Monday, 30 March 2009

Still on senses

Whilst we're talking and thinking about the senses...wouldn't you just know it...I have a poem about senses too (in fact I fear my catchphrase is fast becoming 'hey! I have a poem about that!'). Anyway, here's the poem:

Seeing isn't everything

I may not notice colours much
Or wallpaper (at all)
But I will hear every pin drop
Every baby sniff
Every change in the wind's direction
And I can hear quite clearly
The bloke three doors down
Who cries himself to sleep at night
Too often for my liking

The furniture may all be rearranged
And would I care?
Or care about caring?
But I can smell the difference
Between good and bad
Between a joke and something far more serious
I smell the changing face of sweetness
It's amazing
Try not to miss it

I may not be aware
Of changes in your hair
Or new jeans or a coat or earrings
But I taste most competently
The extra lemon juice
The way too much salt
I will notice and enjoy
The complete and fuller flavour
It takes some time

And though I try hard
To see better
To see colour and shape
All the time I am feeling
And knowing
And feeling it all instead
It's another way of seeing
A feeling type of seeing
A purely personal point of view

RF 2006

To be honest with you I sort of love this poem. In fact if I'm completely honest (and I do try to be, remember...) I love all my poems (which is very different to saying I think they're brilliant or anything - love is a complicated business...). Still...even saying I love them...that's a bit of a faux pas, isn't it? Whoever admits that? What kind of idiot! What vanity! What insanity! How absolutely not the way people speak in 'Poetry Review'! But luckily none of that stuff bothers me so I can just love them. And why? Because they have all done something for me in some way...made me laugh or made me realise something... some have even made me new friends. This one, for example, helped me understand how I work, think and see things (in every sense). It was also something like a letter to some of my more visually orientated friends who laugh at me (in a good-natured way...) for not noticing their new interior decorations and such. I wrote about having a relatively weak visual sense in connection with visual art too (back here) for anyone who wasn't reading back in September 08 (and who is interested) by the way.

'Seeing isn't everything' is about senses but of course it's about writing too (as are most things on some level...). As I entered Poetry World in the late 90s/early 00s I was soon aware that compared to a lot of poetry in literary magazines for example, my poems were not particularly huge on visual imagery and details. It was a bit weird to begin with and I did wonder if there was something really wrong with me! Then I wrote this poem and it all became clear (well, a bit clearer...). I do see...I just see through walls! Ah ha (as Alan Partridge might say)! It was like a light really did switch on somewhere in my head. Eureka...and all that.

Then, even better, the poem went on to do quite well for me. It is in my book and it's on the website in the section called 'Seeing and believing' but it was also published in the North-east Scotland literary magazine 'Pushing out the Boat' (issue 6). This was interesting because generally speaking literary magazines don't really get that excited about my poems! In fact often I can hear the editor thinking 'who is this moron?' from however many miles away they are...sometimes they even write me odd notes. But really who let the administrators take over the asylum? Oh, that's another whole post...maybe later in the week...maybe later in the year...


Friday, 27 March 2009

Something borrowed - Five Senses Friday

With StAnza now already something of a distant memory (to relive – please see last post...) I fancied something completely different. I've been reading some blogs for what seems like ages now (and some of you people really do feel like old friends in a way) but it's good to keep things changing all the time though too so (when time allows) I do still look out for interesting new blogs with different angles and attitudes and stuff to say. In the past couple of months I've found myself wandering to Philippa's blog at Green Ink now and then, for example. I don't know much about Philippa...I think she's an Australian living in London (is that right?) and I think I came to her via One Night Stanzas or something but I know that I go back because I like her take on blogging and writing – she just seems to be working away...on her own path...going her own kind of human. She seems to be one of those people with a practically-bursting-out-of-her love for life too and...well...that's nearly always appealing, isn't it? At least from a distance...

Anyway a couple of Fridays ago Philippa did this little writing task called Five Senses Friday (just as it sounds...go through the senses one by one and come up with some things you have noticed/experienced in the past week or so). Even with the hanging-on cold (and therefore fairly weakened senses all round) I thought I'd have try at it this week. So I'll blow my nose and clear my throat and then here goes...


Jamie Bell's face in 'Billy Elliot'

We watched this film earlier on in the week (I wanted Small Girl to see it...and had forgotten there were quite so many fucking swear words in it though...whoops...and see's catching...). Anyway, there are many reasons that 'BI' was such a success (great music, great dancing, Julie Walters...)
but Jamie Bell's beautiful open face was one of its many fine features. And those eyes! Whoever found that boy when they were casting the film did a stellar job because couldn't you just look at his face all day? I know it would be a bit weird...but you could, couldn't you? Here he is:

(As if by contrast) James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano

I have mentioned previously that Mark and I are watching the Sopranos TV series on DVD just now (about ten years later than everyone else). We're up to series 3 currently and my goodness it's brilliant...but my the same time... looking at the Tony Soprano character regularly is just so strange...he's so revolting! The sex in vests, the belly, the constant eating of sausage meat, the nastiest selection of shirts and (even worse) casual jerseywear ever seen on the small screen! I watch him... and watch him and am constantly appalled (and yet also fascinated). What outfit will they find for him next? What horrible testicle scratching, toilet shot will we see next? And yet it is possibly the best TV series I have ever seen. A really quite bemusing feast for the senses, this show...(music is excellent too of course). Here's a little Tony:


Out dogwalking the other day my friend and I saw a majestic grey heron, just standing quietly by a small pond. It looked so smart and collected – it made me feel very scruffy and messy in comparison.

Paint charts

I always find them quite baffling...there are so many colours and the same time...not the one you know you are looking for. Does it drive artists mad trying to find new colours? I think it would me.



This is a bit of a housewife moment but what can I tell and Carmela Soprano...we have so much in common. Anyway, I got some of these 'they last 1000 washes/they're kinder to the environment' ecoball things for doing the laundry and they do work...pretty well. The weird thing is that the laundry doesn't have any of those fake-nature smells you get from washing powder any more. I open the airing cupboard ('cos we're fancy these days and have one) and I smell...what is it exactly? A little bit school chemistry set, a bit serious, a bit Soviet's certainly not summer flowers or pine fresh or anything you might call fragrant that's for sure. It's odd. And I'm not used to it yet.


More housewifery. Doing the ironing when I was younger was one of the first jobs I remember doing and feeling really grown-up whilst doing it so the smell of ironing is a happy memory smell for me (warm, clean, comforting, in control). When I was about 10 I used to iron my older brother's shirts (and he was very fussy) and by all accounts I did it well so it made me feel clever and capable (and who doesn't like that feeling)? After that I didn't iron for years (really...years!) but I do it again now...every couple of weeks I suppose (nothing too mental). As some of you will know I really only do ironing as an excuse to listen to music but I still like the smell. Plus it looks like I'm doing something not just sitting around listening to music...

Paint – like bread?

Mark was painting the sitting room the other day and it smelt just like baking bread. I'm sure it did. Or was it because the paint was a bit bread coloured..? Mystery...


I'm always amazed how powerful smells can be! A kitchen bin that needs emptying – that can turn a happy home into somewhere altogether different, can't it? Squalor...just waiting to happen...


Strawberry cream

Like a small child, I really like the strawberry one in a box of Cadbury's Roses. It's just sugar x sugar x sugar - a real short, sharp hit. My drugtaking is not what it was I will admit...but there's still always something available to give a person a lift now and then, when required...


Oh bloody hell, am I always crying about something or what? Mothering stuff, hormone stuff, disappointment in human beings stuff...very tiresome! But at least after all this fieldwork you'd think I could focus on the true taste of tears. Salt, snot, the taste of your own failure and disappointment...what do tears really taste like? They taste...unwanted.

Potter's catarrh pastilles

The best remedy – harsh and critical and determined and often accompanied by the nagging question 'if I fall asleep with one of these in my mouth, will I choke..?'

Homemade stuffing

Onions, bread and herbs – delicious!


Small Girl's voice

When she is talking to the Winnie the Pooh characters in a computer game our daughter is completely talking to them (they are in the room...there is no hint of 'just a game'). I love listening to her but I am very aware that she is 9 soon and that things are changing every day in her world. It's necessary but a shame... all the same.

