Saturday, 28 February 2009

Guest Review: Nolan on Heaney

PJ Nolan reviews
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney
by Dennis O'Driscoll

From farm boy to Nobel Laureate, the life of Seamus Heaney has acquired a mythic proportion, in scale with the influences and preoccupations that continue to shape his remarkable output of poetry and related writings. Unapologetically a poet of the local, he has achieved a global readership, well beyond the halls of academe. Widely recognised as an affable interviewee, Heaney is also well-practiced in discretion – any tendency towards the oracular countered with determined respect for those private spaces which allow inspiration to flourish, within attendant and necessary mystery.

Denis O’Driscoll, poet, editor, commentator and stalwart of the Irish poetry scene, is also widely respected. George Szirtes has referred to him as ‘a poet of European temperament, and stature’. He shares familiarity, firm friendship and mutual respect with Heaney and is therefore well placed to coax intimacy and candour from his subject. In mining these familiarities, he has produced a remarkable insight into what Heaney himself has described as ‘a journey into the wideness of language’. It may be true that the revelations and insights in Stepping Stones are to be found in Heaney’s own words, but the success of this book lies in skilled and sensitive prompting by O’Driscoll.

Structured in a loosely chronological format, the first of three sections – Bearings – deals with formative years and experiences. Childhood, family relationships, sketches of community and custom, schooling and vital first exposures to literature and specific poetry, are spelled out in languid reflection. Some of this ground is already documented in Heaney’s own essays – but here, the interview format teases further depth from recollections. Physical description is leisurely and context is set for some future Heaney themes: family, tradition, place, history and perception.

The second section – On The Books – is the meat of this volume. Throughout these linked interviews, O’Driscoll shapes space so that the poet may roam the terrain around each of his poetry collections. Heaney stipulated early in the process that he would not engage in detailed analysis of individual poems; yet this is no handicap to either interviewer or subject in freely exploring those landscapes – physical and otherwise – from which they emerged. Beginning with Death of A Naturalist, we become passengers in that roaming, and are introduced to sources of specific imagery – some benevolent, others more troubling – and concerns that saw an Ulster Catholic poet ‘hurt into poetry’, as Auden remarked of Yeats’ relationship with Ireland.

Part of Heaney’s achievement is an ability to bridge the world of poetics. His relationships with Eastern European poets, as well as the UK and US communities, mean there’s no shortage of anecdotes here. Encounters with contemporaries are recounted – admiration expressed, or tactfully withheld – destinations, achievements and disappointments are visited, without apparent rancour or regret. A certain steeliness becomes apparent along the way as the young poet grows in confidence and stature, embracing risks that prove to be judicious moves beyond the comfort zone, at the necessary times. A move to Wicklow, to Berkeley, a refusal to become a mouthpiece – or bite the tongue, for that matter – all point to a finely timed sense of the appropriate, carried beyond the formulation of words on a page. Key influences are affirmed: Frost and Hopkins emerging as consistent touchstones, a weathered respect for Yeats; the ghost of Patrick Kavanagh looms. Love of the classics, and the depth of scholarship there is striking, with their value as source re-affirmed.

The book concludes with the shortest section – Coda – dealing with current perspectives, following the poet’s recent recovery from a minor stroke, as he faces into the next phase of a richly detailed and productive life.

One couldn’t claim that this book sees Heaney at his most unguarded. The structure of the book – most questions and answers were communicated in writing between interviewer and subject – perhaps precludes some of the spontaneous cut-and-thrust of a live interview. Some of the ground has been covered in previously published interviews and Heaney’s own prose writings, for example in Finders Keepers. In truth, The Redress of Poetry, drawn from Heaney’s lectures while Professor of Poetry at Oxford, may give a sharper insight into the purely poetic concerns informing Heaney’s work. Some of the material is echoed elsewhere, drawn from interviews with O’Driscoll under the patronage of the Lannan Foundation in 2003 (one of which is freely available as a podcast from their online archive).

However, this volume is a valuable and considered addition to the Heaney bibliography. It will, appropriately enough, serve a wider readership than those engaged in purely academic study – especially in the absence of a formal biography at this time.

Stepping Stones reveals the poet from within his formative experiences. The leisurely pace of the questions and answers, the eddying currents of memory and intuitive digression, create a fleshed-out sense of the concerns which drive some of the most striking and popular works in English language poetry today.

Nolan is a Dublin-based poet, reviewer, and blogger.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Budgets To The Left Of Us

You have to hand it to him. President Obama really is the new American Chavez - and it is thrilling, and a bit scary (because I keep hearing Jim Carrey's line "somebody stop me!" as an ominous taunt that may be taken up and replied to). I don't want him stopped - this is nearly too good to be true, and such epiphanic moments in politics are rare. What has occasioned this post? His new budget, which, in terms of redistributive justice, and dismantling of military-industrial prerogatives, is audacious.

Gun Crazy Redux

This is Eyewear's 1,250th post. The film Gun Crazy (aka Deadly Is The Female) is currently resurfacing in Britain, to excellent reviews, 60 years after its initial appearance. This 1949 (some say 1950) classic of film noir is one of the key films, for me, and greatly inspired my sense of style for my early 90s work. Budavox, in which "Gun Crazy" first appeared, 50 years after the movie's creation (in 1999) is, in some ways, an exploration of the sort of world set in motion by the movie. So, anyway, I am glad to see it back on release. Seaway, from Salmon, was where I published this new version, see below.

Gun Crazy

Against the world, just us.
Behind, a trail of gas stations,
small banks, the meat packing plant,
knocked over. FBI Telexes
clatter like town gossips across America:
Barton Tare and Laurie Starr, dangerous
and armed. How did it begin?
Neon wakes me, I peel back blinds
to jackhammer rain, shake a Lucky
from the pack, and light.
Behind, on the tangled bed, you are mine,
every inch of your easy hunger, your fear
cold and material in the night.

Where are we two going? When we get
there, how will we know we’ve finally
arrived? Mexico, possibly, but the bills
are marked and the Feds hot on our tails.
The first time we met, I shot six matches
off the crown on your head, at a carnival,
won five hundred bucks. The moment
the matches flared, I knew my bullets
would always be true, direct. You kill
out of a necessity verging on need, I
cannot squint the eye down to that degree,
my hand trembles at the sight of flesh targets.
Still, I’ll end up putting a bullet in your heart
up in the Lorenzo mountains, in the mist.

That first night I aimed and squeezed
I should not have missed.
You wake and call me over to the bed.
Then I’m down in your arms and kissed.
Your mouth sets off all four alarms.
How can a man be so made
from moments of early loss?
I was always gun crazy,
so good at one clear thing:
hitting what I could barely see.
I see nothing in the darkness now, only
one part moving on the bed, my body
pressed like a pistol
into the small of your cries.

poem by Todd Swift

Poem By Nigel McLoughlin

Good to have Nigel McLoughlin (pictured) as the featured poet this Friday. He's one of the impressive new voices of his generation.

He is also Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire and his work has been twice short-listed for a Hennessy Award, and placed in The Kavanagh Prize and The New Writer Poetry Prize.

