Tuesday, 12 June 2012
Friday, 6 April 2012
I’ve never been one to win things or obtain honours. My books don’t get onto short lists. Not that I’m complaining. This is how it is. After at least forty years in the business I’ve barely a literary award anywhere in the house. There was a runners-up book token in a 1970s National Eisteddfod Concrete Poetry Competition. I was the only entrant and I still didn’t win. And a third prize in the 1982 Bridport Short Story Contest. I didn’t enter anything after that. Last year I got the Ted Slade Award for Services To Poetry. A significant boost. Maybe the times have turned.
Last time I got another. I’m now the officially adopted poet of the Institute of Directors. There was a ceremony at their headquarters, the William Burges-designed and rather splendid Park House Club on Cardiff’s Park Place. The building is going through a new promotion campaign and has itself wrapped in a giant pink bow. Could have been to coincide with my reading I suppose but I rather think not.
Getting companies to adopt poets is the idea of Ali Anwar, an Iraqui-born Cardiff businessman. He has set up the H’mm Foundation to promote his cause. Poets are cheap, announced the evening’s mc, the broadcaster and author Jon Gower. You’d be amazed how little they charge. He does us down. It’s true that many a bard will turn out for not much but in the end we all need to keep the same wolf from the door. In terms of remuneration a small rise in the level poets are paid wouldn’t go amiss. Current rates of anything between £50 and £250 for an evening’s show have been pretty much the same for decades now. But I digress.
Ali Anwar’s idea has a certain amount of brilliance to it. He’s determined to get poetry into the workplace and into places where it previously has never thought of going. Poetry at board meetings, creative writing classes for workers as an aid to productivity, verse as inspiration to sales teams, poetry in the PR departments, specially commissioned works for the annual conference, poets leading the workers in the singing of new company songs. Poetry that does something, poetry that earns it keep.
The room is packed. Directors, associates, company presidents, board members, Assembly members, innovators plus a few other writers here to see how the whole thing hangs together. I spot Ifor Thomas there, Clare Peat, and Clare Potter. We’ve all had some wine and are slightly mellowed, the mc has set the scene and now I’m on.
For me it’s a new audience. I give them a fair sampling from my greatest hits. With my own business background and with time spent in the corporate sector it’s not that difficult for me to build bridges. I start with a sound poem which predictably stuns and then follow with a found poem made from lines taken from North American Welsh ex-pat newspapers. I then add a few pieces about committee meetings, sales techniques, sending your offspring to university, meeting your wife’s lover and, for good measure, the political economy and future of that place we all love, Europe. Be eclectic. Stare them straight in the eye. Stay on your feet. Entertain, engage, make them laugh if you can. I do.
My cop out is to leave my new poem, part of a sequence about Assembly members drawn from their public pronouncements, Omaggio a Edwina Hart (The Welsh Government’s Business Minister) in my bag. Never yet done in public and still unrehearsed. It might have struck the wrong note. But given the nature of this group I doubt it. Next time.
Georgia Ruth, who amazingly worked as my personal assistant for my few last months with Literature Wales, rounds the event off with three song. Two of these are her own and one is a plaintive ballad from the American minstrel shows, Old Dog Blue. She’s got something, Georgia, a voice that lifts the spirit and an ability to write songs as if she were the reincarnation of Jackson Browne.
The other side of the applause I’m standing there with a glass in my hand, pleased I’ve managed my first real event in an age when I’m confronted by the smiling face of an academic not normally an attender of my events.
You know, he says, that was really good. I didn’t know you did things like this. Your books are, you know, okay, sort of. But hearing the poetry performed brings it alive. Ali Anwar and a small collection of others standing in the same circle all nod in agreement. It’s a compliment. Isn’t it? I’m not quick enough, of course. I should have replied, thank you, you know that’s rather how I feel about your own work. But I don’t. I smile instead.
It was a compliment, says Sue, on the way home. Just not that well expressed. She’s probably right.
This morning Robert Lloyd Griffiths, Institute of Directors secretary tweets “Thanks so much for your contribution to our even. Superb!”. Got through somewhere then.
Now for the hard part. Taking poetry on to where drink is absent and commercial success is paramount. A place where you don’t normally find poetry. At work.
Wednesday, 14 March 2012
The past is littered with them. My past is. Poetry readings, literary events, evening of live verse, of poets standing there expounding, shouting, declaiming, orating, performing, reciting, generating poetry into the thick book free air. Poetry live manages something that poetry dead, or at least poetry printed, simply does not.
