Tuesday, 15 July 2014

God Loves You by Kathryn Maris

Why people believe something tends to interest me more than the detail of what they believe.  That’s certainly the case in this week of women bishops, when some Church of England women spoke out against the proposal during the Synod debate.  The deeper reasons that come to mind are psychological rather than theological, and I’d love to come across a play, a novel or poems that explored them. 

God Loves You  is full of states of mind both contemporary and ancient, in language and rhythms to match, the ancient ones drawn from the Bible, authorised version.  This combination may be why the book got under my skin.  It’s not like any other book.  I’ve wanted to write about it for a while, but was inhibited because I know Kathryn Maris.  I’m writing about it anyway.  That’s a dilemma Maris’ droll, agonised, slyly confiding voices could dramatise perfectly, though they are concerned with more fundamental issues, often sins both great and small: jealousy, spying on neighbours, rivalrous parenting, husband-stealing. 

The biblical angle can allow a speaker to come straight to the point, while also making old truths about human nature sound new, as in the opening lines of  ‘Why I Will Gladly Take Your Man Away’:

Because there is time
and because I can claim Him and then declaim
to you, ‘I know not what I do’, 

The capital H is no accident; God can get mixed up, mostly with  husbands etc, and this speaker goes on to say:

if you’ve got God, then watch Him hard
because I will take Him if I can

So religion gets sent up mightily, along with our more secular preoccupations.  The book, which is carefully ordered, has an epigraph from Ted Hughes: “Crow realised God loved him – / Otherwise he would have dropped dead / So that was proved.”  The middle section contains several prose poems in biblical verse form, full of surreal truthiness.  Women carry boxes full of grief or demons and meet men, angels, kings, God.  Bible stories meet folk/fairy tales, with a dash of William Blake.  From ‘God Loves You’:

4. On the second day, there were finches  
in the air.    I saw with my own eyes this
flock yield the form of a heart before me.
5. The next sign, too, was full of meaning.
It was a sign.   And it was revealed to me
thus: the Damut Estate. And in that name
I read these words: ‘Deus te amat’.

That’s a fairly harmless example, but underneath the arbitrary twists and turns in some tales there lurks something nastier, the logic of the witches’ swimming test.

Maris uses form expertly.  Iambic pentameters in ‘Will You Be My Friend, Kate Moss?’ convey breathless celebrity-worship. The premise of the poem is that both KMs have daughters in the same ballet class.  This mother’s thinking like a smallish girl:

We have so many things
in common, like you’re pretty much my age;
we share initials; the circumference of
our thighs is basically the same. (I checked.)

A sestina, ‘Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books?’ is in the voice of a wife complaining about her author husband’s muse – the form works its repetitions round and round her desperate jealousy, like the hoovering which is the starting-point for her complaint. 

do you have any idea how it feels
to step over books you wrote about her
bloody hell you sadist what kind of man
are you all day long those fecking books

in my way for 3 years your acclaimed books
tell me now what do you have to say
for yourself you think you're such a man
silent brooding pondering at the floor
pretending you're bored when I mention her

The poem can be read in full here, with a commentary from Carol Rumens.

Then there’s ‘Knowledge is a Good Thing’, a dialogue with the devil, in full-rhyming couplets short enough to be really hard to do (shorter lines = fewer options).  Eve with a echo of Blake’s Songs of Experience, and many novels:
Blake: Eve tempted by the serpent. V&A

‘What’s his is yours.
Look in the drawers.’

‘I’m forbidden
to know what’s in them.’

‘You’re his wife.
Dig up his life.’

‘Will I despair
at what’s in there?’

There is no shortage of emotional extremes in this book.  Individual exposures can be merciless but the overall effect is merciful, because of the empathy – each speaker is revealing us all. 

Some poems tend more towards the spiritual, such as variations on the Greek 20th century poet Melissanthi; and metaphysical, such as ‘The Sun’s Lecture Notes on Itself, You and God’.  This is one of several that start each thought and/or sentence on a new line, like the Bible or Lyn Hejinian:

When I rise I see the humans in the park. They walk whichever way they walk. I see their progress in angles and vectors. Only God sees where they are going. 
The inner sun burns differently for each human. This includes ardour.

The sky my colleague reminds you that the atmosphere is poison. But he believes in free will and a daily change of eyesight. 

Partial awareness is hardly a gift, but totality is worse. We look on you and think this every day.

