Sunday, 28 December 2008

A Death In The Family

Yesterday, one of my closest and most beloved family members died. I will write more, in the fullness of time, here, and elsewhere, but not yet.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Eartha Kitt Has Died

Holy Moly Batman! What a week... yet another fabled anti-war protester has died - this time, beloved camp cabaret act, Eartha Kitt, famed for her feline fling as Catwoman. Sad news. Kitt, as singer, actor, and kitsch heroine charmed millions. There is a slight irony in her dying on Christmas day (yesterday) as one of her most famous songs was Santa Baby.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Pinter Is Dead

Not a great week for anti-war writers. Sad news - one of the greatest contemporary playwrights, Harold Pinter, has died.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Adrian Mitchell Has Died

Sad news. The great British poet Adrian Mitchell has died - the "shadow poet laureate". Mitchell was a commited anti-war activist, a brilliant poet and performer, and an exceptionally warm and generous man. He donated his work to both my 100 Poets Against The War anthology, and also Oxfam CD project. I was very sad to learn of his death when I turned on BBC radio this morning. I had thought to stop blogging until January - as per my last post - but the death of such a poet demanded I return. He wrote a final poem a few days back - not knowing its mischievous title would be so oddly apt - and it is delightful - ending so movingly, so playfully. The British poetry world is poorer now that its leading moral compass is gone - though his work remains, to inspire.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

And To All A Goodnight

What a year. Eyewear, for one, is glad to take some time off with family and friends, sit by the yuletide fire, and listen to some sleigh bells - or some such version available in these isles. It's been a time-wasting pleasure to continue this ephemeral blog, and thanks to you, my readers, it makes sense to keep on keeping on doing it. For now. But not anymore, in 2008. The next few weeks belong to deeper magic, the time-tested recourse to seasonal contemplation, festivity, joy, and celebration, that is Christmas. At the peak of the year, at its darkest moments, in its wintry chill - light and warmth and fellow-feeling is both right and good. Then comes a new year. And that too, brings its needful ceremonies. See you then, and there! To paraphrase Les Murray, I wish you God this holiday season. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Love, for a start. And health. Wealth? Bah-humbug! That's proven even more ephemeral, hasn't it?, than blogs.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Has Died

Sad news. Conor Cruise O'Brien - writer, historian, public intellectual, and politician, has died. In some ways, it seems fitting (if nonetheless unwelcome) that his death should coincide with the 400th anniversary of Milton's birth, for O'Brien loved Milton, particularly Paradise Lost.

I have a great memory of spending New Year's Day morning with him, about a decade ago, at a lovely castle in Ireland, reading from that epic poem, with him, his wife the poet, and one of his sons. It remains one of the highlights of my life, to have been welcomed in to his circle of celebration.

A decade before, I had enjoyed his essays, especially on Yeats. His controversial literary opinions included a critique of Yeats as nationalist which profoundly questioned that poet's (quasi-fascist) role as Irish public man. Ireland has lost a troubling, problematic, great figure.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Poem by Katy Evans-Bush

A special Salt Cyclone event today on Katy Evans-Bush's tour of the world wide web. Eyewear is thrilled to be a part of this vivacious poet and blogger's whirlwind virtual voyage.

Katy Evans-Bush (pictured) was born in New York City and has lived in London since she was 19. Her poetry and essays have been published on both sides of the Atlantic. She is a regular contributor to the Contemporary Poetry Review and writes one of the most important British literary blogs, the very popular and always entertaining, Baroque in Hackney. Her debut poetry collection, which Eyewear recommends as one of its books of 2008, is Me and the Dead. Called "stylish, vivacious and darkly hilarious" by the Poetry Book Society, it is published by Salt, one of the significant poetry presses in the UK.

Evans-Bush has always struck me as a true original, one foot in New York, one in London (metaphorically), bestriding the pond with a wonky, warm charisma that has made her loved, and respected, by nearly all the younger generations of British poets now emerging (that is, everyone born since 1960 or so).

I've enjoyed her poetry since I first came across it, and have included it in anthologies, online, and even awarded it an Oxfam national poetry contest prize. If you're looking for a poet who combines a smart sense of style, form, humour, and heart, she's your gal.

A Crack in the Feeling

Broken in their box, quotidian eggs
— date-stamped, unusable. The omelette's off.

An ostrich-egg-in-dome, and plastic grass.
A dino egg, the raptors not drawn right.
These keepsakes can be lifted out of what
was meant to be (that bursting universe).
The robin, just a colour-sample (say
robin's-egg blue, a can of paint) : I never
see them lying cracked upon a path,
it seems too much to hope for now.
it seems too much to hope for now. I like
your eggs arranged in circles on the ground
(the largest first, then smaller outer rings
like planets with unfledged inhabitants
whose language can't be spoken, round a sun
that spreads its light like yolk along the lawn),
duck-eggs, and seven empty pigeon shells
whose hatchlings hang arse-up along a wire.
The ceiling leans toward them like a sky
whose robin's-egg-blue arc has just one fault.
Before your outer galaxy I quail:
its compass points — ambition, comfort, luck,
a ghost, desire — are shifting on the chart.

O egging (over) of my pudding (proof
whereof is where ? I ask). My open mouth.
O germ, O ovoid calm, O heavy world.
My love my love.
This rubber egg : the shtick
a child would use, to beat the laughter out.

poem by Katy-Evans Bush
from Me and The Dead; reprinted with permission of the publisher and author (note this version has a few variant lines due to formatting online)

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Eyewear's Albums of the Year

Long gone is the idea that any one critic can survey the entire mediascape, and determine what is truly "the best" of a period, in a genre. Instead, one can, at best, suggest what one encountered, and how its impact was received - still, an evaluation, but one admittedly provisional and problematic. I no longer even know why I try to put together such lists, but, since I find myself buying a lot of pop / rock / indie albums (I like such music, though less and less), and enjoy sharing the best of these with friends, I thought I'd put forward my not-definitive list of the albums of Eyewear's 2008.

In descending order, here are the ten albums that most delighted, moved, inspired, or thrilled me - as popular recorded music by a band or singer:

Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Portishead - Third
Joe Jackson - Rain
The Verve - Forth
Keane - Perfect Symmetry
Foals - Antidotes
Glasvegas - Glasvegas
Lil' Wayne - Tha Carter III
Madonna - Hard Candy


A few other albums were on my radar, and fill out the top 20, in no order:

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
Kings of Leon - Only By The Night
AC/DC - Black Ice
The Ting Tings - We Started Nothing
Oasis - Dig Out Your Soul
TV On The Radio - Dear Science
Goldfrapp - Seventh Tree
Duffy - Rockferry
Black Kids - Partie Traumatic
Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid


2008, to my mind, created no truly great album (I am sure readers of Eyewear will disagree) - something definitive (then again, I have yet to hear the new Britney Spears). Styles continue to splinter, veer back, pay homage. A few records were mostly disappointments, retreads, or flops, by The Cure, The Killers, Snow Patrol, Coldplay, REM, and Guns N' Roses. It seems a little odd to note that 2009's most-awaited album is by U2. But that will be an event, hopefully.

Dorothy Porter Has Died

Sad news. The Australian performance poet Dorothy Porter has died. The Guardian ran a good obituary on her the other day. I first came across her work when co-editing Short Fuse with Phil Norton, back in '01-02 (the good old days) - we included some of her work in the anthology. She was a major force on the Australian poetry landscape.

Monday, 15 December 2008

John Glassco Born 99 Years Ago Today

One of the most intriguing and cosmopolitan of all Canadian poets is John Glassco - Montreal-born, Paris-forged, and Eastern Townships-retired - whose 99th birthday this would be today (15th December) if he had not died in January, 1981. Lately, some of his prose has come back into the limelight. His centenary will be quickly followed by a biography from Brian Busby that I, for one, cannot wait to read.

This excerpt from "Brummel at Calais" is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because English-French aestheticism and stylishness have always been a part of modern Montreal poetics, much more so than in the rest of Canada. I am surprised that John Ashbery has not written about John Glassco, since in some ways Glassco is a precursor of his, in francophile interest.

An art of being, nothing but being, the grace
Of perfect self-assertion based on nothing,
As in our vanity's cause against the void
He strikes his elegant blow, the solemn report of those
Who have done nothing and will never die.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Ghosts in some machines

The latest Poetry Review is out (Vol. 98:4). There are reviews of Rowan Williams and others by Evan Jones, poems by Alfred Corn and Leah Fritz (among others), and my review of four collections, too. Plus much more, including a new interview by Ben Hickman with John Ashbery where, asked who some of his fave British poets are, he mentions Mark Ford, Jackie Kay, and Peter Robinson; he also observes that being MTV laureate has not increased poetry sales one bit.