The theory is that spoken poetry possess some sort of power that the stuff you experience silently by reading it from a book does not possess. Having the poet present adds value. The activity becomes an event, transcends itself, makes sparks.
Of course, as anyone who has been an habitué of the reading, and in particular the open reading, will know not all live lit is like this. There are the longeurs. The great spaces into which the untried and untested stumble. The spaces where the imperfect spout their material. Where the not that good spend time. Where the less than perfect flaunt their broken parts. Where the never to be really exciting try so hard to be something they are not.
But we’ll skip round that. It’s part of the territory. A necessary component of the great twenty-first century literary experience.
Hidden in this morass are the great readings. The outstanding events that happen once in a lifetime. The recitations by the great who are now dead. The sparkling performances by the rising and the recitations by those at the top of their games. I’ve been to these. Heard Sorley Maclean read with RS Thomas, watched John Ashbery smile, listened to Ed Dorn act out Gunslinger, bp nichol enthral a hard-bitten north London mob, Ian Macmillan make his audience laugh more than they knew was possible. I’ve listened to Yevtushenko electrify a stadium full of Russians, John Ormond thrill a Cardiff pub back room, Ted Hughes act like a great standing stone at the Sherman, and Bob Cobbing stun a room full of besuited businessmen. The great readings. The ones where something happens that’s out of the ordinary, where the poetry lifts and flies. Where the usual is totally transcended into something many thought it never could be.
And all of this goes unrecorded, the large part of it. Little is taped. Less filmed. The reading happens and then it’s gone. All that’s left is memory and mist.
When I began as a poet I sort of hoped that here in Wales at least we’d have our newspapers review literary performances. The one last night by Lawrence Ferlinghetti making a rare visit to the Oriel Bookshop, Jeff Nuttall falling off the stage at the Reardon Smith or Lily Greenham making truly amazing sounds at the Park Hotel. But no.
Soccer, running, fishing, horses, am dram, school pantos – all of that. But poetry readings? No. Never seen a one.
Julia Novak recognises this. Her Live Poetry – An Integrated Approach to Poetry in Performance (Rodopi) is the first study I’ve seen that sets about trying to provide academics with an apparatus with which they can discuss the poetry reading. Poetry readings have become an essential part of the writing and distribution of poetry during the past forty years. Why is it that “we know almost nothing about how specific poems, poets and types of poetry have been shaped by expectations of performance?”
The argument that performed poetry is somehow inferior to the printed kind or that the live reading is merely an extension of the written word no longer hold water. There are too many top end writers out there who make money from the circuit. They produce work specifically for those arenas. But it is their books that get reviewed rather than their performances. Check the Sunday papers. Gillian Clarke’s latest from Carcanet will get a complete discussion but not her full-on performance with Carol Ann Duffy at the Hay Festival. Barry MacSweeney at the Sandringham Hotel gets no mention but his great Wolf Tongue, that gets the full treatment.
Novak is nothing if not thorough. Her study encompasses not just the poet with a voice on the platform but offers a whole analysis of how arm gestures, stances, introductions, contexts and ways of actually mouthing the words can have an effect on the emerging poem. She offers ways of analysing the articulatory parameters of the poet’s verbal utterances. Pitch, movement, deviation from the printed text, body communication, accent, tone, range and context are all quantified. She concludes that there is a branch of artistic endeavour, of literature, being practised that has yet to be fully-engaged with by the academic community. She proposes that a start be made. She has something here.
Live Poetry gives us valuable insights into a reading scene that many know little about. The whole battle between street wise and studied, between black and white, between loud and quiet is explored. She says what she means. Live poetry “can be defined as emerging from the fundamental bi-mediality of the genre of poetry – i.e. its potential realisation as spoken or written word – as a specific manifestation of poetry’s oral mode of realisation, which is parallel to, rather than a mere derivative ‘version’ of, written mode.” It’s something different.
Back down at the Juno Lounge or Clwb Ifor or Chapter’s Media Point the latest open mic is in action. A cluster of newbies are there with poem in hand waiting for their slots. The main acts, the guests, brought there as the supposed reason for this night’s live event, have their audience swelled by the wannabes and the wannabe’s mates. In fact without the wannabes and their cohorts there may, on occasion, be no audience at all. It is how it is in the poetry world.
Sometimes someone will record something on an iPhone. Now and again there’ll be a camera on a tripod in the corner, its red record light winking. But generally the experience will sift off into the air once it’s done. We’ll talk about it for a bit in the bar. We might mention it when we get home. But after that it’ll be mostly forgotten. Poetry reading, gone.