Maris is an American living in London, and a couple of poems refer to friends among her American poet contemporaries, Sarah Manguso and Nuar Alsadir.  It’s hard to identify how the influences come through when her voice is so original anyway.  There’s an emotional boldness about the dramatic monologues which feels American, coupled with the ability to make large statements without sounding lame.  Also a certain brand of wacky surreality, as in  ‘I Imagine We Will Be Neighbours in Hell’, which has a quote from Manguso as its epigraph.  

You can water your stone plant
and I’ll climb stairs that hang in my vacant world.
We’ll know our neighbours, we just won’t know
they are our neighbours. Hell could be that:
ignorance of the proximity of our neighbours. 

I’ve just leafed through God Loves You.  There are around fifteen more poems I’d like to quote, and I’ve quoted seven already.  That’s a lot of stand-out poems.  It’s also a sign of how varied God Loves You is, though it’s a very coherent book.  At the other end of the spectrum there are few poems whose impact is weaker. 

I’ll end with just two more, first the lovely final poem, ‘Street Sweeper’, which opens:

God scatters where he eats,
The sweeper wheels his cart to what falls.

The broom assembles a pile.
The wind dismantles the pile.

God is the messy wind. The pile
is the mouthpiece of the wind.

I ask if I’m loved.
He points to the graveyard his garden abuts.

I clutch his hair. I say Am I loved?
He claims his love for me is deep

but zealless. 

‘Bright Day’ is a small poem which could act as a manifesto for the whole book.  A mother stands her children outside,

and I teach them to recognise
a ‘God Day’ when they see it.

But next time it happens,
they shout, ‘It’s a Mama Day!
She says she can see God.’

Does the CofE’s General Synod have a poet-in-residence?  Here’s an excellent candidate. 

God Loves You was published by Seren in 2013.  The blurb on the back, which you can read here, quotes a couple more favourites.  Maris’ first collection, The Book of Jobs, also very original, was published in the US by Four Way Books; there's a sample here.


Monday, 30 June 2014

Books for one room

My house needs a damp course, all the way round.  The damp course man says there will be a lot of dust, and I need to move books etc upstairs.  There isn’t much etcetera but there are a lot of books, at least in proportion to the house which is two-up two-down with a lean-to kitchen and a bathroom under the stairs.  The house is fine, more than fine; it’s the books that are a problem.  Damp course aside, there is no more space for new ones. 

This has set me thinking about which books I’d keep, if I only had one room.  Strangely that is much, much easier than deciding on a few books to throw out (which from now on I will need to do regularly). 

Looking at two random shelves, both containing mid-20th century non-fiction, I’d keep:

The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig.  Jewish girl gets deported from Vilnius to Siberia, in 1941.  This was read aloud to us in English class when we were 10, same age as Esther at the start. 

Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm.  Necessary history.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.  Orwell in the middle of events. 

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage.  About growing up in the Welsh borders, the curse of family: a great read.

Honour, Family, and Patronage: a Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community by J K Campbell.  This anthropological study from the 1950’s was hugely illuminating when I was living in Athens in the 1990’s, trying to understand contemporary Greek politics and society. 

Poetry anthologies are on one long shelf, I’ve got around 70.  I’d keep:

Staying Alive, Being Alive, and Being Human, edited by Neil Astley – the three big Bloodaxe anthologies of 20th and 21st century poetry, which contain large numbers of exceptional poems by a vast range of writers.  The scope, whether poetic, geographical, cultural or emotional, is huge.  The thematic grouping, which could have been a disaster, works really well.  These three would make up for not having room for books of poetry in translation such as The Poetry of Survival, post-war poets of Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Daniel Weissbort.

The Making of a Sonnet – Norton anthology, edited by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland.  Formal counterpoint to the largely free verse Bloodaxes, and with poems from Dante onwards. 

The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, edited by Jeff Hilson.  Innovative, inventive sonnets, 20th and 21st century.

Carcanet New Poetries V, edited by Michael Schmidt with Eleanor Crawforth, would be my contemporary British anthology because it’s got a higher-than-usual proportion of strikingly good poems.  Eclectic is another way to go: I’m enjoying a set of four micro-anthologies, blackbird, kingfisher, swift and kestrel, from Sidekick Books, each with half a dozen mostly contemporary poems on the bird in question, and small enough to nestle in the back pocket of my jeans.  Sidekick also produce the full-size Birdbooks. 

