Friday 26 December 2008

Alistair Noon - Four Structures (4)

Hill with Bunker and Flak Tower

Go on then, plan for the eternal
with cupola, column and arch:
we’ll number their metres from here, and etch
their shape onto a steel panel,

then tilt and fix it to the top
of this slope that the women who walked
out of the thick dark walls
mixed together from scorched rock,

coating it with soil and seeds
as their husbands advanced beyond the Urals,
sending footpaths up in spirals
like icing around the new hillside.

The sirens have stopped.
The nightshift crew looks up,
dancing to techno till dawn. An eruption
deposits cut green bottles,

thin layers of new rubble,
across a fossil of concrete.
This hill just won’t keep quiet,
but fidgets on the viscous mantle.

Thursday 25 December 2008

Alistair Noon - Four Structures (3)

The Berlin Nationalgalerie in 1960

We walked through the maw of this lion
that lay with its paws out: its grimace
all pediment, step and pillar,
the dirt from the nineteenth century.

We found Agamemnon inside,
marbling a wall, and Friedrich’s ascent
of the crimson stairs
to greet his generals in the snow,

children in headscarves and pinafores
scampering at an Alpine brook,
while farmers stoked an iron mill,
each face turned from every other,

and a lipless bust from the Renaissance,
stone become skin become stone
as it took its second glaze
when the Russians came by on a group ticket.

Outside in the black-and-white sky
no one is planning to build a Wall,
and thunderbolts might strike right now.

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Alistair Noon - Four Structures (2)

Showing an Italian Friend the Redeveloped Potsdamer Platz

Si, si, it’s a piazza.
If cement and steel
perpend to the pavement,
sunlight in young branches
still tiptoes over it, as if
across a Florentine floor.
Angular glass
throws back the blue sky,
and squalls falter,
low steps lead
to flat-bedded pools
staffed by saplings,
and inside, the heaven
and hellward staircases
are fingers locked
in a mobile fresco.
Open stallfronts
stand behind, above
and beside us.
We excommunicate petitioners
and men in black cowls
who believe in no government.
No statues here but a sculpture
of upturned
steel. Yes, we burn
these red drinking tins
on pyres beyond the city
or ship them to Cathay,
and snip the promissory notes
we buy voyages through the air with.
Are you looking
for brushwood?
The Magistrati will be here
before you – a piazza,
a piazza, Savonarola,
such as the one
they strangled and burnt you on.

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Alistair Noon - Four Structures (1)

The TV Tower on Air

A minaret on the skyline, silent in the haze
that unscheduled rays don’t penetrate. Songbirds

elope with its pollen to rooftop pistils.
Action and mind will bud on screen.

Too tall for shrivelling leaves to smother:
storm the Palace and there’ll be sport on.

Its signals are flares that tumble through the air
to vanish on overcoats, a trail of pawprints.


The TV Tower on Air is the first of a four part sequence by Alistair Noon entitled 'Four Structures', and Gists and Piths will be publishing it serially over the next four days.

Friday 19 December 2008

Simon Turner - Lost in translation: an open letter to the Gists and Piths crew

Charles Olson: tall man, great poet

Dear Adham, George, Gloria and Holly,

Looks like you’ve got the jump on me in blogging on the Polish poetry evening the other night. My fault for taking so long over my post: in my defence, I spent yesterday variously travelling and at work, and by the time evening rolled around I’d run out of steam. Besides, you’ve all done a very good job of giving an account of the evening, and that’s not at all what I had planned, so I don’t feel quite so bad about failing to get my post together at the same time as you guys.

Anyway, that’s more than enough excuses for now. First and foremost, I want to put my cards on the table: I believe absolutely in poetry. Indeed, it’s about the last thing I do believe in - religion, Marx, mankind and Tintin have all fallen by the wayside as personal gods which have failed, but poetry remains as a constant and an absolute. But what does it mean to say I believe in poetry? Obviously, I believe it exists, but I would never say ‘I believe in this table’ or ’I believe in this pen’ or ‘I believe in Peter Mandelson’ and expect you to take it to mean the same thing. Poetry is, then, an article of faith for me, and I am genuinely of the opinion that true poetry can effect a sea-change of consciousness in the listener or reader, a profound alteration at a spiritual level. Again, I need to clarify: what I do not mean by spiritual here is the wishy-washy brand which encompasses horoscopes, crystals and the like, but something closely akin to what Charles Olson means when he writes, in ‘Projective Verse’, of poetry which is written by the whole person, the total being, and not simply by one isolate facet of that same being.

The spiritual, then, as I would define it, is a concatenation of the mental, the emotional, the physical, the animal: all facets of being brought into alignment. In Zen Buddhism, there is a term, satori, which describes a heightening of consciousness - it is not an otherworldly state, but a recognition of the interconnectedness of all things in the here and now. Not another reality, but, in overly simplistic terms, reality-plus. It is in this way that I view poetry: as a heightening of consciousness, as a means of being in the world. Obviously, this level of consciousness, of spiritual awareness, is difficult to maintain, which is why, I would argue, real poems come only rarely. Real poems are pieces of art or states of consciousness - it does not have to be a poem merely, or writing merely, but a painting, a scene in a movie, a conversation, or simply a few moments in the day - where this heightening of consciousness, of the spiritual faculties comes readily into play, when we are most fully human and at the same time less ourselves than we are at other times in our lives; where the social and historical structures by which we define the human, the individuated ego, come tumbling down, albeit for a moment, and we are wordlessly immersed in the interconnected web of the universe’s ecosystem.

So, that’s poetry - at least for me. What poetry is not is a bourgeois past-time designed to mirror and validate the aspirations and opinions of a bourgeois audience. That’s not poetry, that’s Radio 4. I guess where all this is coming from is a recognition of the limitations of a certain kind of poetry, safe and cosseted, with no real ambition, with no fear or anger or joy contained within it. Poetry, said Auden, makes nothing happen, and whether he was right or not, my feeling is that we should always write as if it did, with total commitment and seriousness as we set about the task at hand. This is not to suggest that poetry should be dour and humourless, but that whatever subject we take as our starting point, we treat it with the total being, and try, in our efforts to communicate, to push the language to the limits of the possible, of the sayable. Commitment, really, that’s what I’m talking about, commitment to the real work of poetry.

That’s enough from me for now. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


[Originally appeared on the Poetry International blog during Gists and Piths' period as part of the blogging team at the festival.]

Monday 15 December 2008

Tom Chivers - Hasty Excise

It started in Europe’s busiest railway station, a kind of troglodytic labyrinth: sixteen lines in, no way out. You enter, as I did, through a grossly underwhelming shopping arcade, a glorified thoroughfare. Whitewashed corridors lead inside and then up. A vast runway of tracks and platforms; a boy in a blue tracksuit spitting at the rails; and beyond, the close menace of tower blocks.

The speed is astonishing.

Not the speed of the train, but the speed of forgetting. The streets below do not exist. Battersea, Nine Elms, Vauxhall are just the shitty verges of this eight-laned beast. I reach into London. Waterloo greets me with its velvet concourse, its has-been grandeur. The crowds, expecting my arrival, block the way. Outside, the air is moist. It is 10pm. A fat baby gurgles from his or her pram. A skinny man in a grey suit sits with his back to the station wall, skinny legs drawn up to his face. He has no shirt and no shoes. The mother swerves to avoid the warm trickle of urine.

There are so many people here. The heat brings them out. Below the footbridge, three obese tourists pose with Nelson Mandela’s head as a disintegrating fireball of ash scuds along the concrete.

I am moving so fast.

In one ear, tinny samba. In the other ear, a raging chorus of violins. I am stereo. The river has drawn back.

Rest In Peace, Timo Baxter, skateboarder, thrown from the bridge when it was Hungerford, rusted, unlit, high tide. In the middle of the river, the stink of weed, an oil slick. I am moving so fast I almost miss her, poised, phone raised in right hand, head covered with a white lace scarf, on the exact point of speech. A boat passes below, heading east. The water disturbs.

I am moving so fast, take the steps down two at a time. This is another place.

Motion is a good name for a club. Young men in off-the-rack suits refuse to queue. Dark poppies appear on their white shirts. This is a bad place for a club. The sudden light of the Tube is like waking from a dream, or falling into one. Something gathers inside. I apologise. The woman is so large, I struggle to get by. I find a seat. We pass through Cannon Street without stopping. The lights are dimmed. The Israeli girl with the palest face and jet-black ringlets looks back at me in the window. When I stand up, I am taller than the man she is with. When we arrive and he struggles with a suitcase, I begin to hate him less.

I am thinking about Zoroastrianism and the White Tower.

I am thinking about how fast I am moving towards Aldgate.

