Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival 2011: nine good things, one potentially very bad, and one a bit scary

1.  Timing.  Early November, the first full weekend of dark afternoons: its grimness is wiped out by a bright glow in my diary.  Could there be a better time for a poetry festival?  The programme is here.

2.  Unpredictability.  First: the poets I wanted to hear, but never thought I would. This time it’s Kay Ryan, the one-off American poet whose Odd Blocks has just been published by Carcanet.  (Last year it was Marie Howe.)  Second: the ones I knew nothing about, and don’t know I want to hear until I do.  Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku, who grew up in the weird, isolated totalitarianism of the Hoxha regime and has just been published by Bloodaxe, may turn out to be one of these.  Third: the talks.  Poets bring their own eclectic interests to Aldeburgh.  I’m especially looking forward to Robert Hass on the haiku masters.  I know next to nothing about haiku, and it’s time to find out.  Hass is also talking about Czesław Miłosz, whom he’s translated - the blurb for this talk makes it sound fascinating. 

3.  Predictability.  First: the mix of events - readings, talks, interviews; and close readings where a poet spends 15 minutes looking at a favourite poem by someone else.  It’s because of Aldeburgh that I knew about Kay Ryan: last year John Glenday gave a close reading of a poem of hers, which sent me straight to the Poetry Library.  Second: the modest way things happen - poets here aren’t brought on stage to be garlanded with past awards like prize cattle at a Suffolk agricultural fair.  There’s usually a theme or two, but in a relaxed way: this year we have Scottish island poets, and the 21st century poem. Third: the Americans - see also Unpredictability, but what’s predictable is the presence, every time, of a couple of seriously good ones.  Ryan & Hass in 2011.

4.  Free events.  14 this year - talks and close readings by Fleur Adcock and Jane Draycott, Australian Chris Wallace-Crabbe, nonagenarian Fergus Allen, young poets Emily Berry and Helen Mort, and others.  When planning in advance, one thinks: no need to plan everything in advance.  When the time comes, these events tend to be more tempting than a coffee in the High Street.  Or lunch, which one can eat on most other days.

I can't find a credit for this lovely photo
5.  Sea.  There every year, coming very slightly closer.  Different every time.  And every day: last year on the Friday afternoon I walked along the beach in a heavy sea fog.  Next morning, we ate porridge on the sea wall in the sun.  Aldeburgh High St runs parallel to the sea front and many of the holiday cottages are jumbled up between there and the sea, which one can hear at night when lying awake…

6.  Jubilee Hall stage.  The main venue is a small theatre, but with a village hall feel.  On stage, trestle tables piled with books form the backdrop to all events, accessorised by towers of cardboard boxes with WORDS written on them.  In between events, everyone gets up on stage and browses / talks / buys.

7.  Poetry Paper.  This free paper is like no other: full of interviews, poems, learned articles, sound bites… 

8.  Aldeburgh the town - High Street, sea front with fish stalls and boats and odd buildings, the fish and chip shop, the ice cream shop, pubs, cafes, bookshop, walks, meeting people one knows and doesn’t know.  It is always very friendly.

9.  Aldeburgh 1st collection prize.  Last year’s winner gets to read this year: Christian Campbell, whose book Running the Dusk is published by Peepal Tree Press.  4 of the 5 books on the 2011 shortlist are from small publishers.  Looking at the list of past winners, quite a few of those are too; and there have been plenty of female winners.  And not counting Derek Walcott, how often does a black Caribbean poet (Campbell is from Bermuda) win a poetry prize?  We need prizes like this one, to reflect and project the best of what’s out there, both people and presses. 

10.  The slightly scary thing is nothing to do with Halloween, and is only scary for me, Jocelyn Page and Luke Yates.  We’ll be the three participants in the Masterclass, the annual on-stage workshop in the Jubilee Hall chaired by festival founder Michael Laskey and this year led by Jane Draycott.  9.30 on Sunday morning...  Each of us three will workshop a new draft poem in front of the audience, who will have copies of the poems and get a chance to comment.  I have no idea what people will think of mine.  But that’s the point of workshops - to find out. 

11.  Now for the potentially very bad thing.  Will this year be the last?  The Arts Council will from early 2012 stop all its funding for the Poetry Trust, who run the festival with a tiny team.  (I said what I thought about this in an earlier post.)  The PT are trying to raise funds to continue.  I’m told they won’t know enough by November to speak about the future. This festival offers so much in two days - I've nowhere near done it justice here.  The alternative to Aldeburgh 2012 is unthinkable.   