The pic at the top is Ed Dorn reading at Buffalo
Friday, 2 March 2012
Do you have them? What’s it like when after the passage of time you go back and check? Are these guys still up to it? Do they thrill like they once did? Do they remain the ground breakers and the jet engined bodhisattvas you once imagined them to be? I’ve just got round to reading Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters. This is a book I sold for decades when it appeared as a British Picador but never got round to actually reading. Until now. Johnson was Kerouac’s girlfriend in the fifties and one of the few women who made any sort of impression as a Beat. Minor Characters is her memoir of the period. “A young woman’s coming-of-age in the beat orbit of Jack Kerouac.” It was published in 1983.
Johnson, Jewish Joyce Glassman at the time, emerges as a writer to be reckoned with. The book is half beat memoir and half the story of Johnson’s own struggle to make it as a female writer. This was a time when, despite all the rule breaking, the masculine ethos still ruled. Ginsberg is there, the intellectual centre, the master of turn and spin. Robert Frank, the photographer, is the quiet genius. John Cellon Holmes is the man you can talk to. Michael McClure and Gregory Corso are tolerable outsiders. Kerouac comes out as a misanthrope, a drunk, a bore, a writer who perpetually let his friends down and was inconstant as the wind. All the qualities, of course, which made his writing as exciting as it was. But as a hero this wasn’t the sort of description I wanted to find.
I chase down another hero. Michael McClure. The San Francisco poet appears as Pat McLear in Kerouac’s Big Sur. His beast language as exemplified by some of the work in his seminal 1964 City Lights title Ghost Tantras was a big influence on my early sound improvisations.
McClure’s version went something like:
Grahhhhr. Grahhhr. Gahar. Ghrahhr. Grahhr. Grahhr.
Ghrahhr. Grahhhr. Grahhr. Gratharrr! Grahhrr.
Ghrahrr. Ghraaaaaaahrr. Grhar. Ghhrarrr! Grahhhrr.
Ghrahrr. Gharr! Ghrahhhhr. Grahhrr. Ghraherrr.
A mix of guttural and laryngeal sound that brings together lion roars, a touch of detonated dada, and emotional truths. I set up my BBC B computer with a data pool derived from McClure’s beast outpourings and let the machine randomly rip. Finch the sound poet as beast master. For a time I’d be there on stage, roaring at startled audiences who’d never heard of McClure and wondered what I was on.
Penguin have now reissued two earlier McClure titles, The New Book/A Book of Torture and Star in one set as Huge Dreams – San Francisco and Beat Poems with an introduction by Robert Creeley. Irresistible. And never read by me. In it McClure pours forth spontaneously. “I was twenty-seven. Writing these poems, I imagined it as one long poem. That was as coherent as I could be…..I imagined I was Shelley, sometimes I imagined I was Antonin Artaud.” He would have done better if he’d imagined he was Allen Ginsberg.
But I’m probably being Unkind. Spontaneity can succeed, as McClure’s Ghost Tantras so well proved. As a performer McClure went on to work with Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek and to take the results out on the circuit. You can see him reciting Chaucer in Scorsese’s the Last Waltz.
Two down. Where next? At the British Library recently I bought a postcard of the late J G Ballard. Taken by Fay Godwin in 1976 at Ballard’s experimental height. It’s on my notice board now, behind me. I take down High Rise and Crash and, for good measure, The Drowned World and check, gingerly, to see if they still hold their original exotic and innovative power. I dip and read. I needn’t have worried. Unlike batteries left alone in a dark room for decades these books are still full of spark. Ballard was the hero I’d never invite as a guest to the Oriel Bookshop for fear that he might turn out to be ordinary and not the genius I’d expected. But I need not have worried.
Yet I can’t give up on Jack, can I? I reread a slice of Dharma Bums, his description of the void and his wine-fuelled search for enlightenment. Still speeds, still crackles, still works. Not all lost.
Kerouac had already begun to fade as the fifties turned into the sixties, the time I discovered him. As Johnson has it, Kerouac “who retreated farther and farther from the centre of the stage into the dusty wings, out to the back alley, tunnelling backwards through decades toward the Lowell of his earliest vision, and – finding it in a narrow place, the wonder gone from it – making the desolate effort to assume its prejudices, its bitter suspicions, ‘The pure products of America go crazy,’ Dr William Carlos Williams had written.” So it all went.
I put the books back. All of them. Turn round and face the future. This is 2012. Move on. There’s a hell of a lot still to happen.
