Friday, July 27, 2012

Praise Indeed

One of the most interesting aspects of preparing Gaud for publication has been asking poets I very much admire for their comments on the pamphlet.

It's ony really since Gaud was accepted for publication that I have started to ask myself what it is I do when I'm writing poetry, what it is that really preoccupies me. These things are probably clearer to other people, and I'm immensely grateful to David Briggs and Alison Brackenbury for having offered their comments for the back cover. Their words will not only give readers a sense of what to expect, but they've made me see my work from new perspectives, too.

'Everywhere in David Clarke's Gaud the senses are engaged: "fuck-off cologne" assaults the nose; mouths bloom with cognac, smoke, tongues and wry-baroque irony. But, there's a very continental intelligence at work here too. In these poems the body is political space, tussled over by sharps, transvestites, revolutionaries, pornographers and lovers; and the landscape is a semiotic battlefield, from which this sharp-eyed reporter delivers his slant despatches with "an extraordinary level of wit and detail". Frustrating to discover a new writer of such range and talent; but, there's no point grumbling when "this is what I really want."' (David Briggs)

'David Clarke’s exact, unsparing poems are executed with an eerie coolness.  His intriguing narratives have their own sensual music, as subtle as his rhymes:

For me, a man must love his art, its cost—
choose his poison, drain it to the last.'
(Alison Brackenbury)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gaud Gigs

The launch of Gaud is now imminent and I have two readings lined up.

The first is the official launch, organised by Flarestack Poets and Writing West Midlands at the Ikon Gallery in Brimingham on 31st July (click here for more details). The event is free, but you are advised to reserve a place.

I'll be reading for about 20 minutes, as will the other Flarestack winner Nichola Deane. Other poets featured in the competition anthology will be there, too (including  including Oliver Comins, Michael Conley, Claire Dyer, Jacci Garside, Roy Marshall, Janet Smith, Michael W. Thomas, Charles Wilkinson and Madeleine Wurzburger).

Apart from hearing the poetry, the chief pleasure of the evening will be to meet Jacqui Rowe and Meredith Andrea of Flarestack for the first time!

Then, on 4 August, I'll be reading with Cheltenham's 'Poetry Factory' and Ann Drysdale at a 'Poetry in Store' event organised by Anna Saunders of Cheltenham Poetry Festival at Waterstone's, Cheltenham (click here for more details).

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Step Back in Time

The Night Sky in My Head

I've just finished reading a novel for teens, the d├ębut of my very good friend Sarah Hammond. It's a long time since I read a book for that age-group (not since I was a teenager myself, in fact), but The Night Sky in My Head (OUP, 2012) is very impressive: tightly paced, wonderfully imagined and emotionally engaging.

Sarah has made the brave choice of telling her story from the point of view of a 14-year-old with learning difficulties, and some dark themes are tackled. It's a testament to her skill and compassion that she never patronises her hero (and certainly not her readers) while dealing delicately with love, loss, betrayal and the challenges of growing up. The book also has strong magical realist elements, as Mikey, the protagonist, has the special ability to see back in time; an ability which he uses to piece together the mystery surrounding his father's imprisonment and the murder of another man.

I don't know much about contemporary fiction for young people, but I can't help but mention this here for those who may be looking for a brilliant summer read for someone of this age. The story has a real summertime feel to it, too.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Crystal Clear

Ledbury Poetry Festival takes place (more or less) on my doorstep. Sadly, this year I have been so busy at work that I only managed one Ledbury afternoon, on the last day of the festival. So, while everyone else was in end-of-festival fatigue, I was experiencing beginning-of-festival buzz. The same can't necessarily be said of my long-suffering, poetry-agnostic partner - although he did enjoy the very entertaining reading by Sophie Hannah, perhaps one of the rare poetry performers you would be itching to invite to your next dinner party (just take a look at her blog to see what I mean).

Andrew Motion gave an engaging talk about his new 'sequel' to Stevenson's Treasure Island, as well as reading some poems from The Cinder Path and discussing this time as Laureate. Motion has a great talent for communication - he comes across like a kindly university lecturer who allows you to feel as clever and erudite as he clearly is - and that skill certainly did the office of Laureate a lot of good.

Nevertheless, the highlight of the festival for me was a very short reading by three poets who have been published by Leicester's Crystal Clear Creators in pamphlet form. Crystal Clear are relative newcomers, with their magazine Hearing Voices currently running to a fourth issue. They have now also branched out into pamphlets, with six elegantly-produced titles on sale for a very reasonable £4 each.

All three of the writers I heard seemed to me to be worth reading, but I was particularly taken by the work of Jessica Mayhew. Her pamphlet Someone Else's Photograph is precise and subtle, eschewing the strained exuberance or self-conscious 'coolness' sometimes to be found in young poets (Mayhew is 22). As the cover image suggests, the sea is a constant presence in these poems, introduced with the story of the drowning of Mayhew's grandmother's grandfather at the beginning of the collection. The sea is a mutable symbol in Mayhew's work, but often suggests both the fragility of human lives and relationships, as well as the haunting effects of their loss. There are also several poems which draw on Greek myth to address sexuality, mortality and their inter-relation.

What impresses me most about these poems, however, is the quality of their imagery. In 'Stealing from her Garden', for example, Mayhew describes a scene following her grandmother's death where her uncle 'pinches the flesh of his hands, / as if to draw the whole of her dying / out like a splinter.' Elsewhere, birds fall onto a boat-deck 'like bright drops shaken from an oar.' Let's hope some sensible publisher is soon offering to publish her first full collection.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Break it down

At a recent poetry workshop I attended in Bristol, a writer new to poetry asked the organiser to explain why poets use line-breaks the way they do. Not an easy question to answer.

