Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The 'Voices' Anthology

In Anthony Wilson's fantastic new anthology 'Lifesaving Poems' (Bloodaxe, 2015), there is a poem called 'The Picnic', by the American poet John Logan. Anthony recounts how this was the poem which was his gateway into the world of poetry, when an inspired English teacher read it aloud to his class of schoolboys. And when I heard Anthony read this poem at the Bodmin Moor poetry festival I had an instant flashback to my own school days.

I was thirteen - in what would now be called Year 8 - and the Lower School English Monitor. This role consisted of keeping the English stock room tidy, and had the work-related benefit of being able to spend every lunch time ensconced in a book paradise. It was a small room, in an old Victorian granite building with high church-like windows; every wall was covered with shelves upon which were stacked all the books that might be used in the first two years of the school.

To be honest, keeping the room tidy didn't take very long. So I spent most of each lunch-time reading. I often found the playground a difficult place - books were much more reliable companions. And the book to which I kept going back was a poetry anthology: Voices, the third book, edited by Geoffrey Summerfield. Before Voices, I had loved poetry, but the poetry I loved had been very limited. I'd been brought up on AA Milne and Lewis Carroll, with quite a bit of Kipling; I knew Allingham's Fairies in their rushy glen, and William Brighty Rands' 'The Pedlar's Caravan'. I had the 1973 Oxford Book of Children's Verse, (edited by the wonderful Opies) but that ended with Eliot's cats and a verse by Ogden Nash. I'd read and had read to me lots of poetry - but nothing like the poems contained between the covers of this book, with its picture of a candle-lit skull, and a moth perilously close to the flame.

I had never read anything like it before. This was real, grown-up stuff, stuff that hit me in places I didn't know I had. The poems seemed to encapsulate all I needed to know. Philip Larkin’s ‘Days’: such simple language, and the first time I had come across a poem which didn't tell me everything but made me realise it myself.  Wole Soyinka’s ‘Telephone Conversation’: just that, a conversation, shockingly introducing me, a child from the exclusively white society of rural Cornwall, to the reality of racism.  Thom Gunn’s ‘Jesus and his Mother’ which extended, and made me question, all I had taken for granted about religion. Suddenly I was reading Auden, Heaney, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov, Wilfred Owen, Ted Hughes and many, many others. Charles Causley, Miroslav Holub, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Carl Sandburg: they all spoke to me, to me directly, through those black and white pages. A lot of them didn't rhyme, a lot used very plain language, some were instantly accessible, others took a bit more work. But they all set my head on fire.

Wole Soyinka (photo of Soyinka by Roger Mayne)

And there was 'The Picnic' by John Logan. This was a poem about teenagers. People not much older than me. Here, in this book. Not patronising, or didactic, or diminishing the experience of youth through the filter of the adult gaze. Just the words, freighting the experience of a life that a thirteen year old could imagine as their own.

Radio 4 once had a series called 'The Tingle Factor', in which musical, artistic, and literary personalities shared the things which made the hairs on the back of their neck stand on end. Hearing Anthony read 'The Picnic', I now know that this poem, along with Tchaikowsky's 5th Symphony, Beautiful South's 'Good as Gold' and several other pieces of music, has the Tingle Factor for me.

Voices is still one of my favourite anthologies. I bought my own copy during my teens and I still dip into it regularly. Now I am able to appreciate the skill of the editor, and the choice of challenging but incredibly apposite illustrations. 'The Picnic' is flanked by Edwin Morgan's 'Strawberries' and an anonymous C4/5th Chinese poem about a boy and a girl sent out to gather rushes and returning with none - a triptych of adolescent summers which to me as a teenage reader functioned almost like one of those triple mirrors one sees on dressing tables. Wilfred Owen's poems are preceded by Hardy, Hughes and Rosenberg on war, and then a six-page series of photographs of World War I: a pictorial narrative which concludes with pictures of a dead soldier and his horse, and a devastated town. Poems are also juxtaposed with art by Peter Blake, Elisabeth Frink, Hokusai, Hogarth and many others. Absolutely brilliant. Tingle-inducing indeed.