Also just in the post, a beautiful-looking issue (#2) of Paxamericana, featuring poems by yours truly, David McGimpsey, Paul Vermeersch and other Canadians. I was also recently in the latest London Magazine, with other poets asked to write about famous British art works. I selected Stand Up! by Sir Terry Frost (2003), the year he died. The new design of the magazine is sort of Beardsley-inspired.

Then there's the latest, stunning Wolf #19, in which my poem "Myth" appears. This Winter 2008 issue is rich with reviews, and poems by, among others, Ruth Padel and Siddhartha Bose. This just a round-up of recent things I've been connected to, publications all deserving of renewed, or new, or ongoing, support during this economic crisis.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Bettie Page Has Died

Sad news. Bettie Page, The Queen of the Pin Ups, and later born-again Christian, has died.

Poem by Rufo Quintavalle

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome Rufo Quintavalle (pictured) to these pages this Friday - especially as I have been publishing his work at Nthposition now for several years, always happily. He was born in London in 1978, studied English at Oxford and the University of Iowa and lives in Paris with his girlfriend, Agnès and daughter, Edda. His poems have appeared in Barrow Street, The Wolf, The London Magazine, Smiths Knoll, Upstairs at Duroc, MiPOesias, and elimae. A chapbook, Make nothing happen, will be published by Oystercatcher Press in 2009.

There is no other contemporary English poet quite like Quintavalle: from his extraordinary name (perhaps the most inherently exciting since "Ezra Pound") to his exotically-imagined, deeply-thoughtful, ruefully witty, and sometimes very brief, poems, to his slightly marginalised location across the Channel, he represents a different current - one that, should he continue to write as well over the next few years, will establish him, one hopes, as a key British poet of the 2010s.

He surely is the sort of poet a publisher like Salt, or eggbox, might want to seriously engage with - for, among other things, his work moves beyond simplistic poetry battles, to keener demarcations - towards a wide open poetry both intelligent and ludic, both linguistically adept and formally capable. He surprises, and pleases, at once.

Milosz in California

We are more than just meat he whispered
to the swimmers at the beach,
but the swimmers mistook his whispering for the wind
and looked for the white foam lifting from the waves.

We are more than just meat he said,
but the swimmers heard eat
came out of the water
and shared out fruit among them.

We are more than just meat he bellowed
from his hill above the sea,
but the swimmers had left and the black waves
laved then uncovered the beach,
and swimmers, waves and beach,
nothing bellowed back.

poem by Rufo Quintavalle

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Indian Poetry Now

Jeet Thayil, the Indian poet, has edited an important new anthology of Indian poetry (in the English tradition), just out from Bloodaxe, a book Eyewear will review in time. Before then, it needs to be said that The Guardian ran a hugely blundering (and borderline offensive) review of the book - a dismissal by other means - on Saturday, an odd act since the UK has been in need of such a collection for more than a decade. I have long believed that the best of Indian English-language contemporary poetry, from the likes of Ranjit Hoskote, Vivek Narayanan, and Sudeep Sen, is among the best of contemporary poetry from anywhere - and its lack of availability, until now, was almost silly, if not sad. So, Thayil should have been thanked first, criticised, if at all, later. Anyway, he's responded.

Guest Review: Paine on S/S/Y/K

Vicky Paine reviews
Stop Sharpening Your Knives (2) – Nine New Poets

The second anthology from the Stop Sharpening Your Knives collective is an attractive, glossy paperback with contributions from nine poets and three artists. A glowing foreword from Lavinia Greenlaw describing the anthology as a 'remarkable gathering of emerging poets', together with admiring back cover blurbs from Hugo Williams and George Szirtes, make this an impressively packaged anthology.

This is all to the good since the point of anthologies of new writers is exposure, a way of building up a poet's profile. A new poet may not be ready for a full-length collection but that isn't to say she's not deserving of a readership. Equally, a poet may be writing to a publishable standard but it is notoriously difficult to convince a reputable publisher to take on a first collection. Poets usually have to complete a sort of informal apprenticeship, publishing in magazines and perhaps in pamphlet form. Anthologies produced by collectives like SSYK, or by universities for creative writing students, are an increasingly common component of this apprenticeship.

The title of this anthology series, Stop Sharpening Your Knives, engages with this idea of exposure and publicity. It preempts a negative response and requests a space for the work to exist, sheltered, as it were, from the knives of the critic. Poets seem particularly prone to wrestling with questions regarding the quality and purpose of their art; you rarely hear a poet declaring themselves to be a genius or even much good. In the March 2008 edition of the online magazine The Roundtable Review, SSYK co-editor Sam Riviere suggests the title 'referred to the feeling that once in a while you can stop being witheringly self-critical and show people what you've been doing.'

Margot Douaihy's "Shorts" is a playful imagining of poems as characters: 'So what if your poem turns up in shorts [...] when the other poems don tuxes'. She combines a laidback humour with elegant imagery: 'Tell your poem it's ok to [...] see beauty everywhere, even in the barrel of a gun,/ hollow as a throat. Anything hollow can sing.' Douaihy's poems are beautifully controlled, but she might want to consider varying her tone as four of her six poems are in second-person and two are a series of commands.

Jack Underwood co-edits SSYK and was awarded an Eric Gregory Award in 2007. His poems show deft handling of both ideas and language: 'Your horse/ has arrived and is bending himself into the room,/ refolding his legs. I knuckle his nose,/ which reminds me of the arms of a chair.' The comparison of the horse's nose with the chair is gracefully handled and the gentle humour is tinged with sadness of love as a memory: 'We are crunching on polo mints together/ and remembering the way your body used to move.' It would be good to see his imagination tested by formal constraints, not necessarily strict poetic forms, but simply by writing more often in stanzas of equal length for example, to build up a sense of rhythm and control.

Robert Herbert's poems are concerned with location and communication and he uses the sounds of words to create pleasing aural effects. In his sonnet "Being in two places at once" repeated enjambment softens the impact of the end rhymes and these sounds resonate throughout the poem, emphasising the echoes between the two places in the speaker's mind. Just occasionally his lines are too much of a mouthful, for example, the first line in "The Solitude Suicides" which reads, 'One mid summer, the hot high noon light hit'.

Hayley Buckland makes use of a wide vocabulary, revelling in the sound of scientific words: 'in a circus/ of atriums, ventricles,/tricuspid valves,/ interventricular/ septums'. 'The Crèche' uses rather typical poetic subject matter - looking at old photos - but her language is fresh, describing spider plants as 'spilling their babies' and old furniture 'like ancient Victorian/ nannies'.

The sonnet's flexibility and brevity provide a structure that poets still find stimulating. Tim Cockburn's sonnet "A Rave in North Norfolk" uses sophisticated syntax - his final sentence stretches for nine lines – to slow the poem down and make detailed observations of the stragglers sleeping in the restored calm. In other poems he takes his time over images, for example: 'the redirected Anglepoise/rendering bluish that fridge-blank stare', but he uses such precise language that he avoids sounding overly descriptive and builds up a meticulous and emotionally-charged poetic landscape.

Matthew Gregory's poems consist of large blocks of text only sometimes broken into still chunky stanzas. This means it is easy to read his poems too quickly and miss the wonderful images which come thick and fast, for example, 'the yuccas in the lounge, crest-fallen', a mobile phone vibrating 'in your palm/ like a trapped moth,' or a body under a duvet as, 'mountainous/and foreign as the cloudscape/ under an airplane.' A little more space would let these images to linger and also allow the poet to see where a few judicious cuts could be made in order to focus the poems a little more.

Agnes Lehoczky pushes images until they become distorted and strange,starting with 'from the receiver sea gulls are pouring out' until she is 'stuff[ing] the gulls, my couriers, into the phone'. She declares that 'lips need to be elastic slugs in the act of androgynous love', a delightfully bold line, but at times her poems seem in need of paring down, of needing a choice between two or more images. She also needs to consider the musicality of her language and in some places work to push the rhythms further away from those of prose.

Co-editor Sam Riviere, commended in the 2005 New Writing ventures and awarded second prize in this year's Poetry London competition, gravitates towards narrative poetry. Some poems like "The Kiss" are rather too anecdotal but when he plays with language, for example his use of unexpected words - hookers 'aerobicize' and underarms are 'mallowy' – and uses grammatical concision - 'instead/ of a flowers he carried/ that thug's bald child' - his work is lifted from the anecdotal to poetry worth savouring.

