Friday, 30 September 2016

Poetry & politics at the Poetry Book Fair

What is the language using us for?  What were we all doing at the book fair, selling and buying books, networking, reading, listening? 

WS Graham’s question got quoted at the fair’s panel discussion on Poetry & Politics with Choman Hardi, WN Herbert, Sophie Mayer and RA Villanueva.  They talked passionately and collaboratively for almost an hour and the crowded room listened hard.  People kept coming up to me afterwards (I chaired the panel) to say they wished it had gone on for longer.  Or that they’d tried to get into the room but were turned away because it was full.  The discussion was filmed and it’s just gone up on the Book Fair’s website.  Bill Herbert has also put the link on New Boots & Pantisocracies and invited comments. 

Before the panel I had fun collecting quotes, to have in my back pocket in case discussion needed stimulating (it didn’t).  Here is a mixed bag, a lucky dip starting with one that, as Book Fair director Chrissy Williams reminded me, is usually quoted misleadingly, first five word only.

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
W H Auden ‘In Memory of W B Yeats’

Poetry is not about making things happen.  That’s what language does.  Poetry is about making language happen. 
Donald Revell, American Poetry Review

All norms of other kinds of discourse are changed when absorbed by a poem. 
Veronica Forrest-Thomson (intro to Poetic Artifice)

In the internet age, where we are at liberty to download such a plethora of texts – to reproduce them, recycle them, change their appearance by altering font, typeface, spacing, size – context and framing become the key elements.  The poet’s role has become, in the literal sense, that of a word processor, finding how best to absorb, recharge and redistribute the language that is already there
What, in this new poetry, has happened to the authentic voice?...  The fabled ‘sensitivity’ of the Creative Writer gives way to a sensitivity to language that is almost like a fever – a sensitivity that has been the distinguishing mark of the poet from the Troubadours to George Herbert… Emily Dickinson… Susan Howe..
Marjorie Perloff in PN Review, on poetry as the language art

[The] search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament. 
Seamus Heaney, ‘Feeling into Words’, Finders Keepers

I am interested in what activism can learn from poetry…. I believe failure in activism is often a deficiency of lyricism—an inability to collapse time and distance, a refusal to surprise or “make it new,” a willingness to calcify into rigid and limiting expectations, a closure to self-transformation, an unconsidered we or you, to name just a few. I believe social quests for freedom have much to learn from freedom enacted on the page. And that this conversation should happen on the level of reading and not, as it often is, solely on the level of intention… 
It’s a conversation that should happen especially with erasure, the most blatantly political form of late. Erasure may well be the closest poetry in English has gotten to role of the state.
Solmaz Sharif from the erasure issue of Evening will Come. Thanks to Sophie Mayer who told me about this piece which also contains much interesting material about erasure as a poetic device, highly recommended.  And then Ron Villanueva mentioned it on the panel – it’s a reference point.

No one who reads much contemporary poetry in English can fail to notice that there too the moral positions of the authors are sometimes taken as evidence of an artistic seriousness and accomplishment that the work may not in fact bear out.  At times we seem to be reading virtue rather than poetry.
Sean O’Brien in the Guardian (review of Centres of

Why does diversity in poetry matter?  … Poetry has the potential to hold up a mirror to society; at its best, it has the ability to show what a society may become. 
Nathalie Teitler, intro to Ten: the New Wave

One of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement.
Geoffrey Hill in the Paris Review

The history of Europe in this [last] century is full of those terrible events supposed to have traduced or contaminated language, along with those sorrowful bystanders, perched upon some peak of purity, who can bewail the loss of a model of rational, passionate and poetic discourse that would somehow resist the ruptures of historical process. But, how silly…
Human language is the tribal continuity of expressive human behaviour, and is marked in its very core by whatever depravity or nobility an exercise of linguistic analysis may discover within the human record.  If writers and poets think that language can somehow resist this involvement with the worst, while claiming natural affinity with the best, then they are guilty of a naïve idealism that ought least of all to attract those who know how language works and what it can do. 
J H Prynne (quoted in a recent LRB piece by Robert Potts)

Every beginning
is only a sequel, after all,
and the book of events
is always open halfway through.
Wisława Szymborska, View With a Grain of Sand

Degas to Mallarmé: I’ve got good ideas for poems but can’t find the words.  M to D: “It is not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes poems. It is with words.”
                From the Perloff PNR article.

