Saturday, March 31, 2007

Poetry Review 97:1, Beauty and risk

The new issue of Poetry Review (Spring 2007) is out, and not only features the winners of the National Poetry Competition (ok, I know the Independent on Sunday gets them first, but the poems look and feel so much better in PR) and the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize 2006 (Tamara Fulcher's 'Choirsinger', from PR 95:4), but also excellent new poetry from David Harsent, Sean O'Brien, Moniza Alvi, and Gwyneth Lewis. I particularly enjoyed Sarah Wardle's short poem, 'Healing'. You'll also find the usual reviews, with a particular focus on the recent poetry and critical works of Paul Muldoon, and a poem of mine, 'Filter'. Do tell me what you think of it, as for various reasons it isn't the sort of poem I usually write.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Bright Eyes - Four Winds

The video for the excellent new Bright Eyes single, 'Four Winds', can be found here. It's taken from the forthcoming album, Cassadaga. I would've loaded it up here, but Blogger won't except the html for some reason...

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Don't Ask Me What I Mean

A few weeks ago, and I met an old friend who’d come up to see myself and others in Sheffield (for some reason, a lot of our Sixth Form decided to head off to either Sheffield Uni or Sheffield Hallam for their degree studies – a mixture of proximity and the uniqueness of the city, I imagine). After a group of us had gone out, caught up, and drunk until the early hours of the morning, the two of us started talking about various things. She headed back home the following day, and we carried on chatting over email, and at her request (seriously, did you know what you were letting yourself in for?) I emailed over a few poems, which she responded to with her feelings and opinions about them. The strange thing (or at least it seemed that way until I’d finished writing in a sudden stream of, I suppose, defensiveness), was the response her genuine comments drew from me. I wrote the email below, then, without even properly thinking: it seemed talking openly and honestly (albeit via email) about the stuff I write had helped me to access some messy ‘literary manifesto’* that’d been buried inside of me for some time.

The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations has an interesting section on what it means, to the wider world and in the mind of anyone who might dare to consider themselves as being, ‘a poet’. The most interesting is the development through the years of the quotation I associate with Don Paterson, its most recent exponent: that is, if anyone asks you what you do, you mention the Inland Revenue and they end the conversation for you. And, of course, this sense of embarrassment filters out, to a large extent, into feeling a fair bit uncomfortable when talking about writing the stuff. Poets don’t want to come across as out of touch, aloof, or worse, in meaningless dialogue with themselves, while a possible friend sits across from them, their silence screaming ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ And though they are especial suffers from it (poor, poor things), this feeling of awkwardness in discussing your own writing doesn’t solely affect poets: its something that seems to plague most artists. I thought, for example, that I knew exactly what the word ‘poet’ conjured in most peoples’ minds: think a mixture of Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ with the negativity of John Stuart Mill’s ‘Thoughts on Poetry’. But sometimes you’re wrong. You show a contemporary poem to someone who reads hardly any (or no) contemporary poetry, and they find something that clicks, or fits, or sparks off ideas. You show your poems to someone who doesn’t read much contemporary poetry and they respond to it with something thoughtful, interesting, and ultimately helpful. In my case, this caused a random outpouring that’s helped me to get a clearer idea of where my writing’s been heading. Use your intuition: if you don’t already, take your writing and show it to people you think’ll be interested; outside of writing groups and strictly literary conversations. You might just surprise yourself.

