Sunday, January 27, 2013

Holocaust Memorial Day

27 January is Holocaust Memorial Day. Last night, I was making one of my frequent trawls through the excellent Ubuweb, where I found a mesmerising recording of Paul Celan reading his poem 'Death Fugue' ('Todesfuge').
File:Celan .jpg
Paul Celan (soure:Wikipedia)
Celan was one of Germany's most important 20th century poets, and arguably no other writer in the German language after World War Two wrote as much in the shadow of the Holocaust as he did. He committed suicide, drowning himself in the Seine, in 1970. You can read a translation of 'Death Fugue' here.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Too Late for Burns Night

..but still. Here's my favourite Burns poem. Although perhaps better known as a song lyric, it reminds us of Burns the social thinker and man of the Enlightenment. And this poem in particular seems no less relevant at a time when we seem all too quick to demonize the poor and vulnerable. As Burns reminds us: 'The rank is but the guinea's stamp.'

A Man's A Man For A' That

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave - we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

There's an annotated version of the poem here, for those who have trouble with the Scots vocabulary. And you can listen to an impassioned reading of the poem on Youtube:

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Guest Poet: Jennifer Farley

Responding to yesterday's post about snowy poems, the excellent poet (and good friend of mine) Jennifer Farley reminded me of her poem 'Snow Journeys', once winner of the SouthEastArts poetry competition. I did, of course, know Jennifer's poem, but could sadly find no link to it on the Web for my 'Top 10'. She has kindly agreed to my re-publishing it here - which also makes me wonder if this could be the start of an irregular 'guest poet' slot on A Thing for Poetry. I think perhaps it could...

The poem is published in Jennifer's collection Masks and Feathers (The Palms Studio, 2012).

Snow Journeys

All those journeys we used to make, our sleigh
(or grandfather's black Bentley) speeding
through the hushed and frozen night, that time
we fled S. Petersburg, the air heavy
with chypre and the scent of fur, warm plush
prickling our legs. The pale Empress (or
my grandmother) sat straight-backed. Her rings
smoked topaz fire across the glass, summoning forests
glittering with assassins and the threat of wolves.
Snuggled deep in winter dark, comforted by leather
and the fizz of sherbet on the tongue,
I urged the pace. Our hastening tracks left
echoes of tiny bells, the dogs' breath furling back
across the glinting minarets, the city's glow
(or Market Square lamplit at closing time).
These were the journeys I had to make, across
the table of the world, away
from the ordinariness of lives,
toward the long slow melt and miracles.

(C) Jennifer Farley

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Top 10 Snow Poems

Britain shivers, but also - whatever Mr Osborne says - gleefully skives for a few snowy days. Since the only thing better than an autumnal poem is one about snow, here's my top 10 wintery favourites. In order of my thinking of them, not in order of preference.

1. 'Snow' by Louis Macneice

An obvious choice, I know, but the snow poem all other snow poems now have to nod in the direction of.

2. 'History' by Paul Muldoon

Okay, getting off topic already - but this surely has to be the best response to Mcneice?

3. 'Snow' by David Briggs

A poem about words for snow, and how the wonder is as much in the words as in the snow.

4. 'Snow-Flakes' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Snow as 'the poem of the air'.

5. 'Snow Melting' by Gjertrud Schnackenberg

Snow melts to reveal a world without love.

6. 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' by Robert Frost

One of the best-known poems by any American poet. And the Fozzie Bear rendition is pretty good, too.

7. 'The Buck in the Snow' by Edna St. Vincent Millay

An uncanny, almost symbolist poem - frustrated desire and failed communication.

8. 'Slush' by Alan Buckley

A poem about the loss of growing up that also tackles the theme of climate change in a subtle and personal way.

9. 'Snow Water' by Michael Longley

Imagine drinking the purity of snow.

10. 'Snow and Snow' by Ted Hughes

The sensuality of snow in Hughes' transformative imagination.

I'm sure other people have their favourites - maybe some I don't know. Why note share them with a comment on the blog?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Next Big Thing

Roy Marshall has kindly tagged me in an ongoing project called 'The Next Big Thing'. This involves writers answering a set of questions about a book which has been or is about to be published. They then tag other writers who keep the chain going. My choice of tag-ee (?) is Deborah Harvey, who has a book launch very soon...

It was kind of Roy to invite me, but I feel a slight embarrassment to be talking about writing a book. Of which more below...

1. Where did the idea for this book come from?

I recently had a pamphlet published with Flarestack Poets, as anyone who reads this blog will by now be tired of hearing. Almost the first question I heard from other poets when the pamphlet came out was, 'So, are you working towards a collection?' Since it took me four years to have enough decent stuff to fill a pamphlet, this was a bit like having jogged around the block only to be asked when I would be running the marathon.
At the moment, I would say I am writing poems. And I tend to do that one poem at a time. Between writing poems I always have the feeling that it's something I will never do again, but then somehow I do. How this process would organise itself into the single-minded writing of a book, I don't know. The ideas for individual poems often come from reading or from staring out of the window, or a combination of both. I recently read an anecdote in a history book about Lenin enjoying the music hall while he was in exile in England. I immediately had to write a poem about that, which is the one I'm most pleased with at the moment.

2.What genre does your book fall under?

As you might guess from the above, if there ever is a book, it will be poetry.

3. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

An unlikely scenario, this. But I quite enjoy it when musicians turn up in films and are surprisingly good: for example, Tom Waits in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, or Lyle Lovett in The Opposite of Sex. Actors doing music seems to work less well. So, maybe my poems could be intoned by Elvis Costello over some Derek-Jarmanish video backdrop - which would also be a good way to get to meet Mr Costello, at least.