Thursday, 9 February 2012
Are these the best ways to create new work? When you are starting out and you have none and all the work you’ve ever done has been written because you wanted to write it you imagine that commissions are somehow the pot at the end of the rainbow, the holy grail. Get one and the future will be secure. Real work. Stuff you get asked to do and with recompense somewhere down the line at the end of it. You fervently hope.
The Poets Laureate who are on a sort of full time permanent commission, at least for the period of their holding of the office, are a particular case. How well do they fare? Ted Hughes, heart not in it, clearly hopeless. Andrew Motion, considerate and acceptable enough but nothing really to make the heart soar. Duffy, early days, so far so good, but where next?
Commissions are drivers but they are also constraints. They remove the need, as it were, for the hunt for initial inspiration. They mark out territory. The commissioned bard simply has to fill in. It’s a game full of joy, strain and endless teeth-gnashing stress. Can I do it, will I do it and, having done it, will it be any good?
The playwright Roger Stennett told me years ago that his method was to do absolutely nothing until the deadline for the commissioned work was virtually on him. Then he’d lock himself in his room for a day or however long the work would take and go like fury. This was the up against the wire solution. The terminator arriving and the work coming out of you like sweat. Start too early, he argued, and the adrenalin wouldn’t be there to help.
One’s attitude depends, I suppose, on where you see the poet sitting in society. Is twenty-first century verse still a self-indulgent activity with the poet right at its heart? Should poetry’s ultimate audience be considered at all? Or is poetry still essentially a personal art? Indeed, who do poets write for? Do they act like late capitalists looking for a gap in the market and then moving in to fill? From the evidence of the blogs and the anthologies and the mags most certainly don’t.
Commissions do away with this dichotomy. They walk right round it. But they can still induce copious fear. I am usually scared to death when one arrives. Can I really do this? Will what I come up with be as good as my last creation? Do I still cut it as a poet? Hasn’t everything I’ve done so far just been some sort of fluke? Will the future be an Alzheimer’s’ plateau of inability and dark?
My technique is to go at it immediately and not to let up until I’ve enough down on paper to stop the sweat from worrying my brow. That happened with the recent piece I’ve written for the Penarth poet Harry Guest. Guest will be 80 this year. A famous Penguin Modern Poet with a Shearsman festschrift due for publication soon. I opened the commissioning letter, thought about it for a moment or two, then turned on my computer and didn’t turn it off again until I had the bones of what I was going to do written down.
The same sort of thing happened with the poem outside the James Street South Wales Police HQ in Cardiff. On that occasion I had to make a presentation of my idea to a lay panel and worried myself stupid about it all week. The poem was the only thing in my brain, 24/7. In the event the art work architect talked, the panel smiled, and I then performed. Someone cheered. The rest of the panel applauded. I knew then that we were in.
What you end up with here is completed work. Material that broadens your range. Up ahead money usually changes hands and to make that happen you need to deliver the goods. Otherwise you fail. Poets don’t fail. They never do. I haven’t done so. Not that I know of. Not yet.
Tuesday, 7 February 2012
The Bachelor the Bachelor the Barnacles the Bachelor the Badger
Dedlock (Dartle)(Drummle)(Duff) Cripples (Crimple)(Crupp)
Cupcake (Caught)Creakle (Gradgrind)(Grimwig) (Gulpage)(Great)
Sloppy (Slowboy)(Slightboy)(Slammer) Situation (Speculative)(Slight)
the Warden the Warden (Wardle)(Wardle)(Waterbrook)
Wopsle (clerk)(friend)(actor) (thesb.)(fame) (luck)
Plornish (plasterer)(lime) (aggregate)(hair))(lath fix)(shrinkage)(scuttlebuck)
Petowker Price Prigg Pross (pretty) (fix)(sort)(guess)
Podsnap Pogram (shuffle)(shard) Potterson (experience)(list)
start somewhere (Adams) rattle hiss wish concentrate realign
rhestr reallocate random rip retaliate render rich realise reach
Fanny Cleaver aka Jenny Wren cripple doll driven dressmaker
Dilber distrust Dodson and Fogg duplicity dealers (foxed)(slight
Scuffing)( rusted staples)(binding loose)(rip)
(uncut)(pages mssng) (water damage) (author sig)
(brittle)(buggered)(book club ed)(dedication “my Johnny lad you are
a wonderful boy, love Uncle Ron”)(shelf cocked)(tanning visible)
(torn)(rip) (crease)(cracked)(defaced) (mild mould) (binding undone)
bought Grewgious guardian (Rosa Bud) man of many angles
no conversation (Fips) (Fish)(Finching) found (fell) (filched) (fractured)(fresh)(filled)(fixed)(frozen)(finished)
Pickwick eminence (see 7 above) mender of roads
filibuster final finisher surface like a calm pond (shouting)
storm at sea episodic (multiple) cliffhang forthright
(available)read (read to) don’t stop.
taken from A Mutual Friend - Poems for Charles Dickens.