Nathan Hamilton often seems to save his best lines for the last lines, for example, 'The absent speak louder,/ keep conversation short' and in the final poem, 'Another chapter closing too quickly/ on the fourth floor; brutal/ and miserably rigged.' Sometimes he can lean too heavily on description but when his images are simple, for example, 'road-stuck fur' or 'a sorry gob of junk' they are all the more powerful for their straightforwardness.

If the point of these anthologies is exposure for new poets then I hope this one does its job. The editors, commendable poets themselves, have selected contributors united by an interest in language and excited by its possibilities. Their subject matter is diverse but contemporary, mostly avoiding cliché and predictability. I for one am glad that the SSYK editors decided to 'show people what they've been doing'; I hope they don't find my critical knife too sharp.

Vicky Paine is a writer based in Scotland and recently won the McLellan Poetry Award.

Monday, 8 December 2008

The Wolf 19 Launched Tonight

The Wolf #19 launches at The Poetry Studio (upstairs from Poetry Cafe) on Monday 8th December at 22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden. 8.30pm sharp.

Readers on the night to include Ruth Padel, Todd Swift, Clare Pollard, Sandeep Parmar, Evan Jones and Michael McKimm.

The launch of Zeppelins

Those in the know in London and beyond will want to be at the Zeppelins launch Tuesday 9th December, 7-10pm at The Rose, 35 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7TL. Chris McCabe's new collection, from Salt, promises to be one of the better books by a new poet of this decade. I've included McCabe in my Manhattan Review section on The Young British Poets, as I believe in his writing. The launch will also feature readings from fellow Salters and excellent poets Simon Barraclough and Luke Kennard - so much to enjoy.

The Life and Death of Henry Reed

The very fine British poet, Henry Reed, author of A Map of Verona, died 22 years ago today, 8 December, 1986. He has yet to entirely get his due, since he is one of those poets whose work was mainly done in the 1940s, something of a Sargasso Sea when it comes to wrecked reputations. Still, his poetry is beginning to come out of the despond, and Carcanet does a Collected Poems now. Reed is intriguing for any number of reasons, but fans of codes and cyphers may want to know he worked at Bletchley Park during WWII.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

12 Poets of December Now Online at Nthposition

The critical faculty of the poet, The poet's body, A rooftop in Marseilles, Soft as a dewdrop rests her sex on me & Slowly the moon
by Sebastian Barker
Girl, I have the words & Of uncreation
by G B Clarkson
by Sophie McGrath
There is no cure
by Shane Neilson
Milestone & Heron
by Gill McEvoy
Extended family
by Anselm Brocki
Tag & North
by Alex Pryce
Picture problems & Invitation
by Amy Walter
A rhyming reflection on the one-sided heritage of Eros in the Western literary tradition & Sweet-toothed
by Bethan Tichborne
Modern life II & Depiction of heaven as a virgin forest
by Virginia Konchan
Dockyard doomette
by Adham Smart
The illustrator & Swimmers in open water
by Rebecca Farmer

Milton and Morrisons

The Guardian has a timely leader today reminding England that one of its greatest poets, Milton, is about to have a 400th "birthday" this December - and is in danger of becoming unread, untaught, and underappreciated.

At first, this might seem an improbable complaint, yet, reading the latest issue of The London Magazine (celebrating 276 years), I came across the following from poet-novelist Tobias Hill on the subject of poetic diction: "Ian MacMillan has a good line on this: don't put any word into a poem you wouldn't use in Morrisons [a store]; to do otherwise is as odd as popping out to the corner shop in a Shakespearean ruff".

Eyewear likes a bit of ruff. All of British poetry's current problems can be traced to such an attitude (one even more crudely anti-modernist, and anti-Renaissance, than anything Larkin ever came up with). MacMillan's offhand poetics of normalcy contains so many blandly buried assumptions it is startling: because, depending on what language one speaks, what gender, or race, or class, or nation, one speaks from, or belief system, one is likely to want to use different words in a corner shop. For MacMillan, an "ordinary bloke", poetry is about the down-to-earth, local, and unnassuming language of commerce. This is as far from the rhetorically rich, deeply-informed, and resonant, language of Milton as possible.

England's poets, today, often as not, are afraid to use the "mandarin tone" - favouring instead a laddish "democractic voice" - terms from Armitage and Crawford - the voice, it must be said, of the less-literate, and the less-thoughful, many. Milton was, clearly, a religious, deep-thinking, highly-engaged human being, perhaps a little elitist, who loved the full resources of language - sort of like Robert Lowell, or Geoffrey Hill. In the UK today, current poetic taste has drifted from Lowell (except insofar as he was Heaney's friend), and is mainly indifferent to Hill (seen as difficult and OTT).

So long as "poetic diction" is constrained by nonliterary social demands - the need to be normal, and like everyone else (not "odd") - then poetry resists being strange, eccentric, flamboyant, and deeply exciting in new and unimagined ways. To be embarassed to try on a little of Shakespeare's clothing, from time to time, is to be less than a full poet.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Poem by Jenny Pagdin

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome the poet Jenny Pagdin (pictured) to its pages this Friday. I first met Pagdin when she was studying at The Poetry School (well, before then, we were introduced to each other by the American-Canadian poet Eric Ormsby). Since then, I have followed the development of her work with some interest.

Her earlier poems, of three or four years ago, were small, complex works, combining near-scientific observation with sensuous, sometimes erotic, emotionality - all wound tight with brilliant diction. Her new work, it appears to me, is opening up, and growing in stature as it assays traditional forms, in surprising ways, sometimes employing more colloquial, and directly sexual, or personal, themes.

Pagdin is completing the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. In between times, she works as a charity fundraiser in Norwich. Her poetry has appeared in magazines including Nthposition, Agenda, Dream Catcher and The Frogmore Papers. Do expect a very fine collection from her in the next few years.


The cool ones then are cool no longer,
The beauties faded pretty soon
But that was no consolation at the time,
When your place in the league table was all.

The beauties faded pretty soon
But when we were fourteen
And our place in the league table was everything
We weren’t to know that.

When we were fourteen
And everyone had an eating disorder
We were not to know that
All of us hated our bodies.

Everyone had an eating disorder,
A body top and a lumber jack shirt.
We all of us hated our bodies
And wanted a blonde, crispy perm.

In our body tops and lumber jack shirts
We got thrown out of Boots for opening the bottles.
We wanted blonde, crispy perms:
They were having none of it.

We got thrown out of Boots every Saturday:
Lilac eyeshadow was the most popular
But they were having none of it
And we couldn’t afford even one.

Lilac was the most popular eyeshadow.
If we’d not heard the latest james or Brian May
Then we couldn’t afford anyone to see
- And nothing would ever beat Bon Jovi’s lips.

If we’d not heard the latest james or Brian May
If we had our ties on properly, or our skirts not rolled up
Still, nothing could beat Bon Jovi’s lips
Or sleeping under a Ryan Giggs duvet.

With our ties on properly, our skirts unrolled,
We looked much younger.
We slept under Ryan Giggs duvet covers.
And wallpaper collaged from magazines.

We looked much younger without the makeup.
We aspired to A2 art folders, to drinks in cafes
And wallpaper collaged from magazines.
But the tuck shop sold wham bars and irn bru and whispas.

We aspired to art folders, to drinks in cafes,
But the canteen sold jackets and plastic cups of cheese.
The tuck shop, wham bars and irn bru and whispas
And the cloakroom had rows of River Island bags.

The canteen had its jackets and plastic cups of cheese
Matron dispensed pills, hot water bottles.
The cloakroom was full of River Island bags.
And buses were the place to meet boys

Matron dispensed pills, hot water bottles,
We wore netball skirts and sports knickers
And buses were the place to meet boys
- Boys we kissed against the six-foot fence.

In our netball skirts and sports knickers,
Some of us attracted attention
From boys - pressed up close against the six-foot fence -
We knew through casual unions.

Some of us attracted attention….
It was no consolation at the time,
But I know from casual reunions since
The cool ones then are cool no longer.

poem by Jenny Pagdin

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


Boomslang two is out, edited by poet Kate Noakes. She's looking for submissions for #3: email her at kate dot noakes at googlemail dot com. I am sure she will gladly sell you a copy via that contact address too. I have four new poems in the issue, happily. It's a very little magazine, just starting out, so do support it.

New Styles of Architecture

What's wrong with Britain? Prince Charles? Modern buildings? Modernism and modernity tend to be associated with things people like to be associated with, in most Western countries - indeed, modern art, modern love, and modern poetry inspire great affection. Not in England, at least where the Prince and his allies are concerned.

