I was tasked with finding a poem not longer than 12 lines and thought I had only found one in 1987! However in sorting through old first draft folders I found a ‘coda’ type poem which for some reason I had left off the sequence from 1999 collected here as ‘Skeleton at the Plough’.
I really do not know why I left it off..maybe because so short..maybe did not make sense. Maybe I thought it was rubbish at the time..who knows.
Here it is in its brevity anyway..all 6 lines so well within the limit and a strange thing it is…maybe the perfect opening or final poem in the ‘Farm-Hand’s Radio’ collection
In twilight, stooping to read unreadable words
Rain hard leached from the stones
I felt the country of my mind fall into place
And the country I was stood upon become unknown
As a parched desert, a rack of bones
At last I have returned to sing a silent song.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing..at the time I probably thought it referred to my father’s village and that all. Looking back it written barely a year before my long-term relationship with a Spanish lady was about to disintegrate in November 2000 and set me careering away from Oxford probably forever in March 2002 to end up in Nottingham just as my father was diagnosed with cancer…
First lecture by Sarah Jackson and a surprise….a poem from a book I had not really paid attention to but had purchased many years ago…probably because of the cover. The image does indeed turn out to be a negative image of Bewick’s ‘White Owl’ engraving from page 89 of his ‘British Birds’ from 1809.
It entirely appropriate that the publisher has reversed the image and set in a quasi-gothic setting as Strand’s volume is full of darkness, ghosts, negative capability and the ‘uncanny’. In an excellent review in The OxonianAlexander Nemser himself an American poet says what I felt after reading though the volume properly (possibly for the first time)
But, paradoxically, New Selected Poems leaves the reader with the impression of a poet who,in composing letters to himself about the ultimate end, has ended up only talking about the weather.
In fact in another very good interview with Wallace Shawn (a friend) in The Paris Review Strand states that almost all his poetry refers or is a ticking watch toward death. This fine but sometimes the use of short anglo-saxon words and the repetition..be it in Litany or instructions as in ‘The New Poetry Handbook’ does become somewhat claustrophobic. There is a repetition of certain strophes almost like a trance-like or meditative state. Strand himself believes in poetry as being ‘other’ a breaking through the boundary of the quotidian to other levels to the ‘magical and astonishing’ but sometimes the ‘other’ becomes airless and dank as if in need of some fresh air. Strand has written about artists and interestingly Edward Hopper who also the master of the limited view..the airless and unmoving. He also admires the Italian surrealists and indeed his knowledge of European languages and forms is displayed in his writing. The poetry has the flavour of Otavio Paz and Montale and it hard to find any trace of contemperaneous Canadian poetry like the Praire Poets . The compressed roomic spaces owe more to philosophy than landscape and bring to mind Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Poetics of Space’.
What impressed me at the time and still impresses is this ‘non’USA’ atmosphere. He states in his own words that he attracted to an ‘international’ free-verse movement which he sees himself as part of. Now in his 80’s he has a substantial body of work and a very long and well supported academic career. There the nagging feeling that that very support and life in ‘academic rooms’ has stifled something….has led to the restricted and sometimes suffocating enjambment. The close control never seems to give, the opiates are dismissed, the night coils rather than releases and finally the ‘Screetch Owl’ is pinned like a moth in its final negative image….its museum like otherness.
Finally an erudite passage from the Paris Review…
Mark Strand on Poetry and Prose:
Well, I think a poet’s focus is not quite what a prose writer’s is; it’s not entirely on the world outside. It’s fixed on that area where the inside meets the outside, where the poet’s sensibility meets the weather, meets the street, meets other people, meets what he reads. So a poet describes that point of contact: the self, the edge of the self, and the edge of the world. That shadow land between self and reality. Sometimes the focus is tipped slightly in favor of the self, sometimes, more objectively, in favor of the world. And so sometimes, when the balance is tipped towards the self, strange things are said, odd things get into the poem. Because the farther you are from the world that everybody recognizes as the world, the stranger things look. I mean, some novels do this, but most don’t. Most novels are focused on what’s out there, and the novelist erases himself, by and large, to keep the narration going. There are some narrators who insert themselves, as Philip Roth does, brilliantly and amazingly. I’m always dazzled by his books. The world is electrically alive in American Pastoral, for example, but he’s there too: Roth is Zuckerman, and he’s there, he’s telling the story. We’re never unaware of the fact that he’s doing it, but we’re never wholly aware of the fact that he’s doing it. In a sense, that book is more magical than any poem I’ve read recently.
