala?

Here in 2011 where iPhones have no chance of replicating album sleeve gloss and TV programming rarely embraces such cultural diversity the answer is yes. Absolutely. Blown: you can’t really pin it down. You need to just sit there and look at it. Richard Gwyn, Niall Griffiths and Gerald Tyler mix with DJ Fonteyn, Charlotte Hatherley and Gordon Dalton. Fancy a great ride? Buy this.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #183

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Liverpool - Capital of Wales

In the north of Wales the Celtic fog drifts eastwards across the border. Not that anyone here uses that word. Celtic is the sea where they fruitlessly explore for oil. Celtic is the heart of Catholic football in Glasgow. The Celtic Celts. Nothing to do with the Welsh.

Giving a reading in Crosby, just outside Liverpool, sometime in the early 1990s I’d found myself in a time warp. In an upstairs pub room full of seeping conversation and the beepboop of guitars from somewhere below I unfurled my folder to read to an audience of new-agers, street walkers, locals, men in duffels and reefer jackets. Women with piled yellow hair and giant hoop earrings, wearing black tights below white short dresses, smoking, drinking dark beers, and with docs and working boots doubling as town shoes below the cast iron tables. I began. It’s great, I said, looking out through the window the rain-specked dark and buses passing and the street lights following the line of the Mersey estuary, to be here at last, Liverpool, capital of North Wales. Celtic silence. I could have said capital of Montenegro for all the connection I made. Nothing. Not a flicker.

Later, in those damp streets, I walked through some place that wasn’t England either. Walked back to my digs at a converted seminary where nuns from Ireland helped the Catholic Church by putting up strangers for money. You’re from Wales, the sister told me when I’d checked in. In case I didn’t know. She’d showed me to my cell with its giant crucifix on the wall above the bed. Wales as it might have been if it hadn’t been for Henry and the bedrock of the Celtic Church. That word again.

Would you like a cup of tea and a slice of cake? I nod. The sister goes away and returns ten minutes later, tray in hand. She sits, to wait. She’s clearly here until I finish. I’ll be turning the lights out at eleven, she says. You’ll need to be very quiet. The sisters all rise early to pray. I have a single sheet and the damp cold seeps in through my cell’s single window.

Liverpool has much more than a passing Welsh connection. It’s a city giant, by our standards, sitting there right on the northern border. It turns on its radio in the morning and blasts Liverpool at the whole of the north Wales coastal belt. Today it is the place you visit for big stores, for the M&S that Flint does not possess, for Gap and Next and Waterstones. For the buzz and the culture and then the clubs and bars and the dope and the drinking. The Welsh connection has been there as long as Liverpool has. Lliferpwll. Lerpwl. Still really ours.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #182