Monday, 27 November 2017

Poetry in Aldeburgh 2017

There’s an irresistibly obvious metaphor for what’s happened in Aldeburgh.  A phoenix chick emerged last year from the crash-and-burn ashes of the international festival.  Now the chick has fledged, showing off some fiery feathers.  

It’s 3 weeks since the festival, too late for blogging really.  And I knew many of the participants which makes it awkward.  Anyway here’s what’s stayed in my mind. 

***Mimi Khalvati standing in a brick niche outside the Jubilee Hall for a pre-reading smoke, her silver hair pouring down over a gold silk top: our furtive saint.  As Poetry School co-founder she led a 20th birthday event with three star pupils, Edward Doegar, Hannah Lowe and Karen McCarthy Woolf.  All four did each other proud; it was lovely to sense such strong personal relationships on stage. When Ed read Mimi’s sonnet ‘Overblown Roses’ I thought she / all of us would cry. It starts with a child and her mother and moves with the metaphor of the roses:

                        I suddenly saw afresh
the rose now, the rose ahead: where a petal
clings to a last breath…

At the end, someone asked those in the hall who’d been taught by Mimi to stand up and many of us did.  When people write PhDs etc on poetic influences of the last 20 years in Britain she will get her own chapter. 

***Ishion Hutchinson’s workshop on imitation in poetry, in a Sunday morning sun-filled gallery: from Ben Jonson to current plagiarism controversies to a translation of the mid-20th century Greek poet George Seferis.  It was very good to hear Hutchinson support imitation and the “rich harmony of implications” it can offer – when it’s not plagiarism or mockery or otherwise in bad faith.   And to discover another Seferis fan who probably made conversions that morning.  The poem he looked at was ‘Upon a Line of Foreign Verse’ translated (here, in Poetry) by A E Stallings. I’m used to the Keeley & Sherrard parallel text edition of Seferis.  Strangely, he isn’t a difficult poet to translate, and anyway K&S make it look easy.  But it was a delight to read another translator, and such a good one. It starts:

Happy is he who has made the journey of Odysseus. Happy if, as
    the journey loomed,
He felt the sturdy rigging of a love, stretched taut inside his body
    like the veins where the blood booms,

Of a love with unbroken rhythm, invincible as music and undying,
because it was born when we were born, and whether it dies when
    we do, we do not know, and it is no use trying.

God help me to say, in a moment of great joy, what is this love?
I sit sometimes surrounded by an alien land, and I hear its distant
    roar, like the boom of the sea mingled with an inexplicable
    whirlwind from above.

It was also a pleasure to discover Ishion Hutchinson’s poetry.  If there’s a Seferis / Derek Walcott link – the sea, myth, wandering and exile, and something about the style – there’s a Hutchinson connection to both of them: his new book, House of Lords and Commons, shares these preoccupations in richly worded poems and he shares Walcott’s Caribbean roots.  ‘The Orator’ begins:

Amid a ratcheted, alloyed ghost,
I returned stares in the blackout
that clogged the podium where a bore
was harping in dead metaphor
the horror of colonial heritage.
I sank in the dark, haemorrhaged.
There I remembered the peninsula
of my sea, the breeze opening the water
to no book but dusk; no electricity,
just stars pulsing over shanties,
and, later, an inextinguishable moon,
invisible in this dark NYC room,

***Along with Mimi’s reading, this one was memorable: Raymond Antrobus / Keith Jarrett / Rachel Long who filled the Jubilee Hall with energy and rhetoric.  See here for a resonant poem of Antrobus’ about Gaudí’s cathedral, sound, deafness and much else.  Jarrett can rhyme as fast and beguilingly in French as English and switch from North London to broad Caribbean and back in an instant.  This link’s to a video because listening to him is so enjoyable.  I went off with books by both of them; Long doesn’t have one yet but surely will do soon.  She writes tough and precise poems.  Here are some lines from one called ‘Translating Hemispheres #2’

I’m thinking of Baudelaire, of hair skating on thin air between swimmer’s shoulders

and barber floor.  I am thinking of writing him.  I am thinking, will he recognize me now

I am almost boy. Will he recognize me more?  Once I tried to hold his voice, but it slipped

through ‘pianist’ fingers. If only I had learnt to play.

I took measurements of his sleeping face, his waking, his soft and angry face,

all his faces.  Except the one I never saw because he was all back and no back – ever.

***The Resurgence Prize winners’ reading, which far exceeded my low expectations.  Eco-poetry is hard to write well – as one of the judges Mina Gorji and Lavinia Greenlaw said, we don’t seem to have found the vocabulary for what is happening perhaps because we can’t grasp it – but the three finalists’ poems (online here together with some excellent runners-up) are all very striking.

***HappenStance launch: two pamphlets, Lois Williams’ Like other animals (with some lovely exact turns of phrase) and Ramona Herdman’s Bottle (whose theme of family alcoholism clearly intrigued the audience – a near-taboo subject?); and And, Michael Mackmin’s first full collection for nearly 50 years.  All three rewarding, very differently.  Michael’s poems, full of love and sex and place but less birdlife than one might expect, are pungent, gamey, hung for a long time.  Do read the one on the HappenStance page, ‘Pax’.  This is from ‘Inishturk’:

Where else would a tall man down from the hill
bid everyone good morning, so safely
at four in the afternoon?
Such a place has frame and courtesy.
We who are not islanders, well –
we are lapped by unreasonable tears
in this outside: washing out from our hair
the sand of that clear shore.

***Michael Laskey, founder of the original Aldeburgh festival, reading with Kate Miller and John Clegg.  None of them had met but it worked – Clegg riffing on ideas to make us laugh, Miller’s painterly poems filled with light, sea etc and Laskey’s wisdom, vegetable and otherwise.  There’s a Smith Doorstop Selected Selected (not a typo) of his just out, and one of Mimi Khalvati too.  Nice idea, nice way to sell books.  Michael read ‘The Last Swim’, twelve beautiful lines ending:

And that’s best, to have gone on swimming
easily to the end: your crawl
full of itself, and the future
no further than your folded towel.

Swimming!!  Eight of us went in on Sunday morning, the water cold but clear and beautiful.  There was no poetry, we just swam, watching the pattern the sun made on the waves, turning to admire the shoreline disappearing both ways.  It was calm enough to talk and laugh without choking on seawater.

We had a house with windows full of sea and some of us stayed on afterwards.  Swimming score: 6/7 days – I had to miss a day when the waves were too big.  That day was hard.  Swimming becomes an obsession after a while, not-swimming feels like a failure to make the day complete.  There were lots of geese and waders in the lakes and marshes north and south of Aldeburgh; this year’s highlight was several godwits towards Orford Ness. I loved their long black legs.  I wasn’t sure, at a distance, if they were bar-tailed or black-tailed until I listened to the audio on my bird app – its black-tailed voice/call clashed with the marsh-sounds but bar-tailed blended in perfectly.

The brilliant Aldeburgh volunteers worked extreme overtime again, led by Daphne Astor and Robin Boyd (Daphman and Robin to their colleagues).  The rest of us turned up and enjoyed, in large enough numbers to keep the festival afloat.  It’s not subsidised by the Arts Council, the organisers having decided they’d prefer independence and minimal admin.

At the end the phoenix flew off again, following its own gold path towards the sun.  Collapse of metaphor: that was Sunday afternoon and since Aldeburgh faces east the sun rises over the sea and sets over the Alde marshes or wherever else you are looking inland.  Never mind; the phoenix flew off and will be back next year.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

OULIPO N+7: stuck and stale leakage, and the dictionary’s subconscious

First some OULIPO background, as a reminder to me and anyone else who needs it.  From the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics:

OULIPO is the acronym for ‘Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle’, which was founded in 1960 by a group of ten writers and mathematicians led by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais.  Later additions included Georges Perec and Jacques Roubaud, as well as... Marcel Duchamp and Harry Mathews (USA) and Italo Calvino (Italy). 