Lineation seems obvious enough when a poem has a regular metre, and especially if end-rhymes are used, but how to explain what poets are up to when they use other principles to break their lines? The obvious answer, I suppose, has to do with the rhythm and weight of the individual lines, but I've heard claims for all kinds of other allegedly hard and fast rules: for instance, the suggestion that line-breaks are a substitute for punctuation, that they somehow stand in commas (surely piffle to anyone who has actually read contemporary English-language poetry). I prefer to think of line-breaks as a conventional feature of verse which doesn't have a function per se, but which can be made to do all kinds of things.

Here's a list of my top five things to do with line-breaks, not necessarily in order of importance - I'd be happy to hear some more...

1. A line-break can suspend meaning, or even give us two (or more) meanings for the price of one.

For example, in Alasdair Paterson's poem 'Dome' (from his pamphlet Brumaire and Later, 2010), a description of a space where a cathedral used to stand begins as follows:

The park's quiet
where the cathedral was.

Seems simple enough, but we can see how the line-break create ambiguity. It forces us to read 'the park's quiet' at first without reference to what follows. We could read it as 'the park is quiet' or 'the quiet of the park', both meanings being possible until we have the following line, which pins things down more closely to 'the park is quiet'. But the second meaning ('the quiet of the park') does not just cease to exist as a possibility, and this notion of the 'the park's quiet' as some particular kind of quiet that is specific to the park, a quiet which becomes almost a tangible thing in itself, still echoes.

2. A line-break can surprise

Th value of surprise in poetry is severely undervalued. But who wants to read a predictable poem? Line-breaks create surprise by allowing out thoughts to move in one particular way, only to make them shift into some other direction. The example from Paterson's 'Dome' is a good one for surprise, too. First we have the perhaps rather banal statement that the park is quiet. Perhaps we are expecting one of those nice nature poems. Perhaps there will be swans alighting on a silvery pond. And now, all of a sudden, we have the idea that a cathedral used to be here. Since when did cathedrals use to be anywhere. Surely they are the kinds of things that stay built, massive as they are? How much more surprising this notion seems because of Paterson's use of the line-break. If his poem had begun 'The cathedral used to stand in the park' (which would make a much inferior poem) we would not even be invited to see this as a surprising idea.

John Burnside is a real master of the many possibilities of the line-break, and often uses them to make imagery more surprising to the reader. For example, in his poem 'Nativity' (from Black Cat Bone, 2011), the narrator describes his birth:

and I lie squalling in a slick of blood
and moonlight [...].

Blood and moonlight is an unexpected combination (although Burnside is doubtless drawing on ancient associations of femininity, fertility and the moon), but the line-break makes the image much more striking. We take in the fairly naturalistic 'slick of blood' only for the next line to then reveal a further element which unsettles the image we have already established in our minds.

3. A line-break can suggest movement or distance

In the same poem, Burnside gives us an instance of the line-break that suggest physical movement or distance of some kind, when he describes lights going out

in house after house, from here
to the edge of the world [...].

In that line-break, we can almost feel the gesture, as if the poem was pointing and making us feel that difference between the here and the unimaginably far away.

4. A line-break can make strange

There is a widely-held view that line-breaks should not break up the sense of an expression so that it wrong-foots the reader. I think what the reader really needs is wrong-footing. To poets I say, 'come on - wrong-foot me, give it your best shot.'

Paul Muldoon and Matthew Caley do this a lot. In Muldoon's case, there is often a very deliberate strategy of fragmenting the sense of an expression over several lines so that the reader is constantly having to reorient themselves. The individual lines frequently don't make much sense standing alone. In a way, this is a similar process to no. 1 (suspending meaning) but carried to such an extent that language becomes a strange material the reader has to struggle with rather than simply the opaque medium of some easily-digested meaning. So, for example, in his recent collection Maggot (2010), we can read the following in 'The Humours of Hakone':

[...]  I'd read somewhere that the Japanese love of kitsch
is nowhere more
evident than in the craze for these sticker-photo booths which

go even further to reinforce
not only the heels of a panty hose worn under a kimono
but the impression that phosphorous
might still be a common element in flash photography. Dead

There's a kind of stop-start quality to this I like - we get drip-fed bits of meaning which slowly accumulate.

Matthew Caley often does this making strange using hyphens to break up otherwise common words over more than one line. In his poem 'Elbow', for instance (in Apparently, 2010 - not sure why most of my examples were from 2010 - must have been a good year for line-breaking), he describes

the entire audience, vibrat-
ing life the F-holes of a cello [...]

Apart from making the word 'vibrating' seem very odd (like when you say a word you know over and over until it seems arbitrary and strange), there's a great joke here, too. The word 'vibrating' itself seems to, well, vibrate.

Despite my use of recent examples, this kind of thing has been around since Modernism at least. You can see all of these things happening in e.e. cummings, for one (as in 'Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr. Vinal').

5. A line break can be funny

While we're on the subject of humour - I love a good line-break joke. Maybe we're getting into the realms of  concrete poetry here, but let's finish with A. R. Ammons' rid-tickling two-liner 'Their Sex Life':

Their Sex Life

One failure on
Top of another


Well, that's my personal top five things to do with a line-break. If there's one thing a line-break should not do, though, it's to

fool us into thinking
that because we have added
line-breaks to what is essentially
prose, we have written poetry.
Because we haven't.