Happy dog

Our dog Zoe (who just turned one this week) makes the most amazing sound when you stroke her a lot (especially if she's been left alone for a while). It's half cat-purring and half person-trying-not-to-laugh-at-a-joke or something. It's like she's saying 'don't stop, don't stop, never stop stroking me!' Really, it is.

Joni Mitchell's voice

Her voice is so unique, isn't it? Sometimes I don't even like it but I listen to it all the same...she's very hard to say no to, I find (in some of the songs anyway). I was listening to the album 'Blue' the other day and Small Girl was quite taken with 'Carey' (she's always liked mermaids) though she did, for the first time ever, say 'this just doesn't make any sense!' I had to stop myself from replying 'since when do you care about sense?' Then also Mike Harding played Mitchell singing 'For Free' on his radio show the other day so it seemed to be Joni week. Watch these and think - does her voice match her face perfectly...or is that just me not making any sense either?

Here's Joni singing 'Carey' at Wembley in 1983:

and just to spoil you here she is singing 'For Free' for the BBC in 1970:


The crows are very noisy just now. Up near Small Girl's school there are loads of them (at least I think they're crows...they could be rooks I suppose...they're very high up...) and the other day it sounded like they were having a very heated debate ('look at you, on that branch...don't you know nobody sits on branches like that any more', 'what do you know, think you're so clever...' etc. etc.). I like to hear them carry on like that.


Just sanded

Is there anything like a smooth bit of a wall when it's just been sanded ready to paint? Soft as a baby's sole!

Little laptop keys

Also very soft – I probably touch laptop keys as much as anything these days. Strange that, when you think about it.

Paper money

Quite a distinctive feel, isn't it, the touch of paper money? Thick but thin, soft but tough, taken for granted but still totally essential...go stroke a tenner and see what's got to say for itself, why don't you...

Bedroom carpet

Well, you touch with your toes too, don't you? As there is decorating going on downstairs I've been working upstairs for a while instead so although usually when I'm in our bedroom I'm in bed this week I've been typing, reading, ironing - all upstairs. This means my toes have been saying a much longer hello to our much overlooked, but delighfully soft bedroom carpet this week too. After years in crappy rented places with filthy, bitter and no doubt miserable floorcoverings I do enjoy the feeling of something clean and soft underfoot. It's not to be sneezed at, you know...

And on that note...I'm off to blow my nose again and I'll see you all in a few days time. Make sure you have a good, sensually stimulating weekend now, won't you?

Monday, 23 March 2009

All about the zing...StAnza 09

Some of you long-distance readers may wonder what the heck we're all on about when we write about StAnza all the time...has our finger slipped...why the big A? Well, StAnza is Scotland's biggest annual poetry festival (there are plenty of other literature festivals but StAnza is the only poetry-centred festival of this size here) and it takes place in St Andrews in Fife, hence the name. St Andrews is best-known worldwide for golf and for its picturesque old university I suppose...and I wonder, as I type this, who came up with the name StAnza for this festival (obvious once you see it but clever all the same) – anyone know? We moved to Scotland in 2002 and I've been going to the festival every year since 2004 - although usually just for one or two of its four or five days (partly because it's always a pretty intense experience in one way or another). St Andrews is only an hour down the coast from here but even so about every other year I go for an overnight stay and we make it a whole family trip. The others take advantage of St Andrews' attractions (things like the cinema and the bigger bookshops – neither of which we have in Montrose) and I go deep into Poetry World...for a few hours at least.

Over the years I have got better at choosing events that I might actually be interested in and that I might be able to enjoy/learn from (I have made a few wrong decisions over the years...nobody's fault but my own...). I know by now that my tastes and methods are not exactly typical of poetry folk/the StAnza crowd so I have to make sure I don't just end up in lots very unsuitable situations. I have, for example, learnt these things:

1. I know that I really don't like the main Byre theatre venue and don't relax there (I won't bore you with all the various weird personal reasons but let's just say every poet has their oddities...some wear bizarre outfits, some grow comedy beards, some may well be more aloof than alive, some have the social graces of a spoilt shitzu...but me, I get uncomfortable in various different crowds and spaces... and some more than's a long story...).

2. I also know that, on the whole, the masterclass business is not for me but that I have had good experiences at workshops at StAnza and at other smaller group activities there.

3. I know not to try to go to too many events in one day... or to too many close together time-wise. It seems like a good idea but your brain will fry (well, mine will anyway).

4. I know the whole experience is a bit more enjoyable now that I know a few more people 'in and around Scottish poetry' because generally speaking I am a sociable person and I like people. I can do sitting on my own and knowing no-one quite happily if I'm interested in something but if I don't have to...then that's much better!

5. I also know that if I have got stuff to flog at the not-famous-poets-flogging-stuff event (previously the Poetry Pamphlet Fair, this year the Poets' Market) that it is best to share a stall if you can (for many, many reasons). Few of us really want to be at the NFPFS in a way (oh come on, who wouldn't take a spot at the Saturday night main event if offered?) but there we are - till the gods (or maybe faber and faber) see fit to drag us from obscurity - and so whilst we're at it we may as well manage to get a toilet break and pop over the room to say "hi" to that bloke we spoke to last year who seemed quite nice and had a poem in such-and-such that we quite liked. But I digress...

This year it was an overnight stay year for me so despite the stinking cold that had been working its way through the family, Small Girl, Mark, in-house Mother and I set off on the Friday morning. It's only once a year, StAnza, and it was only a cold.

We left the haar in Angus, thank goodness, and arrived at St Andrews in much-appreciated sunshine. I had to set off straightaway for my first poetry event – a reading at the Byre Studio under the lunchtime 'Poetry Cabaret' banner (although I notice that the poets chosen for this slot this year were, on the whole, considerably more from what some might call the literary camp than in previous years). In actual fact the original choice for this spot, as I have mentioned previously, had cancelled and Kevin Cadwallender was her replacement. I have to say I'm really glad Sophie Hannah couldn't make it (as long as the reason wasn't something medical or miserable) as I'm really, really glad I got to see and hear Kevin this weekend. I suppose it's no huge surprise really...he's from roughly the same part of the world as me (NE England), he writes poetry not a million miles away from mine (some humour, lots of modern references, plenty of freedom and irreverence, lots of trying stuff out...) and he is most definitely not what-the-hell-are you-on-about-man-academic-poetry and yet most definitely very-clever-and-philosophical-poetry at the same time. I liked his 45 minutes hugely and could have stayed put for much more. When he read his poem about face-painting I could have gone home right then having had an unforgettable time. Kevin assures me that this poem will be in a book of his that Colin Will's Calder Wood Press will put out soon and that's definitely one to watch out for. I have to say though that on the subject of his incredibly long Darlek impression...I'm with the doctor on that one (don't be doing that one too often, Kevin, it sounds really painful!). It was nice to bump into Claire Askew at this event too (and meet the Boy she writes about quite regularly...who is a man, obviously, and a very nice one). I saw the aforementioned Mr Will too as well as an Aberdeen-based poet I like very much called Judith Taylor and my friends Maggie and Ian from Oathlaw Pottery and Gallery near Forfar (some of the only people at StAnza who, as far as I know, are not poets...they should get a special non-poet pass or something and money off their tickets!). They've been big supporters of mine, Maggie and Ian, and so if you're passing up or down the A90...pop in and visit their lovely gallery. Buy a jug...some earrings...a painting!

But look - more digressing! Originally I had intended just a one day visit to StAnza this year so after this great start I'm afraid I didn't go the sound poetry or a reading or even the StAnza lecture. I do really like the lectures on the whole (I loved the Neil Astley one in 2005) but the title didn't grab me this year and you can read them online anyway (I was reading 07's and 08's just the other day - both fascinating). Instead I went back to blow my nose a lot and to see In-house Mother (not really doing so well of late) and to check her into her hotel room. By 2.30pm Mark and Small Girl were at the Aquarium looking at clownfish and watching seals get fed, Mother was ensconced with sea view and newspaper and I felt just completely full of cold so I lay down for ten minutes in my hotel room. Sometimes a quiet ten minutes is a marvellous thing. The rest of the afternoon was then spent in Waterstones, charity shops and on the beach running up and down the dunes at the far end (with Mark and SG – not just on my own...). We met Swiss there too (and his t – charming woman, great taste in poetry...) and so got to put more faces to blog names. It's weird meeting blog friends in the flesh (especially ones who don't show photos online) can't help but have an expected image in your never get it right either!

