Monday, 29 December 2008

For my next trick...

I don't plan New Year's resolutions...they just kind of creep up on me. Plus they're not usually very resolution-like...they're just kind of ideas for the New Year. I never promise to give up this or take up that...I know myself too well and there is no way I will stick to 'giving up chocolate' or 'going jogging' past mid-January. In all honesty I probably wouldn't even get that far. I don't want to give up chocolate. I don't want to go jogging – I'm a walker, not a runner (hares and tortoises and all that...).

Last some point on Hogmanay after a couple of glasses of something...I had my idea for 2008 - I decided I would put out a book of my poems. At that point I wasn't sure how it would happen but I knew I would do it somehow. I thought about it for a few months, sent some things out, got some things back, decided to go it alone... and by June 2008 I had my book, back from the printers, sitting in my house smiling back at me. It happened and it led to lots of good things – people liked it, people bought it, no-one has slagged it off hugely (to my face anyway), people have given copies of it to other people they like as Xmas presents...and wow that feels good that kind of thing - I like being a present! I won't lie to you - there have been moments of self-doubt (and weeks of it too...) but overall it has been a good experience, the book business, so I don't think it was a bad idea for 2008. I did the book my way (all recycled comment about the ideas...), I chose the poems I believed in, I used artwork on the cover by my very good friend Steph Masterson and every time I look at that beautiful image it makes me glad she agreed to let me use it. For someone who has such a weak visual sense...I managed to get myself a really beautiful little book. I had help of course (my Mark, Steph, Steph's husband Scott). But wasn't help one of my six valued things? I believe it was!

Other things happened in 2008 besides the book thing of course. At home we finally got solar panels for our house and changed our whole heating system to make it greener too. Plus we all got a puppy (now about 9 months old). On the people front, Mark and I carried on trying to be good parents (that's as hard as ever!). Also we heard a lot of great music at the Folk Club and elsewhere. We had some ballroom dancing lessons. We tried to keep in touch with old friends as well as making new ones whenever possible.

But back to poetry. There have been some great gigs this year (for want of a better word...readings sound so sleepy). I enjoyed the Forest in Edinburgh and the Brechin Arts Festival but the Mothers' Day at Out of the Woods in Dundee was out of this world (big stage, big crowd, big reaction!). I have written some poems I've been pleased with this year too...'History at 40', 'A dream is a song of hope', 'Moon lines'. I could have written more if I'd been doing less blogging perhaps but then I've been reading some of the posts and comments this week and, you know, there's some good writing and thinking in there...from all of us. So keep calling by and chewing the fat with me...I don't think we're wasting our time doing all this. I think if we do this well it is all part of the job...and it is a job! I work harder at this than lots of people do at their places of paid employment, I know that much. I have had jobs, you know...I have seen the skiving involved! This year we've type-talked about lots of books, lots of music, lots of poets and poems but also about art, history, politics, people, films, love, sex, comedy, religion, holidays, drugs, misery, happiness, life, death and everything! Some days it makes my brain hurt! Some days I hate it and wish I could just get on and live without wondering about everything all the time! But I don't think that's ever going to happen. Do you?

I noted down a few quotes from this year's blog as I was reading through. I know it's weird to quote yourself but some of these just jumped out at me as I read through posts to remind myself what has been going on this year. Plus weird is pretty run of the mill in this house, I'm afraid. See if you remember any of these...

'Real life is such a drag' (13 January)

'Today happiness is a wooden spoon, a big lump of cheese and a woman singing her heart out' (5 March)

'Nervous breakdowns have so many advantages, I just can't tell you' (28 March)

'To me a lot of the stuff that gets talked about poetry is just fluff that spoils the sound on a record player' (5 July)

'I wonder if Emily Dickinson ever played mini-golf (unlikely)' (9th August)

So...rambling back to the subject...the big idea for 2009...what will it be? I have a few things rolling around in my head but maybe I won't know which one is going to push for the finishing line till some point on Hogmanay. Maybe it will take a bit longer than that. I'll let you know next week...or maybe a bit later in the year when it's clearer to me. It might be about writing but it might just as likely be about travelling or other people or the way I spend my time. In the meanwhile - any of you got any big plans for 09? Anyone going to sail round the world in an eggcup or anything?


Friday, 26 December 2008

Happy and new

I know it's a while yet till Hogmanay but I thought I'd link to my New Year poem ahead of time. It's called 'Happy new hope' and I put it on my MySpace blog so you can read it there if you like (or it's on my website under 'occasions'...or it was on the Herald blog in early January of this year...just for complete overkill!). Is that enough? No, it's a postcard too (just email me if you don't have one and would like one or two sent over for nowt...special offer for this week only). I've only written one or two sonnets but this one has been a hardworking little poem for me...maybe I'll write some more this year.

More rambling soon, I'm sure. I will be writing a bit about New Year's resolutions I think. In a couple of days time...

p.s. Speaking of the Herald..I've particularly enjoyed Diana Hendry's poems on the blog there in the past couple of weeks (especially this one). I like Hendry's work more and more...a purchase coming up in 2009 I think.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The Xmas Special 2008 - part two (films)

OK – got pies to make and stuff to wrap so let's make this quick! Last time I gave you some traditional Xmas TV comedy....this time let's talk about films. I watched film after film some Xmas Days as a child/teenager. It usually started with a kids film (Lassie or something) and ended with the most adult movie I could get away with at the time. Like most of us I do associate 'The Wizard of Oz' with Xmas (or Boxing Day to be precise, I'm sure that's when they always used to show it) but the film that I most remember watching at Xmas is related to The W of O in a sideways kind of a fashion.

One year when I was about 13 or 14 I remember staying up on my own last thing on 25th December to watch a film I'd never seen before. I didn't know anything about was just on. The film was 'Cabaret' and it looked a bit like this:

Isn't that just about the most marvellous thing you've ever seen and heard? I know some of you have been talking about 'Hallelujah' of late but for me Liza singing 'what good is sitting alone in your room' pretty much wipes the floor with Leonard's finest! I just love it – what a song, what a voice, what a show!

The film 'Cabaret' made quite an impression on me I suppose. I was already well off the straight and narrow and on my way down experimental street but after watching this I had new verve and application! I went on to live the cabaret life quite convincingly (and I guess I'm still at it...just undercover at the moment) and thinking about it maybe 'life is a cabaret' wouldn't be such a bad epitaph when it comes to the end of my story. Something along those lines anyway...maybe 'come hear the music play'...

But 'tis not the season to be thinking about epitaphs is it really? It must be all that talk of Adrian Mitchell...but let's not be sad! He was a fine man and he lived a fine life. So let's end this session on a song...another magnificent Minelli moment! See you on the other side...for now I'm off to go and watch 'Hairspray' again with Small 'how many hours till Xmas' Girl...


Monday, 22 December 2008

The Xmas Special 2008 – part one (comedy)

I didn't grow up in a household with a lot of Xmas traditions. I have friends who did and they are much more...Xmassy than I ever am. Is it a shame? Is there something missing in my life? Well, if there is there's not much I can do about it now!

One thing that was always a big part of Xmas for us growing up though was TV. We watched loads of it (and I mean LOADS). We watched mainly films and comedy at Xmas (my peak TV years being...about 1975-1983) and I went trawling about in YouTube to find a few clips that made me think of seasonal cheer. First off...'The Two Ronnies'. I can't see a date on this one but this is fairly typical Corbett & Barker (clever wordplay, slight smut and a reassuring good-natured friendliness between them):

I loved a lot of comedy in the 1970s (and when I say 'loved' I really do mean 'loved'). It's another of those things that links me to the Dad I didn't really know – he was a huge comedy fan too. I'm not one of those people who says comedy isn't as good as it used to be either – there is some useless stuff on now (and some stuff that I'm now just too middle-aged for!) but there is great new comedy too. I watched Bill Bailey's 'Tinselworm' DVD the other week – some pure silliness but some pure brilliance. I would really recommend that as long Xmas evening viewing.

But back to Xmas past – here's a fairly long clip from 'The Good Life' Xmas Special from 1977. The voices are all a bit hooray now (the BBC standard accent has changed a bit...) but in many ways the show was years ahead of its time. Look at Tom and Barbara's green lifestyle! But of course the show was really all about the lovely Margot and her amazing wardrobe, snobberies and turns of phrase. 'Shoes, Jerry!' What marvellous memories (and quite a lot of smut was the decade of the innuendo)!

And then of course the fathers of Xmas, the cheekiest elves, the naughtiest uncles... Morecambe and Wise. Here's the end of their 1976 Xmas Special - short (like Ern) but very sweet. Some years the Morecambe and Wise Specials just WERE Xmas in our house (and I don't think we were alone in that). And doesn't Eric look spookily like Philip Larkin sometimes? I still love them...with a passion. It's quite strange the feelings that last, isn't it? Anyway...happy holidays...and happy viewing...


