sheenaghpugh: (Default)

Tamar Yoseloff has long been interested in urban landscapes, particularly ruined or decaying urban landscapes, and the first section of this new collection blends the often exhilarating feel of a modern city (not always the same one) with a consciousness of its past and its detritus. cut for length )

The City With Horns is published by Salt Publishing
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
I'll Dress One Night As You, by Chrissie Gittins, Salt Publishing 2011

The title comes from a sequence about mourning a mother; in the poem "Out Of Place" the bereaved speaker envisages putting on the dead woman's clothes and habits:
I'll dress one night as you,
wear your weighty beads and bracelet,
I'll stretch my lips across my teeth,

             half open my mouth,
apply red lipstick in a compact mirror

It's an appropriate title image, because much of this collection is about putting on the voice and personality of others - a former bodyguard of Hitler, a 17th-century chorister who also acts in Shakespeare, Samuel Pepys's mistress.

Sometimes too the alter egos are from the myth-kitty, as in "Alcyone" and "Triptolemus". I'm not among those who are turned off by the mere mention of Greek myth; it seems a perfectly valid source of material as long as the poet recognises that it has been extensively mined already and needs something new doing with it. In "Triptolemus" we see the man cheated of the gift of immortality as a baby, now on his deathbed and massively grateful for not having had to outlive his own children - a good twist on the myth, I think.

I've always liked voice poems because they give the poet a certain distance from material that might otherwise become sentimental, also because it seems weird to be a writer and not take advantage of the freedom it gives you to get into someone else's skin. In "The Carpet Fitter's Wife", this fondness for shape-shifting combines with an interest in vocabulary: a married couple's relationship becomes defined by their respective idiolects, his as a carpet fitter, hers as a maths teacher:
Our congruent bodies lie parallel,
an owl calls from the coppice,
he holds me firm like gripper rod.

Another sequence, about a woman transported to Australia, works well. Of course the thing about voice poems is that the voice needs to convince throughout; if "Chorister, St Saviour's Church, Southwark, 1607" works less well for me it is because I can't hear a 17th-century voice saying "his lips were mink on mine", given that mink weren't introduced into Britain until about 1920. Granted, their fur could have been imported earlier, but it can't have been widely known, and it just seems unlikely to have been among this speaker's references.

The other main theme of this collection is bereavement, and on the vocabulary and minutiae of loss she is very sharp - "the back of everyone's head is you" ("Around Thaxted"). The poem which sticks with me most, though, is another about the place of fictional vocabularies in life, "She Gave Me Her Childhood Books, in which fiction becomes a talisman for children against reality:
on a cold stone wall in the playground

we're joined by the King of Peru
who falls down a well

and comforts himself with a rhyme.
The bell sounds for lessons, we fetch up in a line.

Beside us loiters a row of ducks,
an old sailor, a knight with quiet armour.

When keys are thrown at chatty Colin
the knight shields the blow

If I were feeling picky, I might object that actually he deflects the blow, or shields Colin from it, but the idea behind the words is one most of us could relate to. Gittins has in fact worked a great deal with children, but this collection shows her as a poet adults can certainly enjoy as well.


May. 13th, 2011 02:46 pm
sheenaghpugh: (Bad news)
Have just been laboriously restoring my journal style and sidebar quotes, which LJ decided to remove. Luckily managed to get the quotes back by finding a cached version of the sidebar via google. But no matter how often I ask it for serif fonts, it doesn't seem willing to put the main body of text in one, so only the headers now look like something written by and for adults.
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
How's this for a good marketing idea? Here is Paul Yandle's poem "Dogs" from the anthology of dog poems I blogged about in my last post, and he's recorded it not only with his rather lovely reading voice but set it to kinetic typography using words from the poem (and playing with said words visually; see what he does with "circling"). Curiously enough, though this uses modern technology, it had a precursor in the artist Paul Peter Piech, who used to make posters using text to create pieces of calligraphy. Mostly he used political texts but he did sometimes set poems too; he did a lovely one for Dannie Abse. This is an ingenious update of the technique; give it a listen!
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
Candlestick Press is to publish a pamphlet of 10 poems about dogs by various writers. Arr, says you, why is she blogging about that, for she is a cat person all the way down the line? Well, says I, among names like Billy Collins, Stevie Smith, Siegfried Sassoon, Ogden Nash and Lord Byron is that of my ex-student Paul Yandle, with whom I did a blog interview here. Paul also has a web site, where you can see how unusually upbeat and aware of the possibility of joy his poems are. He won't look at all out of place in that company.
sheenaghpugh: (Brain)
... people are always saying "oh, but if we didn't have a monarchy we'd have someone like Blair or Berlusconi as head of state!" Well, possibly... or we might have someone like Mandela or Mary Robinson. Why are monarchists such pessimists?
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
- specially for [ profile] vjezkova, here's the Statsraad Lehmkuhl, three-master, of Bergen, visiting Lerwick for the first time this year.

sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
Some folk on Planet Academia are sniffy about Billy Collins, finding him not complex and multi-layered enough. I think myself that this poem could both start and end a few lines in from where it does. But... it's funny and well-turned, and more to the point, a brilliant performance; his timing and delivery would do credit to a top stand-up. If I ever get the chance to go and hear him read, I certainly shall.
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
From Philip Pullman's Guardian article:

"We need to be on our guard when people say they're offended. No one actually has the right to go through life without being offended. Some people think they can say "such-and-such offends me" and that will stop the "offensive" words or behaviour and force the "offender" to apologise. I'm very much against that tactic. No one should be able to shut down discussion by making their feelings more important than the search for truth. If such people are offended, they should put up with it."
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
Just in case anyone'd like to know, the poem I wrote on the day of the Chilean miners' rescue and posted on this blog has now been published by the magazine PN Review (no 198). This is quite enlightened of them, because a lot of print mags won't so much as look at anything blog-published, even if it's the writer's own site. I offered to take it down but they haven't required me to. Good eggs, and sensible. I only wish more mags would figure out that it isn't going to hurt sales if the odd piece is known in blogland.
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
Michelle McGrane's poems, like those of many a poet who grew up in one country and now lives in another, show a keen awareness of location, not just the ones she knows but those into which she can imagine herself. This goes for historical times and personas too; she's as likely to think herself into a female Irish pirate or the last Russian tsarina as to speak in her own person. In short, she sees poetry as a window rather than a mirror, which is in my view the best way to make it entertaining and relevant to others.

Paradoxically, I think this outlook can also be beneficial to more personal poetry, because being in the habit of seeing herself as only part of a wider universe, rather than as the whole concern, enables a writer to universalise her experience, giving her an eye for those details that will resonate immediately with others. The second poem of "January Triptych", on the loss of a father, is a good example:


It arrives in the mail
with a licence renewal,

wears the thin grey socks
never returned.

It curls up, settles in
where I least expect –

a note slipped between pages,
a bald head in a supermarket queue.

Now the thin grey socks of old men struck an immediate chord with me, because exactly the same detail was true of my father. But so did the bald head in the supermarket, and in this case the detail was different; my father had very white hair and for a long time after his death, I couldn't see a white-haired old man without thinking it was him. This shows, I think, that if the poet gets it right, it isn't necessary for the reader to share every incidental detail of her experience; it is the basic situation, the essential in the experience, that travels.

While I don't object to poems having notes (especially when, as in this case, they are at the back), I think some of these are unnecessary; if your reader has not heard of marchpane or doesn't know the translation of remise, he can soon look them up. Also, though I'm averse to suggesting any subject is off limits, I do think there are territories that have been so thoroughly claimed that one needs to be sure one has a new angle. My first thought on reading the title "Bertha Mason Speaks" was "Wide Sargasso Sea!" and I didn't see anything in the poem that Rhys hadn't already said in the novel. But in the poem "Princesse de Lamballe" (one of Marie Antoinette's pals who lost her head during the Revolution), the head held aloft on the pike memorably sees a side of Paris its owner never saw when alive:

growling alleys and ravenous back streets
guttered with urine, nightsoil and vermin,
toothless, frayed women queuing for bread

It's this heightened awareness, a window on something one hasn't seen or been conscious of before, that the best of these poems can provide.

sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
I've been thinking for a while about an email I got last year. I'd judged a poetry competition, the winners of which, with my comments on them, are online here. Soon afterwards, I got an email enquiry from a gentleman who was clearly well-read and highly educated, a retired medical specialist fluent in two languages (English was not his first language, but I don't think that actually made any odds in the context). He was fond of traditional, especially rhymed, poetry but said he had difficulty in understanding contemporary poems, and my comments hadn't helped him. He was hoping I could give him "short conclusions about the context of each poem and the message they wish to send to the public".

