May 10, 2015
On Wednesday evening we attended a free event at the Poetry Library discussing and celebrating the poetry of B.S. Johnson, who is better known for his experimental novels such as The Unfortunates. I’d prepared for the event by reading the selection of Johnson’s poetry published in Penguin Modern Poets 25 (1975) – an old secondhand copy I’d tracked down a couple of years ago. In recent years many of Johnson’s novels have been republished, and a collection of his films released on DVD, but his poetry remains out of print. Chris McCabe, librarian at the Poetry Library, introduced the evening, revealing that while Johnson’s poetry is rarely requested, his books are often stolen from the library, an indication of his cult status as a poet.
Alan Brownjohn, resplendent in a red suit, spoke warmly of his friend Bryan, recalling that in the 1964 general election B.S. Johnson had given up a fortnight of his valuable time to drive Alan around as he campaigned in a distant electorate. He read three of Johnson’s poems, including The Short Fear, a late, bleak poem, and the very funny Love – All – the latter characteristic of Johnson’s ‘Cockney ruefulness’, according to Brownjohn. He also remarked on the candour and honesty of Johnson’s poetry, particularly in relation to rejection and rebuffs – concerns that will be familiar to readers of his novels. Brownjohn described Johnson, chucklingly, as ‘a connoisseur of defeat’.
Juila Jordan, from UCL, argued that Johnson’s poetry is a ‘memorialisation of failure’ and the poems often end in an anti-epiphany. This rings true for me from the poems I’ve read. She observed there are many poems that begin with architectural or structural observation, such as the poem Myddleton Square, and then move to a lack or void or absence to undercut and end the poem. There’s a bathetic quality, which I also recognised. ‘Nothingness at the heart of everything’, as Jordan said, and I certainly felt Beckett’s shadow hovering over Johnson’s poems. This is a good thing, in my book!
Shoestring Press publisher John Lucas, like Alan Brownjohn, had been a friend of B.S. Johnson, and recounted first meeting him after a talk at Nottingham University when Johnson had railed against academia. Lucas had quoted part of Johnson’s poem In Yates’s to him, and they subsequently repaired to the very same Yates’s Winelodge. Asked who his favourite poets were, Johnson had replied, to Lucas’s surprise, Robert Graves and the little known Cornish poet Jack Clemo.
Julia Jordan had referred to Johnson’s decision to write in syllabics and there was some disagreement between her and John Lucas as to how successfully this works in his poems. Lucas’s view is that Johnson was not naturally a poet, and that his use of syllabics creates a hippity-hoppity rhythm that undermines the poem. Julia Jordan conceded that some of the poems are problematic – not least those that display a misogynistic streak – but suggested that in some ways his poetry is a more successful expression of his key concerns (the problems of honesty in writing, his obsession with causality, the attempt to present chaos) than his novels. Chris McCabe observed that Johnson’s poems are conventional in terms of form and asked where the experimental or avant-garde side of Johnson resides in his poetry. Julia Jordan’s response was that the content is the radical element in the poems.
All of the above is, of course, my recollection and paraphrase, pulled together from the notes I took at the time. What it perhaps doesn’t convey is the humour in so many of Johnson’s poems, as in his other work. And what a stimulating and uplifting event it was, a celebration indeed. It surely says something that the work of this ‘connoisseur of defeat’ is still being debated, read, argued about, more than 40 years after his death.
April 27, 2015
It’s just over eight weeks since I quit my job and time is doing that weird thing it seems to do of speeding up and filling up the more ‘free’ time one has. So I thought it might be good to take a step back and reflect on what I’ve done in that period.
I’ve written six new poems and reworked two old ones into much better shape. I’ve submitted a couple for an anthology and I’m deciding where to send the others. I’ve also written three short prose pieces, each in response to a specific call for submissions, so they’re out there now and time will tell whether I’ve hit the mark or not.
Joolz Sparkes and I performed a bunch of our London Undercurrents poems at March’s Fourth Friday and were buoyed by how well they were received. Since then, I’ve been researching ideas for new LU poems, including reading a lot of, and about, Angela Carter.