Saturday, 20 December 2008

The jukebox of cringe and the sound of the stars

There has been some talk round these parts about liking music that is embarrassing, uncool or otherwise shameful. It started on here with the Mariah Carey Christmas song business a while back and it has been bubbling about in the comments boxes ever since. I believe someone mentioned Showaddywaddy (Sorlil?), there was a whiff of Westlife (Señor Armstrong?) and let's not even get started on the great Hallelujah debate (Barbara Smith!). I find I am liking the big H song less and less as the days go by (but as you may remember I am not one of the poets-who-particularly-love-Cohen...I'm fairly indifferent).

Anyway, with all this in mind I was interested to read the feature in Friday's Independent supplement 'Records of the Year (by the people who should know). Kate Rusby (perhaps the best known of the current working English folk singers and a big favourite of mine) picked Noah and the Whale's self-titled album (bit alternative, weird nu-folk business) but she also named Coldplay's 'Viva la Vida' (huge, mainstream, almost a cliché of modern stadium rock wiv a conscience) as one of her favourites. I was interested that Rusby chose Coldplay of all the bands and artists she could pick. She could have picked lots of cooler music – in fact it would have been hard to pick anything less cool because whilst Coldplay have been very, very popular in the past their current status (in Britain at least) is fairly 'past their sell-by-date' and their latest CD is quite likely 'CD least likely to impress your friends if left lying around the house' (except of course the way fashion works they may be so out they're back in).

When this last album came out though there was a definite Coldplay backlash in the media - I lost count of the big features in the press telling us exactly why they were such a bag of pants as a band. We were told they were unoriginal, whingey, untalented, spoilt rich boys...mostly by rock critics who could probably be described in similar terms... but either it worked or the public were just bored of them because the album has not made much of a mark (that I'm aware of anyway). I have managed to get to this point of the year without having heard a single track from it (although that might be to do with the fact that I have been listening to less and less music radio). I've never been a particular fan of theirs but I've no axe to grind into their backs either. I liked one song on their first album 'Parachutes' (the song called 'Everything's not Lost' I think) and him indoors was quite keen on them a while back so I have heard a fair bit (especially of albums one and two). I quite enjoyed watching them (on TV) at Glastonbury that year when everyone sang along with the yellow song and the one about the spider (or is that the same one...I don't pay their lyrics a huge amount of attention I'll be honest).

Some might say that Rusby has a record of uncool music moves...last year she recorded a duet with Ronan Keating (formerly of pop band Boyzone) and that upset some hardcore folk fans no end. I didn't like that song but I still rate her very highly – she is a really brilliant singer, a lass who's been out there performing for years and years and who, really, has the right to like and record whatever the hell she wants. Also (and this doesn't get mentioned as much as her voice) I think she is a really good songwriter so I am kind of interested that she likes songs on the new Coldplay CD. Most of her own CDs contain a couple of K Rusby compositions and I think they're all very, very good. In all honesty I would have to say I even prefer her own songs to a lot of the traditional material she records (and I like her performances of traditional songs a lot so it's no slight on them). Such blasphemy would probably upset Rusby (a huge folk fan herself), never mind serious folk fans who would probably want me tarred and feathered or something.

When I saw her live a couple of years ago Rusby sang hardly any of her own songs (despite one of them, 'Underneath the Stars', getting perhaps the biggest cheer of the night as her which she responded 'I almost feel like a proper songwriter or something'!). Well, if she isn't a songwriter I don't know who is! There are a couple of versions of 'Underneath the Stars' on YouTube (live and otherwise) but here's one with some stars to look at too. I almost put on the live clip but sometimes Rusby is just so precious to look at (that hair, that lovely sweet face!) that I wonder if her look doesn't almost distract from just how good her sound is. This song comes from her 2003 CD also titled 'Underneath the Stars'.

And here's another of her own songs – 'My Young Man' from the 2001 CD 'Little Lights'. Another perfect song – this time about her Grandad who was a miner. All this makes me think...I have a ticket for the event at StAnza 09 about song lyrics and poetry. I hope we don't only have to listen to people talking about Leonard Cohen! Oh and Bob Dylan....If we do I might just have to put on my headphones and listen to our Kate.


Thursday, 18 December 2008

Oh Carole

Here's an early Xmas present:

Now wasn't that a great present? The song was written by Carole King, Gerry Coffin and Jerry Wexler and was a big hit for Aretha Franklin in 1967. King then included it on her hugely successful solo album 'Tapestry' and though I like the Aretha version (and it is on 'The Big Chill' soundtrack) I have to say this version by CK is the one I prefer. I could bore you for hours about songwriter, singer and musician Carole King because I am a BIG fan but I won't. I'm sure you're all too busy with work or Xmas preparations of some kind for a big Carole ramble just now. Maybe another time. Schools break up at lunchtime tomorrow here.


Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Private soul

In the last post I referred to my music fan history. It went something like this:

'I've been a pop baby, a disco dolly, a rock chick, a rave girl and now, most recently, a folk fan'.

Obviously musical genres are a bit of a nonsense (where does rock end and pop agrees about what is and isn't folk etc...) but they are still terms we use and (mostly) we know what we are talking about. Also I should point out that I haven't always experienced an abrupt changeover from genre to genre (for example as a teenager I would happily headbang or groove about to whatever music our school disco DJ fancied playing) but generally speaking I do seem to have been moving steadily through the genres as I've grown. Even if I do tend to keep the boundaries fairly loose there has still been a movement through styles over the years. It's been quite exciting so far and I look forward to getting to know more and more different music as times goes by...

At some point this week, however, I was rereading that last post and I realised I had missed out soul music in that list. How could I have missed that out? I really love a lot of what is called 'soul music' (though other names might apply to some of is a pretty huge genre...I'm not going to even try to define it!). So why was it not in the list? I suppose partly I didn't think of it because it's been a private and personal, rather than a social, music taste. All the others have involved going out with friends and being part of something (dancing with crowds in rave clubs, sitting with slightly smaller, and more mature, crowds in the folk club) whereas soul is something I have mostly listened to on my own at home. Few of my friends or beloveds have shared my taste for soul music old and new so it has been a private matter, a relationship between me and all those amazing musicians and singers (and some of the very best singers dwell in the soul section of what used to be called record shops). I know there are clubs that play various types of soul music but I have never really been to them (not regularly anyway). I have a friend who is very keen on the never-say-die Northern Soul scene that exists in the North of England but I've never quite got into that. Some crazy dancing goes on there (and some very obsessive record collecting of obscure old releases)!

A lot of the soul I've liked has been fairly mainstream...some would even call it pop soul. Some of it is from the 1960s, some from the 70s, some even from the 90s and noughties (though a lot of new soul doesn't do much for me...its eye is too much on the huge money market and it can be a bit unadventurous...but there are still good singers and songs that I like now and again). Some of the stuff I've liked has not been at all trendy or cool but, as I may have said before, we can't help but like the music we like - if we try and let fashion choose our soundtrack then we really are stupid and we deserve everything we get!

When I was at uni, for example, I had a huge Motown phase (and by the way there was a great article about the label recently in The Observer). I'd liked some of it before (back in Middlesbrough I'd listened to a friend's older sister's Motown singles) but in my strange Southern English outback uni town I listened to hardly anything but pop 60s soul music for the best part of a year. It was absolutely NOT what the cool students were listening to but I loved it and it got me through what was really a bit of an odd time. It's never very fashionable to admit to liking Diana Ross but, particularly at that time, I really did (well, I liked her voice anyway...and lots of the songs..both with and without Supremes). I had vinyl albums and cassettes and I used to listen to 'soul alldayers' that they had on the local commercial radio station (Chiltern it was called, I think...some good music, the usual cheesey presenters).

Diana Ross has a terrible reputation (no sense of sisterhood, all ambition, drinking and driving, other bad behaviour) but it's all pretty standard pop star stuff really, isn't it? I don't think Madonna's made many friends either and at least Ross can sing. I watched that 'Dreamgirls' movie (that's based on the Supremes story) but despite some great performances it really is a long, dreary film in search of a script editor (or a better writer). Much better to just listen to Diana the Diva (and look at some of the amazing photos of her too). I still love you, Miss Ross. I don't know why but I do.


Sunday, 14 December 2008

Magic number

I seem to remember that 6 was my lucky number when I was a kid. No reason. It just was. Well, the other day Hope passed on a task called '6 things I value the most' (she did her 6 on 8th December) and so for several reasons I thought I would give it a go. First off it came from Hope and she is South Carolina's superstar storyteller so how could I say no? Secondly there was the lucky number business and sounded like an interesting subject to think about. I write quite a bit about belief and/or the lack of it but value...that's something else entirely. What do I value most of all?