After that we had a really enjoyable posh family tea (we're an odd family unit by anyone's standards but we do have our moments...) and then Mark and I made it out into the night for a drink with the pride of Dumfries Hughs McMillan and Bryden. Some people were heading for the Open Mic at the Byre but I had never intended to go to that this year (I've been doing quite a lot of reading out and about elsewhere and it's on late and I had the many reasons not to go...) so although some others were going...Mark and I went back to the hotel to cough ourselves to sleep. The Hughs (or Shugs, as they prefer) drank a fair bit longer into the night, so I believe. They are so totally hardcore.

Then it was Saturday morning and back to business! Come on, it is a poetry festival...time for some bloody poetry...

My first Saturday event was the Poetry Breakfast on the theme 'can we view song lyrics as poetry?' and I was in a bit of sweat about this one, I will admit it. It is so my area, as the saying goes (have you seen what my book is called, have you, HAVE YOU?) and because of this I was almost quivering with dread that they would GET IT ALL WRONG on the panel and that I might have to actually commit the first StAnza murder (that I know of anyway). But you wasn't like that at all...they were really all quite reasonable...and open-minded and OK so I did not have to kill anybody (quite a relief...I had no weapon or planned exit for a start).

My worst fear had been that the whole room would turn into one big, self-satisfied pat on the back for poetry and one big nasty boot in the backside for song lyrics with lots of “it just doesn't work on the page”s and more than a sprinkling of “well for heaven's sake we can't be expected to take that seriously as literature”s (there was a tiny bit of that but nothing unfair or stupid). I was even sitting right by the door in case I just couldn't stand it and had to run out screaming “Nooooo – it's all so wrong!” but luckily for the people I was sitting with (the knew-I-would-love-her-and-I-did Marion McCready who blogs as Sorlil and Shug McM) I did not have to call attention to us in this ridiculous and noisy fashion. And why? Simply because there was little in the event that I really disagreed with (and I wasn't disappointed...there is quite enough conflict in, I was really, really relieved!). The event was opened by Roddy Lumsden who I haven't known that much about up to now in all honesty. I know he's Scottish but lives in that place called England, I have read a few of his poems in an anthology and seen him commenting on blogs and forums and things but that's about it. Mainly I have noted that he is a favourite poet with some people that I disagree with on just about everything (hi Rob!) but it just goes to can't judge a poet by their fan club because I really liked a lot of what he said in this discussion. He spoke total sense in his introduction and said something along the lines of “if someone writes a song, it's a song, if someone writes a poem, it's a poem” (I'm not promising that is an exact quote...I was only half note-taking...he'll probably come and have me arrested or something now...). Before I go let me tell you though that he talked of “cousin-borrowing” between songs and poems too and it was all just so right. Yes, yes, yes...I nearly whooped from the back...I loved it!

After Lumsden, Canadian poet Stephen Scobie took up the role of fervent Dylan/Cohen fan (well, someone had to). I had feared these two names might dominate the discussion to the detriment of any other songwriter and to this end I had planned to count how many times each of them was mentioned during the proceedings (a bit anorak I know – we all have our trainspotting moments). In the end it wasn't really like that at all (thank goodness) but just in case you're wondering Dylan got 16 to Cohen's 9...though Scobie did play some Cohen too so that might make it more like a draw. (Also mentioned were Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos...and a few others to come).

After Scobie Italian academic, translator and poet Marco Fazzini (think big John Cooper Clarke hair) spoke total sense and brought in a wider, calmer, not-half-so-English-language outlook. Then poet/songwriter/perfomer Martin Newell was funny and interesting and mentioned perhaps a not hugely well-known English songwriter and perfomer Jake Thackray (Mike Harding plays him regularly on the Radio 2 folk show) and talked of the nonsense of keeping poetry, comedy and song separate (as if they were “unionised”). Next one of the UK's Premiership poets Simon Armitage (who I'd never heard speak before besides on Mike Radcliffe's radio show) then walked straight into my heart as he talked of his “no-brow” approach to culture - “anything'll do me”, he said calmly in that right on the edge of Yorkshire accent (as in that he'll consider anything...not that he likes everything...) and “I never cared if it's Chaucer or the Sex Pistols”. Now that's what I call music to my ears (47). Examples of Armitage's favourite songwriters were Morrissey and The Streets' Mike Skinner (who he called “risky”). He talked of seeing poems and songs as if on a Venn diagram and that made sense to me too (I didn't agree with every word he said or anything but I liked an awful lot of it just the same). He said “poetry is the art of have to concentrate to read it and to write it” and he talked a lot about the differences between the writing styles and contents of the two interlinked artforms.

After Armitage, novelist Ian Rankin (who must be a great laid-back after dinner speaker) rambled gently and amiably about his years listening to Pink Floyd and then his years as a punk without really saying very much at all. He mentioned the band Elbow too...who I have still not got to grips with particularly. It was interesting to watch Rankin who is hugely successful of course and no doubt wealthier than anyone else on the festival bill. He was just so relaxed and...having such a nice time...and I wondered...are poets just always neurotic/prickly/nervous-looking/mad as trees or does being at a poetry festival in a small town surrounded by other poets picking over your every word make it ten times worse? I just wondered...I might be way off...and don't forget I have no real interest in sanity personally.

There wasn't a huge amount of debate at this event and no audience participation at all (just as well...I probably would have said something bizarre...) but there was an interesting bit where Fazzini picked up something Armitage had said about poetry not being really meant for performance any more. Fazzini said this was not the case everywhere in the world and talked of some African poets who only perform their work and yet whose performances are as powerful and significant as any written word. This seemed to send Armitage on a slightly different tack and he talked of “a future where poetry becomes more like song...more like what it was originally” and at this point I practically had to strap myself to the chair and take a vow of silence so as not to stand up and shout “More about the song, Simon, more about the song!” from the back (not that he would like my poems...he probably wouldn't as I'm sure I do all the things he talked of "never allowing his students to do in a poem"...)! Blissfully unaware of such possible disturbances however, Armitage continued that he felt poetry had lost some of its “zing...through print culture” and talked of how he had been so moved by Ted Hughes' performance/readings of his poems when he was young (he mentions that quite a lot – it obviously was a huge influence). “Once you'd heard him read,” he said, “you could not go back to the book.” Surprised? I was. It was great. And don't get me wrong...I like books (Lumsden referred to poetry books as “necessary evils”...fairly accurate in many ways).

The event was finished by Martin Newell with a rather out-of-place song about whiskey and women (it was St Andrews and 11 in the morning...more like croissants and crosswords...but anyway...). As he sang he reminded me rather unfortunately of Bill Nighy in the film 'Still Crazy'. Still I liked Newell...quite a lot (mad as several trees though of course...possibly a whole forest).

After this I set off through the mean streets of St Andrews (Sloane male students still wear stripey shirts! Sloane girl students still make me want to ram their stupid thousand pound sunglasses down their stupid throats! Oxbridge flashback I remember why I was driven to drugs!) and made my way to the 'intimate reading' with Simon Armitage. You may remember I had been reading some Armitage of late (here) and hadn't really come to anything like any opinions on anything in it...I didn't love it, didn't hate it, I just wasn't quite sure what I made of it at all. I loved this event though, am really glad I chose it and now consider myself a thorough Armitage fan! It was a small group and a friendly one and Armitage read almost entirely from his translation of the 14th Century Middle English poem 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'. He seemed clearly relieved to be doing this and I suspect that, to an extent, he's quite weary of reading his own completely original poems and being interrogated about himself and his own personal thoughts and life (he does a lot of readings and appearances, he's one of the UK's most well-known poets currently). He came to life talking about Gawain though and although it's not something I know much about I really, really enjoyed the session and particularly relished listening to his enthusiasm for and experiences with the project (I could have been a translator once, a long time ago so for many reasons I am interested in the subject). I'm sure most of the group felt the same and I don't know what his Friday night main-slot-show was like but this 'intimate' event was a really mesmerising 45 minutes in a lovely sunny room with some civilised, inquisitive people. It made me see partly why Armitage has done so well (because he really has) - he loves his work (particularly this project, I think) and that kind of enthusiasm is infectious. Sometimes after poetry readings I feel confused or wild or frustrated or a bit annoyed or even downright angry but after this session I felt calm and rejuvenated! I think maybe even he enjoyed it too. I saw him smile. Who knows...maybe there was even zing...