A simple enough task…choose a poem you have written that not longer than 12 lines and bring to discuss in first session. Fine only I decided I would stick to rule and proceeded to search backwards through everything I had written until I found something that could be a poem and under 12 lines…I searched and I did not find…back and back I went until finally found a snippet from 1987! I cannot be accused of unnecessary brevity then! The ‘poem’ or snippet above is it…scanned in from the sketchbook pages it was on…at that time I would write ‘poetry’ next to observations and landscape drawings as I walked around the countryside.
The reason I found it is because being a slightly OCD library type I keep everything and alongside the original sketches I found a rather poe-faced ‘introduction’ for whom I have no idea as at this time I had not been published and frankly had no idea if post-1990 I would ever write again.
However it does reveal the impact of Raymond Carver’s book ‘Fires’ even then which our second task which to identify a seminal and influential book of ‘modern’ (post 1950 say) poetry. I had chosen Fires before I found this old statement so I was right 🙂 Strangely looking at the old poems the influence of Carver had not really taken hold yet and I probably still mightily swayed by William Carlos Williams and Pasternak to name but two. The fire however was lit 🙂 Apologies in advance for the pompous introduction below:-)
MARGINALIA: The workshop referred to below was my very first creative writing class run at Birkbeck (I think memory awry) in 1985-6 I guess and run wonderfully by Martyn Crucefix who had yet to publish his first volume ‘Beneath Tremendous rain’. Stand out memory were two guest poets..Peter Forbes who I didn’t take to at all reading what seemed like the longest long poem ever and kept harking back to Byron ( hence his encouraging Glyn Maxwell to overdo the narrative) and Bob Cobbing who was tremendous and insane in equal measures and gave us some dadaist performance rants which basically screaming at top of voice..as I said unforgettable 😉
Collected Poems 1981 - 1989
These poems span ten years of my life so collecting them together from the scraps of paper and badly typed manuscripts has been a rewarding experience. The early poems (The Tithe Machine) arose out of an interest in American poetry fostered by a travelling exhibition of books which came to my local Didcot library in 1981 the year after I left art-college in London. Little did I know then that I would continue to write but the seed was planted. These early fragments (I had no idea how to make them any longer) deal with aspects of the area I grew up in but also try and suggest if not surreal landscape at least something slightly askew.
Poems like 'Valley' and 'Rehearsal' owe a lot to the Russian and French influences I was avidly consuming. They also reflect a lot of the painterly interests I had, Chagall, Gorky etc. Some I still like, some are awful.
I am not so happy with the next set' The New Country', the title taken from that given to the 30's left book and exhibition. At the same time as I was writing these I had an exhibition called 'The New Country' at a gallery in Islington, London. Looking back the best I can say is that although far happier in free verse I felt that somehow it wasn't poetry or that if I didn't at least learn or attempt versification I could not call myself a poet. I feel differently now but maybe it reflects a lack of confidence in the role of 'poet' i.e. where I come from you don't do it! Having said that I find some of the content O.K. e.g. the drowned fisherman in 'The fisherman's return' but not the rhyming schemes, or my attempts at this and that. I think I at least gained some 'musicality' from this phase.
Finally we come to 'Diesel on Gravel'. A collection of stuff written partly as a result of attending a workshop and working in a library and partly out of necessity when believe me the last thing on my mind was to attempt to be a poet, quite the opposite in fact! This lot I can put up with a lot more. Mostly the content has changed. Moving out of the fields and concentrating on relationships and interiors which I hurtled through in these years. Hopefully they come over as being more honest than the rather studied exploration of English landscape that went before. The most important influence in these years was Raymond Carver who's book 'Fires' I happened to pick up in a library where I worked. Here at last was somebody who seemed to speak the same 'working-class background' as I did as opposed to the Oxbridge voices. From then on I've tried to write about things that affect me as honestly and as well as I can.
