Sunday, May 31, 2009

The hapless BBC continues apace with its Poetry Season. Friday night's Newsnight Review, dedicated solely to poetry, presented a hackneyed dichotomy of poets-for-the-page (Ruth Padel, Geoffrey Hill) opposed to hip-hop and poetry slams, with nothing in between. Still, they did interview Chris McCabe and Chris Hamilton-Emery, even if they only got about 10 seconds between them. They completely blew the chance to plug Salt's buy-a-book campaign. Instead, they spent ages on the latest Bloodaxe anthology, without putting the anthology, or Bloodaxe itself into any kind of context. Surprisingly, Simon Armitage talked the most sense of anyone on the panel, and gave a good spiel on how poetry shouldn't try too hard to entice readers, but should be an awkward, inconvenient truth-teller (or words to that effect). It's a pity he doesn't follow his own advice. It is strange, though, and even a little heartening, to see poetry given this much space on mainstream media; it's also a reminder of how far it's been pushed into the cultural margin.

Friday, May 29, 2009

With most communications now electronic, it's an old-fashioned pleasure to have something real drop onto the doormat, especially when it's completely unexpected. The other day I got an envelope full of what Americans call 'broadsheets', A4 sheets folded to a quarter of their size and covered in poetry. About as cheaply-produced as is possible, these excellent artefacts are from Hassle Press, Cornwall, run by a gentleman (unknown to me before) called John Phillips. There's no price on the sheets, but the press can be contacted at 27 Treverbyn Road, St. Ives, Cornwall, TR26 1EZ. There were broadsheets by:

Jimmy Juniper
Joseph Massey
Whit Griffin
John Levy
Richard Owens
Theodore Enslin

All American, all in a similar vein. They were all new to me except Joseph Massey and, of course, the inimitable Theodore Enslin. All excellent. Thank you John Phillips for making my day.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Oh what a tangled web we weave...

The culture of spin that's infected the body politic in Britain seems to have seeped into the poetry world, or at least into its upper echelons, judging from the fiasco surrounding the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry. The campaign to discredit Derek Walcott could have come right out of a handbook written by Alistair Campbell. And Padel's "apology" could have come from the mouth of one of our shamed MPs - an apology in which she says she has nothing to apologize for:

"I'd like to apologize to Derek Walcott for anything I have done which can be misconstrued as being against him"

You don't need to apologize for having been "miscontrued". The mistake she made was to get caught - that's what she's sorry about. Still, as Aidan Semmens has pointed out, at poetry's coal-face (small presses, webzines, readings in pubs...) the Professorship at Oxford seems like a distant irrelevance.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Salt Books are struggling to survive in the recession. They're asking everyone to buy one book, in a last-ditch attempt to save the press.

I bought the book of essays by Tony Lopez, 'Meaning Performance'.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"I know the poetry must be expertly crafted, because at no time did the form stand in the way of the information."

...from an Amazon review of Padel's "Darwin: A Life in Poems"
The political system in the UK is in turmoil due to a wave of public anger. The Speaker of the House has just resigned, and there's even talk of calling a General Election. What is it that's stirred up such outrage? We didn't see such a storm when it was revealed that the then Prime Minister Tony Blair had orchestrated a campaign of deceit, and had deliberately lied to parliament and the country to take us to war; we didn't see it when age-old liberties were abolished - freedom of assembly, the right to silence, the freedom from imprisonment without due process. There was no such public clamour when police arrested an opposition MP and raided his offices without a search warrant. No, what's whipped us into a fury is the revelation that some MPs have exagerated their expense claims.

Last week it was the fabled Swine Flu pandemic, this week MPs' expenses, next week... Surely it can't be that the entire course of public debate in this country is dictated by the media industry's need to sell more newspapers and maximise TV viewing figures, while never really threatening the status quo. No, that's cynical...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

New work by Mary Michaels and Frances Presley is now available on Litter.
Professor of Poetry at Oxford is a position I take more seriously than Poet Laureate, though far less fuss is made of it in the media. Derek Walcott withdrew from the contest in protest at what can only be described as a smear campaign against him by unknown individuals. Apparently, "Around 100 Oxford academics, mostly women, were sent a dossier detailing allegations of sexual harassment made against Walcott in 1982 and 1996 when he was teaching at Harvard and Boston universities in the United States." (Daily Telegraph). So these are unproven allegations from 13 and 27 years ago. I have my reservations about Walcott as a poet, but even so, regard him as a much more significant writer than Ruth Padel. As it is, Padel has declined to make the most effective protest she could about this affair, which would be to withdraw from the context. Likewise, the university could have postponed the election.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I was sorry to miss Ron Silliman on his visit to the UK. Unfortunately, my time is mostly not my own, and I rarely get to readings and festivals. It's a shame because one of my current projects is reading Silliman's 'The Alphabet'. I say project because it's no ordinary reading task. The book is an impressive physical object, a heavy block of over 1,000 pages. The physicality is, perhaps part of the what the book conveys - that it's an object in its own right, apart from the world, in line with LANGUAGE poetry's notion that language is a closed system. Some of the pages are laid out as verse, but large tracts are closely-space prose layout. The book is a record of day-to-day sensations and impressions, including an impression of the bombardment our brains receive from language in all its forms. It's not light reading. I find I have to set aside a block of time - say, thirty minutes - and force myself to stick to it. Why bother? Well, that focussed act of attention is rewarding for its own sake - strangely relaxing. And the book is actually a pleasurable read - well-selected, witty and humorous in parts, invigorating, though sometimes - not often - it lapses into dullness. But overall, I think it's very well done. The sheer size of the text means you don't sit back and enjoy choice phrasing - there's too much to get through; you absorb so much at a single sitting, that you don't remember it; there's no narrative. As a consequence, the process of reading is foregrounded - you only truly engage with the work during the act of reading it, you don't recollect it in tranquillity. Similarly, through it's size and physicality, the book as text is emphasised, and therefore, by implication, the process of producing it - 'process' being another important tenet of LANGUAGE poetry. 'The Alphabet' may seem the polar opposite of work by other poets that I like, say, George Oppen or Basil Bunting; yet the physical presence of the text has its parallel in the physicality of those two poets, albeit, in their case, expressed by verbal texture and the foregrounding of text through compression and economy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

