Saturday, August 26, 2017

Running a poetry book group

As some readers of this blog may already be aware that I have started running a poetry book group in cooperation with my local independent book shop, The Suffolk Anthology in Cheltenham. For six months of the year, we meet monthly and discuss one recent, single-authored collection of poetry. Later I produce a list of discussion points for other readers or groups to use. This doesn't seem to have inspired a mass movement as yet, but I'm hoping it might still encourage other readers of poetry (and other poets) to organize and facilitate similar groups elsewhere.

Our group seems to work pretty well, from the reactions I have had so far, which emboldens me to offer the following pointers for anyone else thinking of setting up a similar project. There are probably many ways to do this, but this is the way that we've done it, and it seems to be working so far.

1. Choosing your venue

As already mentioned, we work with an independent book shop, but I know that larger and smaller chain book stores are amenable to hosting groups. It works for a shop if you can guarantee that those attending will buy their copy of the book to be discussed from the venue, but it is good to be clear with those attending about this, so that they are not tempted to visit on-line retailers offering discounted copies.

It's a good policy to work with your venue so that copies of the book for discussion next time are available at the end of each meeting. Make sure your venue orders the books well in advance, as it can be trickier that you imagine to quickly get hold of ten or a dozen copies of a book from a small press.

Groups of friends may want to run a book group like this and host it in one of their own homes, but we've chosen the route of using a book shop so that people who don't already know each other can participate. It really helps with the diversity of the group, and new friendships are formed!

2. Choosing your book

There may be avid poetry readers (and writers) in the group, who are clued up about the latest releases. To make sure that the book you choose isn't one that some people have already bought and read, you need to keep a close eye on forthcoming titles. Most presses keep an up-to-date list of what is coming out next on their websites.

There always seems to be a lot of poetry being published, but if you actually follow the 'big' publishers (like Faber, Cape, Picador, Bloodaxe and Carcanet) and the reputable small presses (e.g. Nine Arches, Shoestring, Shearsman) you'll see that they publish only a few new titles each quarter. Publishers often have a sample of new collections available to download and Carcanet even has a full preview facility for selected new collections.

When choosing a collection to discuss, thematic cohesion  is a key consideration. A book of occasional lyrics on no particular theme is not as easy to start a discussion about as is a collection with a clear thematic focus. Issues-driven writing isn't automatically the best writing, but it does mean that everyone can discuss how well they feel that those issues have been tackled.

Poets are also more interesting to discuss when they have an awareness of the cultural tradition(s) in which they write. Where they drew draw on the influence of other writers, philosophical ideas, mythology, other art forms, intertextual references, and so on, they will provide lots of avenues for the discussion in the group to explore.

Finally, you may find that more 'experimental' writers, whether avant garde or postmodern (for whom language itself is a stronger concern than theme, situation, the expression of personal emotion, and so on) are quite hard to address in a context like this unless you have a very specialized group of enthusiasts.

3. Facilitating the discussion

Our group isn't a class, but it is facilitated by me. As a poet and reviewer myself, I have a strong interest in recent poetry and am willing to spend the time before the meeting working out some basic areas for discussion and chasing up any obscure intertextual or cultural references the poems may contain.

We don't always stick to my 'plan' of the key themes and ideas that could be discussed, but it does help to have someone in the room who has an idea of a basic structure for the discussion so that the evening feels like it has direction and purpose.

Discussing poetry in a group and discussing prose fiction are two quite different things. Even if a reader of fiction has no interest in style, the construction of the narrative or the use of language, they can still talk about the characters and what happens to them, and about their own subjective reaction to the book. Without (in most cases) extended narrative and character to fix onto, discussing poetry collections necessarily means a more technical focus, although there also has to be room for subjective impressions of the work. Having someone to facilitate (even if that role rotates within the group) helps to maintain this focus.

4. Organizing your time

Two hours seems to be about the perfect length of time for a discussion of this kind. It can be quite intense, so its important to include a break of ten to fifteen minutes, not least so the group can enjoy socializing and discussing the book in a more relaxed way if they'd like to. Sometimes, individual conversations throw up new ideas that get discussed in the second half.