The very title 'Diesel on Gravel' the last section stands in my mind for the weight of U.S. culture on Britain and hopefully we can sort the good from the bad. Carver and the 'dirty realism' being one of the 'goods'. Looking back through this work it actually seems to make a bit more sense than it did before and I realise just how important my background is in what I'm writing about. The cast of poachers and ne'er do wells and village idiots have become more, not less, important to me. Perhaps because they exemplify a non-conformism which seems invisible in the Thames Valley today. All writing is political. I come from a background of labour politics and WEA learning. Education was the guiding light. Words are power. Nothing is more important as we approach the next turning point in British politics. Time me thinks for some rick-burning and protesting in the shires. Time for some smashing of the loom of words.
Thursday was the induction day at Clifton. Rory Waterman, David Belbin, Georgina Lock and Andrew Taylor introduced themselves to the students and the course structure was laid out. I was impressed with the layout and I have quite a lot of work to do…deadlines are good as I would default to laziness if did not have them!
We got a sense of the interests of the tutors and there was some joking about the similarities and differences especially in ‘poetics’. I immediately had a sense that a lot had happened in poetry since my extended ‘absence’ especially in academic poetry so when given a reading list and an empty library (all the students off being ‘welcomed’)I set about rounding up a few books and also finding out a couple I had heard about but not purchased like the Ludwig and Fietz ‘Non-Metropolitan perspectives’. I also came across the Hazel Smith (Australian) book which seemed to do a good job of exploring all the new’territories’ whether I wished to visit or not.
Finally I spent so much time delving through the shelves (ex-librarian syndrome) that I completely forgot to go to the social and missed the wine…and the social…oh well there plenty of events coming up to meet people.
Here what I snaffled up and hopefully I will have got through the ‘creative writing’ histories by first Poetry session on 5th October. Oh the How Novelists Work (Maura Dooley ed.) is my own copy rest in Library I also came away with the Eisner book as found a Graphic Novel section:-)
Decided to concentrate on short stories to start with…my favourite poets Burnside and Carver both write short stories too….some of these I collected 20 years ago…about time I read them! Thanks to Jez Noond for some more recent additions to the que including Grace Paley and Amy Hempel.
Some obvious missing collections here..D.H.Lawrence..Richard Ford, Russell Banks, Steinbeck. This just the paperbacks.
Well that has made me think…..after a thorough trawl my entire ‘fictional prose’ output amounts to three false starts and 1500 words. That is all there is…
So maybe choosing the’fiction’option as second choice of a range of pathways on the M.A. may have been a mistake. The other option is ‘Script for film and stage’ and the more I examine my past writing especially the outcomes for the songwriting the more it seems they may fit into a transmediale kind of box…..in thinking about the course I been drawn to Willy Vlautin’s novels/songs…..Nick Cave’s Bunny Monroe App. My role in the Trailer Star CD was as writer (script-writer?) for a project that delivered by others (actors?). I have the space to choose and think I will attend the first sessions of both before making up my mind. Any transmedia project needs good writing…content is king but how one approaches that content can be different. I have written poetry for 25 years so a new area is daunting and as the following shows there been plenty of false starts…..I keep seeing this intro to ‘Trailer Star’ as a graphic novel in black and white…maybe I should draw it out…literally 🙂
Looks like the M.A. already challenging my preconceptions..good….
Trailer Star: Moon over the Downs
intro..first page…script for a graphic novel..prose poetry…flash fiction?