One may smile and smile and be a villain

Tony Blair - healthy, successful, rich - has, in one of his favourite phrases, "moved on" from governing a major European nation. He's setting up, with his wife, the wealthy lawyer Cherie Booth, the Blair Foundation to promote 'faith' in the world. Well, here's another foundation I'd urge you all to support, The Tony Blair War Crimes Foundation. It's a petition started by two British citizens to urge the President of the United Nations General Assembly and the UK Attorney General to issue an arrest warrant for Tony Blair and to try him for war crimes. Go on, sign it: play your part in bringing a war criminal to justice.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

There's some excellent new work by Kelvin Corcoran on Litter, from a sequence called 'Sing Campion Song' of which these are the opening poems.


new work by Mary Michaels and Frances Presley, the latter including a collaboration with Peterjon Skelt

new poetry from Martin Stannard

a review of Stannard's 'Faith' by Ian Collinson

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

We've had some warm, clear weather in the UK, and I've been working for a few days in rural Norfolk. The poetry I took to read was 'As Ever', the Collected Poems (not the new edition) of Joanne Kyger, whose poetry is full of the light and space of her Californian homeland, its mountains, deserts and ocean. Kyger's Buddhism is ever-present in her poetry. Although I wouldn't call myself a Buddhist, I'm interested in the teachings and practice. The problem with poetry 'about' a belief-system like this, is that it commonly descends into piety or religiosity. With Kyger it never does. She manages to embody in her lines and phrasing the thought-processes involved in gaining insights or states of mind, as in this untitled piece:

Is this the Buddha?
That individual will die
that day dream
And you
secret one, watching, watching all the time
or at least some of it
in a set up from the wings
See the truly enlightened other. Thank you.
It's me.

The word 'individual' is repeated, and associated with day dream, unreality, but the poem, seemingly simple, blurs the identity of the speaker, and of the 'secret one' of line 6. Who is it who says "it's me" at the end? The Buddha/secret one, or the first voice, who asks "Is this the Buddha"? And the phrase "See the truly enlightened other", is it ironically aimed at the speaker herself, or is it a straight recognition of the Buddha/secret one/spiritual teacher? Of course, one can read this poem in several ways; what it does is to embody the difficulty of dealing with the self in Buddhist practice, while, at the same time, celebrating loss of self, especially in those beautiful lines:

That individual will die

that day dream

Interesting to see Ed Baker's reporting of Allen Ginsberg's words in his comment to the previous post:

Who do we write for? "For those who dig it!"

Good answer. I remember Ric Cadell saying something similar, like 'poetry is for interested people'. Treating poetry like another commodity means 'selling' it into 'a market'. Sure, we need to create a cultural environment which is conducive to the appreciation of poetry. But people's need for poetry comes from a different place to their need for iPods and wide-screen TVs.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

By Royal Appointment

Carol Anne Duffy has now become the one living poet that the British public are likely to have heard of. I watched Newsnight Review last night on which Andrew Motion and assorted pundits discussed her appointment and her poetry. It's interesting to me that when people on TV or radio arts programmes discuss poetry, they appear not to apply the same critical standards to it as they do to film, music, novel or theatre. I couldn't imagine them laying into the poems or saying, well, this poem was weak or dull, or questioning whether poetry that's so amenable to dissection in the classroom is as subtle or profound as poetry which isn't etc. It's irrelevant what my opinion of Duffy is; I'm saying that it would be normal to ask these questions of other types of artistic endeavour. They all praised the poetry. The word 'Great' was bandied around (Great poetry, Great poet); they didn't express a single reservation about it or compare it to any other contemporary poetry, something inconceivable had they been discussing a film or pop album. Why is this? Because they don't take poetry seriously as an art; they see it as an archaic form, like classical music. The laureateship confirms for people that poetry is, in fact ,archaic; that, like the post itself, it is stuffy, Establishment and associated with class hierarchy. We don't have a Royal purveyor of music, or Her Majesty's Director of Movies. Music and movies don't need that kind of patronage. The implication of the laureateship is that poetry does.

Duffy's grand gesture of giving away her 7K or so salary is unfortunate. On principle, people in public office should be paid, otherwise the offices are only open to those how can afford it. She donated the money to found a poetry competition. Enough said.

Other problems with the post are:

1. It's an archaism that harks back to the time when powerful poeople paid poets to praise them.

2. No-one can decide whether the incumbent is supposed to act as a poet, or as a superior arts administrator. Motion was generally praised for the latter role.

As you can probably gather, in my view the post should be scrapped.