Friday, 17 March 2017

LANDFALL

For every poet, it is always morning in the world.

Derek Walcott's words.   I was saddened to hear tonight of the death of this great poet, a contemporary and friend of Seamus Heaney.  I first read Walcott's work about 20 years ago when I was teaching his poetry for a course comparing writers of the 1890s with the 1990s.   I was immediately attracted to this most maritime of poets - it is as if a tropical wind is blowing in off the sea and infusing his words.  

He came from the small Caribbean island of St Lucia and his work fused the tradition of English and European literature with the richness of his West Indian heritage.  He was a playwright and a painter as well as a poet, each discipline nourishing the others.

Re-reading some of his poems tonight his words acquire an added poignancy:

My first friend was the sea.  Now, is my last.
(from "The Schooner Flight")

I am your poet, yours,
all this you knew,
but never guessed you'd come
to know there are homecomings without home.

In the shallop of the shell,
in the round prayer,
in the palate of the conch,
in the dead sail of the almond leaf
are all of the voyages. 
(both extracts from "Homecoming: Anse Le Raye (for Garth St Omer)")

 Amongst his many awards was the Nobel prize for literature (1992).  In 2011 his collection White Egrets won the T S Eliot prize.  The final poem in this highly accomplished volume imagines that

This cloud is a page between whose fraying edges
a headland with mountains appears brokenly
and the scenery he goes on to describe is the writing of the poem until finally
a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes
white again and the book comes to a close.

The last lines of his moving elegy "Landfall, Grenada (for Robert Head, mariner) are a fitting tribute to him today:

Deep friend, teach me to learn
such ease, such landfall going,
such mocking tolerance of those
neat, gravestone elegies
that rhyme our end.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

A HOWL AND A HALLELUJAH

First the howl, or rather howls.

Today I was dismayed to read that America's National Endowment for the Arts is no more.  Can you imagine Arts Council England being scrapped? (no, please don't.  A few years ago the idea of closing public libraries would have been unimaginable).   It reminds me of Jane Austen's description of Sir Walter Elliot's futile attempts at economy by cutting off one or two unnecessary charities. There is an "obituary" for the NEA on the website thehill.com.  The obituary is heavy with irony, including one reason for the demise of the NEA - "It failed to make the case that the arts should mean more to ordinary Americans than whatever they did as children (overwhelmingly, Americans participate in the arts only when young)".  Sounds horribly familiar.

My other howl went up when I read that the wonderful CB editions list is now closed.  A fine small press run by Charles Boyle (who says he stood in a post office queue 1147 times during the 10 years of the press) it published amongst others, Beverley Bie Brahic's Hunting the Boar.  I was delighted to discover this accomplished writer through CB editions (whose graphic design is second to none).  The latest post on the lively Sonofabook blog written by Charles Boyle says that he is going into semi-retirement.  Let's hope that, like Mark Twain's death, rumours of the end of the press are greatly exaggerated.

But it's good to have some Hallelujahs for Words by the Water which is in full swing at Keswick.

Yesterday we had the treat of a double bill of Helen Farish and Adam O' Riordan reading "Poetry of Time and Place".  The pairing worked very well - there were several parallels between the two, particularly the importance of memory and nature in their work.

Last night I took part in the Celebration of Cumbrian Poetry in the Studio, a fund-raising event for RNIB talking books and the festival's own bursary scheme for young people.  The studio was full to capacity which was really encouraging.  The format - which to me seemed slightly crazy - of 9 poets each reading 2 poems for a maximum of 5 minutes went down well with the audience, several of whom said they enjoyed the variety.  At least there was no time to be bored.  I was last on and had chosen to read "Daffodils da capo"and "Nineveh".  The first poem likened daffodils to wind instruments (variations on the flower's "trumpet") and the second was about having a cup of coffee on the train.  Nothing too profound to wind up the proceedings.  As T S Eliot didn't say "Human kind cannot bear very much poetry".  But going last always runs the risk of being upstaged by the previous participants.  To my horror there had already been one wind instrument poem (Kim Moore) and one coffee poem (Helen Fletcher), but at least I didn't have to follow the Wonderbra in rhyming couplets (my worst ever poetry reading moment some years ago).  Kind soothers of delicate poetic souls told me it didn't matter because my poems were sufficiently different from those that had gone before.