On Easter Saturday I attended a one day poetry workshop in a small group with Ruth O’Callaghan, around her dining room table, partly fuelled by mini gold-wrapped chocolate rabbits provided by one of the other participants. I’d booked back in January, and didn’t know what to expect, but came away with a handful of rough drafts, and a burning desire to read more Alice Oswald. One of the poems we’d looked at was Oswald’s strange and powerful Autobiography of a Stone.
Last Monday, I went along to my first local Stanza group session, and found it welcoming and stimulating. It’s still fairly new for me to share work in progress, especially with a group of people I’ve never met before, and I’m also not terribly confident in giving feedback on others’ work – it’s hard enough being articulate about my own! – but this feels like something I need to expose myself to. I left with my sense of myself as a writer still intact, and intend to go along to next month’s meeting.
As well as all this, I’ve been to a number of readings and events, one of the highlights being the private view of the Prunella Clough retrospective at the Osborne Samuel Gallery. Clough is one of my favourite painters. I love her muted palette and her subject matter – industrial spaces, overlooked detail, the scraps and discarded elements of mid to late twentieth century England. I’d been excited to read in Frances Spalding’s excellent monograph Prunella Clough: Regions Unmapped that in the 1950s Clough had spent time sketching in the Peek Frean Biscuit factory in Bermondsey and later worked the sketches up into paintings. That sparked an as yet unpublished poem for the London Undercurrents project. In the current exhibition, two of the Peek Frean Biscuit factory paintings are on show, so it was very special for me to see these.
Inevitably, there have been some niggles and frustrations. Much of it is about balance and discipline, keeping on top of emails without allowing them to dominate, not giving in to the distractions of social media, and reminding myself that it’s not possible to fit in every cultural event in London. Not if I want to write. And there’s an ongoing plumbing issue (domestic, not medical), which is tedious but is taking up a certain amount of time and mental energy.
Overall, then, perhaps I’d give myself 7 out of 10. Room for improvement, but on the right track. Now, get back to that poem!
April 11, 2015
I bid farewell to an old favourite the other day. A school satchel that has seen better days, and for the last few years, if not longer, has hung, not quite forgotten, on a hook on the back of the door that hides our hot water tank.
I bought it decades ago, before satchels became trendy and expensive and available in all sorts of funky colours and patterns. It’s not from my school days, but the start of my working life, before I’d ever been overseas. I don’t remember now exactly where I bought it, somewhere in Melbourne, but I do remember why. I was obsessed with someone a little older than me, unavailable, rarely encountered. He carried a satchel around, like this one, dangling off his shoulder. Not aiming for cool or making a statement; just different, and he probably hardly thought about it. But I thought about him and part of him was this satchel-wearing. So I sought out and bought a plain leather school satchel. I guess it made me feel connected to him in some tiny way. And when I couldn’t shake off my obsession and decided to buy a one-way ticket to London in order to force a change in my life, the satchel came with me.
So it’s a mixed bag, if you’ll pardon the pun. It started in obsession, unhappiness and despair. But I’ve never regretted the decision to come to London, and although it’s not always been easy, I’m certainly much happier now than I was back then. And so on Thursday afternoon the satchel came on one last outing with me, to a local charity shop. Maybe it will be picked up by another restless soul or maybe it will be ragged. Whatever its fate, it was more than time for me to let it go.
March 30, 2015
On Friday night I was on the bill with Joolz Sparkes at Fourth Friday at the Poetry Café, reading a bunch of poems from our London Undercurrents project. There’s more about the event on our dedicated LU blog here. I’d been looking forward to this and practising for quite a while, and, as the reading seemed to go down well, I was buzzing for some time afterwards. A few of us went for a drink in a nearby pub after the event to debrief and celebrate. Then Nick and I made a dash for the tube, and decided to walk from Sloane Square rather than wait for a night bus. It was a clear night, the river very low, and so still that the low arches of Grosvenor Bridge were reflected perfectly upside down on the surface of The Thames. Quite a magical sight. We topped off the night by treating ourselves to a portion of excellent chips from the iconic Chelsea Bridge Tea Stall. Well past pumpkin hour when we fell into bed.