5. Reading the poems

Discussing a novel largely relies on remembering what happened. With poetry, what 'happens' is the poem itself. Once you have identified an issue everyone wants to discuss, it is a good idea to home in on one poem and discuss that in detail. There are usually plenty of suggestions from the floor, but to get the discussion going it is important to read the poem out. You can take this in turns or ask for volunteers, but it is definitely the best way to start looking at the collection in detail.

6. Giving the poems time

Related to the issue of reading out the poems to help with close reading is the problem of sticking with the poems until everyone feels they have really engaged with them. Particularly with a very good collection, it can be tempting to read a poem out, say a few things about it and then move swiftly on to the next one. It's more rewarding for everyone, though, if they have time to really think about and discuss each of the selected poems, drawing out all of the things that interest them. Reading one poem closely can often be the cue to move to another poem on a related or contrasting theme, but there's no need to rush.

Well, that's a distillation of everything I think we have learned together at the Suffolk Anthology in the first season of our group. I hope it proves useful to anyone with a similar project in mind!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Not a defence of Philip Larkin

Hull is currently UK city of culture for 2017, so you would think its most famous literary resident, the poet Philip Larkin, would be getting something of a boost. However, whenever I see his name recently, it always seems that he is being held up as an example of what poetry is not supposed to be. Just in the last week, I have read a review of the work of a poet whose rejection of 'parochialism' was contrasted favourably with Larkin's own alleged failings in this area; and a restaurant review for an eatery in Hull (yes, a restaurant review!) that began with a quip about Larkin's 'rhymed misanthropy'.
When I read or hear such criticisms, I am reminded of Tony Hoagland's poem 'Lawrence', in which he experiences rage at the fashionable denigration of D.H. by those whose talents and achievements pale in comparison (take a listen here). I am not unaware of Larkin's failings as a man. Reactionary, racist and misanthropic in his private letters, he did at least have the luck to write in the years before the famous could express their jaw-dropping opinions direct to the world via Twitter. There are doubtless those who feel that all of those writers who had unpleasant views or behaved appallingly in the past should now make way for more virtuous, open-minded and cosmopolitan alternatives; that there is an injustice in the prominence of someone like Larkin who, despite apparently not having been a very nice (or particularly happy) man, still resonates so profoundly with readers today.
The major problem with this view is that it lacks moral complexity. Larkin's work is, on one level, bitterly, perhaps even tediously preoccupied with his own failures: there's an early poem, for example, where he is already bemoaning his life being over in his mid-twenties. And yet, few other poets have looked the nature of human existence so squarely in the face, have found words so telling for a life that is experienced as 'sweet, meaningless and not to come again', as he puts it at one point. Whatever Larkin the man was, Larkin the poet is capable of a simultaneous distaste for and aching sympathy with ordinary lives, among which he ultimately counts his own. Hopefully most of us are more enlightened in our personal views than he managed to be, but aren't we all in some way like him: flawed, sentimental and cowardly one moment; courageous, generous and awe-struck the next? The poems don't so much transcend the arguable weaknesses of the personality that created them, but transfigure those weaknesses so that they become key to the power of the work. That does not mean, of course, that any reader is required to accept or condone Larkin's personal politics, but it seems simplistic to me imply that appreciation of the poems has to equate to supporting those politics. Larkin was a formative reading experience for me, for example, despite the fact that I share none of his views on these matters.
I have no interest here in mounting a defence of Philip Larkin the individual. However, what I do want to raise my voice against is the lazy dismissal of work by writers whose personal attitudes are deemed not to be up to scratch. It seems to me that this is merely a strategy for avoiding an engagement with the ambiguities and difficulties of their work, escaping into moral platitudes that only demonstrate the limits of our own imaginations.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Short and sweet

As the title of this blog suggests, when I write here, I write about poetry. However, my own reading fluctuates between phases of only wanting to read verse and gluts of prose consumption. As much as I enjoy fiction, reading it also also makes me realize why I love poetry so much. I have a fairly short attention span, I'll admit, so there is something about the concentrated power of poetic expression that I find attractive. For a few minutes, I see another reality that reflects back on my own. Or, if I am reading a full collection of poems, I may spend a day or so in one poet's company as they guide me through their version of reality. Of course, fiction does this too, but a longer novel means committing to live in the world the author has created for more than just a few hours. Frankly, I have to feel like that world is especially compelling to make that commitment.