After this I grabbed a rubbish sandwich from somewhere (I couldn't taste it being so full of the cold anyway) and then met up with my home team briefly. Small Girl was off to the Carol Ann Duffy kids show with her Grandma in the afternoon (Grandma loved it...SG prefers stories and would rather have gone to the cinema to see another film about dogs...still, it's character forming...). Grandma was also off to the Ian Rankin in conversation event (which she seemed quite happy with...she fell asleep though I bet...she's 84...nods off a lot). I, on the other hand, went off to the Poets' Market in the Town Hall where I shared a small table with the Shugs (well, Bryden mainly...McMillan and Mark went to watch rugby...oh and didn't England win?). By market time I was pretty worn out in truth (what with the dread and the relief and the rejuvenation and everything...) but it was still well worth going – some sales, some lovely folk, some chat with people whose poems I've liked somewhere along the way, more offline words exchanged with Claire and Sorlil and other blogging poets. Shug B and I were squeezed between the lovely Tessa Ransford and the women from Magma magazine who had chocolates so all in all it was a pleasant afternoon. Then at 5 pm we packed up and got the hell out of there – back to the dog (and dogsitter Jo) and to the house and to the rest of everything. And so now I'm worn out and it's over for another year but I am looking forward to everyone else's StAnza 09 tales with something quite like bated breath. So get on with them, the rest of you!
Lots of love (and I'm going back to lie down again now)

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Jump around!

It's going to take me ages to write up my StAnza 09 story (so much to listen to and to think about, so many folk to meet and get to know better, so many fashion crimes in one small town...). In the meantime please enjoy this from Paul Weller in possibly his strangest phase - the Style Council (unsurprisingly, perhaps, my favourite Weller age). This song is playing loud in our house this morning because it's Mother's Day (so I get to skive off everything...even more than usual) and because we picked up a Style Council CD compilation in St.Andrews' Oxfam in Saturday (for me...I've got one on vinyl that I never remember to play...Mark prefers Dadrock-acoustic-Weller...Small Girl likes the Jam). But never mind all that...for now lets jump about and generally party like it's 1985...

Thursday, 19 March 2009

And another thing

Here's something interesting I came across this morning. I found it on artist/musician Emil Thompson's Myspace page and it is a talk about education and creativity by a bloke called Ken Robinson. It's one of these TED videos that seem to be all over the place just now (and you're all switched on enough to ignore the sponsorship advertising, right?). This one is worth a listen because it's intelligent, accurate and funny too. After that - go and listen to Heidi Talbot in the post below.

Invisible – yes, please!

So – I'm off to St Andrews in Fife tomorrow for an overnight stay...some poetry business, some meeting folk, some family mini-break...oh and I've got a cold! Still I thought I'd leave you with something lovely for the weekend so here's Heidi Talbot (guest at our folk club this Tuesday gone) singing a lovely song from her latest album 'In love and light'. This song 'Invisible' was written by Boo Hewerdine (who I've mentioned here before) and he's playing guitar on the clip below too. These days John McCusker plays fiddle with Talbot but on this clip (from 2007) it is still Tola Custy. Talbot, McCusker and Hewerdine made a great St Patrick's Day team on Tuesday – an Irish singer (and part-time ukele player), a Scottish fiddler (and whistle player) and an Englishman on guitar and alternate lead and backing vocals. Which all reminds me of another song...but anyway here's Heidi playing with Boo and Tola...enjoy.


Tuesday, 17 March 2009

News and reviews

Today I'm posting a sort-of book review that is part of one of those blog tour thingeys. It's Fiona Robyn's book 'The Letters'...and I'll get to it in a minute...first a couple of bits and pieces.

Firstly I must thank Dominic Rivron for his great tune for 'Before I drop' (see last post). When we've got enough for an album we'll let you know!

Secondly the night in Dundee at the Apex hotel on Sunday was a real experience – there was so much to do for a start. What with compering what was a very busy night with lots of different musical performers (and quite a few spontaneous changes to the programme!), reading some poems (I got 8 in altogether...a mixture of styles and subject matters and sizes...), making sure I got all the announcements and information right, managing the enjoying the music...I was pretty worn out by the time it was all over. Still it was a brilliant night and thousands of pounds were raised for Medical Aid for Palestinians. On a personal note I got to hear Sheena Wellington sing for the first time (and I loved her own songs especially - I didn't know she was a songwriter as well as a singer). I also got to introduce Michael Marra (and not mess it up!) and to read poems in front of probably the biggest audience I've faced (about 250 people) it was all pretty exciting. I know size isn't everything (audience-wise) but it does change your mindset a little to begin with when you look out and see quite so many faces looking back! I was a little nervous to begin with but at the end of the day they weren't there for me (they were there for the cause or for Michael Marra or both) so even if I had messed up...what would it have mattered anyway! I read the 'Before I drop' (as a poem) and mentioned the song to the excellent women's choir Loadsaweeminsingin (who were performing on the night too). I would just love it if they would sing it – they are so fantastic and put so much energy and positivity into everything they do.

But now...on with the blog tour...

I first came across the writer Fiona Robyn via one of her blogs – A Handful of Stones (and I think I came to that blog via poet Juliet Wilson). Then a little while back I saw Fiona had a novel coming out and I offered her a book swap. Swap we did and here is my kind-of a, sort-of a review of Fiona's book 'The Letters' (I don't do newspaper-ready reviews any more neat and tidy packages tied up with string from me...bring on the rambling, wandering pondering affairs...).


OK...well..if I'm going to be honest (and honesty is practically my middle name...) my first thought when the book arrived and I saw the cover was 'oh no – it's one of those books...'. Here's the cover:

I'm not saying it's hideous or anything but I suppose I am saying that I don't often read books with covers like this (I do sometimes but it's usually when I'm ill or something and even then it usually ends with me thinking 'bloody hell, that's hours of my life I won't get back!). Let's look at it again...a slim, model-like mysterious (headless!) woman in a long red dress that is blowing in the wind...Eek! A lady in red! I wondered...was this going to be a cheesey romance? Or a 'book for the beach' (and therefore fairly useless for me as I don't do beach holidays...I should explain...we live near the beach anyway, plus flying and crowds make me twitchy). So I panicked (a little). What would I say to the no doubt charming Fiona about her book if it was a...beach read? “It's really not my kind of thing”? The infamous “not my cup of tea”? Still, the book was already here in my house, ready to read...I'd best give it a chance. I do say I like to try all kinds of writing...

So I read it. And phew! Double phew! Triple phew with some extra phews on for good measure. Because I really enjoyed it and it's an interesting, well-written, thoughtful book. I can only think that the (for me) fairly wishy-washy cover is a ploy to get lots of women who do like romantic novels and beach novels to pick it up in bookshops (or supermarkets or airports...) and thereby enter a far more interesting written world than the one that lassie on the cover might suggest. Phew again.

So, now that's all out of the way...what did I enjoy about 'The Letters'? That's a tricky one but only because 'The Letters' is one of those novels where some of its best features are surprises and I really don't want to spoil anything for potential readers. All I will say is – the characters are strong and varied and totally cliché free, the story is unpredictable (a major plus!), the writing is poetic and carefully detailed and the book definitely has that must-keep-reading factor (unputdownability?). I read it in two days...and I would have read it in one night if I didn't have a family to organise and, oh you know, stuff to do. I passed it on to a friend who also really enjoyed it and we will pass it on to others too. All those friends are women, so far, because I'm not sure how many male friends I would pass it on to in all honesty. That's another tricky subject (books about motherhood and relationships and families) because whilst there is no good reason why men shouldn't read books like this by women (hell, men and women both read 'Anna Karenina' and 'Madame Bovary' – classic books about relationships and families...) it is still one of those things that doesn't quite work both ways, don't you think? It's a huge subject (and one I'm not sure I should open up right here, right now) but one thing I do know...that cover may help some women to pick up the book (girlier women than me, obviously...) but it definitely won't entice any men to do so. Maybe the publishers and author decided that men wouldn't read the book anyway so it wasn't an issue. Or maybe I'm way off. Any thoughts?

But what more can I give you without giving too much plot away? The book has two time present and one back in 1959...and the stories from both are very well woven together. I loved the way Fiona dropped in lots of little references to stones ('stone' must be her favourite word I think) and I admired the way she made her central character really quite selfish and annoying at times. Overall I''d say this book has an awful lot that makes it worth reading and I would recommend it for sure. Yes, unreservedly I would say read it...and whether you read it on a train, a plane, a bus, a beach, or in the bath...well, that's really up to you.