Edited by Peter Robinson.
Two Rivers Press with the English Association. £10.00
Wednesday, 1 February 2012
When you start out as a collector of books you just have a few. You put them on a shelf. And in the way of things that shelf soon becomes full. After that it’s only a short jump to owning several shelves, all of them packed. You don’t throw anything away or pass it on. It may become useful at some indeterminate time in the future. You may need to check that reference. Remind yourself of just what it was that author said. The books multiply. They arrive in floods. They flow around the room.
You can hold the catalogue in your head too. You know just where everything is. Then, after a further few years of book collecting, you find you no longer can. The stacks and piles surround you. Things you want disappear. Something must be done.
When this happens, and it has happened to me many times in my life, decisions need to be made. Keep, chuck, donate, sell – which?
I always believed that books were an investment. I was brought up that way. Books held intellectual, cultural and economic value. You could use them, in hard times, as a means of barter. You could exchange them at second hand shops for cash. You could sell your rarities for high sums. You could, if you were Richard Booth, the self-styled King of Hay, donate the dross to poor pensioners who could heat their winter rooms by burning burn them in their stoves. Truth is it hasn’t worked out like that.
Books today appear to have a rapidly decreasing intrinsic value. No one wants them anymore. The second hand shops have all closed and the market for rarities is shrinking fast. Where once a decent hard-backed ex-review copy could be resold for a few pounds you are now lucky if you can find a jumble sale willing to take it for nothing. Charity bags shoved through your letterbox want clothing not paper. At Amazon you download the digital rather than delight in the smell of print on paper. Well, a lot of people do.
But to hell with all that. I come from an older world. I’m back in the study where my new Ikea Billy Bookcases now line the walls. I’m engaged in the big job. Reorganising the home library. The pamphlets, those unwanted nuisances even when they were new, are mostly now in a box. Or several boxes. When they first came out they were only visible when you held them in your hand and you only did that for a few brief moments. Then they were consigned to the literary past. Instant gratification before dissolution. The early Anglo-Welsh Triskel pamphlets of John Tripp and Leslie Norris, the wonders of Bob Cobbing’s seemingly endless Writers Forum, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s cards, booklets and folded sheets, Topher Mills’ Red Sharks with their bindings still intact. My own second aeon delights, D M Thomas, Thomas A Clark, Will Parfitt, JP Ward, William Wantling, Geraint Jarman, David Callard, all with their staples rusting and their glue coming undone.
There’s a shelf of Beat Generation originals that I hold extremely dear. My early paperbacks of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and John Clellon Holmes. My City Lights first editions. My hardback obscurities. Norman Mailer’s The White Negro. Ginsberg’s Kaddish and Howl. Below them the books by the Angry Young Men. John Wain. Kingsley Amis. And the fellow travellers. B S Johnson. Alexander Trocchi.
Next I’ve set out my collection of concrete poetry. All embracing when it arrived and flourished between the early 50s and the late 70s. Reduced to three and a half shelves now. I’ve all the major anthologies, books by the masters, European material, American stuff. In the centre are my books by Jackson Mac Low. The genius of repetition and process, of system writing, of variations driven by mathematics, of permutation and alignment and chance. His was a poetry that challenged the whole idea of what could be poetry. Verse’s Alban Berg, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, poetry’s John Cage.
He came to Cardiff. I got him to read at No Walls in the Marchioness of Bute pub where Boots now stands in the centre of the city. He gave us the works: chants, murmurings, declarations, repeats, glorious showers of verbiage that may have held no inherent narrative but thrilled the audience nonetheless. What Mac Low was presenting us with was idea rather than emotion, light bulb moments rather than sentiment, poetry that worked not because of what it did but because of what it was.
I check my titles. I’ve half a dozen. None of them signed. I rarely remembered to ask. Jackson came back to the flat and slept on the couch. I presented him with a copy of my own early visual stuff. I’ve no idea if he read it or not. He never wrote to say.
After a while he worked out that having heard how words arrived at by process often sounded one could create them anew, avoiding process all together, right out of the middle of the head. Abandon the process and write as you imagine process to be. Read his Twenties (Roof Books,1991) Here are 100 separate poems “that were written intuitively and spontaneously”. Although he does qualify this when he says that “it might be misleading, however, to call these poems ‘intentional’, in that each word, etc., was written as soon as it came to mind or (in some cases) when I saw or heard it. I hardly ever revised..” Jackson Mac Low died in 2004.