[Climate change] is like death, no-one wants to talk about it. 
Amitav Ghosh quoted in the Guardian recently; not a poetry
reference, I couldn’t find one...

Contemporary poets do not aspire to ‘greatness’; the role they are meant to fulfil is the role of the earthworm.  The soil of the earthworm is language. 
Wojciech Bonowicz; from Modern Poetry in Translation

The hugely successful Book Fair has become an indispensable institution over the five (or six?) years it’s been going.  This year the team produced a Poetry Almanac containing listings for and descriptions of 190 poetry publishers and other poetry organisations.  There’s also a poem each from many of the publishers and a set of essays on poetry publishing.  The Almanac may become an institution too – it’s a very useful reference work of a sort that hasn’t existed up until now.  You can get it here.  


Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Rereading Seamus Heaney’s ‘Personal Helicon’

This poem’s music has been bumping along at the back of my brain, coming in and out of focus along with the words.  I’m obsessed with the poem and have to write about it.  (A completely different experience from the often exasperating one of having a song on the brain.)    

Like many readers and students of poetry, Irish and British at least, I’ve known ‘Personal Helicon’ for years, especially its much-quoted ending.  Recently I picked up Death of a Naturalist again, started on the last page and was transfixed as if I’d never read it before.  Last poem of Heaney’s first book (and nicely balanced with ‘Digging’, the opening poem).  It’s here, with a recording of him reading it.  

The odd title (personal what? first-time readers must ask) sets us up for something elevated and classical.  Mount Helicon was a haunt of the Muses and its springs were said to inspire poetry – hard for northern Europeans used to rain and damp earth to grasp the magic of fresh water in the arid mountainscape of central Greece.  But from the first line we’re down in wells: deep in the unknown earth whose crust we live on unthinkingly, amid dankness, rats, echoes, weed and mud; deep in the unknown self, in origins and childhood fascinations.  And down in wells we stay (or rather half looking down, half down there) though in the last verse Narcissus brings us back to Helicon, where Echo fell in love with him and he with his own reflection. 

The rhythms of the poem are based on iambic pentameters but move far from them.  Stressed syllables tend to be strongly stressed, almost Hopkins-like; two often occur next to each other, as in the first two lines of the second verse:

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.

The consonants in the second line mimic the crash.  The third line unwinds the bucket from the windlass in rapid dactyls.  There’s humour in all this but it’s scary too – there’s danger in the rotted top, the crash, the reflectionless depths that get their own short sentence for emphasis.  Later in the poem the lines smooth out to become more conventionally iambic – until disturbed by “a rat slapped…”

There’s such relish in the language – as always with Heaney – unLatinate, onomatopoeic, often monosyllabic, enriched with words like windlasses, scaresome, mulch.  My shorter OED hasn’t taken scaresome on board.  Then, as if for fun, Heaney gives us a Latinate line with an unusual word, “Fructified like any aquarium”. 

Heaney’s laying claim to his own language here, his own territory, as well as his right to be up that Greek mountain.  It’s a political poem, subtly so. 

Apart from the aquarium line there’s little metaphor in the poem whose effects come from graphic, pungent detail: rat, roots and slime, smells and sounds.  Despite these the brilliance of language and rhythm, the relish and the humour give a sense of refreshment.  The word “reflection” appears twice to bring in both light and thought.

And of course the whole poem’s a metaphor, leading up to the denoument of the fifth verse:

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing. 

The perfection of that last sentence sets up echoes of its own in the reader.  The final line is a lone hexameter – declarative.  It acts out the echoing in -self, set, -ness, ech-, following lots of short and long i's in the rest of the verse.   

Has anyone expressed the Why of writing poetry, the introspection and excitement, as well as this?  Not just in that sentence and the lovely, serious piss-take preceding it (poets, self-obsession/-indulgence, vanity) but also the run-up, the set-up, the whole poem? 

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Finding Denise Riley

Sometimes there is a poet who should be read far, far more.  Denise Riley used to be one such.  I doubt there was any lack of depth of engagement from those who knew and liked her work – it was more about lack of breadth.  I used to enjoy introducing people to her: generally this would cause interest and excitement.   