Canada In Crisis

You wouldn't know it from the BBC, or the British media, but, Canada is undergoing its gravest (and most intriguing) political crisis since its foundation, in 1867. In a nutshell, the very recently elected (rightwing) Conservatives face a no-confidence vote that will see them replaced by a grand coalition of all the other three main parties in the House, led by the Liberals - a major switcheroo that is all the harder to stomach, for many, since one of the parties is the Canada-despising Bloc Quebecois. However, there is a long tradition of such Upper / Lower Canada shenanigans. The Governor General will decide next week, or sooner, whether this can go ahead.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

December Oxfam Poetry Fundraiser Tonight!

DECEMBER 2, 2008, OXFAM Reading
7-9 pm
8 poets in 80 Minutes
91 Marylebone High Street
London W1


Niall McDevitt performed in various Ken Campbell productions including the 24-hour play THE WARP, a sex education play for children WE DON'T TALK ABOUT IT, and a Melanesian version of Shakespeare PIDGIN MACBETH. His poems have been published in Poetry Ireland, The Wolf, The London Magazine, and broadcast on Radio 3, Radio 4, RTE1 and Resonance FM. His poem 'Off-Duty' was winner of BBC Radio 3's THE VERB Urban Poetry Competition in 2005. He leads Blake/Rimbaud/Yeats and other poetry walks in London.

David Prater's publications include The Happy Farang (2000), We Will Disappear (2007) and Morgenland (2007). He is the editor of online poetry journal Cordite ( and also maintains an Internet home page ( He has performed at various Australian and international poetry festivals and currently lives in The Hague.

Julian Stannard teaches at the University of Winchester. He is the author of Rina's War and The Red Zone (Peterloo Poets), and his writing has appeared variously in the Guardian, TLS, Sunday Telegraph, Poetry Review and The PN Review. He was recently a Bogliasco Fellow in Poetry at the Ligurian Study Centre, Italy.

Peter Robinson published a new collection, The Look of Goodbye: Poems 2001-2008 (Shearsman), at the beginning of this year. His translation, The Greener Meadow: Selected Poems of Luciano Erba (Princeton), was awarded the John Florio Prize in September. In the next twelve months or so he will publish Poetry & Translation: The Art of the Impossible (Liverpool) and Spirits of the Stair: Selected Aphorisms (Shearsman). He is Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Reading.



Joe Dunthorne's debut novel, Submarine, is published by Hamish Hamilton. It was shortlisted for the Bollinger Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. He was the winner of the Curtis Brown prize in 2006. His poetry's been read on Radio 3 and 4, Channel 4 and published in Poetry Review, Magma and the New Welsh Review.

Nancy Mattson lives in London, where she moved in 1990 from the Canadian prairies. Her first poetry collection, Maria Breaks Her Silence (Regina: Coteau 1989), published in Saskatchewan, was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for best first book of poetry in Canada. Her second collection is Writing with Mercury (Hexham: Flambard 2006). She is one of five poets in Take Five 06 (Nottingham: Shoestring 2006). In 2007 she was a Poetry Fellow at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. She co-organizes Poetry in the Crypt in Islington.

Philip Hancock. Born Newchapel, Stoke-on-Trent. Poems in magazines including: Magma; Nthposition; The North; Orbis; Other Poetry; Oxford Magazine; Poetry London; The Poetry Paper (Aldeburgh Poetry Festival 2007); The Rialto; The Spectator; Smoke; Smiths Knoll and Tears in the Fence. Philip was selected for the Jerwood Aldeburgh Seminar and read at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival 2007. A debut pamphlet is due later this year.

A.F. Harrold has published two collections of poetry (Logic & the Heart (2004) and Of Birds & Bees (2008)) and two collections of comic entertainments (Postcards From The Hedgehog (2007) and The Man Who Spent Years In The Bath (2008)). He often works as a performance poet and a cabaret artiste, as well as a man prepared to do just about anything with words for almost any amount of money. Among other things this year he was Poet-in-Residence for the Glastonbury Festival's website, which involved very little mud, thank goodness.

Niall McDevitt (Christmas ending - 3 Geoffrey Hill poems set to music)

Monday, 1 December 2008

Auteur Dreary?

News that the world's most French, most prestigious, and most pretentious film magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, has neglected to list a single "British" film in its top 100 has put the British critics and pundits into apoplexies of Blimp-like consternation. What?!!! No Powell and Pressburger? No Lean? No Reed? How dare they? In fact, there are several British auteurs in the list - Hitchcock and Laughton make the top ten; Chaplin is also there. Given that the magazine's perspective is on director, not nation of production, this should limit the insult. Still, Carol Reed's The Third Man is, frankly, one of the greatest films, and should be there. So too, I think, should Black Narcissus. Still, it is good to see "Kane" still at number one, 67 years on. Given how Welles died thinking himself a failure, that's a moving tribute.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Jorn Utzon Has Died

Sad news. One of the 20th century's architectural geniuses has died - Jorn Utzon, the controversial force behind Australia's most famous building, the Sydney Opera House - arguably, in terms of its surprising shapes, a precursor to the Gehry style.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Poetry and religion

There is something dispiriting - literally - about Nick Laird's latest column in this weekend's Guardian Review (the Review lists Tuesday's Oxfam event in London, by the way, and also features a best of the year book roundup, which might be of interest to readers of Eyewear) - in how he discusses his lost faith - and subsequent attempt to find it in poetry. Faith isn't just lost. Faith is like a radio that needs to be constantly tuned - sometimes, the faintest signals of possibility can be detected, at other times, it is all a fuzz.

When one entirely loses faith, one is in a sense saying something about the human soul: that there isn't one. Otherwise, if one still believed that, then not all would be lost. Nihilism and poetry reached an exquisite dead-end in the darkly fascinating morgues and flesh of Gottfried Benn. Laird, though, seeks to argue that poetry can replace, even supplant religion - not a new thought, surely. Keats thought this. Wallace Stevens exemplified it. And Heaney continues the modern-romantic quest to achieve epiphany in the world, not beyond it. So too, does Ashbery, in abstract indeterminate ways. Most poets these days are atheists, or non-God-types, who place a lot of store in pure poetry, to achieve the lift-off their discarded faith (or religion) can no longer supply.

Poetry, though, is not a sturdy belief system, nor does it supply the constant sources of wisdom, warmth, and illumination, that a religious, or spiritual, belief system can. Poetry, in the occult hands of a Yeats, has immense symbolic resources, and can yield extraordinary instances of illumination (Bloom speaks of such sublime instances in Emerson, or Whitman) - but poetic visions are rarely sustainable coherent systems capable of assisting one through all of life's natural cycles of joy and grief.

Lord knows, poets try. Poetry, however, is a handmaid to religion - as in the work of later Donne, or Hopkins. Poetry finds words for things that may not have words beforehand. But it isn't those things, itself. Beyond language: a mystery. In that mystery, perhaps, a God. I wish Laird well on his journey to map a search, with science and language as his guides. One day, the poet who seeks a new religion may find an old faith waiting for him, where his journey began.

Guest Review: Benson on Evaristo

Dzifa Benson reviews
Blonde Roots
by Bernardine Evaristo

When the television series adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots came out in 1977, I watched it with the scalp shifting horrified fascination that I imagine many people, black and white, watched too. Since then, I have read and seen many other books, films and television documentaries about the iniquities of slavery. Some of it has been documented in grossly minute detail – the floggings, rapes, amputations, the Middle Passage, the savagery, the exploitation, the humiliation – they are all very well known these days. All have been disturbing to take in but nothing has been quite as shocking since that initial jolt Roots ministered. It was difficult to imagine how slavery’s sorry history could be rendered afresh in art.

In what is perhaps a homage to Haley’s Roots (surely the title can’t be a coincidence?) the ever inventive Bernardine Evaristo’s new book and first novel entirely in prose, Blonde Roots, does make you consider that dark period of history in a new way. Here, the very Swiftian ‘what if?’ premise is a simple but audacious one – turn the slave trade on its head, imagine a world in which Africans enslaved Europeans for 400 years instead of the other way round and while you’re at it, make sure you mix it up geographically too. ‘Aphrika’ sits in Europe’s place, and ‘Europa’ in Africa’s. Off the coast of Aphrika is the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa, with its capital, Londolo whose districts include, Mayfah, To Ten Ha Ma and Brixtane. And where we expect the Caribbean, we find the West Japanese Islands. It puts me in mind of the African proverb “until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” But Evaristo, who is half Nigerian and half English, is not trying to score points for blacks against whites. The overarching thrust of the message in Blonde Roots is that we are no different from one another with regards to culpability and susceptibility, an idea that is encapsulated in the quotation from Nietzche in the preface, ‘All things are subject to interpretation: whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.’ Evaristo is making an important point about the way in which an excess of power corrupts and distorts human nature.