But there wasn’t much chance for a lie in on Saturday, as it was the Big Dig day at our community roof garden. There were 5 tonnes of compost to be shifted from street level to the roof, up two flights of metal stairs. We warmed up with a little gentle weeding and digging through of a couple of beds, and I also planted a few onion sets. Then, onto the main, somewhat Herculean task. I hadn’t fully grasped what 5 tonnes of compost might look like. Five ginormous PVC bags, full to the brim with dark, rich-smelling topsoil. Between the dozen or so volunteers we got a bit of system going, one or two shovelling compost into empty ginormous bags until the next in line to lug judged it had reached optimum weight; then grasp the handles, fling it over your shoulder and lug it up the stairs. There, another volunteer loaded the haul onto a wheelbarrow, trundled it off to empty the compost onto the beds, and the emptied bags were bundled downstairs for more spadefuls. Mostly, I lugged, and my limit was around 8 good shovelsworth.
We had a welcome break at one o’clock for a delicious shared lunch of rice, lentil curry and dhal, cooked by one of the volunteers, and then it was back to the compost relay. The last portion of compost was lugged up to the roof around 3:30. Hard physical work, and immensely satisfying. A cup of tea, a hot shower, and a very early night beckoned.
March 25, 2015
I thought about calling this post ‘I survived a poetry course’. But that would’ve been a tad melodramatic. I’ve just completed a six week poetry course on Monday evenings, based in the Marlene Dumas exhibition at Tate Modern and tutored by the amazing Pascale Petit. And I’ve surprised myself by really rather enjoying it.
I have never been much of a one for workshops and courses. The roots of this near-aversion run fairly deep, I think, back to my unhappy secondary schooling, and then abandoning a Bachelor of Arts degree after the first year. Me and formal education just don’t get on, I decided, and I’ve rather stretched the meaning of ‘formal’. Then there’s my Fear of the Group, which also goes a long way back, coupled with my ambivalence about defining myself as a poet. So I’ve tended to stumble along my own path, which is loosely what my poem The Hard Way is about.
But then, one of the things I thought about while I was weighing up whether to quit my day job and look for something more fulfilling, was that I needed to stretch myself, to try out some of those things that I’ve locked away in the not-me box. I’d heard glowing reports of Pascale’s Tate Modern courses from several people, and devoured her latest collection Fauverie. So when I saw she was running a course tying in with the Marlene Dumas show, and tantalisingly titled The Spirit of Things: Poetry of the Body, I signed up.
In some ways, it feels like this was a gentle introduction to the mysteries of the poetry course. It was a large group – 25 students, though I don’t think we ever had a full house – which could have felt overwhelming, but I’m sure I’d have felt more exposed and self-conscious in a smaller group. I recognised a couple of friendly faces, which helped, as did the venue. I know Tate Modern fairly well, love to visit, and here we were in the galleries after hours, without the crowds, and surrounded by some stunning and provocative art.
The sessions began with a couple of poems or texts that related in some way to Dumas’s themes of the body, love, sexuality and death, followed by a short discussion of people’s responses to the poem. We spent time looking at specific paintings, reflecting, and again sharing our thoughts when the group reconvened. There was no being put on the spot or pressured to contribute, and although I mostly listened and absorbed other people’s interesting and often insightful comments, I made a conscious effort to chip in when I felt confident in my observation.
Each session included time to write, Pascale sending us off to write a poem with a particular focus or approach and incorporating a prompt such as using a line from one of Marlene Dumas’s poem-texts. This was probably the hardest part for me, having to quell the inner censoring voice, forget about the fabulous poems I imagined everyone around me was crafting, and simply write. Without my usual mug of black coffee to hand. The point, of course, is to get started, and in that short intense period of writing new and surprising things may bubble up. We then had the intervening week to work on the poem, and perhaps share it at the next session.
As well as spending time in the Marlene Dumas exhibition, we had two sessions working with material by a younger South African artist Nicholas Hlobo and another looking at the incredibly detailed etchings of Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin. I found Hlobo’s work in particular very rich and subtle, and beautifully delicate.
