Tuesday, 17 February 2015

StAnza Poetry Festival – from archipelagos to the Forth Plinth

Only a fortnight to StAnza.  I’m going, after being tempted for several years – by the programme, the location and the stories people bring back about having a thoroughly good time.  Soon after I committed myself to co-renting a cottage in St Andrews, festival director Eleanor Livingstone asked me to be blogger-in-residence.  So you can follow StAnza here, or at least one newcomer’s path through it.  
I’ve only ever been to poetry festivals in small places – Aldeburgh, Ledbury.  The StAnza programme’s map of St Andrews shows a cathedral and a castle; the venue list includes the town hall, a theatre, a church undercroft, a museum, the public library, the university library and two university quad(rangle)s.  So the festival becomes part of the fabric of the town.  It’s clearly very welcome there: when the theatre, the Byre, collapsed (financially) a couple of years ago just before StAnza, locals rallied round to offer alternative venues. 

All of StAnza takes place, I think, within sound of the sea – and some maybe within sight.

It’s hard to map a path through the five-day programme (4-8 March) without wanting to go in several directions at once.  One of the 2015 festival themes has been helpful.  An Archipelago of Poetry: that could be archipelago as collective noun for a poets’ gathering; the poetry collection as archipelago; festival venues dotted around the map; no man is an island; Britain and Ireland as the two giants among thousands…

Taking the theme literally and with a narrow definition of ‘island’, there will be an archipelago of island-born poets at StAnza, including several from Scottish islands.  From Jamaica (Kei Miller, Shara McCallum) to Shetland (Christine de Luca and Sheenagh Pugh) and the Faroes (Kim Simonsen); from New Zealand (Bill Manhire) to Sardinia (Anna Cristina Serra) to Lewis (Peter Mackay) and Skye (Ian Stephen).  That’s just some of them.

For anyone fascinated by islands: there’s a Poetry Café Breakfast on the Saturday where Simonsen, de Luca, Miller and Manhire “will discuss islands and writing over coffee and pastries”. 

Christine de Luca, currently Edinburgh Makar, writes in both English and Shetlandic which she describes as “a blend of Old Scots with much Norse influence”.  The language itself (to regular English ears) is slant and perhaps it’s this that allows her Shetlandic poems an immediacy and directness of approach.  Here’s the beginning of ‘Nae Aesy Mizzer’, from North End of Eden:

A polar projection changes foo we figure oot
wir world. Shetland isna banished tae a box
I da Moray Firt or left oot aa tagidder

– ta scale up da rest – but centre stage

‘mizzer’ = measure; ‘foo’ = how; ‘wir’ = our. 

This sent me straight back to another perspective on islands, English and maps – Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, one of the books I most enjoyed last year.  Perspectives, rather, in the dialogue between cartographer and rastaman. [Here’s a 15-minute gap while I looked through for a quote, wanting to stop on every page.]   This is part iv of that dialogue:

The rastaman thinks, draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw a map of what you never see
and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?

The book won the Forward main prize last year.  Liz Berry whose Black Country won the first collection prize will also be at StAnza.  They are both exceptionally good readers.

The archipelago theme spills over from readings to music, film and art.  For example there’ll be an archipelago / installation of island poems “actual and virtual” at the Byre Theatre and around town, and a film about Shetlandic poet Robert Alan Jamieson.  Claire Trévien will perform her piece ‘The Shipwrecked House’ at the Byre.  Having read her collection of the same title, I’ll be intrigued to see what this is like.  Trévien is Anglo-Breton and the book is full of breached or subverted boundaries between land and sea.  From ‘The Shipwrecked House II’:

Now your voice falls like a coin to the ocean’s floor
and the house is dragged apart by the fractures
of your smiles – the thought of its absence echoes
unbelievably – our breath opens like a stiff drawer. 

Every British poetry festival needs an American glamour factor to draw us in and StAnza is lining up Alice Notley, Ilya Kaminsky and Carolyn Forché.  Each of these gets a main reading spot plus something else.  Forché and Kaminsky are meeting for an unmissable Past & Present discussion on Mark Strand and Paul Celan.  Notley has been writing in a wide variety of forms and styles both experimental and traditional since the 1960’s.  I first came across her in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets but am counting on StAnza to do that festival thing of helping readers find their way to unfamiliar work.  I’ve just got Grave of Light, her selected poems, out of the Poetry Library; leafing through, I found this.