Our heroine, Doris Scagglethorpe, comes from 'a long line of cabbage farmers' in the north of feudal England where life is hard and she and her family are in serfdom to the local squire. One day, while playing hide and seek with her sisters, she is seized by her own countrymen, taken to a slave market near the coast and thrown on to a ship, where she lies on a shelf in the stinking hold and learns the reality of a slave's day to day existence during the Middle Passage. I n the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa, the most powerful country on the Aphrikan continent, she is enslaved by Bwana, also known as Chief Kaga Konata Katamba whose slaves are branded with his initials, KKK. The book is divided into three parts, the first and third narrated by Doris with the second by Bwana.

Evaristo’s background is in poetry and her language mixes contemporary argot and features such as ‘glamazons’, ‘wiggers’ and even idlers gathering in Coasta Coffee with the startling, precise imagery and emotionally wrought lyricism of poetry which is most apparent in Doris’ drily comic tone. In fact, language becomes a source of comedy in the last part of the novel, when Doris, having been thwarted in her first attempt at escape, is banished to plantations in the hinterland of West Japanese islands, falling in with a community of slaves who were born into slavery and learning their patois. As with the heroine Zuleika in Evaristo’s novel in verse, The Emperor’s Babe, Doris is feisty and faces her fate with an unflinching lack of self-pity. And just like in The Emperor’s Babe, Evaristo relishes meshing past time frames with contemporary vernacular in an anachronistic narrative structure. It’s interesting that Evaristo makes no reference to time at all making the novel atemporal and disorientating and therefore challenging.

While the parts narrated by Doris are undoubtedly the emotional anchor of the story, it is in the middle part, where we get to hear Bwana speak that carries the intellectual heft of the novel. In a bid to better himself as a young man, he visits Europa but finds himself appalled by its backwardness and savagery, its ‘Heart of Greyness’ and even more repulsed by an Aphrikan who has gone native in a clear reference to notions of race vis a vis intelligence raised by Joseph Conrad’s novel. Bwana, who comes off like an old Etonian finds that:

The Caucasoi is unable to calculate mental arithmetic beyond what they call their ‘ten times table’. Because the Caucasoinid brain is so stunted, it has also naturally led to somewhat blunted emotions. Along with the beasts of burden who work the fields, the Caucasoi is incapable of acute emotionality because, due to its Neo-Primate state, it is but a few steps up from the animal kingdom with its primary preoccupations of Perambulate, Agitate, Capitulate, Somnambulate, Ejaculate, Procreate, Masticate, Procrastinate and Hibernate.

Nor, when the Caucasoi receives physical ‘pain’, does he suffer in the same way as me and thee. Beating the hide of a Caucasoi is more akin to beating the hide of a camel to make it go faster. Be not hoodwinked into thinking that the blood shed and the skin torn of the Caucasoi is a crime against humanity, no matter how much they shed crocodile tears to convince the gullible among you otherwise.
Surely even you diehard liberals are by now doubting your old verities?
…To put it in simple terms, the Caucasoinid breed is not of our kind.

Earlier in the novel, Doris herself notes that: 'I could see how the Ambossans had hardened their hearts to our humanity. They convinced themselves that we do not feel as they do, so that they do not have to feel anything for us. It’s very convenient and lucrative for them.'

And as the novel winds to its conclusion, Evaristo is interested in looking at the social consequences of the trade. Nose-flattening jobs are affordable and tanning salons abound. Young ‘whyte’ men working on the plantations begin to talk about women of their kind as ‘hos and bitches’. Their black ‘massas’ read books with titles such as Healing your Inner Child, Planter Chic: Master of Taste and Beyond the Colonial: 100 Inspired Ideas for Your Home. Perceptions of beauty are completely subverted when we hear stringy, flaxen locked Doris herself describe in vivid detail her people's inferiority issues about belonging to the alleged physically, intellectually and morally debased ‘whyte’ race – ‘naturally, having whyte skin was all the evidence the sheriffs needed to accost a young man and strip-search him.’ It is a world in which even your name is not your own, perhaps the ultimate means by which an oppressor can suppress and obliterate identity and culture.

Cleverly, Evaristo shows admirable control over the story, restraining herself from allowing the reasonable anger engendered by her tale to boil over into a rant about the horrors of the trade. Certainly, the biting wit helps to leaven the pathos but ultimately, this is the sad and finally redemptive story of a teenage girl.

Dzifa Benson is a poet, writer and performer based in London.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Poem by Sampurna Chattarji

Eyewear is delighted to welcome Sampurna Chattarji (pictured) this Friday. Born in Dessie, Ethiopia in 1970, Chattarji is an award-winning poet, fiction writer and translator.

Her books include The Greatest Stories Ever Told (fiction) and Abol Tabol: The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray (translation) both published by Penguin India. Her poetry has featured on Hong Kong Radio; in the international documentary Voices in Wartime; in First Proof: The Penguin Book of New Writing from India 2; Fulcrum Four: Fifty-six Indian Poets (1951-2005) and Imagining Ourselves, an anthology released by the International Museum of Women (IMOW) in San Francisco; as well as in Indian and international journals such as Wasafiri, nthposition, Slingshot, The Little Magazine and Chandrabhaga. Sampurna is an Executive Committee Member of the PEN All-India Centre, Mumbai, and on the Editorial Board of its journal, Penumbra.

Her first book of poems Sight May Strike You Blind has been published (January, 2007) by the Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters. I first met her through the 100 Poets Against The War work I did in 2003-04 (she submitted poems that were in the anthology), and we had tea in London's Marylebone, and talked of many things, a year or so ago, as she travelled through on her way back home. She's very talented, and deserves to be widely read. I hope that, in time, the work of her generation of Indian poets, who write in English, will be better known (and more widely published) in Britain, and beyond.


of the earth,
all subtlety dies
with a pinch too much.
You taste freedom,
the knife-edge on your teeth.

Faceless men eat saltless food
in a north-western frontier town.
You cannot eat the salt of a man
you might one day need
to kill.
A blood-feud bursts,
froth at the corner of your mouth.

It kills you one grain at a time.
You crave it cold
crusted on a glass
a leech of lemon on your lip.
In hard times a bite of chilli and salt.
In good times a bite of chilli. And salt.

Then one day,
tired of domesticity,
you turn into a pillar.
No looking back now.
Your saline gaze fills oceans.
You melt into tears
warm and salt on my tongue.

poem by Sampurna Chattarji


Terror knows no bounds, is an attempt at boundless contempt for society's limits. It appeals, therefore, to those who believe that limits are wrong, or currently are of the wrong shape - paradoxically, many who enact terror desire more, not less, limit. Yet they work in chaos who desire a new order. Mumbai, a great city of the world, is currently facing a new kind of freewheeling madness and cruelty that makes artistic depictions of the urban same, in films (like the recent Batman) jejeune and false. What is being expressed in these terrifying acts is that free agents of ruthless determination can move at will through serious cities, nearly unhindered - yet ultimately, hindered. That battles are still raging, more than 24 hours after the initial attacks, is alarming. Anarchy, it now appears, can appear anywhere, in even the midst of great civilisations, and establish small failed states. The 21st century is falling apart. Obama can only do so much, and most of the world seems to be tearing itself to bits.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Is comment free?

The Guardian has a slogan online: "comment is free". Too true. I've noticed, lately, that sometimes articles appear (in print) in The Guardian, and other papers, a few days after the same ideas, even phrases, and images, have circulated, freely, in (on?) the blogosphere - including, a few times, at Eyewear.

Most recently, today, columnist Mark Lawson has a piece on the poet laureate, referencing John Sergeant, Obama (not normally two subjects linked, I'd have thought) and other comments that strongly echo my post of a few days back on the same subject. Coincidence? Surely.

However, bloggers are doing a lot of the unpaid gruntwork these days, it seems to me, for the "professional" media commentariat, and, since we all know (from plagiarism cases on campus) that "Googling" can get results, fast, it is surely time that some credit is due, when whole arguments or themes are lifted, verbatim, from popular blogs.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Woolworths Not Worth Much

Sad news. Woolworths, the original "five and dime" store, and one of my earliest childhood memories (buying red licorice there) has gone bust. The UK is entering a new phase, then, of its economic crisis.