The course overall was in fact much more than a gentle introduction. I’ve been exposed to poets I hadn’t come across before – C.K. Williams (where have I been?), also Nick Flynn, and Natalie Diaz, whose poem The Cure for Melancholy is to Take the Horn really dazzled me. I’ve thought about different approaches to writing about the body and in response to visual art. Prompted by Pascale’s suggested reading list, I reread Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds and felt again its visceral impact. I also dug out Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry from the bottom of a pile of unread books. It’s now on the top of a pile of unread books and I will read it. In one session Pascale gave us a list of eight different kinds of mental imagery, which I’ve already found very useful in stretching my poetic range. I’ve written one strongish poem, and have several embryonic ones to work on, and something that I think may turn into an odd little story.
At the end of the final session there was a celebratory reading, when we each got the chance to read a poem written on the course to our fellow students, watched over by Marlene Dumas’s luminous, larger-than-life close-up portraits. It was uplifting to hear such strong and varied work, and to feel the support and appreciation in the room. And this, undeniably, was one of the other benefits of attending the course – meeting other writers, poets, people journeying along their own literary path and willing to share their bumps, false starts and unexpected gems.
I hadn’t realised when I signed up for the course that this was to be the last in this format, six weekly sessions, that Pascale runs at the Tate, so I’m especially glad to have had this experience. And the next challenge? I’ll let you know once I’ve survived it.
March 8, 2015
One of the few up sides of my enforced break from cycling was the extra reading time on the journey to and from work. I found poetry particularly suited to short bursts of reading, and also loved how individual poems could quickly plunge me into a completely different emotional and linguistic space to the squash and trudgery of commuting. I made very few notes, so this is simply a record (probably incomplete, not in chronological order) of what I read and the impressions each volume left on me.
Into the Woods by Anna Robinson (not pictured). I borrowed this from the Poetry Library, and found its effect quite hypnotic. The sequence has a fairytale quality – by which I mean the dark kind of fairytale of old: a hovering sense of menace; strangeness encroaching into the everyday; half-glimpsed things.
When God is a Traveller by Arundhathi Subramaniam. This was an impulse buy following the T.S. Eliot Prize readings at Royal Festival Hall. She was the standout performer for me, with wonderful presence and charm. Reading her poems, I could hear them in her voice in my head. There is a lot of wit, a worldliness, and much striking imagery. I liked the spacing and tempo of the poems, and the excitement of discovering what, for me, is a new voice.
I Knew the Bride by Hugo Williams (not pictured). Another post T.S. Eliot Prize readings purchase, to send to a friend in Holland who knew Williams years ago. I dipped in before entrusting the book to Royal Mail, and ended up reading the whole thing. Self-deprecating, very English, almost off-hand, yet threaded through with painful truths, both emotional and physical. I was glad that I could write to my friend that Williams has now had a kidney transplant and is apparently doing well.
The Misplaced House by Josephine Corcoran. I’d followed the gestation of Jospehine’s pamphlet via her blog, so was keen to read this. Unfortunately I couldn’t make the launch so ordered the pamphlet instead from Tall Lighthouse. I knew some of the poems, such as the powerful opening poem Stephen Lawrence isn’t on the National Curriculum, and her themes of family, loss and memory chime strongly with my own concerns. I really like the way the poems seem to talk to each other, too, as well as to the reader. And there’s a funny if rather disturbing poem where poet and pet rabbit exchange places.
Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads by Amy Acre. I confess I didn’t know Amy Acre’s work before tagging along to the launch with my London Undercurrents collaborator Joolz Sparkes. But in a spirit of adventure, I purchased the pamphlet, having enjoyed Amy’s performance at the launch. Her poetry does lean towards the performance end of the spectrum, but there’s plenty of energy and linguistic inventiveness on the page too. Some of the references I’m sure passed me by – different background, different generation – but I particularly liked The Ends of the Earth, which is a beautiful and tender mirror poem. Having watched the film Back to the Future for the first time the other night (I have a patchy relationship with cinema), I’m sure a few more references in this pamphlet would now fall into place on a second reading.
Myrtle by Ruth Wiggins. i remember being wowed by Ruth’s poem Pulmón de manzana when she read it at the launch of issue 19 of South Bank Poetry in November last year. That poem is included in her impressive Emma Press pamphlet, one gem amongst many fearfully good poems. These are rich and sensual poems, often astonishing, always assured. I’m still shocked that I could be lured into her poem False Widow given its (phobic) subject. That’s powerful writing.