McLoughlin lectured in Traditions at Poets’ House from 2000 to 2004 and has worked as a tutor with the London School of Journalism and as a Senior Tutor and Curriculum Design Consultant with the Open College of the Arts. He holds an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing and a PhD from Lancaster University.

He has written four collections of poetry: At The Waters’ Clearing (Flambard/Black Mountain Press, 2001), Songs For No Voices (Lagan Press, 2004), Blood (Bluechrome, 2005) and Dissonances (Bluechrome, 2007). He also co-edited Breaking The Skin (Black Mountain Press, 2002) an anthology of new Irish poets. His New and Selected will be out soon, from Templar, I hear.

Most recently, McLoughlin became editor of the revamped Iota magazine.

After The Battle

Night cursed its way along the valley,
lay like a malartán in the cradle of two hills.
The moon like a burst of ore had shot through
the streams’ seep between the stones
and sifted ferric flakes downhill
from the battlefield where the weapons
rust their way to their oblivion
of soil and shattered bone.

Even the grass is vaguely ferrous,
the sharp blade hides that underhand
green, flicks it from the frosty
underside like a switchblade of colour.
Dew shod, I make my crossing
across a treachery of stones
my feet defy by gripping
before the crack splits the blue air

wide open and through it something
vast and dark at the corner of my eye
approaches, flutters, passes. Again
and I look down into the whiskey-
coloured water a long while before
I realize the ore that colours it. I drop
my gun – a splash – a crack off stone,
I feel the iron heat half-cauterise my side.

Who’d have thought that blood
could have been that colour.

poem by Nigel McLoughlin

Monday, 23 February 2009

Review: U2's No Line On The Horizon

The Guardian is offering readers a chance to listen to the new U2 album, courtesy of Spotify. Diving right in, as an existing member of Spotify, I am pleased to say that it sounds like No Line On The Horizon is not the over-hyped self-important and bloated dud How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb mostly was.

It is impossible to write about U2 anymore - U2 writes white. U2 is overmediated, over-saturating. The only question we are fed is the one that makes sense to answer: is this the next Joshua Tree? The next Achtung Baby?

Both those records are bolts from the blue, true masterworks that, within a few years, spanned decades and shifted styles decisively. Could this be the third time U2 astonishes and rips up the sonic pop rules? I think not quite, but this is their best album since Pop, more than ten years back.

I want to write myself a critical blank cheque below, where I can add more thoughts, as the album sinks in, later, so for now, this is the last line:

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Seaway Gets Seen

Self-advertisement warning

My Seaway: New and Selected seems to have had its first review, at Various Artists, Tony Lewis-Jones' online review vehicle, which reaches interested readers and writers across the world. The review is by poet Tom Phillips. I quote some of it here, below:

"Gleaned from his four previous collections and garnished with more than a dozen new poems, Todd Swift’s Seaway is both a ‘greatest hits’ collection for those who’ve already read this verbally athletic Canadian-born poet at length and a comprehensive introduction for those on the European side of the Atlantic who have had, so far, only the occasional chance to get a taste of his work at the jostling, competitive buffet known as English language poetry. As such, it is long overdue.


Words matter throughout. That might sound like a very obvious thing to say about a poetry collection but then, when it comes down to it, few contemporary English language collections exhibit the combination of verbal precision and improvisation which Swift deploys in poems like the tour-de-force ‘One Hundred Lines’.


What counts in Swift’s case, then, is his fashioning of a particular, disjointed sense of ‘the world’ and its difficult relationship with wherever we might call home – home, at various times, being where we were born, where we happen to be living or where we might possibly die. How we exist in several different places at once and survive abstract relationships which nuance our day-to-day relationships with those different places is very much a part of Swift’s subject matter here, the ‘Seaway’ of the title coming to seem like a metaphor for the great architectural changes most of us have no say in determining. Curiously, for all their vertiginous imaginative leaps, reading these immaculately crafted poems and knowing that Swift is out there somewhere fashioning stray experiences into verse makes more of the world seem like home."

And The Oscar Goes To?

I used to care. I don't really anymore. Old age setting in? Credit Crunch? The Obama Factor (real change more exciting than the fictive kind)? More and more, awards seem built for other people, established at a level where awards don't seem relevant, or real - I refer mainly to rock stars and millionaire actors. Now and again, of course, a genuine, unsung talent is permitted to step forward (one thinks of Borgnine winning).

Underdogs, too, though, are part of the Hollywood myth - and this year has several. Heath Ledger, of course, as dead, is the ultimate underdog, and will likely win for his weird and flexible performance - and that seems fair. Mickey Rourke, half-dead and barely recognizable after years of tough love and uneasy living, seems likely, too, to win - which is a sort of small miracle. Finally, small British movie Slumdog Millionaire, literally about the rise of the underclass and the underdog, seems destined to triumph. Slumdog is a curious tour-de-force - at once slick and empty, and yet, at times, subtly disturbing, even ugly.

It seems like lucky timing (or was it written?) that the film - a plucky outsider - should arrive at a new Depression-era-moment - with its emphasis on the Horatio Alger story, and Angels With Dirty Faces type of Thirties Gangster flick plotting. Despite what anyone might tell you, these and other Oscar wins - if they happen -are not truly multicultural, international, or British, so much as magnetically American - just as cinema itself has been and continues to be - the ultimate story being how everything and everyone gets drawn (like Underdog's symbol, the giant U) like iron filings to Los Angeles, to live, and, of course, to die. That's the pulling power of Hollywood's Dream. And that's what they give the statues to - those who keep it going.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Poem by Colette Sensier

Eyewear is very glad to welcome young British poet Colette Sensier (pictured) this Friday. She's one to watch over the next decade; her lyrical gift seems strong.

Sensier is 20-years-old and comes from Sussex. She is now in her second year doing English at King's College, Cambridge. She has been a winner of the Foyle's, Tower Poetry, and Peterloo Poets young poets awards. Her poems have been published on the Pomegranate webzine, in Books For Keeps, and new poems are forthcoming in the Rialto and Monkey Kettle magazine. Sensier is also currently Literary Editor at Varsity, her student paper.


The colours of skin, as easy to forget
as passing cars, until one winter

when a face appears, a sharp thrust
as clear as a path in sudden

moonlight. Or the curve of a leg,
scooped from memory, suggests itself,

like something seen underwater.
For a moment, one long line is clear,

from here to death, something
faceless, simple, and as soft as grass.

poem by Colette Sensier

Futurism 100 Years Old!

100 years ago today, Marinetti proclaimed the virtues of Futurism. There is something melancholy about such an anniversary, since it emphasizes the way that history has a way of becoming antiquated, and the new of becoming old hat. For the experimentalist wings of 21st century poetry, avant-garde work of 100 years ago continues to be a red herring with the scent of an elixir - a potent promise of renewed relevance - even though its historic course, as Danto argues (persuasively to a point) the age of manifestos is kaput. Still, poetic enterprise lacks any vim if it doesn't have some lead in its pencils, and that just may be a fuel driven by youth, energy, or even brash stupidity.

