July 20, 2014
Inspired by today’s BBC Sport Prom, which explored parallels between music and sport, I thought I’d share this poem I wrote several years ago after my first couple of visits to the Proms.
At the Proms
We remember not to hum along.
Wide-eyed, ears pricked,
we clasp each other’s hands
to stifle rogue conducting,
dampen the itch
to pomp out beats
with the timpanist.
we practise sotto voce asides,
seat shuffling, staccato coughs;
then scrum the bar
for half-time drinks.
Our chit-chat’s strewn
with sporting idiom;
how every player—brass, wind, strings,
the patient striker of the single bell—
pulls together with a common goal.
What I’m straining for, second half,
fingers digging and pulsing your palm—
the whole hall behind me—
what I’m hooked on
is this restrained urging towards
the final detonation of applause.
Bravo! One nil! Encore!
July 13, 2014
I don’t easily describe myself as a poet. Labels of any sort are generally problematic to some degree. Scratchy. What’s my problem with ‘Poet’? In some mouths, it can sound like an insult. Perhaps I’m subconsciously adding ‘Minor’ or ‘Failed’ in front of ‘Poet’. Certainly, there are many people, including members of the wider writing or literary community, who don’t ‘get’ poetry, some to an almost pathological degree. The P word will induce shudders, a complete communication shutdown. Or there are others for whom the term ‘Poet’ seems to conjure up floaty flowery visions, indolence perhaps, and a not-quite-patronising response along the lines of ‘That must be lovely….‘. If only they knew the agony of each bitterly-fought phrase, the caffeine addiction, the endless troughs of self-doubt. And then this is the deeper issue, that I don’t feel I can truly call myself a Poet. Poet with a capital P. Serious and difficult. Someone who eats sleeps breathes poetry. Someone who who could dare to imagine a slim volume of their poems nestling on a bookshelf alongside Sappho, Keats, Plath. Okay, so I do at least read poetry, and I do subscribe to half a dozen or so small lit mags, and yes I write poems – more so in the last few years, and better poems, I hope, whatever that might mean – and I send them out into the big wide scary world and sometimes they are ACCEPTED. But often after I’ve read quite a bit of poetry, I crave prose; and in the same way, after writing a few poems I’m usually hankering to write whole narrative sentences, a story of some kind. So, ‘writer’ is the label I’m most comfortable with. Of course, the caffeine, the self-doubt etc. go hand in hand with prose as much as poetry. So I doubt I’ll ever be able to wear this badge with confidence:
By the way, never ever EVER call me a ‘Poetess’.
June 29, 2014
No, it’s not a dodgy dance move. This was a special antipodean edition of the monthly poetry event The Shuffle, which took place last night at the Poetry Café. Co-hosted by Cath Drake and Gale Burns, the evening featured eight Australian and Kiwi poets, and I was very pleased to be one of those invited to read. There was a lovely vibe to the evening and it was great to hear such varied voices but with some common themes coming through. Cath asked each poet how they thought where they grew up influenced their writing. This is a tricky question for me, and probably worthy of a separate blog post, as I have quite an ambivalent relationship with Australia, and it’s also tied up with my relationships with my family. There’s a tension that I think will never be resolved, and that does feed into my writing. I found Laurie Duggan’s response interesting; he mentioned that he has lived in a number of different places and feels his focus is local – wherever he is, he draws from his current locality.
Claire Potter, originally from Perth, started us off, reading poems rooted in childhood and reaching back into her grandparent’s experience of migration, tenderly evoked in a poem about her grandmother’s slippers. She finished with a longer poem, titled (if I remember correctly) Three steps outside the TAB, full of vivid imagery of suburban heat as a child waits for her grandfather outside a betting shop. I was next up and suddenly more nervous than I anticipated, though I’m told that didn’t show, and I read four poems from Triptych Poets, which seemed to be well received. Rowena Knight followed, the first Kiwi poet, and again migration was one of the themes explored in her poems, as well as the complexity of identity. The poem Flotation (again, I hope I’ve got the title right!) is a beautifully poised imagining of her mother’s six week journey to New Zealand, aged 14, having the run of the ship as her parents are dazed with seasickness and the enormity of their decision to emigrate. For Rowena, her experience of migration came aged 13, as her mother returned to the UK with her daughter, and another poem ached for childhood words whose meaning didn’t cross the seas: dairy, lollies, bach. The first half ended with Cath Drake reading poems from her recently published pamphlet Sleeping with Rivers, which won the 2013 Mslexia/Seren poetry pamphlet competition. Cath observed that one thing she thinks Australians are pretty good at is family dysfunction, and went on to read House of Bricks, all the more powerful for the matter-of-fact tone: ‘My parents made a hearty roast/in our house of bricks and that’s what counted.’ Sunken Garden stayed with me, each detail so precise and telling, quietly elegiac. There’s a lot of watery imagery in Cath’s poems, and I found her poem Octopus, despite my aversion to eight legged and tentacled beings, very sensuous.
