Sunday, 1 August 2010

After Ledbury

I haven’t had time to update since coming back from Ledbury festival and don’t have much time now – but it was wonderful, as always. The high points for me (at least of the readings/events) were Philip Gross, Anne Berkeley, Penelope Shuttle, Mick Wood, Mary O’Donnell, and Martin Figura’s ‘Whistle’ which kept me spellbound for the whole hour.

Time at Ledbury is so much more than the readings though: the opportunity to mix with, and talk with, other poets without the distraction of the ‘day job’ is the main reason I keep going – and the company was fabulous this year (you all know who you are!).

I always take books with me, thinking that I’ll have time to read them when I’m on my own on the campsite but never do and I always buy lots of books while I’m there so I come back with an even higher pile of books waiting for me to have time to read them properly. Being at a festival seems to dampen my overdraft guilt so that I buy books more easily – and it has a knock-on effect in that being there reminds me of books I want to get which I order when I get back while I still have the immersed in poetry feeling.
So, the list of books bought, swapped, or otherwise acquired just in the last month:

Poetry collections and pamphlets

The Ark Builders – Mary O’Connell
Whistle – Martin Figura
The Breakfast Machine – Helen Ivory
Long-Distance Swimmer – Dorothy Molloy
From the Boat – Myra Connell
Mark Granier – Fade Street
The Men from Praga – Anne Berkeley
A Light Song of Light – Kei Miller
The Elephant in the Corner – Aoife Mannix

Other books

Fortinbras at the Fishhouses – George Szirtes
One Art: selected letters of Elizabeth Bishop – (ed) Robert Giroux

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Long overdue update

I hadn't realised it had been so long...
The day job has been taking up far too much time and energy: one person leaving suddenly and a key member of staff being seriously ill and likely to be off for some time yet has left me running around like a blue-arsed fly and turned my brain to mush.

But, off to Bangor for the 'Great Writing' conference in the morning and a whole weekend away from the day job will be very welcome and might, hopefully, charge my creative energies a bit. I am giving a paper which is a creative/academic combination; I've written it but haven't had time to read it through a few times - which I would have preferred so that I could be more fluent and take my eyes from the paper more.

This is the end of my first PhD year and, so far, I have no regrets at all about starting it. The poems are coming - albeit slower and harder than they used to, but needing less revision. I suspect that - unless I were content to keep on churning out the same stuff - the slowing down comes naturally with more experience as the internal editor gets fiercer.

I'm still trying to move in a new direction but it is hard and I have to battle every poem at the moment to prevent them slipping into the same old grooves. I'm aware though, that it may not look like a new direction to anyone else. I was reading a review recently in which the reviewer commented that the poets first book had been what is expected for a first book: childhood memories, personal reflections, poems about family and/or relationships. For me - these themes are a challenge and a new direction. I have always resisted writing in the first person (apart from the usual teenagey angst stuff that was not fit for public consumption) unless in persona and it feels very risky to do so now.

I've been analysing why I find it so uncomfortable and there are a number of reasons:
- a methodist, working class upbringing in which talking about oneself too much was unacceptable
- a feeling of "why should anyone be interested?"
- being a very private person
- how easily women, in particular, are disparagingly called 'confessional'

For the moment, anyway, I find it very difficult to assess these poems myself, although they are being well received by others. I do know that I can't continue writing the same poems as I have been doing: there are some poems in 'Occupation' that I'm very happy with - but feel dissatisfied if I write anything like it now.

So - time to pack a case for the morning and be very glad that I'm off work.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Interesting times (may you live in?)

To declare my political stance up front: I have been a Lib Dem (and previously Liberal) voter since my first vote. I don’t think it is possible (though I could be wrong) to work with those at the very margins of society and not be left-leaning.

Although I have disliked ‘New Labour’, I do recognise they have done many good things that cannot be wiped out by my horror of the Iraq invasion (tax credits have made my life much easier when my daughter was younger). I couldn’t stand Blair and have not had as much of a problem with Brown as some have – I had enough of spin and ‘charisma’ and we need serious people in government not shiny, messianic, orators. Whoever had been in the hot seat when the global recession hit would have found it hard to stay there.

I have a gut-deep, visceral reaction against the conservatives, as many do who lived through the Thatcher years. They stand for so many things I can’t accept and Cameron oozes a sense of entitlement that makes me want to throw the television out of the window.

