Wednesday, 30 April 2008

What is wrong

There's been a lot in the press recently about Emmanuel Jal, the rapper from the Sudan who was a boy solider. I have listened to the music on MySpace and to be honest I didn't like it much but then I'm not a huge rap fan (except NWA's 'Express Yourself' and a few other old tunes from, as I believe the saying goes, back in the day...).

However, his is an interesting story and in the Guardian's piece on him I read a lovely quote from Jal - "Music is powerful. It is the only thing that can speak into your mind, your heart and your soul without your permission."

I've read a lot of sad stories in the papers this week and seen some odd stuff on TV ('Shrinkwrapped' with Gene Simmonds...what a mistake that was) and it was good to read a sentence like that - one with some content to it that didn't make me feel sad or disillusioned or tired. Of the sad stories I think the one that seems to have hit me the hardest was the one from last Thursday's 'Independent' (from 24th April - we always have a lot of old papers lying around and I get to them eventually..then wish I hadn't). The story was about a group of women from South Korea who were repeatedly raped by Japanese soldiers in the Second World War and who are fighting to clear their names (the Japanese government says they were prostitutes and they are referred to as 'comfort women', a name they hate). The details of some of the treatment they suffered just...what can you say...made me feel sick. I've known women who spend their whole lives getting over one incident of rape, never mind the kind of stuff this article referred to.

I've nothing else to say today. That's it.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

More on the old man I am...apparently hooked on blogging. It'll pass. I was hooked on MySpace a while back and I've been hooked on lots of other things before...

So why am I typing now instead of getting on with cooking (I will get to that - I like food too much)?'s just... I was looking through my file of other people's poems that I really, really like (photocopied and all put in one place - for guidance, inspiration and enjoyment) and I came across the page of Larkin quotes that I copied out when I was reading the Motion biography. There are some lovely sentences and sentiments so here's a few...I apologise for any misquoting...I haven't got the book here, just my own notes -

"poetry (at any rate in my case) is like trying to remember a tune you've forgotten"

"I have no ideas about poetry at all. For me, a poem is a crossroads of my thoughts, my feelings, my imaginings, my wishes and my critical sense"

"the only quality that makes art durable and famous is the quality of generating delight in the state of living"

Now, delight is a word that can be cloying, unsuitable, cringemaking and much worse in the wrong hands but here it is perfect.

One final odd personal note - I said to my Mum a while back that Larkin was my favourite poet. 'He was your father's favourite too', she said (with one of those looks) and it all seemed a bit weird when you think how many poets there are writing in English and that I never really knew my Dad or anything and just came to Larkin on my own. Nature, nurture...hah!

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Warts, warts and more warts

As I may have mentioned (a few hundred times) I am getting ready to put out a book of poems. It should be out early summer. I haven't had an editor as such but I have been sending out drafts here and there and tweaking bits and all that kind of stuff. I've quite enjoyed it all so far. Some advice I have taken, some advice I may well yet take, some advice I know I should take but I haven't...I know an editor (proper) would take a lot more out, make me be harsher...maybe make it a better book...but I am happy with what I've got just now. You take out all the warts what does that leave you - Paris Hilton or something? Or the strange vision that is Joan Rivers' plastic face - anyone watch her on the voyeurs-r-us show this week?

Anyway, back to poems...I have shown the book-to-be to some poets and people in some way involved with poetry (are there any of the latter who aren't poets themselves? Not many) but I've also shown it to people I know from different walks of life. I am quite unashamed about the fact that I write more for what you might call non-poetry people than for poets, poetry magazine editors and so on. I have nothing against the latter it just seems to me that there are already a huge number of poets writing for that kind of reader - plus I can't help myself I just do like a direct, bullet-to-the-heart-no-frigging-subtlety-at-all poem every now and then and that can put a certain type of reader off, stop them taking you seriously. Personally, I just can't worry about that kind of stuff though- too much else to think about. I do write (and live) on instinct to a large extent and as I must have said (another few hundred times) it would be very dull if we were all just the same.