I thought about it a while and came up with six abstracts (obviously I value my nearest and dearest but you don't really want a tearful Oscar acceptance speech right now, do you?). These abstracts cover a multitude of virtues. See if you can find yourself in there somewhere...


Comprehension...I was good at that in school...and I still value understanding like...nothing on earth. It is hard sometimes to understand others – to think about what they're saying and why, what they're feeling and why, what they're writing and why (and how they're writing too of course) – but it is so vital, so important to try. Media like blogs can easily turn into stifling me-and-yet-more-me worlds but they can also bring new worlds to a reader...worlds that detail new outlooks, new ways of thinking and living. You get the information...all you have to do is try to understand it.

The other day I was reading one of those interview questionnaires in the Independent with the delightful and very funny Meera Syal and she mentioned Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' as her 'book that changed me'. Some people might groan ('oh not that again') but it is still a great book and for many reasons – all that emphasis on 'learning to walk in someone else's shoes' for a start. It's almost a cliché now but that doesn't mean it isn't still worth learning (just as the book is still worth reading). Also Syal's 'my life in seven words' (remember some of us had a go at that back on 30th June this year) was brilliant, one of the best I've read. For her seven Syal chose 'Happy – now can I have a biscuit?' It takes a perverse courage to admit to quite that level of happiness!


Well, you know, world peace would be nice but I'm not holding my breath...any peace is good with me. I like a little bit of quiet here and there, a pause, a time to think, an end to a long running argument of really any kind. I am the kind of crazy, strong-ideas person that does get into arguments sometimes (though less and less as time goes on) but I do like the calm after the storm more than the storm itself, I can assure you. I like making friends, getting on with people, taking it easy when you can. The world is fairly full of fighting of every kind so I am very keen on peace whenever possible. I have a little poem called 'Just thinking' which is kind of about this. It is a very simple poem...possibly my simplest ever (very Quakerly!). It's in the book or on the website (under poems – distress and recovery). I wasn't going to put it in the book (it's so simple that I knew it's the kind of poem that critics and poetry people would baulk at) but a very good friend of mine said it was one of her favourites and would I please include it. I write for my friends more than for poetry critics – I dedicate a lot of time to choosing friends wisely...critics are like family (you can't choose them!) - so I went with my friend's request. Now I look at the book and I don't regret the decision. It is true – we do 'need peace, every day'. Real friends tell the truth!


Well, it goes with peace, doesn't it? I have always been a fan of romantic love but here I'm talking about any love really. I don't care if you love a man or a woman (or several men and several women), whether you love dogs or cats, or your family or your friends, or Jesus or indeed the Mary Chain, or films or art or even your collection of custom-made clothes pegs...just love SOMETHING... and with as much of your heart as you can manage. I don't care if you think I'm soft in the head either (especially as I quite clearly am a bit soft in the hardly takes a brain surgeon to spot that!).

Some of the best poems are about love of some type (not necessarily romantic love). Colin Will's poem 'Tick' that I have been thinking about of late (it came up in our discussion about 'our best poems' back on 6 October this year) has a lot of complicated love in it and that, to me, is what powers it along. It is a beautifully detailed, gentle poem in some ways but it is positively simmering with various aspects of love too. Am I wrong, Colin?


'When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody's help in anyway.
But now these days are gone, I'm not so self assured,
Now I find I've changed my mind, I've opened up the doors'

I imagine you might know where those lyrics come from! One of my very favourite Beatles songs (and I like quite a lot of their songs).

I don't really need to write why I value giving help and getting it back so much do I? Isn't people helping other people about the best that we can get? From the tiniest details to the major life matters...opening doors is just so important. You never know what's on the other side...and people who go around slamming doors shut...I just don't get them. Never have. (But I do keep trying to understand!).


As I have mentioned before I was not a child who was big on innocence. I was very keen to grow up quickly and I made quite a pre-adult career of that. These days, just to be perverse, I am a huge fan of innocence (in its place – obviously) and I get a bit impatient with the whole world-weary cynicism routine (though I can still do the face...). My Small Girl is about the most wide-eyed innocent child you will ever meet and it is very much a case of a person getting the child they need to help them learn something new! My poem 'A dream is a song of hope' (website - under 'songs') is all about innocence really...and I know it showed naïveté even putting it in the book (I was advised against it by more than one other poet). But, you see, the thing with me is I just can't ever see the point of doing something the way other people would do it. Shelves full of clever, obedient, critic-approved books of that we want? Is that the best poetry can do? It always seems a bit tame to me.


So the question was 'things I value most' and, having had a long period of misery, I would be foolish if I didn't get happiness in here somewhere. Happiness is not to be sneezed at, my lovely friends, grab it (and give it) whenever you can. Music has given me some of my happiest moments so here's something I'll give you – one of my new favourite songs. I found it on a CD sampler from the very good Navigator Records and the song is 'Cathedrals' performed by Heidi Talbot. Talbot was the singer with Irish-American band Cherish the Ladies but now she is a solo artist and onto her second album ('In Love and Light'). I wondered who this song was written by (as I hadn't heard it before) and it took a few goes to find out. It has also been performed by Joan Osborne but it was written and first performed by the US indie band Jump, Little Children who I'd never heard of (had you?). As I say I've been a pop baby, a disco dolly, a rock chick, a rave girl and now, most recently, a folk fan but I've never really been an indie kid so my indie music knowledge is nothing to shout about. Anyway, here's the song (a live version..not exactly MTV quality...). And who's that on guitar? It's that Kris Drever bloke I was on about recently. It's a great song, sung beautifully so please enjoy it and be full of all the happiness that music can bring...even if only for a couple of minutes!


Friday, 12 December 2008

We are one family

Women poets...can't live with 'em, can't...well, you get the idea. We ended up talking about various women poets in the comments to the Emily Dickinson post below so here's a continuation of that discussion...carrying on in a seamless fashion...or something like that.

Because I was writing about Emily D I had a sudden urge to go and look in my copy of '101 Poems by 101 Women' (faber & faber 2001...bought for me as a gift a while back). It was edited by Germaine Greer (gotta love her...well, I do anyway) and I was wondering which Emily Dickinson poem GG had chosen (I was pretty sure she wouldn't have left her out altogether). Greer chose, just so you know, the one that starts 'The Soul has Bandaged moments -' (and that first line sounds like something artist Tracy Emin might write these days...and then sew onto a quilt and stick that up on the wall). I enjoyed reading the poem and most especially the section with “She dances like a Bomb” because it made me think that maybe if Dickinson had been around in the late 1980s/early 90s she might have ended up lost in the world of rave as I did. She might even have written a poem about dancing and put it up on YouTube. You never know. Stranger things have happened. Mostly on YouTube...

Of course once I'd picked the book up I got to reading the rest of the anthology (please let's not bother arguing about the pros and cons of women only anthologies...some arguments, when had over and over again, can get very boring...). '101 poets..' is a fascinating collection with the poems in chronological order - starting with Anne Askew in 1546 and ending with Margaret Atwood in 1995. There are some of the ones you might expect (a Plath – 'The Colossus', a Rossetti – 'The Convent Threshhold', a Duffy - 'Valentine') and quite a few you might not. I was really glad to see an Angelou ('Phenomenal Woman') because I really like some of her poems (though she seems to be out of fashion with poetry snobs...all the more reason to like her I would suggest). I was also glad to see Jenny Joseph's practically world-famous 'Warning' (though my guess is the poet herself might have liked to see a different poem included...she has written other things!). But still, just because a poem has been popular (liked – my goodness – by ordinary common people, how dare they!) that is no reason to automatically look down on it, dismiss it and stamp one's silly feet. Plus if it's good enough for Professor Greer...I don't see why some of us mortals can't read the poem again without prejudice. It has some great moments ('and say we've no money for butter') and we visited an aunt in Canada a while back who belonged to a 'red hat club'. Talk about getting poetry out to a wider public!

I was also pleased to see some of my favourites – Stevie Smith, U.A.Fanthorpe, Liz Lochhead (fantastic poet!), Fleur Adcock and this lovely piece from Dorothy Parker:


Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

(printed 1926)

It rhymes. It's funny (and more). It's unexpected. I love it! This poem also reminded me of 'Notice by Highland Regional Council' which is in Hugh McMillan's latest book (but that's enough about him - he's been plugged to death here already and anyway it's ladies' day). I suppose I like both 'Résumé' and 'Notice...' for similar reasons - they are both (a) clever, (b) well-observed in their succinct way, (c ) true and, importantly for me at least, (d ) poems that can turn the subject of suicide into something better than it is. Left to itself suicide is...miserable, obviously, and especially, as people never tire of saying, for the children. (Oh and saying that never helps either.)

Now look what's happened! Damn these poems that actually make us talk know...real stuff!