Fauverie by Pascale Petit. I’m in danger of sounding like a literary floozie. Another launch, another book purchase. But this is not just another collection. The poems, many of which originate from dark and painful places, are full of fierce and wonderful imagery, and carry a great redemptive power. The book is alive with creatures both caged and wild, with vivid evocations of Paris – sights, sounds, smells and tastes – and at its centre is a transformative journey, with Petit fully in control of her material.
Formerly by Tamar Yoseloff & Vici MacDonald. Described as ‘a poetic journey through disappearing London’, this beautifully produced pamphlet features black and white photos by Vici MacDonald paired with ‘loose sonnets’ by Tamar Yoseloff. A not-so-impulse buy from last year’s Free Verse Poetry Book Fair. I like it as a thing-in-itself. I like the London angle, the collaborative aspect, and I’m rather afraid of form, so I was very interested to read these loose sonnets and feel their cumulative impact, the resonances between poems, and their overall elegiac effect.
If you’ve read to the end – thank you! You’ll have learnt that I’m a sucker for a launch event. I think I need to get out on my bicycle now.
February 22, 2015
In my rebellious teenage years, if I expressed my desire to be a writer, the immediate ‘helpful’ suggestion was that I should pursue a career in journalism. I knew strongly this was not what I wanted to do, nor did I want anything so conformist as a career. So I made a conscious decision to keep my paid employment quite separate from my creative life. And for a long time this has worked, sort of, for me, especially when I’ve been able to negotiate part time hours. I’ve held various roles in the Housing Association sector (not for profit – nice box to tick), ending up in IT as a Data Quality Analyst.
Increasingly, though, I came to feel that the disconnect between what I currently spend 28 hours per week doing in the office, and my real passion – my ‘outside’ writing life – is not healthy. Several months ago, a second-hand copy of How to Find Fulfilling Work turned up in our flat. Written by Roman Krznaric, it’s published by The School of Life. I set aside my sceptical hat, chose a notebook with a bird on the front, and scurried off to my secret café at lunchtimes to read Krznaric’s book and think about my exit strategy.
Then life intervened. I fractured my right thumb, and more life-changingly, I suffered a bereavement. Around the same time, I finally paid off my mortgage. In the new year I returned to The School of Life book and my notes, and stuck a galvanising Post-it note, in my still wobbly right-hand writing, above my computer at home.
Reading How to Find Fulfilling Work helped me clarify what will give me more meaning or fulfillment in my work – using my talents and reflecting my passions – as well as understanding why I’ve shied away from this in the past. And to recognise that I’m ready to take that leap now. One of the key messages is to ‘act now and reflect later’, and I’m in a fortunate position to be able to afford to take a very radical sabbatical. With no return date. So at the end of January I handed my notice in, and I finish work this coming Thursday. My plans are open, rather then vague. I’m looking forward to some time out, to write, and to explore possibilities. And if I have a minor panic and start to wonder if I should instead have stuck to analysing data, there’s some great anarchist graffiti on a nearby building to remind me I’ve made the right choice.
February 16, 2015
I’m very pleased to have this poem published on The Stare’s Nest today. The poem is dedicated to Talha Ahsan, a British-born poet and translator with Asperger’s syndrome. In 2012, having already been held in detention without charge in the UK for 6 years, he was extradited to the US – without any prima facie evidence being provided to a British court – and held in solitary confinement in a supermax prison awaiting trial. I started writing to him in prison last year after I met his brother Hamja at a poetry event, where he read one of Talha’s extraordinary poems. Thankfully, Talha finally returned to the UK as a a free man last autumn, following a ‘time served’ sentence from the US judge, who in her judgement rejected much of the prosecution evidence and stated that Talha was not and never had been a threat. If you’re not familiar with his case, there is more here: http://freetalha.org/about/
Originally posted on The Stare's Nest:
‘I will experience what very few ever do in this world: life after death.’
Letter from Talha Ahsan, Northern Correctional Institution, Connecticut, 28 May 2014
To experience life after death
is to hold your face up to rain,
each drop soft-sharp, soul-piercing.
To breathe in air vibrant with fumes
and sweat and spice, the dancing particles
of adjacent lives.