Although Duchamp and Queneau constitute links between dada, surrealism and the OULIPO, the latter movement has emphasised its autonomy.  The procedures based on chance which Tristan Tzara devised for generating dada poems aimed essentially at demolishing traditional notions of aesthetic value. Surrealism proceeded on the belief that chance is controlled by surreal forces which, as in the case of automatic writing, work through the unconscious.  The OUPLIPO, on the other hand, rejects both chance and the unconscious as valid tools for literary creation.  It is primarily interested in the conscious elaboration and the systematic application of text-generating methods. 

One of the OULIPO techniques is N+7*.  Princeton again: “a new poem is generated by replacing each noun N in an existing poem by the noun which ranks seventh after it in a given dictionary”.  There’s an online generator for this, here; so there should be.  But doing it yourself is more fun –  the process itself is interesting.  You soon realise that you need to add rules as you go along: faithfully count every noun, or just the ones the average Scrabble player would know.  Plough through every dictionary entry that isn’t a noun in case it contains a noun half-way through, or run a finger down each column at high speed.  And what sort/size of dictionary to use in the first place? 

Different sort of question: why limit the application of N+7 to poems?**  Politicians’ speeches seem like a good place to go in this post-truth age of brexitmania, twittersphere politics, alternative facts, and companies / foreign governments attempting to practise mind control via social media.

What follows is N +7 & A + 7.  I’ve substituted adjectives as well as nouns.  Anyone living in the UK will probably guess the speaker, and at least one over-used phrase...

So every voyeur for the Consolables, every voyeur for me, every voyeur for a lone Consolable canker, is a voyeur for stuck and stale leakage in the nauseous interjection. And that is what this electrocardiogram is all about, about leakage, about stag, about doing the riotous thirty for Broadcloth. And it is only by voting Consolable that you get that stuck and stale leakage. Because that is what this Consolable grader has been providing. And if you just think backstreet to when I took over as Printable Minority after the reflux, there were prefects of immediate fired creaks, of edible dart, but because of our stuck leakage, what we have seen is that contempt conformation has remained hirsute, we’ve seen reedy nunneries of jodhpurs and we’ve seen edible g-spot which has been above all experts. When I took over as Printable Minority, pepperonis said the couple was divided, that it would never come backstreet toothsome again. What I see around the couple is a reborn unrest of purveyance, of pepperonis urging us to get on with the jodhpur of Brickwork and make a suckling of it.

And when I took over as Printable Minority, what was needed was a clipped vitamin and that stuck leakage to take us foxed into those Brickwork nemeses and that’s what we’ve provided. And that’s the sedition that you get from a stuck and stale grader and stuck and stale leakage. Indeed, it’s actually what leakage looks like. And the chopper at this electrocardiogram is very clipped. It’s a chopper between that stuck and stale leakage under the Consolables or a weatherbeaten and unstuck co-author of chaplet led by Jimmy Corcorann. And make no misuse about it, that is what is on officialese.   

I used Chambers dictionary for that, bypassed words which failed the Scrabble rule and didn’t look for nouns buried in entries.  I ran my finger fast down the page so as not to be tempted by other options – and because there were a lot of words in this extract.  Anyway the temptation precaution wasn’t necessary; perhaps the dictionary does have a subconscious.

Challenge for computer hackers: instead of hurling ransomware at hospitals, why not corrupt our corrupt political discourse with an OULIPObot?

* The original is S+7, from the French substantif for noun.

** Of course this blog is not the first to have that idea.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A dual carriageway through Seamus Heaney’s landscape; or whatever you say, say nothing

Our greatest poet’s dead, so let’s run a dual carriageway through his childhood landscape.  Apart from a motivated group of local people hardly anyone’s making a fuss.  Either in Ulster or over here. 