Golly G?

Brian Campbell has an interesting post on some alledged weirdness over in Canada re its top poetry prize. Judges in cahoots with a winning poet? Nah, no way - and never in the UK!

Review: Chinese Democracy

Eyewear grows old. It wears its trousers rolled, and stuffs fingers in its ears when listening to Axl Rose.

Chinese Democracy is both eponymous and oxymoronic, and, bloated. This review commits a sin - that of refusing to listen to the whole before judging the parts. The parts are tediously overwrought, overlong, and overloud. Mr. Rose, who inspired Nirvana and much else that came in the 90s, in the wake of his revival of hardcore rock, has an exquisite wail, and a voice to reckon with. He is a rawk gawd.

That is enough to make this 14-song album an event, and a disaster - as in Titanic. No album should have a song called "Prostitute" and be in the hands of children. Or is that too moral? At any rate, AC/DC's recent foray into the black ops of heavy metal, Black Ice, was good dirty fun, and never took itself without a tongue in someone's cheek. This cheeky CD, though, is a Rose that stinks.

Guest Review: Horton on Bird

Christopher Horton reviews
Hannah and the Monk
by Julia Bird

In Hannah and the Monk, Julia Bird’s first book, almost nothing is as it first appears. One example is "Clip", which if it begins with the bright optimism of any typical Hollywood road movie, ends with the kind of dark catastrophe more in keeping with a bleak David Lynch thriller. When a couple who had been ‘necking Americanly in the front seat of a Cadillac…a Buick’ are unceremoniously killed by ‘a swarm of stockfootage’ the tone quickly changes and it becomes apparent we have been cunningly misled.

Indeed, throughout the book, Bird exposes the limitations of narrative by consistently denying us the happy ending we may unconsciously desire. Her brief short film poems – of which there are five threaded throughout the book – similarly subvert the conventional storyline. In "Short Film", for example, a man who seems to be taking his first driving lesson is about to freewheel into his own mother or at least this is strongly inferred: ‘Through the windscreen’s/ frame he could see the porch step, his mother from the waist/ down, milk bottles full of air.’

But if Bird is adept at undercutting and revising the reader’s narrative expectations, she also has the uncanny ability to summon up a killer image. "Fire in a Crowded Theatre", like "Clip", refuses to provide us with a happy ending, instead winning the reader over with its central conceit. The fire that threatens to engulf the theatre becomes, in itself, a performance so that the ‘half dressed stars’ come to see the inferno as ‘the plot of this play’.

Throughout the book there is the sense in which Bird is playing with the reader and, whilst this could possibly be wearing if carried out by a lesser talent, she pulls it off well. So well in fact, that we even excuse her indulgencies - a number of the poems are the end product of word games ("Prelude 1" uses the vocabulary of the fridge magnet poetry kit). One reason for this is her clear enjoyment of language and her willingness to extend the imagination as far as it will go.

But Bird is also able to persuade the reader of her cause. In "Article of Faith", for instance, she alludes to the continuity of past to present. Citing a number of infamous and historical happenings, she writes ‘articles of these are sherbert in our throats’ and by the time we get to the last two lines ‘Do you believe it too? / Breath if you do’, the reader is prepared to put aside what might, in reality, be a well founded scepticism and join with her.

If Bird’s box of tricks enables her to convince us of practically anything, it is her humour that keeps us charmed. Even in those poems which appear initially more conventional, such as "The Animals Went in Two by Two" and "The World’s Population Visits the Isle of Wight", there is a subtle, gently mocking tone. This is the poet again enjoying the act of writing, revelling in the fun of the fantastical. In "The World’s Population Visits the Isle of Wight", she poses the question ‘could you get the world’s population on the Isle of Wight?’ The answer is perfectly judged and to comedic effect: ‘They fit. There’s some doubling up in the B&Bs/ but the landladies juggled the kitchen shifts.’

This is also a collection with a great deal of technical merit. Whilst it would be overstating it to label her a formalist, Bird is someone who clearly takes time to count the beats. "Covent Garden", possibly the best-worked and most entrancing of the poems in the collection, seems to possesses a kind of symmetry through its tight metre, brief asides and treatment of speech. In the poem a chance meeting becomes more a test of the boundaries of love that perhaps infers the poets’ own trepidation in defining that feeling. It is the sense of longing ‘underneath the moon and planes in tiny triangles of sky’ that endures.

"Covent Garden" is an example of a poem that hooks and draws the reader in. Our interest is in the experience but also what it seemingly tells us about the poet. Where Hannah and the Monk perhaps falls short is that it fails to do this more frequently. We learn very little about the poet throughout the collection and whilst this is by no means a call for self-indulgence, there is a sense in which we are left partially unfulfilled, craving more biographical hints and greater insight. As such the book oddly does not always feel to be the sum of its parts and although there are some outstanding stand-alone poems, it is hoped that in subsequent collections the poet may delve a little deeper. That aside, this is a book that confirms Bird as a real talent with tremendous potential.

Christopher Horton is a London-based poet.

Monday, 24 November 2008

8 Poets in 80 Minutes for Oxfam Christmas Fundraiser

at 91 Marylebone High Street,
December 2, 7 pm

AF Harrold
Peter Robinson
Phil Hancock
David Prater
Nancy Mattson
Joe Dunthorne
Niall McDevitt
Julian Stannard

Public Poet Wanted?

Odd news. The next British Poet Laureate will be selected in a bizarre mix of academic and public polling (which may yield cross-purpose results). This may not be the great Obama moment that seems intended - democracy and poetry don't always mix well, since the vast majority of people don't understand the value or purpose of poetry extends beyond voicing 19th century sentiment in rhyming couplets. Nor is new poetry merely rap, though Eyewear likes Lil Wayne. Should the winner be a dynamic, talented, personable and decent poet, like Simon Armitage, or a brilliant, important contemporary figure like Carol Ann Duffy, all will be well. Maybe Prynne could win. However, the selection process might just as easily yield a John Sergeant type, a favourite plucked from mediocrity to challenge artsy-fartsy (perceived) notions (though past laureates were often bland anyway). I feel the Ivory Tower is about to be shaken. What next, choose the Archbishop of Canterbury by phone-in?

10,000 Hours To Be A Poet?

I heard Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian guru, on the BBC today, citing an idea from his new book on successful persons (though this idea has been kicking around for a while): namely, it takes 10,000 hours to master the skills of something, from football to math, to music - so, Mozart is not born, just given more time to practice. In poetry this explains hard-working Pound (or Yeats), but not quite young guns like Rimbaud, or Keats. Creative wrting, as a methodology, begins to make more sense when seen in such a context though - as the valuable space in which the mind can continue to do what it must for its art.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Poem by Aleah Sato

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Aleah Sato (pictured) to its Friday Feature.

Sato spent her twenties traveling across the United States, and, in 2002, moved to Toronto. Her writing explores secrets and society. Much of Sato's work seeks to expose the tyranny of dualistic thinking and its impact on our relationship with nature and each other. Her poems have appeared in numerous print and electronic publications, including Wicked Alice, Nthposition, Blue Fifth Review and Eclectica. She is the author of Badlands, No Peaceful Sleep, and Extinct.

Nine Years

I am happy here. It doesn't say so but I am sure
it was happiness. The sun shining on our white
skirts and sneakers. Two cats in tow. We always liked dogs
but the cats held secrets. I am smiling like I don't know
what is happening. Behind my head, there's a vague figure of a man
tinkering on a truck. It seems as if he's laughing. I could be wrong
but I am sure it was something like laughing.

The other girl was my sister. She is grown and married now.
She has kids of her own. Between us, two countries
emerge and dissolve. We always liked the country songs
no one sings anymore. We were pretend
Patsy Cline. I am on the phone with her. Now not then.
She says her house is on fire. My hands are made of water.
We are too far apart to combine the two.

Sister, if I knew that age nine was the end of innocence,
what would I have said to you? Could we run out of pictures,
dislodge the bodies? Like the part of us being photographed,
stripped by summer, is here or blown apart. The shoulder.
The skirts. The brown truck and pant legs panting. It connects
the dots, the bones to this, you know, and it is not the happiness
we thought. And it never will be.

poem by Aleah Sato

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Simmonds Goes From Strength to Strength!

Congrats to Kathryn Simmonds, UEA graduate and a rising star of British poetry - she's just been shortlisted for The Costa, for the "most enjoyable" poetry book of the year. Probably so, hers is a superb collection, which rightly won the Forward prize recently, but who shortlists for this? Surely Katy Evans-Bush, or some other Salt poet, should have also been on that list, too.