Last year I bought a second-hand copy for my thirteen year old niece. A quick peep into the Amazon Marketplace tells me that there are 47 copies on offer, mostly for a penny each plus postage.

Might I suggest buying two - one for yourself, and one for a Year 8 person you might know?

Peter Blake and Brian Patten
Emily Dickinson and Edvard Munch

Frink, Waley, Hopkins

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Plagiarism Debate

There's been a lot of discussion about plagiarism recently, following some high profile unmaskings, the latest of which you can read about here. And it seems to have got people feeling very nervous.

I'm sure there's no debate over the fact that if you pass someone else's poem off as your own, only changing a few words, or use thinly disguised tranches of another person's work, it's unacceptable: it's plagiarism. But what about the odd line or phrase that may have crept into a poem through the subconscious? Or something factual that you have jotted down in your notebook and subsequently used in a poem - should you provide footnotes for these sources of information? What about intertextuality - are you going to credit Ovid if you mention Daphne or Narcissus?  Do you have to credit the BBC News if a poem came via one of their stories? What about art - if a painting or a sculpture inspired your work, but the poem has moved on from its connection, should you credit the artist, even if by doing so you compromise what the poem is now 'about'? Where is the 'line of necessary accreditation'?

And what about coincidence? It does happen that the same metaphor occurs independently to two different people who've never met, and never read each other's work. Worrying about that is enough to completely paralyse the pen!

It's made even more tricky by the working methods many poets adopt. If you look at any creative writing handbook, or attend poetry writing courses, you will come across a plethora of writing prompts in which you are encouraged to springboard off other people's poems. There is a whole sector of poetry which works with the adaptation and appropriation of existing texts, and many writers will from time to time use related methods. My father died recently, and both before and after his death I found it very difficult to write. My need to write, however, was enormous, and one of the routes I found very helpful was to write down random phrases from various ephemeral texts such as newspapers, jumble them up, and filter my experience through them. These odd phrases may now be peppering my poems - in fact, 'salting' them might be a more appropriate metaphor, since they add flavour but are not visible, are dissolved into rather than sprinkled on the resulting text. Do I need to credit The Guardian et al? The ideas they now express are a million miles from what they were saying in the original context, and to be honest, most of the words were pretty mundane anyway when chopped out of context.

So how careful, and how fearful do we need to be? I don't really have an answer. I think if people get paranoid they're not going to write good poetry. All the words have been used before, and all the ideas come from what everyone has in common - being a human being. Nothing is new under the sun (that's from Ecclesiastes!) but there are new ways of seeing. If we use someone else's way of seeing, and we know we have done so, we need to credit it. So if one writes a draft of a poem that springboards off another work, it is good practice (and might save a lot of grief later) to make a note on the poem so one doesn't forget its method of genesis.

Regarding the odd phrase creeping in via the subconscious, though - I'm not sure there's much one can do, except stop writing altogether.

Which, I have to say, seems a tad drastic, given what my cat, after much internet research, is telling me...

Image: Sally Douglas

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

What I'm Reading this Week: 'Mandeville' by Matthew Francis

I heard Matthew Francis read at the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival at the end of May, and was unable to resist buying his two most recent poetry collections, Mandeville and Muscovy (both from Faber).

Mandeville is a retelling of the travel tales of the purportedly real, more probably fictional, C14th explorer Sir John Mandeville. In this collection of interlinked poems, Matthew Francis takes us to situations that many travellers would recognise alongside many that they would not. In a foreign inn, the traveller tests his phrasebook:
Give me soup. This wine is bad. What have you put in it?
I am a pilgrim. A merchant. I am lost. Help me.
I am sick. Tired. I am wounded. I have hurt my foot.
And on the road, the familiar is made strange by being in unrecognisable language:
                  ...underneath the sound and look
the meaning of things has changed: road rain tree bird cow man 
broken into pieces and floating before your eyes,
as if it was only the words that held them in place.
As he travels, Mandeville sees things that are more and more amazing: The Land of Darkness, the Amazons, the place where 'the ants are as big as dogs' and dig for gold, and the Gravelly Sea where waves are made of stones
    ...drawn and redrawn on the stillness
as if a field could plough itself, or the desert frown
This book is a fantastical journey, filled with wonderful images, but it is as much about the nature of travel and what it does to us, and the nature of language and how the unfamiliar can set it loose from its own moorings. Definitely worth a read.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Nell Farrell's Mermaids