A flyover is planned within 100m of Seamus Heaney’s childhood home at Mossbawn. 

One of the UK’s most precious poetry landscapes is about to be destroyed.  It also happens to contain pristine wetland which is a whooper swan site.  The 4-lane A6 road, carrying 22,000 cars a day, will pass through the Lough Beg area within yards of an Area of Special Scientific Interest protected by the Wetlands Convention and the EU Habitats Directive. 

A local environmentalist called Chris Murphy is taking the Northern Ireland Department of Infrastructure to court, seeking a judicial review. There’s a BBC piece here on the background.  The hearing happened last week; it had to be moved to a larger courtroom to accommodate supporters.  The case has to be solely about whether the project is being taken forward according to Article 6 (3) of the Habitats Directive.  Heaney’s legacy isn’t part of it.

Murphy says they have a strong case because the Infrastructure Dept has made errors and there are good alternative routes for the road.  Here’s the link to a crowdfunder for the court action.    Some way down the page is a scan of a letter Heaney sent to Peter Hain (then secretary of state for NI) in 2005, asking him to get involved:

I have known and loved this area since childhood and have written about it – or rather out of it – often. It is one of the few undisturbed bits of wetland in mid-Ulster, a direct link to the environment our mesolithic ancestors knew in the Bann Valley and a precious “lung” in the countryside.  Any motorway desecrates, but some desecrate more than others.

This is a crowdfunder that could have gone viral – but it’s only reached £840, with 29 backers, though Murphy says pledges have been made offline too. 

The only NGO to oppose the plans is Friends of the Earth whose Northern Ireland director, James Orr, has been in the NI press highlighting that trees on the route are already being cut down and hedgerows taken out.  “Highly irregular”, he says; the Dept for Infrastructure should be waiting for the outcome of the court case.  

Others have kept their heads down.  I’ve been told that the local atmosphere is somewhat toxic.  The RSPB, for example, has a cryptic statement on its website as if the author was biting his/her lip not to say more.  According to the BBC the land across which this road would run has already been bought and compensation agreed.

I emailed Home Place, the new Heaney centre in mid Ulster, who could only find this to say:

Mid Ulster District Council supports the development of the strategic road network in the Mid Ulster area. The Council also recognises that with any major road infrastructure project it is important that the environmental impacts are fully considered.  Addressing adverse impacts, and putting measures in place to mitigate against them, will be particularly important for the A6 road scheme.

It seems that Home Place is happy to foster an artificial, virtual Heaneyscape while the real one is destroyed.  But it turns out that Home Place was funded, very generously, by Mid Ulster District Council, who will also cover the considerable running costs. 

There don’t seem to be celebrity supporters either.  When you think of Heaney’s national and international connections, Irish, American, Nobel Prize and many others, that seems remarkable.  One exception is naturalist and writer Mark Cocker who visited the area last autumn and heard about it all.  He is supporting the campaign and wrote briefly about it in the Guardian

A few weeks ago I emailed various people who I thought would have an interest in this because of Heaney associations or general poetry interests, asking them if they’d donate to the crowdfunder and/or share the news and lobby.  I got a few responses including from the Poetry Society. 

Similarly hardly anyone responded when I posted about this on social media.. not that I’m a social media queen but if I’d posted something quirky, or a poetry story closer to home, the response would have been much better.  

Is it that Northern Ireland might as well be on another planet for most people in the rest of the UK and elsewhere? 

Or perhaps they think the situation is lost already and it’s better to turn their backs.  We’re all exhausted with all the other causes we must support in 2017.  Or they’d like some heavyweight endorsement of the cause, to be sure it’s worthwhile; fair enough.  Mark Cocker’s support after his visit should suffice. 

Perhaps fatigue and resignation are setting in when it comes to destruction of the countryside.  It just happens and happens and happens and happens and happens. 

I find the whole thing perplexing. 

There’s a hashtag #stopHeaneyroad but only one tweet so far.