I am thinking about the cunt outside the hotel, and the man he is with, his olive skin and pencil moustache, and what my chances are with the girls on the Minories, or the American who says as I am passing it is brutal and sadistic or the City boy crossing who says win or lose, he’s gonna get fucked or the rude by the church who leans in as I lean back and in the alcove someone’s sleeping, foetal, wrapped in white like a mummified corpse, a horseshoe of ham in grease paper.

I never expected the hole, an absence behind hoardings, diverted bus routes, a space for the sky, and I see now how things are made vertical. A renamed avenue. The empty car park. The butcher’s hooks swinging in the wind. This light is like falling into a dream, or waking from a coma. I don’t care what you think, this is landscape. Goulston Street falls away. The city spreads out to the north like an endless ocean and I’m just on the edge. Salt on my tongue, tonsils, lips. I swerve to the right. Nobody is watching. Everyone is watching. Somewhere a casserole has been served. Somewhere unembarrassed laughter.

My laptop boots up. The screen whitens.

I am typing this now to make sure I forget.


Tom Chivers is the mastermind behind penned in the margins, a poetry publishing and promotions venture, based in London, and the London Word Festival. Recently he was poet in residence at the Bishopsgate Institute (you can read the residency poems here). His own blog, this is yogic, can be found here: 'Excursion' originally appeared as one of its entries.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Andrew Bailey - Beyond the Horizon: Great Trustworthy Doubts

[Andrew Bailey sent me this wonderful response to an essay I wrote for Horizon Review, originally published here.]

It was a pleasure to read your piece in Horizon, George, especially with some underlinings for applause, such as "Leavis crossed with Hovis" and "for 'oak' read 'jacaranda'". But I don't find myself agreeing with an undercurrent I found in it; stop me, of course, if I'm misunderstanding, but aren't you asking for one Great Trustworthy Voice to hand down opinion on what's worth reading? Or, rather, "a critic able to measure today's society and to establish an acceptable coda on how modern readers can choose which poetry sits on their bookshelves."

Partly I want to tease - are you volunteering? - and partly I want to demur, not least in comparison with the wine industry where there's an argument that all the interesting old-world wines are being pushed out by Robert Parker's taste buds - he who, according to the Guardian, "can make or break a French vineyard" - in favour of the round, fruity, easy-drinkers he prefers. One critic, one taste, one type of production grows to be too prevalent and the pleasure of exploration is lost.

You've dealt with that, of course - your "casual readers" are those without the time and interest to dedicate to exploration, presumably wanting a guaranteed hit of the good stuff. On the part of the committed readers, there's a failure "to promote quality use of language" which lets the casuals down, so that they're faced with a wall of poetry - or a shelf or two, depending on the shop - and don't know where to start. A Great Trustworthy Voice, henceforth GTV, would be able to tell them what to start with. Am I misrepresenting? If not, isn't this precisely what the Poetry Book Society aims to do? Admittedly, I left in horror one year at the thought that they thought the book they had sent me was the best of the quarter, but that's a failure of execution, not intention.

That's a thing that does the decisions for you, though, and I think you're after informing the decisions that people make themselves. Doesn't a single GTV work against that?

There's also a measure of obedience here that I think bears looking at. There was a music reviewer on Teletext I used to love purely because his taste was so opposed to my own; I knew, from having followed his recommendations in the past, how to read them. I don't think I'm terribly special in that; someone who loves romantic comedies probably reads Mark Kermode differently from the way a zombie fan does. So "readers must also decide which of the many struggling critics put forward by mass and local media they should trust". I think they'd cope.

It's not a lack of criticism I see; not even a lack of good criticism. Nor the lack of it being bound to a moral yardstick. I sometimes see people unprepared to give time to a slow art, but it's a powerful critic who can change a reading style, rather than draw out a book's good points. It might be possible, but I don't think it's Eliot who's the model so much as David Attenborough, or maybe Maggie Philbin. You need the energy from somewhere to give the thing enough time to become enjoyable - as with smoking, with ballroom dancing, with coffee - and trying to do it by creating more palatable poetry is just the alcopop approach.

Let's have a Private Life of Poetry; not Daisy Goodwin's little acted-out self-help dramas, not the tragic life story to which poems are handy sources of illustrative quotes, but people who can transmit their enthusiasm as well as - maybe even before - their knowledge. Realising the joys of food may lead you to recognise the flavours of cumin and oregano, may help you decide which kinds of restaurants you want to go to, spot the difference between an acquired taste and a nasty one - but joy first.

It's the enthusiasm of people - friends, teachers, other poets and, yes, critics - that has given me the urge to pursue things I didn't initially enjoy, to drive me past being a casual reader, and that's almost always been about shaping ways to like, not shaping a list of things to try to like.

Best wishes, as ever -


Sunday 7 December 2008

Simon Turner - Mmms and Rrrs

[This post, rather old news now, originally appeared on the Poetry International blog, but some of the points raised seemed worth keeping alive. To me at least...]

In last night’s post, I hinted that one of my main concerns this week would be the function of poetry: what it can do, what it should do, how it impacts upon our lives. Yesterday evening’s reading in the Purcell Room tackled this question, to a certain extent, and succeeded in raising a number of new questions and concerns along the way, the most pressing of which was the problem of translation. The event consisted of four readers - normally a terrifying prospect, but the performances themselves, and the festival organisation, made it more than a bearable reading - from across the globe: Valzhyna Mort from Belarus, Mourid Barghouti from Palestine, and Jorie Graham and Mark Doty, both from the States.

Both Mort and Barghouti read their work in its original language, whilst a vast screen behind them relayed the poems in English translation. Useful at first, but after a while, I ignored or skimmed the English words and dived headlong into the torrent of words that both Mort and Barghouti poured forth. What was fascinating was the sense of dislocation accorded the poems by this disjunction between meaning and music. A poem is a total event, where meaning is determined by the sonic possibilities of the language under intense pressure: the meaning cannot be separated from the anner in which it is conveyed. Here, except for those in the audience who were fluent in the poet’s original languages, this separation had very much taken place. So where does that leave the poem? It leaves it, I guess, in the complicated middle ground of translation, where the poem exists fully neither in its target language, nor its source language.

This was why, of course, it was vital to hear Barghouti and Mort reading their work: on the page, all we have access to are the English cribs, but in the context of performance the original language is allowed to sing and soar, and the sonic effects and complexities which get buried by translation are once again brought to the fore.

So what of the poems? Mort, I felt, was probably the strongest poet of the evening: strange and often disturbing poems, touched with the Eastern European inheritance of Surrealism - Popa, Holub, Milocz - but also her own poet, her own vision of the world. Robert Lowell, I think, noted of himself that he suffered from ”a mania for phrases”, and the same can be applied, though for different reasons, to Mort. What became apparent was a constant pushing of the envelope of sense in the form of wildly disruptive and unsettling similes and metaphors, and other phrases that fit neither description. I only managed to note down one: “every night is a winter”, from her shortest and most delicate poem. Elsewhere, her language took the body as its starting point, ripping it apart and reassembling it on the page. More importantly, her performance was strong and authoritative: this is a poet I will return to again and again, I feel.

Barghouti had an avuncular appearance - mustard-coloured jacket, grey slacks and a neat bushel of snow white hair - and at first his performance was suitably relaxed and disarming. But what became apparent as his rolling poems developed - his preferred form is an open, often repetitious poem that is capable of containing any number of approaches and emotions within its framework, from humour to rage, gentle irony to existential despair - was that his presence on stage was almost Biblical in character. His reading had the qualities of a chant at times, or a recitation from a holy text. I could have listened to his voice all day: at one point, he rolled a series of R’s in quick and savage succession, and they took on the character of distant hilltop gunfire. Unsettling. Again, this was dependent entirely upon his speaking presence upon the stage: another, weaker reader would have sapped the poems of their gravity through mumbling or a lack of rhythmic sense.

What both Mort and Barghouti share, to a point, is a sense of the prophetic importance of poetry. This is often an unfashionable concept in the cossetted West: we don’t want our poets to speak grand truths about the human condition - we’d rather they wrote small measly little poems about drains and babies that we can nod along and say mmm to. Jorie Graham, too, follows the unfashionable ‘poet as prophet’ path, and whilst her performance did not feel quite so strong as either Barghouti’s or Mort’s, her poems often being lost in a rather staccato reading style that did no justice to their sprawl and ambition, I admire the seriousness of her project. Earlier in her reading, Graham noted the importance of art in imagining, in bringing to actual and not simply abstract scientific life, the ecological crisis we are facing, for the sake of posterity. An excellent approach, as it neatly sidesteps the problems of a too overtly partisan and polemical political poetry: her work is simply about seeing the world with the eyes and mind fully open, in order to record and clarify what will soon be lost.

Her work, appropriately, operates something like an ecosystem, employing repetitious structures - there’s an argument to be made that repetition and lists represent a specifically American nexus of poetic form, but now’s not the time - to create an open field of images and phrases where no component is seen as superior to or subordinate to any other: everything exists in relation to its neighbour. My feeling is that these poems might well work best on the page - tellingly, Graham made a quip about missing the presence of her words on the screen behind her - as they are marked by a high modernist seriousness, a density and complexity that cannot fully be carried across by the speaking voice. As with Mort, I only managed to note down one line of Graham’s reading, but it was one I wish I’d written: “The sky opens its magazine”.