Each drip off the corrugated plastic sheeting made a tinny sound that he could hear from deep within the damp sleeping bag and layers of blankets where he was trying to sleep. He could picture the 1953 Coronation picture tray (each royal face worn to a rusted halo) where it lay propped against the side of the caravan under the makeshift porch. He saw each drop collect in his mind’s eye as it hovered on the broken edge and then fell from the cracked sheet. It was too cold to get up and do anything about it so he pulled the blanket back and in the dark caught a glimpse of the VHS recorder’s timer a blurry phosphorous lime green glow. 3.12. He groaned and mumbled a curse about February weather groaned again and was gone. Sliding in his dream back to the childhood garden behind the biscuit factory…crumbs of comfort on a crimson tablecloth…sugar in a bowl…iced gems…ants…blankness
The mangy mongrel from the next door caravan woke him up with a wheezing bark more like its owner’s cough at 7 a.m. From deep in the damp cocoon he could hear it dragging at its lead as the postman’s footsteps on the gravel path and the swish of his tyres trundled off to the far caravans. Some muffled words, case a banging door and silence again. The cold had seeped into his sleeping bag and through the sagging and wrinkled skin to his bones. He stayed wedged inside the dark cocoon not wanting to freeze his head even more in the brittle light. Then the old sod next door started turning over his old Rover’s engine for what seemed like eternity before it sprang into a half-life of churning rusted pistons and oil leaks. It crunched off across the gravel road and onto the tarmac road that ran by the river and was soon a faint hum on the edge of silence.
7.10 blinked repeatedly from the recorder as he finally peeped one eye out from the sleeping bag. A cloud of steam marked his breath as it rose up to cloud the inside of the frosted and dirty window above his head. God he hated February. Ice that formed on the inside of the windows would puddle on the sills before dripping in grey lines down the walls. Still sleeping in his coat for warmth he slowly shed his covers like a butterfly emerging from its caterpillar skin. He tottered half upright and half awake-half asleep on the edge of the sagging bed and fumbled instinctively for where his lighter and Rizla papers were. It took ten minutes for his frozen fingers to roll the meagre tobacco into something like a decent ‘rolly’ that crackled as lit it. Yellow fingers shook as he brought it up to his mouth. February …Jesus wept ..another winter like this and he wouldn’t see the next one and no tours, no money in the overdrawn account..he was living on borrowed time..he knew it…they’d turn up one day and find him frozen to the inside of the caravan and have to chip the ice from his eyes….maybe even carry him out stiffer than that guitar case propped against the door to stop some bastard getting in at night….he grimaced licked spit from his fingers and hacked his first clean breath of the morning deep into his lungs…so deep it hurt…
22nd July 1990. Unemployed and back home in Didcot, for sale Oxfordshire with my parents….aged 31..not good. So what do I do..apart from a lot of off the cards building work and fencing and green party activism…this..I start writing a rural novel…..obviously..
Hand typed ( I didn’t type) on an old 60’s Office Remington I think….the tapping must have driven my parents mad. I was deadly serious as notes on the manuscript suggest I had it planned out as 10 sheets a day…wildly optimistic and I managed to finish first chapter only ..oh and an Intro…this is the intro…rest is probably best left in manuscript form and looking back at it there was a reason it abandoned:-)
A CROW IN BARLEY
The wide white sky was gone. In its place, pale yellow stalks, dry cracked dirt and empty ears of corn. His world had spun seven times and on the eighth his face had come to rest here. He blinked warm blood as it trickled down his forehead and into his right eye. Already dust and flecks of straw were sticking to it. His face was pressed into a tractor track. The rows of v-shaped ruts ran off into the corn. He thought of counting them, then he must have passed out. He came round and the world was moving again. Something was lifting him and pulling him up like a plant as he was dragged free of the field. His bed of chalk, flint and straw fell way. The top of the crop dazzled him as he rode across it. Could have been the sun shaking under him. Then he crossed the remains of the wire fence. A stretch of ten to fifteen feet had been flattened by the impact. Some of the barbed steel wire had snapped and sprang loose in the air. There was a v-shaped swathe through the corn as if someone had taken a scythe to it.
That was where they found him. Later he was told he’d come down like a shot crow, his leather jacket scratched and scarred like his machine. He was covered in celandines and poppies that had tangled around him. Someone said he looked like an angel lying there. He remembered looking up at the sky as it changed from blue to the white of the ambulance ceiling. All he could remember later was white, white flowers, white sky, clouds rising higher and higher and really high up a pair of black wings hovering. A hawk watching the fields below and that ambulance’s shining roof and the black speck of a bike to its right and the figures moving. He wished he was up there too. Could just slip away from all this on a thermal. But things had a way of coming out. Like rabbits dashing away from a combine harvester. Or like the ash floating down on the town when the fields were burnt. It would be all over the place..