Saturday, 14 March 2009

As if by magic...

Yesterday I posted a poem...and somewhere in the comments I asked for tunes to make it a song. Regular visitor Dominic Rivron sent me a tune this morning (in da email) and lo and behold now you can hear it sung here. It's me singing (unaccompanied) and I make no claims to 'being a singer' so bear with my croaks now and then (and excuse any bangs, glitches and winds whistling in the's windy here today and we just recorded it on Mark's clever phone). I can read music but only notes...not the clever bits like timing and stuff... so I kind of did it in my own time zone. But as Dominic's folk pretty much anything goes.

I tell you...this internet stuff – it's a lot of fun. And who says blogging isn't creative? We just made something, didn't we? (Thanks so much Dominic!)

!!!!STOP PRESS!!!!!
Dominic has just sent me his version here with him singing and playing guitar.


Friday, 13 March 2009

Poem alone

Usually when I post poems here I give them some introduction...or some background...or some kind of build-up...but today - just to be different - here is a poem all alone. It's been on my mind this week for various reasons.

Before I drop

"Nobody's mother can't not never do nothing right" Liz Lochhead

There's a few months yet
The job will be done
Later I'll rest
Today I'll work on

Think of sleep and of vigour
All soon to be gone
Later I'll plan
For now I'll work on

The washing, the worries
All that put upon
Let's not waste the quiet
Go on fool, work on

I'll drop what I carry
One labour part done
Till then I'll be working
Work on girl, work on

RF 2005

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

From Penny Lane to Botany Bay - in 25 writers (or thereabouts)

So there I was thinking about Adrian Mitchell (last post) and then Juliet Wilson tagged, bagged or flagged me with one of those meme thingeys (and it looked interesting) and sent me off down a whole other avenue. I know some of you have done your versions already...but here's mine (and I wish Mitchell had been one of my 25 influences but I've only come across him relatively recently so he can't...which is a shame). Anyway...

The mission - 'to name 25 writers who have influenced me'

Influence. Hmmm...interesting word. Do we ever really know what influences us in anything we do (never mind our writing)? Sometimes it is fairly clear...other times less so....and also there are some writers we might wish were our influences when really, in all honesty, maybe it's someone much less highbrow/cool/enigmatic that actually got us to change our ways, or try something different or think in a different way. I've worked quite hard to try and make this an honest list but that might mean it is a bit of an odd mixture (and, of course, I might still be completely wrong on all counts). I have used the word 'writer' in its widest sense (writers don't just write books) and I've worked through influences chronologically (as I came across the writer in question). It was just getting too messy otherwise...such is my life...such is all life really...

Stage A - Primary School

The writers I read most in the primary years were probably Enid Blyton, Dodie Smith, Roald Dahl, Hilaire Belloc...and some others I can't remember so well (I wrote a bit about children's fiction back here). Did any of those writers really influence me though? I suppose so but nothing jumps out. I watched a lot of TV too but more than anything I remember sitting and listening to my older sisters' 7 inch singles (as I may have mentioned before) so the influential writers from this period that I'm going to pick out are:

Lennon & McCartney (1) - and as the song that has stuck with me the longest from that time in terms of lyrics is 'Penny Lane' (and that was 90% McCartney, it says online somewhere) then I guess it is mostly the second half of that writing partnership that I should name. “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes...” - as a child I loved that...and I still do. I think I would call it poetic too (here are the rest of the lyrics). Plus Penny Lane went on to be a character in one of my favourite films too ('Almost Famous'...but you knew that...).

Also my favourite book was 'Ballet Shoes' so I might pick out:

Noel Streatfeild (2) – as well. I read 'Ballet Shoes' so many times that it must have influenced me somehow, somewhere! I liked the idea of the girls being free of their backgrounds and parents, I think, and I liked all the stuff about theatres and plays and writers. I was less interested in the bits about car maintenance...and nothing has changed there.

Stage B - Secondary School

Harper Lee (3) – I was talking about 'To kill a mockingbird' not that long ago (here) and I'm sure most of you have read it (at least once). I can remember the feeling of sitting in the classroom at school and just loving that book with all my heart (well, except for the bit that loved some unsuitable teenage boy who wasn't worthy of me, no doubt). But Harper Lee - to write so well and say so much, to bring a world to life so effectively, to write for the greater good – now there's something to aim for!

Robert Frost (4) – I was just talking about him recently. We read a lot of poems that I liked at school when I was about 15 but the apparent clarity of Frost's work rung several kinds of bells with me back then. The poems we read were plain and straightforward and yet...not that at all (and I try to work more or less in that vein, I think). I also liked how he wrote about the world he knew – perfect detail, no pretensions, just writing well about what was around him.

Neil Young (5) – whilst in later years I became a fan of many other singer/songwriters of the 1960s and 70s (Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Carole King...not Dylan and Cohen like so many other poets), Young is one that I remember listening to particularly as a teenager. I must have listened to the song 'Old Man' so many times (when I was about 15) that I nearly wore a(nother) hole in my brother's copy of the 'Harvest' vinyl LP (1972...but I listened to it in about 1981 or so). I liked it so much that I think I went and got my own copy (for some huge price like £3.29) and now we have it on CD. I still love 'Harvest' as an album and the words are a great part of that. “Doesn't mean that much to me/To mean that much to you” and other lines I sang over and over and over and I think they may nearly have worn holes in my head too! How did they influence me? Hard to say...they just made me aware that I loved songs and words with a kind of crazy passion. Again Young writes about his world...fairly simply but at the same time perceptively and creatively.

Siegfried Sassoon (6) – mostly people mention Wilfred Owen when talking about First World War poetry but we didn't read any Owen at school (and like Lee Hall...if you listened to that radio documentary recently...I got most of my classic literature from school, not home). A poem we did read at school though was Siegfried Sassoon's “At the Cenotaph” and it made quite an impression on me. Here it is:

At the Cenotaph

I saw the Prince of Darkness, with his Staff,
Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
Unostentatious and respectful, there
He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
“Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
Means; their discredited ideas revive;
Breed new belief that War is purgatorial
Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
Men’s biologic urge to readjust
The Map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust;
And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace.”
The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph
Bowed. As he walked away I heard him laugh.

By Siegfried Sassoon

“Blind vindictive peace” - strong stuff and, again, saying something fairly loud and clear (and well). And it rhymes...bang, bang, bang, at the end of the line. I like that kind of rhyme...not very fashionable, but I like it. Bring the beat back and all that.

Stage C - Sixth form

We lived in London when I was at sixth form (aged 16-18). I was a bit of girl in from the wilds...very out of place at a fancy school in South Kensington where nothing looked or sounded or tasted like Middlesbrough any more, that was for sure. I was saved from certain disaster by my two English literature teachers. They were fantastic and they taught me about:

William Shakespeare (7) – well, just because he's the biggest of all cheeses that's no reason not to mention him is it? Reading 'Hamlet' with these two lovely teachers was, quite simply, heaven in a classroom. They really made us understand (well, me anyway) what was so special about the words on the pages and why they mattered so much. We learned about the humour (even in the in the tragedies...), the strong characters, the timeless themes, the way the words can sound beautiful when read aloud...

T.S.Eliot (8) – we studied 'The Wasteland' with the same teachers. It was probably the first modern poetry I ever read so it had a huge impact and I loved it at the time (when I was about 17). I got very excited about the whole patchwork nature of it and the big, strong, powerful, booming words. I didn't write poetry back then (not at all...I thought I was going to be a news reporter or something...) but I liked the idea that poetry could be like this, could be so dark and domineering and completely on its own road.

Gabriel García Márquez (9) – in my Spanish A level studies we read 'El Coronel no tiene quien le escribe' ('No one writes to the Colonel')which I have written about here before. Of all the writers (in Spanish) that I read in those study years I think Gabo (and this book in particular) is the one that got most into my head. He's very good on detail...and I like detail. This book presents politics, poverty, bitterness, sadness...all in a little story about not very much at all...about whether a man has any coffee in his pot.

