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.