Anyway, I've been reading the '101 Poets' book on and off this week and I was quite taken by one poem in it called 'The Sisters' by Amy Lowell (the title of this post comes from it's a bit Sister Sledge but I like it). The poem is quite long and is about a dream involving Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and...Emily Dickinson, no less, so you might like to go and read it (if you can find it on-line...I've had a quick look and can't right now...will look again later). It reminded me a little of the Billy Collins poem about Dickinson that Liz mentioned in the comments last time. The Lowell poem also includes these lines 'For, after all,/A poet is flesh and blood as well as brain'...I like that too though I'm not sure it's always true (only jesting, folks...or am I?). I won't post the whole poem but the opening is interesting:

'Taking us by and large, we're a queer lot
We women who write poetry.'

Except of course all poets are queer – in some way or fact all people are really. After another bit about being queer (she was that too – apparently) she continues:

'I wonder what it is that makes us do it,
Singles us out to scribble down, man-wise,
The fragments of ourselves.'

The 'man-wise' is a bit out-of-date now, I suppose, but the rest still works. Do we all have a poem about fragments (poets male and female and anything in between)? I know I do - it's called 'She's not there' and it was posted here on 8th May 2008 (well, I am a woman poet...I'm pretty sure...and I can't just plug Shug, you know). I think Jim Murdoch is right that 'She's not there' is probably one of my best poems to date and I wouldn't have known that if he hadn't pointed it out (thanks Jim!). So you poets...can't live with 'em, can't...well, you know the rest. One family...indeed.

p.s. I'll do the 6 things task next time I think, Sister Hope!


I was mentioning Greer's brilliant introduction in the comments. Here are a few sample quotes from it...

'What I hope I have done is to have worked a sampler, a selection of odd and interesting morsels, that will whet the appetite for more. I can say with confidence that there is better poetry by women than most of what you will find in this book, but most of it is by Emily Dickinson, and I promised I would introduce you to 101 women, all of whom are worth knowing, for different reasons.'

'Some of the poetry I have chosen is frankly bad; all of it is imperfect. My main criterion has been the only one that interested Emily Dickinson, who brushed aside all Higginson's cavils about her syntax and rhyme and asked only whether her poems lived, asked and received no answer. All 101 of these poems have a life of their own; though they may limp or writhe or grunt instead of singing and dancing, shriek and gibber rather than reason and persuade, they are alive.'

'Poetry is strange stuff and over the centuries it has got stranger. Five hundred or so years ago any gentleman was expected to be able to pen on demand a respectable sonnet to his mistress' eyebrow, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century poetry had been transformed from an elegant accomplishment to a savage destiny, a sacred and sublime vocation, not to be attempted by anyone who shrank at the prospect of madness, destitution and death. Women had struggled to be poets when what was needed was the education that they had not got, and they continued to struggle to be poets when what was demanded was egomania of delusional proportions. Post-modernism has taken some of the pressure off; irony is a medium that women have always understood.'


Tuesday, 9 December 2008

About Emily

In case you were wondering...the title of my last post came from this poem by Emily Dickinson:

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond -
Invisible, as Music -
But positive, as Sound -
It beckons, and it baffles -
Philosophy - don't know -
And through a Riddle, at the last -
Sagacity, must go -
To guess it, puzzles scholars -
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown -
Faith slips - and laughs, and rallies -
Blushes, if any see -
Plucks at a twig of Evidence -
And asks a Vane, the way -
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit -
Strong Hallelujahs roll -
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul -

Her poems don't have titles as such but most of you will know Emily Dickinson's name even if you haven't read much by her. She is one of those writers who gets more and more well-known the longer she is dead (she lived fact she was born on 10 December so it's kind of her birthday around now). Resident of Massachusetts, USA, pretty much a recluse in her lifetime and advised against publishing her verse (!), I find it interesting how much her reputation as a poet is flourishing as time goes by. I seem to hear her name more and more (there is an English folk singer called Pete Morton who has a song 'I'm in love with Emily Dickinson' for a start) and I can't help thinking that this is only the beginning. Maybe it's because quite a lot of us love the image of the secret poet, living her batty life, not being appreciated (perish the thought!). Maybe it's that quite a lot of us feel we don't have that many women poets from the past to crow about and have grabbed her with both hands! Maybe it's just that the poems are such unusual blends of faith and realism and oddity and beauty. Who knows...but it's interesting, don't you think? Even more interesting is the fact that it was only in 1955 that her poems were finally published with her own, distinctive punctuation and so allowed to really work as they should (and her dashes are much bigger than the ones I've managed to get on here). For obvious reasons this is one reason why I find myself becoming more and more of a Dickinson reader and admirer – for me there is absolutely no reason why poetry should be punctuated like prose (do that if you want to but please don't expect everyone else's so restrictive, so unadventurous, so...prosaic!). Indeed I can never understand why anyone would want to tell any other poet how to write at all. Get on with your own work, I say, and stop talking at the back...or see me later in detention...

I have a funny little book called 'The Enthusiast Field Guide to Poetry' and it's got some lovely little bits and pieces in it. It never says who the author/s of the book are (anyone know?) but on page 126 are these words:

“Dickinson punctuated the way she wanted to. She met with rejection because she insisted on her own terms. The dashes – they're deliberate. They make the poem halting and hesitant. They articulate the difficulty Dickinson had in saying what she meant.
And she had difficulty saying what she meant because, as she saw it, meaning is difficult.”

Now that sounds quite reasonable, wouldn't you say? Certainly sounds reasonable to me...

I have a little book of Dickinson's poems that I keep in the pile of books by my bed (somewhere near the top just lately). It's called a 'A Choice of Emily Dickinson's Verse – Selected with an introduction by Ted Hughes' (first published in 1968 and bought second hand for about a quid, full of inky annotations in the margins). Like all my favourite poets Dickinson has started to feel like a friend or a relative and in this case she is most definitely eccentric Auntie Em (and remember – eccentric in this house is a has to be!). I'm not a huge Ted Hughes fan (because I can see the accomplishment but his poems don't do anything for me really...not yet anyway) but his introduction to this book of Dickinson is simply charming. There's something about the more macho male matter how good and respected and honoured they are...I almost like them better when they are blowing other poet's trumpets. I have a book of Robert Burns with an introduction by Don Paterson, for example, which is equally irresistible. I like Paterson's poetry (and will be reading more, I'm sure) but his...what could you call it...prickliness disappears when he's just busy appreciating Burns, not caring what anyone thinks about him and his, no doubt, marvellous oeuvre. Worrying about our own oeuvre...there's something we could all do a lot less of...

I think I may have quoted the Hughes introduction from this book before but here are a few snippets to mull over...

“she was first of all true to herself and her wits”

“her poems record not only her ecstatic devotion, but her sharp, sceptical independence, her doubt, and what repeatedly opens under her ecstasy – her despair”

“the precision of her feeling for language”

“the strengths and ingenuities of her poetic style”

“everywhere there is the teeming carnival of world-life”

“death obsessed her, as the one act that could take her the one necessary step beyond her vision”

“with the hymn and the riddle, those two small domestic implements, she grasped the 'centre' and the 'circumference' of things – to use two of her favourite expressions – as surely as human imagination ever has”

It's a great little book full of madness and mystery and I love it. “My business is to love,” said Emily, some time back when she was alive, “my business is to sing”.

Happy Emily Dickinson's Birthday for tomorrow, everyone!


Sunday, 7 December 2008

Invisible, as Music

All that talk about Xmas music has been interesting and very enjoyable (even some of you taking the mickey out of me and my odd friend Mariah – that just makes it feel like a real family Xmas...) but today I remembered one of the reasons why proper festive Xmas music is not such a big thing for me personally. I was hard at work this lunchtime wrapping presents that have to be posted off to friends and relatives elsewhere and I was listening to the CD 'Black Water' from 2006 by Kris Drever. It is a fantastic album and now I know some readers are Kate Rusby fans it's worth telling you that she does some of the backing vocals on the album too. Anyway there I was singing along at full volume and thinking how much all the songs on 'Black Water' remind me of the Xmas before last because I gave the CD to Mark as a present that year and we listened to it loads and loads (and loads and loads). We quite often have big parties in the New Year and I remember it from the party that year too. It is our album of Xmas 2006 – well, mine certainly.

And that's when I remembered – Xmas for me has always been largely about new music. From quite an early age a large part of my Xmas list was made up of albums of music - I can remember asking for ABBA in my pre-teens and Michael Jackson somewhere a little later along the line as well as compilations of all kinds (all vinyl of course...not sure when I got my first CD...will have to think about that one...). Because single vinyl albums were fairly affordable back then (how much were they - £3.50 and the like?) my brothers and I would go to Boots or Smiths or some such excitement (we lived in the sticks) and buy each other albums...year after year after year. “Here's a Pink Floyd for you”, “thanks, here's a bizarre K Tel compilation for you”. They (being older) got the much cooler music but I always used to go and sit in their rooms and listen to their albums when they were out or away so it was a win/win situation for me really. I listened to their Led Zep, their Pink Floyd, their Funkadelic...and I sometimes wonder how different my music tastes might have turned out if they'd liked jazz or classical. But they didn't so we'll never know!

