Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Helen Klein Ross on the National Poetry Competition

Today Displacement is delighted to welcome a guest, who’s made it through storm and floods: Manhattan based poet Helen Klein Ross.  Despite having to batten down all hatches, she’s found the time and mental space to write about what it was like to be commended in the National Poetry Competition last year. 

Her piece is part of the blog tour that the Poetry Society have organised to celebrate the deadline for entering this year’s competition… Wednesday 31 October: that’s tomorrow (or today, or last week, depending on when you read this).  And to encourage everyone to enter.  Which you can do here, online.

You can find her lovely, atmospheric poem, ‘How to Furnish an American House’, here (scroll down the page).  I’ve just re-read it; in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, its beginning and end acquire new meanings.

Here is Helen’s post:

I loved being able to say that I was going over to London because The National Poetry Society was commending one of my poems. This made it sound as if the judges, while sorting through all the poetry in their own country, were helplessly distracted by the luminousness of a poem (my poem!) blinking at them from across the pond.

I’d entered the contest after seeing it listed in Poets and Writers magazine. At first I thought the prize money was a typo, that they’d added a zero or two by mistake. I entered three poems—one surrealistic narrative poem, one sonnet (to technology) and a found poem sourced from language in a 1949 home decorating manual.

When I received the email telling me that the found poem had made the shortlist, I couldn’t believe it, as I thought it was the humblest of the lot. I suddenly saw it in a different, brighter light and this was a lesson in how public acknowledgement shifts the look of things in one’s mind.

Before the ceremony at the swank Saville Club in London, we honorees sat in a circle of folding chairs in the Grand Hall sharing stories of how we had come to be there. We all mentioned with whom we had studied, of course, and I was stunned that there wasn’t more of an overlap, that no one had heard of Frank Bidart or Lucie Brock-Broido who are poets held in high regard in the US not only for their own work, but for their generous mentorship. My fellow honorees were equally surprised that I’d not heard of the poets they’d worked with, and this made for a lovely animated exchange, as if we’d gathered from countries on opposite sides of the world, not two nations with the same cultural heritage and language.

A word of advice: remember that the judges aren’t evaluating a body of work, they’re looking out for a single poem. And that poem must read well. Read it out loud. To my surprise (and dismay) before the ceremony, each of us was videotaped reading our poems to a camera and the footage was posted on the Poetry Society’s website where it will preside presumably as long as the internet does. So a final piece of advice: if you happen to make the NPC shortlist, be sure to get a nice hair cut. 

Helen Klein Ross is a former advertising copywriter whose fiction, essays and poetry have appeared in literary journals and The New York Times. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and commended by The Poetry Society in London. Her first novel is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. Helen lives in Manhattan and on twitter as @AdBroad. 

Those links again: 

Last year's poems, including Helen's

And another post in the blog tour, by Ian Duhig, has just gone up at George Szirtes' blog.

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Book of Invisible Bridges

Sometimes a book lures you, says ‘read me’ in Alice in Wonderland fashion, and it’s not clear why.  This happened to me with The Book of Invisible Bridges, by Xelís de Toro and translated by John Rutherford.  It was on the Pighog Press stall at the poetry book fair a few weeks ago.  I tried to ignore it, went away but had to go back. 

Every page is different.  There are poems, very short stories, monologues, definitions of imaginary words (“Morsage: Clothes drying in the wind before the storm”), statements, photos of handwritten scribbles, blank pages for your own work...  Some things are printed sideways or upside down, which makes reading them feel like accessing a slightly different dimension.  Everything is bilingual, with parallel texts, Galician and English.  The translation feels very natural, while at the same time conveying a strangeness surely there in the original (which is accessible to readers of Spanish).  At the back are reproductions of artwork inspired by the text, and there’s a DVD with more of these.  

I’m not sure how to explain why I like this book. I think it’s something to do with the diversity of forms the writing takes, coupled with the consistency of voice. Plus the variety of subjects and approaches, never knowing what will come next, like Alice but everything bound together by that strange, dreamy yet precise voice.  

One page consists of these four lines, in both languages, at right angles to each other, afloat on the white space of the page.  The English text ought to be rotated through ninety degrees, and floating above the Galician.

Estiven a piques de falar              I was about to talk             
mais calei                                    but I kept quiet                  
e o silencio falou                          and silence spoke                       
porén ninguén escoitou.               but no-one listened.            