Introductions should no longer be necessary, now that her new book Say Something Back is out from Picador and shortlisted for the Forward Prize.  I’ve just reviewed it for the next issue of The Compass which will be appearing online shortly, so I won’t write about that book here. 

I expect people will read backwards from Say Something Back and discover Riley’s Selected Poems (Reality Street, 2000). 
My first encounter with her work was online, in a year or two of intensive reading after giving up my job.  That time was full of discoveries but finding Riley was one of those where you remember the feeling years later.  I’d never read anything like her and printed out all the poems I could find**, off an obscure website which perhaps shouldn’t have reproduced them.   ‘Dark Looks’ was the first one I read and I can still visualise the typewriter typeface it was in.  The poem now appears in more accessible places – see here.  It starts:

Who anyone is or I am is nothing to the work. The writer
properly should be the last person that the reader or the listener
                                                                         need think about
yet the poet with her signature stands up trembling, grateful,
                                                                 mortally embarrassed
and especially embarrassing to herself, patting her hair and
                                                                     twittering If, if only
I need not have a physical appearance! To be sheer air, and

A funny, ironic, cool, hard-hittingly true, pun-filled and vivid monologue with intellect and emotion working together.  Its one page contains so much – a cogent argument, embarrassment that makes the reader cringe (that If only! and To be!), Victorian Anglo-Catholicism, film, modern materials, spiritualism, feminism (with special focus on periods) and more, and I’m sure some things I’ve missed… back to the horrors of poetry readings: 

What forces the lyric person to put itself on trial though it must stay
                                                              rigorously uninteresting?

Quite.  ‘Dark Looks’ ends with a plea to the listener/reader not to run off.  As if we would.  Riley is generally brilliant at awkwardness and self-consciousness – she does them like no-one else. 

She describes feelings and situations in ways you’d never expect.  An early poem, ‘Affections must not’ (full poem is here), ends:

the houses are murmuring with many small pockets of emotion
on which spongy ground adults’ lives are being erected and paid for
while their feet and their children’s’ feet are tangled around like
                                                                       those of fen larks
in the fine steely wires which run to and fro between love and

affections must not support the rent

I. neglect. the. house

That hard, practical yet weird metaphor is typical.  Line breaks are used instead of punctuation for the subordinate clauses and the words run fast.  The full stops in the last line are the only ones in the poem; they convey (I think) resolution and they stop us dead.  ‘Fen larks’: anyone else would have written just ‘larks’, not that they’d have written any of this at all. 

And in ‘Rayon’:

The day is nervous buff – the shakiness, is it inside the day or me?

‘Buff’: polishing movements, a blow, involuntary splutters of laughter, a certain heavy animal, a dull pale colour, naked skin… 

Riley’s ekphrastic poems draw emotions out of their subjects: in ‘Lure’ she mixes in scraps of song lyrics.

                       Flood, drag to papery long brushes
of deep violet, that’s where it is, indigo, oh no, it’s in
his kiss. Lime brilliance. Obsessive song. Ink tongues.

Density is a common feature – reading Riley out loud, your mouth works hard at the consonants but finds resonance and relief in the frequent assonance – see above.  Syntax can be complex but is always clear and carries the reader along.  Some poems are simpler in form and foreshadow the work in Say Something Back.  From ‘Lyric’:

I take on its rage at the cost
of sleep. If I love it I sink
attracting its hatred. If I
don’t love it I steal its music.

See also ‘An awkward lyric’ in her new book.

Riley is an academic – literature and philosophy.  I assume that much in the poems has been deeply considered elsewhere too.  According to its online blurb, her book The Words of Selves examines the question: What does it matter what you say about yourself?  She says in the introduction: “There may sometimes be an inherent emotionality to grammar”.  She walks the walk of that statement in every poem. 

Today I’ve been reading Denise Riley alongside Geoffrey Hill.  Two great lyrical modernists (if that description makes sense); both allusive, political, complex on and/or below the surface; both with large intellectual hinterlands. 

