Friday, 28 March 2008

Too much information?

Schools break up here today for two weeks so it's full-time small girl for me for a while. However there are a few things I want to throw down on here before that...some of them to do with school so there's a link and, speaking as a person who once did some radio presenting (if illegally from the great heights of various Leeds tower blocks), I do like a good link now and again.
So, poetry...what it is, what it isn't....all that business has been making me think about so many things. Firstly it has made me think about the poems and poets that I have read, heard, liked and adored in my life so far – how did I know about them, why did I like them, what does that say about me and so on. This time I have been just concentrating on what gets called poetry and not including song lyrics (even though if there is a poet writing now who is any more a poet than Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart I haven't met her or him). It's been an interesting exercise this thinking about poetry because I think what we like says an awful lot about us - whether we like that or not. In fact a lot of what gets called literary criticism, for me, is just fancy ways of describing our likes and dislikes (but then fancy ways themselves have been one of my dislikes since I could say 'shut up you old snob' – usually to a family member - so I would say that wouldn't I...?).
Anyway, on with the throwing...first stop childhood. To be honest there wasn't a lot of poetry in my primary years. Things were a bit hectic at home some of the time and I was quite busy with being fiercely competitive and drinking up 1970s pop music, 1970s TV comedy and all those Enid Blyton boarding school books. The only poems I remember hearing are Hilaire Belloc's but I remember loving them and in particular their ferocious endings. They weren't as funny as the Two Ronnies or Dave Allen but I liked them anyway.
In my bizarre Quaker secondary school near Middlesbrough we studied a poetry anthology called 'This Day and Age' (maybe for O level..I can't remember now). We studied the poems by Auden, Frost, Graves, Larkin, Roberts and Sassoon. What's most interesting to realise now is that Larkin (these days possibly my most favourite of favourites) didn't make much impression then. I was, at 15 or so, just not ready for that kind of bitterness, that knowledge about life. Instead I fell hook, line and several sinkers for Robert Frost, WH Auden and, to a lesser extent, Siegfried Sassoon. I've never been one for memorising a lot of anything but Frost's “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in,” has stayed with me since that time and will no doubt be one of the last things I think before all the lights go out in here. We had a great teacher for Eng Lit (which made up for some of the school's other shortcomings). He was called Peter Rushforth and he wrote several novels that did well in the battleground of literary criticism - I think he even won prizes. He was a lovely man - though of course all we cared about then was his effeminate speech and tendency to spit when he spoke...foul creatures, teenagers.
We moved to London when I was 16 and I went to the French Lycee (now very trendy..did Madonna end up sending hers there or not..can't remember that either, thank god). I did English A level and had two amazing teachers there too – John Fielding and John Yeoman. It was a weird time (I had all the wrong clothes, the wrong accent, much less money than my schoolmates) but it was great to be in London at that age and our English classes were just brilliant. We did more plays and novels than poetry (although in 'Hamlet' the poetry is pretty fierce and I loved that). The only straight poetry we did was TS Eliot ('The Wasteland' and 'Burnt Norton') and whilst I enjoyed the classes and the whole trying-to-solve-the-puzzles aspect of it I can't honestly say I ever...what's that silly word you read everywhere now...ah, yes, engaged with it. I haven't read any Eliot since and I find it interesting that so many other people obviously see him as something like the big cheese of poetry since 1900. Maybe it was the whole locking up of the first wife (and me at 17 discovering feminism...), maybe it was the religious conversion (if it ever happens, shoot me, no, really), maybe it's the fact that he was Mr Lit Crit (from what I read on the subject which, to be honest, is as little as possible these days), maybe it was something to do with 'Cats'...but he's just never lit my personal fire. I'm glad I read 'The Wasteland', glad I read it with such intelligent guides and I can understand why others do rate Eliot so highly but it just didn't hit the buttons for me. Does saying that make you shout 'moron, idiot, shouldn't be allowed out without a gag'? If it does...take a deep breath, walk around a bit, remember...we don't all have to like the same that only making you worse? Probably.
Heck, this is going on a bit...maybe I should have done it in chapters.
After school I ignored my lovely English teachers and chose to study Modern Languages instead of English at uni (Cambridge, darling, so you see..if I am thick it is with full knowledge of my thickness). I did so partly because I loved going abroad and partly because I felt learning other languages might make me a useful member of the human race. I used to think a lot about being useful – never actually helped me be very useful, sadly. As for poetry in those years, no matter how well I knew another language (and Spanish was my best) I never really felt right reading poetry in anything other than English. It always felt I was pretending to understand more than I I kept to novels and read more Dostoevsky than was good for me (not in Spanish obviously...I did say languages, plural). I know a lot of poets love translating and working on the best translation possible of a poem but again, that just doesn't appeal to me, it's not one of my interests.
So...the wilderness years that came after...basically I spent years in dark rooms filled with loud music. If someone had been reading poetry in there you would never have heard it above the racket. When I did finally come out I came across the following poets who helped me move along the road to where I am now- Lemn Sissay, Roger McGough, Adrian Henri, Wendy Cope, Philip Larkin (ready for it this time..), Dorothy Parker, Maya Angelou, Simon Armitage, Benjamin Zephaniah, Matt Harvey, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dannie Abse, Fleur Adcock, Liz Lochhead, Neil Rollinson, Kate Clanchy, Stevie Smith, Sharon Olds, Tony Harrison. If any of these make your face contort into a sneer's probable that I wouldn't like all of your favourites but apart from that – what does it mean? I used to sneer when I was younger (it's easy enough to do) but since the wilderness years I sneer a lot less than I used to. Nervous breakdowns have so many advantages, I just can't tell you.
Right now I am exploring a whole load of different poets – some I have missed, some that are new, some that I have read but want to try again. Here are some of them – Emily Dickinson, Diana Hendry, Connie Bensley, Billy Collins, Pat Fox, Colin Will, Magi Gibson, Brian Patten, Jackie Hagan, Helen Thomas, HB Cruickshank, Ciara MacLaverty, Mark Haddon, Robbie Burns (I'm a new Scot...only here since 2002), Don Paterson, Lord Byron, Helena Nelson, Marion Angus, Edwin Muir, Tom Leonard and Bee Smith. Other poets I know I should and want to get to grips with are William Blake, Elizabeth Bishop, Sophie Hannah, Sasha Moorsom, Christina Rossetti, Alexander Pope, Shelley, Patrick Kavanagh, Muriel Spark, Adrian Mitchell, John Clare, UA Fanthorpe. I've got a lot of reading to do...I'd better stop with all this blogging nonsense...and, by the way, if you read all this...thanks. I think.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Ex-lush tells all