It's interesting how often the poems non-poetry people like most are the ones poetry people like least (and vice versa). For example this poem has been pretty much disliked by the pp and yet has been commented on much more favourably by other people who like its directness:

Significant other deceased

I wasn't ready
You're gone too soon
The kitchen's quiet
Lost its tune

I'm not prepared
No good alone
Why is it you
Who won't be home?

You're ripped to shreds
I'm picked apart
My love is gone
My love, my heart

RF about 2005

It has been one of my poetry postcards and it has sold well - I have met many a widow/widower who has it stuck up on their kitchen cupboards, fridges etc. They like the fact that it is about how bad you feel, how lost you are - no dressing up a terrible situation with prettiness or intricate images but instead talking about how it really is. Generally speaking older people like it (one of my Mum's friends bought a stash - 'oh my friends are being widowed all the time, I'll take ten'!). One of my friends loves it and sees it as the words of a woman who has been left by a man and who feels bereaved (but isn't really). All these reactions I find fascinating as I wrote it, in fact, after reading about a man bereaved by the London tube bombs in 2005 (hence the 'ripped to shreds' - some criticism has been levelled at this as a corny, exaggerated phrase but I meant it completely literally). The piece I read was one of those articles that you read, put down and then the poem just falls out. I come from a family of much bereavement so it's a subject I have thought about and expected a lot. I am still amazed every day when my beloved makes it home from work in one piece (wish I was joking but I'm really not).

So there you are. What would Dr Pamela Connelly MD make of me? (Answer - hopeless case?)

Monday, 21 April 2008

Away day

I don't get out of Montrose much. This is partly choice (it's very nice here), partly other things...but I am just back from a quick trip to the one of the most beautiful cities on earth - Edinburgh.

In Montrose we get plenty of music (the folk club brings excellent guests every fortnight - that's more than enough for me) but there aren't a lot of major art exhibitions nearby. There is the William Lamb Studio of course (never been, are you mad?) but I've been there quite a few times (even written a poem about it). What this means is that when I get near a city I do like to get into an art gallery, the sooner the better. Yesterday my beloved and I walked out of Waverley station (is it still called that? Not on the website...) anyway, out we came and the first thing I saw was the name Ansel Adams up in big letters on the side of the City Art Centre. I'm not a photography buff as such (don't you just love the word 'buff'?) but I remembered the name from one of my college friend's bedroom wall posters. we went.

It was a bit crowded (it was the last day of the show) and it was quite dark (to preserve the photos) and you couldn't quite relax and let it all in (there were a lot of prints!) but I'm glad we went all the same. The bit of the informative biography film I caught was interesting, the photos were fascinating (what I could make out of them) and there was also work by Scottish photographer Lindsay Robertson (huge, impressive shots of Glencoe, for example). There was even a lovely photo of a rose ('Rose on Driftwood' 1932) by Adams that gave me an idea for a poem about my Mum (I'm off to work on that this evening - it was such an odd-one-out in an exhibition full of redwood trees and great sweeps of dramatic landscape in Yosemite). There were some quotes from Adams up on the walls above the photos. Here are a couple:

"I believe photography has both a challenge and an obligation: to help us see more clearly and more deeply, and to reveal to others grandeurs and the potentials of the one and only world which we inhabit"


"There are no rules for good photography, there are only good photographs"

Could both of these apply to poetry? Quite possibly. I like the sentiments.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

What will survive...

Jim Murdoch has done a great post about Philip Larkin (and his poem 'Mr Bleaney' in particular) this week. As I mentioned a few posts ago Larkin is one of my very favourite poets. I don't even have favourite poems as such (more like favourite lines, favourite moments) and it's weird but he feels like a family member almost - in the sense that I don't like everything about him but I feel a loyalty, a connection, a love I can't quite explain. I'm glad he's not still around though...I'm sure meeting him would have finished off any love forever. Like some of the best relatives - absence can keep the heart much fonder.