Futurism retains its ability to shock and amuse, if not inspire, because its design style is impressive, and because its claims are truly destabilising. Much of what Futurism endorsed, of course, seems "morally wrong" - notably the celebration of the beauty of war - and hardly the stuff to sit well with ecocritics (machines, etc.) - but the painting, especially, offered a way of seeing that was vital and novel. Poetry seems always caught between the twin seducers novelty and tradition - the one old and doddering, the other suave and all-too-infantile. The urge is for poetry to be forever closing - and opening - onto new vistas. Currently, London has a bunch of young poets and impresarios, like Tom Chivers, shaking things up. Will a new manifesto emerge? One half-hopes so.

Otherwise, the ongoing rather tedious "marketing" of poetry will continue, where large publishers basically chew up and spit out a few new "new poets" every decade, expecting the public to lap them up. As for Futurism's speed - did that become Virilio's velocity?

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Special Relationship

Britain likes to think it has a "special relationship" with America, that supersedes all other of the indispensable nation's alliances. It's therefore good to see a subtle realignment, as Obama's first foreign visit is to Ottawa. It may not be popular to say so over here in the UK, but Canada, far from being "boring" - is a dynamo, and a key nation in terms of environment, diplomacy, economy, and culture. I cringe every time I read another triumphalist account in the papers of some British actor or actress getting "the nod" from some award or academy. Half of Hollywood is Canadian, and yet, modestly, we Canucks rarely go berserk when one of ours does well there. Anyway, Obama is very welcome in Ottawa. I hope he has time to taste a beaver's tail, the local delicacy.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Bring Back The Myth Kitty!

In what must surely be one of his last radiophonic interventions, before retiring soon, the greatest Poet Laureate of the last fifty years (and beyond), Andrew Motion, has been at it again, today on the BBC, arguing for a need to study The Bible, for its "great stories" - in order to appreciate "Western Literature".

This is Descartes before the horse, surely. Western Literature once was designed to help appreciate The Bible. More to the point, as someone who believes that some of The Bible is "true", I must wonder at how much can be gained from merely cherry-picking the exciting bits (and there are a lot).

Turning to a major Holy document to find adventure tales is like recommending Playboy for the articles on Existentialism - they're there, but not really the crux. I think Motion, a self-described atheist, is sensing a truth, though - people coming to university to study "literature" are now, often, culturally illiterate. Reading, itself once the bottom line of studying English, is now secondary to - what? Well, reading for many is boring, and something they don't do.

I am not sure that parachuting Bible studies into such a mob would help much. It might be better to start them on Twain or Hemingway. Nor is it the case that all literature requires The Bible - or even Myth - to be appreciated. Larkin is a case in point. He eschewed most of the infamous "myth-kitty" and managed to generate remarkable poems that - while gesturing sometimes at transcendence - find their horizon in the bleak and present now of particularity, observed through horn-rimmed specs.

Do I want more students to read more of The Bible? Yes, I do. Will that arrest the massive decline in the interest in poetry and literature among the young? I doubt it.

The Slightly Deceived?

I've just received my copy of Faber's Philip Larkin "lost recordings", The Sunday Sessions. It was a necessary purchase - after all, Larkin, for better and worse - is the face of non-modernist British poetry post-1945 - and is also one of the English language's greatest coiner of phrases. He's not a poet you just ignore, even if (as I do) you disagree with some or all of what he thinks about poetry. Still, I disagree with Pound often - but enjoy some of his poetry.

Larkin's also something of a closet modernist himself (if one notes how much he drew on Yeats, Auden, Eliot and others). Anyway, imagine my surprise when I played the CD, and found that it was less than 46 minutes long (45 minutes, 20 seconds to be exact).

The back of the attractive CD promises "Running time approx. 1 hour". Maybe in a Bangkok massage parlour, - but for this listener, "approx. 1 hour" should be approximately 60 minutes, give or take one or three. The back cover gets other things wrong, not even mentioning the fact some poems are from The Less Deceived - though many are. So many of Larkin's great poems are here, I am glad to have 45 minutes of him: "An Arundel Tomb", "Days", "Mr. Bleaney", "The Whitsun Weddings", "Church Going" and "Toads".

Few other poets have so many fun poems. Of course, for those who want poems to always resist commodification, he's crap - but more and more I cannot really imagine a world beyond reification that is based on this planet (as much as I would like) - and I am not sure poems, and poets, need to always strap-on their spaceage helmets to blast off above the planetary; sometimes, the empirical world is enough. The danger is in claiming that one's chosen limits are the limits of the world - a mistake Larkin may have made.

As for the recording itself, Larkin sounds a little distracted, or tired - hardly upbeat, anyway. It sounds precisely like someone reading on Sundays, after lunch, in Hull - liquid lunches? Still, he does try to enact the poems, a tad. He does inflect, and offer nuances of tone - he offers ways in to interpretation, or appreciation. Better these, than none at all.

Guest Review: Kennedy on Perez and Wood

Jake Kennedy reviews
by Craig Santos Perez
by James W. Wood

Stand against? Line in the sand? Declaration for? Marker to counter other markers? Too much legislation, already, from without? George—not that one—Oppen reminds us that poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world. Thus, poets' produce is—ideally!—new rules in the service of what was overlooked, silenced, missed, stifled, fragmented, lost, killed. More boldly: poetry does write the laws of and out of the margins; not in the sense of legitimating the model of "core as centre/centre as core" but rather in the sense of "poetry fills in the so-called 'blanks.'" Maybe?

Anyway, have you read from UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY [hacha]? Do you know this cat Craig Santos Perez? Here's a project, and a poet, that allows poetry to work in the intrepid service of reclamation—to use language against instrumentality; to trouble the certainties of geographical "location;" to meet imperial and colonial "territoriality" with the speech of redress and restoration. One wants to say—I want to yawp it—this is what poetry can do!

To cut to it, from UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY is a poetry of history—as such it demonstrates how those language-games of "official" [military; medical; religious; pedagogical] information may be beautifully and hauntingly disrupted. So Santos Perez's title suggests that from the beginning his beginnings were complicated by a speaking out of a place (Guam) with a complicated history of occupation and one continuing under US jurisdiction (and more generally under the ongoing threats of colonial/military presence).

This poem begins with the problem or terrors or realities of territory/place especially as that problem or terror or reality is born out of the violent legacy of colonial "ownership." Check this out, Santos Perez weaves critical scholarship, historical records, fascinating multi-lingual etymologies, government records, military documents, family narratives, recipes, diverse poetries into a mesh-like counter-document… and not ever in the service of a self-regarding post-modern practice, either! Instead, like the experimental poetries of Peter Dale Scott or Rosmarie Waldrop or Eliot Weinberger or Jeannette Armstrong or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha or Aimé Césaire, or the experimental films of Peter Watkins or Alanis Obomsawin or Abigail Child, from UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY becomes its own strategy of resistance—a thing to use to help move the imagination and the body beyond imposed absences and enforced silences.