Some time in 1985 or 1986 possibly during a very cold winter, as I recall sheets of ice around a phone box on Plymouth Hoe, I purchased a new book in a Plymouth bookshop. This is significant because I very rarely purchase anything at full price having been trained in second-hand shops from art school on. However on this occasion I relented and I wanted the book badly enough to pay full price ( £3.95) which in those days was equivalent to £10 or more now. I cherished the book so much I immediately bought a penguin plastic jacket for it maybe I knew I’d be keeping this book for a long time.
I would have been visiting my sister in Navy barracks in Plymouth and was probably almost broke or scraping along in my library part time post whilst I dreamt of artistic success.
I would probably have been better off listening to the author of these short stories and started writing then but it was not to be. I did write some poetry which kicked around in folders until finally found an outlet in John Harvey’s magazine Slowdancer which..yes you guessed it..I picked up in 1991 in the Poetry Library London because he had a picture of Carver on the cover. The next year I was lucky enough to meet Carver’s widow Tess in the flesh at a Poetry Library reading. She, William Trevor and C.K. Williams were the only people I truly felt were ‘real’ writers that I met then.
Life happens and it happened to me..paintings ended up in storage..a gamble on a new life in Scotland fell apart and I ended up back in Oxford with the remnants of a poetry career nothing more. Words would have to wait…..and art disappeared completely. I found solace in Americana music and writing about others…as music reviews for magazines and even BBC Radio 2 at one point. It was writing but at one remove. I also continued at a rapidly slowing pace to write Americana songs…at the peak a 100 a year until 1999 it had slowed to a dozen. Some poems seeped out but my heart was not in it. I constantly found references to carver in the songwriters I admired. The fuse was very slowly burning.
So I relocate to Nottingham the drip drip of poems finally stops….and so does the songwriting ..well almost. I find an outlet for the huge backlog of songs in a charity disc in aid of cancer Research as both my parents succumb to the disease. The songs on the record could be described as ‘dirty realist’ or ‘Carveresque’.
Finally and I’d say it was around about 2010 as my mother was diagnosed and finally died….the words stopped. Ironically at the very moment Chris Emery at Salt ‘discovered’ my poems ( well not discovered I sent them to him and he liked them and published them) I ran out of words altogether. My attention was on finishing a M.A. I’d begun and work was demanding ‘art research outcomes at an international level’ which I duly did.
My mother died in 2012 and the Salt book was buried with her. Right then I thought that was it. However things have a way of leaking out…or seeping back into view. My job became more and more ludicrous..or at least my managers did and an opportunity to take a different tack appeared like a patch of blue in grey skies.
I am now embarking on that ‘blue sky thinking’ and now concentrating solely on the word..something I never been afforded the opportunity to do in my entire adult life unless at times of unemployment which generally means depression undermines the apparent opportunity. I am hopeful that something will come of it. The Carver book is symbolic if I cared then I care now. …and writing is a kind of caring…and a craft. I need to practice.
Footnote: The cover illustration is by Clifford Harper who I now find out is a ‘Militant Anarchist’ …wonderful how well things fit together!
Firstly it not a collection of short stories DOH….
Well my weekly book challenge failed miserably but I did read one book in the week which a first for me in a long while :-). The chosen book was John Berendt’s ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ a strange choice randomly picked up because I liked the cover in a charity shop!.
It is a rattling good read but the whole ‘factional’ element what most interesting. Like Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ Berendt (ex New Yorker editor so no slouch) mixes up fiction and reality and not only did this annoy people at the time as it was presented as ‘non-fiction’ for a Pulitzer prize but it also means that several different ‘modes’ in operation throughout the ‘novel’ or ‘New Journalism’ depending on how you look at it.
Written during mid 1990’s but it has the flavour of the Aids infected late eighties and a lot of the material plays with false and real borders politically and emotionally. It never stated but Berendt himself seems more than interested in the social and political status of both gay men ( the protagonist) and the political ‘solutions’ that white southerners were making with post Civil Rights America. Indeed the analysis of gerrymandering and political corruption does seem to ring true. In that sense it does the job of ‘reportage’ pretty well and reads as a historically accurate tale of its time….maybe.