Laurie Duggan, originally from Melbourne, and prolifically published, got the ball rolling in the second half. He read half a dozen or so poems from The Collected Blue Hills, pieces concerned with landscape and sparseness and cut through with dry humour. Laurie’s laconic performance was definitely one from the leave-them-wanting-more school, so I’ll be searching out more of his work. Next up was Rachel Smith, who grew up on a farm in New Zealand’s North Island. I was blown away by Rachel’s reading, her poems saturated with heart-stopping phrases, and her delivery just about perfect, giving space to the lines and allowing each poem to breathe. The penultimate poet of the evening was Katherine Gallagher, a very engaging presence who delighted us with anecdotes of British attitudes towards ex-pat Australians in the 1960s and 70s. Many of her poems displayed this irreverent edge, while others, such as Hybrid, expressed more directly an attachment to the country she left all those years ago. It was inspiring to hear a poet approaching her 80th year read with such verve. Diana Pooley rounded the evening off, reminding us that Australia has the most urbanised population in the world. By contrast, she was raised in outback Queensland and most of the poems she read last night reflected this almost pioneer background. Poems rich with the local vernacular, with the weather and landscape and livestock. I could picture the scene so clearly in Heatwave, the children sleeping out under the stars, sounds of the animal world all around them, an understated sense of awe. Understatement, telling detail, warmth and flashes of deep despair – these were some of the antipodean flavours on offer last night.
June 17, 2014
Sunday afternoon. The previous night, England lost. It seemed a good idea to stretch our legs and get a breath of fresh air, and an even better idea to take advantage of the fact that in under 45 minutes we can walk to Tate Britain. Grey skies and a stiff breeze hurried us on, through Battersea Park and then along Grosvenor Road, beside the Thames, and the rapidly changing riverfront. Then up the steps of Tate Britain and ahead into the Duveen galleries, pitched straight into Phyllida Barlow‘s breathtaking installation dock. Immersive isn’t quite the right word. Overwhelming is nearer. Teetering ramshackle structures of rough planks and spray painted cross struts dominate the first gallery. From these, huge rusty-looking freight containers dangle precrariously. The fact that the containers are actually made from polystrene and foam doesn’t diminish their impact. I still ducked as I walked beneath and around them. Some are burst open, revealing a splurge of messy stuff inside, like crushed meringue. Mess, excess, waste. As you move through the galleries there are more large scale sculptures: accumulations of wooden posts like a giant pile of pick-up-sticks; a towering column of cardboard held together by slapdash bandages of yellow, orange and pink tape; more knocked-together wooden structures, rather like the underside of a pier, topped by overhanging bundles of carpet and roofing felt, plastic sacks stuffed with scap material; a giant cardboard cylinder suspended from the ceiling; plywood panels daubed in muted pastel colours are tacked to something like a spectator stand gone wrong. The more I looked, the more I saw. I thought about flotsam and jetsam, about low value and no value materials, about consumption and overabundance. About unconventional beauty, and finding aesthetic pleasure in the ordinary and the discarded. dock is more than something to behold, it is something to experience and be inhabited by.
June 1, 2014
Friday evening. Fifty or so people gather in a corporate art venue, the Bloomberg Space, for Errors Hit Orient. Nick and I are here because I saw a tweet from Studio Voltaire about the event, mentioning B.S. Johnson. We’re not quite sure what to expect. The idea sounds a bit mad, but definitely unmissable. Someone is going to read football reports written by B.S. Johnson, accompanied by live electric bass. We mill about in the auditorium, sipping our complimentary beverages, and speculating about the other attendees and what drew them to this event. Football fans? Lovers of experimental literature? Art buffs? City workers beginning their Friday night with a bit of culture and a free glass of vino? The performance is one of a series of events for DOES THE IT STICK, curated by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan. There are brightly coloured foam sculptures, like children’s building blocks writ large, arranged in the auditorium; a mural of some distant planets and stars on one wall; and a giant cartoon-like house front, that looks like it belongs on the set of Play School. All very cheerful.