This, as I explained, I couldn't do, firstly because having judged them all anonymously I had no idea who had written them, or under what circumstances; nor did the context affect the quality of the poem. As for the message, again that wasn't for me to say, or rather it was for every different reader to decide what they said to him. I tried instead to outline the criteria I had used in judging: which poems seemed to me to be the best constructed, and to use language and the other tools of poetry - rhythm, imagery etc - most effectively to achieve an effect on the reader. But I suspect he'll have found this unhelpful too.

What worries me is that here is an intellectual, erudite person who thinks he needs guidance (from someone no more intelligent than himself and probably rather less highly educated) on how to read contemporary poems, and doesn't trust his own judgment to come to a conclusion even on what they're trying to do, let alone how well they succeed. The poems in question are by no means abstruse either, as you'll see if you read them on the linked site; we're not talking J H Prynne here and we never would be, because I wouldn't have chosen anything I couldn't understand. It looks more like the sort of automatic switch-off my mind performs when faced with mathematical or financial matters, which I simply assume I won't understand. That again would be understandable in a man of science whose mind had no holding place for the imaginative intelligence of poetry, but that's not the case; it is purely contemporary poetry that does this to him. And if that's the reaction of a person who would seem in many ways to be poetry's natural audience, it's hardly surprising most collections sell in dozens.

At a guess, I would wonder if it has to do with there being no obvious rules. I suppose when reading a sonnet, even if you are nervous as a critic, you can count to 14 and figure out if something has gone amiss with the rhyme scheme. In the same way, with a representative painting you can tell if the perspective's wonky or the horse's walk doesn't convince, whereas with a Jackson Pollock you have no such clear means of telling if it's any good or not and will be hesitant to express an opinion. Since that's exactly the position I am in with art, I can understand it in that context, but in poetry, rules or no rules, it still seems to me clear enough when imagery is fresh and surprising as opposed to stale and over-familiar, or when rhythms flow rather than halt, or language takes off and flies instead of plodding across the page. It just isn't as specialised as art; few of us can paint a convincing horse but we all hear and use language all the time. That doesn't mean we can all employ it as poets do, but I'd have thought it did mean we could all form a fairly confident opinion on what they were trying to do and how well they succeeded. Am I being, here, the poetic equivalent of my old maths master, standing baffled at the blackboard saying "But it's so easy! Why can't you all see it?"
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
One can pick all sorts of holes in Earl Gerald's argument, from the exaggeration to the ulterior motive at the end. But when you come down to it, he's a 14th-century poet going right against the grain of his time, refusing to be satisfied with easy targets or ancient, classically-sanctioned clichés. And I like him and his poem.

In Defence of Women
from the Irish Gaelic of Earl Gerald Fitzgerald, 14th century

Woe to him who speaks ill of women! It is not right to abuse them. They have not deserved, that I know, all the blame they have always had.

Sweet are their words, exquisite their voice, that sex for which my love is great; woe to him who does not scruple to revile them, woe to him who speaks ill of women!

They do no murder nor treachery, nor any grim or hateful deed, they do no sacrilege to church nor bell; woe to him who speaks ill of women!

Certain it is, there has never been born bishop nor king nor great prophet without fault, but from a woman; woe to him who speaks ill of women!

They are thrall to their own hearts, they love a man slender and sound - it would be long before they would dislike him. Woe to him who speaks ill of women!

An old fat greybeard, they do not desire a tryst with him - dearer to them is a young lad, though poor. Woe to him who speaks ill of women!
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
This ain't no work of genius, but it may well be the only English poem ever to be inspired by a triple German pun. Should maybe explain that "Strauss", apart from being the name of the Waltz King, also means (1) a bouquet of flowers and (2) an ostrich.