Legitimate Dangers, edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin and published by Sarabande, has to be my contemporary American choice.  It contains work by over 80 poets born after 1960.  This makes it forbiddingly heavy, but it’s where I first read favourites such as Brenda Shaughnessy, Matthea Harvey and D A Powell.  A reserve would be The Best of the Best American poetry, edited by Robert Pinsky, a 2013 selection from all the annual Best anthologies since 1988; plenty of famous names.    

Somehow, I don’t feel the need for anthologies of earlier poetry – maybe because it is in my head anyway.  I don’t mean that I know it off by heart, but that the voices of my favourites, of such as Horace, Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson, are in my head.    

20th / 21st century single poet collections are much, much harder.  One way of looking at this is to consider which poets I most often pull off the shelf, to read in order to write.  The ones I can think of, in no particular order, form a very small subset:

W S Graham, J H Prynne, Jorie Graham, Mark Doty, Denise Riley, D A Powell, Marie Howe, Jane Kenyon, Paul Celan, George Seferis, Sylvia Plath, Tomas Tranströmer. 

Another way is to consider which new books spend a lot of time out, being read and then read again in a different mood or direction: current examples include Omnesia by W N Herbert, The Visitations by Kathryn Simmonds, and Loom by Sarah Gridley.  

Neither of these methods works.  If it came to one room, I’d ditch nearly all my contemporary novels, in order to keep as much poetry as possible.  (I wouldn’t get an ebook reader: electronic devices put me in work mode.)  As it is, in three weeks’ time I’m going to have to move some books out, temporarily.  I don’t want the upstairs floor to collapse, and there has to be room to sleep.    

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Poetry and Sexism in the Guardian Review, 2013/14

This has become an annual exercise, or rather a 13-monthly one.  New readers, please see last year’s audit, and also the latest VIDA audit, for the background and reasons for doing this.

2013/14 results:
*  Over a third (37%) of books reviewed are by female poets.  This is the highest percentage yet, and only two points lower than the percentage of women’s books published by the big five poetry publishers.
*  Just over a third (34%) of reviews are written by women. 
*  Middle-sized and small poetry publishers get only 4 books reviewed.  It’s all about the big five.
*  The Guardian is capable of breaking its own glass ceiling: the Saturday Poem has gone gender neutral!
*  Black and Asian poets are very poorly represented in all categories, apparently not at all as reviewers or in the Saturday Poem.
*  The Guardian is reviewing less poetry.

*  Incremental improvement.  To achieve a Saturday Poem-style breakthrough, the Guardian might have to start reviewing a range of books more representative of the good poetry that’s being published today.       

Figures for May 2013 to early June 2014 are in purple.  Figures for mid March 2012 to end April 2013 are in red.  Figures* for mid February 2011 to early March 2012 are in green.  Figures* from January 2010 - early February 2011 are in blue.  You can access the Guardian’s archive of reviews here.

A.  Books reviewed in the Guardian’s Saturday Review

24 books by men, 14 books by women.  That’s 63% and 37%.
36 books by men, 12 books by women.  That’s 75% and 25%.  
30 books by men, 16 books by women.  That’s 65% and 35%.
27 books by men, 11 books by women.  That’s 71% and 29%. 

Best yet, and a big improvement on last year’s terrible figures.  The split is getting close to the M:F ratio of books published by the big five poetry publishers, which from 2010 to April 2013 was 61:39, see here for the figures on that. 

I think that only 2 books by black and Asian poets were reviewed, the same as last year.  This time the poets were Derek Walcott and Grace Nicholls.  The figure appears disproportionately low.  However, at 5% it’s possible that it might not be far off the percentage for the big five.  It would be good to audit the ethnic origin of poets published by the big five, but this would be much harder than last year’s gender audit.   

See section C below for more on publishers. 

The Guardian Review is reviewing less poetry: see this year’s decline in the number of reviews.  The first two years’ figures above don’t include the short reviews* the Guardian used to do.      

B.  Reviewers

25 men, 13 women.  That’s 66% and 34%.
31 men, 17 women.  That’s 65% and 35%. 
32 men, 14 women.  That’s 70% and 30%.
28 men, 10 women.  That’s 74% and 26%.

The figures consolidate an upward trend, just about.

Female reviewers get given women’s and men’s books to review in roughly equal proportions.  The male reviewers mostly get given books written by men. 

No black or Asian reviewers, I think.  Why not?  
C.  Publishers

In this category the figures are even worse than last year.  4 out of 38 books were published by smaller publishers; last year the number was 8.