Dear _______ ,

I think my poems feature a lot of tension between freedom and conformity; two seemingly binary oppositions that, like so many things, are subject to fluctuations in meaning, and to merging and blurring with one another. As you rightly point out, the ‘hope’ in my poems is, admittedly, a bit difficult to detect, largely due to the fact that it figures itself as underlying, a potential that isn’t always overtly evident in the world, or at least not as I often encounter it, anyway. Mick Imlah once said that ‘poetry is a way of talking about things that scare you’, and Don Paterson echoed his thought by saying that a good poem leaves the world a scarier and less stable place. I subscribe to those ideas in my writing: you used the adjectives ‘consumerist’, ‘individualistic’, and ‘controlled’ as snapshots of aspects of our society; the many contradictory and difficult elements that go up to make our civilization and, more generally, the world. I suppose, then, my poems are about recognising these ‘in-betweens’; I'm trying to signal the fact that people search for stability and unity in themselves and in the world, and instead find multiplicities and haziness in the sheer possibility of human action and emotion. For that reason, my poems are probably influenced to some extent by the work of Helene Cixous, who’s one of the most important literary theorists of the 20th century, in my opinion. In ‘Coming to Writing’, she talks of her initial intuition that writing was about capturing Truth (something encouraged up until the mid-20th century), and then her empowering realisation that it’s rather in search of the (possibly limitless) limits of potentiality and possibility: something that’s both emancipating and also, quite frequently, a little terrifying. I suppose at first glance, then, ‘The Quiet’** figures silence as something restrictive and uncomfortable, but I like to think that the thunderstorms and the stillness of prayer in the poem hint at something more; at it being a chance to reflect and take things in. If it doesn’t do that, perhaps it needs fixing. The other poems I sent links to probably do (need fixing, that is); but then it’s a lot more exciting (not to mention easier, at least for me) to write about fears and uncertainties than about moments of happiness. After all, real happiness is pretty straightforward (feeling it, that is, not achieving it), which is probably why we all search for it in life as the ultimate goal. I think my poems are probably trying to reach out for happiness, then, but they have to go about doing so in the same way we all come to find it in our lives: through weighing things up and assessing them, through introspection and revelation, and through making a shed load of mistakes. The new Bloc Party album’s got a lovely line from the song ‘Waiting for the 7:18’, actually, where Kele sings: ‘If I could do it again / I’d make more mistakes’. That pretty much sums up everything, I reckon.

I’m also aware, now, that not only have I written a quasi-essay in part-explanation and part-defence of my poems, I’ve also, in the process, talked in depth about my poems, a topic I’m normally averse to discussing at all. So thank you, and at the same time, my apologies, as this has been quite an epic little email. Incidentally, I should say there’s a big gap between the poet and the person, so don’t think I’m severely depressed if my poems come across that way! My poems are doing something (as I attempted to explain above), but whatever that something is, it doesn’t merge too much with my own outlook on life. For starters, it’d be way too much effort to keep that mindset up, and a mixture of my less than brilliant memory and general routine helps to swallow up most negative feelings. Atwood? Yes. Orwell? No. I do think Orwell’s a brilliant thinker, but what I concern myself with isn’t in line with Orwell’s outlook on society and humanity. Atwood’s got a lot of interesting things to say: her novels seem like most dystopia to begin with, but what I’ve realised since A Level is that Atwood is a writer deeply engaged in exploring characters and individuals in all their shifting and contradictory brilliance. Nothing is pindownable with her; emotion and action constantly flow in and out of one another, which isn’t something that dominates the ur novels of the dystopia canon. Anyhow, I have far too many things to say on this topic, so I’ll cut it short here. There’s a short poem attached that might convince you I’m capable of writing slightly less ‘troubled’ poetry, anyway: probably in testament to the lack of conviction I have in my argument. Either way, my poems have only a proportion of themselves devoted to me: they’re more refractive than reflective. Maybe that’s just an excuse, or a massive literary projection or something. Either way, the psychiatrists can work that one out. I will keep in touch. And I’d be glad to send you poems: some when they’re done, and perhaps some when I want helpful advice. Good luck with your mountain of dissertation work: I avoided mine, in part, by writing this.

* I couldn’t think of a better phrase, so this will have to do. It’s way too confused to constitute something as cohesive (not to mention, pretentious) as a manifesto.