Here's a question...what is more stressful (a) a virtual debate on the no-win subject of what is and isn't poetry or (b) organising a real-life birthday party for a girl who will be 8? I can't decide. Maybe I will invite poets to eat cake and pull each other's hair (well, if they have hair) whilst the wee girls go off to the pub and talk literary technique over a few pints. I didn't start drinking alcohol quite that young (I at least made it to secondary school before turning into a lush) but you know...times have changed...maybe infantile alcopops are the way forward.
But I digress (and I start a sentence with 'but' - something my studious seven year old would never do!) and, for the record, I am no longer a lush. It got boring eventually.
This week I have been reading the two books I bought in St Andrews. I started with Janice Galloway's 'The trick is to keep breathing' - bought largely because of its great title and because a lot of the poetry on the same shelf in the shop wasn't grabbing me firmly enough. As I got into it I did wonder if it had been a wise choice...books detailing mental crises are not necessarily good for people who live in an on/off mental crisis pretty much all of the time. But I stuck with it and I'm glad because it is a good read - the humour in it is especially well timed and executed and this is important because crazy people don't always lose their sense of humour...sometimes it is all that is left. This book also reminded me how rubbish psychiatrists can be...sometimes it's quite amazing how people can be so spectacularly mis-employed. Couldn't give a toss about individual human beings - hey, psychiatry could be the profession for you!
Speaking of mental crises...the other book I bought was Don Paterson's 'The Blind Eye'. It is his second book of aphorisms and I picked it up because he read an aphorism at the acoustic evening in Dundee the other week that really did grab me, shoot me through the heart, beat me over the head, fill me with know, the whole package. But (this is a habit now this 'but' thing) the work of art in question must be in the first book because I've read 'The Blind Eye' now and it's not in there. Still, there are lots of other reasons to keep hold of book two (and not give it away to someone else as a present). Sometimes Paterson is too crazy and mindbending and overthought (even for me) but somehow I let it go because of the horrible honesty, the evil humour, the best and cruellest choice of words, the understanding of what a writer is (a lazy arse a lot of the time) and then there's that strangely appealing mix of self-belief and self-loathing and self-fatigue. Really there is so much in it you just have to read it for yourself (though perhaps not on a plane) but here is an excerpt from one of the longer pieces of 'late advice' that I particularly liked on first read:
"Our error lay in our sentimental desire to read him as a recursive series, with each nested personality revealing a deeper truth. He was merely, like everyone else, a complete mess; an answer we are never satisfied with."
It's odd what we find comforting. Those lines comfort me. A bit. Their author might hate that (I suspect he hates most things at least some of the time) but it's OK - I'm pretty sure he won't be reading me, especially in a blog.
And I forgot...small girl quote of the week...We were walking to school and she asked me what was under the pavement. I answered her as well as I could...stuff about layers and soil and rock. She looked a bit disappointed so I said 'what were you hoping for?' She was way ahead of me. 'A magical kingdom of dogs,' she answered with big hopeful eyes and the widest smile. I felt very mundane.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

And another

What with all the talk of war...I have put my poem 'Happy war (Xmas 2006)' up on MySpace. The link is in the column on the right.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Just a quick one

Ink, Sweat and Tears website/blog has one of my poems on today. They've put my trip to StAnza notes (below) up on there too. So good I read it twice...
Me, me, me....blah, blah, blah...

