May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
April 24, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I’ve just returned from a trip to New Zealand. Although I took a notebook, I wrote absolutely nothing. Perhaps it was the stupendousness of the place: fizzing on multisensory overload, I had no mental space in which to process it all. Agape at glacial blue rivers or razored peaks, ears filled with alien calls of tui and morepork, it was impossible to take stock. The perfect holiday, in other words.
But there was something else. The landscapes of New Zealand are heroic. Human occupation feels tenuous and extremely recent. Vast tracts – particularly of the South Island – remain unpopulated, uncleared. Fiordland, which covers an area of about 10,000 square miles, has a single road. Kiwis laugh at crank reports of sightings of the long-extinct moa: but in that huge alpine rainforest, you could imagine it.
If we think of NZ writing, it is probably storytellers that come to mind: Mansfield, Frame, Marsh. Might this be a symptom of a landscape which insists on an apprehension of the horizon and whatever lies beyond – an invitation, in other words, to initiate change? Are such environments antipathetic to poetry? Or was it simply that, as a brief visitor to a very different land, I found it difficult to decode the experience in terms which I could explore at the concentrated register of the poem?
Well, finally, I found a subject. Staying in the goldfields of Otago, we walked along a creek to a delapidated cluster of huts – the remains of a 19th century settlement which had been the home of Chinese miners who had lived here, far from their families in the Canton delta, for several generations. Surrounded by the vast ranges of the Southern Alps, here was a straggle of iron-roofed hovels – a human scale to measure. Bowing my head as I entered one of the huts, I felt that here, perhaps, was a way in.
The miners returned last night
to their ghost-homes.
No-one saw or heard them;
but they are there, now,
blowing sparks in their chimneys,
coughing, bringing water from the creek.
February 28, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I always thought that poetry went down best in pubs – preferably fuggy upstairs rooms. Lately, though, I’ve been reading in church: two, in fact. A couple of weeks ago I was invited to read in St John’s Church in Penistone, as part of an event to celebrate the work of a group of local poets and the launch of their pamphlet, East Peak. Part of the event involved me and Penistone poet Julie Mellor serving tea in a Japanese tea ceremony, led by Becky Bowlee, in silence and stocking feet, to the audience. As far as I know, none (apart from Becky) had taken part in such a thing; but in the calm shadows of the old place, everyone entered into a spirit of contemplative reverence for the occasion, which complemented perfectly the readings (themselves introduced by a positively priest-like Mark Doyle).
As reported previously, Ray Hearne and I, with the support of other poets, gave a reading of Spence Broughton in Hill Top Chapel in Attercliffe near Sheffield on Halloween. The old chapel bears in its air all of its near-400 years – and every breath and gesture, it seemed, resonated through an atmosphere as charged as a storm.
What is it about such spaces that confers on the breathed word such power – and gives to the reader an enhanced oratory? And particularly for an atheist like me? Can a contained emptiness, steadied within thick stone for hundreds of years (while outside factories, trucks and sports stadia buzz and clamour), accrue something, a sense of the numinous? Or is it just physics?
February 7, 2013 § 6 Comments
Sharon Olds’ success in winning the TS Eliot Prize and the expanded readership for her work which will follow will no doubt reinvigorate debates about poetic form – in particular, the line ending. Many commentators have found Olds’ preference for putting articles and prepositions at the ends of lines difficult; others find the prosiness this confers on her poetry liberating. Olds herself has talked about the living quality of poems, likening their structure to a tree (or in fact half a tree), with the beginning of lines forming a trunk. As such, this is where she stacks up verbs and nouns, rooting meaning – so that lines can stretch away, more naturally in keeping with thought and speech.
It’s an interesting approach: and one which seems to contrast with Glyn Maxwell’s demands, in On Poetry, that line breaks have a weight borne of their intermediary nature – their emphasising of both utterance / existence and silence / void – which renders them of primary significance: they are at the core of a poem’s sound and meaning.
We might throw in some gender politics here, too, positioning Maxwell’s masculine, even monotheistic cry (In the Beginning was the Word…) against Olds’ feminine, organic poetry.
Personally, I still feel my way forward, only dimly aware of what’s at play – which is something between breathing and mechanics and impulse, knowing how all of these have to contend – in some way taking an idea, or glimpse, or motivation, dragging it out of the cave and into a real, imperfect (yet hopefully suggestive and resonant) place.
January 9, 2013 § 9 Comments
Easy to feel a bit of RS Thomas’s world-weariness as we drag ourselves back to work. Sixteen tons and what’ve you got. What I didn’t expect was unproductiveness in my writing. I’ve found a way, usually, to keep on winding the bucket down and dragging up bits. Changing the bucket (fiction – lyric – sequence), sifting the muck. Lately, though, I’ve come up with next to nothing. Three or four slightly unsatisfactory poems; a story; a page of something else. This since, what, June?
Something looms large: as I hinted a couple of posts back, World War One is occupying my mind; and I’ve no way in as yet, worried as I am with the vastness of it and the need to make something adequate. I have an idea – can see faces and names, anyway. But it still resists. And the problem is that only when I’m producing one thing can I produce all sorts of other things which in turn take the pressure off the central focus – or sometimes offer a side entrance, or trap door, even.
It makes me understand how I work, this: but it doesn’t help. Writer’s block: what a bind. Still, crocuses are coming up in our garden.
December 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
I was asked by a friend recently, in relation to my poems about the Sheffield Flood (many of which focus on individuals caught in the catastrophe): ‘Why do you want to tell me this?’
I have to say I stuggled to answer: it’s a complex question, the response to which might be many more questions:
By ‘this’, do you mean the subject? Of death? Of the death of certain individuals? Of the Flood? The past?
Why do I want to tell you?
Why do I want to tell you?
All of which seems to play in some way on what we think poetry is: communication, vocation, invocation. Possibly, it also raises the issue of entitlement, or responsibility: the bearing witness to the inner lives of people we know, really, nothing about.
My slightly glib answer, borrowed from Tony Harrison, was about giving voices to the voiceless. I talked about Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang – his reimagining of the story of illiterate Ned Kelly, given at last the power to write his own truth. I think I felt I needed to claim – as Harrison and Carey did – a local entitlement: some kinship identity which gave me the authority to tell these people’s stories.
On reflection, though, it is probably much simpler than this – or at least, while my motives had this social and political basis, my engagement with the subjects was psychological and physical: we all know what fear feels like. For me, the work doesn’t begin with a phrase, as it does for many; more likely, there is an image (or several) and a feeling, an emotional response to the image. In the case of the Flood poems, it was people, woken by a growing noise, not knowing what it was; and the feeling of fear that we can all recognise – but which at the same time we face completely alone. It is from this vantage – awake / and with something coming in the dark – that I am able to move out into known and unknown territories of there and then, wanting/having to tell my friend, or anyone else who will listen, ‘this’.
November 29, 2012 § 2 Comments
Up to Leeds last night to read at Headingley Heart, a good community place off the main student drag. Brian Lewis at Longbarrow arranged a slot for five of us – Angelina Ayers, Jim Caruth, Chris Jones, Fay Musselwhite and myself – and along with Carola Luther (a founder of the poetry nights there, as well as current Poet in Res at Wordsworth Trust) we read to a welcoming and attentive audience. A great evening – thanks to Suzie Evans at HH for the offer to read, as well as the compere, the sausage sandwich maker, to Jim for getting us there and back in one piece, and everyone who came out to listen.