Saturday, February 23, 2013

There is Nothing in the Garden

I've had the above image up on the blog for a few days, and I'm pleased to see it has been getting plenty of traffic. A busy week has meant that I haven't been able to write anything about it until now, but this is just to fill in some background.
Chaucer Cameron is a member of Poetry Factory, a workshop group and occasional poetry performance collective based in Cheltenham. It's a cliché to talk about poetry being 'haunting', but Chaucer's work really is that - her poems stick in the mind in ways that other people's just don't.
Working together with photographer Helen Dewbery, Chaucer has now produced a film for the forthcoming Cheltenham Poetry Festival. There is Nothing in the Garden explores themes of loss, alienation, and transformation, using maternal and ecological metaphors. Its aim is to explore the possibilities of transforming loss into movement and combines both still and moving images with lyric and narrative poetry. The film travels across a diversity of  landscapes, sometimes stopping in a quiet country garden, sometimes trawling through the remains of a devastated Japanese city after an earthquake, where things are not quite what they appear to be.
This is an ambitious project, and I am looking forward to seeing the end result. Full details are above, and you can click on the image to go to the associated blog.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Loved-Up Top 10

Love makes poets of us all, but love poetry isn't all about hearts and flowers. Here's a selection of poetry for Valentines Day that provides ten very individual views of love's agony and delight.

This little poem packs a real punch. The line 'Now I can only smile' so subtly suggests physical loss, but love and memory triumph over it.

Hilarious and oddly moving. Hoagland is one of the best American poets currently working, if you ask me. There's a video of him reading the poem here. (NB The version of this poem that appeared in Hoagland's collection Unincorporated Persons of the Honda Dynasty has a variant and, to my mind, better ending. But I'll leave you to search that out yourselves).

3. 'The Shipwright's Love Song' by Jo Bell

A spine-tingling performance here from Jo Bell, the UK's Canal Laureate, and a beautiful extended metaphor for the thrill of new passion.

4. 'A Subaltern's Love Song' by John Betjeman

This ought to be doggerel, but Betjemen's handling of the rhyme and metre is so masterly, while at the same time apparently so uncontrived. As you can hear from the audience reaction on this great recording from The Poetry Archive, it's a real crowd-pleaser. I love the way the poem manages to combine breathless, boyish infatuation with hints of sexual frisson, for instance in that 'warm-handled racket [...] back in its press.'

5. 'Rubbish at Adultery' by Sophie Hannah

Maybe not such a great poem for Valentine's Day, but a reminder that, if you are going to cheat on your beloved, you might as well enjoy it. I've seen Sophie Hannah read this live - a real treat.

6. 'An Arab Love Song' by Francis Thompson

Swooning and exotic. A great suggestion for this list from Jennifer Farley.

7. 'The Garret' by Ezra Pound

Pound's work is infamously difficult and cerebral, but this poem is not a typical one. A defiant, plain-spoken little lyric that captures the 'us against the world' feeling of new love.

8. 'Epithalamion' by Dannie Abse

An epithalamion is a song or poem for a wedding, but the lovers in this poem make their own church and their own religion.

9. 'Sleeping Hermaphrodite' by John McCullough (scroll down to p. 11 of this sample of McCullough's first collection, The Frost Fairs)

This is so clever, sexy and seductive. McCullough's poem gives voice to a sexual outsider, empowering a figure who would otherwise be the object of a voyeuristic gaze. Could this poem be more perfect?

10. Lullaby by W. H. Auden

If Pound's lovers in 'The Garret' are defiant, Auden's couple are embattled by history and the morality of their times. And the fidelity of the lovers themselves is also in question. Nevertheless, love, like the lover's innocent sleep, provides some protection, some hope - if only temporarily.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Making It

There's been a considerable brouhaha in poetry cyberspace of late about a case of plagiarism relating to a young poet, a poetry competition and now - it transpires - some prestigious magazines. I'm not going to go into the details here, as that ground is well covered elsewhere.

My first reaction to the story was one of puzzlement and mild disbelief. Why would anyone do that? However, on reflection, it seems almost inevitable that this should happen at some point. I can have no insight into the psychology of this individual case. And yet it seems to me that any system that seeks to recognise intellectual or creative merit is bound to lead to unfair practice at some point.

In education, demonstrating learning and intellectual ability is the key to getting hold of a certificate that will help you to get a better job and have a better life, in the material sense at least. That isn't the only thing education is about, but it can't be ignored. When students mis-use the work of others, they can often feel like they deserve that qualification and that better life, but find themselves disadvantaged by pressures of all kinds: not least of time and money in these days of high fees and working low-paid jobs to make ends meet. Plagiarism in an academic context is often a symptom of desperation, not a sign of deviousness.

In the world of poetry, with lots of hopefuls and limited exposure to be shared around, a clear system has developed that provides recognition to some, and little or none to others. There are plenty of guides to this sort of thing, and young poets are regularly counselled to try to win competitions and get published in the right sort of journal. If you are looking to get a collection published, the web pages of the small presses will soon tell you that you need to be able to provide this kind of evidence before they will consider your work. That makes sense to them, as it will at least weed out a few of the many submissions they will in any case receive. As a whole, this system is not planned by anyone, but it all amounts to a fairly coherent set of mechanisms that can leave young people feeling that it's difficult to 'make it', as the co-editor of the Salt Book of Younger Poets, Eloise Stonborough, recently complained.

Need this be so? Not necessarily. The mechanisms of selection in different areas of intellectual or creative activity vary from culture to culture. For example, over the last few years, German politics has experienced a series of revelations about high-level politicians who have been caught plagiarising their doctoral theses. This problem wouldn't occur in the UK, where there is no expectation at all that a politician will have a PhD. In Germany, many young politicians making their career try to study for a doctorate on the side and find that they just haven't the time - the temptation to plagiarise is clearly significant.

In poetry, we certainly need some sort of filter that brings some to prominence. That filter is as much a service to readers as to anyone else, as they would easily get lost in the mass of poetry books and magazines produced every year. There may be other ways of providing that filter that are less likely to produce the feelings Stonborough expresses. Nevertheless, we will have to accept that, whatever system we have in place, it's bound to produce aberrant behaviour among a small minority for whom 'making it' sadly becomes an end in itself.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Cheltenham Poetry Festival Programme Announced

Rejoice, poetry-lovers of Cheltenham and environs! The programme for the Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2013 has been published and tickets are on sale now!

(Source: Cheltenham Poetry Festival)
I haven't yet had a chance to really look at the detail of all of the events, which this year cover two weekends and the whole of the intervening week (20-28 April 2013), but I've already spotted some must-see gigs, including the launch of a collection by local hero Mikki Byrne, and readings from the always surprising Bobby Parker and young poet-of-the-moment Liz Berry. Alongside slams and themed readings, there's a roster of established names (Fiona Sampson, Bernard O'Donaghue, Elaine Feinstein, Jeremy Reed, Christopher Reed). It will also be good to catch up with Maria and Jonathan Taylor and Nichola Deane.

With the extension of the festival from one weekend to nine days, and with such a packed and high-quality programme, it feels like Cheltenham is moving into the poetry festival big league - a major achievement for such a young festival. If enough of us support it (and why wouldn't you?), it will be here to stay.