The reader is invited more or less explicitly to participate, or imagine participating.  One part of ‘Complete fragments with instructions for reading them’ starts like this (it’s prose, in short lines as there are two columns per page, which gives the reader more space to take in the text):

‘I started out on a journey to learn 
how to walk’

(Look for a track or path, preferably
bordered with grass. If this is not
possible, any combination in which
the surfaces of the path and of
the adjoining land are different.
Remove your shoes or boots and
place them on the path, one in
front of the other as if they were
all that is visible of an invisible
walker. Stand by their side,
parallel to them, outside the path,
with bare, parallel feet…)

A poem called ‘The Art of Hatred’ includes these lines:

With the stone of your home
I will build a wall
to stop you seeing
what is beyond it..

Underneath is a photo of a whitewashed brick wall, with graffiti on it saying:


The short-story fragments are enticing, mixing the surreal with more or less coherent narratives.  There’s a whole novel somewhere in this extract from ‘Description of three things that are not there (that are really four)':

A train:
Clouds. A suitcase. A telephone.
A kiss. In the breeze. Breeze.
A sea-breeze. The police are going
to come. I never did anything. I am
an intellectual. Please forgive me.
He did what with whom? A military
boot. An order to keep quiet. A heat
wave. Interference on the radio.
Another country. Another. A torn
sock. Torn. Torn sock. Another torn
sock. Socks. Another torn sock….

I quite like some of the art, but the text does far more work the pictures in my head are much stronger than those on the page.  The latter presumably represent pictures in the artists’ heads conjured up by this Rubik’s cube of a book, which you can play with, juxtaposing different pieces of text, puzzling meanings out, or not.  

The Book of Invisible Bridges by Xelís de Toro and translated by John Rutherford is published by Pighog Press. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Aldeburgh: will it be the same?

It won’t, can’t be the same, but will it be the same?  It’s hard to imagine Aldeburgh Poetry Festival without the sea.   The year before last, I arrived late on the Friday afternoon.  There was a thick sea-mist which blotted out any noise from the town and allowed only the waves’ east-coast roar.  A band of foam disappeared into the mist – a poet from another planet might have thought it was our source of light.  Spaced along the shingle beach were fishermen in their fortune-teller tents, each looming up as the last one vanished.  Their long high lines were a beheading hazard in the fog.
Aldeburgh has moved up the river to Snape.  We won’t be listening to poetry with the sea a few yards away, or moving from one event to the next via the sea-front, going for a long walk on the beach or wandering up the high street.  Snape will be a very different environment, with everything happening on one compound; a shuttle bus will connect Snape and Aldeburgh. Snape does have the river, the Alde, much narrowed from its wide estuary just south of Aldeburgh.  There are reeds and marshes, and waders (birds! must take binoculars).   I’m looking forward to exploring the paths along the river – those that exist; at least one looks on the map to be high-tide-only, if not wholly fictional.  Perhaps marooned poets, or worse, will become an Aldeburgh feature.  It’s 2 miles’ walk to the magical church at Iken, on the edge of the mudflats past Troublesome Reach.  

I expect the venues will be lovely, though rather more formal than Aldeburgh, and larger.  They will be accessible, an excellent feature that’s still a rarity for poetry events.  
Photo by Philip Vile
Might it all feel a bit corporate?  We’ll have to try to prevent that…     

As for the programme – this year I’m looking forward most to what I know least about: Korean poetry and poet Ko Un, who is reading on the Sunday afternoon.  At Aldeburgh/Snape he’ll be interviewed, and his translator, Brother Anthony of Taizé, will give a talk on Korean poetry.  Ko Un lived through the Korean War; he has been in prison a lot (in South Korea).  A biography and some poems can be read at Korean Literature Today.  This is the end of ‘Sunlight’, in which a ray of sun visits the prisoner’s north-facing cell.

This military prison special cell 
is a photographer's darkroom. 
Without any sunlight I laughed like a fool. 
One day it was a coffin holding a corpse. 
One day it was altogether the sea. 
A wonderful thing! 
A few people survive here. 

Being alive is a sea 
   without a single sail in sight.  

Other interesting visitors from abroad include South African Ingrid de Kok, Palestinian Ghassan Zaqtan and Palestinian-American Fady Joudah. 

The programme’s structured much as ever, which is good.  The short events – the craft talks, short takes and close readings – are as enjoyable as the set pieces, or more… though nothing can beat the atmosphere of a packed-out Aldeburgh main reading, on the Saturday night or Sunday afternoon.   May it remain that way.  