This year will be no different – still a whole lotta new music. I know I am getting the new Chris Wood CD from Santa (I know because I bought it and then said...'I tell you what, babe, give me this for Xmas'...because I do talk like posh spice sometimes...). Chris Wood is a great songwriter so I'm really looking forward to hearing that (and I haven't even sneaked a listen – I'm an angel, see!). I'm also really enjoying a CD by a new Kris Drever project (the trio Drever McCusker Woomble) – it's called 'Before the Ruin' and it's so good that I feel it may get played a lot over the next month or so. John McCusker is a well-known Scottish musician and composer (best known on the folk scene but with eclectic tastes and experience) and Roddy Woomble is known (to some) as the singer from Idlewild (are they an indie band? I've never been much of an indie listener...just bits here and there). I first heard Woomble when he was on stage with Kate Rusby at Celtic Connections in 2007 and he was a bit overshadowed by her on that occasion (it was in the huge Concert Hall in Glasgow and it was FULL of serious KR fans). On this album though I have started to understand what the fuss might be about his voice – very distinctive, very warm without being soppy or obvious. I bought 'Before the Ruin' as a present for someone, took a sneaky listen and liked it so much that I decided to keep it and get the friend something else instead! Maybe I'm not an angel after all...the other present was something she'll like too though!

So, my conclusion - 'tis the season to listen to anything but Cliff...and just out of interest how many of you recognise the title of this post? Without cheating...


Friday, 5 December 2008

Mistletoe and whine?

Xmas music...Sorlil mentioned it in the comments to my last post and I've been thinking about it since. How can you resist it, she asked (and I think she mentioned jollity). Usually music is one of my favourite things, my obsession almost, and it's one of the things that gets me through, that picks me up and so on and so on...but at Xmas...I think it has the opposite effect. I've tried hard to think of a piece of Xmas music that I really like but...nothing's coming....not really. There are songs that remind me of childhood (and my childhood was fairly average...some highs, some lows...I was mainly focussed on being top of the class, watching TV, following the hit parade, annoying older siblings and then sometimes chasing neighbourhood boys to make them kiss me) but there aren't any Xmas songs that I long to listen to, that fill me with joy or jollity. Maybe it will change as I get older but for now there's plenty of TV that does it ('Morecambe and Wise Xmas Specials' and much more besides) and some stories ('A Christmas Carol' - especially with added muppets) but no music. It's quite odd.

I suppose I have a few problems with Xmas music. Let's start with the big one..

I am not a Christian...not at all. I am part agnostic, part pantheist, part atheist, part humanist, part pagan, part heathen, part just-don' songs about Jesus just do nothing for me (please sing that last bit to the tune of 'Vienna' by Ultravox). Sure we sang carols at primary school so I know most of them (a bit) and some of the tunes I even quite like ('Once in Royal David's City', 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen') but I don't listen to them for pleasure and I don't long to get together with others and sing them (and I like communal singing...I love it at Folk Club...most of the time). I have tried but I simply can't sing lyrics about Jesus over and mouth won't do it and it makes me feel like an extra in 'The Life of Brian' (which isn't SO bad but it's fairly weird). I can sing the joke versions fine ('shepherds washed their socks by night' etc.) but not the real, serious, yeh-but-no-but-baby-Jesus-was-real ones. Sorry friends of JC...I know some of you love him above all things...and please... you sing about him and have a great time...but it's not for me - it feels like lying. That's why I do tend to write Xmas not Christmas...I just can't type Christ too many times in a makes me there's a big bearded hologram following me around or something. I seem to remember Kate Rusby was going to put a Xmas carol CD out this year and I think if anyone can win me round to god songs then I suppose it might be the Barnsley nightingale (and I am always open to the idea of miracles – they sound great!). I love the idea of people going round singing outside each other's houses in the snow and all that too...just not those songs. So Swiss, got any good Solstice songs then?

I've worked in shops enough in the past to hate quite a lot of the 'classic' Xmas pop music. Over and over again they play those tapes (CDs now I guess) and if you liked any of the songs at the beginning of the festive shopping period my goodness you'll hate them by Hogmanay. And so many of the songs are so cheerful (so damned cheerful!) and they have to be because otherwise people might remember that shopping is not fun and that really they might be better off elsewhere doing something completely different. Maybe this is part of the problem because not many people can make good cheerful music (the Monkees? Any other suggestions?). Go and look through your music much of it is cheerful? Nirvana? Joni Mitchell? Beth Orton...?

At Xmas we are allowed to forget the standards we keep to the rest of the time and all of a sudden it is Cliff Richard on the radio and all hell breaks loose! Award for cheesiest Xmas song..any ideas? Just thinking about them gives me a headache.

If you don't do Jesus you tend to end up with a lot of songs about Santa Claus. The problem here is I never believed in him either...never, ever...not even for the tiniest moment. I always knew it was my Mum – I was usually still awake and saw her for a start - but it's funny really because some people just want to believe don't they? Small Girl does, for example (she is so not me!) – she's mad for Santa and fairies and the Tooth Fairy and anything with a hint of mystery and twinkliness whereas I sometimes believe in the Poetry Fairies (as I've mentioned before) but mostly I am just not the believing type. So I don't hate Santa songs but I'm not that excited about them either. And I particularly dislike that one about Mummy kissing Santa...maybe because it was my sister's boyfriend that used to dress up as Santa...maybe it's that...

So enough excuses...I had a good think and came up with some Xmas songs that I find...memorable if nothing else.

Wizzard 'I wish it could be Christmas every day' (1973 - year my Dad died strangely)
When I was a kid and the Slade Xmas song was in the charts my brother got that one and I got this. This always was a better record than 'Merry Xmas everybody' and it always will be. I still like it. 'Are you ready children...?'

Band Aid 'Do they know it's Christmas' (1984)
Whatever this record is it's memorable. I don't like the song in some ways (and Geldof kind of makes my skin crawl) and yet when I hear it now and again (in a shop or on the radio) there's something I like about it. Their intentions were good, I think. And that can't be bad...can it?

Mariah Carey 'All I want for Christmas is you' (1994)
Bizarrely this was the song that least annoyed me one Xmas when I was working in a clothes shop. I'm not a fan of the misguided warbler but it is the song I found myself singing after work every day for...however many months it was! I don't hate it.

Judy Garland 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' (1944)
Because it's Judy and she's marvellous. And I have gay friends who say my taste in music is too gay. Sometimes.

Looking forward to your thoughts on Xmas music. Now Sorlil...see how I'm getting into the spirit? Sort of...

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Just a little something

After that really long last's a quick one.

Go and have a look at the blog A Handful of Stones (I came across it via Bolts of Silk I think). There are lots of little pieces to read there and I like the idea of the whole project. As someone who may write quite a lot of little poems (there's a whole section on my website under the title 'little poems') I do also have a tendency to think about the bigger picture a lot of the time so I found writing a few pieces to Fiona Robyn's brief a good way of making me think about the smaller stuff, the details, the minor matters (that of course aren't necessarily minor at all). I have got a piece being posted up there later this month but hey, there's more to life than me...take a look any, tomorrow, whenever you're free. Look at her instructions for writing 'stones' and send her some...or put a practice one in the comments box here if you're too impatient to wait for the whole send/be considered/wait for decision process (though actually she works through submissions very quickly by poetry standards).

p.s. Sick of talking about xmas yet? Dreading seeing the family? Wishing you lived on the moon till June?

Sunday, 30 November 2008

History remade?

Like most of you (I suspect) I keep lists and lists of books I want to read. My list is not necessarily a list of books I want to buy...though I'll buy some of them...but mostly I borrow from the local library or from friends and then once I've read a book if it's something I really like I might buy a copy (either for me or to pass on elsewhere). In truth I have several lists – prose books (fiction and non), poetry books, music CDs to try/buy, films to catch up on (and boy, am I behind on that one!) and finally books/films/music I must get hold of for Small Girl at some point too.