Santos Perez's invokes the term "réduccion"—which, he tells us, is the historical Spanish term for subduing the natives of Guam. And what is so superb in from UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY is how the poems themselves confront "erasure" and work so robustly with and then against a condition of diminishment. That is, in a visual- and in a breath-sense, Santos Perez uses "absence" and space dynamically (note, the formatting is lost in the version below, see the image above for accuracy):

"goaam" ~

"islas de las velas latinas"
(of lateen sails ~

"guan" ~ "guana" ~

"isles de los ladrones"
(of the thieves ~ "Guhån" ~ "guajan" ~ "islas marianas"
(after the spanish queen ~ "bahan" ~

"guhan" ~ "guacan"~ "isla de san juan" ~ "guaon"
"y guan" ~ "omiya jima" ~ "guam"

"the first province of the great ocean" ~

Here the opening page of the poem demonstrates an archipelago, so to speak, of sounds and signs and absences that call attention to Guam's colonial history and also to the still-living, undefeated Chamorro language. What is also so thrilling here is how Santos Perez performs the "action" of an avant-garde project. His use of fragments, for instance, is clearly a direct result of, on the one hand, a colonial school system that has attempted to eradicate native speech. Yet his use of pieces and ends and bits is, on the other hand, also an inheritance from the likes of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett. The exhilaration—for me at least—resides in seeing how one might use innovative modernist techniques to uncover contemporary truths about the workings of colonial power and subjugation. If, as Stein says, "This is what history teaches, history teaches," from UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY illustrates how history-as-educator can be checked and gainsaid by a poetry that is constantly upending historical "facts."

The section entitled "from Achiote"—which tells the story of the achiote plant and uses it as a metaphor for knowledge production and knowledge imposition—is tour de force. Santos Perez recalls working with the plant with his grandmother and then he proceeds to laminate more and more texts about the historical proselytization of the native population by Catholic missionaries (especially Father Sanvitores) atop his initial narrative:

my grandmother helped wash my face in her outdoor sink that she used to clean chickens she told me her father held her hand and took her to the cliff's edge overlooking tumon bay to see his blood that looked to her like hair

[our blood: haga'ta]

in tumon, you can stay at the Hilton, Westin, Grand Plaza, Marriott, Hyatt, Holiday Inn—the hotels are located off Pale' San Vitores Road which runs parallel to Marine Drive which was renamed Marine Corps Drive

It seems to me that this is the kind of text that reveals how much of our debates about official verse culture vs. the post-post-avants, for example, or the lyrical I's against the experimental Its are ridiculously misplaced. from UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY does not shy away from apprehending moments of high-lyrical beauty nor does it trouble itself with diluting its use of puns, parataxis, or concrete poetry. The effects and urgency of the book do not, I think, lie in its aesthetic allegiances but rather more wholly in its ambitious desire to "recover" voices and honour the future.

This is a visually stunning book, too. Check out the simple, radical cover! Santos Perez, Tinfish Press, and designer Sumet Viwatmanitsakul, have created a striking but admirably understated layout. I love the greyish-coloured font which, to my thinking, resembles the tint of old fishing nets and achieves the "mesh eye" quality that Santos Perez invokes in another poem: "to change your eyes depending on the thing hunted." And Santos Perez's detourned maps and charts of Guam are exquisite.

Finally, I want to emphasize that this is a text strong enough to invoke Paul Celan and Césaire and Kyung Cha without any fear of sinking its own vessel. Indeed, these invocations—of other writers themselves so obsessed with questions of difference and survival—work as apposite spirit-guides. This is a first-rate, contemporary book of poetry. This is a text infused with vision and political purpose. It's rad.


I've just recently become aware of Knucker Press and their unique book and chapbook projects that aim to match-up writers and artists. The word/image mandate is exciting and James W. Wood's poetry pamphlet, Inextinguishable, is a fine example of successfully marrying text and painting. This particular poetry book boasts the author's spare and evocative lines alongside the full-colour visual work of fourteen artists. The opening poem "An Fraoch Mhor," and accompanying image (by Elise Tchoukriel), are wonderful. First, a reader is met with Tchoukriel's vivid, Matisse-like painting on the left-hand page. Her image, in terms of colour, suggests great joy and yet the collage-effects and position of the face render the picture more pensive. And so Wood's rather Byronic opening "I walked in rain / looking for heather" functions smartly alongside the rich image. Most importantly, Wood's lines arrive so gently and with such easy pacing that he manages to convince his reader (me!) that this walk is not just a predictable poet's stroll in the wet stuff. Instead, he transitions in stanza four with "In my memory, the gorse / and heather seemed higher." This is, arguably, not that remarkable of an image but note how Wood closes the piece by blending his meditation on memory and love with the image of the flower: "Let memory go now / for in this flower I hold / the things that I have learned / and the first love of the world." I think this is a startling exit on a number of levels. First of all, the reader is no doubt expecting a kind of melancholic celebration of the powers of memory and yet Wood suggests that memory should, in the end, be chucked! This poem is audacious and smart as it, I gather, reworks quietly Blake's "Intimations of Immortality" poem and simultaneously fastens on to it a carpe diem sentiment. Pretty impressive in four little lines!

While there are a few poems here—"After She Leaves" and "Summer Term", for instance—that I am not sure make the same discoveries as the above, there are a number of individual poems and lines that are just as extraordinary. In the four-line stanza sets of "The Wandering Horses," for example, we begin with "The eyes of a horse in a field." Again, Wood's style is so clean and disarming! And I love his suggestion a few lines later on that, "But for her / there is no doubt: birth comes quickly"—that's a breathtaking insight about our "animal other." But later on in the poem Wood writes that, "Somewhere / beyond what we see, her folklore // riddles these fields" and while I find nothing egregious here my hunch is that that "Somewhere" and that "beyond" and that "we" and that "riddle" are not quite as tight as they might be. That is, because Wood is so gifted at just saying what happened (as Lowell said), when the verse moves too obviously towards "the poetic" there is, I think, a slight hiccup.

Yet this is a tiny complaint. As I say, much of this collection hums with an accomplished and intelligent poetic vision. Here is the close of Wood's remarkable short poem entitled "Thirteen,"

what the foolish
put their hope in, how we are, what we call
the things we feel; the name we give
to all we'll never know: a number—thirteen.

Many poets, I reckon, would long to have such rhythms and to complete a poem with so much generosity and yet also with so much wisdom.

Jake Kennedy is a Canadian poet, scholar and critic.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Poem by Cherry Smyth

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome the poet Cherry Smyth (pictured) this Valentine's Day weekend (and also, auspiciously, on a Friday the 13th!).

Smyth is an Irish writer, living in London. Her debut poetry collection, When the Lights Go Up, was published by Lagan Press, 2001. Her anthology of women prisoners’ writing, A Strong Voice in a Small Space, Cherry Picking Press, 2002, won the Raymond Williams Community Publishing Award in 2003.