Mark Doty is a poet whose work I have enjoyed in the past, in collections such as The School of the Arts and My Alexandria, but here his poetry did not come across as well. Perhaps it was the high prophetic seriousness of the company he was keeping that made his work seem smaller and less weighty in comparison, or perhaps there has been an unfortunate slackening off in his writing style. In either case, his reading felt like something of an anomaly in relation to the poets who had preceded him. Not that it was bad, by any means, and his stage presence - chatty, informative, self-deprecating - made for a nice change in tone, but the poems he chose to read lacked a certain something: depth and gravitas. Only the final poem of the evening, an ars poetica entitled ‘The House of Beauty is Burning’, showed what he is truly capable of at full pelt. A shame. Tellingly, his poems drew a large number of mmms from the audience, the bovine hum of liberal arts-appreciating consensus, where Graham, Barghouti, and Mort drew only stunned silence after each of their own pieces. There’s a message in this somewhere, but I’m damned if I can tease it out.

Saturday 29 November 2008

New addition to blog list

Just a quick note that I've added a link to Chris Mlalazi's blog, Writing Seriously. He was a Poetry International blogger during the festival at Southbank.

Chris co-wrote a play called The Crocodile of Zambezi. You can read his post on Poetry International here.
And this link from an ironic post by Peter Fogtdal on the recent censorship of the play:

"...Raisedon Baya, Christopher Mlalazi, Aleck Zulu, Lionel Nkusi. These scoundrels had the audacity of writing and producing a play called The Crocodile of Zambezi. It premiered May 29, 2008; the writers and actors had worked on it for two years.


"So Robert Mugabe send some of his boys from the secret police. They rounded up the actor Aleck Zulu and the production manager Lionel Nkosi and gave them a ride in their car. They tortured them and put a gun in their mouths."

More at International PEN:

"The cast and crew of the satirical play The Crocodile of Zambezi have been at threat since May 2008, when two members of the company were attacked and the play was banned by the authorities in Bulawayo

According to the WiPC's sources, production manager Lionel Nkosi was tortured and threatened with death, and actor Aleck Zulu was beaten by police..."

Chris has posted many interesting things on the theme of Poetry and Freedom for the blog. His last post there is here.

Ngiyabonga ka khulu, Chris, for your poetry and thoughts. We hope things get better for you and your co-creatives soon.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

The Editors Arrive at Southbank

Retrospectively, here is the full experience of the Editors' first arrival at Southbank, for the launch of Poetry International 2008.

Friday 7 November 2008

A Quick Note...

...about two new additions to our roster of little presses: Exact Change and Atlas Press both specialise in avant garde literature of the last century or so, with particularly strong coverage of Surrealism and Dada. Wonderful stuff, but most exciting of all is the fact that Exact Change is run by Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang of American indie titans Galaxie 500. Those of you too young to remember, or for anyone who's never heard of them, below is video for their song 'When Will You Come Home', from their album On Fire. Enjoy, comrades...

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Agnieszka Kuciak and Tomasz Różycki in Conversation with Zoë Skoulding: Four Perspectives

Breaking out of Reverence
by Gloria Dawson

The chair mentioned the ‘opening field’ of poetry in Poland and I wondered if it was open-field as in poetics. But Simon was reading Charles Olson next to me so forgive me. Tomasz Różycki spoke of himself as the king of "some Eastern European country" which, Plato-like, excluded "deserters, poets, traders and profiteers." Różycki’s strength is his ability to project himself into different stances, characters. Why is he the king of a regime which exiles poets? The place is always changing. But for Rozycki it is often islands and beaches, or looking into a watery mirror, which "moves, and the whole neighbourhood with it." This power is not just migratory - ‘nowhere’, he says later, is a comfortable place for a writer - but transubstantiatory. "The poet in his room will then eat God." There is a sureness in God’s presence in Agnieszka Kuciak’s work, as well; but the only guarantee is of his presence in the poem, not his actual substance. Różycki opens and closes his set with an (ironic? must be) statement of the ‘riches’ that poetry brings - but through that irony (the private island, all the food you can eat) is the real freedom - of thought, of movement.

Agnieszka, heavy with Dante, invents poets (I was reminded of Pessoa) rather than narratives. But she too touches on Plato’s exiling of the poets in the ‘Symposium’ (a hypothetical proposition). I don’t want to draw trite political inference from this, but it’s an intriguing overlap, the poets proposing the rope from which to hang themselves. She is deeply modest (irritatingly so); her poems, even in translation, are incredibly sensitive to the relationship between, for example, architecture and painful history - "roof’s yarmulke in place" in the ceiling in the swimming bath tells us everything, and she doesn’t need to footnote the poem with the dark history of those baths "where I, unfortunately, learned to swim." I would have liked more of this meditation on culpability in the reading. She writes as though things say things for themselves rather than the writer’s solipsistic ventriloquism. The rain is "the tiny quiet yes that will destroy you." And writing, imagining, can take you too far, somewhere where "there are no dogs, no rooms, no mothers." Her relationship with Dante and fear - fear is something, for all her protestations of levity, that is holy, that is sacred. She characterises the poetry of Milosz and the Polish poets of his generation as ‘the poetry of incantation, of prayer.’ She is breaking out of reverence.

Falling into Holes
by Holly Hopkins

During this event I fell into holes. Kuciak and Rozycki read in Polish, their words subtitled them on TV screens and I was continually lost. Which surprised me, given I have not had problems with earlier subtitled events. This is entirely my own baggage, literacy was never my strong point. But today I could not match pace, in a hurry not to be left behind I would skim and then be left floored at the bottom of the screen, or I would give myself time, catch an image and then lose out on a handful - no idea how many - of lines, scooped up and dropped into the next stanza. It was frustrating, yet at the same time interesting, to catch only fragments. I felt everything shook up, context shattered.

The synagogue turned municipal swimming pool with ghosts bathing and showering on the bottom - I could not catch the tone at first, though it dawned. The Italian men waiting for blondes, were they comic? Tragic? This is a response to visiting Italy, home of culture and refinement and finding a “culture of eating pizza and hunting for blondes.” Is this a poem about unrealistic expectations, or a comment on cultural decline? Both? My failure to keep up and my continual unhealthy stitch was my own experience, but the room did feel full of frustration. Particularly the questions and answers. Mistakes and confusion and guesses and other very interesting occurences.

Monopoly Really Barrier Unassailable Gulf Truly
by Adham Smart

The translator has a MONOPOLY over what you hear and what it means! How can you know what it is that the poet REALLY intends with their words when the interpretation of those words is up to the gobetween who does not know you? The BARRIER of language is UNASSAILABLE!

But isn’t this true of poetry in one’s own language too? The GULF of understanding between the writer and the reader! Is it ever TRULY reconcilable?


Yes, I cried myself to sleep
the night I heard old Poland speak
it was not the rhymes that got me
but the inflation of the złoty

Social vs. Individual Freedoms
by George Ttoouli

The event showcased two poets from a new Arc anthology featuring six Polish poets, cunningly titled Six Polish Poets. I was a big fan of the earlier Polish poetry anthology published by Arc, called Altered States, arguably a more cunning title.

The new anthology is a kind of response; where the earlier book showcased American-influenced poets in the confessional or New York mode, this anthology takes a more traditional response, containing sonnets and other established forms. I had a quick flick through the pages of the book and saw very little play with the poem’s shape on the page. In fact, the pentameter seemed a common line unit, or something thereabouts, and regularity abounded.

Within that, though, the poets found their freedom. Różycki, for example, found sonnets “restricting, and I enjoy breaking through those restrictions.” Kuciak, similarly played with tradition, taking Cavafy’s poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, and making her own version: ‘Waiting for the Blondes.’ I felt a surge of latent Greek nationalism listening to the piece, which was fortunately not the dumb tripe I expected from the title, but I still had the urge to shout out Edward Flint’s ‘Waiting for the Communists’ in response.

Różycki described himself as an anti-poet, which instantly endeared him to me. (Doesn’t take much, even on a bad day.) For him, poetry no longer means ‘Poetry’ any more, just as for some of the young Romanian poets featured in No Longer Poetry, that groundbreaking anthology of New Romanians published a couple of years ago.

What I found most notable in Różycki’s poetry was the folding of concepts - religion, politics and nature. At the end of one poem, he lists the targets his utopia will persecute: “deserters, poets, traitors, profiteers.” In another, he describes, “the whole sky: the clouds, the air force and God.” These lists are loaded, not wasted. Sparks fly off the poems, even when form seems to take them to obscure constructions.