4. What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

A book of poems that some people may like.

5. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I'm still working on it. I have a good feeling about 2015, though, so perhaps it will be ready by then.

6. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

See Answer 1 above on that. On another level, it's the medium of poetry itself. There's nothing as exciting, and English has such a rich tradition that a writer can be part of, even if in a modest way. Also my encounters with other poets, who I find unfailingly generous and enthusiastic about other people's work. That makes me want to carry on doing it. I'm obviously meeting the right kind of people.

7. What else might pique the reader’s interest?

I'm always intrigued by the reactions of different readers and audiences to my work. People tend to like different things about it, things I often find surprising or hadn't thought about myself. Quite a few people don't like it at all, which I always enjoy, rather perversely  I guess it isn't for everyone - and that's as good a reason to read something as any I can think of.

8. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don't think I would self-publish. There are certainly excellent poets who use their own imprints to publish their work (I'm thinking of Philip Rush and Jee Leong Koh, in particular). For established poets who do this, the issue is obviously control of the material, not the fact that another publisher would not take their work. As a rule, though, I think poetry does have to go through the rigours of the 'system'. If a poet has submitted poems to magazines, to competitions and so on, it tells me that they are writers who are willing to listen to the judgements of others, to accept that not everything they tap into the word processor is solid gold. They are writers who want to find an audience, not just get a book out with their name on the cover.
I suppose what I'm saying is, I'll wait until I can persuade someone whose judgement I trust to publish a book of my poems, however long that might take. I'm open to offers, though...

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Eros and Thanatos

I don't know who it was who originally observed that poetry tends to be about sex, death and poetry - but Daniel Sluman's fascinating debut collection, Absence Has a Weight of Its Own, certainly fits that bill. Illness, murder and suicide sit alongside accounts of late-night encounters in clubs and investigations of the creative process. Sluman's insights, though, are clearly hard-won. This is not a doomy pose, but the real thing.

What particularly grabs the attention is the aesthetic unity of the collection and the ways in which Sluman's poetic technique both reflects on the physical experience of those encounters with Eros and Thanatos and establishes disturbing parallels between them.
The first aspect to note is the way that Sluman makes things that are intangible, emotional or even metaphysical into something physical. So, for instance, in 'We Daren't Go Back' bedroom walls 'glitte[r] with premonition' while 'revelation' is 'greasing the hands' of the narrator; or, in 'A Fist of Tax's Announces That It's 3 a.m.', 'the understanding of tonight / crawls up my stomach & rolls / over my tongue.' This latter example highlights a second feature of Sluman's writing: the way in which the borders of the body become porous to these concretised thoughts, fears and emotions, remaining passive as it is invaded by them. So, in 'Evocation', a lover's presence becomes 'smoke / easing through your muscles' and a description of drug-taking ('E') sees 'serotonin explod[e] / in the cradle of our stomachs'. In fact, this boundary-crossing and the making physical of the non-physical create a hallucinatory or dream-like quality across the entire collection. Sluman generally avoids simile, and while such description could be taken metaphorically, as in the dream-world these transformations are can also be seen as literal.
A central theme of the collection is illness and mortality, and it is here that we possibly find the root of this aesthetic. For instance, in 'My Death' the narrator in the hospital bed is losing control of his body and its boundaries: the doctors 'smooth out' his 'organs / one by one' and his own breath is transformed into 'the push & pull' of a 'fine wire' inside him. This is a voice that sees 'the entropy in everything' ('Lovesong to a Tumour'), whether that entropy is in the threat of physical disintegration or in the thrill of desire. And the two are clearly very close together.
This, then, is an intense and arresting d├ębut collection.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What a Shindig!

I was honoured to be invited to read as a guest poet at Shindig!, a Leicester poetry event organised by Crystal Clear Creators and Nine Arches Press. Like Buzzwords in Cheltenham, the format includes invited readers and open mic sessions. Matt Merritt has already blogged about the evening very well, but on the drive home I couldn't help remembering an earlier post of mine defending open mics and other features of the contemporary poetry scene.
Jonathan Taylor of Crystal Clear Creators comperes the open mic at Leicester Shindig! 

Poetry, it is often observed, is a highly competitive field, with a lot of people struggling for a little attention. But nights like Shindig! remind me that the poetry 'scene' can also be highly supportive environment, with established poets happily getting up to share new work alongside those new to writing or performing. Readers share recent successes and the audience take genuine pleasure in them. Everybody's work is given the space to be heard by the open-minded. I'm a little ashamed not to have made a note of the name of the open mic poet in question, but I particularly enjoyed a poem about cats and mortality by one of the readers in Leicester.
I know that probably sounds a little gushy, and maybe I idealise. There may well be plenty of unfriendly open mics, but it was great to be reminded that poetry sometimes really can feel like a 'community', however over-used that word may have become.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

George Barker Centenary

The excellent and industrious Philip Rush, poet and poetry impresario in the lovely town of Stroud, has organised an evening in celebration of George Barker, one of the 20th century's most prolific and eccentric poets, now chiefly known to posterity through Robert Fraser's biography. A rebel, womaniser and serious drinker, Barker was a contemporary of Dylan Thomas, but had much longer to hone the lifestyle. Reading about all of that is great, voyeuristic fun, of course. That's how we like to imagine our poets - 'mad, bad and dangerous to know', like Byron.
But Barker was also an experimenter and a fine technician who took the vocation of poet passionately and seriously. His work is so multifarious that it will be intriguing to see which poems the readers taking part in this event will choose to perform alongside their own work. I am still in the process of deciding myself, but am discovering many good things along the way. Let's hope this event, and Barker's centenary more generally, lead to a reappraisal of the work, and a little less concentration on the personal life of the poet.