Her poetry pamphlet, The Future of Something Delicate, was published by Smith/Doorstop, 2005. A second collection called One Wanted Thing appeared in 2006, again from Lagan. The title poem of this collection was nominated for the Forward Best Poem of the Year 2004, and carries Smyth's hallmarks: precision, linguistic inventiveness and joy.

Smyth was a prize-winner in the Tonbridge Poetry Competition, 2006 and the London Writers’ Competition, 2007. Her work was selected for Best of Irish Poetry, 2008, Southword Editions. She also writes for visual art magazines: Modern Painters, Art Monthly, Art Review and Circa. Smyth is a poet whose work is well worth getting to know.

Back to Back

This cinema that needs
no darkness
spooling bloom

overnight overfed pink
heads bunch
and brag on branches

perfume loose
and bareback
rides in from the gardens

back to back
petals zoom from buds
mouthing May

colour red, colour yellow
color Techni
disregarding fences

poem by Cherry Smyth

The Buried Butterfly

Good news. I am glad to see that "The Buried Butterfly" - a poem by Isobel Dixon - is up on Poetry Daily today. It's been selected from the section at The Manhattan Review I recently edited, on The Young British Poets. The UK launch event for this special issue will be on 5 March, at 91 Marylebone High Street, Oxfam Books & Music, from 7-10 pm

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Finch Finds It Good

Annie Finch has blogged at the Poetry Foundation site about her visit to Britain, and makes some intriguing and relevant comparisons between American and British poetic culture (as she observed it). In the post, she calls my Oxfam series event (for which she read) the single-best organised bookshop poetry event she has ever been at. I'm chuffed. I've been organising and compering (hosting) poetry events and cabarets for 25 years now (started when I was 18) and always believed that poetry emceeing was an art form (however minor). Since 2004, I've tried to make the Oxfam events at 91 Marylebone High Street as good as any reading can be. Nice to have a poet say so.

They Do Collide, My Bride, My Bride

It's been reported that US and Russian satellites have collided for the first time - this Tuesday - the anniversary of the Gary Powers U-2 spy plane prisoner swap (in Berlin) of February 10, 1962. Not really a coincidence. I just like the opportunity to refer to Stevie Smith, the origins of an Irish band, and cold war nostalgia in the same post.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Nthposition Poetry In February Now Online

Sun over a tree line
by Liz Gallagher
Children going to school
by Gopi Kottoor
Mermaid & Real
by Fiona Tinwei Lam
That man with the flattop looks a little too tough to make fun of
by Neal Drew
A television in dream-time, Desert to dreams & The darks
by Annie Finch
Tone blind
by Paul A Toth
Blackpool, 1945 & Inheritance
by Hannah Mardell
Mother Nature house hunting
by Marion McCready
Terminus & The hotel
by Ailbhe Darcy
This is my village
by Katie Daniels
The waves of the sea
by Graham Hardie
Molotov cocktail, The coroner's report, Miscarriage, Terminal dwelling, Black song for Billie Holliday & Home on Mother's Day
by Suzanne R Harvey

100 Years Worst

Ed Balls, a top British politician with a background in economics, claims this current financial crisis is the "worst" recession in 100 years (since 1909 in other words) - and may prove more global than the Depression of the Thirties. Apart from this being upsetting news for us all - how does this relate to poetry?

Well, notice that Poundian poetic modernism (itself perhaps a red herring - modernism begins with Pater arguably) and imagism - the strike against the Georgian style - begins around 1910. That's 100 years of Anglo-British modernism and anti-modernism, played out against capitalism as a dominant form of ideology - often in struggle with communism or socialism. 2009 marks a break with those narrative struggles, surely. Can poets begin to forge new poetics? New ways of using language?

Or will they return to the comforts and challenges of older forms, themselves potentially radical? Will the poetry of the next 30 years be as engaged with culture, society, and politics, as the poetry between 1910 and 1939? How will the restructuring of global finance relate to the ways in which poetry gets structured? High modernism had many links with banking and high finance - Eliot worked as a banker, Pound objected infamously to certain lending practices, Wallace Stevens was a businessman - and wealthy socialites helped to "bankroll" the little magazines and movements of the period.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Blossom Dearie Has Died

Sad news. The "Jazz pixie" Blossom Dearie has died. I first recall hearing her work when my dear friend, actor-director-writer Thor Bishopric first played me some of her songs from one of her classic Verve recordings, way back in the late 80s. Her voice is unforgettable, and immensely charming, evocative of a now-gone cosmopolitan era of effortless late-night sophistication, and, perhaps, sophistry.

Budavox Redux

2009 is the tenth anniversary of my first full collection of poems, Budavox, published by DC Books in Montreal, in 1999. The collection represented the work I'd been publishing and performing in the decade 1990-1999, during the time I ran first the New McGill Reading Series (with Bill Furey), then Vox Hunt Cabaret, in Montreal, before moving to Budapest, in late 1997. The title is taken from a famous very tall retro-style sign (now gone) in Budapest, on the Budavox Building. Budavox was a telecommunications company in Hungary. The poems in Budavox explored themes of sexuality, nostalgia, travel, poetics, violence, desire, and popular culture. The book was well-received by critics at the time, and was selected by Geist - then perhaps the hippest culture magazine in Canada - as "one of the five best books" of the year, and sold fairly well, for a book of poetry. I do hope that readers of Eyewear who are interested in poetry will seek it out, to see if it has stood the test of time.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Arthur Rimbaud Drift

AN ARTHUR RIMBAUD DRIFT is a poetic walk following the London trail of Arthur Rimbaud and his fellow poet Paul Verlaine, who first visited the English capital - which they called Leun Deun - in September 1872.

The route goes from Charing Cross Station, where the poets arrived, through French Soho, where they first lived, and ends up at the legendary 8 Royal College Street where they had a proto-surrealist bust-up over a fish.

Poet Niall McDevitt has gleaned the great biographies of Rimbaud by Enid Starkie, Jean-Luc Steinmetz, Charles Nicholls and Graham Robb, as well as Joanna Richardsons' excellent biography of Verlaine, and has mapped out many of the most significant Rimbaud/Verlaine sites.

It is worth remembering that of Rimbaud's meteorically brief literary career, 14 months were spent in London, that he wrote some of A Season in Hell in London, most of Illuminations, and that the latter is one of the city's outstanding literary landmarks, a modernist classic 50 years before modernism.

The walk traces the poets' doomed quest to 're-invent love' as well as Rimbaud's later sojourn with the poet Germain Nouveau, his falling ill, and his being rescued by his mother, the terrifying 'Shadow Mouth'. We also find out about Verlaine's truimphant return to London in the 1890s where he was feted as the prince of the Decadents.

For a preview of the tour, tune into the Robert Elms Show BBC LONDON on February 18 at 1.40.

Sun 22 February meeting at 2pm by the Eleanor Cross in the forecourt of Charing Cross station. £5/£3(unwaged) (Please note: this walk will take a few hours and cover a few miles on its course to the Rimbaud/Verlaine House in Royal College Street. Please bring ideal overcoats, ideal footwear, ideal sandwiches, ideal beverages etc. Treat it as pilgimage.)