        The chair you sit in an
illusion that a person can matter.
No person matters
unless humans choose a mattering style
so we choose it in various ways all over creation…

Alice Notley is being interviewed in the festival’s Round Table series, part of the point of which is that the audiences are very small so it’s sold out.  I’m hoping StAnza will podcast this.   

I’ve also got hold of Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa (published by Arc in the UK).  He lived in Odessa until his teens: different English again, then, and a reputation, easily confirmed on YouTube, as an amazing reader.  From ‘Praise’:

I was born in the city named after Odysseus
and I praise no nation –

to the rhythm of snow
an immigrant’s clumsy phrases fall into speech.

As for Carolyn Forché, she may be better known in the UK but she’s rarely seen – I was lucky enough to go to her Poetry Society lecture last year when she thrilled the already excited hall by reading us ‘The Colonel’. 

I haven’t even mentioned Sinéad Morrissey, Paul Durcan, Anne Stevenson, Kathryn Maris, Glyn Maxwell, Simon Armitage, Helen Mort, Ian Duhig, Heather Phillipson, Mark Waldron, Allison McVety and many others.

And anyone for The Forth Plinth?  5-minute slots can be booked…

Around half the festival events are free.  Yes, around half.  There’s a list of them here on the StAnza blog.  Prices are anyway very reasonable – many more things cost less than £5. 

Information is accessible too.  The online programme, here, is searchable, useful when it contains so much.  The StAnza website has extra details of events and performers.  It also has travel and accommodation pages.  A Dundee University website is posting reviews of some festival poets’ books. 

There’s still time to book – tickets are selling well but still available for most events, and of course the free events can just be walked into…

See you in Scotland.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

In praise of an unlikely poem

I’ve been rereading Wild Reckoning since quoting from it in my last post - the anthology inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, edited by Maurice Riordan and John Burnside.  It’s a commonplace that a pleasure of poetry anthologies is discovering poems one would never have read otherwise.  A variation on this is the discovery of poems one would never have considered reading.  This one is by Joseph Campbell.  The title is Latin for ‘To the Threshold’.

Ad Limina

The ewes and lambs, loving the far hillplaces,
Cropping by choice the succulent tops of heather,
Drinking the pure water of cloudborn lochlands,
Resting under erratics fostered with Abel –
Come to my haggard gate, my very doorstep.

The birds of freest will and strongest wingbeat,
Sad curlew, garrulous stonechat, hawk and coaltit,
Haunting lone bog or scalp or broken ruin,
Poising the rough thrust of air’s excesses –
Come to my haggard gate, my very doorstep.

The trout in the river, below the hanging marllot,
Swift, with ancestral fear of hook and shadow,
The elvers of cold drain and slough, remembering
The warm tangles of Caribbee and Sargasso –
Come to my haggard gate, my very doorstep.

Even the stoats and rats, who know a possessor
Of the rare sixth sense, the bardic insight,
Match, and more, for their devilish perversions,
And the deer, shyest of shy at autumn rutting –
Come to my haggard gate, my very doorstep.

Am I not a lucky man, trusted, Franciscan,
That these spacious things, gentle or hostile,
Following God’s urge, denying their nature,
Harbingers of high thoughts and fathers of poems –
Come to my haggard gate, my very doorstep.

It’s the rhythm that makes this poem, a strong five-beat rhythm that prevails despite many oddities of stress.  It gives a rugged feel (to go with “haggard”) and sends us lurching through the rough landscape that’s invoked.  Every line thumps to its end in a trochee.  Despite the title there are few Latinate words.  The author was a Gaelic speaker interested in Irish folklore and I wonder how much the rhythm and other aspects of this poem take from that. 

I’m up high with the sheep straight off, and the birds, and down with the elvers in their cold drain.  Relishable, now-unthinkable phrases such as “cloudborn lochlands” and “poising the rough thrust of air’s excesses” somehow create a space, a landscape in which others such as “sad curlew” become acceptable. (“Marllot”, by the way, isn’t in the Shorter OED; I assume it’s a lot of land whose soil is marl.  And I think the Abel reference must be to his job as a shepherd.) 

This magical space seems to dissolve in the last two verses, and I can’t defend the shy deer or the second last line of the poem.  But I like the way that the refrain can be either a summons or a statement, until the last verse; and the speaker’s wild-man / St Francis persona.  By invoking the various creatures, “spacious things” in their landscape, he celebrates them all – and draws the reader in with the beat of the words. 

Alongside all this, I like it that the poem challenges my deeply contemporary tastes and prejudices.