Kuciak’s work plays with multiple voices and personae, with reported speech mixing with narrative. This was very interesting. There was something deeper going on than I was able to grasp in the reading (she read quite fast, grumblegrumble), but the formalism was strong, the language complex as a result. I’ve already talked about the way she played with tradition, so no point repeating myself.

The really interesting angle for me was in the discussion: Różycki talked about how he was from a displaced background; his family were forcibly relocated after the Second World War, leaving them rootless, constantly pining for the golden age of their family’s history, when everything was perfect and “carrots could be bought for minus eleven złoty”. Nowhere is a comfortable place for him now, he is used to not belonging.

This seems to be a positive counter-example to John Berger’s notion of poetry demanding roots, place. Oppression is divorceable from displacement and rootlessness is not the exclusive territory of capitalism. This is the problem I’m left with (and please excuse the leap of logic, I haven’t thought about this enough): is it better to be able to choose to leave your home than it is to be able to stay in your home with restricted freedoms? I.e. is freedom of individual action and thought more important than social freedoms? Jury’s out. I will mull some more and come back to this.

Sean O’Brien’s T.S. Eliot Prizewinner’s Lecture: Two Perspectives

[Cross-posted from Poetry International. For reasons of guilt and in light of several verbal comments, I have edited my review a little bit - GT]

by Adham Smart

“Nothing is outside, or above, the sphere of the political,” I muttered, sitting outside on the first floor of the Royal Festival Hall, a glass of wine in my hand and Sean O’Brien’s gonglike voice conveyor-belting through my head. “Nothing is outside the sphere of the political. Well, of course it isn’t. I’ve looked for something that is. Donaghy’s poetry does not simply rub up against fiction, it is the most exotic fiction of it all, and so the most political. An Irish-American who lived most of his later life in the UK - if he wasn’t being political there would’ve been something wrong with him!”

At that moment the wind grabbed the notes I’d taken during the lecture that I’d been writing from and whipped them over the edge into the London-thick air. Instinctively I leapt after them, stretched out my hand to grasp them, but they flew too fast for me, and both of us met the river.

I sank like a joke on Remembrance Day, while the wretched paper clung to the meniscus. (”Like a child that comforts its father simply by existing,” I mused.)

As the hellish-cold tides of the Thames violated my lungs I felt a disturbance in my wake, and as I looked skywards I saw Sean O’Brien himself in descent towards me, an unpoetically sharp knife clenched between his jaws. He removed the knife to angrily burble at me:


These were the last words I heard and, as I’m sure you’ll agree, they are most political.

A Nonsense of Comparison
by George Ttoouli

A partial list of comparisons made for Michael Donaghy’s poetry

Modernist poetry
TS Eliot
Ezra Pound
WB Yeats
Postmodernist poetry
Anti-postmodernist poetry
Academic poetry
Anti-academic poetry
Irish poetry
Paul Muldoon
American poetry
Richard Wilbur
Robert Bly
English poetry
Irish-American poetry
Irish-American English poetry
Anglo-American poetry

A partial list of abstractions used by Sean O’Brien during his lecture on Michael Donaghy

poignant absurdity
authentic but uncategorisable
supreme heresy
adjacently placed
bleak series
the horrors of complacent ignorance
the monopoly of reason
a more complicated poem
crowded yet often solitary
lies, illusions, things which are not there
sacred personal thing
sacred with profane
faith with deception
web of contradiction
an inheritance he is powerless to evade
dispel the fears
compellingly intimate
rapturously self-interested
remote self-regard

The one sentence review

Abstraction after abstraction - POEM BY MICHAEL DONAGHY! W00T! - name drop after name drop.

The one-line poem review

Singing the anthems of abstraction in the square.

The haiku review

Ice on the lake
fascists drown in the shapeless
murk of late frogspawn

Valzhyna Mort, Mourid Barghouti, Jorie Graham & Mark Doty: Two Perspectives

[Cross-posted from Poetry International, two separate posts combined]

The Multiverse
by Gloria Dawson

Valzhyna Mort seemed tiny on the vast dark blue stage of the Purcell Room. She read with directness and passion, throwing us “an acrobat in a fiery hoop” and white apples drowning in a black lake. Hard sounds sparked off each other but she always seemed to just keep hold of the sparks, hard and tight. I saw too, though, a healthy mistrust of the neatness of metaphor; the drowning white apples are just for the image, they do not necessarily mean. Recollection is not simple or hermetic either; she sees a wall, “blood invisible on its red bricks.” It’s these absent presences which make her a small Cassandra, bursting with intense cruelty and wisdom. Her work reminds us, as tragedy does, that suffering can be limitless, can be nameless and immeasurable; “horror no longer had a signifier.” But the poet can train their eye on the wall with the invisible stain; they can see the shape of the past, even when it has been scrubbed out. I can’t see or feel any whole poem that she read (and she didn’t fill her allotted time, either; I wish there had been more) - but images burn through, and I can see her sureness.

I was incredibly excited to see Mourid Barghouti, whose 1997 meditation on his life and his city, I Saw Ramallah, is one of the best books I have ever read. He was well-paired with Mort - both their poems tend towards concision, repetition, aphorism. More than with Mort, I found the running translation on the big screen above his head a problem. I wanted to watch every movement of his hands, his body, his lips; they shaped the poem as much as his vocal chords (I find Arabic effortlessly mournful, soft yet powerful, and I cannot match English to it at all. I have almost no comprehension of Arabic but I sense that its rhetoric often sounds clumsy and trite when rendered into English). Barghouti reminded me tonight that it is details that wound us the most - in them we see ourselves, and we can mark change, or consistency. Barghouti has a moral seeing rather than a moral saying. Take these last lines from ‘The Three Cypress Trees’:

Yesterday, in my sudden cheerfulness,
I saw their immortality.

Today, in my sudden sorrow,
I saw the axe.

The devil is in the details, but so too is God, or redemption. Meaning for Barghouti is not always permanent, but it is always true. The object is always the same, be it the cypress or the cloak of his grandfather in a vision, wearing ‘that cloak, not a different cloak, that same cloak’; the cloak that now hangs from the jaws of a bulldozer. The past is always now, it leaps over what happens after it. The hand of his grandfather, ‘the hand that opens in forgiveness’, is also ‘the hand that was amputated many years ago.’ The anti-chronological revelation is shocking, but not just that. It reminded me that gesture is always sincere. And it was said with such quietness and reserve.

After an interval, Jorie Graham and Mark Doty read. I was anticipating Graham with excitement and worry. I had not enjoyed her recent work, Sea Change, and had concluded, like the man in the record shop, that she has never bettered her early collections. She is, in some ways, deeply complacent; she knows that she is revered enough to spend ten minutes of her allocated time on a preamble about the importance of artistic imagination in allowing people access to the impending climate catastrophe (rather marred by easy side-swipes at Sarah Palin). Her work frequently seems abstruse, so in some ways the context she gave was helpful, although she could have been more concise. In my final year at university I spent some months studying Graham’s work, and never considered her ‘politics’ (I think I discovered John Kinsella at the same time and wrote her off against him).In fact, her lifelong projects of ‘undoing’ and of going against conclusion and direction sit well with tonight’s impassioned defence of the need for ecological understanding through art. In one of tonight’s three poems, the line ‘I multiply on the face of the Earth’ rings out. Here is the spreading of an artistic imagination that at least attempts omnipresence, whilst at the same time resting in the details as markers (in a rather different way from Barghouti);

Deep autumn & the mistake occurs, the plum tree blossoms, twelve
blossoms on three different
branches, which for us, personally, means none this coming spring.

George said afterwards he found the reading dispiriting but I found there was light (there is always light in Graham’s poems) as well as darkness. A typically Graham-esque pronouncement flew out: ‘You have a wild unstoppable rumour for a soul’. Mercifully, Graham does not here indulge her tendency to get hung up about what she means. She simply says it. ‘I have become the action of beauty again.’ The relationship between making beauty and saying you see it - she has enthusiasm for this. And although she and Barghouti seemingly have little in common, they both reminded us that poetry is about the present - the past and future being far, being realized, in that present. Paradoxically perhaps, poetry can show us in a unique way the perversion of nature that is global warming - the tree fruiting and flowering at the same time, the seasons collapsed. It is very hard to write about what Graham does (doubly so if you’ve studied her) - some people would use this as central to their dislike of her. She is not marketable. But there is something alchemical in her best linkages and stoppages and she conjured tears from me. I find it hard to explain how or why.

I have never been grabbed by Mark Doty. He was warm, open and polished but I still eluded his grasp. Like Graham, he has a distrust of anthropomorphism, worrying in his first poem about ‘freighting [the bat] with something not exactly his’. His anxiety feels, though, self-regarding rather than world-regarding. And he wanted us to like him. Not entirely his fault, though, this bum note after such energetic and different readings. He is a poet of another cast entirely, and I would have left him off an already-crowded platform. I feel it rather an insult that two of the most significant living poets were then put with two other also-significant poets. After all, all four had much material to draw from. This felt like a rather tokenistic internationalism, a taster menu of four full-flavoured national dishes, the South Bank Centre perhaps biting off more than it could chew. Each one of these poets, especially Barghouti and Graham, deserved more time and consideration.