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Joy to the world

There will be lots of StAnza reports on blogs this week. So here's my version - plus a few other things.
Unlike lots of poets and poetry folk I have to say I always approach StAnza with mixed feelings. I have had good experiences there - for example I went to a great workshop with Matt Harvey 2 years ago (and I am not normally a workshop kind of a person). He was really encouraging and helped me a lot in terms of confidence (he was probably the first person involved in poetry to say 'you're good, you should do this'). However I've also had some dire StAnza moments too. I tried the Masterclass a few years back and hated it (it was with Jane Hirshfield - she was fine but some of the participants...aagghh!). Plus I've sat through a lot of (for my taste) overly poetic outpourings about nature and nature and, oh yes, more nature- oh the droning voices, oh the overdeveloped imagery, oh the polite audience...Last year I even tried the Slam as people kept telling me I'm a performance poet (which I don't think I am fact I'm sure I've said at least a hundred times that I think the whole literary/performance split in poetry is a nonsense really....some of the supposedly great literary poets can perform well....some of the supposedly performance poets can be as literary as they come...if in a less 'look at the width of my phd' kind of a way). The Slam was OK, I didn't embarrass myself, but it let me know the Slamming thing is not for me...the hooter, the time limit, the juke box jury. Yuk.
Anyway...this year rather than a full weekend and a lot of family organising I just chose a couple of events on the Thursday. I got there early and tried to see the exhibition bits ( I bumped into a few friendly faces, spent ages in Waterstones (we don't have big bookshops in Montrose), bought a Don Paterson book (I give in, he is a clever bastard...and funny...and miserable and oo, you are awful but I like you...), saw the poetry films on show in the Byre (fantastic - the Larkin one, the family values one...), ate lunch in quiet caff (just as well - no food at the lunchtime Studio Theatre show...again...). The lunchtime show itself was great though (food or no food) featuring Raman Mundair (from Shetland, via Northern England, via India). She was one of those poets that's so full of life it's a joy to behold. She sang (beautifully), she smiled like she knew how to do it, she had a great range of material (for me the highpoints were the very sad poem about racist killings in London and the very exciting poem about dance and life and everything). I felt we should all dance off down the stairs at the end...but of course we didn't. This is St Andrews, dear, walk nicely and bow to the royalty.
I went on to the Past & Present next - largely I have to admit because I wanted to see Adrian Mitchell but didn't fancy the Sunday night reading (lots of reasons...too many to detail). It was a great event. Tom Leonard was amusingly droll and bitter (and like Don Paterson's...older brother? Uncle?) and Adrian Mitchell was just...delightful (how English that sounds). He was talking about Blake but most of all he was talking about life and joy and happiness. Like the simply delicious Michael Morpurgo (who I also saw at StAnza a few years back) he made you want him as a Dad, or an Uncle or a nice it must be to have men like that in a with hope! I never knew my Grandads or uncles (or Dad of course) so I think about these things. That may not be a literary poet's take on the event but you can read that stuff elsewhere...I'm always pleased to see good specimens of humankind and rejoice in their wondrousness!
So that was it for me. I went back off to the public transport system and family life, my mixings with the literary world over for another long while probably. I do like some writers but being around a lot of them for any length of time gives me a headache.
Other stuff this week - I read my probably best serious poem to date ('History at 40') at the folk club and it went...well, I think, also I got on with book-to-be stuff, put my 'Free love' on MySpace (lovely reactions) and watched a great drama on BBC2 called 'White Girl'. That story was about looking for joy and peace and stuff too. The main character was a 10 year old girl. Funny, StAnza makes me feel about that old. I wonder if I'll ever feel like a serious grown-up round serious grown-ups...