How much Mac Low is there out there free forever on the net? Copious amounts at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/maclow/ as it turns out. But as much as I have on my shelf? I doubt it. Let’s keep it that way.
Thursday, 26 January 2012
Any idea what this word means? There have been an array of editors appearing recently at the Leveson Enquiry. What do these people do? Do they go through texts with blue pencils removing that which they do not like? Or are they primarily selectors – the ones who read through the stack of submitted material and decide what’s worth using and what is not? Maybe they are commissioners of the material to be used in the first place. The ones who ask for stuff to be done.
On the other hand they may just copy edit. Correct loose grammar, bad spellings, difficult punctuation, imprecise word choices, remove ambiguity, check facts. Nope, from what we’ve all seen on TV they certainly don’t do too much of that.
I got into literary editing at an early age. I had no idea what I was really supposed to do. The editor was the one who chose. That’s how I decided in the end to pitch it. I was running a small poetry magazine at the time – second aeon. The name was all in lower case. Spirit of the age.
Poetry magazine editors, I soon learned, might be well able to decide what went in and what did not. What they could not do, however, was change anything. Correcting text was absolutely forbidden. The editor was not allowed to add or subtract punctuation or suggest stylistic alterations possible infelicities of thrust or meaning to his or her writers. This was mainly because these creatives were poets rather than prose writers. When a poet put it down then there it stayed.
I once tried to remove an expletive from a poem by Chris Torrance and was told, very firmly, no. The poem went in with **!**!! included or it stayed completely out. I’d already had a few run ins with the PostOffice who were on the verge of stopping me from using Her Majesty’s Mail anymore if I continued publishing linguistically offensive stuff. “We have women working here,” the supervisor told me. “We can’t have you pushing such crude through their hands.” “But they won’t be able to read it,” I protested. “The magazines all go out in sealed envelopes.” “Doesn’t matter,” the man said, hat pulled hard over his forehead, “the fact that the words are there is enough.” Shades of Marcel Duchamp, I thought. Deep Modernism at work in the GPO.
So I let the Torrance poem stand. And in the event no one noticed. Lucky that time.
Later I heard how other editors operated. The famous tale of the compiler of an early anthology of Anglo-Welsh poetry who by mistake left off the second page of a poem by Glyn Jones. The book went to press (and stands uncorrected today) with half the text missing. No one noticed until the poet himself got to see it. Glyn was upset but nothing was done.
Nearer home I learned how the newspaper trade did things. Differently from the literary trade that’s for sure. “It’s all copy,” John Osmond told me. “Copy you cut to fit the space. Usually you just slice a bit off the end to make the text fit.” A bit like sawing a bit off the leg of a table to make it balance. In action this boiled down to stories being sliced up as if John Cage was authoring them. If you work in the newspaper business then you learn to live with this. But I didn’t. And when it happens to pieces I’ve written – and it still does - then I find it hard to manage.
But I have emerged with a sense of the text being text. Once it leaves your hands then it’s gone. The best work is always the latest work. The past work is in the past. But poetry, of course, is full of echoes and has a Zen-like staying power. It’s always there, as it were. You can abandon it but you can never let it completely go. It can come back to you when you least expect it, snarling at you in its unadulterated from for the long past, last week, or wherever else it’s been.
Anyway, editors are a dying breed. In these days of access and digital over supply who needs them? Everything is everywhere for everyone every time, as Gertrude Stein might have put it. I once believed this. But now **!**!!
Friday, 20 January 2012
In Ann Charters’ Portable Sixties Reader there are appearances from many of the expected literary stars of the period. Everyone from Susan Sontag to Timothy Leary, Diane di Prima to Charles Bukowski and Gary Snyder to Norman Mailer. In addition there are contributions from a few singer songwriters, notably Country Joe McDonald and Bob Dylan. All too often such songwriters have been excluded from similar compilations on the grounds that they are inappropriate and somehow unliterary or, more likely, because the copyright holders of their music simply want to charge too much. Seeing Dylan in here, a man who you’d imagine certainly might want to charge given his universal fame, fills me with hope. It’s in such marked contrast, for example, to Rita Dove’s exclusions for copyright fee reasons of several greats from her Penguin Anthology of American verse.