Reviewed in Verse
by George Ttoouli

The Watermelon Fortress
for Valzhyna Mort

a place where nothing celebrates
past its twentieth birthday, except
the government.
Where babies crawl in and out
of the bomb
shelter/ruin. Eyes in suits
watch the creche
make sure no one
grows up:

Your child did well in school
but we regret we must terminate
for the good of the state.

Mothers are made of machines.

The Bullet in my Heart
for Mourid Barghouti

and you mustn't worry
and you must be happy
rest yourself here, friend
here where there are no chairs
and you must, like everyone else, wear Khaki,

Bring us all to love again, my friend,
so we might kill. Sorrow swings
its ambush at the day's trunk.
Living is like carrying
a bullet in your heart,
fists clenching on the grass of home,
on the sun,
on an icecream,
on a gun.

Imagining Collapse
for Jorie Graham

“You have to write your poems like they’ve been dug up from sand.”
–Jorie Graham

Imagining collapse, sacrifice begins: Measuring the qualities
of survival-"If we are alone
on this planet, will we still
feel human?" Fruit and the blossom
at the same time on the same tree, the wassailers speechless,
customs must be abandoned
the specific tree outside the window will be what? huh? language?
a blat-flash of each day flowers
like barrel flares-every syllable
a shelterless plosive, hot tracers show
you to where the sentences should end;
if we arrive we will shelter in a period, pray generations will return
a new inheritance; fingerprints evidence
the attempts to scare off death; mental distress-wool on barbed wire
rusting-I wish to talk to you about
your future: what can we call an evolution of the mind?

for Mark Doty

I carry myself so that no one else has to.
Look on my work, you might, and despair with me!
History can go screw itself! I’m stuck in the gear
marked “only those who have personality and emotions
know what it means to want to laugh at my poetry.”
Now let’s escape for a Qigong in Chinatown.

Monday 27 October 2008

Simon Turner - “The newt is a realist”

[More from Poetry International!]

On the journey down to London from the sunny Midlands, I was lucky enough to be reading an extract in the Guardian of Roger Deakin’s forthcoming journal, entitled Notes from Walnut Tree Farm. Lucky because they were (are) beautifully written; lucky because it is good that his untimely death has left something behind which readers and writers can learn from, can apsire too. Lucky, ultimately, beacause of its correlation between poetry and uselessness:

“The poetry,” writes Deakin, “is all being efficiently excised from our land. Where there once stood a magnificent old barn, a rick yard and some half-ruined cow byres and feeding sheds at Withersdale Street, there is now a deeply boring, ordinary converted barn. We need ruined barns like we need ruined woods.”

Deakin sets up an opposition between efficiency and poetry, and it is an opposition I happily subscribe to. George, in an earlier post, made reference to John Berger’s claim that poetry is essentially in opposition to capitalism: for what is capitalism but rapacious efficiency raised to the level of a malign godhood? Poetry, like the natural and man-made ruins that Deakin celebrates, serves no purpose which can be codified in terms of profit and loss. Therefore, it is something to be celebrated.

Something which I think has come into focus so far this week is the need to define what poetry is for, why it matters. Deakin suggests one reason in his journal, and Jorie Graham, earlier this evening, suggested another (more on that tomorrow). I want to use the space of my forthcoming posts to suggest others. Really, I’ll only be thinking aloud, but I hope that some of you will be listening in, and may be able to shed some light on the matter.

To close, for now. Reading Deakin put me in mind of a derelict house a few doors down from a friend of mine back home in Middle Earth (or Warwickshire, if you want to use the received term), where a small colony of bats has set up home in the attic. The landlord of the house in question has had trouble with squatters in the past, but I suspect that these air-borne tenants are here to stay. One night we watched them feeding as the light failed. Swooping and ascending, they snatched insects out of the air which had grown plump and numerous in the midst of a garden grown luscious and wild in the absence of human habitation.

Saturday 25 October 2008

John Berger, David Constantine and Rema Hammami: Two Perspectives

[Cross-posted from Poetry International blog.]

by Holly Hopkins

I want to say it was the idea of translation as a utopian act that will stick most in my mind. It might make me feel learnéd. Or the description of how a literal word for word translation will kill a poem and one must go back to the “pre-verbal” on the way to a new poem (how I wish Richard Lattimore had been forced to study that idea before I had been forced to study Richard Lattimore). Or perhaps my favourite John Berger moment was,

“Lyric poems are always a last resort, if there was a more direct way it would be done, it is an appeal to the sky and you only appeal to the sky when you’ve done everything else.”

These ideas interested me, but are not the strongest taste in the mouth.

That was a new realisation of something I am sure should have been obvious, which came from watching a video of Mahmoud Darwish’s last reading in Palestine, in June this year. I was not aware of just how much a poem’s meaning and worth derived from its sound. I know that statement is ridiculous, indeed if you think about it literally, it’s nonsense. I have never met anyone who enjoyed poetry who didn’t sound the words in their heads when they read. Indeed I have often wondered if this was a fundamental distinction between those who enjoy poetry and do not. But it never occurred to me how much I would enjoy listening to a man reading his poem in a language of which I do not understand a single words.

I feel rather guilty about writing about an event I found engaging from Modern Poetry in Translation and then saying how much I enjoyed the un-translated poem. It is perverse. But that can’t be helped.

Some thoughts about asylum seekers interspersed with notes verbatim from the event
George Ttoouli

The English language marching towards hegemony
Martin Colthorpe

About five years ago I worked with some refugees and asylum seekers at a night shelter. I ran a few creative writing workshops. In one, a Congolese journalist brought in a story about becoming un fantôme. His story was based on the idea that, when you are displaced, no one will recognise you on the street, no one would smile at you and, by doing so, register your humanity. You became ‘a ghost waiting for a smile.’

The discussion moved on to cultural ghosts. I had been researching ‘vrikolakas’ at the time, a very particular Greek folkloric spirit. During the conversation the Kurdish-Iraqi journalist in the group had to leave the room. He had heard the footsteps of his dead friends walking on the floor above us.

Your rapidly moving lips
time rotating with the rotors of the plane’s engine
abandoning this prison Gaza
existing in a trough of misery
a small oyster lost in oppresive loneliness
a spewed out combat with time
Gaza more cramped than the mind of a sleeper
in the throes of a fearful nightmare
a happy life as a social deviation

(Misremembered from a 1955 short story by Ghassan Khanafani, read by John Berger, in which Nadia loses a leg protecting her brothers and sisters from Israeli bombs; a demonstration of love. There was no applause after Berger finished reading the story and at the end of the film he held his head in his hands.)

Working at the night shelter we would have to arrive at 20.30. The doors opened at 21.00. We prepared the food, ate dinner with whoever had showed up for the night and then put the lights out by 23.00. Breakfast was early, 07.00. everyone had to leave by 08.00

Some of the ‘guests’ (I am equivocal about what to call the shelter users, but that seems accurate) were so used to sleeping on the streets in winter they had to have all the windows open, even when it was below freezing. This was fine when we only had three or four guests. Some weeks, when there were new or temporary arrivals from a particular country, the shelter might have a dozen or more people, and because the men and women had to be separated we would need every room. The only couple we had to let sleep together was a Congolese husband and wife, in their late sixties. Many had trouble sleeping with the lights off, others with the lights on. Another needed the radio on, he couldn’t stand silence. We bought him earphones, but there were arguments still. Some never slept.

Normally the women would sleep in front room, so if any of the men turned nasty in the night they would be able to escape out onto the street. There was never a problem while I was there, many looked out for each other. I vaguely recall some flirting between one of the Kosovan farmhands and an Eritrean woman, both in their early twenties. It gave the guests and staff something to gossip about when they weren’t around.

Elementary justice.
John Berger

thoughts the Sword and Book can dispatch to the wasteland
the only flower we know is the red anemone

And I have of her…

Arguing with the herald of the invisible
[meeting the godhead, who is Death]

I am not mine,

I am not mine,

I am not mine.

(Misremembered from ‘The Mule’ by Mahmoud Darwish, read by John Berger and Rema Hammami.)

A former Iraqi PE teacher was at the shelter for a very long time. Months and months. He somehow managed to retain a degree of dignity throughout the time I knew him, simply by his ongoing demonstration of intelligence and compassion. He had spent some time in Crete, where my family is from, picking oranges and helping with farmwork while he traveled north through Europe. We would speak in our very basic Greek and laugh lots.