Monday, 1 October 2012

Laboratory Poetry

If the world is falling apart and the ice cap melting, if old age means Alzheimers, if politics are a disaster, if there’s too much information and most of it nonsense, should writing reflect this state of affairs, or go against it; make sense, or disrupt it? (‘Should’ is the wrong word; writing can do what it likes; the question is, what excites and illuminates, gets the synapses going.)

Much writing that makes sense isn’t very interesting, often competently but unexcitingly following the formula: Description + Parallel or Memory + Epiphany = Poem.  Much writing that doesn’t make sense is interesting mostly conceptually, and such interest tends not to last if it’s not genuinely innovative.

Of course that’s an exaggeration; this blog is in back-from-holidays, rain-soaked mode.  The thoughts were also prompted by reading a piece in Fortnightly Review by Peter Riley, about an anthology called American Hybrid.  It includes over 70 US poets, among them CD Wright, Dean Young, DA Powell, Harryette Mullen, Jorie Graham, John Ashbery, Lyn Hejinian, Robert Hass, Susan Howe – which suggests that at least the older, well-known poets are a varied group.

The title appears to come out of a thesis / antithesis / synthesis approach to poetry; nothing wrong with that in principle, though like all frameworks one has to be careful it doesn’t take over.  Anyway, the parallel is traditional (or conventional, Romantic) / innovative (or experimental, modernist) / hybrid. 

Riley’s review is a polemic that extends far beyond the book, which I haven’t read; it’s the review I’m interested in (thanks to Rob Mackenzie who posted the link on Facebook).  One of the things Riley dislikes is reductive labelling of poetry, see above. 

Most interestingly, Riley, a (British) innovator himself, questions innovative elements in the hybrid.  Here are a few extracts from his long, long article.  It’s all worth reading; some of it’s challenging, if one lacks a background in literary theory.  Passages in bold are my emphasis, not his.

Riley comments on the fact that many of the writers have degrees in writing, and teach it. 

If writing poetry becomes a university subject leading ultimately to a doctorate, it must be required to have intellectual status of some kind, which poets have not always necessarily claimed. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of intellectual poetry, but I think that the particular language-based (non-discursive) form the intellectuality takes is the downfall of much of this poetry.

He attacks the anthology’s attitude to language. 

It says that language is self-substantial, that it is its own meaning. Or meaning is immanent and inhering in language, as opposed to Romantic transcendence (horribly British). It speak of the materiality of language, that language is “a social force in itself”. Language is both prior to and subsequent to the poem. Poetry makes “a transformative intervention upon its own medium”. In practice this means that you work with and on language rather than directly with memory and experience or any inherited sense (except very short-term) of poetical formulation. Almost all these poets devote their energies to disturbing or even eradicating language’s communicative function, sometimes violently, with broken syntax and refusal of meaning, so that you are trapped in the poem with no access to the world, and sometimes by creating a plain transmissive discourse which doesn’t make sense (Surrealism, etc.)  almost all these poets remain transfixed within language, and this paralysis is what makes it impossible for most of them to even approach the scope and clamour of poets like Olson or Duncan or Ginsberg. It is all small-scale, meticulous. It all takes places in small corners. A lot of it is introspective in an evasive way.


Disruption and problematisation are terms of praise here, as if we didn’t already have enough of both of them to cope with in the world.


It seems to me that in a given socio-linguistic context there is only one way of making sense and the alternative is senselessness, and I don’t believe that senselessness is going to solve any problem of any kind anywhere in the world. If you can no longer talk about, you are silent. And some of the high jinks, the wrecked language, in this anthology is precisely an abnegation and a silence vis-à-vis the American public world. That entity is precisely not “addressed” and there is a sad sense of helplessness while you watch your country turn rotten and turn aside to indulge yourself in games with words.

I don’t agree with everything he says, by any means (why should I, it’s a polemic) – for a start, I don’t think the criticisms apply to most of the poets I’ve listed above, but then they are among the ones I’ve read and like, or at least am interested by.  I don’t understand what Riley means by “there is only one way of making sense”, etc.  I don’t think that all poetry that disturbs language’s communicative function is hermetically sealed; only that a lot of it is.  And I think that innovative forms have great potential for addressing political issues, because most poetic approaches are drowned out by the multiplicity of media and other discourse.

But I do think he’s on to something.  Especially the connection he makes between the sealed-off, small-corner nature of such poetry, and its origins in the academy. Riley uses the term ‘laboratory poetry’, which seems cruel, but apt (and has implications for the UK, as poetry here moves academy-wards). Things don’t have to be this way.  It is possible to write experimental poetry and communicate; language and meaning can and do coexist, in new and interesting ways.  

US anthology American Hybrid is edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John, Norton (2009)