You can get hold of Denise Riley’s Selected Poems here.  It might sell out…

**This was in the pre-Poetry Archive era; you can read and hear several of her earlier poems there.  It’s offline this afternoon but I think the poems include ‘Dark Looks’ and another favourite, ‘Shantung’.  Also, see here for a podcast of her reading ‘A Part Song’, the much-admired long poem from Say Something Back.  Riley was in volume 10 of the Penguin Modern Poets.  She had books before her Selected, some published by Virago (see Dry Air in the photo – I was delighted to find this at the Blackheath Amnesty International book sale).  Several years ago I searched for them in the Poetry Library but they had mostly gone missing. 

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Finding a path from Europe to Europe

How to break through the film of dread and write something, anything?  

One option’s to quote from the terrifying vision of W B Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ (1919) and hide.  No: two sentences of prose instead.   

To be defeated and not give up, that is victory. To be victorious and rest on your laurels, that is defeat.

He should know.  That was said by Józef Piłsudski, Polish hero of the fight for independence and leader for many of the interwar years.  (Quoted by Timothy Garton-Ash in the Guardian – a piece like many this week but with added historical depth.)  It’s looking as though we’ve rested on our laurels of peace and security within (most of) Europe for far too long. 

Now the 48% need to not give up.  So often we only really care about something when we risk losing it.  

The bitter irony of the referendum is that it’s the people who voted Leave because their lives are fraught with difficulty who will suffer most.  Their expectations have been failed in the last 8 years and will be failed again – and then what? 

Scotland, Europe...
It would be madness not to try to find a path through this that ends back where it started: in Europe.  The country’s future is at stake!  Leave campaigners’ lies/promises are already being reneged on. Scotland’s heading for the door (my biggest dread throughout the campaign: nightmare of a truncated UK with all that it implies) and  Northern Ireland is smouldering.  Racism’s rearing its head as if given the stamp of approval.  Money is falling out all over the place and Putin & co are having a laugh. 

Reasons to be positive: the passion of the 48% and of the young, the parliamentary majority for Remain, the referendum’s advisory nature, the political and economic turmoil, Leavers’ regrets, a new urgency about addressing Leavers’ concerns, Angela Merkel being calm.  Reasons to be negative: the political and economic turmoil, the tabloids, the Eurocrats who want to teach us a lesson so others don’t follow, the main UK parties’ failure to address the problems and perceptions (most of all those around immigration) that motivated the 52% leave vote. 

It must be possible to call another referendum on the terms of departure, once these have been negotiated.  And/or delay until circumstances and opinions have changed.  And in the meantime do some hard thinking about how to address things that aren’t working well in the world (here’s Gordon Brown on globalisation).  A general election might help, if one gets called; or not help.  The scary thing is that various complex elements would have to fall out right for there to be a good outcome. 
So: back to Piłsudski and not giving up.  For Europe, for peace and stability, for a UK that remains united, for equality of opportunity, for progress on the environment, science etc, and for tolerance.  For the 52% as well as the 48%.  Shelley, too, 100 years before Piłsudski and Yeats, 200 years before us, ended this sonnet with hope:

England in 1819

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th' untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

From poetry to strategy: How (not) to get your poetry published

Recently someone without knowledge of the poetry world asked me to read a poetry collection and advise on publication.  What I really wanted to send instead of my longish and painstaking email reply was a concentrated version of Helena Nelson’s book How (not) to get your poetry published – something that would encapsulate all its wisdom, common sense, humour and raw experience. 

Here I’d better declare an interest: Helena Nelson (Nell) of HappenStance Press has published both my pamphlets.  But that means I know she walks the walk.  Many other poetry readers and writers know it too: she’s a prize-winning small publisher and poet.

Why did I need How (not) to and what’s so good about it?  Here’s a list of thoughts about the book, which is itself full of useful lists.  Extracts are in blue.   

1.   If the world of poetry publishing were a tangible object, How (not) to would be a DIY video on YouTube.  A voice and pair of hands would be taking the world apart, explaining how it works and what to do when it doesn’t.  People who’d googled how poetry publishing works or problems with poetry world would settle down to watch it with relief. 

People don’t do this enough to the worlds we construct, which tend to operate on the basis of shared, unspoken assumptions.  These are usually odd and/or unfathomable to anyone new.  Someone who knows a little may think s/he knows a lot and therefore still make what are, in that particular world, mistakes. 