Again it’s the big five (Bloodaxe Cape, Carcanet, Faber, Picador) who predominate.  There are a few books from larger, non-poetry specialist publishers.  Nothing at all by medium sized, high quality poetry publishers Seren or Salt; there wasn’t last year, either.  The only smaller publishers represented, at one book each, are Shearsman, CB Editions, Polygon and Eggbox Publishing.  Eggbox got in because they published a pamphlet by Faber author and last year’s Forward 1st Collection Prize winner, Sam Riviere. 

British poetry culture has got more diverse, with a range of excellent smaller publishers flourishing and capturing attention.  And there’s the rise of poetry pamphlets; it’s nice that the author of the Eggbox review, David Wheatley, talks a bit about poetry pamphlet culture generally.  But that’s the only concession to these wider changes in the whole year’s Guardian output.     

The Guardian Review’s glass ceiling for smaller publishers is firmly in place. 

D.  Saturday Poem

19 by men and 19 by women.  That’s… 50% and 50%.  Hooray!
23 by men and 13 by women.  That’s 64% and 36%
33 by men and 18 by women.  That’s 65% and 35%.
[I didn’t work this out for 2010.] 

The Guardian can do it!!  Many of the poems chosen are from new collections.  A shame that all the poets are white, at least I think so.    But it’s a start.  Come on, Guardian Saturday Review – make these annual audits unnecessary!  Do this blog out of a job!  First step: start handing out a wider range of review copies.  Then the numbers will improve. 

E.  Audits – what next

The emphasis of this audit is shifing slightly, from the VIDA-inspired gender-only audit that inspired it in the first place to a broader consideration of what lies behind the Guardian Review’s figures. 

The main exercise I want to do, once my inner geek recovers from this one, is an audit of the Poetry Book Society choices and recommendations.  If people have any other ideas, please say.  And do check out the Sidekick Books blog, where Jon Stone has just started a series on how to fix contemporary poetry culture. 

* In the first two years, the Guardian also ran short reviews and I counted these separately (they improved the M:F ratio).  There are still occasionally a few short reviews on the paperbacks page, but these don’t appear when one searches the Guardian’s online poetry reviews.  All the figures given in this audit are for long reviews only.  I always include Nicholas Lezard’s paperback review, if this is of a poetry book.

***   ***   ***

Thank you very much to readers of this blog who voted for me in the Saboteur Awards, Best Reviewer category.  The result can be seen at the top right-hand corner of this blog.  Your votes mattered! 

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Alternative poetry awards - Saboteur

When I wrote in January about the closed system of the big UK poetry prizes, a couple of people commented: shame there isn’t an award for small publishers, since the two main prizes both virtually ignore them.  So then Claire Trévien, editor of the online magazine Sabotage Reviews, pointed out that there is an award that covers them: the Saboteur Awards, which she’s been running for the last four years.

The Saboteur Awards “reward work that has… really made us and/or our readers sit up and take notice – especially work that has done so on a tight budget with a small-scale distribution. Sabotage Reviews focuses on the indie side of literature and performance, and our awards celebrate the best of that”.  There aren’t any tangible prizes, at least not until a sponsor comes forward, but there’s kudos.

The awards have a dozen categories, ranging from Best Spoken Word Performer and Best Collaborative Work to Most Innovative Publisher, Best Poetry Pamphlet, Best Anthology and Best Magazine.  So plenty of chance to reward the hard work of small publishers.  Fiction as well as poetry.  Nominations have closed and the shortlists are now being voted for.  People vote online; each shortlist is made up of the top five nominees.  If you have a look you’ll see that there are some really good nominations.

I was very surprised when… I was nominated in the Best Reviewer category.  That came out of nowhere; I guess it was for this blog as much as anything, so thank you very much to any readers of this blog who voted for me!  I’ve also done reviews for various other publications, mostly online and a couple in magazines.  See top right of this blog, above the photo: if you click on Poetry reviews etc, there’s a list of my reviews with links.  I think some people have been checking that page out before they vote, because it’s had a lot of views in the last few weeks. 

Anyway, do please vote… for me, if you like the reviews on this blog!   And in as many categories as you feel you can – the more votes the small poetry publishers get, the more our recognition will count against their under-recognition by the big prizes.  And the more Claire Trévien’s own hard work in organising the awards will be rewarded. 

Thank you.  Here’s the link. 

Voting ends tomorrow, Sunday 25 May.  There’s an award ceremony in Oxford next Saturday, 31 May, plus a book fair and readings; you can book tickets here.