Bingham and Kendall

It surely must be a footnote to history: even as Lord Bingham, formerly Britain's top legal mind, considers the war on Iraq illegal, poetry critics like Tim Kendall argue that the 2003 opposition to the war, by British poets, was merely fashionable, likely futile, probably aesthetically nugatory, and, finally, ultimately hypocritical, even self-serving. While America has elected an anti-Iraq war president, Britain, with its limited democracy, resists any public inquiry into the mess; and, its most conservative literary types oppose even the slightest hint of literature becoming embedded with the biggest political issue of our time. Why is this?

Pax Americanada

Good news. Poet and editor Greg Santos of Pax Americana has put together a special online issue of contemporary Canadian poets, including rob mclennan, John Stiles, David McGimpsey, and Jason Camlot. I'm also there, with a new poem that fleshes out the title for my recent New and Selected (a poem not actually in that book though). Do check it all out.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Mickey Mouse Is 80 Today!

Eyewear wishes Mickey Mouse a very happy 80th birthday! Steamboat Willie was released on 18 November, 1928. It's hard to fathom the influence of that moment, or his high-voiced, finger-challenged character - both for good and ill. Without Mickey, no Disneyland empire; without Mickey, no Bugs Bunny.

Mickey has been the face of watches, pop art, subversion, and, of course, the name of all that is dumbed-down or facile ("Mickey Mouse classes"). He's resilient, at 80, but less popular, I think, than he once was. Still, an icon, even a cartoon one, deserves some respect. How old is Pluto?

Monday, 17 November 2008

Grace Hartigan Has Died

Sad news, first seen on Silliman's blog: Grace Hartigan has died. Hartigan was an American Abstract Expressionist, and close friend of the leading New York School poets, including Frank O'Hara.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Guest Review: Shields On Skloot

Andrew Shields reviews
The Snow's Music
by Floyd Skloot

Many of Floyd Skloot's poems about artists address moments when their brains are still creating in a way they cannot physically keep up with. In "John Field in Russia, 1835," for example, Field "has come back to die where darkness lasts," but his mind is still generating melodies—rather, his body is, as he learns when he sits down at the piano:

His hands move before
his mind knows the opening theme.

Thus do the body's long-ingrained practices provide an outlet for the brain's productivity even without the active knowing of the mind.

There is a whole section of such poems in Skloot's latest collection, The Snow's Music, including poems on Georges Braque, Paul Signac, Claude Monet, and Claude Debussy, as well as a comic turn on George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers playing badminton on the beach. (In Skloot's 2007 Selected Poems: 1970-2005, published by Tupelo Press, there are also poems on, among others, Walt Whitman, Maurice Ravel, Flannery O'Connor, and "Brahms in Delirium.") Poems like these are common enough that it would be easy to put together an anthology of them—and Skloot's work in this mode would fully deserve to be included in it. But his most unusual poems about historical figures are in a mode unique to him: poems about his hallucinations of visits from such figures to him in rural Oregon.

The Snow's Music contains two such poems, one on "Ezra Pound in a Spring Storm" and the other on "Thomas Hardy at the Harvest Supper," which begins with Skloot, not Hardy, in a moment of anticipation like that of Field at the piano: "I know before I wake that something's wrong." After a week reading about Hardy, Skloot writes:

I went
to sleep in Oregon and woke somewhere
in Dorset.

After a vision of Hardy playing fiddle at the harvest supper, Skloot arrives at an epiphany:

Art and life were transformed into dream,
and the dream absorbed time and place.

But Skloot's visions of other writers are not always epiphanic, marked as they are by their cause: the medication he takes because he lives with brain damage caused by a virus in 1989. Field's anticipatory knowledge marked how his body "knew" the music before his mind did; Skloot's anticipation, in the Hardy poem, marks not a creative power but a pre-rational sense, coloring the whole poem, that "something is wrong."

Skloot's Selected Poems contains quite a few hallucinatory visits from historical figures: Rasputin, Tsar Nicholas II, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov, and Paul Gauguin, among others. One poem even describes "Reese in Evening Shadow"—that being Pee Wee Reese of Skloot's childhood baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Here, Skloot highlights the source of the visionary moment:

Nursing the day's final herbal
concoction against joint pain
and lost sleep, the same drink
I have used all twelve years
of my illness, I tilt my head back
in its battered Dodgers cap to rest
against the slats of an Adirondack chair

as a screech owl's solo whistle
pierces the endless crescendo
of bullfrogs and bumble bees

when Reese at last drifts back out
of evening shadows.

These visions always arrive quietly, in a combination of Skloot's perception of the world through his condition, a vividly described natural scene (often mentioned in the titles, such as "Rasputin in Darkness" or "Nabokov, Mist"), and the quiet, often hard-to-perceive appearance of the figure in question.

The combination of these two types of poems is one of the primary ways Skloot addresses his brain damage in his poems, but there are more direct poems as well, such as "First Steps" in The Snow's Music:

After fifteen years
my first steps
without a cane
are quick and stiff.

Here, too, Skloot turns the poem toward the issue of knowing, as he discusses how he had merely forgotten his cane:

Maybe I did plan this but did
not know. Which would be consistent not only with Freudian interpretation
but with brain damage as well.

Skloot decides to go ahead and try to walk without the cane because his illness has taught him that "the body / knows things the mind does not."

That line connects Skloot's direct discussion of his brain damage to the ways he circles around it in his poems about historical figures. He also pursues issues of knowing in his Hamlet essay "Jangled Bells" (in his 2004 memoir In the Shadow of Memory, published by Nebraska), where he compares Hamlet's problems to his own: "Our problem, me and Hamlet, is how to know, how to be sure of our powers of reason. ... I quickly reach the limits of what I know, stranded [in the downstairs hall] without a sure sense of direction. The more I ponder, the more confused I get." Skloot goes on to relate the problem of knowing to an uncertainty about what to do: "Not knowing how to think means not knowing how to act." In this discussion of "not knowing," he then returns to the theme I have identified in his poems: "I have gradually learned ... that a part of me knows what my brain does not." All this reflection on knowledge, action, Hamlet, and his own condition inevitably leads Skloot to the "to be or not to be" soliloquy, and he concludes that "the real question at the heart" of that speech is "how to be, how to live, especially when you find yourself at the end of your ability to know." Again and again, the problem is "how": how to function in an impossible situation.

In Skloot's poems, the theater provides an answer to that question: on stage, one knows how to act, as in "Playing the Bawd at Twenty," a poem about playing Pompey in Measure for Measure:

For two hours
each night I knew what to say about right
and wrong in a world gone wild with deceit.

"I knew what to say": for the twenty-year-old who is afraid of not knowing what to say, this is surely the attraction of acting, where you can play someone so much more sure of himself than you really are. Skloot's biography adds another layer to the poem: because of his brain damage, the man here remembering his youthful self's elation is often unable to say the right thing.

For Skloot, then, incompleteness—of self, of mind, of knowledge—is not just a recurring theme but a daily battle with the limitations of his condition. This makes the epiphanies poets aim all the more hard-won in his work. And even when epiphany does arrive, as in the vision of harmony in "A Unified Field," what one knows about epiphanies becomes an issue:

Because the night is clear and cold,
because the moon is new, and Mars
so close it seems to be in bloom,
because his mind imagines room
for wonder, he sees everything hold
together a moment under the stars.
He knows it will not last ...

And the vision of harmony and balance concludes with a series of negations (a negative epistemology, as it were) in which one word ("less" instead of "else") opens up the poem into an acceptance of how never-ending Skloot's problem ("how to know"; "how to act") is:

There is nowhere else to go,
no one else to ask, and nothing less to do.

Andrew Shields is an American poet living in Switzerland.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Poetry Focus: Susan Wicks

Susan Wicks by Sarah Corbett

De-Iced, Bloodaxe 2007
Night Toad, New and Selected Poems, Bloodaxe 2003
The Clever Daughter, Faber 1996
Open Diagnosis, Faber 1994
Singing Underwater, Faber 1992

The poetry of Susan Wicks is surreptitiously erotic, ‘I curl, sniffing you … comfort the tip of your lost tongue …we still do it in our sleep’ (‘After Sixteen Years’, Singing Underwater), ‘this is how they make rain, the raw/repeated drumbeat of two pulses ….Her two legs split perfectly open ..’ (‘Rain Dance’, The Clever Daughter), ‘Rolled in my mouth, my tongue/is growing fat. By morning/it will have found the farthest places’ (‘Sleeping Alone’, Night Toad). There is a continuous noting of the power of the body that has the alert languor of sex; that is never just tender:

I follow the soft valley of your
nape, parting the hidden
shafts to the scalp, white and unwrinkled
as the skin of a boy I once saw
shivering on a field, his hair
teased into rosettes like a guinea-pig’s.

