Saturday, 24 September 2016

The best poems...?

I'm grateful to Richard Skinner for having reminded me the other day on Twitter of the following quote from Ian Hamilton:

"The best poems are a strange combination of intense personal experience and icily controlled craftsmanship".

Of course, this typically assertive and implicitly provocative statement by Hamilton is as much a declaration of personal method as a blueprint for others. Its hinge lies in the use of "strange". Predictability can kill a poem.

There's also an intriguing dual interpretation of the word "icily". While consciously advocating dispassionate craft when writing poetry, Hamilton is also unconsciously revealing one of the few stumbling blocks that I encounter when reading his otherwise terrific verse: a lack of warmth and engagement. I hugely admire his work, but struggle to empathise.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

An excellent introduction to Keith Douglas in the L.A. Review of Books

Steven L. Isenberg published an excellent piece on Keith Douglas in the L.A. Review of Books the other day (see here). His article provides an introduction to Douglas for American readers and does a great job of meshing biography, prose snippets and extracts from poems, all in a limited word count. Keith Douglas' work isn't widely known on the other side of the pond, but Isenberg's feature contributes to rectifying that anomaly and bringing his verse to the attention of a transatlantic readership.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair is a huge success story

I remember vividly the first time I visited Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair. That was back in 2012, the fair's second year, and I launched Tasting Notes there together with a wine tasting and tapas of Ibérico ham.

Since then, the event has gone from strength to strength. In 2012 there were about fifty exhibitors. This weekend, at the 2016 Fair, over eighty publishers were present, with even an evening at a nearby pub tagged on for good measure!

What makes Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair so special and such a huge success story is that it provides pretty much the only physical proof of the existence of a national poetry community. Moreover, its organic growth is based on the graft of a team of volunteers. Nowhere else do so many U.K. presses, editors, poets and readers come together on an annual basis to celebrate the vitality of our poetry scene. Long may it continue!

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Chronicles of loss, Abegail Morley's The Skin Diary

Imagine and imaginary are key words in The Skin Diary (Nine Arches Press, 2016), Abegail Morley’s new collection, and provide a hint to her poetics. However, far from being a flight of fancy, this book is rooted in human experience, as the imaginary turns real and the real imaginary.

Morley writes of an imaginary sister, an imaginary friend, an imaginary photo, all in an attempt to express what cannot be expressed and understand what cannot be understood. Here’s an example of her method from “Childhood”:

“…Her life is stored in a house of ruins
she’s rebuilding brick by brick. If you visit tomorrow
she’ll feed you fairy cakes on white china plates,
pour tea from an imagined pot.”

Imagination is here seen as a technique for dealing with everyday experience, while its inherent risks and dangers are never far away, as in “The Blame”:

“…Tonight I hear you stumble up steps,
four years after. Short shadows on brickwork thicken –
if I was prone to fancy, I would imagine you here.”

As both these pieces indicate, loss and how we wrestle with loss are pivotal themes that resonate throughout this collection, reaching their culmination in its closing poems. The collection reaches its crescendo when Morley homes in on a specific narrative that raises the tension even higher than on previous pages. One of her fundamental poems is “Package”:

“…I didn’t know something so small could change

My day, so opened the gift without ceremony, didn’t expect
his dried-out soused diary to unhug itself from the envelope.
No letter from the coroner, just river-rippled A5 pages.”

Of course, these lines turn on Morley’s use of “unhug”, implicitly leading us towards the speaker’s solitude and afore-mentioned loss.

The Skin Diary moves the reader on every page, but its final poems will cling to the mind forever. They are a chronicle of survival amid excruciating mental and emotional pain. Never depressing but always life-affirming, Abegail Morley’s thematic courage works in tandem with her poetic craft to bring us a memorable collection.  Her diary flows into ours and we emerge enriched.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Monolingual translators...?!

There has been a recent (and very welcome) surge in the popularity of translated verse. This is excellent in terms of finding Anglo-Saxon readers for non-Anglo-Saxon verse. However, it's not without its pitfalls.

Certain creative writing specialists seem to believe in the figure of the monolingual translator, which might be fine as a classroom exercise but is now finding its way into published translations, even prize-winning ones. This leads to multiple complications, ranging from heightened dangers of accusations of plagiarism, as monolingual translators work from previous translations instead of the original text, while a form of the game Chinese Whispers is also played out at times, with the result that the final translation edges ever further from the original.