His case was desperate though, continually rejected. He was on the edge of deportation for years, some kind of invisible bureaucratic precipice, like the cliffs at Dover, which the Home Office was trying to push him off. A week before the (third?) anniversary of his arrival in the UK, something broke for him. He announced he would be killing himself on the day of the anniversary. He would go to Birmingham and climb up one of the giant cranes where they were constructing the Bullring, set himself on fire, and jump into the huge hole they had dug there.

The shelter manager argued with him all week. She didn’t sleep for the last 48 hours, staying on suicide watch. Eventually he backed down. Something changed. I later heard he found a woman who wanted to marry him, moved to live with her. I didn’t see him much after that.

Timeless and prophetic.
Rema Hammami, describing two short poems she read, by Mahmoud Darwish.

Translation is an emblemmatic act.
David Constantine

you say I don’t belong in this country
this country does not belong to you
and neither of us belong to this country
these weapons do not belong in any country
and these words, well, think about them
and you’ll see - now we’re out of coffee,
I’m going to the shop, I won’t be long.

Others weren’t so strong. One tried to electrocute himself by climbing on the table in the dining room after everyone had gone to sleep, smashing the lightbulb and putting his fingers in the socket. They got to him, but not before he had cut himself. He put blood all over the floor and walls as he struggled.

Translation is triangular, penetrating to what is behind screen of one language, taking the unnameable behind it and taking it across to the unnameable, the pre-verbal, behind the other language; bringing the poem forwards from the pre-verbal.

The translation of poetry is important now because of the history we are living in. Poetry has a greater significance in darker ages… Poetry was globalised before the traders got there. This is important given the catastrophe the traders have brought us to.
(paraphrased from John Berger)

There is no Iron Curtain, but there are more people than ever on the move from places they don’t want to to be on the move from… [Modern Poetry in Translation] receives Iraqi poetry from New Zealand, Somalian poetry from Canada…
David Constantine

Violence was common, though rarely escalated too far, except with the one or two that were either heavy drinkers, or had severe trauma and stress. One man broke his hand punching the wall.

Another, who hated the shelter manager for no reason he could ever explain - When I see her, I just see red, I don’t know why, but this sheet of red comes down over my eyes, he said to me once - he found her in the street an hour before the shelter opened, wheeling the food donated by the local Gurdwara down the road in a trolley. In his rage he hit her, knocked her to the floor and threw the trolley into the road, tipping out the food.

He was arrested, and instead the shelter staff cooked a vegetable rice dish. It was one of the happier meals they had together. Some of the shelter users couldn’t stomach the spices in the Sikh food every night.

One man hung himself with his belt. A guest found him before the shelter staff did.

Capitalism has no sense of place, no loyalty to place; poetry only works when it is rooted. Poetry becomes necessary in the face of this; it has autonomy against rootlessness, it defines the place it comes from.
John Berger

I entered the event with a false preconception about the festival: that I would be examining the aesthetic dimensions of translated poetry - the differences in syntax that arise that make the familiar seem less so. Instead the event brought out the political dimension, a discussion of the social significance of being exposed to poetry beyond our cultural expectations, limits. As Berger put it, the effect is “immeasurable”; it can’t and shouldn’t be measured, but we must all accept that the exposure is positive, benevolent.

Lyric poems are in effect a last resort; if ther was something quicker that could be done, it would be done. It is an appeal to the sky, a last resort… but it is listened to by other people, not the sky… it becomes shared, it increases endurance and strength in others.
John Berger

Friday 24 October 2008

The John Berger Fanclub

[Manual syndication from Poetry International. I've edited and extended this version.]

Now hold still while I put the leather glove on. Good kitty.
Now hold still while I put the leather glove on. Good kitty.

Maureen Freely once loaned me a copy of ‘A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe’. At the time, Berger was a distant inkling in my mind, a symbol of '70s leftwing radicalism, old hat, irrelevant. The book had all the hallmarks of ’70s leftwing radicalism: the grainy B&W photos, the gritty, bare prose, the bluntness of the suffering it portrayed with the underlying message of ‘Look, these are people, not animals, love everyone, everyone deserves love’. But at the same time, it was chock full of real sentiment, none of that hippyish stereotyping that goes on in a lot of mass media representations of the era. This was writing that took it’s time, a project that clearly had a lot of deep, moral thinking behind it; and one that didn’t compromise for any notions of market audience, or readership.
It made its way into my consciousness via the photography, first of all: migrant workers from Turkey and Greece, the tracking of gasterbeiter in particular. I still have some of the images in my head - men in locker rooms, dormitories, the sense of isolation, the sense of a community based on shared despair. My introduction to gasterbeiter started a few years before with a university friend, a poet, who had written a poem of that name. He himself had Turkish background, and, I assume, family who came over in the '70s, or earlier, and found themselves locked into this cycle of work where they weren't granted permission to become citizens, to establish a home. They were an underclass of the worst kind: locked into an economic cycle which commodified them, dehumanised them. They had only each other to recognise their selves in and from that oppression came community.

LinkBerger's treatment of the subject could be called journalism. Whistle-blowing is a crass way of putting it, especially when the exposé targets a government. However, I'd argue it's a landmark text for experiments in New Journalism, an attempt to push creative approaches to factual writing into a new level. The aesthetic construction, the blending of photojournalism with poetic prose: these raised the project above an attempt to "capture the reality of the migrant worker’s life" (from the introduction, available here with some images).

What really got to me was the outsiderliness of the writing and the photography. Berger 'went there’ to his subject’s heart, he got a hold of the experience in a way that most journalistic treatments would never do (aren’t allowed to do), and the language never once tried to patronise me with those experiences. Something clicked: the possibilities of being political without being a parody, or without being so cerebral about it, or passionate about it that you were derided. Here was a mode of political engagement that wasn’t preaching, wasn’t flimsy; Keats’ negative capability funneled into a challenge, one that asked, ‘If this goes on, why are you still sitting there?’

Comparisons to Jean Genet are obvious. It’s the decisions as to how he would live, and how this relate to his aesthetic life that inspire me so much. Even, perhaps, to Audrey Hepburn, though she made her money first. I'm quite obsessed with writers who step outside of expectation, of established norms, particularly those which are so comfortable, like here on our little island in the North Sea. Even with a banking crisis and recession, the supermarkets are full, petrol readily available.

Sure, it’s easy to leap on that ole chestnut about what Berger did with that slightly-famous literary prize pot, but that’s the caricature, the 15 seconds of fame moment (and also the obvious hook which I’ve used to try and make this post look more interesting that the fan-clubbery rant it’s turned out to be), in which it’s easy to believe you can learn everything you need to about a person. But I was lucky enough to read one of his recent short stories, ‘The Red Tenda of Bologna‘ when it was published in a magazine, and it was absolutely wonderful. Yet another facet of the man’s writing that has me salivating in advance of the Festival’s launch night. My one gripe: I haven't read enough of his work yet, there's so much more.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

The Editors Depart Their Natural Habitat

Due to a clerical error, or more likely some other misfortune on the part of the Royal Festival Hall's excellent team of staff, Gists & Piths have been invited to London as part of the Poetry International Festival's official bloggers.

Joining an elite team of long-running and world-renowned bloggers, the Editors will attempt to maintain their cover for as long as possible, before the Southbank realises its mistake.

We will be reporting live from London, bringing you coverage of events and general reports of our pillaging forays into the café and bar stocks. We have also assembled a small team of raiders, who will be reporting simultaneously on particular events, to provide a multiplicity of views, or simply further confusion as to the state of play, depending on how optimistic your worldview is.

Whether Gists & Piths will be assimilated into the hegemonic vortex of London, welcome as a benign misfit-mascot, or find itself rudely ejected for being too damn weird, is up for grabs. Tune in from Friday. Between now and then, suggestions for what we should be packing in our knapsacks are most welcome.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Simon Turner - Waitrose's plumbing of the depths

Just a quick note, as much for my benefit as for anybody else's (ie, I wanted to make sure I wasn't hallucinating this after ingesting a bad sandwich): Waitrose have a new ad they're running for their autumn foods campaign, which features the usual montage of images of conkers and kids kicking through piles of autumn leaves and miraculously not whanging foot-first into a dog turd. None of this is especially offensive, and is no more nor less anodyne than most televisual advertising. What is worrisome is the soundtrack: Roger McGough reading Keats' 'Ode to Autumn' with 'Golden Brown' by the Stranglers tinkling away behind him. This is wrong for so many reasons, not least of which is the narrow and smug notion of 'poetry' that ad execs clearly have. Immediately after this I saw the new ad for Warburton's, an eerie and imaginative concoction, which contains far more poetry than a whole barnful of McGough-endorsed conker-stuff doughnuts, or whatever it is that Waitrose are peddling. I feel like going to bed for a month and hoping that all this goes away...

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Searching for Closure - a Re-Review by Nathan Thompson

Stretch of Closures by Claire Crowther, Shearsman Books, 2007

What follows is sort of narcissistic, not in the sense that it assumes that anybody takes any notice of poetry reviews, but that it implies that anyone might have taken notice of one that I wrote over a year ago now. I hope this is forgivable under the circumstances: basically I want to hold up my hands and admit I was at least a little bit wrong.

