Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Spring and The Rialto

One thing March brings, along with the sun finally back in my garden, which is on a hill facing north, is some good poetry magazines… this week, it’s The Rialto.  

Perfect for reading outside in such wonderful weather, surrounded by tulips, hyacinths, general ungardened mess, forsythia and white cherry-blossom against blue sky, great-tits, blackbirds, dunnocks, train noise, car noise, wood-pigeons, human voices on the railway bridge, seagulls, sparrows (new!), robins and a very insistent wren; but alas, this year no song-thrush to imitate by reading aloud Tennyson’s ‘Throstle’ on page 1:

   I know it, I know it, I know it.
Light again, leaf again, life again, love again..

There’s a lovely lino print on the front, by Amanda Colville, and the inside cover picks it up in Pompeian red.  And then - on page 10, the regular poems start with this:

Down with poetry!  It’s all over the place,
clogging up the drains, pretending
to be special.  It’s printed on demand,
when there is no demand.

That’s the beginning of ‘Rant’ by Helena Nelson.  It’s entertainingly long, as a rant should be, and feels like a spontaneous outflow (more likely this is a sign of craft at work).  It has a go at everything from poetry magazines to line breaks, from MAs to lack of embarrassment.  And at blogging, with which something unpleasant rhymes.  Apart from that, the only line by which I can’t be persuaded is the last one, “bring back writer’s block!” …and disagreeing with that undermines my agreement with much of the rest.  Very nice.

The way to recover from such an attack must be to print something really good straight afterwards.  On the opposite page is just that, a poem by Chrissy Williams called ‘JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION in the Spring’.  I’d love to type it all out.  Here are a few lines from the middle:

At the shady crossroads tall trees SPENCER
lean in to watch our tiny car arrive BLUES
then all decide to pollinate at once.
EXPLOSION Every seed they have swims in the sky,
EXPLOSION so many flowers curling down..

Due early 2013 from Bloodaxe
It would have been a good poem without the capitalized interjections, but these lift it to another level.  Mood + music + landscape, all interact.

There’s lots of other good stuff in here.  Three sonnets by Hannah Lowe.  By now, her graphic, fluent poems have created a myth-like world of stories for her readers to enter, a world of love, loss, family, nostalgia for the mystery of the past and its strange characters.  Here’s part of ‘Swans’:

He carved your name in fried potatoes, spelt it
neatly on your plate.  On summer nights
he led you through the park, past empty swings and slides.
Below the orange haze of high rise light
he laid his jacket on the grass for you.  Swans were gliding
on the pond.

Other poems I’m enjoying include ones by Emily Wills, Richard Lambert, Sarah James, Jen Campbell and Josh Ekroy.  There are poems I don’t see the point of, but that’s always the case.  I’ll read the magazine again in a while, and will probably like some of the same ones, and some new ones.  Though I think I’ll still like all the ones I’ve named.  

How many people, apart from other editors, read poetry magazines thinking about how they’ve been put together?  I notice when, for example, two kitchen poems have been placed opposite each other, but don’t look for the bigger picture.  Perhaps I should.  I’d love to know how editors do it - are there methods, hints and tips?  What makes a good magazine, apart from good poems and a touch of Pompeian red?  The Rialto’s editor, Michael Mackmin, must be about to share trade secrets.  His Arts Council grant has been renewed for 3 years, and some money is going towards an editors’ training programme.  What a good idea.  I hope he, and they, will share some of the process with us.

Writing about poetry magazines is a dodgy business, if one sends poems to them.  I have a soft spot for The Rialto as my first ever published poem appeared in it - on the same page as Les Murray!  Last November’s Aldeburgh Festival Masterclass poems by Jocelyn Page, Luke Yates and me are in this issue, along with the revised poems and our thoughts on the experience - which we wrote 3 months ago.  I hadn’t looked at my poem again until now.  Revising it was difficult; most things I tried just made it worse. 

In that sole respect the Masterclass (which was an amazing experience, and surprisingly unscary) was like any other workshop, though with comments of a very high standard - I learned what other people saw in the poem, including its flaws, but only I could decide what changes to make.  The poem’s not quite there, so I feel I’ve failed everyone… and how strange, to have two drafts of one’s poem in a magazine.  Where else can one see this?