I was encouraged to hear from the Matthews family who run the festival bookstore in the theatre foyer that books sales have been doing well this year.  It's good that our local independent booksellers (Bookends and Bookcase) are a vital part of Words by the Water.  Long may it continue.


On the end of the National Endowment for the Arts read http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/education/322704-an-obituary-the-national-endowment-for-the-arts-52-of-unnatural

Charles Boyle's blog is at sonofabook.blogspot.com

I first heard the phrase "A Howl and a Hallelujah" from Gillian Clarke as a description of the essential ingredients of a poem.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

NETWORKINGS

I've recently joined Second Light, an organisation for women poets aged 40 or over (though under 40s can be associate members).  I resisted joining for some time - for two reasons: one, the idea of being part of a closed women's group, and two, having to pay a subscription fee.  But then I thought of all the men's old boys' networks in British society and decided that I should be a bit more alert to networking.  As for the fee, perhaps I am being a bit less scrooge-ish these days.  After all "you don't get owt for nowt" and Second Light publish Artemis and it costs money to run a poetry magazine.

Every poet is invited to provide a page on the Second Light website. You can see my page, complete with poem, by going to secondlightlive.co.uk , clicking on Members' Pages and scrolling down until you find me (surnames in alphabetical order).

It's good to see several names I recognise on the list - I feel I am in good company.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

WORDS BY THE WATER:

the poetry component

Not long to go now - Words by the Water, the annual festival of words and ideas at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, starts on 3 March.  As usual I've been looking out for poetry events.  

Imagining the Sun includes Northumbrian poet Katrina Porteous in a collaboration exhibited at the theatre during the festival.   Katrina is a fine poet and her performances on radio 3 and at Grasmere (in the good old days when there was a summer readings programme) have been utterly absorbing.  I'm intrigued - this is an arts/science collaboration and I am looking forward to seeing the exhibition and seeing how poetry fits into it.  All will be revealed on the first Saturday morning.

Helen Mort, a previous poet in residence at the Wordsworth Trust, is talking about The Clarity of Running (fell running, that is) on Monday afternoon.  In the evening poet Phil Houghton will be talking to film-maker Terry Abraham about the film Life of a Mountain: Blencathra (a ticket includes a showing of the film afterwards).  Of all the talented writers in Cumbria Phil is the one who responds most deeply to the landscape.  I always enjoyed the poems he brought to the Cumbrian Poets workshop.

On Tuesday there's a poetry double bill in the main house with Helen Farish (winner of the Forward Prize) and Adam O'Riordan (winner of a Somerset Maugham Award).  Like Helen Mort, both writers were former poets in residence at the Wordsworth Trust.  Helen Farish is a consummate reader of her own poetry and her latest book (The Dog of Memory) has several Cumbrian poems.  I am not familiar with Adam's work so I am looking forward to being introduced to it.

It's a pity that the reading clashes with Discourse with a Cumbrian Landscape - a session with micro publishers Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton who run the Corbel Stone Press and include poetry in their work.

Straight afterwards it's A Celebration of Cumbrian Poetry, a free session which starts off with Jacci Bulman reading from her first publication and followed by a motley crew of 8 other poets.  We've all been given a strict time schedule to keep to.  I'm on last so I hope the others don't overrun or I'll be left stranded!  This is a free session, a follow up to last year's local writers' reading in aid of the flood relief fund.  This year donations are invited for RNIB Talking Books and the Ways with Words bursary fund for young people.  

The popular poetry breakfast is back on Thursday morning in the Circle gallery (coffee and croissants  included, bring your own - or someone else's - poetry).

I'm very pleased to see a good sprinkling of poetry in the festival programme this year.  Of course there are lots of other words and ideas too - I'm particularly looking forward to Chris Tarrant on The Romance of Railways, Diana Darke on her house in Damascus and Eriend Clouston on The Nature Writing of Nan Shepherd.

Now all we need is some decent weather.

wordsbythewater.org.uk for the full programme of talks
017687 74411 Theatre by the Lake for booking tickets



Sunday, 12 February 2017

BRAND NAMES

Brand names in poems - some people like them, some don't.  My poem was set on a Virgin (mentioned) train, drinking a cup of Starbucks (unmentioned but you might guess from the mermaid) coffee.  Someone in the poetry workshop said, "I think you should take out the Virgin", to which someone else responded, "Oh no, you should keep the Virgin" [the Virgin stays - for the moment].