Joseph Campbell (unatrributed)
“Prolific poet and committed republican” is how Joseph Campbell is summarised in his short page on culturenorthernireland.org.  “His several volumes of poems have not worn well”, says ulsterhistory.co.uk.  He was born in Belfast in 1879, took part in the Easter rising and was on the Republican side in the Irish civil war, moved to the US after being interned, and finally “lived in seclusion at a farmstead in Glencree, Co Wicklow, until his death” in 1944.   

Wild Reckoning doesn’t have notes on poets and doesn’t credit any particular collection for ‘Ad Limina’ or give a date.  No link for the anthology, because it’s not easily available.  There are a few used copies from sellers via Amazon for around £25… and one new copy, for £3,878.39 (plus £2.80 postage).  How on earth…? 

Friday, 16 January 2015

The Rialto Nature Poetry Competition; eco-anthologies. Green(s) in politics - how to respond to Ofcom

“The term ‘Nature Poetry’ will be given a very wide interpretation by the judge.”  That’s the first thing you’ll read if you look up the Rialto/RSPB Nature Poetry Competition.  I think it’s code for: abandon all prejudice against the words ‘nature’ and ‘poetry’ next to each other.  By now we should have outgrown that.  We are living in a post-post-post Wordsworth era (and anyway think of his ecstasies of mountain and lake, the walking, the crag-scrambling**, the skating).  

From loss of biodiversity to climate change there isn’t a more urgent subject to write about.  It’s also very challenging, to do well: how does poetry find its own space among all the other discourse, whether political, scientific or psychogeographical?  One poem that moves between detail and universality is ‘The Assault on the Fields’ by Alabama-born poet Rodney Jones, which from the opening lines creates a sort of magnificence of horror:

It was like snow, if snow could blend with air and hover,
   making, at first,
A rolling boil, mottling the pine thickets behind the fields,
   but then flattening

As it spread above the fenceposts and the whiteface cattle,
   an enormous, luminous tablet,
A shimmering, an efflorescence, through which my father
   rode on his tractor,

Masked like a Martian or a god to create the cloud where
   he kept vanishing;

The whole poem is here and Rodney Jones reads some shorter poems here. It’s in Wild Reckoning, a hard-to-find anthology inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, edited by Maurice Riordan and John Burnside.  Another good anthology is Neil Astley’s Earth Shattering (Bloodaxe), a near-square slab of a book with interesting background and context on the authors.  Another is The Ground Aslant (Shearsman) edited by Harriet Tarlo and reviewed on Displacement here, which contains a selection of contemporary British writers from Peter Riley to Helen Macdonald of H is for Hawk fame.   

Closing date for the Rialto/RSPB competition is 1 March.  It’s becoming an annual fixture: this one, judged by long-distance walker and bird anthology compiler Simon Armitage, is the third.  You can enter here…

The state of the planet is a constant thought track at the back of the mind. Sometimes it’s good to take other action about it, however small, as some sort of compensation for writing failure. 

Lots of people have been angered by Ofcom’s refusal to allow the Green Party the status of a major political party, which means that broadcasters are legally entitled to leave them out of live pre-election leadership debates.  I’m also infuriated by Miliband’s refusal to address the issue (Cameron’s position that the Greens must be included if he’s to take part is preferable, however cynical the motivation).  It seems counter-productive: under our broken electoral system won’t Miliband & co need to persuade Green supporters to vote Labour in marginal constituencies, to keep out the Tories?

It is actually possible to do something about Ofcom: they are running a consultation on their document containing the decision.  You can respond online here.  Deadline 5 February.  If you feel like doing so, here are some of the arguments. 
  • The report places too much weight on looking back at past elections, rather than at current trends. 
  • Ofcom’s own figures (p36) show that support for the Greens throughout Great Britain has risen from 2% to almost 6% in the last two years
  • Green Party membership is now nearly 45,000, overtaking the Lib Dems and Ukip.  [This figure will soon be out of date because there’s been a 2,000-a-day membership surge in the last couple of days.]
  • Over 275,000 people have signed a petition asking the major broadcasters to include the Greens in election debates. 
  • In the last Euro elections, the Lib Dems got 1 seat and the Greens 3.
  • An ICM poll last month showed 79% of respondents supported Green inclusion.
  • High numbers of young people support the Green Party.  A December YouGov poll showed 25% of under 25s supporting the Greens, compared to 11% for UKIP and 6% for the Lib Dems - thus putting the Greens into third place in this age group.  A YouthSight poll of students last month showed Green supporters at 24%, in second place to Labour.
  • Young people are less likely to vote anyway, and we should be addressing both actual disenfranchisement and negative attitudes to political participation.  Why should a quarter of under 25's bother if their preferred party is excluded from debates? 
I’ve also joined the Green Party today, as part of the surge.  Have been thinking about it for a while.  This may be an exasperating experience.  Feel free to bet on how long I’ll last.   