I mentioned to Jim that I had been just about to blog about Larkin - largely because I got the new Chumbawamba cd this week and it has a song about him called 'Hull or Hell'. (The cd, by the way, is called 'The boy bands have won' and is fantastic. It contains many songs of interest to people working in the word business - 'Words can save us' is brilliant and inspirational, 'Sing about love' explains so well how some of us can't avoid writing about what's going on in the world around us, no matter how hard we try. If you only think of Chumbas as that band that did the 'knock me down and I get up again' song then you should seek this out at once.) But to get back to where I was...Jim said something like 'do the blog about Larkin - I've only scratched the surface...' (nonsense - he had made some of the vital points about Larkin and linked to lots of interesting articles too - I enjoyed the one about Motion's biography and its motivations especially).

So here I sit. I'm not sure I have a blog about Larkin that can move on any discussions or anything. I am not good at writing about writers in any kind of even-vaguely-approaching-academic way - I discovered that at university...a little too late perhaps as I was already on a literature-heavy course (you should see some of the essays I wrote then...well, no, you really shouldn't...). I've always loved to read but have never quite understood how the study of literature (once you're over 18) has turned into something so dry and cold and dull. Call me an over-sentimental old fool, do I care? If I wanted to turn everything into a science I would study science for heavens sake! In fact one of my favourite bits of Zadie Smith's 'On Beauty' (to hark back to my last post) is the easily-missed little interlude where we meet one of the novel's least overtly academic characters - student Katie Armstrong. Katie tries to take part in her very theoretical history of art class but can't quite make it. From Indiana and now at an east coast university Katie was 'by far the brightest student in her high school' and 'loves the arts' but finds the intellectual life at the university, Wellington, simply incomprehensible. She doesn't know the language ('she wished her high school had given her different kinds of books to read than the ones she has evidently wasted her time on') and much as she tries (she is a hard-working, clever girl) she just doesn't think or talk or feel the way her teacher and some of her fellow students do and she can't quite see why. To use a reference that comes in later in the novel, she just loves tomatoes. You have to read's well worth it believe me.

When I first read that scene I was amazed. Was Zadie Smith sat next to me in a Lisa Jardine lecture on Barthes back in 1988 (LJ talked about signs and all I could think about was Monty Python 'Brian, Brian, give us a sign...')? Had she read my mind? I still don't know how much the author sympathises with the Katie character or how much she looks down on her as not-quite-up-to-the-intellectual mark but as I feel that character is me (in a little way) I always choose understanding and an appreciation of Katie's finer, less sculpted sensibilities (as opposed to some of her very convoluted contemporaries)...but then I would say that, wouldn't I?

So it's also no wonder I feel so happy with Larkin, the man who, as Jim says 'used plain English and somehow managed to infuse it with poetry'. I'm not saying everyone should use plain English (please let us not all try to be the same!) but it is generally what I do, just because it feels right to me. I don't have an academic theory to explain it. That would be most out of character. I like the way he wrote some short, snappy, straight-to-the-point poems as well as some of the more...obviously poetic ones. I like poetry when it sneaks up on me - not when it comes out waving a flag saying 'hello, aren't I the bee's knees?' (is that a very English way of thinking? Or a British one?). I like the way he showed life, the way he told his tales in little lines and sad details. The way he got on with his job at the University Library in Hull, knowing, I am quite sure, that he didn't need a glittering career in academia or elsewhere when his poems were so important, so much better on humanity and its confusions than so much else being written at the time. That's what will survive...and that's enough.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

On beauty, on pleasure

Reading 'The Poisonwood Bible' (see post below) made me want to read another novel that I would really enjoy. So much reading is not much about enjoyment (the frustration, the irritation, the labour, the drag, the showing off, the lack of clarity...) and it felt great to just plain love a book again, made me feel like a teenager. So...I went for a novel I had read once before and knew that I loved - 'On Beauty' by Zadie Smith.
I don't know what the (horrible) accepted word on this novel is. I know Zadie Smith herself is such a looker that writing a novel called 'On Beauty' must have wound up a lot of people (so gorgeous, so talented, so opinionated, so what the publishing world that her fault? Does that stop it being a great book?) I know this, her third novel, didn't win the Booker (and I read the one that did...John Banville's 'The Sea' - one big yawn for me I'm afraid). I know it won the Orange Prize (cue eye-rolling from those who don't believe in prizes for women only). I know I liked 'White Teeth' (some lovely passages, a messy end) and quite enjoyed 'The Autograph Man' (difficult second novel, also a bit messy) but I know I loved 'On Beauty' the first time and I'm loving it even more this time round. I'm about two thirds of the way through and it's just joy all the way - the perfectly chosen phrases, the clever comments on modern life and human relations, the understanding of old and new, the love of poetry, the love of life...I could go on but all I really want to do is go and read some more.
Pleasure...a much underrated feeling!