I’d better say, in accordance with this blog’s reviewing policy, that I know Michael Mackmin, Helena Nelson and Hannah Lowe.  And I do send poems to The Rialto

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Poetry discoveries; Mark Doty and Atlantis

What Keats would have seen
The best poetry discoveries can be like the most startling news: you remember the moment - not necessarily where you were, as with news, but how it felt.  Thinking about this just now, I realised that I have a rather poetic mental image of such moments, which I’ve never surfaced before: standing on a mountain top, looking into a long landscape of golden hills, with sea in the distance...  Is this because of Keats' ‘realms of gold’, or did it come first? 

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star’d at the Pacific - and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise -
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien. 

‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ probably got internalised in my teens, by when I already had a taste for standing on the top of non-metaphorical mountains.  Keats hadn’t yet been on his tour of Scotland when he wrote the sonnet. 

Mark Doty’s Atlantis gave me such a moment, some years ago.  He was new to me.  I opened the book and read the first poem, ‘Description’. 

My salt marsh
- mine, I call it, because
these day-hammered fields

of dazzled horizontals
undulate, summers,
inside me and out -

how can I say what it is?
Sea lavender shivers
over the tidewater steel.

I could go on like this.
I love the language
of the day’s ten thousand aspects,

the creases and flecks
in the map, these
brilliant gouaches.

But I’m not so sure it’s true,
what I was taught, that through
the particular’s the way

to the universal:
what I need to tell is
swell and curve, shift

and blur of boundary,
tremble and spilling over,
a heady purity distilled

from detail. ….

I was overwhelmed by the way the language itself spills over from one tercet to the next, and the way Doty pulls the poem back from such rich description to pose his question - and then lets rip with yet more of it.  Also by the sense of moving through a world of metaphor upon metaphor.

I got lost in this whole book - imaginatively, luxuriatingly lost as you can get lost in real life, in a city or among fields or mountains, or somewhere at night, in a way that can be very freeing.  (Unless bad weather is coming and you need to find the way down.) 

In the late 90s, a couple of years after Atlantis, Doty was interviewed in the Cortland Review and said this, when asked why people keep returning to poetry.

My guess is that somehow poetry is a vessel for the expression of subjectivity unlike any other; a good poem bears the stamp of individual character in a way that seems to usher us into the unmistakably idiosyncratic perceptual style of the writer. I think we're hungry for singularity, for those aspects of self that aren't commodifiable, can't be marketed. In an age marked by homogenization, by the manipulation of desire on a global level… poetry may represent the resolutely specific experience. The dominant art forms of our day - film, video, architecture - are collaborative arts; they require a team of makers. Poems are always made alone, somewhere out on the edge of things, and if they succeed they are saturated with the texture of the uniquely felt life.

The salt marsh feels like Doty’s edge of things.  Maybe that’s one reason it is so appealing.  A lot of the book is set on the edge of land and sea;  also life and death, his partner’s dying.  There’s a good review of Atlantis in the Boston Review which sets it in the context of Doty’s earlier work.  It remains my favourite book of his (followed by Theories and Apparitions), and one of my favourites of all contemporary poetry.  It’s as if the intensity of the emotions he was going through took his writing to a different level. 

Atlantis is published by Cape.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Poetry and sexism in the Guardian Review

The US-based organisation VIDA, which supports women in the literary arts, has just issued 2011 figures for female representation (all genres) in literary newspapers and journals, mostly American but including the TLS and LRB.  They make depressing reading.  TLS: around one-quarter women.  LRB: around one-sixth. 

This time last year, VIDA’s survey prompted a lively discussion on the Magma blog, about the poetry aspects.  Well worth reading, if you didn’t.  (As I write, Magma’s website looks like it’s been attacked by quack spammers, but you can scroll down to read the blog.)

My contribution to that debate was to indulge my inner geek, and audit the reviews of poetry collections in the Saturday Guardian Review.  For three reasons.  First because it’s mainstream, widely read by people who have no specialist interest in poetry, so a good place for poetry to get out and about. 

Second because I’d got fed up with opening the Review, which I read every week and otherwise enjoy, and finding, yet again, an all-male poetry page...  Thank goodness I don’t even think about this when reading reviews in, say, Poetry London or Magma, which are devoid of male/female bias.  Poetry Review’s coverage has been controversial - see Polly Clark’s account on the Magma blog.

And last because it was the Guardian that had publicised the VIDA figures.  Hooray for that, but didn’t they realise what was going on in their own poetry backyard?

The results were dire. 