The singer songwriter back in the sixties was the harbinger of song writing’s rehabilitation. Suddenly we wanted to listen to what music was telling us again. Leonard Cohen, Ray Davies, Phil Ochs, Fred Neil, Marc Cohn and many others became as much a part of the literary backdrop as WH Auden, Allen Ginsberg, RS Thomas and Sylvia Plath once had been. I seem to remember the Merthyr poet Mike Jenkins quoting Captain Beef heart as one of his main literary influences. That’s the kind of thing that would have had earlier generations spinning. Stuff no longer entirely in its box. Music and writing on the merge.
It’s a tradition that has stuck. We’ve a load of great contemporary examples writing out there. Have a look at the work of Mark E Smith for a start. The tradition is just as strong in Wales. Gorky’s set it flowing. Richard James, Gwyneth Glyn, Euros Childs, Gruff Rhys and others carry it on.
My early attempts to join in were singularly unsuccessful. First up I began writing blues lyrics. I’d heard Bob Dylan but not really understood what he was attempting. Things that began “Woke up this morning” seemed much easier. I typed mine up on small bits of paper and usually carried a bunch of them around with me in my inside pocket. When I made it in the mid-sixties to Bristol’s Colston Hall to hear the great American Folk Blues tour featuring Howlin Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Sleepy John Estes I found myself hovering around the stage door. Willie Dixon, bass player and record producer, emerged, cigar in hand. Mr Dixon, I shouted, chancing my arm, have a look at these songs I’ve written. I shoved a few woke up this mornings and big legged mama’s into his pudgy hands. He smiled, grunted, folded the papers without looking at them into a pocket of his saggy suit, said something that sounded like thank you boy and then went back inside. I never heard from him again.
Down at the Greyhound, the scrumpy pub for down and outs and winos, on Cardiff’s Bridge Street, I was the resident singer. This was my decision, I had not been invited. Hell, in that place no one would. I sat there in the corner with bottle caps clasped to my shoes with rubber bands, a guitar on my lap, capo in place, and a harmonica harness holding a Horner Super Vamper in C and a kazoo round my neck. I played the one twelve bar thing I knew how to, mumbled a few lyrics into the space in front of me and then blew a few bits on the kazoo. The can’t play his instruments one man band. Voice so out of tune the windows rattled. What was I doing?
I got requests. Play Nellie Deane. I don’t know it. Bloody useless you are. Can you play anything else? No. Sod off then. After a few more desultory wails on the harmonica I decided that maybe I wasn’t the new south Wales Dylan after all and left.
I’ve no idea what happened to the guitar after that but the harmonica and the kazoo are still in a box up in the loft. I found my blues lyrics file the other day, too, a book into which I’d pasted hundreds of the things. At its end is an entry which reads “No more book but I’m not stopping”. God, the things you write when you are young.
Monday, 9 January 2012
This is the way of bird’s-eyeing the whole scene. Buy an anthology, check what you know and find out things you don’t. Have your prejudices confirmed, have your mind stretched. Discover new roads, find that the alley you are in has a dead-end. Be excited. Be bored to death.
Poetry anthologies have always been the great markers of their age. Editors rush to have their selection end up being the one. And out there are some great selections (although inevitably not everyone will agree). Donald Allen and George Buttrick’s The Postmoderns, Mike Horovitz’s Children of Albion from 1969, Edward Lucie-Smith’s British Poetry Since 1945 from 1970, Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos from 1996, Hulse, Kennedy & Morley’s The New Poetry of 1993, Armitage and Crawford’s The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland Since 1945 from 1998.
The editors of these books have become the taste makers of their age. They are the ones who have decided which names should mean something to the wider public. This on the basis that the wider public are not capable of buying individual books but will chance their arms on an anthology, I suppose. They are also the markers of trends and new departures. Is it time now to leave the mid-century middle-class white male dominance? Should we shift across to poetry from immigrants, travellers, mobile populations, work translated from minority tongues, regionalist, feminist, non-academic rather than university researched, the output of creative writing departments instead of work from the genuinely inspired, wild edge pushing texts in place of measured steady verses, performance work rather than verse from the page?
The anthologists make these decisions. Unconsciously we follow their leads. Sometimes we do.
And if you are operator on the scene, a writer in the field, is your work included? Or have you once again been left out in the cold? I’m in Ric Caddel and Peter Quartermain’s Other – British and Irish Poetry Since 1970 and Allnutt, D’Aguir, Edwards and Mottram’s The New British Poetry but not in Keith Tuma’s Anthology of Twentieth-Century British & Irish Poetry. There you go. Am I upset? I don't know.
Does any of this matter? If you are not included in one book then you’ll be in the next, perhaps. If you are not then set out and edit your own. That’s the way the poetry scene rolls and tumbles.