Moreover, my own argument is that translations of poetry for publication should only be undertaken by people who have an intimate knowledge of both languages. That probably sounds exclusive, but I've seen far too many aberrations to believe otherwise.

One instance of top-notch translating is Anna Crowe's work with the likes of Pedro Serrano. Now there's someone who gets to grips with the original, syllable by syllable, and who chips away until creating a piece of art that's new yet faithful to its point of departure.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Helena Nelson, poet

Many casual observers of the U.K. poetry scene will have heard of Helena Nelson. They’ll know that she’s the editor of HappenStance Press. They might even know of her limericks and performance pieces. What’s unfortunately fading into the background is that she’s a significant, major-award-winning “serious” poet.

I’d been wanting to write the above paragraph for several years. Why didn’t I? Because I didn’t want my views to be coloured by my readers’ knowledge that she was the publisher of my pamphlets. Now that Eyewear Books are bringing out my first full collection next year, it’s time for Rogue Strands to celebrate Helena Nelson’s terrific verse.

Today’s post will concentrate on Nelson’s first full collection, Starlight on Water (The Rialto, 2003), which was a joint winner of the Aldeburgh Jerwood Prize. Let’s start with an extract from section IV of its pivotal sequence “From Interrogating the silence”:

“Your letters matter more than you will know.
You write; I keep them, one by one, as snug
as acorns in their shell. I go to them
if all else fails. When the north-east wind blows
and tugs at the curtains, when my heart has dug
a hole for itself, when nothing can stem
obliteration – no place else to go –
I open them...”

There’s no need to explain these lines, yet their clarity doesn’t impede their emotional impact. Quite the opposite is true. This isn’t so-called restraint. Only rare talents have so light a touch as to be capable of transmitting such depth and authenticity of feeling via apparently simple words. Nelson is keenly aware her challenge is not in expressing something that is true to her but in making it true for the reader.

And yet she’s also at ease in several different registers. Among the performance pieces and biting satire, there are sudden changes of gear like in the following extract from “When my daughter goes down in the dark”:

“…Her eyes deepen. She puts on pearls,
dresses herself in darkest blue.
Shadows soften her mouth and chin,
new frost sparkles beneath her skin."

Anorexia is never explicitly invoked, but its menace is all-pervading in this poem. Language becomes sensuously dangerous in Nelson’s hands. Yet again, another tone, yet again a coherent idiosyncratic eye holding her broad poetic vision together.

And there are more examples to come. The Philipott poems, for instance, deserve a post to themselves. The collection’s closing sequence, they dissect an entire society via a single couple’s relationship.

The shorter pieces, meanwhile, are simply exquisite. I’m delighted to have Nell’s permission to quote one of my favourites in full here:

Completing the outfit

I used to wish you’d put your hands just so
about my waist, spanning me here and here,
encircling me in love and trust, although
you never knew I cherished the idea.
A small thing. Doesn’t matter. Time is gone.
Your hands, so square and kind, don’t speak to me.
My waist has come to terms with life alone.
My breathing’s calm. My heart goes quietly.
I find these days I like to wear a belt.
I bear it like your touch around the core.
It keeps me safe. Quite recently I felt
I had to tighten it. I think it’s more
than reassurance in well-seasoned leather:
it may be all that’s holding me together.

This poem’s strength lies in its ability to undermine itself (and its narrator) throughout. The reader only realizes its perfection when reaching the end and immediately heading back to the start.

Helena Nelson’s poetry must be read. For that reason, I’m making a unique exception on Rogue Strands. You can find Starlight on Water’s product page at The Rialto here and at the HappenStance website here.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

For the sake of the ritual

I spend a lot of time in Chichester - my parents retired there, so it's still my bolthole from an Extremaduran summer that's pushing 42ºC this week - and the cathedral could end up seeming something of a backdrop to life, a spire that can be spotted when approaching the city from almost any angle. However, I can never bring myself just to walk past.

I have to go in to the cathedral every time and find An Arundel Tomb. Larkin's poem is hung in a frame alongside. By now, there's no need to look at the text, as its words fall through my lips of their own accord, but I still do, line by line, for the sake of the ritual. I take David, my son, whenever he's with me, and we read it together. He learns how poetry can make such a shiver-inducing lump come alive...