I’ve just done an update, below.  Figures from a year ago in blue, covering January 2010 - early February 2011*.  Figures for mid February 2011 to early March 2012 in black.  The Guardian Review carries long reviews, around 600-800 words, and short ones, around 200 words.  I’ve looked at both the books reviewed, and the reviewers.  You can access the index of reviews here.

A. Books reviewed

This year’s results are slightly better… only by 2%, from a very low base.  Just over one-third of poetry books reviewed in the Guardian are by women.  More books by women got long reviews this year - good - though fewer got short ones.

Books given long reviews:
27 books by men, 11 books by women.  That’s 71% and 29%. 
30 books by men, 16 books by women.  That’s 65% and 35%.

Books given short reviews:
10 books by men, 7 books by women.  That’s 59% and 41%.
13 books by men, 7 books by women.  That’s 65% and 35%. 

Total - all books reviewed:
67% men, 33% women.
65% men, 35% women. 

Last year, it was striking to see how the Guardian was using different criteria to decide on the male and female poets to whom it gave long reviews.  All the women were either very well-known, or on the shortlist for major prizes; all were published by big poetry publishers.  The men were much more varied - from Nobel Prize winners right through to people I hadn’t heard of - and a few were published by small presses.  See the Magma discussion for examples. 

This year, the increase in long reviews of books by women has improved things a bit, allowing in names like Sasha Dugdale and Clare Pollard; also it’s good to see Americans Kay Ryan and Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and Albanian Luljeta Lleshanaku reviewed.  But the range of men is still much greater.  Just a few examples: Peter Riley (innovative), Jaan Kaplinski (Estonia; one of several foreign language poets), Timothy Donnelly (one of several Americans), Iain Crichton Smith (one of several dead poets). 

The criteria remain different for men and women.  And there are oddities.  The Guardian only gave Alice Oswald’s Memorial a short review (in an entertaining round-up by Charlotte Higgins of current takes on the Iliad).  OK, Memorial had a full review in the Observer, but several eminent male poets were reviewed by both. 

Also, I’m sure that if Mimi Khalvati were male, she’d have got a full-length review rather than a short one for Child, her new and selected poems.  That also raises the issue of ethnic minority poets.  Khalvati and Vikram Seth got short reviews, Jackie Kay got a long one, and I think that’s it - though this is a symptom of the much deeper problem of under-representation of ethnic minorities in most parts of the poetry scene.  

Small presses hardly get a look-in, except in some short reviews. 

B.  Reviewers

Here the overall figures are even worse, though they too have improved a little.  This year’s figures show the number of long reviews written by women creeping up towards one-third, from a quarter previously.  But in the long reviews, women reviewers are often assigned to women writers: half of the women’s books are reviewed by women, yet only 4 of the 30 men’s books.  What assumptions are being made here? 

Authors of long reviews:
28 men, 10 women.  That’s 74% and 26%. 
32 men, 14 women.  That’s 70% and 30%.

Authors of short reviews:
17 men, 0 women.  Er, that’s 100%...
16 men, 4 women.  That’s 80% and 20%.

Total reviewers:
82% men, 18% women. 
73% men, 27% women.

I don’t think there are any black or Asian reviewers.  I excluded anthologies, but adding them would make the imbalance even greater.   Each year there were around half a dozen reviews of anthologies.  Last year, all had male reviewers; this year, two-thirds.  

Many of the reviewers are poets; they get a little mention of their latest book at the end of the review.

Extra: Saturday poem

The Guardian Review prints a poem every Saturday.  From the beginning of February 2011 until now, there have been 33 by men and 18 by women.  That’s 65% and 35%... again.

So: why?

Reviews and reviewers in poetry magazines such as Magma and Poetry London are roughly half-and-half female/male.  And I doubt they’re auditing - it’s just a reflection of what’s getting published.  So why not in the Guardian Review?  The problem has to be one of attitudes, as with the publications audited by VIDA - even if deeply buried in the Guardian’s subconscious. 

And this isn’t a difficult or time-consuming thing to change.  Not like getting more women into boardrooms or Parliament…  A small problem in a small world.  The Guardian could easily give its readers a richer, livelier, more representative picture of contemporary poetry.  Come on, we’re waiting!