Oh, I loved this slim pamphlet. Loved the cover design which seems to hold both the stillness of amber and the movement of water, and loved the typeface which seemed quite ordinary until it went into curly, almost mythological, italics. In fact, these physical characteristics of the book might be seen to symbolise the world Nell Farrell depicts within these pages. 

Nell Farrell's Mermaids come to stay like a gaggle of teenage foster-daughters from somewhere very other. They try out human life with a zest that has them talking like buses and emptying the contents of the freezer, visiting Cornwall, going for speech therapy; and experiencing Christmas, when films featuring pirates
                        ...lure them
to sit enraptured in the greenish light,
arms around each others' waists,
soothed to a slightly puzzled bliss
Ordinary things are transformed through the mermaids' gaze, while the speaker's ordinary life is transformed by their presence. These poems are funny and poignant and sparkling with language. I loved them.

The second part of the pamphlet widens its scope to other characters: nuns and goblins, circus acts. I particularly liked the two short sequences. In 'Ascension' an artist's model finds that his experience leaves him strangely changed, and in 'Assessing the Librarian', real facts become surreal facts, and artefacts become talismans:
That's an angels' vertebra. I found it on a beach in Greece.
I've always loved it there; they gave so many words
to my profession: heuristic, hermeneutics.
This is a fabulous collection, in every sense of the word: an exuberant place where there is no distinction between story and everyday life.

Mermaids and Other Devices is published by Moormaid Press, and can be ordered very easily from the publisher here. 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Kim Moore's 'The Art of Falling' - 50 Word Review

Kim Moore's The Art of Falling

An incredible variety of poems and subject matter, all held together by their relationship to the title of the collection. A compelling central sequence, 'How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping', is flanked by poems rooted in the quotidien North but threaded through with humour and the strangeness of the dark. 

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Poetry Magazines - Lighthouse 6

There's nothing like flicking through the pages of a brand-new poetry magazine, fresh from its manilla-enveloped journey through the postal system. Looking for the names of poets you know and like, wondering what exciting new voices might be waiting within. Sniffing the paper, feeling the texture of the cover.

One I've just come across is Lighthouse, published by Gatehouse Press. It's a pleasing, understated, quite retro-looking publication: a monochrome cover with a small lino-cut lighthouse illustration, and off-white matt pages which smell a bit like blank newsprint paper. Inside there are poems, short stories, illustrations and a couple of feature articles. 

The stories are great. I'm quite often disappointed by short stories in magazines - they're either too self-consciously experimental and disappoint by the content not matching the form, or they are simply banal. What I want from a short story is to be left thinking about it afterwards, I want it to lodge in my brain and change something. In Lighthouse, none of the stories disappointed, but I particularly liked KJ Orr's quietly disturbing The Shallows and Margaret Jennings' intriguing My Family.

Of the poetry, I was very taken by Mike Saunders' long poem Triptych, and Michael Rutherglen's Sensitivity to Initial Conditions, a wonderfully language-rich exploration of potentialities framed in terms of mathematics. But that's not to say that these are the only poems I enjoyed - they are just two of many.

One particularly nice touch is that each issue has a cover feature: a poem or piece of flash fiction of up to ten lines printed on the back cover. Issue 6's was a compelling little poem by Ella Frears which was an exploration of its own title, the phrase 'Coming Into Your Own'. 

Having sampled the wares, I shall definitely be subscribing to this one.