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Back in the usual groove

Sundays, ah, Sundays. That feels better. It's a particularly quiet Sunday here as small girl is at a sleepover and so I have been reading in bed and other exciting activities that small girls do not permit (most of the time). It's funny want the peace but then as soon as they're gone you miss them. Well, I do and so does her Dad. We are a right pair of soft gits and I will never be a proper intellectual at this rate (thank's always been one of my least favourite words...or maybe it would be truer to say I very often hate the way it is draw a line between people, to make some people feel better and others less so).
I am still reading 'Primo Levi' by Ian Thomson. I have been reading it for ages. Why is that? Does it seem wrong to rush through a biography because it's someone's real, whole life? Is it because of the kind of life he had? Am I putting off the death at the end (which was a kind of suicide though from what I've read so far no one was 100% sure it was that or not). Suicide, suicide, everywhere you look. Some days I feel better about it, others I could cry all day (but that might just be hormones and again not very intellectual behaviour...unless you're Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath or...hang on, maybe it is intellectual behaviour...). Anyway, anyone who doesn't know, my Dad killed himself when I was 6. It does make things complicated.
Other complications...started sending off drafts of my book-to-be this week. I feel excited about it and still oddly confident. I know some people will hate it but I don't care, I really don't. Other people will love it and that will do for me.
Also I have a ticket for a StAnza event on Thursday but I'm feeling pretty hyper and not very intellectual and I find sitting politely and quietly at StAnza events hard work at the best of times (sweat, can't breathe, may scream out loud, may collapse and writhe on floor etc etc...if you've never had a panic attack, you have no idea what you're missing!). I even wrote about it once ('Poetry Festivals' on website, under 'Writing'). I may go. I may not. I hate wimping out of things but I can often come up with a good excuse for myself (very creative, you know). Shame though - I would like to see Adrian Mitchell and hear him talk. Maybe Colin Will will video it for me if I ask nicely...
It is annoying to still be panicky and weird at 41. I'd hoped it was a 30s phase and I'd have grown out of it by now. Still, it is better than it was and I can do some things that others can't. After big shows like last week's at Out of the Woods people always say 'you're so brave, there's no way I could stand up in front of all those people and talk and read poems and're so confident'. I just smile. What odd creatures we human beings are (and that's what I write about most of the time, I suppose).

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

The soundtrack makes the day

Another posting? Just felt like it...feeling full of the joys of nearly spring or something.
After the rock'n'roll of the weekend it has been back to home life and my bizarre but generally pleasant not-really-a-housewife world. Today, for example, has been a great day for listening to music - I did ironing to Waking the Witch ('Hands and Bridges' - marvellous), general duties to Jo Freya's 'Lal' (the songs of Lal Waterson - love it more with every listen), sewed a patch on my favourite jeans to June Tabor's 'Apples' ('Send us a quiet night' what a total world-stopper) and then just now made macaroni cheese to Feist's 'The Reminder' (dancing as I stirred). Who needs anti-depressants when you have a decent CD collection (or indeed a radio). There has been much talk of depression this week - on my myspace blog, on other blogs, in the press - but in my kitchen, today, happiness is a wooden spoon, a big lump of cheese and a woman singing her heart out (well, two of us in fact). Which reminds me Feist's voice keeps reminding me of someone but I can't think who...I'm usually quite good at sounds-like spotting but not this time. Having heard her mentioned in a Jon Stewart Starbucks spoof last week it seems she is already over-played a la Norah Jones in the States. I'd never heard of her before Jools Holland the other week so am blissfully ignorant of her passe status (as of so much else). Fashion, hah, I laugh in your face!

Monday, 3 March 2008

Singing and winning

So ask did Out of the Woods last night in Dundee go?
Only absolutely bloody fantastic! Verona and I had a great night and the rest of the bill was just brilliant. Pauline Meikleham started off with her amazing voice and her groovy songs (and her quite groovy jigging about with the guitar). After that it was V and me....Verona was aching with nerves but when it came to showtime she managed to overcome them and put in a great performance. We did two songs together and she did two solos and I did about ten poems all mixed in between the songs (and a lot of blethering too). We got a great feel from the crowd and some lovely comments afterwards. Highpoints were Verona's 'Jewels' song about her kids (it was Mother's Day...we saw tears in eyes here and there..) and, well, I felt good about all the spoken stuff (poems and rants). I sold some cards, spoke to some lovely folk, felt a really good connection with people. It was fantastic. Best of all Verona felt more confident having put in a good performance so we may even do the songs and poems combination more often. It really works, I think. I enjoy doing it, I like the crowds you get for music shows, and I love getting to hear the other Waking the Witch who headlined last night. They were...just a delight to listen to. Great harmonies, great playing, great songs...such a shame they are just splitting up (one of the band members was very pregnant - looked ready to drop at any moment). But the band members will all go on to great things I'm sure as they are all so talented.
Very tired was a late night. And guess what...I didn't do many funny poems but still one of the Witches asked me why I didn't go into stand-up comedy..? It must be my singing...Ah, well. You can't have everything.