The Stolen Heart

My sad heart slobbers at the poop
Yellowy with tobacco stains.
Now they're squirting their jets of soup!
My sad heart slobbers at the poop
As the ball-breaking of the troops
Has them guffawing on the main.
My sad heart slobbers at the poop
Yellowy with tobacco stains.

Ithyphallic and belligerent,
Their ball-breaking has depraved it.
The rudder's daubed in smutty paint,
Ithyphallic and belligerent.
Abracadabraesque waves are sent
To cleanse my heart and save it;
Ithyphallic and belligerent,
Their ball-breaking has depraved it.

When they have spat out their plugs,
Oh stolen heart, what can we do
To please these Rabelaisian slugs
When they have spat out their plugs?
My stomach will dredge up the glugs
Into the bilge-wells of this stew...
When they have spat out their plugs,
Oh stolen heart, what can we do?

poem by Arthur Rimbaud; version by Niall McDevitt

Welcome Home?

The people on the council who voted not to allow a soldier who lost his legs fighting for Britain to build his home (on his grandparents' land) so that it could accomodate his needs are small-minded Gradgrinds of the first order. I am glad to see the Prime Minister has done the right thing.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Guest Review: Baban on Merriweather Post Pavilion

Alan Baban, Eyewear's in-house out-there music critic weighs in on the new Animal Collective work

Prosperity never made me want to listen. Neither does the thought that somewhere there exists this band that, given half a chance, might repurpose my outlook, fashion new gears, change the world, whatnot. Things used to be way simpler way back when— remember? We stood still at Modest Mouse shows and tried to look important with our cigarettes and stale cider, because in our ignorance those things made us thrifty cool (they did!); and the things we did we'd learned from music television; and the noise we made we made in silence; and the death we abandoned ourselves to got syndicated, like everything, the whole of us, mailed-in piercings, silly as fuck. Meanwhile the band played some song on stage and we clapped and it all pretty much blew very loudly. Which was interesting.

Indie carps in a different currency these days— that is to say, what we now think of as 'Indie' is of late a functionally commercial underground; something that sells, but does so in a way that assuages and enlivens that part of ourselves that feels, you know, 'Independent'. It's a hellaciously uncomfortable concept— very silly, obviously —and one that we needn't dwell on too long to pick apart. As if in inheriting self-consciousness as a rite, we also get the assurance through sound that, hey, it's ok, life is a four-letter word, SUCKS, now hear me play this bass solo, etc.

I can't think what my adolescence would have been like without all those cheerfully nodding people, at the cheerily demarcated shows. And as we all move as one into this wormhole of self-definition like an ass-end hero complex with impossible girth and little point, I find myself asking— well, y'know, was it all worth it? Did I actually have to see The Arcade Fire twice? Or in a church? Were The Boredoms worth it? And howsoever did a Zwan sticker become a big enough deal for it to land body-centre on my favourite red guitar, by my favourite picking place, in a spot previously scouted for Momus, and Weezer. (Weezer being exceedingly important to me back then.)

I think about these things. As we regress further into our screen-names and micro-memes, I think about them some more. I think about them like I think about wet floors; they're important to me. Clickable icons become a sort of second-grade rock trope—what we once pretended to enjoy in public, we're now free to bugbear in the privacy of our own homes. It takes some people a Herculean resolve to even admit listening to U2 these days. That strikes me as kind of sad. Some of the more interesting records of recent years have been made by those artists who don't necessarily take risks, but avoid the fuss involved in needing to take the risk; artists who respond in their own way so not a single line or phrase overlaps with the connotations others may bring to those lines were they to be sat down, parsed out and plain-written. Call it imagination with a minimum of fuss. Animal Collective, at this point, is calling it as it comes.

I want to say these guys' sound is 'preterperfect', because a) that seems like a very cool word, and b) I think it's apt. No two AC records sound alike: if one were to place with some authority where this group might go next, it would be an alien wildstab qualified by the assertion that the territory doesn't yet exist, but when it does (we hope it will), shit will be titanic. To quote my editor: Animal Collective keep getting better. Some acts spend their careers in a slow crawl towards imaginative refrigeration; since 2004's underground breakthrough Sung Tongs, the core duo of Panda Bear and Avey Tare have come unstuck in reverse, letting behind the shell of their freeform but none of its persuasion; each subsequent release has sounded like a more condensed, so unassailably different version of non-verbal themes and feelings that the band had begun to approach before. 2005's spectral Feels found the group in a rough ascension, throwing stones and falling in love. Strawberry Jam (2007) saw that love through the act of living largely— experimenting with loops whilst recontextualising sound collage as the new pop, gaudy but implicit; contrary, anyway, to the purity and exactness of any one genre.

By now you've probably heard Merriweather Post Pavilion. It is, by any account, a phenomenal achievement; and one that very much feels like it earns that tag, really deserves to be exhausted like this, praised, talked about, argued. It's a landmark. But also: an extraordinarily well-paced pop/dance set from a band at the height of their powers, free of tattle and whom, you feel, really love what they're doing. Here is the pure distillation of electro and dub and trance and tropicalia they've been hinting at. From opener "In The flowers" out, this is Animal Collective seizing their Big Pop Moment and coming up with roses, repeatedly. Going into details does seem pointless. But suffice to say that never before has the sweet/sour of Panda's oceanboy vibes and Avey's slightly more spazzed freefolker worked so well together, or seen so much glorious low-end. The bass throughout is ridiculous— talking the other day, a friend mentioned that he felt "My Girls" – Panda's paean to family, friendship, security – on a pair of expensive headphones is, like, a message from God. Its mix of coruscating keys and ethereal drones is littered with sonic beauty-spots: sound-aspects designed to direct us deep into the song's mainline so there's no confusion; no trifling; nothing but that which is brought into effect by some operation, or spring-loaded hook.

Animal Collective preach community, diversity, fun. And Merriweather is their high point to date: the psych-out album as domestic carpeting as concealed weaponry. That, by the way, is a really good thing.

Baban is a poet, writer, and and medical student based in London.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Lux Interior Has Died

Sad news. The great psychobilly performer, Lux Interior, who, with partner-in-music Poison Ivy made up the bruised core of The Cramps, has died. American "trash culture" has lost one of its major iconoclastic icons. I saw them perform once in Montreal, in the late 1980s, and it was weird and inspiring. No one who was anyone then had not danced to "Human Fly".

The Cramps' style (they never cramped mine) was very influential, I think, on Canadian poetry of the 90s, in the sense that they were at the vanguard of a movement to reintroduce, or reinretroduce perhaps, a B-movie subculture to greater prominence, in the way that Vampirella did. This led to the rediscovery of Ed Wood, Bettie Page, and other lost figures on the sordid margins of the Eisenhower Era.

This love of creepily backstreet Americana was also part of what drove David Lynch and Tarantino. This was very much in my mind when I began my cabarets, and it was a part of the zeitgeist, then, for poets and performers to think of themselves as in dialogue with the more offbeat characters and trends of the 50s-60s cheesy Los Angeles subculture.