For a while now I have had 'anything by Bernardine Evaristo' on my books lists because...well, firstly I read something interesting by her in the magazine 'Mslexia' a while ago (when I used to subscribe...I stopped this year after subscribing since issue one). Also, even further back in time, I read a great article by Evaristo in a newspaper criticising some of the main poetry publishers (for their failure to publish many non-white poets as it happens... but I'm quite happy for anyone to criticise poetry publishers about anything really...some of them...the Carcanets and Picadors...I can't say they rock my world very often). So, as she was on my list, at some point I tried our local library for Evaristo books but found nothing. They're normally pretty good but when I first tried (maybe a year ago) they didn't have her 'Soul Tourists' (2005), or her 'The Emperor's Babe' 2001, or her 'Lara' 1997 (due to be rereleased next Bloodaxe). All of these works are verse-novels and so a little unusual I suppose... maybe too much so for Angus libraries (though I did just the interests of research...and they do now have the new book 'Blonde Roots'...the one I will get round to talking about any time soon!). But as the municipal shelves at that point were bare I just got on with reading other books from my lists and waited, most likely, for a big bookshop trip or something (I am a long way from big bookshops here and whilst I do use Amazon it's not that often...especially since I learned more about how much they pay publishers...).

In the meantime however Evaristo was working on a new project (or more likely lots of new projects – she strikes me as a woman with huge energy!) and this year she published a new book 'Blonde Roots'(Hamish Hamilton). This is a prose novel (not verse) and it is about slavery...but with a difference. In this book the slaves are white and the masters is history rewritten with 'Aphrikans' taking slaves from 'Europa', 'blak' people treating 'whytes' as goods to be traded and as inferior, inhuman and beneath consideration. When I first heard about this book I remember just thinking 'Wow! What a great idea!' I don't think I've ever heard of anybody coming up with this particular idea for a book before...have you? And yet it's one of those great, seems-obvious-when-you-think-about-it ideas. Why has nobody written this before? Imagine the film! Imagine how you could horrify white right-wing relatives by even THINKING about giving them this book for xmas ('white people not in control of the whole world– are you mad?' 'Not any more...')!

It sounded so interesting that I added 'Blonde Roots' to my books list...but this time with a few extra asterisks and underlines. A short while later I was doing some on-line shopping (at WH Smiths, as it happens, because they all do free p & p now that Amazon do it) and I thought...'do you know what...early xmas present to self...I can't wait any more...I'm just going to buy it'. I just couldn't wait to see what Evaristo had done with this biggest of huge ideas (I imagine the likes of PJ O'Rourke might call it a 'liberal wet dream'...remember him, by the way – 'Rolling Stone', 'Republican Party Reptile' and all that? I interviewed him once. He was dull).

So...back to the book...are you on the edge of your seats? Has Evaristo taken that great idea and written a great book? Is it life-changing, earthshattering, a total knockout?

Well, firstly I would say – buy it (or borrow it) and read it for yourself because it really is a very interesting and unusual book. I read it in a couple of days – mainly, I think, because it's engrossing, fast-moving and strangely easy to read (considering some of the gruesome details...this is the slave trade...nothing very pleasant happens...). In fact I read it so quickly that I may well go back and read it again some time soon. Evaristo writes as if her pen is on fire – the enthusiastic details of clothes and food and places and people shooting out, white-hot – so the prose fairly whooshes along, like flames through a dry forest, and you really do get carried along with it. I'm not going to retell the whole story for you or anything (I can't be doing with reviews like that...) but it is exciting - that much I will give away.

Another reason I read 'Blonde Roots' so avidly is that I found how it was written as unusual as what it was written about. When I first read an outline of the story I suppose I formed in my head an idea of what it might well be like (don't we all do that when we read a précis or a review of a book, especially a novel?). I had imagined something that felt like a historical novel, something a bit like the very good 'Voyageurs' by Margaret Elphinstone (that I read, and then reviewed here back on 18th October) - there would be archaic language, there would be period costumes, there would be suffering...all with that clever, multi-levelled twist that might well make some readers see slavery from another angle. I suppose I thought too that it would probably be a BBC series by the spring (reusing the costumes, barely letting the paint dry on the 'Little Dorrit' sets before they were recycled for the new season's set-piece) . But the biggest surprise, for this reader anyway, was that it is not really like a historical novel at all in some does not fit into any ready-made slot. And this makes sense when you think about it. Why should she write this story the way anybody expects? She is writing, in many ways, about the world turned upside down so why should her novel be script-ready for the BBC Dickens department after all (and let's not even mention that 'Devil's Whore' series that's on Channel 4 just now...have you ever seen anything more ridiculous? I fully expect to see Cromwell amusing himself with a copy of 'Penthouse' in the next episode...)? In 'Blonde Roots' Evaristo has even changed the sun's behaviour because on page 61 'the weak sun started its weary descent towards the east' (my favourite line in the matter-of-fact, so matter-of-not-at-all-fact) so why should she do anything the way a silly old reader like me expects her to? I love it when writers work this way...take the ball, run with it, have no intention whatsoever of giving the thing back...

So whereas I was expecting to be unsettled, surprised, provoked by the racial aspects of the story (and that does's a provoking book throughout...not one lazy line) in actual fact this novel unsettled me in ways I couldn't quite put my finger on to begin with. There is the very strange feel she creates, for example, by having the story set in a kind of past-but-not-past. Yes, the 'whyte' slaves are transported, squashed in their own shit, in ships (not planes...there are no aeroplanes so the setting is definitely past-like) but the language is not anything you might recognise as olde worlde and that's...kind of odd (well, I found it odd anyway). The language is very varied (all kinds of interesting dialects and wordplay) but there is definitely a lot of our modern world language in the mix too. It comes out particularly in asides or afterthoughts from the main character ('whyte' Doris..or Omorenomwara to use her slave name) and often just when something really horrible is happening. I wondered a lot as I read this book why Evaristo had put some of this very modern language in...and I think there might be several reasons. Firstly I think it means the modern reader (whatever their colour or race) identifies with the slavery experience very can't push all the horror (and there is plenty of that..plenty of torture and cruelty) away with a 'yes, it must have been terrible' because the main character talks like you, your friends, the people you know least some of the time. Also you don't quite know where you are as a it past, present, it history, fantasy, science fiction? Then Evaristo throws humour in too...just when things are at their's really very different, very unexpected, simply not cricket, somehow. All this confusion helps the novel do its job very well – it helps turn the world upside down, inside out, back to front. It's symbolic, on many levels, I imagine, and it certainly makes the novel feel like nothing you've ever read before. Since I read it last week it has worked its way quite thoroughly into my thoughts and wonderings. Take last night - we've been recording and watching the very interesting Simon Schama history series 'The American Future' (much more worth your TV time than the silly old 'Devil's Whore'!) and last night we watched the programme that talked about slavery and black churches and the civil rights movement in the USA. So much of it made me think of 'Blonde Roots', of clever points that Evaristo makes in her slavery story, of how she shows brilliantly what you can do with history if you put your mind to it. I might come back to 'The American Future' in another post maybe...that bit about Fanny Lou Hamer singing on the bus...singing, know how I'm always going on about singing...

But in the meantime get yourselves a copy of 'Blonde Roots'...however you manage it...because it is ambitious and challenging and it will make you think hard about all sorts of things (about the differences between people, about how our world is and why, about how people have treated people and how they might treat each other in the future) but also I think it will make you think even more than you already do about what writers write (and why and how). 'Blonde Roots' has been received well in the UK so far (hey, it's in the Angus libraries...she's really arrived!) and it's published in the USA in early 2009 (where I imagine it will make a fairly huge splash of one kind or another). To find out how it gets on keep an eye on Evaristo's very interesting and lively blog. Whatever will she write next I wonder...and will 'Blonde Roots' win any prizes over the coming months and years? I think it might. I think it probably should.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Never beyond your Ken...

I haven't had a book review for a while so I was quite excited this morning to see the one of 'More about the song' over at Ken Armstrong's place. Far be it from me to suggest what you might do about xmas shopping but you know...or you's still for sale from me...or various shops...or Amazon...

All this reminds me that I keep meaning to sort out a reviews page for my website (my favourite reviews so far are Sorlil's Poetry in Progress one from back on 4th September, ink-sweat-and-tears from back in July and the one in 'The Skinny' in...July...I think). I would do links now but my laptop is unwell and I am on Mark's mac which I barely know how to use! I think I wore my machine out yesterday working, as I was, on a review of sorts of 'Blonde Roots' by Bernardine Evaristo. I'll put that up in a couple of days...when I've got my own machine back!

p.s. machine fixed so links are on now!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Freak like who?

You know how I get late to everything...years behind with films/movies, late to blogging, still a teenager in a middle-aged body? Well here I am late to YouTube too. I know how easy it is to put a video on the blog...will I be doing it every week? Probably not but today I thought I might share a fantastic piece of pop music with you. It's from...last year some time I think.

I'm not very up with anything like pop or club or dance music these days but I have a friend who comes to visit from Leeds about twice a year and he brings me anything good that I might have missed (which is most things because I go to the folk club here mostly so I'm quite up-to-date with new folk...and some old folk...but not much else). Last xmas he played me this track by Scroobius Pip and I have to say I absolutely love it. Some of the lyrics are very, VERY funny (some are less so but such is life and writing...) and though the version on YouTube is not quite the one Andy played me (it seems to be missing the big acid breakdown section...if that means anything to you whatsoever) it's still good...great even. I stopped club DJing in about 1997 and this is one of the first things I've heard in ages that's made me wish I could go and play it to a crowd of crazy people in a big sweaty, packed room at 2 o'clock in the morning. Make some noise? Make some noise? Oh yes! Yes please!