Eventually, we’re let through to the performance space, overlooking an atrium with views up into the Bloomberg offices proper. I’m glad to see that most of the staff seem to have left by now. And soon, Chris Evans plugs in his bass, Will Holder picks up a cordless mike, and this odd marrying of elements begins. As well as Evans’s noodling bass, there’s a looped soundtrack of vinyl record surface noise (I think!), rhythmic hand claps, and a whirring that rises in pitch and speed and then slows, builds and fades, creating a hypnotic tension. Layered over this soundscape, Holder reads eight match reports written by B.S. Johnson for the Observer in the late 1960s. In a word, it’s brilliant. It works. Johnson’s reports are mordant and subversive. One starts, roughly, ‘The political truism that it is easier to maintain the status quo than overthrow it was apparent when [football team] met [another football team]…’ In another report, Johnson compares West Ham’s repeated unsuccessful attempts on goal to the repetitive blurred pattern of a carpet. He uses litotes liberally, and Holder’s reading brings out the gritted-teeth feeling just below the surface of many of the reports, Johnson sitting through tedious games and wringing what fun he can from his turns of phrase. ‘Meanwhile, back in defence. . .’ being one memorable instance. In his account of an FA Cup tie between Canterbury and Torquay, there’s a lovely detail of two cranes rising into the Kent sky at the start of the second half, quickly punctured as Johnson goes on to say this was not an omen of a reversal of fortunes for for the home side, who were roundly beaten. Errors Hit Orient – a mad idea and a truly inspired event.
May 18, 2014
Another excellent and uplifting Loose Muse last Wednesday evening at the Poetry Café. The featured writer in the first half was Patricia Foster. A poet and educator, Patricia performed her poems with great charm and presence. Many of her poems draw on her Jamaican heritage and celebrate her close bond with her family. The Broomstick relates an event from her mother’s childhood and delicately evokes a child’s bewilderment in the face of domestic violence. Patricia dedicated My Brother’s Best Friend to Stephen Sutton, the teenage cancer fundraiser, who sadly died earlier that day. Her poem deals with a similar bereavement, again from a child’s perspective, in simple and poignant detail. She ended her set with Grandad, recited against a reggae soundtrack, a magical account of her first – and only – meeting with her grandfather. The warmth of her poems was matched by her beautiful delivery.
Joolz Sparkes featured in the second half, and there was more music as she treated us to a couple of songs from her former girl band days. Girl band with a large dose of Goth, that is – I loved the menacing vibe of Vampire. Joolz also read a selection of poems from her in-progress collection Love Songs to London, Sick Notes to Oz. Her muse is London, in all its variety and sordidness and splendour, and this shines through in poems such as We live here and the magnificent Congregation kneels. She finished, fittingly, with Epitaph, a poem that never fails to send a shiver down my spine. A strong voice, great presence, meaty material. Reminded me why I live in – LOVE – London. And as well as these two talented writers, the open mic spots at the beginning of each half once again showed how many amazing women writers there are in this metropolis – and beyond.