Perhaps no North American poet (other than David Jaeger or David Trinidad) has better caught this tone and theme than Montreal's own David McGimpsey, who put his own stamp of revaluation on hamburgers, bad TV, and relics of the golden age of trash, in formally brilliant verse. My anthology, for DC Books, Future Welcome, was very much a part of this attempt to imagine what a "B-poetry" style might be like - that is, a style of poems that, like other aspects of trash culture, made no qualms about aiming for sensationalism, thrills, pleasure, while avoiding any interest in taste, decorum, or lack of deviation from the norm.

While a "trash poetics" is not my only poetic interest, it is one of them, and I continue to reserve the right to write stuff I like, that speaks to that part of the brain that also loves the kitsch, the camp, pulp and junk.

Poem by Dave Lordan

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Irish poet Dave Lordan (pictured) this Friday.

Lordan was born in England in 1975 to Irish parents who soon returned to Clonakilty in West Cork where he grew up. He began writing in his teens and his chapbook 18 was published by the English literature society in UCC in 1994. While at UCC he gained a reputation as a strong performer of his own work and he continues to read regularly to great acclaim.

He graduated in 1998 with an MA in English Literature. In 2001 he took the Mphil in Creative Writing in Trinity College Dublin and in the same year was featured as part of Poetry Ireland's Introductions series. He received an Arts Council Bursary in 2004. He was runner up in the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2002 and he won it in 2005.

Lordan's work has been widely published at home and abroad. The Boy in The Ring - his debut collection - was published by Salmon Poetry. His website is and you're encouraged to check it out.

Moments before a murder

You could tell I had a criminal intent
by the carefree way I hopped and skipped
across four streaming lanes of cars and trucks
as a man might dance an Irish jig
through the galloping heart of a stampede
and by how, like a child on a green being tugged by a kite
much too quickly up a slope,
I gamboled up the concrete steps
entering the Eurostudent dorm
on my tippy toes

Then when I stood in reception
dashing mustard from the flap of my kebab
onto the cool blue tiles
(not to mention the provocation of the mayonaisse
dribbling from my chin onto my shirt and my shorts
my raggy sandals and my unmatched socks)
it was obvious that I was gone
quite villainously mad

Christ I hadn't shaved or slept or changed my jocks
or cut my hair or brushed my teeth or washed
or done anything but sigh and weep
and drink hot milk and clench my teeth
for going on a month
and now some fucking dam inside had burst
and what was flowing out
was laughter

Laughter gushing from my tongue
Laughter tumbling from my belly
Laughter gouting from my guts
as deliriously as the blood
jets from a hacked artery
I tell you every bone every organ
every cell in my body was giddy
I had to drop to my knees on the floor
I had to lock my hands to my mouth
I had to press my lips to the tiles

but the laughter kept on flooding out invincibly
laughter echoing and echoing and echoing and echoing
echoing up six marble flights of stairs
echoing round the building's underworld of Egyptian cleaning ladies,
Congolese janitors, Macedonian chambermaids, Moroccan
watch sellers,
echoing under the locked doors of Albanians and Slavs, their secret
echoing over a Polish biophysicist carrying a bag of poisonous fish
echoing past an Irish dipso walking hand in hand with a
Nigerian princess
echoing through a debate on human rights between a Scotswoman
and a Portugese
echoing at the Finnish breakfast on the balcony of bread and smokey
ham and cheese
echoing by a game of poker played by Germans Swiss and Swedes
laughter laughter laughter laughter
echoing echoing echoing echoing
like a tannoy announcing the end of all tears
like a train of hooting howling ghouls
all in bententangled stitches at the world

When I raised myself back up again
I was dizzy with the sudden weightlessness
I was as light as a helium balloon
and I found that I could moonwalk up the stairs
so I bounced from landing up to landing
as if the twelve step flights were little red hillocks on mars
which was some relief
for a man who had been walking
with a stoop for six long weeks
who had been crooked underneath
the weight of his own coffin
It's hard to carry a coffin on your own

but this bouncing trip upset the Albanian heiress
I was in love with
and she quickly scurried upwards,
her rattle-tail beating out a rapid rhythm on the steps,
to report the incident to the office of the minister her brother
who held the east and the west as having different
and totally incompatible histories of love

but it wasn't long and I was over the loss
and when I twice belched loudly
in the direction of a passing ring
of popular guys and beautiful girls
someone surely should have phoned the police
and if they had come and arrested me
and took a little peek inside my head
before I'd achieved my chamber
the nice policemen would have seen
how comical how farcical
this whole world really is to the dead

and really I think they would have had problems
ever again breaking the faces of students
or raising those you're-so-intelligent chuckles
at the bitternonsensical comments of judges
or even getting themselves up out of bed
for they'd have seen how everything everything everything is
just a string of oozy melting beads
in an almost endless chain
strung together in a river
that's pouring all the way
round the almost interminable bends
from the suicidal bang at the origin
to the last screech of light
being sucked
into an eye
at the end

but then the nice policemen did not come
for with all the phones
no-one thought to ring them up
and anyways I now realise
the crime was never dying by my choice
but was the pure unfiddled-with release
I got for giving in to death

for nairy a roaring ocean full of stout
nor a moony mountain lake of laudanum
nor twenty sheets of Timmy Leary's LSD
nor an artic lorry loaded with cocaine
nor even fucking your most flexible lover
all night on the purest of E
could reach that supersensational peak
that complete unassailable high
that I had received from death
in return
for agreeing to die

poem by Dave Lordan

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Poetry Focus: Seán Rafferty

Seán Rafferty by Alistair Noon

The Scottish poet Seán Rafferty was born a century ago today, on February 5th, 1909. At Edinburgh University in the early 1930s he impressed Sorley MacLean with what the latter would later recall as “his brilliance in the Hugh Selwyn Mauberly manner of Pound.” Over a half-century later, MacLean could still recite long sections of Rafferty’s early Mauberlyesque The Return to Wittenberg. But MacLean was also careful to point to Rafferty’s future development, mentioning “some very different poems that were perhaps adumbrations of his mature poetry, than which nothing could be more different from the early Pound.” Here’s one poem that for me is quite distinctively Rafferty in the way it combines lyricism and simplicity of diction with a subtle idiosyncrasy of syntax:

Who walk this side of silence still?
long since to sleep a day’s work done
across the fields over the hill
the harvesters are home and gone.
Who walk this side of silence still?

The harvesters are home and gone;
their meadows sleep till early light
the water sleeps beside the stone.
Who calls this late their last goodnight?
the harvesters are home and gone.

Who call this late their last goodnight?
their roads are dark, how far their bed?
Listen. Beyond our blindfold sight
are they the living we the dead.
Who call this late their last goodnight?

Living in London during the 1930s and 40s, Rafferty began to write music hall songs whose humour has survived surprisingly well, not least because of a formal control well above par. His first wife died on V.E. Day in 1945, giving sad occasion to a string of superb lyrical elegies.