The ostrich's petals are shaggy,
chrysanthemum-bronze and cream
above their oasis cushion.
The neck is a feathery stem

of maidenhair fern, and it flexes
and dips with a dancer's pace
like a girl being whirled round a ballroom,
some frothy young Viennese miss

who will prove less flighty than flightless,
confined to a vase, to the ground,
to a body, a life that keeps moving
around and around and around.
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
This is a collection of short stories (pub. Salt 2010) and ever since Joyce, the one thing we've known about a short story is that it should have an epiphany: ie, at some point something should become clear, either to us or to the protagonist, that wasn't clear before, and that changes everything. One of the most interesting things about these stories is the way Rickards sometimes subverts the epiphany, by subtly implying that though the protagonist has indeed found out something new about himself or the world, this new-found knowledge is not in fact going to change anything; things will go on much as they did before. In the title story, the materialistic Dominic finds himself having fun in a way totally independent of the money and social cachet on which he generally depends for enjoyment, but you could lay bets that he will not, next morning, sell all he has and give the money to the poor. In "Mango", a failing marriage, seen through a child's eyes, gets a sudden boost of happiness and all seems well at the end, but an adult reader can easily deduce that the respite is temporary and does not address the real problems in the relationship. And in "The Last of Her", Jo, having been welcomed at a vulnerable time into the home of what seems a kind couple, has to reassess them in the light of their conduct to someone else, but again you could bet she is not going to walk virtuously out on the comfort she needs.

Sometimes Rickards does use the epiphany in a more traditional way; in "Odissi Dancing" it does feel as if a woman's self-image has been permanently altered, and in "Ultimate Satisfaction Everyday", Greg, who's always thought of himself as a loser, finds out not so much that he is or isn't, more that nobody has the right to make such a judgement about what anybody's life is "worth". In "Life Pirates" there are practically two stories running in tandem, the one most people see, involving a drunken tramp in a park, and the quite different one seen by the narrator, who knows him.

There are a few stories that don't work for me, notably "Moon" which I don't see the point of and "Moleman" in which the tempting metaphor in a real situation has completely taken over the story to the point where it reads like an exercise. But as a collection, this is massively more worth reading than some considerably more hyped ones I've read lately. Where these stories end happily or at least in temporary contentment, it is often because of some apparently trivial thing: the taste of a mango, the gift of some dog biscuits, the budding of an apparently dead tree, can be enough to turn a situation, a mood, even a way of seeing the world.

sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
Exam time is icumen in, and many poor souls in schools up and down the country are wondering what to say to the examiners about poems, some of which are mine. This post is aimed at making sure they don't say some of the things I've recently heard people saying online.

I've blogged before about the perils of assuming that "the narrator" of a poem, especially one in the "I" voice, is the same person as "the poet", or that everything recorded in a work of art Actually Happened. A discussion I've lately been involved in on Facebook, though, makes it clear that some readers, even if they know it ain't necessarily so, think it should be; furthermore that they make a difference between novels and poems, at least lyric poems, in this regard. It's fine by these folk for novelists to make up a world; it may even be ok for writers of long narrative poems to do so, but there's a feeling that a lyric poem should come "from experience" (I have actually seen the phrase "from the heart" but am trying to forget it) and that if it's in the "I" voice the "I" should be the poet telling (heaven forbid) the truth about himself - whatever that is, and assuming he even knows it.

I don't know where this notion came from - the earliest real school of lyric poetry in Europe would surely have to be courtly love, which existed to celebrate purely imaginary love affairs - but it horrifies me quite a lot. For the record, when poets are minded to write about their personal experiences, they are very likely to distance the poem by putting it in the third person and making it happen to someone else, for the excellent reason that it avoids the danger of sentimentality. The most autobiographical poem Kipling ever wrote was the third-person "Merrow Down", which purports to be about a bereaved Neolithic father. By contrast The Changelings" (courtesy of Tim Kendall's blog "War Poets") is first-person and deals with experiences that weren't the poet's own at all; it's very much in persona.

I used to write poems in persona if I thought they might otherwise look too personal. These days I tend to third-person. But even if they do spring partly from my own experience, that is no reason to assume they won't also be adulterated with my reading, or other people's experiences, or, shocking as it may be to some, imagination... The fact is, poets are licensed liars; it's what we're good at and we can no more leave the facts of our own lives unembroidered and unimproved on than we can anything else. Nature is often a lousy writer; she gets details and endings wrong and frankly we can do better.