‘Cutting Your Hair’

And yet the poems, although acutely embodied, elude physical weight; it is as if she has discovered a technique, in language, for levitation:

… Then a second time,
rounding a blind bend, the brush lifted
on a ground of sunlight, seeming to give us
darkness, the spine seeming to open
a new space hidden between tree trunks,


Or for stepping into and returning, gifted, from the world of the dead:

But no, they have
passed each other, they separate,
they have vacated the night’s mirror,
that last light from the sky,
the symmetry
that made disappearance necessary.

‘Mute Swans’

Wick’s poetry is not so much the poetry of a mother, or wife or daughter; it is not just the poetry of its subject matter, but an evocation of a realm of coming into being. The poems inhabit an altered state, like that of the newly delivered mother, attended by the proximity of death, and of life washed fresh in its glare.

These are small poems, delicately formed, often radiating from freeform sonnets, bright lit windows or doorways into vividly re-imagined worlds. They recall the fleeting but visionary attentiveness of the modern French poets, Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘The black curls on the nape of your neck are my treasure’ (‘Flare’), or Paul Eluard, ‘He puts a bird on the table and closes the shutters./He combs his hair and it is lovelier in his hands/than a bird’ (‘Void’) (Wicks is a French scholar and a translator of the contemporary French poet, Valerie Rouzeau). In recent work, her influence has been American, the poems opening out, discursive, such as in the long sequence, ‘MacDowell Winter’, in De-Iced, dedicated to the American writer’s colony, where Wicks does most of her writing away from the pressures of teaching in England. There is both the metaphysics of Stevens and the nature-mystery of Frost in this:

Before I came, I was this I shaped space
Somewhere in New Hampshire. Light from the sun and stars
Passed through my body; the sub-zero air; a deer.

‘MacDowell Winter, 19’

Yet still, in her latest collection, what is specifically Wicks’: visceral and surprising, delicately miniaturist:

The horse girl startles,
whinnies at me, flares
the deep, dark crawl-space of her nose.

‘Picasso Museum, Paris, August’

Friday, 14 November 2008

Has British Poetry Been Destroyed By The Mediascape?

Reading the latest Forward anthology of best poems, etc, of new British poetry, a terrible thought suddenly hit me - the aesthetics of the 30-second TV advertisement had become the default lyric position of 75% of all contemporary mainstream British verse. The style - speedy syntax, clever image, cunning set-up, perfectly amicable and yet "fresh" pay-off, and overall sense of accessible, pleasing, upbeat zest, yet with some edgy topicality - it's all TV, mate. I know, because I was a TV writer. I understand this machine-tooled, gleaming perfection - it is the popular product that Adorno warned us of. Readers of Eyewear know I still enjoy high-quality pop stuff - but I also know its place, its contexts. I resist some guilty pleasures. Poetry needs, at times, to yield fewer of its mysteries at a first Palin-wink. Ambiguity, complexity, obscurity, difficulty - these were not just the rallying cry of modern poets for the fun of it - they were elements of a strategy of resistance - resistance to the near-total reification of people as souls, and minds - and to the collapse of some civilising presence in history, be that God, or traditions that were the less-fragmented aspects of warlike capitalism. Anyway, British poetry is exceptionally well-made and entertaining currently - and is reaching a pinnacle of professional excellence that is almost frightening. It took a terrible machine to elect Obama - one that spent millions upon millions - oodles. Poetry may have the best of values at its heart, but needs to retain some of the texture and roughening pleasures of the less-glossy, the less-perfected, the less-selling thing. Poetry needs to be less about quality, and more about something stranger, and more disconcerting. Reading Lynette Roberts again last night, the beauty of her difficulty, allied to an ordered emotionality, was striking - here was a poet who could use words, but also treat them with caution.

The Writer's Voice

Talk and Reading by Al Alvarez
Legendary poet, critic and writer

"The Writer's Voice"
Thursday 27 November 2008
At 5.00 pm
Clattern Lecture Theatre, Penrhyn Road campus
Kingston University
Kingston KT1 2EE

The talk will be followed by a wine reception and book signing

RSVP to Lisa Hall by Tuesday 25 November(020 8547 7853)

Travel and location information:

Poem by Nathalie Handal

Eyewear is pleased to welcome Nathalie Handal (pictured) this Friday. Handal is a poet, writer and playwright. She has directed and is the author of numerous plays, and her collection The Lives of Rain was Shortlisted for The Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize/The Pitt Poetry Series.

She is a member of Nibras Theatre Collective and Associate Artist and Development Executive for the production company, The Kazbah Project. I was very pleased to have her in the anthology 100 Poets Against The War - and very glad to be including her at Eyewear, as well.

She is one of the poets currently writing whose work - political and lyrical - seems most needed in this decade, for how it negotiates the way language slinks, sways, slides and shifts between beauty and truth, at once terrible and lithe.

Recently, she co-edited a significant anthology of world poetry from Norton, Language for a New Century, with Tina Chang and Ravi Shankar, which I recommend.

Les Eventails, Portraits of Passion

The shadows of birds fading on a fighter’s back

The undressing of words on an unstamped postcard

The wet swings in the distant park

The jealousy of raindrops on the umbrella of lovers

The laughter of a boy before a bird

The song of two flutes, two swords, two bracelets, two fingers

The stare of a wave before a pearl

The yearning between the legs of a farmer’s wife

The opening of doors closing midday

The sudden howling of our muse - and

les eventails - disturbing the strange guest inside of us.

poem by Nathalie Handal

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Berry and Wilkinson Launch Pamphlets This Friday

Two of the best younger British poets (both included in my just-out Manhattan Review special section) - Emily Berry and Ben Wilkinson (pictured above) are launching their debut pamphlets from tall-lighthouse this Friday, 7.30 pm, in London, at the Acquarium Gallery, Farringdon. This is not to be missed for those within reach.

The Inner Circle of Contenders

Seamus Heaney is undeniably THE major Irish poet of the second half of the 20th century, and, after Robert Lowell, Thomas, Larkin, Hill and Ted Hughes, likely the greatest English-language lyrical poet, in the Hardy-Frost tradition, since 1950. Of the great 20th century poets, he's possibly one of the Big Ten. I've met him - he's charming, and fun, and real. And serious. So, this new interview with him (related to a forthcoming book) is basically necessary reading for anyone concerned with poetry of our time (and of the past).

The excerpts here are frank, personal, and at times even intimate - the man comes through, as intelligent, principled, dedicated, and human - a sort of poetic Obama of the 60s/ 70s - a man who made poetry matter, for many, putting it down in soil it hadn't been rooted in before. Heaney has not, it is clear, made peace with the experimental wing of contemporary poetry - he calls it "a refusal of the kind of poetry I write" - which begs the question any mirror does - isn't his kind of poetry a refusal, equally, of the avant-garde sense of what poetic language entails?

Having done so much, so well, it's perhaps too bad Heaney hasn't also managed to undertake to comprehend, perhaps encircle or even transcend, such divisions in poetry - but then again, some kinds of avant-garde poetry are so dead-set-against the kind of post-romantic, post-colonial, pastoral-modernist lyric that Heaney writes, that maybe he gave up on this battle. More ominously, he describes a clear-cut route to poetic recognition, one which is perhaps grossly oversimplified - then again, Heaney faced no real obstructions in his rise, so evident was his ability - after all, he went from Faber to the Nobel, and never really had to eke out a rep in the margins, small magazines, and coffee shop open mics of the world. Still, his belief that reputations are now decided by decade, and that there is an "inner circle of contenders" for best poet, that, independent of marketing, easily knows who has "got it" and who has not - and his vision of poets celebrating the best when they meet (as opposed to doing-down poets they resent, which is often the case too) - would be naive if not a little chilling.

Heaney seems to naturalise, entirely, the process of poetic production, dissemination, and reception - as if taste, ideology, bias, nationalism, even simple ruthless competition - did not in fact also stand in the way of clear, cool, appreciation of the major poets. It's true, no poet without respect from any other poet is ever going to amount to anything, since it is by poet to poet that poetry is passed on, hence lives - but surely, there are many inner circles, and varying aesthetic values. Even religions have schisms, and no priesthood is without its heretics. Heaney reveals himself to be both inherently good, and conservative, in this interview. Nothing though takes away from the quality of the poems themselves, which ring clear as bells in winter.


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...