So, where are we with the coalition? I have been dismayed by some of the vitriol I’ve seen directed at Nick Clegg and I am certainly not joining those – yet – who say they will never vote lib dem again, nor do I feel betrayed, yet.
What choices were available to the Lib Dems?

1. Stay on their own with their 57 seats and watch Cameron try to form a government without majority. This would probably have led to another election before long and probably led to more lib dem losses as voters would probably feel that they had to get behind labour or tory to get a clear outcome.

2. Form a ‘rainbow’ coalition with Labour and the other minority parties : I am sceptical how long that would have lasted, given all the different priorities involved. Clegg did, of course, talk to Labour and we may never know why it didn’t work, but it has been said that some Labour back-benchers were blocking all attempts at compromise to accommodate the lib dems. Joining Labour without getting any of their policies through would mean they ceased to exist.

3. Do as they have done, and try to make a workable coalition without giving up too many of their key objectives.

Whether they have done the right thing for the circumstances, only time will tell but I want to wait and see. If the coalition works, the lib dems get some of their policies through (which they wouldn’t have from their 57 seats) and they get a chance to have the share of government they should have for the proportion of voters they have – if, that is, promises about some form of proportional representation are kept. If the tories renege on the agreements made during the negotiations and the lib dems roll over - then I would feel betrayed. I hope that Clegg and his party (remembering all his MPs have agreed to the coalition) will have the courage of their convictions and walk away if the agreements are broken. At its best, the coalition could be a very good thing, if the lib dems are strong enough to balance and moderate the tories.

Listening to ‘Have I got News for You’ on the car radio tonight, coming home from work, it seems that none of the newspapers’ editors are happy. Nick Clegg seems to be catching most of the blame while many people are ignoring the election results: the politicians went to the country and the country answered ‘we don’t know!’ The overall number of votes being 10m, 8m, and 6m really doesn’t give a mandate to any party and should result in coalition. Coalition works in the Welsh Assembly and in a number of European countries.

I can’t help feeling that the reaction I’m seeing to the situation is a symptom of the polarisation and divisiveness that has been growing, fed by the media, for far too long. It didn’t start with GW Bush – but his ‘You’re with us or against us’ certainly contributed to it. I have been uncomfortable with the black and white, best buddies or arch enemies, tone of public (and personal) discourse for a long time. Life just isn’t that simple; morality, values, ethics, right and wrong, can never be absolute and there seems to be less and less room for subtleties or shades of grey in this sound-bite, tabloid-driven society. It really isn’t necessary to be either to the right of Attila the Hun or a tree-hugging peacenik. In politics, an opposition that is always at the polar opposite on every issue only cements those in power in their positions. If a coalition can achieve some shifts towards real discussion and some shades of grey then it will achieve a lot.

We’ve had strong majority governments, with Thatcher and with Blair, and neither have been great to live with. I am willing to wait and see what an alternative set up could do, while urging the lib dems to ensure it remains a coalition, not a take over from the tories.

Friday, 23 April 2010

St George's Day

I have been cheered today by seeing some English flags flying for St George's Day; it is past time we reclaimed our national flag from the most bigoted and unpleasant elements of the extreme right. I am English: I carry a British passport but identify as English just as I have friends who identify as Scottish or Welsh while carrying a British Passport. I love England and wouldn't live anywhere else. I value the diversity of its regions and regional voices, traditions and character; I value our countryside from the wild moors and peaks of the north to the green hills and woods of my home Gloucestershire;I love our tolerance of eccentricity; I even love our weather, season after season.

I also value England's ability to absorb and assimilate other cultures because for me, 'English' is not code for 'white'. I was running some race and culture sessions for young people and started trying to make a time-line of migrations and immigrations into and through these islands. I had to give up because it would have stretched twice around the room. We have always had groups of people coming to, and passing through, England: we are truly a mongrel nation and it makes us rich in stories, traditions, and lore.

I was walking early this week and twice met old men walking their old dogs. Stopping to chat for a few minutes, the soft cadences of local accents took me straight back to my grampy, pushing his rickety bike with leeks in the basket and 'mums wrapped in newspaper and tied to the handlebars, after a day scraping a living from his allotment. Sometimes, when people hear I live in Cheltenham, comments are made about it being a wealthy place - and certainly, Gloucestershire has areas of affluence, especially in the picture-postcard Cotswold villages. What people tend to forget though (or not think about)is that anywhere there are people from the wealthiest layers of society, there is inevitably a raft of working people servicing their needs and so it has always been.