May 5, 2014
Fun. Play. Inquisitiveness. Encountering the everyday at an odd angle. Provocation. Or no point at all, IT just IS. And the ‘it’? Art. Specifically, the Martin Creed retrospective What’s the point of it? at the Hayward Gallery, which we visited on Thursday evening. Although some of the work was familiar to me, there was a sense of discovery as we wandered through the rooms, and after a rather frazzled working week, I loved the playfulness and quirkiness evident in so many pieces. The first room was dominated by a huge neon sign MOTHERS, mounted on an iron girder, and revolving at varying speeds. We couldn’t help ducking as it swept menacingly over our heads. On a smaller scale, set out on the floor around the edges of the first room, Work No. 112 Thirty-nine metronomes beating time, one at every speed – tick-tocking their little lives away. Time, sound, music – some of the themes and media Creed explores in his work. I hesitated to enter Work No. 200 Half the air in a given space – a glass-walled room full to bursting (so it seemed to me) with inflated white balloons. I’m a little claustrophobic. The invigilator pointed out the signs on the ceiling directing participants back to the exit, so I took a deep breath, held on tightly to Nick’s hand and we pushed our way into the installation. Batting balloons away to create space around our heads; hearing but not seeing other people nearby; my hair flying out in all directions as it clung to the surrounding balloons; the smell of rubber and an occasional sharp bang as a balloon popped. I didn’t panic but I did feel on edge, and was glad to wade towards the exit after a few minutes. Elsewhere, the colourful series of broccoli prints (an amusing variation on potato prints) would probably induce similar unease in brassica-phobes. In the same room, Creed’s Turner Prize-winning Work No. 227 The lights going on and off quietly and subtly did its thing. Creed investigates pattern and repetition, intervenes in the gallery space with his protrusions and indentations, plays with language in neon signs and conceptual instructions; questions, in other words, what art is, what it is for. And the answers are multiple and never definitive. For me, on that day, in my particular emotional state, the point of it was seeing art – creativity – the possibility of creativity – everywhere, in all people. And not being too serious about it, at least some of the time.
April 19, 2014
Here are some snaps and snippets from my recent trip home. Home? To the city where I was born, where I grew up, that I made a conscious choice to leave many years ago. London is home now. Melbourne is family, a few friends, home-but-not-home. What’s that line from a Gang of Four song? ‘At home she feels like a tourist.’ I need a map, I’m given a Myki, sometimes I can’t understand what the shop assistants are saying.
I sliced through my thumbnail whilst shredding lettuce for a salad. Cut thumbs seem to be the poet’s injury of choice – witness Sylvia Plath’s Cut, and more recently Josephine Corcoran’s post. Luckily, it was my left thumb, and the friendly fireman who lives across the road from my brother and sister-in-law bandaged my thumb up expertly.
I helped my brother construct a squirrel-shaped cake for my niece’s ninth birthday. This was a big hit, and also a lot bigger than any real squirrel, so entirely appropriate in the Australian context. When I first arrived in London and saw squirrels darting about in the parks I was surprised at how small they were. I’d expected them to be a similar size to possums. And hedgehogs – well, they must be about the size of an echidna, surely?
Quality feline time with Mr Mao. Note also the fancy footless tights I acquired from a shop in Port Melbourne.
On this trip, I only visited a couple of bookshops. In the Brunswick Street Bookstore I bought issue 3 of Melbourne based story magazine The Canary Press, which I read on the flight back to London. Some great yarns accompanied by gorgeous illustrations. I also bought Liquid Nitrogen by Jennifer Maiden, which I’m very much looking forward to reading. I have a poem by Jennifer Maiden pasted onto the first page of the first journal I wrote in when I came to London. And I picked up the Text Publishing edition of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride since I couldn’t track down a copy in London.
Books for Cooks on Gertrude Street is packed with mouthwatering foodie books, both new and second-hand, so just the place to lay my hands on a very reasonably priced first edition of Donnini’s Pasta Book. My brother had made pasta with Donnini’s Garlic and Oil Sauce – simple and delicious – so I thought this recipe book was a must-have for my chef at home in London.
Coffee is practically a religion in Melbourne. The latest cult is the pour over, and I was initiated into its ritual preparation at the Victoria Market outlet of Market Lane Coffee. It’s a rather gentle and quiet process, but requires precise measurements (weight of coffee grounds, volume of water, optimum temperature) and some classy equipment (ceramic filter cone, stainless steel kettle with a slender spout ‘for precise pouring’, glass jug). It was a pleasure to watch the measuring and timing and the circular pouring; and then to savour the delicate porcelain mugful of 100% Rwandan Nyarusiza bean pour over coffee, on an unhurried Monday lunchtime. And while they sell most of the equipment, and bags of beans, and Market Lane aprons, the Bolivian hats on the whitewashed walls are for display only.
I enjoyed other coffees too. I stole a couple of hours for myself one afternoon, and sat in Barry on High Street, Northcote, with paper and pen and a good latte, and cobbled a few sentences together. And jotted down my exchange with the waitress.
Waitress: “What can I get you?”
Me: “Just a latte please.”
Yes, I thought, I am a stranger in my home town.