By the way, I don’t know what the timetable is beyond last week’s court hearing, e.g. how long the judge will take to decide or whether an appeal is possible if the decision is No.  

If a judicial review is allowed, I hope attitudes will change.  I hope I'm not the only person to have a Heaneyscape in my head, or wherever it is that poetry takes root.  

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Sifting the Rialto pamphlet competition

I've been reading hundreds of pamphlet submissions to the Rialto’s competition.  Absorbing, fascinating… and intensive.  Three of us sifted the entries to give our judge, Hannah Lowe, a longlist of fifty to read.  The results are on our website.  Here are some thoughts about the experience of sifting and trends among the entries.

* Life writing was popular, some of it addressing, admirably, difficult issues such as childhood abuse or mental illness.  Racial and cultural identity, often with an autobiographical and/or ancestral angle, was a big theme that produced some of the best poetry.  Herons, cats, marshland, floods, trees, the sea… all were here, sometimes (not the cats) in elegiac mode for what’s passing or passed.  Unelegiac urban life was here in all its richness and confusion, and with foxes.  Brexit appeared sporadically.  The US elections came just before the deadline.

* For the sifter, entries with an overarching theme or story are easy to take in and remember.  Sets of poems that are quiet or work together without a story need to be given the attention they deserve.  I found it a pleasure to read formally versatile entries, and those with poems all in the same form skilfully handled.  The same applied to whole pamphlets of short poems; we didn’t get many of those.  Short poems are hard to do well. Formally and/or linguistically experimental sets stood out.  We didn’t get many of those either; I’d have welcomed more.

* The first poem is important: eg as setter of tone and theme, and inviter-in of the reader who is longing to be excited, charmed, wrong-footed, made to laugh, lured, thunderstruck, transported... This is especially true for electronic submissions (around 4/5 of ours were online) which encourage linear reading.  Yet a surprising number of pamphlets didn’t lead with one of their best.  This phenomenon struck all three sifters independently.  Maybe entrants had a certain idea about ordering, or were unsure which were their best poems.  Some entries only got going after the first few poems.  It felt like that familiar workshop question, Do you need the first line / the first two verses or are these just writing into the poem?  Perhaps ordering into a pamphlet is something to watch out for.

* Risks are good to take even if they don’t come off.  Conceits, for example, have to be really well done to work.  But that’s OK; the reader respects the attempt. 

* Trusting the reader to understand, make connections etc is important.    

* Line breaks that energise their poem are a delight.  If they aren’t doing this it might as well be prose. 

* Adjectives…  Yes, they still need to be talked about!  Many are superfluous or part of a predictable adjective/noun combination.  Each adjective should be scrutinised to see if it deserves to be there, and if so, whether it’s the right one.  (It’s totally fine to write a poem bristling with adjectives … provided you know what you’re doing and the poem is hungry for them.)  There are other poetry habits too, especially what long-standing HappenStance pamphlet publisher Helena Nelson calls leaning verbs.  She even has a blog-tag for those and her analyses of current habits are very shrewd. 

* Titles: they don’t matter much at this stage but it’s nice to find one that works. 

* As a sifter all I wanted was pamphlets that channelled old Ezra, more than 100 years on: MAKE IT NEW.  The best ones created a world of their own and invited me in.  Line breaks electrified the poems, the language felt alive with unexpected turns of phrase or syntax, form and content worked together, the poems had their own particular music (harmonious, harsh or whatever), beginnings and ends earned their place… etc.  The subject matter might not be striking but the angle on it was.  What’s the point of poetry (among so much other discourse) if it doesn’t convey the shocks and wonder of living? 

* When these things happened I’d get a sense of confidence mixed with excitement, and read on knowing that the next poem would work, and the next, and with luck, most of them…  I’d also have a sense that the writer was reading and listening to poetry, whether from the back of beyond or an urban attic.  So along with Ezra this too goes in capital letters: READ READ READ.  The two exhortations are complementary, not contradictory.  Read to write and write to read.  Read to make it new.