**In pursuit of birds’ eggs…

Nor less, when spring had warmed the cultured Vale,
Moved we as plunderers where the mother-bird
Had in high places built her lodge; though mean
Our object and inglorious, yet the end
Was not ignoble. Oh! when I have hung                     
Above the raven's nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost (so it seemed)
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth and with what motion moved the clouds!

Wordsworth, Prelude book one.


Monday, 22 December 2014

Chaucer, the remix: Telling Tales by Patience Agbabi

How many poets get a review/interview in the News Shopper, the long-standing free newspaper known and read from Greenwich to Gravesend?  "I studied some of Chaucer at school and it blew me on to another planet”, says Patience Agbabi.  (Declaration: I know her a little.)    

Telling Tales, an act of homage, celebration and reinvention, contains a version of every Canterbury Tale –    

Chaucer Tales, track by track, here’s the remix

says landlord Harry Bailey in the Prologue (see here).  April, month of the pilgrims’ setting-out and so beautifully described in the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales, here becomes his muse, with a hint of “cruellest month”:

how she pierces my heart to the fond root
till I bleed sweet cherry blossoms en route
to our bliss trip; there’s days she goes off me,
April loves me not, April loves me

Anapaests (expertly varied) + rhyming couplets: the Prologue’s speed, energy, skill, wit and wordplay set the scene for what’s to come.  Then there’s the tales’ content, from gangland murder and child abuse to door-to-door salesmen, drugs and all kinds of sex.  Lust, true love, hate, jealousy, greed, cowardice, regret, repentance, deceitfulness, doubt, more lust…  Not much different from Chaucer. 

The linking device for the tales is still a pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral, but it’s by Routemaster bus down the Old Kent Road and out via Dartford, Gravesend etc, and all the passengers are poet-performers.  There are local references in the text, for example in the Parson’s Tale, Chaucer’s extended sermon on penance and the seven deadly sins, here compressed into a rollicking story – ‘The Gospel Truth’ told by Rap, The Son aka ‘The Parson’.  The speaker tells us:

   So it flows – Seven Sins was my crew, you can ask them,
   use to be ‘The Pimp’ but now I’m ‘The Parson’.
   Parental advisory, listen to the lesson,
   this be no sermon, this be my confession …

Two roads diverged from the A2 –
one went to Heaven, the other Hey, you!
Fancy some fun, brotha, won’t you park n ride?
I paid a heavy price an I puckered up to PRIDE.
Her lips were wide, painted to a botox smile
and her scent more expensive than the square mile,

We learn about each of the performers not in the Prologue but in their send-up poetry-magazine style biographies, at the back of the book – from ex-bouncer to Oxbridge graduate, from dark cabaret performer to personal trainer (who “resides in Kent and writes a poem a day”) and Nigerian child bride (who tells the Wife of Bafa’s tale).

It’s not just the poets who are on show.  This book’s a display of the diversity of English poetry in forms both old and modern.  There are plenty of iambic rhyming couplets and some rime royal, both appropriate for Chaucer, but also a sestina, syllabics, a specular poem, those anapaests, a poem made up of 100-character texts, and various permutations of rhythm and rhyme.  As Harry Bailey puts it in what could be an Agbabi manifesto:

I got ink in my veins more than Caxton
and it flows hand to mouth, here’s a mouthfeast,
verbal feats from the streets of the South-East
but my April, she blooms every shire’s end,
fit or vint, rich or skint, she inspires them
from the grime to the clean-cut iambic,
rime royale, rant or rap, get your slam kick.   

The forms aren’t just for their own sake but work with the content.  The Man of Law’s Tale is told in a sonnet crown, in the voice of the possessive mother.  She’s lonely in old age, “There’s dust on the computer screen. God knows, / I’m fast forgetting how to switch it on”, meditating aloud to a home help, telling the story of how her deceit and jealousy of her daughter-in-law drove her son far away. 

She wasn’t bonny, always overdressed,
I’d never understand her when she spoke.
Not that I’m prejudiced, some of my best
friends are foreign.