2.   How (not) to takes a strategic and systematic approach, working through the stages an aspiring-to-be-published writer of poetry must go through.  From the first page:

This book deals with strategy.  You may not think poetry and strategic planning have much in common, but why do you think some poets are successful in their publishing deals while others, who seem to you to write just as well, are not?  Getting poetry published is a competitive game in which you create your own luck. 

3. The book’s both hard-headed and warm-hearted, both structured and imaginative.  For example it contains several worksheets at the back including a checklist of how ready you are for publication and a table with criteria for assessing which publisher might suit your work.  It also contains 22 writing prompts – the subliminal message seems to be: don’t get too wrapped up in this, keep on writing the best poems you can. 

4.   Basic questions get clear answers.  Nell lists 10 reasons why writers need to publish in magazines before trying for a pamphlet or book.  Some of these are fairly obvious, such as this being a way of getting your name known.  Others, such as the extra edge that both sending out and rejection bring to redrafting poems, become apparent with experience.  

5.   I challenge anyone to read the book without laughing, internally or out loud.  How (not) to is full of fictionalised case studies from Nell’s own inbox, mostly showing how not to.  We’d never not address a publisher by name in an email enquiry and fail to research her submissions policy on her website first, would we?  Or send an already self-published pamphlet and ask her to publish it?  Of course not… but we’re fallible and the examples are salutary.  

There are many small parodies of today’s poetry world and human nature interacting.  Here are just two items from a list of options for ‘thinking outside the book’: 

- Attract attention to yourself by some highly original fundraiser: maybe performing poems by heart at every railway station in the UK and uploading videos to YouTube.
-  Start a ‘school’ or ‘movement’ with a group of poet friends. Create a name for yourselves (The Middenists? The Quiddites?)  Publish a group anthology. Get noticed.

Those names are fit to march alongside the Levellers or Diggers.

Nell’s approach is more effective and humane than the usual somewhat dry and irritable harangue by an editor fed up with the attentions of zany poetasters. 

6.    How (not) to gets the reader to think like a publisher.  One chapter explains what publishers want.  It itemises all the things a publisher will have to do to publish you (from drawing up a contract to distribution) and all the other things she’ll be doing at the same time (from considering further collections for her poets to applying for funding).  Nell points out that publisher time runs differently: five years seems an age to an impatient poet (and which of us aren’t?) but is short to her. 

Another chapter’s about how to research publishers.  So many people, when applying for anything, talk a lot about why they’d be good at whatever it is but not at all, or hardly, about what about the organisation they find interesting.  

7.   Nell’s wisdom just has to be motivational.  On sending to magazines (bold text is mine):

It’s hard graft, this regular sending out of poems, but it strengthens you.  Certainly rejection of your favourites can be demoralising.  But there are at least three key aspects to the poetry business.  The first is the best – the making of poems, the joy, excitement and fun of that.  Second is getting those poems as good as they can be, which means exposing them to strangers.  The third thing is determination.  Stickability.  Doing the necessary business of sending them out, filing the returns.  Earning respect because you don’t give up.  Standing up and being counted.  You wanna be a poet?  This is your job. 

8.   There’s advice on what to do if publication attempts aren’t working.  The chapter on ‘thinking outside the book’ contains a long, long list of options.  There’s a chapter on self-publication too. 

9.   And there’s much more besides.  About networking online, networking in person, giving readings, blogging…

10.   How (not) to isn’t just invaluable for the starting-out writer.  We all forget or ignore things.  (For example I hadn’t thought about publisher/poet differences in perception of time.  That’s really helpful to me right now.)  The checklists and decision aids would be very useful for any poet on his/her nth collection needing a fresh approach. 

And it’s not only for UK writers.  Although it’s written from within the context of the UK its truths and common-sense have universal application.  That comment’s addressed to the readers of this blog from America, India, Australasia, Europe and everywhere.  The world that’s interested in the poetry publishing world. 

I did send the link to How (not) to to the person who’d sent me the poetry collection; I hope that might lead to a purchase and one more individual both enlightened and entertained. 

How (not) to get your poetry published by Helena Nelson is published by HappenStance Press and costs £10 + postage (which is around £5 for Europe and a bit over £7 for further away).  Its web page, here, has some downloadable material including the publisher analysis worksheet and one called Plan A and Plan B.