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While on Suffolk: there is going to be an event remembering / celebrating W G Sebald at Wilton’s Music Hall in London on 14 December.  Tickets are still available, but I don’t suppose they will be for long. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Catching your Breath by Christine Webb

But the last day you did not need the rope:
reaching the end of where you had to go
you laid yourself down on the lowest step.

And now, said the Sybil, looking at me,
it’s your turn: hoc labor, hic opus est.
Climbing back.  That’s the hard part. 

These are the last lines from ‘What the Sybil said’.  (Originally, she warned Aeneas that it was easy to go down to the Underworld, but hard to get back up.)  Catching your Breath seems to embody Christine Webb’s climbing back.  Christine’s partner died several years ago, and many of the poems remember their love and life together, and her partner’s illness and death.  I should state here, in line with this blog’s reviewing policy, that I know Christine.  Here is part of ‘After that Hour’, the first poem in the book:

..after that hour of sleep, you woke, and made
no gesture of distress, but simply laid
your hands in mine.  It seemed easy to die
after that hour of sleep: you woke, and made
a little sound, between a cough and sigh.

This moving, lyrical poem is a double triolet.  The form adds a dignity, a sort of holding-back to the grief as lines are repeated.  The repetition also mimics the way the speaker keeps “revisiting” the hour of death.  The language is simple and the syntax skilful, holding the poem together and making the repeated lines feel natural. 

The second poem, ‘Salt’, makes it clear that this book is going to be full of surprises.  It’s a story and starts with a woman talking:

‘Pig were allus a big job.  Throat
to cut, quarts of blood.’

It goes in a direction you could not possibly imagine.  There’s a passage near the end that I’m longing to quote, but then the hairs wouldn’t rise on the back of your neck as you begin to understand. 

Catching your Breath is so well structured that it invites one to read from front to back - a rarity with poetry collections, I think.  The book takes its name from the title of a series of beautifully constructed sonnets in non-rhyming couplets, about Christine’s life with her partner. These are spread throughout the book in groups of 3-5 poems. In between are other poems, which seem all the fresher for being next to the sonnets, and the other way around too.  Throughout there is the same intelligence, skill and love of language.  The tone varies: it encompasses elegy, humour, and enthusiasm for life, and can be both wry and forthright.  There are a few poems that verge, for me, on the sentimental but usually this is kept well back.  One of the early sonnets, ‘Skip Lane’, starts:

Don’t you think my husband’s sweet, you said

and ends:

..during six weeks of frosty starlight, shivering
in Skip Lane, not daring to touch each other,

hoping that one of us would break through the talk
of politics, God, depression, with a simple kiss. 

By now it’s clear the relationship is a lesbian one, and several poems touch, very subtly, on the psychological and social barriers there must have been to this when the two women got together over 40 years ago. 

Subtlety is a characteristic of the book.  The recurring theme of breath never seems laboured or obvious.  At the same time, the later poems don’t shrink from the drudgery and agony of nursing a dying partner.  There is a sort of resoluteness about them, sometimes mixed with humour as in ‘Night Call’ which mixes up electricals and a catheter when a nurse who’s previously fixed the one comes to fix the other:

                  We wash you out again, we rock

and tilt you on the bed, pinch and elevate
the snaking plastic.  At last it warms with yellow. 

The versions of Horace Odes are a surprise and a pleasure.  They work very well as a foil for the sonnets: overlapping themes, different time and place, contrasting forms; and they are so beautifully done that I wonder whether Christine might write more and make a book of them.  She slants them slightly, as if interpreting him for us, which conveys his detachment and makes the poems feel very fresh.  Here is the beginning of ‘Horace’s Years’ (Odes II, 14, the famous Eheu fugaces):

They’re flying away, he says, the years, the years
and it’s no use promising to live
an upright life,

keep the rules, pay your taxes, gift-aid
sums to the poor: none of this impresses
the tearless god…

She uses the same device in her version of Exegi monumentum which starts:

He’s made, he says, a better monument
than brass..

The final poem, ‘Caliban’, is in Caliban’s voice when he’s left on the island at the end of The Tempest, and is rediscovering it.