But by the way...Led Zeppelin are NOT just a band! The very thought of it...

Monday, 24 November 2008

Oh Monday, Monday

Poem and post on holiday for a while.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Only as good as your last reading

A couple of posts ago (the video clip one) the Solitary Walker and I were exchanging comments about how much we liked the poet Lemn Sissay. As I said in the comments I first saw him about 20 years ago (at the now disappeared Duchess of York pub in Leeds...Leeds Alternative Cabaret, the night was called and I was there to review it for a small 'alternative' magazine). He was brilliant and inspiring then and he's still both of those things. I interviewed him back then for that same small 'alternative' magazine too and he was fascinating and friendly and kind of bursting with ideas and creative energy.

Lemn has a new book out called 'Listener' and so I keep coming across him in the media just now. There is a good interview with him in the print magazine Citizen 32 and for the next few days you can hear him on listen again on BBC Radio 3's The Verb programme (talking to Ian McMillan...who makes me sound like a softie southerner or something!). Lemn talks a lot of sense about poetry...makes sense to me anyway. If I was a heroes type person he would be one of my poetry heroes...but I'm not really...and he'd probably hate the idea anyway! There's some other good stuff on the Verb this week too.

P.S. The title of this post comes from the poem that Lemn reads on the Verb this week called 'Applecart Art'.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Change is good

I hardly ever put images or photos up on this blog. As I've said before I'm not much of a visual person so usually on here it is words, words and more words (poems, rambles, rants, stories, jokes...). Maybe it's the video (post below), maybe it's the thing of looking at Colin's photos of last Friday in Edinburgh, maybe it's just the time of year...but I've been looking at photos this week and I thought I'd post some, just for a change. I won't write a lot with them - I've been writing a lot of long posts (and comments and replies to comments...I think this is maybe the golden age of this blog or something!) so I might let the photos speak for themselves a little. They're a mixed bag...beautiful places, funny details...bits of my life. Some of the photos we took and some were by my friend Andy. I hope you enjoy some way or other.

The coast just down the road from here

Elephant Rock - just south of here

Last winter we made 'our family in snow'...Mark, me, my Mum, Small Girl and Old Dog (very small - in front of big snowman).

Fields of barley - just up the road

Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow - we went when they reopened not long ago. Are these heads still there? Anyone know?

Old Dog is a cairn terrier (and my Mum's originally) but this is New Pup (Zoe - a border terrier). This photo is from back in the summer but she is about 8 months old now.

Small Girl's hair took a long time to grow so I couldn't get it into plaits until this year really (when she wanted to be Dorothy at Playgroup she had to wear false ones made of wool!). This year (her 8th) her lovely red curls made it to plait length...look how the plaits curl though!

So there you go. Simple things. I watched a report about rapes in the DR Congo on the news last night. Not really in the mood for words.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

And now for the video evidence

Well, it sounds like some of you have already seen this on YouTube but here is a video clip of me from last Friday's trip to Edinburgh (full report in post below if you haven't already read it). The video side of things was all a bit of an experiment but I think all the footage has come out really well so thanks, oh beloved Mark (as ever). There is a little background noise of people buying drinks and stuff but that just adds to the ambience I think! Hugh McMillan has one of his clips on his blog just now (there are three of him in total – all brilliant) but I've only chosen this one for me as it's quite a long piece. It's the very new dancing poem that I was mentioning a few posts ago and it is absolutely PACKED with rhymes so if you don't like rhyming poems best not look or listen! I write rhyme when it feels right and non-rhyme...ditto...and in this case heaps and heaps of bouncing rhymes seemed the way to go (with some non-rhyming bits here and there too). The form matches the content for me as the poem is the product of all my years dancing (disco dancing, headbanging, raving, ceilidh dancing, ballroom dancing...). It is also a kind of tribute to some of my very best friends (many of whom are crazy dancers of one kind or another) as well being about life, happiness, taking part and...well, you know...everything. As I mentioned in my intro (which was too long to include!) I also had in mind the documentary that Stephen Fry made about manic depression/bipolar disorder (which I watched for the obvious family reasons). There was one section where Fry talked about dancing and how self-conscious he felt and how unhappy he was about his body. He talked about how there was nothing he would like more than to be out on the dancefloor, grooving and looking great and there were a lot of sad moments in that series but that was one that I remember particularly. There is nothing like a dance!

Apologies however for my odd Scouse-goes-Welsh pronunciation on the title. I'm not sure what happened there!

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Postcards from the Song

So...I've been warbling on about it for a while now...there was a night out in Edinburgh on Friday...some poems, some it's how did it go? Did we bomb? Did anyone come? Did we end on a song? was fantastic! You can see photos over at Colin Will's - although it seems he got my photo mixed up with one of a tired-looking sweaty woman who I don't quite recognise. You will also be able to see some video snippets of Hugh and I quite soon...when my beloved Mark has done all his other chores...he's a busy lad, lots to he has to recover from the stressful experience that is travelling with me ('neurotic' really doesn't cover my behaviour when I get on busy public transport...where's that damned chauffeur-driven limo when you need it?).

So, the night. First off the venue (Forest Café) was great. The staff are friendly, the room is a good size and very relaxed (none of that sitting in rows business that makes me twitch uncontrollably...). The sound system was good (thanks Mark for looking after that all night too!) and there were all kinds of food and drinks the very welcome sight that is a tap where you can help yourself to free water (so simple but so useful!). OK the toilets did seem to get more and more threatening as the evening went on...but you can't have everything and I've seen much worse (Glastonbury toilets...once seen, never forgotten).

It is a really unusual venue (Hugh McMillan kept saying 'it's like the Beat Hotel'). It's free to hire on the condition that you don't charge admission and people float in and out all night... but in a good way...if they stay (which they did in impressive numbers) you know it's because they are enjoying it, not just because they've paid and they're staying to get their money's worth. Sure some people are there for the free WiFi and the warmth and comfort too (and there are all ages, all fashion schools in evidence...) but some of the talent on offer was so great that Mark (sat at the back with the sound desk and the video camera) said it was interesting to watch people getting drawn in and sitting down to stay, paying their laptops less and less attention and the tales and poems of Hugh McMillan, for example, more and more. I was sat right at the front (to jump up on stage and introduce everyone) but every now and again I would turn round in a set to see how the audience was going and pretty much every time all I could see was a room full (really full!) of engaged faces (attached to bodies obviously). It made the organising work all worth while (it wasn't really that much...I got in touch with people, I did a little planning...). I chose all the people on the bill because I think they are all fabulous so I was glad the audience agreed with me. Poems and music, poems and music...I know I bang on about it all the time but for me they make the perfect combination (when they're both good...). The poetry (and lyrics) stir your brain and the music works on everything else....a night out for the whole body, mind and soul! Hallelujah indeed.

We started off with Andy Spiller. I asked Andy to go first because... someone had to – there was no pecking order or anything! Andy is a great guitarist and one of those quite quiet, unassuming guys who really loves to play and gets lost in music right before your eyes. On his song 'Lotus' in particular (a lovely song!) I watched him just travel miles whilst stood there right in front of me. We were tripping, man, really tripping! I look forward to many more musical poetry nights with Mr Spiller on the bill!

After Andy I did my first set which was mainly poems about music. Obviously I can't tell you how I did really...I think I was a little more on edge than normal on stage (because of the organising side of things perhaps) and at times I think I spoke a little too quickly...but overall I enjoyed it and I think others did too. I tried out my new dancing poem and that went well. That poem ('Are you askin'?') is very much at the performance poetry end of my output I suppose (I write some poems that might get filed under 'performance' and some that might just fit under 'literary' at a push – but overall I wish the terms just didn't exist at all...I much prefer Colin's 'polymorphous'...damn those pigeon holes!). Maybe thinking about stuff like that made me a bit nervous too...when I read to a crowd that knows me (like at the folk club here) they have heard me do all kinds of poems so I don't worry about how I am coming across and I just get on with each poem on its own terms. I suppose with this being my first outing in the capital I did have certain other nonsense of that kind on my mind...I'm good at filling my brain with unnecessary nonsense...too good!

After me came fiddler Kevin O'Donnell (accompanied by Kim Edgar on guitar). I'd never heard Kevin before but had asked him on Kim's recommendation and I'm really glad I did. Kevin was charming and maybe a little nervous but then, when he picked up the bow, he played with a passion and a gentleness that, again, was a delight to witness. The fiddle is one of those dangerous instruments (an unskilled or misguided player can cause a lot of damage to an audience!) but Kevin was skilled and spirited and really quite smashing. The crowd loved it!