Lawrence Kasdan & Barbara Benedek (10) – writers of the film 'The Big Chill' (1983). I first watched this film when I was about 17 (and didn't like it that much then to be honest). A few years later I watched it again...and then again...and then again. It is so perfectly written (and the music is good too) that I'm not sure I could ever try to write a screenplay seriously because what would be the point? I can quote pretty much the whole film. It's specialist subject is really just people and how they behave...which is kind of my specialist subject too...sometimes. Again the detail in the writing here is phenomenal – no throwaway lines, no moment wasted. I like tightly packed writing but you might not believe that...reading this!

Margaret Drabble (11) – my Mum loved all Drabble's books (particularly the ones from the 1960s and 70s) and had them all in the house. At about 17 I started to read them quite voraciously. They were very adult and philosophical and about grown-up lives (particularly women's). You don't see them mentioned very often these days (maybe they're a bit dated and she seems to be better known as an academic now) but her novels are really very good. Again they are excellent on the detail of how people behave, what they say to each other, what they don't. She's not a writer who's afraid to face up to unpleasant truths either.

Willy Russell (12) – I went to see the film 'Educating Rita' (1983) at the cinema when I was about 17. A bit like reading 'Mockingbird' at school...I can still remember how I felt at the end of the film...amazed, exhilarated...and maybe just starting to hope that one day I might somehow be involved in a piece of work as good as that one. “Do you know Yeats?” “The wine lodge?” I loved it. Funny, harsh, about ordinary lives, about how people interact, about books, starring Julie Walters...what's not to love?

Paul Simon (13) – was it about now I started listening to Paul Simon and Simon and Garfunkel? I'm not exactly sure but I know he has written some great words (and tunes). I listened to that 'One Trick Pony' (1980) album over and over and over when I was about 17. He's very playful with words and yet can write very moving lyrics too. “How the heart approaches what it yearns...” and all that. I've never seen the film in fact but here is a bit of it (and is it me or does Paul Simon look like the Fonz in that clip?).

Stage D – University

I was a bad girl at uni. I think I went at the wrong time or something and I really didn't want to be there so I drank a lot (fairly normal) and watched a lot of TV (ditto) and didn't read much (again, sadly, fairly common). I think what Oscar Wilde really wanted to say was that university education is wasted on students...or something like that. Still...I did manage a few books.

Fydor Dostoevsky (14) – I read every book he'd ever written (pretty much), though in English because I was too lazy at this point to work on Russian properly. I was also too drunk (something many Russians would appreciate...including FD in his time, no doubt). He wrote very much about the truth of human nature (particularly its weaknesses and madnesses) and again this is subject matter that I know I am drawn to.

Ben Elton and friends (15) - no, not the crappy paperbacks and the Queen musical! In the 1980s alternative comedy was big, loud and exciting and I watched a lot of it around this time. I had tapes of Alexei Sayle, went to see Ben Elton and various others live and watched the 'Young Ones', 'Spitting Image' and UK's 'Friday Night Live/Saturday Live' shows on TV. I'd always liked TV comedy as a kid (Dave Allen, Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise...I was writing about that at Xmas back here) but around this time I started to enjoy the more overtly biting and political comedy that was coming out too. Elton, of course, went on to work on 'Blackadder' (another great project in terms of writing) and though he comes over as a twat these days (with the Lloyd Webber projects and all that) I still think he was funny back then (current crapness does not wipe out past good works necessarily). Anyone remember his routine about men and periods and cricket whites? It still makes me laugh (and there are a lot of new male stand-ups who may look down their noses at Elton but who have still not written anything as funny or as spot-on as that). It's fairly uncool to admit it but he and the comedy of that time has undoubtedly been an influence on me somehow, somewhere. Maybe I should have done an exam paper on that...might have got a better degree...

Germaine Greer (16) – some of you may not know this but she's a great writer as well as everything else. I've read most of her books and I have inherited from my mother the belief that GG can do very little wrong. I like the way she looks at things...always in her own way...paying such attention to detail...not giving a hoot about what anyone thinks of her. From the political essays to the memoir about her father ('Daddy, We Hardly Knew You') her direct but intelligent and exciting style is one that has always appealed to me.

Stage E - Adult life (well, it had to happen...eventually..)

Lemn Sissay (17) – I wrote comedy/cabaret reviews for a local paper in Leeds for about a year (around 1990). One night I went to the Duchess pub to a night called Leeds Alternative Cabaret and saw a poet from the other side of the Pennines called Lemn Sissay. What do they say...blown away? Completely. Lemn is one of those people...when he speaks you can't help but listen. He's a really thoughtful person too and, as I've said somewhere before, he made me realise that night (and also later on when I interviewed him) that there was more to modern poetry than T.S.Eliot. I suppose some of you already knew that by then but I didn't...up to that point I'd been more interested in prose really. Lemn has the energy of at least ten ordinary mortals too - I'm a big fan.

Gil Scott Heron (18) – about the same time I was doing a lot of raving and a lot of driving – sometimes at the same time. Usually in the car (I had a company car...I had a job!) I listened to slower, funkier music and I particularly liked stuff like NWA's 'Express Yourself' and pretty much anything by Gil Scott Heron. GSH is a brilliant writer (as well as musician and performer) and many of his words have stayed with me ever since I first heard them. Some of the lines from his best known track 'The revolution will not be televised' are just brilliant, for example. Here are the lyrics and there's a video of it here.

Roger McGough (19) – once I started writing poetry more regularly (about 1997) I looked for poets that didn't make me feel like I was completely wasting my time up the wrong tree, as it were, and when I did I found this one (Northern, a bit funny, a bit straightforward, a bit weird, not very formal...). I suppose he gave me permission to carry on in the direction I was heading, if you know what I mean. He almost whispered “it's don't have to write every poem like you're trying to win the National Poetry Competition...just enjoy it...write for readers and listeners...write for people not prizes...” McGough is successful but not fashionable or particularly critically acclaimed. Here's a little poem of his that I particularly like:

Children's Writer

John in the garden
Playing goodies and baddies

Janet in the bedroom
Playing mummies and daddies

Mummy in the kitchen
Washing and wiping

Daddy in the study

by Roger McGough
(and I did buy the book 'Collected Poems' full-price in a bookshop Mr McGough, if that makes you feel any better about me nicking the poem for on here)

Wendy Cope (20) – for similar reasons, I found this poet too about the same time (except she's a bit funny, a bit cynical, a bit not-at-all-cynical, female). I saw her read (quite a few years back...bit of a vague memory) but it was one of the first poetry readings I went to (that wasn't in a pub) and I loved the way she communicated with the audience, the way her poems really spoke to people and broke down the awkward 'sitting in rows' business.

Philip Larkin (21) – then I realised that somehow bizarrely my long-dead Dad's favourite poet was now my favourite too (no plan there...just the inescapable truths of family likenesses I suppose). So is he an influence? I have no idea really but I've written quite a lot about this poet already and I know that it's the combination of humour and misery, comedy and tragedy, that makes his work so important to me. That and the clarity, the examination of now, the precision and the searching really hard for truth.

Liz Lochhead (22) – I read her poem 'Everybody's Mother' in about 2003 and I rejoiced. Cope, much as I love her, writes some of those 'women moaning about blokes over a glass of wine' poems that I don't much enjoy (for me they are a bit stereotyping in places, if funny). Lochhead writes about women in a different she's using a wider lense, if you know what I mean. She's inspiring.

Carol Shields (23) – her novel 'Duet' is brilliant and had quite a strong effect on me (women writing their asses off always appeals!). I like Alice Munro's work too and it's not completely dissimilar in style and output as both women write in a very detailed, very precise way about the world of now.

Helena Nelson (24) – Helena is the only person who has persuaded me to change any of my poems (probably ever...). I like some of her poems very much too...she combines being a nice poetry lady with being a bit of a shocker in a way that I much admire.

Anonymous/various (25) – these days I listen to a lot of folk songs and a lot of the writers are unknown/unnamed. One of the first folk songs I listened to over and over was 'Botany Bay' (the version I had was sung by Kate are the lyrics). Some of the unclaimed words of these songs have lasted for centuries and I like that about them. They are old friends, as Paul Simon once wrote... “like bookends”...they punctuate our lives...they're worth a mention.

Heck, that was hard work...but thanks Juliet because it was interesting to think about too. Are these really influences...or just stuff I like? I really don't know! I'm not going to tag, bag or flag anyone because I'm interested in all of you but be warned...I just lost three days of my life to this one. Or it could be I'm just putting off worrying about Sunday night (out into the world again, are you mad?). See you at the Apex Hotel, Dundee at 7.30pm if you're local....otherwise see you in the comments.


