Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Blogging Tour

Roy Marshall has kindly asked me to take part in a 'blogging tour' - basically a chain of blog posts by poets on a series of shared questions. I'm a little bit behind with getting my post done, and haven't yet found enough people to add to the chain myself, so I'm already feeling a little inadequate. Hopefully there isn't a curse for messing it up, like with those chain letters people used to send through the post! Anyway, to get an idea of what others have been writing, you can follow the chain back to Roy's post here.

The four questions I have to answer are as follows:

1) What am I working on?

At the moment, nothing. I haven't written anything in weeks, but that's not unusual. I have to write for my work (certainly not poetry) and I also write reviews, as well as posting stuff on this blog, so I never feel I'm not writing something. Nevertheless, sometimes the poetry part of my brain just switches off for a while. I suppose if I was a full-time poet, I'd develop some tricks for getting myself out of the rut, but as I have other things going on too, I just devote my attention to those until I come across something I have to write about. This may be why I have never entirely gotten on with workshops, although they can be great fun. Writing to a prompt or in response to an exercise makes me feel like I'm writing something that doesn't really need to be written, or that I don't need to write, to be more precise.

In the broader scheme of things, I'm secretly working on first collection of poetry. Well, not so secretly now. I haven't secured a publisher as yet (I'm sure the phone will start ringing at any moment), but I've suddenly arrived in a place where, when I finish a poem, I think is that going in the collection? Not that I feel like any cohesion is beginning to emerge as yet, but the thought of a first collection is making me want to write bigger, more ambitious pieces.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
As I've said elsewhere, what really intrigues me about the process of putting my poetry out there into the world is that other people have a much better sense of what it is that I do, and what distinguishes what I do from other people's work, than I could ever have. A lot of the time, I'm actually trying to be like other poets whose work I think is much better, and failing.

3) Why do I write what I do?
I think poetry can say anything. I'm always a bit surprised when people think that I've touched on a difficult subject, because it never occurs to me that anything should be off limits. Poetry is a realm of absolute freedom. Having said that, most of my poems are fairly harmless, but I do like that feeling that poetry can go anywhere. I am braver in poetry than in my 'real' life.

4) How does your writing process work?
I don't compose in my head, but I do carry poems around with me, something like the shape of them or the sound, for quite a while before I start writing. There are some poems I know I am going to write that I've been trying to commit to paper for a long time, but which haven't quite found their voice and their form. When I know I can write them, I can often imagine them, see them even, but with only certain details clear. Then they sort of come into focus while I write them. Establishing a rhythm, if not a strict meter, is the first part of the writing process, finding the sounds that work, then writing, re-writing, hearing the advice of friends I trust. Some poems take years to settle down into the shape and sound they need, with others it can happen very quickly.

Well, that's all of the questions answered.

I haven't yet got the requisite three bloggers to add to the chain, but I do have one very interesting one so far: poet and novelist Deborah Harvey. You can find her blog here.

With luck, I'll be able to add some links to other blogs in the coming days. I'm very much open to suggestions if someone wants to be added to the chain. Just post a comment below!

Review of John Freeman's White Wings at Sabotage

I have another review over at Sabotage, this time of John Freeman's fascinating collection White Wings.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why Write Reviews?

As you can see, the title of this blogpost asks a straightforward question. Sadly, the answer may not be so straightforward.

The question arises, however, from a recent review of my own pamphlet Gaud, where the very thoughtful and often sharp-eyed reviewer finds himself puzzled by a poem called 'Serial Killer Review'. This is actually a found poem of sorts, which does not name its various sources - primarily in order to save their blushes. Among other things, it's a parody of poetry reviews, or rather of the kind I saw a lot of when I first started reading poetry magazines: all vague benevolence, no intellectual clout. I wrote that poem quite a while ago, and I have to say that the reviewing I have been encountering recently, especially from young poets and on-line, has much more interesting things to say. That goes for Paul McMenemy's review of Gaud as well, I should add.