Was it at this point that I invited Claire Askew up on stage to give us a bonus poem? I think so. Edinburgh resident Claire had really helped by recommending Forest as a venue so this was a little thank-you. Claire was great to watch too and introduced her dramatic poem and reading with lovely subtle deadpan humour. Thanks again Claire...all the performers were thrilled with the venue and want me to take them back on a regular basis. I'm not sure I will do that...organising from this distance is not ideal! Maybe we'll go somewhere else...

Next on the little crowded stage (beware the drum kit...) was poet Hugh McMillan...all the way from Penpont near Dumfries. In his first set Hugh read from his latest book 'Postcards from the Hedge'...he even stuck the poster from it up on the wall as a visual aid (always the educator!). I was a bit nervous about Hugh never having seen or heard him before...was there a reason he has been called 'Scotland's most overlooked poet' (or some such)....did he have a terrible flatulence problem that no-one had told me about or something? Was he just a giant pain in the arse? sounds like he drives his wife crazy but as far as we the poetry audience were concerned he was absolutely brilliant. He was interesting, funny, tragic, strangely charming...and the poems spoke for themselves well too (so much variety, such a skillful blend of style and content). The audience loved him, really loved him...I watched people warm to him with every new witty line, with every clever observation, with every beautiful little detail. It was quite a masterclass. Why he's not headlining at StAnza every year I really don't know. Or at least every other year.

After Hugh came Charlie Williamson – all the way from Montrose like me. Hugh and Charlie have things in common, now I think about it. They are both family men (3 kids each I think) and they both work 'regular' day jobs (or jobs anyway). Plus they are both funny, thoughtful...good blokes. They both like a drink too! Charlie's secret though, is that he has a voice to die for. He can just stand and sing and fill a room with the most amazing accompaniment (well, apart from the beer...), no frills, just fine, heartfelt singing. I love listening to Charlie sing...truly the human voice doing what it does best...and he did a great set on Friday. On a related note Mark and I stuck the radio on when we got back into the car in Montrose. It was on R4 (Mark likes news) and it was an excerpt from that week's Women's Hour talking about the range of the human voice and how many of us don't get near using our full power for a whole range of reasons. I thought of Charlie and his room-filling range...some people manage it, some people really sing!

After a short break I read a few more poems – this time about everything but music. I read about city living and being rubbish at office work and war and relationships and dinosaurs and the end of the human race. As you do. I probably enjoyed this set more...the night was going so well...maybe I was even relaxing! Maybe I spoke a little slower...

Next came Pauline Hynd (formerly Pauline Meikleham...she's trying out a new stage name!). I've seen Pauline several times at the night she runs herself in Dundee (Out of the Woods). As she's usually running the show she is usually on early and no doubt her thoughts are somewhat on other things so it was great to watch her let loose (as it were) to just do her own thing. And what a thing! Pauline was on fire! Again this is a performer with an amazing voice -she can sing in any style you like and sometimes several different styles in the same song – and her songs are funny, clever, really original and kind of groovy. I think she is something really special – a real entertainer, a beautiful singer. Watch out for that new name because that Pauline Hynd, she's tremendous!

After Pauline, Hugh did his second set (reading from his other books – he has several). He stepped effortlessly back into his wandering stride and the audience just lapped it all many good moments and poems, such a great way to spend an evening, people were literally hanging on his every word by the end. There were many highlights but I liked 'Marked' in this set best of all (it's a poem about marking exam papers, taken from the book 'Strange Bamboo'). I'd loved it in the book but read aloud it was close to perfection. If I'd been a Strictly Come Dancing judge..I might just have held up my '10' card. Full marks indeed.

The last performer of the night was Edinburgh singer and musician Kim Edgar. I first saw Kim performing with the magnificent Karine Polwart in Dundee earlier this year and slightly later on I bought her CD 'Butterflies and Broken Glass' and little by little I fell in love with her voice and her lyrics and her whole musical project, if you like. She has the gentlest voice you can imagine (but still a steely power in there somewhere) plus she is a great pianist and guitarist and a gifted writer too. On Friday she started off with two numbers that were poems of mine that she had turned into songs ('Significant other deceased' and '25 year tears') and as you can imagine this was really quite exciting for me! I had not heard the tunes before and it really was quite earthshattering to hear them in that place, surrounded by friends old and new, sung by that voice, turned into quite such beautiful entities. They are both lovely but 'Significant other deceased' (perhaps because she sang it first) nearly knocked me off my chair. It is a sad poem (simple but sad) and she turned it into something...almost celestial. I didn't cry (oddly...I cry so much and so easily!) but my goodness, I won't forget that experience for a long time. Kim also sang her own beautiful song 'Heavy Skies' and one she co-wrote with Karine P. Go and hunt down Kim's CD, honestly, you won't regret it.

So that was it...the end of the night...everyone tired but very happy. The guy at the venue said what a great night it had been, the atmosphere, the crowd, everything...and that was good to hear too. I felt kind of proud of all the performers and of course was tired too but couldn't sleep (once I'm hyper..I'm hyper for life!). We stayed over and didn't get back up north till Saturday night and then there was normal life to resume and all that. For now...I wish you'd all been there! And Hope...the vids are on their way, I promise!


Wednesday, 12 November 2008

November skies

Yesterday I did a bit of blog maintenance. A couple of months ago I had got mixed up and I thought I had posted the same poem here twice (I hadn't, as it happened...I'd just got confused) but I decided I needed to go through the whole blog and note which poems had been posted here and when. So yesterday I went through all the posts and it was really weird going back to the beginning (February 2007!) and seeing what I was thinking back then when I opened the blog doors, as it were. I do keep diaries and reread them now and again but this was even weirder (it being public and all). It reminded me who my first readers were here and how I started tentatively but then got to quite enjoy it all – the strange virtual meetings, the finding people you might even like in real life, the reading all kinds of writing and then, best of all, the moments of real happiness when someone likes a poem or writes just the right thing in a comment or a post at just the right moment. Now and again these days there have even been some great debates and exchanges on here and that is just fantastic. My Mum has always been a Bloomsbury set fan and I know she is slightly disappointed that I don't fill the house with brilliant literary and other artistic minds at all times...little does she know it's all going on in the laptop...that in here, now and again, I have my very own low-rent Virginia Woolf moments! Who needs TS grumpy Eliot when you have sparkling Fiendish and charming Ken Armstrong and Colin 'the godfather of Scottish poetry' Will? If it wasn't for Colin visiting here at the beginning when I was Rachel-no-blog-mates I think I might have given it all up as a bad job – he is a top geezer that Mr Will. And everyone else who reads and comments too - I do quite honestly love you all...I'm a big soppy girl that way, far too open, far too honest, gets me in all kinds of trouble...Take blog awards all of you, take them, run through the fields and be happy...even those of you who never leave a comment (and I know who some of you are!)...I probably love you all too...well, most of you...

Sorry...gushing overload. Deep breath. Assume serious poetry face. Feel uncomfortable. Resume normal rather confused expression.

When I was going through the poems and blogs I came across this November poem. I wrote it a couple of years ago when I was out shopping in Montrose (while Small Girl was at post-school dancing) and the sky was so breathtakingly beautiful it...astounded me. I don't write the most visual poetry and I don't concentrate on visual details as much as some poets but now and again even I get carried away by my eyes. We do get the most beautiful skies in the world here...something to do with the sea and the Basin perhaps but this poem is a funny one in some ways – it is one of mine that I'm less sure about. Usually I feel fairly sure when a poem is finished (to my eyes and ears at least) but this a bit different. It is a bit messy and I know that will annoy some readers but the problem for me is that I don't mind mess really...mess is normal, comforting honest...and I don't expect poems to be always perfect (although obviously I try my hardest with them in many ways). Oddly I've got it in the 'writing' section on my website when it probably should be in 'seeing and believing' instead (or as well). I sent it to a poetry magazine once and got the comment 'I think you are working your way towards an exciting style'. I kind of liked that comment. When you get to the supposedly exciting moments they can be disappointing, can't they? Sometimes the best bit is the getting there. See what you think...

Be quiet too

That full blue of evening sky
Is that simply this
The colour of magic?

It is warm and cold
The most amazing sight
But ordinary too

It stops me dead
At half past four
On a November afternoon
For quite some moments

I think of words for colour
For wholeness and everything
And find nothing with the spell
Of that buzzing blue

There are times and colours
And feelings like this
(‘You’ll be pleased to hear
Results are negative’)
So much strength of their own
They can be better left
To silence

So I pause and
Like a good Quaker
Feel the huge relief
Of noiseless time

It is just blue

I keep quiet

Now you try it

RF 2006