Tomorrow is another feast of waking…

The reader feels that the climbing back up is happening, though the climber has changed.  The elegies in this book are very moving and I think people similarly bereaved will find much in them that’s truthful.  Somewhere recently I read, or heard, a comment that there’d been too many books recently by people mourning their partners: such as Penelope Shuttle, Christopher Reid, and in prose Joan Didion.  In the US Mark Doty and Mary Oliver of course, among others.  What seems surprising is that there aren’t more earlier collections like Douglas Dunn’s Elegies which was published in 1985.  Perhaps there are and I just don’t know them.  or maybe it just wasn’t done… Anyway, how there can be too many books about dying?  It’s still going on; people who write about it don’t do it because it’s suddenly fashionable, but because it’s happened to them.  Christine’s book is worthy to join those mentioned above. 

Catching your Breath is published by Cinnamon Press. She read from it at the Torriano last Sunday - a delight, as she reads so well - loudly, with liveliness, showing her relish for words, the tone of the elegies perfectly judged.  Christine’s first book, After Babel, came from Peterloo but is still available on Amazon.  She has some poems on Poetry pf. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Quality and quantity in poetry; Tomas Tranströmer

Among all the stuff (and nonsense, some of it) written about Tomas Tranströmer’s Nobel Prize win was a reference to his fairly modest output.  New Collected Poems translated by Robin Fulton (1997) contains around 150 pages of poetry.  But that’s over a lifetime.  The index shows that the poems appeared in a dozen or so collections, each containing 10-20 mostly short poems.  And we’re told that these were all the poems Tranströmer had published in book form by then, when he was nearly 70. 

That’s pamphlet size, according to British norms anyway…  One small collection every few years for TT’s Swedish-speaking followers.  Never any risk of a disloyal moment of dismay at a new 70-page book.  I’m not getting at anyone here - just to stay with Nobel Prize winners, Walcott, Heaney and Szymborska have all been more prolific, and are all wonderful.  But scarcity gives an edge of hunger… Marie Howe, Jo Shapcott and John Glenday are all examples. 

A separate but related point is that I find poetry most rewarding when I’m reading it in small amounts. What’s the ideal length of a poetry book?  Assuming that it contains short poems, I’d say 15-25 pages.  Or maybe 30.  So, a pamphlet rather than what’s known as a full collection.  The reader needs enough to be able to make connections - of tone, style and content.  It’s also good to be able to get a little bit lost, not to know how much one hasn’t yet read, though I suppose that depends on how one reads (I hardly ever start at the front and work through).  But then once the whole pamphlet’s been read one can spend time on each page, reading poems in different combinations.  And a small book doesn’t weigh heavily on pocket or handbag, either physically or financially.

Sometimes, even shorter collections can work, for example Elizabeth Burns’ pamphlet the shortest days which won the Michael Marks pamphlet prize a couple of years ago: 11 poems, in two short sequences of elegies.  The unity of theme makes this work; the plainness and purity of the poems makes them stand out. 

Back to Tranströmer.  There has been some small-island and trans-Atlantic harrumphing about his Nobel victory, along the lines of “I’ve no idea who he is / have never bothered to read him, so why did he win it?”, and “He’s a Swede, so it’s all a set-up”.  These commentators must spend little time thinking or talking about contemporary poetry, let alone reading it, otherwise they’d have a sense of how much he’s revered.  English speakers are well-catered for.  There’s the Bloodaxe New Collected (see above) and Robin Robertson’s translations of around 15 poems (with parallel Swedish text - well done Enitharmon!) in The Deleted World.  There are also two American Selecteds, one edited by Robert Hass and the other, The Half-Finished Heaven, translated by Robert Bly.   

Bly talks here about translating TT.  “He's so unbelievably fast! He's like some runner, you know, he enters the forest and suddenly he's way gone, he's ahead of you, I don't know where he is.” 

I’ve just been looking at the translations by the two Robins (don’t have the Roberts).  What a luxury to have two translations to compare, plus the Swedish which can be half-followed, in step with the translation, at least if one has German.  Plus the memory of Tranströmer’s appearance, with piano, at the South Bank a couple of years ago.  He has been described as a buzzard poet, because he sees tiny details from a great height.  This may make him easier to translate.  I suspect that Fulton has reproduced the original as exactly as he could, and Robertson has gone for his own best poem.  In some places I prefer one, in others the other. 