** This poem appears in the latest issue of the Frogmore Papers, issue 69.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

New Stuff @ NthPosition

The excellent monthly ezine that is NthPosition has new fiction, reviews, and poetry on showcase for March. The poetry section contains new work from new and established writers, including Patricia Goodwin, Bloodaxe poet Helen Ivory, and Geoffrey Dearmer Award-winning poet, Andrew Bailey. Of the work on show, I especially recommend the slow and moving power of Bailey’s poem, ‘You may revere me’. And, since this brief post has been subtly building up to a shameless plug, you’ll also find two poems of mine, ‘Girl’ and ‘Epiphany’, available for your casual perusal. But seriously, when you next have time, do check out the archive of work on NthPosition. Not only does this include good work by a variety of writers, but also the anthology Babylon Burning; a collection of poems inspired by the impact of 9/11 that has helped to raise money for the excellent work of the Red Cross.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Hard Sell

For those of you who regularly enjoy Sam Delaney’s witty satires on the inconceivably shit telly adverts that plague our television screens, I recommend this week’s brilliant evaluation in the Saturday Guardian’s Guide.

This week’s hard sell is Carling’s new advert, a confusing mishmash which depicts, in Delaney’s words, ‘a starling (which rhymes with Carling) that’s flying in spectacular tandem with a million of its mates across a beautiful rural sunset to the improbable strains of Hard-Fi’. What the fuck this scene has to do with a watery lager is anyone’s guess, but Delaney does the advert justice: that is to say, mocks it with brilliant mercilessness. Probably the best ‘Hard Sell’ I’ve read, I’d wager (would that have been a better line if it’d been Carlsberg?). Read it here. Oh, and the cringeworthy advert’s here.

Friday, March 02, 2007

'It's wonderful what a smile can hide': a review of Patrick Wolf's The Magic Position

Patrick Wolf’s new album is one that refuses to give its game away in the first listen, and as such is a welcome antidote to some of the more monotonous offerings of that near-cliché of a musical canon, indie. I say ‘game’ as many of the songs from The Magic Position possess a light-hearted and playful edge: Wolf’s smorgasbord of influences layered together in interesting pastiches, from the thumping dance beats and Tears for Fears-esque pop of ‘Accident & Emergency’, to the haunting strings and guest vocals of Marianne Faithfull on ‘Magpie’.

But pop-catchiness aside, The Magic Position is an album that bears repeated playbacks, revealing its often absorbing narratives to harbour darker, emotional concerns. ‘I fell off the wagon into your arms’ broods Wolf on ‘Bluebells’, possibly the strongest song on the album, revealing the vices of swinging from addiction to addiction; from alcohol to ‘the darker day’ of the lovers’ ‘final December’. The gloomy atmosphere of ‘Augustine’ bears similar reflection: ‘the bell tower blocks the summer light as the seeds in our garden fight’ sings Wolf, ukulele and subtly-placed piano complementing his engaging lyricism.

Clearly, then, Patrick Wolf has put some serious craftsmanship into this album, even the glossy laptop sheen of ‘Bluebells’ (something of a Wolf trademark) hinting at the generally uplifting, ‘dust down and move it along’ attitude of that song. Naturally, The Magic Position has its weaker moments: ‘Get Lost’, for example, bounces along as a catchy but predictably frothy piece of electro-pop, despite closing trombone bursts adding an interesting dimension to the song. But on the whole, it must be said that Wolf’s ambitions are set a hell of a lot higher than many of his contemporaries’: opening with an ‘Overture’ and closing with the gentle ‘Finale’ may be a nod towards substantial classical influences, but also an indication of the artistic integrity behind Wolf’s flamboyant and stylised persona. The album’s cover art says it all: the Wolf, clad in tight red three-quarter lengths, staring half-solemnly, half-defiantly from a colourful fairground carousel; the often playful pop-sensibilities of his music sharing space with ingenuity and a serious musical integrity. The object of his affection in the title song aside, then, and it’s Patrick Wolf who might just realign musical tastes to The Magic Position in 2007.