To walk in unbounded space
along streets and lanes,
through parks, across commons.
To walk until your feet bleed
and your ears shimmer with every
newly-heard city sound.
To lie on a bench and feast
on London’s heavenly sky.
To sleep again on sheets
washed by maternal hands,
smoothed tight against nightmare.
In your own time tell
how it was
how it is
in your own words
in your own
View original 82 more words
February 6, 2015
Poor old January. Too often a long dark month to get through. Now you’re behind us, and February’s here, the shortest month whose lengthening days speed us towards spring. So it snowed overnight on Monday, and the wind is Siberian, but there are snowdrops in the park, and buds on the magnolia trees.
This bright morning I walked down to Battersea High Street to check out Raynsford’s greengrocers, following a friend’s recommendation, and was not disappointed. Blood oranges, four for a pound. Blood oranges! Sunshine wrapped in citrus peel.
And this afternoon, for the first time since I fractured my right thumb, I ventured out on my bicycle. I’ve been itching to get cycling again, though my thumb’s not yet restored to full flexibility, and I’m still building up its strength. So this was a trial run, in the relative safety of Battersea Park. Four circuits, varying the pace, practising gear changes, making sure I could brake, battling headlong into that Siberian wind. How exhilarating it felt! But, being a cautious bod, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to tackle peak hour traffic, especially after dark. That will come. And beyond this, I’m hatching plans. Changes are afoot. February is definitely looking up.
January 18, 2015
Once upon a time, I came across a collection of short stories titled Suck My Toes in a second-hand bookshop in Melbourne. I bought it, for the title, and the cover, which featured a pair of Blundstone boots, my favourite footwear for many years. I’d never heard of the author, Fiona McGregor, and if you’re UK-based, chances are you’ve never heard of her either. I read the collection of interlinked stories and loved it. I loved the writing, the sensibility, the characters who were often between places or lovers or their own sense of self. And although as far as my Australian identity is concerned I’m very much a Melbournite, and McGregor most certainly is a Sydney-sider, I responded strongly to her descriptions of that city, to the smells and sounds and weather woven through the stories, so that Sydney became one of the shifting, restless, flawed characters that I couldn’t help becoming fond of.
I loved the book so much I read it twice. Several years later the now defunct lit mag PROP asked me to write a piece about a favourite short story collection. I wrote about Suck My Toes and sent a copy of the article to McGregor’s publisher in Australia. At some point I bought her first novel, Au Pair, which was published before the short story collection. I have less vivid memories of reading this, though the subject matter – a young woman escaping overseas to forge her own identity – is close to my heart; and now that I’m a signed-up Francophile, the novel’s Parisian setting surely means it deserves a second reading. But the point of this story is that ever since I first encountered Fiona McGregor’s writing, hers is the name I look for whenever I’m in a bookshop in Melbourne. And usually I am disappointed.
Jump to a second-hand bookshop in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs one afternoon in early December. I’m in Melbourne on the briefest of visits and for the saddest of reasons, but as I half-heartedly scan the shelves I light upon Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor. Published in 2010 by Scribe, and with a glowing endorsement from Christos Tsiolkas on the cover; second-hand, a bit scuffed, but new to me. I hug it to myself. I buy it. I wait until I am back home in London and then one night in bed I start reading this big novel about 59 year-old Marie King, recently divorced, living in the family home on Sydney’s north shore and rapidly falling apart. A novel about family, loss, greed and self discovery, as Marie begins to transform herself through the ink and friendship of tattoo artist Rhys. The novel gets under my skin. I’m reading late into the night and I’m too involved to make notes, to jot down those glittering sentences that conjour up Sydney, the house, Marie’s beloved garden; the prolonged hot dry summer that is the backdrop to the novel, and one of the sub-themes – the environment, climate change, the marks we make on the world. There’s a good sprinkling of social satire throughout the novel as well, but also a sense that Marie and her adult children are grappling with some of the issues facing Australian society today. I can see why Tsiolkas is a fan. And I don’t want the novel to end even though I’m racing towards the last pages and I know there’s no happy ending. But the book lives on, in memory, as people do. And from the author note I learn that there is at least one more Fiona McGregor work for me to seek out.