I’m not included in the new Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove either. Dove, her of the Pulitzer prize, former poet laureate of America and star of Barak Obama’s White House poetry evenings (yes, there have been such things). But then I’m not American but even if I had been I would have remained out in the cold. Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath didn’t make the final cut either. Not important enough to Dove’s world view. Dove is on record as saying that “the entire poetic trajectory of the century flashed before me.” From that arc she made her choice. I can see what she’s trying to achieve, to redress a balance. But with something as significant as this anthology perhaps not quite the thing to do.
Doyen of critics Helen Vendler has taken Dove to task for these and other exclusions. Dove’s selection, Vendler claims, “expressed a clear preference for “multicultural inclusiveness that would shift the balance away from the centrality of the century’s acknowledged titans of English-language poetry—Eliot, Frost, Stevens…—by introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors”. Dove, Vendler goes on, has included too many writers for “ their representative themes rather than their style.”
Dove, of course, does not agree. She has issued a point by point rebuttal claiming that Vendler has “allowed outrage to get the better of her, leading to a number of illogical assertions and haphazard conclusions”. Not including Ginsberg and Plath was the logical thing to do, obviously. Their work does not fit with Dove’s new twenty-first century view of the past one hundred years of US verse. The small matter of Dove having run out of permissions fees and therefore not being able to pay the copyright charges and then failing to sort this out with her publisher is something else. A lot of people have now had their noses put out of joint.
But, of course, anthologies are supposed to do this. Upset some of, enrage others, as well as enthralling and exciting everyone else. Controversy is the stuff of poetry, it ought to be. If poetry is predictable then it has failed.
Meic Stephens edited the great anthology of Twentieth Century Anglo-Welsh poetry for the Library of Wales. Poetry 1900 to 2000. We are now a decade down the line. Time for some of the new voices to be seen as well as heard.
Monday, 2 January 2012
Ah dementia. Word of the year for 2011. A condition on the rise with any number of battles with a reluctant NHS up ahead. I’ve known at least two people who have ended their days in the grips of this mind thinner. It’s a condition that has no cure, that cannot be fixed, that cannot be made better. The mind wears away, its edges fray, its central parts rub thin like overused shoes. The memories flake off and float away. The ability to move from A to B becomes compromised. The familiar is no longer familiar.
Things get worse in stages, like descending steps. There are plateaus of calm but nothing ever climbs back up. Eventually it all goes on down. The drugs the NHS reluctantly prescribes, reluctant because they are deemed too expensive, can help. They can reduce dementia’s advance and slow its progress. But this condition cannot ultimately be stopped.
My mother carried the names of things she couldn’t remember around with her on scraps of paper in her pockets and in her purse. When she pulled them out she wondered what they were for. Who put these here, she’d ask? You did, I’d say. I did not. Why would I do that?
Yesterday I couldn’t remember the name of the pub built onto the restored pilot house in Cardiff Bay. Leave the Millennium Centre and turn left instead of right. Sam Smith’s Brewery. Like the Tardis once you got inside. What was it called? I just couldn’t recall. Today I still can’t. The name has become erased. Gone off into a set of brain cells which have had their ends taped up. It’s not the Eli Jenkins nor the White Hart. It’s The Waterguard. I’ve just looked it up.
Should I be worried? Not with Google at my side.
Mike, when he was in the teeth of it, would sit in the pub watching his beer evaporate. What do I do with this glass of brown stuff, he might have been thinking, who knows. But after we’d somehow persuaded him to drink a bit and the alcohol began to flow in his veins he’d brighten up. He’d become chatty, remember who he was and who we were. Told the odd joke. Smiled. Almost the man he once was. For Mike alcohol helped.
Dementia – Alzheimer’s –it’s a process, it’s a condition of our post-modern world.
Here’s the poem:
The Voyage of Dementia
The voyage of discovery
The victim of disaster
The volume of dissonance
The vileness of dementia
The discovery of shelter
The death of simplicity
The dissonance of decisions
The disaster of democracy
The viciousness of critics
The volume of criticism
The voyage of creation
The vision of cremation
The dimness of vicissitude
The demonstrability of volume
The debility of ventilation
The death of vision
The fracture of the future
The firmness of dissonance
The fullness of digression
The filibustering of death
The criticism of creation
The commuting of conquest
The consolation of commutation
The cessation of courage
The diagram of depth
The digitisation of drumming
The disregard of dignity
The dimness of diplomacy
The directness of the dharma
The diagnosis of devaluation
The desperation of death
The dementia of denouement
The denouement of dementia.