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

'Rachel reads bible' shock

I finally finished 'The Poisonwood Bible' by US writer Barbara Kingsolver this week. I am usually guilty of reading too fast...skimming even...and I have a terrible habit of finding myself thinking about 'what's for tea?' in the middle of a page...but this time I was as disciplined as ever a girl can be and what can I say...I absolutely loved it. I would have married it, dear reader, except you know (or should know) my thoughts on that game of old tosh by now (sorry, Colin, happy anniversary!).
The bible in question was published in 1998 so it is old news (if good...well, and bad) but being behind the times is not so disastrous and in 1998 I was...obviously doing something else. I don't remember hearing about the book much then...did it get a lot of media coverage? Have any of you heard of it? Read it? Is it considered naff? Is 'naff' itself too passe for words? Good job I'm not bovvered. I think that must be naff by now too. Still funny though.
Rambling alert! Back to the book...why did I like it so much? Because it is one of those rare books that I wanted to read again as soon as I had finished it. Because it covers so much in such a beautifully executed way. Because it is about everything. And also, don't hate me, but partly because it was written by a woman...and as a getting-old-feminist (whatever the hell that word means..) I can't help loving it when a woman shows so masterfully, to anyone who still might be in any doubt, just how brilliant a woman writer can be. And yes, I know there are some brilliant male writers too (and some of undetermined sexual identity too no doubt).
Worryingly my mother also raved about this book (cue - panic of the 'am I turning into my mother' variety). Let's hope it's just because it is such a great book...but if you do catch me watching 'Midsomer Murders' just put me out of my mystery...I mean misery (in a suitably hammy fashion, preferably with a flashy branded kitchen utensil).
Also this week I saw Martin Stephenson at the folk club. He's been around for ages but somehow I've never seen him before. He was fantastic - so funny, so on-his-own-road, so talented, so not everybody liked him...It was nice to read a few poems at the club too...remind myself there is more to poetry than blogging! Thank god and amen and any other religious words I can misuse willy-nilly to that, my friends.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Going to the dogs

This week has been school and downs thereof...mixed in with 'what is going to happen in Zimbabwe?', plus reading Barbara Kingsolver's 'The Poisonwood Bible' (still fascinating..about three quarters of the way through now), plus listening to Karine Polwart's marvellous new cd 'This Earthly Spell', plus (just now) an unbelievably long time looking up My Little Pony names on the internet (for small girl, you understand, not for me... or my beloved). Modern family life never ceases to amaze me with the way you can be thinking about Mugabe one minute and then My Little Pony the next. In fact sometimes there isn't even a whole minute between subjects. It's no wonder we're all so mad...there's multi-tasking and then there's just plain overloading the equipment.
Living as I do in a three generational sandwich of a household, I tend to think an awful lot about ideas for poems about women and families and the differences between times of life. A couple of years ago I wrote the poem below about parenthood and childhood. Just recently someone said they liked it which was nice as it hasn't been out and about much, this little one. I think of it often though...every time I'm just a little too harsh. Get down, Shep, I think, get down.

The dog house

Hear yourself shout
God what a horrible sound that is
Bark of a bitter dog
Little pup is unconcerned
Gets on with its own games
Thinks old mutt is crazy
And sometimes prone to
Unreasonably high expectations
Pup wags its tail
Jumps up sniffing
"Play with me", it pants
"I won't be this fresh forever"

RF 2005