Brand names can contribute all sorts of things - specificity, humour, colour, all the web of references conjured up in well-known brands.  Sean O'Brien's "The Plain Truth of the Matter" tells us everything we associate with Marmite in the first two lines:
"There are two tribes this world can boast -
  The Marmite-lovers and the damned"
(yes, you can see the rhyme with toast coming a mile off but there's such humour in that inevitability that I forgive him).

On Friday I went to Wolverhampton to meet my son at IKEA (Wolverhampton is half way between the far north of England where I live and the south west where he lives).  We bought coffees and lunch and browsed the room layouts looking for design ideas.

It set me thinking about IKEA in poetry.  Philip Gross's crown of sonnets "Fantasia on a Theme from IKEA" is a tour de force but it is not the first mention of the Swedish furniture company in poetry.  Edwin Morgan's poem "For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004" celebrates the leafy whimsicality of the parliament building's architecture:
"The parts cohere, they come together like petals of a flower"
 - it's not "a blissfully boring box", it's "no icon, no IKEA, no iceberg, but curves and caverns, nooks and niches, huddles and heavens, syncopations and surprises.  Leave symmetry to the cemetery".

Adam Thorpe describes a panic attack in a crowded store:
"Hitting Cuisines in the new IKEA,
besieged by hobs, I was paralysed
by the arrows on the floor.
This is the only way, they claimed."
The narrator starts to walk against the arrows and escapes into the dazzle of the outside world.

That's enough product-placement for one post.

Back to the wildness.  A few months ago I was travelling down on the same route and just before Wolverhampton station I saw a fox walking purposefully along the railway tracks of an adjacent junction.  An urban survivor and thriver.

Sean O' Brien "The Plain Truth of the Matter" November (Picador 2011)
Philip Gross "Fantasia on a Theme from IKEA" The Water Table (Bloodaxe 2009)
Edwin Morgan "For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004" A Book of Lives (Carcanet 2007)
Adam Thorpe "Panic" Voluntary (Cape 2012)


Sunday, 29 January 2017

THE FIRTH AND THE BRINK

I recognised the voice immediately – Jacob Polley.  That could mean only one thing – he had won the T S Eliot, one of the most prestigious poetry prizes in Britain.  I had flicked on Radio 4’s Front Row and he was being interviewed.  Since then there’s been a feeling that Cumbria is basking in reflected glory, because Jake is considered one of our poets.  He was born in Carlisle.  Before he became famous he wrote a poem a week for a whole year for The Cumberland News.  He attended the Cumbrian Poets workshop (but before my time!) and every new book of his is marked by a reading at Bookends, our wonderful independent bookshop in Carlisle.  I’ve received several emails which have begun – ‘Have you heard?  Jacob Polley’s won the T S Eliot!’

On Thursday I took the dog for a walk down by the Solway Firth to the west of Bowness on Solway.  It’s where England ends and signs itself off in a watery boundary that changes with every tide.  It’s a quiet forgotten place, and until recently the lane was a gated road.  Out on the salt grass, amongst the grazing sheep and cattle, the metallic webs of Anthorn masts with their concrete anchors and miscellaneous farm plastic and scrap iron, a flock of Barnacle geese are grazing.  They’re handsome birds with their white faces, dark black bibs and grey and white barred wings.  In the spring they will disappear to Svalbard.    

The road curves round the Cardurnock Peninsula and Scotland is visible across the mud flats and incoming tide, the light shining in ribbons of pewter, silver and blue.  The land changes to gorse bushes (already showing plenty of gold flowers), brackish pools and salt marsh (“Bathing is dangerous due to fast running currents and treacherous sands.  It is unsafe to venture out at low tide.”).  A curlew utters a short melancholy phrase.  A flock of brownish waders fly low and straight, then turn and do their Venetian blind trick of changing to white.


Jacob Polley’s first collection, The Brink, included poems such as ‘The Kingdom of Sediment’, ‘Salmonary’, ‘Fish’, and ‘Crabbing’.  The cover of the book showed a shifting border of land, sea and sky.  The Solway  has a way of seeping into the imagination.