One of the advantages of the internet is its permanence and its accessibility. One of the disadvantages of the internet is its permanence and its accessibility. For example, over on Stride magazine I wrote a brief review of Claire Crowther’s Stretch of Closures which, whilst by no means damning, could have been perceived to be an example of faint praise par excellence. I know this because a couple of readers have told me so. The review is also pretty badly written and shows obvious signs of hurry. People haven’t mentioned that, maybe because they’re too nice. But it’s there for good, or until the internet implodes. And I don’t like that review, or even agree with it (Martian? – I must have been having some sort of ‘moment’). So I’m grateful to the team at G+P for allowing me the, pretty definitely self-indulgent, chance to set the record straight. And I hope this doesn’t just read like the attempts of a once-near-Catholic to partially cure his guilty insomnia.

Since writing the earlier review I’ve spent a great deal of time with Claire Crowther’s work (it’s clear from re-reading that review that I can hardly have skimmed it (strange, as I clearly had read the other two books discussed there) – I’ve learned my lesson now), and the more time I spend with it the more intriguing it becomes. The poems are, on one level, masterpieces of clarity, in the sense that they are invariably carefully and precisely written. But in Stretch of Closures, however clear the mode of expression, that which is expressed remains just of reach, giving the reader his or her own space in which to reflect and contribute:

The wind pulls the hair of young pines.
Above their heads, dinosaur footprints.
[from ‘Piave’]

The grace, and calm sense of collusion with the obtuse in this poem, is reminiscent of John Ashbery at his best. And yet there’s never the sense of anything arch or knowing in Claire Crowther’s writing that such curious juxtapositions as the above often carry with them. Here the imagery seems an excursion into the subconscious better to understand the conscious; an extension of the unreachable dream-world of the past into the present; and an examination of personal fossils and experiences that in retrospect take on the aspect of things unknown. And, to extend this idea, bringing one thing into proximity with another seems to be one of the themes in this collection. Compassion and understanding are to the fore and language is used generously and lyrically to create the give and take between reader, written, and writer that is, to me anyway, essential to poetic communication:

The sea rolled itself into a sweat
down our faces as if the tide
had suddenly thought of us as inlets

[from ‘City of Turns’]

And I like too the forays into the informal, such as the humour in the repetition at the beginning of ‘Moods’:

Once I had a motorway of hair,
long, black, stood up to stresses well.
You trafficked it, your fingers heavy, light.
I closed it once or twice against the terrors
you get with hair.

There’s a hint of New York-style familiarity and ‘making strange’ here that gels well with the slightly dangerous-sounding narrative voice (on the subject of ‘voice’, the earlier review had a really insulting and patronising tone, don’t you think? – if I were Claire Crowther it would have made me spit). And there are overtones of menace, or at least fear, throughout this book; a sense of ‘looking for gravity’ (to quote from ‘Stairborne’) in both senses. But thankfully the narrative voice avoids the temptation to recede into tight-eyed Plath-style steeliness, despite a degree of crossover in its subject matter – for instance in ‘Motorway Bridges’, which covers genocide, women killed by their partners, and overtones of the occult.

The prose poems have a different diction on the whole, and sail deliciously close to ‘purple prose’ in their rhythms and piles of imagery without ever yawing over into quasi-19th-Century French extravagance:

My shoes are pocked with mud. Roller skates flicker ball bearings like dynamos in my hand. Do I see more than my mind which is sure that fledglings cry almost soundlessly from a nest, that a marble lies hidden, glass budded in a scald of nettles inside the paling?

[from ‘Abscond’]

What can you say to that but: fuck, yeah!? There’s a daring and panache to the prose poems in this book that you don’t normally find in English prose poetry (Luke Kennard’s and Annie Clarkson’s work being the obvious exceptions) and it’s exciting to live with a writer on the edge of technique like this.

So why are the views in this review so different? I guess, although at the time I didn’t realise it, I wasn’t ready to be reviewing a book simultaneously so raw and so technically proficient: maybe I couldn’t get my head around the possibility of marrying the two – I think I was still reading Lee Harwood without finding irony, and Philip Larkin finding only irony.

And also, I don’t think I read it very thoroughly. It’s easy when you start out reviewing to adopt a kind of all-encompassing ‘knowing’ tone and use it to blast through your own ignorance. I think this was the first book I found that totally eluded that kind of one-style-fits-all approach, which, and I should have realised it at the time, probably means it’s a pretty interesting book and one I should have left someone else to review.
Anyway, I’ve now owned three copies of this book, having given the previous two to friends in pubs when talking excitedly to non-contemporary-poetry types about the fact that there is lots of exciting work out there by new British writers if you only know where to look for it. And this book is a very good place to start looking. I hope there’s much more to come from Claire Crowther. She’s one of the most exciting writers around right now, and as first collections go this one’s a blinder. It’s a shame it has taken me so long to say it. So buy three copies and give two to your friends, that’s my advice.
Nathan Thompson grew up in Cornwall and studied at the University of Exeter, where he later lectured part-time in musicology. After brief stints in Cardiff and Herefordshire he now lives in Jersey. Examples of his work can be found online at Great Works, Gists and Piths, Shadowtrain and Stride magazine. His first collection, the arboretum towards the beginning, is just out, published by Shearsman.

Friday 19 September 2008

Gregory Award Winners (4) - Emily Berry

The Yellow Hammer State

After we saw the bird man, I was gone.
They prised the big Coke from my hand
and all took sips at once; it made them laugh like crazy.
I had different types of ice cream in my mouth,
I can’t remember which but one had chunks in.
Part of the cone I was holding had been crushed by my thumb.
I knew if I moved or spoke a war would start
and I’d be held to blame so I said nothing.
If we’d lain down and all stayed quiet
it might have been okay, but I still had the big hand
on my other hand so I was always pointing at something
and that gave the game away.

Part of the problem was all the tiny yellow hammers
behind my face were tapping at my brain
and I didn’t want to nod or shake my head
in case they slipped. They had such tiny heads.
And the impact zone kept spreading
and there were pools of yellow over everything.
And they got into my mouth from inside out
and mixed up with the ice cream and dribbled down my chin,
and the others made a fuss and ran away.
I think they were afraid the bird man would snatch them up
and put the yellow hammers in them;
then they’d have to stay with me, and be the same as me,
in this knocked-out woke-up-nowhere place,
this yellow hammer state.

Emily Berry's poetry has been published in various magazines including The Rialto, Poetry London, Poetry Wales and Magma. Her pamphlet is due out from Tall Lighthouse in November.

Saturday 13 September 2008

Gregory Award Winners (3) - James Midgley

Actaeon the Prodigal


So there is talk of him returning,
a voice wrung from dawn’s dishtowel.
Talk of him returning – which is itself a return,
phantasmal housemaids
clawing at shattered blinds and men
in shirtsleeves with knuckles of coal in their eyes
remapping their pockets
with some memory of a misplaced pipe.
I do not deny I look forward to it,
maybe a horse-drawn cart that stops and steams
and the curtains eased apart
with all our garden gates.
In preparation we must tug ourselves away from crowds
like ragged bodies from water, our lungs sparked with salt
and breakable as glass.

I look beneath café tables for his rolling head.
All day long a dog has circled outside, tied to a metre;
should I put my arm inside his mouth
and introduce a chain of arguments?
Already there is talk and more than talk,
conch-calls among skyscrapers
as televisions cease to function
and there is only this cold static in our ears,
the noise of caterpillars slowly swelling.
Nerves on edge. Bone and nerves resetting.


We have met the signs in our dreams –
the climbing-frames overclimbed by ivies,
our palms rubbed raw
to resemble blood-dusted moons.
And we have died a hundred times or more
between the beartrap mouths of pets.
Look they have little human faces.

We have seen the signs, picked our disguises –
ratcloak, flowerface, armours of wood –
mistaken the pickled egg
for a reckless human foetus
softly gleaming in the larder light.
Pity our infinite returns to childhood
you who are returning with us.


Actaeon into the fold, an umbral spear,
his head is so heavy, his empathy compulsory,
calves like ripe mangoes,
thighs strapped in bindweed.
Beckons from alleyways wielding a syrinx pipe.
It is difficult to forget that laughter:
a pool of bells, ever-clinking glasses
and this tinnitus.
Everywhere helicopters are crashing:
Chinook in a gyre one poet suggests.
Actaeon posing naked or skinless,
pointing to himself with a stick in anatomy lessons,
dissertating on the humours.
His antlers are optional, as are the wounds.
He runs through the woods disrupting foxhunts.