March 22, 2014
A few thoughts on two recent reads that deal with difficult subject matter. I’ve just finished The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower. Set in Sydney in the 1940s, it’s a compelling psychological novel centring on a manipulative and abusive relationship. The novel begins as sisters Laura and Clare Vaizey are withdrawn from boarding school by their emotionally distant mother Stella following the death of their father. Living with her in straitened circumstances in pre-war Sydney, the sisters are soon running the household for their apparently fragile and impossible to please mother. Stella, to the reader, is patently only interested in herself, and cynically thwarts the girls’ modest educational ambitions. When war breaks out, Stella decides to return home to England, leaving the teenagers to fend for themselves. Laura, the elder by 5 years, is near enough cajoled into marrying the boss of the factory where she works, the much older Felix Shaw. He paints this as the perfect solution, Laura and Clare moving into the spacious harbourside home he’s just bought. From this point the novel gets darker and increasingly claustrophobic, as Felix descends into alcoholic outbursts and physical and mental abuse, alternating with episodes of civility and pseudo-generosity. Laura makes excuses, blames herself, tiptoes around Felix. Clare feels trapped and unable to leave, even as she carves a sliver of independence for herself as she gets older, for fear of what would happen to Laura. She practices a kind of passive resistance. This all sounds like grim reading, and it is often painful, but never indulgent or wallowing. The writing is sharp, full of spiky sentences and occasional narrative jumps. There is also a side serve of social satire – the brash neighbours discussing the ruckus next door as they get ready for an evening out; the faux mateship of Felix’s business partners, who always get the better end of the deal. And Harrower reveals how the veneer of domesticity is used to disguise the true nature of the relationships in such an ideal suburban home. The Watch Tower was first published in 1966 and I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of it, nor of Elizabeth Harrower, until my sister sent me the Text Classics reprint from 2012. As an insight into destructive self-deception and power control in relationships it is still as relevant today as when it first came out.
As I was reading The Watch Tower I kept thinking about Ivy Alvarez‘s Disturbance, a novel in verse that I read in one sitting earlier this year. This is an unflinching account of a double murder and suicide, domestic violence meted out in a wealthy, respectable home. We hear the story from different viewpoints – neighbours, relatives, the police, journalist, husband-father-perpetrator, wife-mother-victim. Alvarez gets behind the headlines, giving voice to the many people affected by such an incident. Though the surface of many of the poems is factual – lists, interviews, statements – the cumulative effect is very powerful. The poems crackle with sharp detail – the salty taste of blood, a dark stain on the carpet, ‘saucers cracking against cups’. Themes of control and power, inevitably, run through the book; and Alvarez is forcefully in control of this dark material. Individual poems such as Jane’s to-do list, Notes to self and See Jane run stick in the mind, so taut and so chilling. But for the full, devastating impact you need to read Disturbance from beginning to end in one go. It will stay with you.
March 2, 2014
Yesterday I cancelled my subscription to the London Review of Books. I’d been considering this for a while, ever since For Books’ Sake raised the issue of the completely skewed gender imbalance in the LRB’s pages, both in terms of the percentage of books by men reviewed compared to books by women (74% male authors in 2012), and the gender of reviewers (78% men). I followed a bit of the to-and-not-much-fro on Twitter, which is summarised here. But, you know, I’m quite a loyal person. Despite myself, I form brand attachments. I always enjoyed Jenny Diski‘s acerbic pieces, and hadn’t I discovered Elif Batuman through the LRB? On the other hand, every fortnight a new issue of the LRB dropped through my letterbox with the same old gender imbalance starkly evident. It bothered me, and in particular it bothered me that the LRB didn’t appear willing to engage with those who’d raised the issue. And then this week I read Isabel Roger’s blog post about the recent item on Radio 4’s Open Book, discussing women and book reviews, and the extraordinarily defensive and complacent statement that the LRB provided, instead of taking part in the studio discussion. Of course there are far more important issues affecting women around the world than the proportion of books by women reviewed in the LRB or the number of women reviewers. But that’s the LRB’s sphere, reviewing books, and I really can’t see how it is so difficult to take steps to improve the gender balance of their reviews. So I’ve had enough. I’ve cancelled my subscription. I don’t need a fortnightly, not-so-subtle reminder that male authors, men’s voices, dominate. i have a pile of books to read.