Writing for Sabotage, where I also publish reviews, McMenemy wonders if this poem is making an argument 'for the redundancy of all criticism: poems – works of art in general, perhaps – are too personal, perhaps too irrational to be subject to criticism at all, and to attempt to do so is as nonsensical as to attempt to review an act of violence.' My initial reaction to this would be to say that the poem isn't making an argument at all, but is rather being a poem. Unpopular though it is, I believe very strongly that art does not take positions, make arguments, or propose a thesis. This may sound disingenuous from someone who is often told his work is 'political' in some way. But if I wanted to do make an argument, I'd write an essay or a blogpost (like this one) and tell you what I thought.

My preferred way of looking at poetry (and all art) owes much to what Niklas Luhmann had to say on the subject. Namely, that art is not the world, but that it implies the world; it lives from that tension between being something other than reality and at the same time forcing us to see reality in relation to it. So, a poem like 'Serial Killer Review', which is really more of an extended joke, if I'm honest, does at least have the virtue (I hope) of making us ask the question about the value of poetry reviews. It doesn't offer an answer to that question, or even formulate the question in any direct way, but it does attempt to open a space where a number of ideas are in play. The poem itself doesn't really have anything definitive to say on the matter in hand, has no message or judgement to impart.

However, I do have something to say about reviews and the purpose of writing them (this is me speaking now, not my poem). And, it goes like this.

There are five reasons, for me, to spend time writing reviews:

1. To get free books.

Okay, the amount of time and effort you put into a review more or less cancels that argument out, especially when you are doing it for the love. Still, free stuff is still (on some level) free stuff.

2. To shape taste.

This is not a strong point for me, as my taste is pretty omnivorous and I have no doctrinaire commitment to a vision of what 'real' poetry should be or is. Still, if you feel strongly about what is good and want to encourage those poets who share that feeling, and want to encourage readers to share it too, reviewing is one way to try to do that.

3. To be in the right.

We all like to be in the right, I suppose, and reviewing does bestow on the writer a certain position of authority. It's their place to judge, after all - their opinion is what counts. If only until the end of the review.

4. To be part of the scene.

In the increasingly inter-connected world of Twitter, Facebook and so on, reviewing can also be a great way of getting to know people. You review their book, they get in touch and say thank you. That's a nice feeling, too. Although, the awkwardness of encountering someone whose work you've been unpleasant about in the relatively small scene of poetry would be considerable. There is a solution to this, however. I think that there's something interesting to say about most books, even if they are not to my taste. So, the reviewer can talk about those interesting things, even while being critical of other aspects. If that criticism is precise and well-founded, no offence need be taken. Really, it's about meeting the book on its own terms.

5. To be a better reader.

There is a lot to read, let's face it, and not so much time to read it in. Because the books a reviewer receives are generally not ones s/he has chosen, the process forces you to engage with material that can sometimes be quite far from what you would normally buy yourself. If you are taking into account some of what I said in point 4 above, then you will be trying to meet the book on its own terms, trying to see where it is coming from, trying to see whether it lives up to its own ambition (it surely must have some). This means reading, re-reading, a fair amount of travelling around with the book in your bag or walking about the house with it under your arm. The reviewer is trying to make sense of an experience, the experience of reading, which in other circumstances is easy to pass over. We read one book, open another, often we don't give ourselves time to think. Reviewing makes you give yourself that time, and that is a pleasure. As for the audience, the best you can hope is that a person who reads the review seeks out the book and develops their own relationship with it, perhaps even informed by your own experience, and that this relationship will go beyond the superficial as well.

Frankly, what counts for me is point 5 in the list. Maybe that doesn't justify reviewing as a practice, since this only makes it a public service to a limited extent. Still, in a world where so many good books have few readers, the fact that they get a few really attentive ones - the reviewers - seems valuable enough in itself.