Monday, 9 March 2009

Dynamite shoes and daisy chains

So many links in the world of poetry. Just recently I was linking to the Lee Hall radio programme “A Strong Song Tows us” (two posts back) and one voice you could hear on that excellent recording was poet Adrian Mitchell's (1932-2008). Mitchell was reading in the 1960s at a Morden Tower poetry event in England's North East and it was interesting to hear him mixed in with all the Geordies and Americans on that show partly because Mitchell had such a middle-class middle England voice (accent-wise) but still he managed to be so much more than just another product of that funny little world. He was radical, passionate, political – an international poet for sure.

A short while ago there was a special edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme 'Poetry Please' featuring the work of Adrian Mitchell. I can't link to the whole programme because the links are only live for a week but I did want to write something about it (mainly for those of you who didn't catch it). Mitchell was known as a political poet, a children's poet, a playwright, an activist but like many good writers he was quite simply just many things to many people. I only saw Mitchell live once - at the StAnza festival last year where he was talking about the work of William Blake (one of his huge passions). I wrote a little about that event here and I'm so glad I went and met him (just months before he died). There was something so vital about Mitchell as he talked about Blake in that crowded room in St Andrews in March of last year that I couldn't help myself...I had to go and be the annoying person who talked to him afterwards. He had such fire, such passion, such a clear look in his eyes and a firm shake to his hand...he was very much the kind of man who makes others feel better just by being there (well, others like me anyway!). Some of you may think all this is's all just about the poems isn't it? Well, not always no. I tend to think it is important to be the best writer/poet you can be but that it is just as important to be the best person you can be too (it doesn't always work but it's important to my book anyway). Mitchell is an example of a person who, I think, gave his all in both areas (writing and the rest of life). All of the people in the “Poetry Please” programme seemed to agree – it was quite a tribute show.

For those of you who didn't catch it, the programme included:

- a charming introduction by poet Roger McGough (the usual “Poetry Please” presenter but also a friend of Mitchell's).

- the simply delightful writer Jackie Kay talking about Mitchell in these glowing terms - “he was warm and lovely and a great performer of his work. He just loved music and had a lot of musicality to his poetry. He was a really kind man and so generous to other poets.” Kay read Mitchell's “Back in the Playground Blues” (from “Blue Coffee” - all his books are published by Bloodaxe Books). You can read that poem here.

- poet Michael Horovitz remembering the Royal Albert Hall event from 1965 (International Poetry Incarnation) where Mitchell famously performed his poem “To whom it may concern” to a huge audience. Mitchell reading this, his most well-known poem (with its 'Tell me lies about Vietnam” refrain), was also featured on the radio programme and you can find it all over the is the text and here he is reading it back in 1965. It is in Mitchell's book “Tell me lies – poems 2005-2008”. I think it shows just how powerful (and indeed beautiful) a political poem can be.

- TV journalist Andrew Marr cropping up to talk about how he first got to know Mitchell (seeing him read/perform whilst at university). Marr went on to become a friend of Mitchell's and described him as “forthright, direct...he can be very angry in his poetry too but there is an irreducible innocence and a sweetness...and I mean sweetness as a complete compliment.” Marr read Mitchell's “A Puppy called Puberty” (from “Blue Coffee”).

- poet John Hegley (surely one of modern Britain's favourites) reading Mitchell's “Ten ways to avoid lending your wheelbarrow to anybody” (except it was nine ways as Hegley insisted one of the ways was too rude for radio). A very funny (and a very serious) and a very clever poem (from “Tell me Lies”). Fantastic – read it here.

- writer Michèle Roberts reading “Every day is mothering Sunday to me” (from “The Shadow Knows”).

- Adrian's wife Celia Hewitt telling how they met and reading a poem of his about war called “The Doorbell” (from “Tell me Lies”).

- one of Britain's Premiership poets Carol Ann Duffy telling how she met Mitchell when she was “eighteen...a baby poet” and that he was “one of the most phenomenal performers of poetry I've ever heard” who mixed his interest in politics and protest with an amazing love of life. She read Mitchell's “Sorry bout that” (from “Tell me Lies”).

- poet Brian Patten telling how in Mitchell's writing “often the boundary between what was for children and what was for adults evaporated in true Blakeian fashion”. Patten read Mitchell's “Disguise” from “The Shadow Knows” (and read it beautifully).

- actor Jonathan Pryce reading “Death is smaller than I thought” (from “In Person – 30 Poets”). This is such a simple poem...the clearest, plainest language...nothing fancy going on at fact it's the kind of thing that some people might question was poetry at all...but I love it. You can read it here or see Mitchell read it on the Bloodaxe website (somewhere on this page - scroll right down). One of the lines in “Death is smaller...” made me think of this song from a while back too. Can you spot it?

- poet John Agard reading Mitchell's “A Spell to make a bad hour pass” (from “Heart on the Left”).

Finally, to end the programme, McGough introduced part of a song called “Poetry glues your soul together” (from Mitchell's 1971 play about William Blake called “Tyger”). It was totally not my kind of music (a bit jazz...a bit Victoria Wood...a bit doo-be-doo) but do you know what? I have been singing the damn thing all week...and now I love it. The chorus goes a little something like this (I tried to find a clip or a sound file but no joy as yet – if I find one I'll post it up later):

“Poetry glues your soul together,
Poetry wears dynamite shoes,
Poetry's the spittle on the mirror,
Poetry wears nothing but the blues...”

What a writer. What a life well spent. May the rest of us be half the good human being he was.


Saturday, 7 March 2009

A quick song

I'm working on an Adrian Mitchell post just now and hunting for some information I need to finish it. In the meantime please enjoy a little song I heard this week on the Mike Harding radio show on BBC R2. The band is The Humblebums (at this point Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly...the latter we were talking about back here) and the song is called 'Rick Rack' (from the 1969 album 'The New Humblebums'). Enjoy the song and enjoy your weekends, people.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Keep an eye (or an ear) out for...

A brilliant radio programme

Mentioned by Swiss in the comments for the last post - 'A Strong Song Tows Us' was written and presented by Lee Hall (Hall is most famous for his 'Billy Elliot' screenplay but he's worked on all kinds of projects). If you're interested in poetry at all go and have a listen. It focuses on poetry in the Newcastle area of England in the twentieth century but there are all kinds of other bits of information too. There are some great lines from poet Basil Bunting in it for a start...'every poet worth tuppence writes aloud'...Well, obviously!


The guests at our folk club in Montrose this Tuesday past. Made up of one Scot, one Norwegian and an Englishman they are a band who really make some beautiful sounds (mainly with voices, guitar, fiddle and whistles). Most of their songs are Norwegian but they also did a Robert Frost poem set to music and an Edwin Muir one too. Worth investigating.

Another night in Dundee

I've been asked to do some more compere/poetry work so at 7.30pm on Sunday 15th March you will find me at the Apex Hotel in Dundee presenting a fantastic line-up of musicians as part of a fundraising event for Medical Aid for Palestinians. The line-up includes Michael Marra, Sheena Wellington, Pauline Hynd, Loadsaweeminsingin and Buskers Against the Bomb. Tickets are £10 and on sale from Grouchos music store in Dundee.

And then back to Montrose

Two days later on Tuesday 17th March the marvellous Heidi Talbot, John McCusker and Boo Hewerdine will be folk club guests at the Links Hotel, Montrose (8pm). Tickets £8. Simply unmissable, I don't care where you live!

Now it's back to making the tea and sorting out fancy dress for Small Girl's World Book Day at school tomorrow. Boy, does she like to dress up!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

By my bed, in my head

I'm reading lots of different poetry books just now...more at once than I would normally...they're all up there by the bed and on the desk upstairs...probably dancing around the room when I'm not there. I know some of you read heaps of poetry all the time but I usually read mine in small doses, spread out over time, mixed in with novels and newspaper articles and more. There are lots of reasons for this current change: (a) I've been book-shopping more than usual of late and most of that shopping has been done in the poetry section (Borders in Dundee mainly), (b) I've got to one of those can't-read-any-more-novels-for-a-while points (Patrick Gale's 'Notes from an Exhibition' that I picked up in a charity shop recently just about finished me off...explanation on request) and (c) well, I'm just in the mood for poetry I suppose (I'm not always). I say this a lot but I really do like all kinds of to try them anyway...professors of literature...street poets writing directly onto pavements with chalk...I really like to go in without blinkers, if I can. For me it really is just about how a poet puts their words together...does it do anything to my brain that's interesting or not? And then if they end up saying something interesting too...well, then...hurray, hurray, hurray...jackpots, flashing lights, dancing on tables...