The burbling Cook’s Tale, unfinished by Chaucer, becomes ‘Roving Mic’, a load of entertaining, rhyme-led nonsense:

Here’s what I’m spitting
out of my kitchen
hot and hard-hitting
none of it written.
Rhymes rough and raw
weeping like a sore
bruised and ruptured
rude, interrupted,

The long debate and doubts of the Tale of Melibee (here stemming from a Gravesend shooting) are reflected in a specular poem… having tried and so far failed to write one of these I know how hard it is, and this one is in rhyming couplets.  How did Agbabi do it?

Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale retells many tales in one, all about the mighty who are fallen (until the other pilgrims get fed up) and Agbabi reproduces its flattening effect in 100-character texts:

he wz no tragic hero hitN glasses W d
bosses til hs tragic flaw or f8 md him
free-fall frm a hi plce

The Franklin’s Tale is in rime royal, which suits its intensity and seriousness.  It’s relocated to Edinburgh – read it for the lovely lyrical passages and to find out what impossible vanishing trick Dorigen/Deirdre asks Aurelius/Arild to perform.  In the last verse, broken-hearted Arild decides

to reinvent himself again, a makar:
to make a poem; hone it, room by room,
stanza by stanza; form, on one blank acre
from bricks and mortar, breath and metre, home;
to mount the spiral staircase of his poem,
take a battered volume off the shelf,
open a random page, and read himself…

The most enjoyable thing of all for me about Telling Tales is its relationship with Chaucer’s work.  I read and enjoyed the book very much on its own, then some months later went back to read (or skim, I admit, in a few cases) the Canterbury Tales, re-reading each Telling Tales version afterwards.  Seeing how Agbabi had decided to treat each one and what essence she’d extracted from each story enhanced the experience (and, dare I say it, the Chaucer tales too). 

This also gave me the key to some tales whose retelling had puzzled me: several are compressed and/or somewhat cryptic.  I’d forgotten the Reeve’s Tale, a riotous mixture of theft and sexual shenanigans.  The two Cambridge students (male, of course) and their horse are replaced by two lesbians with a drug-sniffing dog.  The nasty miller is a dealer called Psycho, who lets the dog off its chain so he can substitute meadow grass for the dog-rated “top notch” grass.  The dog’s the speaker:

                                 I’m off, Bad Dog
seeks Dirty Bitch for fun blind date
but don’t let cat out of the bag
to dykes. I’ve not come out as straight…

I was baffled by the Squire’s Tale, ‘Fine Lines’, until I went back to Chaucer for the weird brass horse with the pin in its ear, “so horsly, and so quyk of ye”.

Fire Horse
   wild steed I rode bareback
held your hair for reins as you bolted like a stud
   each strange steel stud
      on your right ear gleaming in the true-black

All Agbabi’s poems work in their own right, but knowledge of the original adds more to some.  That doesn’t apply to ‘I Go Back to May 1967’, the painful Clerk’s Tale about Griselda’s trials – set in Lagos, an effortless, uncannily accurate echo of Sharon Olds’ famous poem about her parents and the harm they will do.  It starts, heart-sinkingly for anyone who knows the Olds poem, “I see them standing outside their family compounds”. 

Chaucer took his stories from Boccaccio’s Decameron and many other sources.  The Riverside Chaucer comments tale by tale on origins.  Agbabi is retelling both Chaucer and today’s tales.  On the day I read her interview on the News Shopper’s website, the headlines in the links could have been straight out of Telling Tales, or inspired a parallel version:

*Police 'told pupil having affair with Bexleyheath Academy teacher year before action taken'
*Is this Britain's worst family? Deptford killer's drunk sister smashes car into bus
*Lewisham floods as River Ravensbourne burst its banks
*Bromley Council Leader "cannot ignore a gentleman with a £500 million cheque"

Sheer enjoyability in poetry has been rewarded this year, with Kei Miller’s and Liz Berry’s wins at the Forward Prizes – both so well deserved, but why hasn’t Agbabi’s inventive, delightful, highly accomplished and also deeply literary book received as much attention? 

Telling Tales would be such fun to read and laugh over, with reference to Chaucer, plenty of wine and ideally round a fire, over the holiday.  I hope it gets read in schools with the Canterbury Tales – a perfect way to get teenagers interested in late medieval life, high and (mostly) low… and in contemporary poetry. 

Telling Tales is published by Canongate.  (Is that one reason the book’s had less attention in the poetry world? Because it’s come out from a mainstream publisher that doesn’t have a poetry list?)