Because of this, I get irritated when any hint of being proud to be English is met, from some, with mutters about imperialism. The Empire was a long time ago and it certainly wasn't run by the working classes. The working class English people had it very hard during the times of empire - look at the child labour, the workhouses, the grinding poverty in the cities, the working class martyrs - yet those who can't forgive the faults (which were many) of the Empire behave as if the whole of England were the landowners and aristocracy. The English working class wo/man developed, through years of repression, a bloody-minded independence and pride as well as a mischievous delight in discomfitting their 'betters'. I suspect this is something not seen or recognised by those who haven't seen it up close - but it is something I know and love.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

"Abridged" submission call

I always enjoy receiving a contributor’s copy of a magazine I haven’t seen before (in hard copy, rather than online where I seek them out to submit to) and last week, I got my copy of ‘Abridged’, an arts and poetry magazine which is based in the Verbal Arts centre in Derry, Ireland. It is gorgeous: really beautifully produced and full of interesting, fresh, poetry and artwork/protography. I am delighted to be in it and will be looking at taking out a subscription. In the meantime, they have a new submission call:

"In the world of colour charts and iconic English sheepdogs, Magnolia represents the fence-sitting hue that neither offends or accosts the senses. Adorning the walls of TurnKey packaged homes of first-time buyers or haunting the corners of final destination rest homes of howls and despair, Magnolia stalks us from the cradle to the grave. It is the bastard offspring of white: it is the disgraced sibling of beige. It is nothingness yet it is everywhere. It is Abridged 0 – 21.”

Up to three poems may be submitted with a maximum length approx 100 lines. Art can be up to A4 sized, full colour and should be at least 300 dpi. Submissions may be emailed to or sent by post to: Abridged, c/o Verbal Arts Centre, Stable Lane and Mall Wall, Bishop Street Within, Derry BT48 6PU Closing date for submission is May 21st.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Creativity or discovery

I have been reading Creativity: Understanding Innovation in Problem Solving, Science, Invention, and the Arts (Weisberg,2006). I am only part way through but his discussions of creativity vs discovery have caught my interest.

I (not unusually) have thought of the arts in terms of creativity and the sciences in terms of discovery; as Weisberg writes: "no Picasso, no Guernica" but great scientific discoveries are discoveries because they tend to be finding, or finding out about, things already in existence.

Weisberg shows though, that it isn't as simple as that - creativity/discovery are not two sides of a divide but two ends of a continuum and this made me think about the act of creation in poetry.

I have no doubt that writing poetry is a creative act and process though sometimes, with those rare 'gift poems', it can feel like discovery. However, writing (whether poetry or anything else) is the only art form that I can think of in which the raw material - language - is used by all of us, all the time, in our everyday existence. Unless we are writing nonsense verse or experimenting with typography and/or nonce words, we don't create the material a poem is made out of. We may find a different way of using a word or phrase, we may find something about the way words work in a certain combination, or play with the way words look on a page, but these things are surely further along the continuum line towards the 'discovery' end.

In a way, I find it reassuring that discovery is (or can be) part of creativity. I feel it validates some of the tools and tricks I use to access my process.

Maybe this interests no-one else but me but writing it out helps me think about it.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Translating as palimpsest

One of the modules on my MA was 'Translation and adaptation'. I don't have any other languages fluently enough for translating so I was pleased to find that working from literal translations was acceptable because there was a project I really wanted to do. I had heard, through someone who regularly attends 'Buzzwords', of the French trench newspapers of WWI and the poetry printed in them. It was WWI poetry from Sassoon and Owen that first got me into poetry from school so these intrigued me; we know so little of other nations' war poetry. When I started to look into it, I found the poems incredibly moving because they were ordinary soldiers, trying to make sense of the hell they were in through poetry. I was very aware of the emotional burden and responsibility of doing anything with the poems: many of the men who wrote them would not have survived the trenches and the appalling circumstances they were living in makes the existence of the trench newspapers a truly amazing testament of the human impulse to be heard.

I don't want to recap the whole project here but I loved doing it and found the experience deepened my understanding both of that history and of creative motivation. I am delighted that the project now has a new life beyond the university archive as it has been made into an internet radio programme. If you're interested, you can listen to it here: Trench Poetry from WWI