The alternative, of course, (and leaving aside the short story or even flash fiction) is the short novel or the novella. The German Romantics had plenty of theories about what a novella was, apart from just being a novel that wasn't very long. Then again, they had theories about most things. What I like about a good short novel is that, as with a poetry collection, I can be caught up in the world of the author's imagination for a relatively short space of time. Short novels don't outstay their welcome and maybe even leave you wanting more.

So, with one foot still tentatively planted in the world of poetry, here are my top ten short novels or novellas (in  no particular order) that are ideal for poetry fans, or perhaps just for people like me whose attention wanders easily. As a rough guide, I'm going for books of less than 200 pages. There is a 6/4 gender imbalance here in favour of male authors, but hopefully there's a good geographical spread. I'd love to hear your suggestions of other short texts for my reading list, especially suggestions by female authors, or perhaps even by some non-Europeans.

Thinking about this list has also made me realize that short novels and novellas also potentially offer the kind of intensity of experience that can also be the province of poetry. Many of the selections below deal with heightened states that would become overwhelming if sustained over a longer piece. They are small books, but they have a big impact.

1. Tove Jansson, The Summer Book

Not really a novel at all arguably, but an entrancing and subtly moving short book of stories about a grandmother and her young granddaughter spending summers on an island in the Gulf of Finland. A book about youth and age, about endings and beginnings, delivering its philosophy gently and with good humour. Nothing much happens, but it is a book about the whole of life.

2. Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten

Jakob is enrolled in an eccentric institute whose educational purpose is unclear, if not dubious. He is a petty and pompous little character, whose aggressions and sublimated desires he does not fully comprehend himself. A surreal and at times hilarious book about adolescence and the tension between the need for conformity and the impulse to rebelliousness.

3.  Christopher Ishwerwood, A Single Man

Isherwood arguably recycled his Berlin years a little too often, but for me this short Californian book is his best work. A portrait of lost love and middle age, it deals with tragedy so compassionately and with such a lightness of touch that this remains ultimately a life-affirming read.

4.  Aki Ollikainen, White Hunger

Again, not a cheery read, but this description of the consequences of a terrible famine in Finland in 1867 is also clear-eyed, unsentimental and arrestingly cinematic. Pereine, the publishers, specialize in short European fiction in translation, and this is one of their most memorable publications.

5. Albert Camus, The Fall

A man confesses to a chance acquaintance in a bar, relating how he, who once enjoyed professional success and high self-esteem, came to realize the hollowness of his own existence and the values he believed he lived by. A classic of existentialist literature.

6. Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

The term 'novel' or even 'novella' seems to fall short with this book, which is more of an extended prose poem that charts a love triangle based loosely on the author's own affair with British poet George Barker. Full of agony and exhalation, this psalm to love is heady stuff.

7. Beryl Bainbridge, Harriet Said...

A tale of adolescent hysteria and claustrophobic British provincial life in the 1950s. Harriet and the narrator are inseparable, but Harriet's almost demonic influence leads to a shocking denouement. A book full of childish grown-ups and scarily precocious children.

8. Patricia Duncker, Hallucinating Foucault

A novel about literary obsession and the blurred lines between the writer and the work, appreciation and appropriation. Queer romance, literary theory and feverish drama are all in the mix.

9. Theophile Gautier, The Jinx

A gleefully grotesque narrative about superstition and unconditional love. A tale of the uncanny that manages to be simultaneously very Gothic, very modern and very funny. A most disconcerting read. Like Pereine, the publishers Heperus offer many shorter works in translation.

10. B.S. Johnson, Christie Malry's Own Double Entry

Christie Malry is a dull little man, but he soon starts putting his skills as a book-keeper to terrible use as he rails against the injustices of the universe. Johnson manages to make the mad logic of Christie's crimes seem oddly plausible.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Hanging on the telephone

The summer, or what passes for it this year, has been full of poetry so far. I managed to find some time to attend a number of events at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, after a hiatus of two years, and was also invited to take part in Steven Fowler's Enemies project in a Ledbury incarnation. I was partnered with the brilliant Jonathan Edwards to come up with 7 minutes' worth of poetry performance. After swapping some recent work, Jonathan and I discovered that we had both written poems about telephone boxes, which led to a performance on a telephonic theme. You can see the result on Youtube, along with the other videos of all of the other contributions to the event, which closed this year's festival.