I was there when the streets wore through to dirt,
when Actaeon sat under the moon’s spotlight and sang –
red-in-the-face moon
trying to remember his shape again.
Here is a fanfare for resurrections.
Actaeon, you tousle-brained monster,
what is it you sing?
But the human ear is poorly suited.


James Midgley was born in Windsor in 1986 and now alternates between Henley and Norwich. A few months ago he completed his undergraduate degree at the UEA, where he will be studying for an MA in creative writing from the end of 2008.

His work has recently appeared in publications such as Agenda, Magma, The Pedestal, The Rialto, Stand, Under the Radar, and The Warwick Review. This year he received an Eric Gregory Award. He edits the poetry journal Mimesis.

Thursday 11 September 2008

Gregory Award Winners (2) - Heather Phillipson

Mr Lonelyhearts and the Spendthrift Shopper

Everything is yet to come
on Morrissons’ in-store notice board –
jobs, used sofas, missing dogs.
I only crossed the street to get some ice-cream
and here are other people and wants
and anticipation. And the queues at the tills
are long! If I gave up my expectations
I might find all the morning has to offer

on index cards. If I dared
what I don’t dare I’d post up my desires –
in biro, in quadruplicate, like George,
53. He wants a nice lady. I want to slip
inside the sound of teaspoons on porcelain,
take my toast with Muscavado sugar, stop
trying to replace my first love’s voice. Perhaps
it’s handwriting and hope and ruled paper
with smudges that make things happen

and my shopping is superfluous. I could give up
all my goods before the exit. I could leave
without a punnet of raspberries
and only its scent. I could take what’s there –
chances, telephone numbers – and find
that’s how it happens, the future.


Heather Phillipson is a visual artist and regularly exhibits her work both nationally and internationally. Her poems have been published widely and she won an Eric Gregory Award in 2008. She is currently Artist in Residence at London College of Fashion.

Friday 5 September 2008

Gregory Award Winners (1) - Adam O'Riordan

The Moth

landed between paper tiger and paperweight
on the open dictionary, just short of papillon.
A natural under the spotlight
which must have drawn it from the night's
hot lung towards its sixty watts of promise.
Perfect, the disciplined pulse of its wings:
two coffee-stained teeth and all the grace

of your grandmother in her wedding dress.
Which you will know from the message I left.
But I didn't mention the tipulidae, the chironomidae,
that I'd had to kill the lights and I'm sitting
on a bed too small to contain your absence,
listening to something the size of a small bird
ricocheing off the walls, clicking like a stuck tape.

Originally published in The Ladder.

The Lakes

Now the sky has emptied
only a crow's call could map its vastness

or descending, open up the landscape:
the thistle-stitched guesswork of a hedgerow,

the feral earth, long-grass, leaf-mulch,
an earthworm musing through the thick dirt,

and the abominations of buried bones.
At this hour the sun lowers its cadaver,

a sinner to the pyre, sets its fire
spilling grain out across the water.


In the moments between evensong and sleep,
you will remember how the scent lifted from her
as, blanched in a bed sheet, she left the room

with the kind of trail two parallel mirrors suggest
on any object caught between them and eternity
or the red whip of tail-lights on an empty street.

Or the vast harvest of rye, cut down, trucked
into town to ferment in huge steel vats,
condensed to a shot in a fat glass beaker.


Adam O'Riordan was born in Manchester in 1982. He read English at Oxford University and later won a scholarship to study under Andrew Motion at the University of London where he was awarded the inaugural Peters, Fraser and Dunlop poetry prize. In 2006 he received an Arts Council England writer's award. His pamphlet Queen of the Cotton Cities (where these poems orignally appeared) was published by Tall Lighthouse in 2007. He co-edited Michael Donaghy's Selected Prose, which Picador will publish in 2009. He is currently Poet-in-Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. You can see a video of him reading at the Ledbury Poetry Festival here.

Sunday 31 August 2008

Ben Knight - Love is Coming: G. Lansard's Illustrations

G. Lansard on flickr: images ... more images

Love might arrive soon, and with it realisation – after its arrival I could rest my head on Lansard’s belly and warm my forehead. But the warmth of the body, this arrival of words is delayed. The illustrations could have brought familiarity: the felt-pen ‘wood cuts’, the recurring cooling towers, hidden jewels, the sometimes charity shop trawled granny-ceramics draw together a system, but it’s retaining Love. Somewhere in the fabric it is there but it’s still coming.

Non-arrival means continuation for the half dead scourging figures; they appear in formations of triangles, circles or enveloped in patterns mutilating their neighbour - farting, pissing and shitting on each other surrounded by Lansard’s ritual comforts. Look to the rope, smoke towers, and flagellated bodies with no promise. This is happening because it has to.

It is coming, I’m sure if I lay my forehead on Lansard’s belly I could hear the sounding of those figures: what’s whispered in the ritual is foggy, and what we are confronted with is the body we can smell, touch and hear, and not just see. If my forehead becomes warm it is a volley of life we are dealing with. Now if Love never arrives we’ll have its constituents in sound. Lansard’s accounts are the ‘schlupp’ of our bodies, our “primitive forms of language, before communication by expressive sounds become stereotyped into words, when the voice is richer in vibrations, more mightily physical”[1].

The language of the figures is richer in a particle state – cum, saliva slopped around the mouth cavity, and the primal animalistic sounds before words form, make up these incantations. These multiple threads of life-sound are dizzying, so try and create a whole from Lansard’s signatures, but it will only lead you to a dead end.

The belch of Lansard’s illustration is an intense body jerk feeling for reciprocity with the world – this formlessness and noise is not derived through hate or bitterness, but a need to reorder what has been represented for us. The placid environment is damaged by Lansard’s intuitive hand: a cock urinates on a tree, blood is spilt and both are absorbed, their gasses returning to the atmosphere through the cooling towers, and suddenly everything is interrupted by intestinal splup or the squeak of an arse.

Love finally arrives dripping down the fabric.

BLK, August 2008.


[1] Bob Cobbing, form From Sound Poetry: A Catalogue, edited by Steve McCaffery and bpNichol, Underwich Editions, Toronto, 1978

G. Lansard at Nog Gallery
15th August - 20th September, 2008
182 Brick Lane
E1 6SA

Tuesday 19 August 2008

Michael McKimm - The Lammas Lands (6)

Soon the allotments will be deserted.
Ray from Bow has made his special salad,
the Cypriot Hassim has sliced his spuds,
nurtured them with salt. In the work shed
they've laid out the last of the harvest,
grapes and olives, leeks, cabbages, parsnips.
Along with the carrots and beets, from
the damp earth they've pulled up their thoughts,
dreams of better lives, the thrill of putting down
a deposit, inheritance; the days that a square
patch of London would breed dates, callaloo,
sweet potatoes the size of your head,
things not seen since childhood, homeland,
the family hearth, some long forgotten feast.

Michael McKimm is from the Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland. He graduated from the Warwick Writing Programme in 2004 and won an Eric Gregory Award in 2007. His poetry has appeared most recently in Magma, Oxford Poetry, PN Review and The Warwick Review, and is forthcoming in Dossier Journal (New York). His first collection, Still This Need, will be published in 2009.

Monday 18 August 2008

Michael McKimm - The Lammas Lands (5)

In creating the Marsh they created
an island. Surprisingly sensible
a solution, appease the bargemen
and the mill owners, let the New River
Company have their fill for Londoners,
simply cut a canal and let the water
take a different course twice over,
one for cargoes up and down from Hertford,
one to turn the stones and grind the corn
to flour. And that was that, flat unbuilt land
lurching southwards towards the Isle of Dogs,
whitewashed lock-side pubs, fishermen
relishing the pike: reservoir, reserve,
an archipeligo conjured from commerce.

Sunday 17 August 2008

Michael McKimm - The Lammas Lands (4)

Cormorants are landing on the Lammas Lands.
We watch them from the side of the canal,
four black phantoms coming in slow from the north,
all hush-hush, wings arched for the landing,
feet carving a line, long bodies glistening
in the water. Someone needs to document
the birds that use this stretch of water for their nests:
bitterns, grebes and ruddy ducks, great groups
of Canada geese, reed buntings calling thinly
from the willow, the pecking war of coots
and moorhens, the fearful jays, the timid teal,
but mostly the stealth-breaking cormorants,
drying their wings on the branches of trees,
like standards on the blue-shield of the sky.

Saturday 16 August 2008

Michael McKimm - The Lammas Lands (3)

There is a white wind and a clanging bell
across the marsh, a frisson in the wires
that slice the pitches, where ping on leather
meets the thump of white-paint post, branches
clacking in the trees, tarpaulin unravelling
on the building sites: grit, sand and aggregate.
Think of the causeway that the Romans built
to keep their road going straight to Colchester,
a heap of shale and shattered boulders paved
with smoother slabs set into concrete, the coarse
rudus, the soft nucleus, then curved to let
rainwater slip into the fields. Suddenly
there is an army cutting a line through
the Sunday fixtures, a legion of pallbearers.