Wednesday, 30 September 2009

José Agustín Goytisolo

The Goytisolo brothers have been key figures on the Spanish literary scene these last fifty years. Luis and Juan are best known as novelists, while José Agustín mainly concentrated on poetry (he died in 1999 after falling from the balcony of his flat).

José Agustín Goytisolo cut an unusual figure on the Spanish literary scene. A Catalan who wrote in Spanish, his poetry unashamedly sits on the boundary betweeen popular and populist. Politically aware, often veering from irony to lyricism, before stopping off at sarcasm and ending up at love, his poems still achieve a unity of voice that shows just how unique he was.

I once attended one of his readings in Zafra. His schedule involved a workshop in the morning with local schoolchildren, followed by a reading for adults in the evening. The problem was the extremely liquid lunch that took place in between both events. Suffice to say, he put on quite a show that night!

Continuing with my theme of the close relationship between poetry and music that so many people sniff at in the U.K., here's one of the most famous examples of this fusion, a renowned version (in Spain, at least) by Paco Ibañez of one of Goytisolo's most famous poems, Palabras Para Julia, dedicated to his daughter but with a nod towards his mother, who died in a Francoist bombing raid during the Civil War:

One of the best qualities of this track is its wonderful intrinsic value as a piece of music. At the same time, however, Ibañez manages to capture and reinterpret the original poem, giving the verse a new life.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Luis Garcia Montero, traditions that converge

Luis Garcia Montero is a terrific poet and a real force in contemporary Spanish poetry.

One of the most accessible poets to be writing in Spain, his work fuses the Generacion del 27, e.g. Salinas, Lorca, Cernuda, with the influence of Jaime Gil de Biedma. This means his realist poetry is also unafraid of the lyric and the esoteric. Politics, meanwhile, play a key role in his work: Garcia Montero forms part of a generation who lived through Spain's intense transition to democracy while they were students.

The above-mentioned combination brings about a poetry that captivates, drawing the reader in, working at umpteen levels. Gacria Montero might have brought together something of a group around him in Granada (poets such as Javier Egea and Alvaro Salvador), but there isn't a school as such - his voice is inimitable. I do enjoy his erotic work and political pieces, but perhaps he's at his best when writing about his daughter, Irene, as in the following snippet:

cobran todas las cosas
un impreciso afan por empezar de nuevo"

"with you
everything takes on
an imprecise urge to begin again"

Garcia Montero is unusual among the current crop of Spanish poets. I do feel he deserves further exposure to a U.K. readership, although the translation would have to be extremely nuanced so as to preserve the converging of traditions that textures his work.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Constructive Rejection

I've had a few grim rejections in my time. One gem was a rambling 400-word monologue from a publisher who managed a dozen crass spelling mistakes in telling me I wasn't joining their club (which brought Groucho Marx straight to my mind).

However, I did receive an exceptionally positive rejection last January: the editor had taken the time to go through my poems one by one, explaining what they liked and didn't like, giving their reasons on each occasion and suggesting alternative routes. They demanded that I reassess my poetics. The initial pain of rejection meant that I knew I had to put the manuscript in a drawer for a few months and then go back to it without prejudice, so that's what I did.

I've spent the last two months chiselling away at those poems, using the editor's remarks as a point of departure, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, but always reacting to the challenge that was so generously set. I'm determined not to lose my identity as a writer in the desire to be published, but this is a great chance to develop further.

I would have loved an acceptance last January, but I'm convinced I'm now a better poet for having received such a constructive rejection. This improvement, deep down, is my goal.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009


During a recent discussion over at Poets On Fire, some posters expressed doubts as to whether English-language poetry written in syllabics possesses a music of its own. I'd argue it certainly does. I've been writing in syllabics for over a decade - the form gives me room to play within a musical structure that I can follow, challenge and mould as need be.

The key point for me after so long using syllabics is that I now find an additional syllable jars just as much as a misplaced stress would in metrical verse. The use of syllabics doesn't consist of number-crunching. These days I can't imagine having to count syllables to work out whether a line fits into the form - my ear's been trained to tell me.

I've no time for pointless arguments about the supposed superiority of metrics, syllabics or free verse, but I am convinced all three offer us their own music.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Lyrics as poetry and poetry as lyrics

Many U.K. poets seem to take it as read that lyrics aren't poems and poems aren't lyrics. They dig their heels in over this distinction.

Such an argument would appear ridiculous in Spain, where songwriters publish collections of poetry and set many poems to music. A simple search of major Spanish poets on YouTube offers up many gems (especially Lorca and Alberti, etc), but perhaps my favourite is this one:

Luis Garcia Montero's poem led to Quique Gonzalez's song. Here are both of them, feeding off each other, lyrics as poetry and poetry as lyrics.

I feel decent singer-songwriters are marginalised in the U.K., while mainstream lyrics do tend to be trite, factors which lead to a belief that the two genres are somehow separate. In fact, the tools of both trades are shared: for example, Lennon and McCartney knew and used their metrics well, as do many contemporary writers for major groups. The main problem is the colossal dumbing down of popular music in Britain, blinding so many poets to the terrific collaborative possibilites that exist.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Guardian First Book Award

Readers of this blog will be aware that I really enjoyed Siân Hughes' The Missing when I read it earlier this year. Well, having already been nominated for the Forward Prize (First Collection), it's now the only poetry collection to have made the Guardian First Book Award longlist. Great news!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Dan Wyke

Some poets explode onto the scene, others just disappear.

Dan Wyke was a poet whose work I encountered in many small mags back in the mid-1990s. I identified with much of what he was trying to do and was thus delighted when he won a Gregory in 1999. Wyke's work might have been uneven, but it displayed a real spark. He was the featured poet for Staple 59 and brought out a pamphlet with Waterloo in 2004. Extracts from it can be found here. Further poems, meanwhile, are up at the Poetry Library site.

I've tried to get hold of a copy of his pamphlet from Waterloo, but they haven't yet replied to my repeated e-mails (sigh!). In his intro to the Staple selection Wyke mentioned that Waterloo also hoped to publish his first full collection, but nothing seems to have appeared.

What's happened since? All I know is that I've ceased to find Dan Wyke's poetry in the magazines I read. Has he given up on poetry? Has poetry given up on him? Is a terrific first full collection on its way? I'd love to find out!