However the problem is that having been at the New Yorker he also more than aware of the power of good story-telling and he administers many ‘florid’ and deft touches to his canvas……adding ‘Southern Gothic’ texture like Spanish Moss on the trees to his words…
It all dipped in a large amount of treacly descriptive writing….which helped sell the 2.7 million copies no doubt but skewed the threadbare ‘veracity’ of the story he also adds a bit of Dickensian travelogue for good measure…which apparently increased tourism to Savannah. So it is an archly constructed ‘bestseller’ at heart written by someone clever enough to get away with the floridity and containing enough factual detail ( which easily checked online now) to give some creedence to his stories. Where it falls down is the sometimes over embellished characterisation. The Drag Queen ‘Chablis’ exists and is doing well but the dialogue she speaks here reads like an Eddie Murphy comedy skit most of the time…I kept thinking of Trading Places instead of the action. I do not doubt the locations existed but the set pieces are fictional like the parade of dresses out of the nightclub. They just don’t ring true and the ‘straight’ white boyfriend and family again has a ring of point-making about ‘diversity’ than actual truth…at these points the factional problem starts as you lose the suspension of disbelief and start checking facts. If it had been published today it would immediately have been torn apart online….Berendt was lucky he published just before the internet hit home.His next and only so far other book is a ‘straighter’ historical book about an opera house in Venice.
Made into a mediocre film by Clint Eastwood the political point-scoring sometimes wears thin….Nazi flags..really?..more Father Ted than truth again? Who knows obviously there some crazy snakes in Savannah…but were they really as poisonous as this? Whenever something here seems to good to be true it probably is fictional.
It is well worth reading as a snapshot of southern USA life but remember it seen through pink..sorry purple tinted glasses and the Voodoo stuff…..pure Scooby Doo…..now Mr Berendt what did you really get up to whilst living there and why did Oscar Wilde travel all that way…..more questions than answers.
As for faction…hmm jury out…..I shall return to the theme no doubt. Is all journalism a kind of fiction anyway?
My step-grandfather was illiterate and had the Victor comic in his farm labourer’s cottage to help him to learn to read..I remember reading it to him when he in his sixties as he puffed clouds of tobacco around my head from his pipe….I was 7.
2. Ian Allen Combined Locoshed Book 1974
Any real trainspotter will know this volume and also the point in travelling to places like Birmingham New Street to collect train numbers…it was how I discovered the world….and honed my research skills:-) In fact most trainspotters would make better researchers than most academics.. they far more ‘rigorous’:-)
3. Roger Price – Droodles 1974
Shrigley before Shrigley…from a jumble sale I think…wonderful visual puns..
4. Percy Bysse Shelley – Poems 1976
Masque of Anarchy…..says it all..
5. John Clare – Poems 1976
Mrs Millington maddest most conservative spinster English Teacher who taught me value of writing…forever….bless her.
6. Joseph Conrad – Nostromo 1975
Mr Peyton my other English teacher who taught me the value of sarcasm…and Conrad who I loved…I went on to read every book I could I think I made 8 or 9……obsessive….
7. John Berger – Ways of Seeing 1977
Art Foundation a whole new way of seeing things and Punk Rock….went well together 🙂
8. Seamus Heaney – Death of a Naturalist 1978
A voice I could trust….still do.
9. Raymond Carver – Fires 1985
The book that made me a writer…literally salvaged from a St Anne’s Tottenham Haringey Library fire….I told that story years later to his widow Tess Gallagher..
10. W.G.Sebald – Rings of Saturn 2008
Fine art course Lincoln 2008 …read it every day on train to Lincoln as it coincided with a pretty pretentious art show there on themes associated with Sebald ( as pretty much every artist seems to have done since).
Still a good book….and way better than any art ever ‘influenced’ by it.
(Finally if this list went up to 11 and yes the first woman on the list)
11. Alice Munro – Too Much Happiness 2014
Back to creative writing and first volume of short stories I chose to read…great choice….now time to put pen to paper again and again and again and again…..