So, this is what I'm reading (in alphabetical order) – I'm not going to analyse each book too much just now...just a few random thoughts:

Simon Armitage 'Selected Poems'
Bought full price in a bookshop!
Armitage is one of those poets who I feel I...well...should like (he's very Northern English, he's my generation, he's a big music fan etc.) but who I've somehow never really got into, if you know what I mean. The book of his I've enjoyed most so far is the non-fiction prose 'All Points North' but I thought it was time to give his poems another go so I got a ticket for one of his StAnza events and bought this book to prepare! I'm reading it a little at a time and I am warming to it (little by little) as I go. So far the poem that has made me go back and read it again most is one called 'At Sea' (from 1992's 'Kid'). I'm not sure he'll ever be my favourite poet or anything (why is he just too nice?) but I am enjoying getting to know his work better.

Wendy Cope 'Serious Concerns'
Bought full price in a bookshop (possibly with birthday book tokens though)
In the days when we were much more skint I used to do a lot of photocopying library books and this was one of the books I copied quite a lot. Wendy Cope (who moans about people getting poems free on-line) would probably disapprove of that kind of behaviour. However now we are less skint I can go mad and buy books that I have grown to love (like this one from 1992) so I'm afraid that shows the silliness of all those arguments (including yours, Ms Cope, much as I love you). Still, those differences aside, I do thoroughly enjoy and admire the way she combines humour and devastating observation, the way she switches effortlessly between different styles, the way she sidesteps literary many things about her writing. She may not the be the critics' choice...but honestly who cares? (Not I!).

Sophie Hannah – 'Pessimism for Beginners'
Got this one in a book swap.
I've only ever read Hannah's poems in anthologies so I wanted to try...oh you know...a full book. I was also interested by the title because 'Living for beginners' was one title I considered for my recent publication (and I suppose we are not that different as poets...though of course she is better known, more successful, more experienced...minor stuff like that). A lot of the poems in here are witty (which I get accused of too) but her sense of humour and subject matter is a bit English middle class par excellence for me (jokes about getting an au-pair etc.). Maybe if I'd grown up in, say, North London instead of Middlesbrough I might have written more like this...who knows? Still, I do like the book and there's lots of clever, crisp writing - my favourite so far being 'Round Robin' (having a go at those ridiculous xmas letters). It's an easy target but she does it well with lines like “Timothy got his partnership and Claire her PhD / Which all reflects extremely well on Dorothy and me.”. There are plenty of layers to the book and I like her sharpness so I will be reading and rereading for a while yet.

By the way I got tickets for my Mum and me to see Sophie Hannah at StAnza but Hannah has cancelled so it will be Kevin Cadwallender instead (Fri 20th March, 1pm in St Andrews, Fife). My Mum doesn't really like poetry and was only coming with me because Sophie Hannah is a bit famous and also writes non-poetry books that are on sale in Smiths/Waterstones etc. (sorry Kevin...mothers, what can you do?) so if anyone wants the spare ticket just let me know. I should point out that it is a 'Senior' ticket but maybe because of the cancellation the Byre will go easy on us and let anyone use it...but this is all getting a bit Blind Date...I'll move on...

Adrian Mitchell
Odd one...I don't own any Mitchell books and never see any in shops. I looked online and there are so many different books that I don't know which one to go for first. I listened to the BBC R4 'Poetry Please' Mitchell special the other week (and loved it!) and may write about that soon but in the meantime if anyone wants to offer Mitchells as swaps or point me in a direction of anything that would be much appreciated.

Don Paterson 'The Eyes' (a version of Antonio Machado)
On loan from local library
I mentioned this book a few posts ago. I keep meaning to get out the 'Poesías Completas' of Machado's that is up on my bedroom bookshelf (along with lots of other books I haven't looked at for years...) but I haven't got to it yet. In the meantime Paterson's version is certainly how I remember Machado...sad as sad can be...lots of emptiness. Gotta love it.

Don Paterson 'Landing Light'
Bought full price from a shop (Again! Am I splashing out these days or what!)
Unlike with the Armitage, straightaway several of the poems in here switched lights on for me...flick, flick, flick all over the place. Bitterness, tragic tones, cynicism, spiky intelligence, really perfectly targeted arrows to the heart...yep, that's me, signed, sealed and sucked in. So far my favourite is 'The Rat' (although incidentally if you go and read the poem via the link I've put there you can see that Paterson calls it a “not very good poem about a very good poem”). Oh...what does he know! Plus he must have thought it was good once...even if only for a second or two.
I might need a course in Classics to appreciate some of the other poems in this book more fully...except I'm just a bit distracted with other things right now (well seeing as you ask – family life, social life, 'Sopranos' series 2 , about a million different CDs, reading too much bloody poetry...). Maybe next year.

Stevie Smith 'Selected Poems'
Bought full price from a shop
I had this book from the library a while back and always wanted my own copy. It contains some real nonsense and some real sense (sometimes disguised as nonsense). I will be writing a big ol' post on this poet at some point soon. Anyone else a fan?

Wallace Stevens 'Poems selected by John Burnside'
Bought (again!) full price from a shop
Because I kept reading that he was the best poet ever and I hadn't read any of his work (ever). I am liking the poems in this book...but so far more in a line by line way than in a whole poem way. I'm not really ready to go into this one any deeper than that right now. Maybe more later.

So that's it for this broadcast from Plebs read Poetry Badly. Come back next week to see me compare and contrast T.S.Eliot classics with Lily Allen's song lyrics. As if I would....

Monday, 2 March 2009

The morning after

These days getting to bed any later than 11pm feels like a late night...and that is just so weird for someone who used to work in nightclubs, I can tell you. I can't believe I am the same person who sometimes used to leave the house for work/a night out at 11pm (and not come back for days...). How times have changed! Last night I got home at about half past midnight and now I'm very, very tired (and very, very hungry). It's pathetic really.

Still, a great night it was. Our bit went well (sorry, Hope, nothing recorded this time...Mark took little 'un to the pictures) and we sang our songs unaccompanied and without mistakes. I think we even enjoyed it. Verona sang a little song of her own called 'Treading Water' and that one is lovely so I will try and get a recording of that on here some time soon. I got good reactions to and comments about poems which is always SO appreciated (you don't want to expect it but it's lovely when it happens!). I sold some books too and even got a lovely email this morning from a charming (and satisfied) customer/reader. That's the kind of email a person likes to receive! I'd been unsure about reading my poem about Michael Marra (as he is a bit of a somewhat reluctant local hero in Dundee and I'm anything but local...) but it went really well and I could feel the love (for Marra) just flooding the room! That was a relief. A huge relief.

I'm not going to write about every part of last night's Out of the Woods show (some I may come back and write about another time) but one of the highlights of the night was definitely Dundee's own Pauline Hynd (or Pauline M as she used to be known...and her myspace doesn't really give you an idea of her range or, of course, how she comes over live). Pauline was better than ever and if she keeps on getting better like this she'll just explode with marvellousness one day! She really is a one-off kind of talent, so unpredictable and kind of casual with it. She did a whole range of songs from wandering and thoughtful, to catchy and huge-quirky-hit-potential, to very, very funny. The latter song was called 'Open the door, Rachel' (nothing to do with me!) and contained a lot of Dundee dialect...real class and beautifully played and judged. She uses language in such interesting ways, makes great observations, times things to perfection – if there is an X Factor for writing and performing...that woman's got it for sure!

I also enjoyed seeing the Dundee Rep Women's singing group Loadsaweeminsingin for the first time. A huge choir of women, the group were a joy to experience – so joyful, so obviously all having a great time and singing from their hearts and boots (or stilletos). Their set contained a lovely choice of songs too – covering all the moods. That's very much something I try to do in performance...get to the highest highs, the lowest lows...and everything in between.

Anyway...I think I need to go and lie down in a dark room but I'll be back in a wee while to write about some poets I'm reading just now. That sounds a bit Scottish, eh?