In a recent interview on this blog, my friend the poet Paul Henry described how he had excluded some of his best work from his Selected Poems because he was tired of seeing them read as autobiography. In the FB discussion I referred to earlier, someone said he felt "betrayed" on finding that a poem of Robin Robertson's in the "I" voice was not necessarily All True. Well, attend, O Best Beloveds in the AS-Level exam class, for I am about to utter a profundity: if you want The Truth, you go to the shelf in Waterstones marked Biography. (You still won't get it, but you will get something that aspires to it.) But if you're reading poems, and commenting on them in exams, remember that the "I" voice is correctly referred to as "the narrator". He/she is not, to your knowledge, "the poet", and there's no rule that says they should be.
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
- ie the views folk were kind enough to express on book titles. Both here and on FB, there was a definite vote for Using Glass Like Air, with several people saying it would be oddball and intriguing enough to make them buy a book. I might hold you to that... seriously, that was a very helpful exercise, because I'm too close to all contenders to have a clue what resonates or doesn't with others. Using Glass Like Air it'll be, then.
sheenaghpugh: (Posterity)
I'm working on another collection; it's nowhere near finished yet but I'm trying to decide on a title. It does make some odds to the way you write, and what you might decide to put in or leave out, because it'll say something, hopefully, about the collection's intended focus. I've currently got several possiblities, all with pluses and minuses, and thought I'd try them out on folks. Unfortunately it isn't as easy as just listing them, because all come with baggage like the poem they're from and the cover pic they might generate. Here are the contenders... )
What do folk think?
sheenaghpugh: (Heslop from Porridge)
Aye, why not...

The book I am reading: Elizabeth's Spy Master : Francis Walsingham and the secret war that saved England by Robert Hutchinson
The book I am writing: Next poetry collection. Doesn't have a title yet - well actually it has about 6 but I haven't made my mind up.
The book I love most: This changes, but probably Konstantin Paustovksy's 6-vol autobiography, Story of a Life
The last book I received as a gift: A biography of William Garrow (yes, a pattern does seem to be emerging)
The last book I gave as a gift: A biography of the actor Ira Aldridge
The nearest book on my desk: Don't keep books on the desk. Most are currently on floor, due to Workmen, and the nearest is a guide to Vindolanda.
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
Mike Thomas is a serving police officer in Cardiff. His debut novel, Pocket Notebook, was published by Heinemann in 2010. It tells the dark but often comic story of Jacob Smith, a troubled and unorthodox policeman who uses his police notebook for the unauthorised purpose of chronicling his spiralling breakdown. Pocket Notebook was named one of the nine ‘Hot Books’ to watch out for at the 2009 London Book Fair and was on the 2010 Wales Book of the Year Long List.

In this excerpt, Jake has been suspended, and has no business being on patrol. But he goes anyway, into streets which he no longer sees in quite the same way as anyone else...

"What you've done here is just the start," I say, moving closer. "It's just a few small steps to a life of crime, boy. Possibly worse. You could end up as a threat to the security of the country. It's lucky I got to you so quickly. To nip it in the bud."
       "It's just spraying a wall..." one of them mutters, eyeing me with an odd expression.
       "Right", I say. "You've asked for it." I whip out the old Fixed Penalties, ask their names, addresses, dates of birth. The boxes of the pro forma aren't big enough for all the details but I write them down anyway. Fill in three of them as best I can, flip the top copy off each, hand one to each of the artistes.
       "What's this for?" Carrier Bag asks, looking at the chitty with a mystified expression.
       "A fine," I tell them. "For criminal damage."
       "But it's a parking ticket," he says, wrinkling his nose.
       "Don't be clever with me!" I yell, then clench my jaw as they look at each other; look at me. Start giggling. Cheeky little bastards.
       "Come on," Carrier Bag says to his chums. "Let's chip. This dude's a freak."
       My fingers toy with the mouse gun through the fabric of my cargos. I feel the muzzle, the trigger guard. The handle with its magazine of nine-millie bullets. "Laugh all you want, boys," I tell them as they shuffle towards the main drag. "You won't be laughing when you've got to find eighty quid each for those fines, yeah? Ha! Yeah? Are you listening to me?"
       They disappear around the corner. I hear screams of laughter. [...] Another small incident taken care of for the greater good. I pull out my cigar tin, select the half-smoked reefer, light it and take a long drag. I hold my breath, lean against the wall. Exhale. Nice. Very, very nice. Just chill and smoke and work out what you need to do next, Jake. I finish the spliff, stumble out of the alleyway.
       My face hurts and it takes a minute for me to realise I'm grinning uncontrollably. I really can't relax my cheeks or lips. Not to worry. Adds to the agreeable air. The smiling, helpful policeman. I nod at a couple more pensioners. Wave back at a bus full of primary school children, forget to stop waving even after the bus has driven off and it's just me shuffling down the street with my arm in the air.

Interview and links behind cut )

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