Here is the first verse plus a later pair of lines from ‘A Winter Night’: Tranströmer, then Fulton (the earlier translator), then Robertson. 

Stormen sätter sin mun till huset
    och blåser för att få ton.
Jag sover oroligt, vänder mig, läser
    blundande stormens text. 
Och huset känner sin stjärnbild av spikar
    som håller väggarna samman.

The storm puts its mouth to the house
    and blows to produce a note.
I sleep uneasily, turn, with shut eyes
    read the storm’s text.
And the house feels its own constellation of nails
    holding the walls together. 

The storm puts its mouth to the house
and blows to get a tone.
I toss and turn, my closed eyes
reading the storm’s text.
The house feels its own constellation of nails
holding the walls together. 

What wonderful images.  Has Robertson, a non-Swedish speaker, reproduced Fulton’s lines where he thinks they are the best solution, or did he arrive at the same wording by chance, the original being precise enough to allow for little else?  I’ve just found that the TLS has reproduced a debate on its letters page from 2007, after publication of The Deleted World.  Fulton was not happy either with the similarities, or with Robertson’s lack of Swedish and making of ‘arbitrary changes’; others defended Robertson, who apparently did not comment.  Imitation (if that’s what it was; none was acknowledged in the book) would be the sincerest form of flattery.

To end, here’s a Tranströmer quote that was reproduced in one of the Guardian’s pieces over the last week.  A manifesto in two sentences. 

The language marches in step with the executioners. 
Therefore we must get a new language. 

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Writing poetry: quotations

I’ve got an old blue notebook that I must have bought when I lived in Greece because it says TETRADION on the front in Greek letters.  It contains an old list of things to remember when writing, all of which are still relevant, however hackneyed some may seem.  Some are quotations.  Here are ten favourites, very and less well known. 

Make it new   
    EZRA POUND, Essays 1934

Magma 18
“Make it new” - Pound’s old command - is still as talismanic as ever. Yet the trouble with superficial ways of making new is that they leave out the old.           HELEN VENDLER, The New Republic, February 2005 

Because I’m in love with the line break. 
  JOHN ASHBERY, asked why he writes poetry

I feel that once you’ve found the form – and that could be in free verse, not necessarily in metrical or fixed forms – but once a poem has found its form it’s almost found itself and then it’s more like filling in… The rhythm is part of the form.. until I can hear a rhythm, I can’t even begin to approach a poem; the poetry’s not there until it’s audible in some way

Most poems that fail are only half there.  The writer has not imagined well enough and is content with what came too easily. 

[This excellent book was recommended to me when I started writing seriously (i.e. not just a draft every few years).  I enjoyed reading it, and did all the exercises; and it introduced me to poets I didn’t know, from Tess Gallagher to Tomaž Šalamun.  Now I recommend it to anyone looking for a poetry primer.]

We no longer think or need to think in terms of monolinear logic, the sentence structure, subject, predicate, object, etc. We are as capable or almost as capable as the biologist of thinking thoughts that join like spokes in a wheel-hub and that fuse in hyper-geometric amalgams.
    EZRA POUND, 'Epstein, Belgion and Meaning', The Criterion April,1930

What is the source of our first suffering?  It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak.  It began in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us. 
    GASTON BACHELARD, quoted in a lecture by Seamus Heaney. 

The progress of any writer is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system
    TED HUGHES, in What rhymes with ‘secret’?, 1982.  [I’ve written beside this, “+ Emily D, p.14”.  I have no idea what or where I meant.  There’s nothing relevant on p.14 of my Emily Dickinson...] 

If after I read a poem, the world looks like that poem for 24 hours or so, I’m sure it’s a good one. 
    ELIZABETH BISHOP, letter to Robert Lowell, 1962.

The poem is more than the poet's intention. The poet does not write what he knows but what he does not know.
    W S GRAHAM, Poetry Scotland 1946

A rich source of quotes is the Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations, edited by Dennis O’Driscoll.  They are all more or less contemporary so most of the above aren’t included, though Pound & Co live on, in a supplementary index of poets named in the quotes.  They cover many eventualities, from theorising to poetry politics, from complaint to comedy.  I found the Vendler quote there; could add many more from O’Driscoll’s treasure trove.  I love this one:

Interviewer:does it make any difference to you being a woman poet?
Liz Lochhead: I don’t know.  I’ve never tried being a man poet! 
    BBC RADIO FOUR, May 1992