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Catulla et al; and Catullus

Writing a blog should be enjoyable… I was wondering how to ensure this, looking through a pile of read/unread/half-read books.  I found Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al and knew I’d be OK.  Catullus reinvented for the 21st century - and female.  Sharp, lyrical, sardonic, vulnerable; of-the-moment and universal.  Here’s the end of ‘Basia mille’:

kiss me in the checkout queue
and let the tight mouths clatter -

scandal’s for neurotics and they live
on small change.  Kiss me then, as
daylight follows to the power of

[That is the end.]  This poem’s relatively close to the original.  I like the way it turns Catullus’ simple addition, ‘Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred, then..’ into mathematical formulae. 

The Catulla poems, which form the first half of the book, take Catullus as a jumping-off point… and jump, wherever, somewhere into the confusion of love and life.  Just as Catullus did in the first century BC, in his shorter, lyric poems.  I remember first reading him aged 15 or so, and wondering at how fresh the poems were, feeling myself in ancient Rome and modern Britain at once… not that I knew then about ‘Poetry Wars’:

Potayto / potarto, Sestius.  Avant-
garde indeed.  I’ve got handbags
with more counter-culture in.  You

who scoffed a hot fish supper
off my book then blogged about it
to the gods…

‘Clodia’ (Catullus’ lover Lesbia’s real name) starts from Catullus poem 51, ‘Ille mi par esse deo videtur’, itself a version of Sappho’s famous poem. 

How does hate swing through fixation into love,
or something like?  So if she drives past in the
family car I want to part the traffic
like a sea for her -

which is confusing, at the very least….

Catullus 51 is written in sapphics.  Atkinson’s poem is in a form she uses in several others too: syllabics, with sapphics’ 11-11-11-5 structure; but without the metre, which is so hard to reproduce in English.  And she takes the poem somewhere different:

Her husband left me green with want, she knows that.
But I’m sick for something further back.  Look: I’m
the stickyfingered brat still clamouring at
the apron, whining.   

Lesbia’s famous sparrow (though according to the notes in Peter Green’s text-and-translation, such a pet would more likely have been a prettier, tamer bird such as the blue rock thrush) becomes a large, elderly dog.  (The dog is a veteran of sexual escapades; the Latin bird-word was slang for penis. Not that we were told that at school.)  Here, the dog is being stroked:

rolls this demijohn of fealty, open as a palm.

Exquisite, how the skin takes touch.  The eyes
roll back.  The universe contracts.  And she
observes the soft jewels of the genitals

for she is known for thoroughness.

That last statement could be made about the author, who has a magpie eye - as the narrator says of herself in one poem in ‘et al’, the second half of the book, a miscellany of poems showing the same energy, style and ear for cadences.  I enjoyed these most where they deal in the everyday, as in that poem and ‘Thunder at Saxmundham’:

                             The engine

idles at a junction; this is the poet’s
aubade for his lover.  Someone closes
windows on the live air.  Buddleia

in the siding shakes its tacky dildos.
Any minute now the sky will fall point
blank on silos and conservatories…

Triplets is the most common form in the book, and this combined with tipping-over enjambments give the poems their switchback cadences.

But it’s the Catulla poems that have stayed with me, from first reading a couple of months ago until now.  Some of the excitement of that long-ago Catullus discovery has found its way into this book.  Here’s the end of Catullus poem 11, one of his most famous passages, with Peter Green’s translation:

nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,
qui illius culpa cecidit velut prati
ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
tactus aratro est.

Let her no more, as once, look for my passion,
which through her fault lies fallen like some flower
at the field’s edge, after the passing ploughshare
   cut a path through it.

And here’s how Atkinson reimagines that, at the end of ‘Catulla’:

.. May you never know
how slow unlovely women burn,
nor how we keep our heads down.
Sod you.  All the books say I must
break this at the stem.  Live long,
die happy. Take these petals as they come -
for kisses, curses, kisses. 

Now, the hard bit.  Would I enjoy this book as much, if I’d never read Catullus?  I suppose the answer has to be, not quite.  But that’s starting from a very high level.  What the poems get from Catullus - the persona, the tone, the zeitgeist, some of the accessories - would still add interest, make Catulla et al stand out.  I’d still have enjoyed it enormously; it’s one of my top books of the last year. 

Catulla et al by Tiffany Atkinson is published by Bloodaxe.

***   ***   ***

The Poems of Catullus by Peter Green is published by University of California Press, 2005.  (I got it for a song in Borders’ closing sale.)  Recommended: for the parallel text, the enjoyable verse translations, the interesting and extensive footnotes.  Also Green’s heroic and fascinating attempt to replicate the original metre in every poem: hendecasyllables, choliambics, elegiac couplets, and several others.  There’s an interesting discussion of the problems this throws up.