Having remarried, he and his second wife moved to Devon where they ran a country pub. Some of the characters who propped up the bar come vividly, sometimes hilariously to life in a series of pub poems. After retiring from the pub, he tended a garden on a farm for city children. He became friends with his neighbour Ted Hughes, who sent Rafferty’s poems to PN Review. He died one winter evening in 1993, while walking home.

With friends and admirers like Hughes and MacLean, you might have thought that the path to fame would have been, if not easy, then at least eased, but Rafferty’s publishing history was erratic in the extreme. Early magazine publications were followed only towards the end of his life by a couple of small press chapbooks and a posthumous Collected from Carcanet. Partially, perhaps, this was down to a very self-effacing nature – he seems to have taken the Emily Dickinson / Franz Kafka route of heads-down-and-write with little regard to publishing success. Poems, from Etruscan Books, is in print and the thing to get.

A poet who never gave readings but had all his poems in his head, his poems ooze orality. Feeling, form and a sense of both personal and wider history come together in Rafferty in a rare way. I find it easy to imagine his best pieces in an anthology of British poetry of the 20th century.

Alistair Noon edited last year’s online symposium on Seán Rafferty at Intercapillary Space, which is reissued today as an e-chapbook. At the Emptying of Dustbins was recently published by Oystercatcher Press; it will be reviewed at Eyewear.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Buddy Holly's Eyewear

The great pop musician Buddy Holly died 50 years ago today. That's a sombre anniversary, but a date worth recalling. Holly literally touched several generations of major musicians with his brief - shockingly brief - career - and, in the process, generated enduring rock and roll classics, as well as a style and look that are for all time. I don't want to dwell here on the music - though I love his songs, and recall first playing my Mom's Holly 45s on her old player when I was a kid - but pause to note how significant Holly was for eyewear.

It is not clear to me whether Holly was being entirely ironic when he donned his horn-rimmed specs, but he is arguably the first icon of popular culture to be directly associated with glasses as part of his signature look - though he is roughly simultaneous with TV's Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko. I am sure that most movie stars only wore sunglasses, and few stars of any kind would be caught dead wearing optical devices (perhaps a monocle). Holly's glasses-use helped to cement his image, as young, and different.

It's been called geek-chic, but then I think it was more profound. Others wore glasses, too - Orbison, of course, but almost regretfully in his case - and later, Nana Mouskouri, Elvis Costello, Peter Sellers, and John Hegley, among others, adopted glasses as part of their act. I have to include myself in this category.

All of us, who wear glasses - for need and for style - owe Holly a profound debt of thanks, for making glasses such an integral part of pop culture, at such an early stage. In his unapologetic employment of spectacles during his performances, Holly put how he looked - in both ways - at the heart of his spectacular work.

Chapman on Who: A New Smith in the TARDIS

Patrick Chapman considers the 11th "official" Doctor

In Bruce Robinson’s 1986 film, Withnail & I, Uncle Monty says to his nephew, “It is the most shattering experience of a young man's life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself: ‘I will never play the Dane!’ When that moment comes one’s ambition ceases.” These days, you could justifiably exchange the word ‘Dane’ for ‘Doctor’ and not many people would bat an eyelid. Well, maybe Uncle Monty would.

Richard Griffiths, who played Monty, was considered for the role of the Doctor when Tom Baker departed it in 1981. The actors who played Withnail and ‘I’, both went on to actually essay the role. Paul McGann was the dashing, Byronic, Eighth Doctor in the 1996 BBC/Fox telemovie pilot that, despite excellent ratings in the UK, didn’t go to series. In 2003, Richard E. Grant played the Ninth Doctor as a sort of jaded, Holmesian figure in Paul Cornell’s BBC webcast animation, Scream of the Shalka. This appeared just before the BBC announced a live-action continuation of the original series which had been put on hiatus in 1989 after a run of 26 years. Overseen by Russell T. Davies for BBC Wales, the revival would mean that the Shalka Doctor was relegated to unofficial status.

Davies’s first Doctor made his debut in 2005, played by Christopher Eccleston, a serious actor who gave Who instant credibility with the public. The show had become something of a guilty pleasure in the preceding two decades but Eccleston’s lone series as the Doctor left its mark. Now the part was one that attracted the top talent in the country. Eccleston’s bravura performance, along with some highly imaginative writing, reclaimed for Doctor Who its home at the heart of Saturday night. His ability to switch from manic comedy to fearsome intensity, had established his version of the Doctor as a favourite with children. When Eccleston left, how could anyone step into his shoes?

The answer came at the end of the first series of the revived show, when the Ninth Doctor saved his companion by taking fatal time-vortex energy from her body into his, and changed into David Tennant’s Tenth. A younger actor who had worked with Davies before, Tennant was a lifelong fan who not only made the part his own within his first few seconds of screen time, but soon had kids referring to Eccleston as the ‘old’ Doctor. He also became something of an unlikely heartthrob, and the popularity of the show only increased. It regularly gets audiences of over ten million, and has given rise to two successful spinoff shows, an empire of merchandising, and practically its own film industry based in Cardiff.

As it happens, Tennant famously went on to play the Dane, to much critical acclaim. I had the pleasure of seeing his Hamlet at the RSC last autumn, and was struck by the subtlety of his performance at the head of a seriously talented cast that also included Patrick Stewart, Mariah Gale and Oliver Ford Davies.

Now Tennant himself is leaving Doctor Who at the end of this year’s special episodes. Davies is departing too while new showrunner Steven Moffat takes over, with a new actor in the lead. On the third of January, nearly seven million people tuned in to an episode of Doctor Who Confidential, to see the Eleventh Doctor named as 26-year-old Matt Smith. (It’s a mark of how successfully re-established Doctor Who is that a show about the show can get such figures.) Incidentally, regular viewers will know that this is not the first time someone called Smith has occupied the TARDIS, ‘John Smith’ being an alias used by the Doctor since his second incarnation. There have also of course been companions called Smith: Mickey and Sarah Jane.

Change has been the hallmark of Doctor Who for over 45 years and Matt Smith is the latest incarnation of a character that evolves like no other. This is thanks to the by now well-known concept of regeneration, a plot device introduced in 1966 when the original Doctor, William Hartnell, had to leave because of illness. Rather than end the programme, the makers came up with the idea that when the Doctor’s body got ‘worn out’ he could change his appearance and his personality, although he was still the same man. I wasn’t around for the transition from Hartnell to Patrick Troughton’s impish Second Doctor, and was too young to remember the introduction of the action-man Third Doctor played by Jon Pertwee. My first regeneration was that from Pertwee, who was killed by an alien spider, into Tom Baker’s Fourth. Like many young viewers, it took me a while to trust this interloper but by the end of his first adventure, Robot, I was sold. Baker’s eccentric portrayal of the Doctor went on to become definitive. He was to his period of the show what Tennant is to ours. Baker stayed seven years in the part so that by the time his Doctor fell off a radio telescope and regenerated into the younger Peter Davison, the audience was probably quite ready.

Still, at 29, Davison was the youngest actor in the role to date and some worried that he was too young to portray this ancient character. Yet in the old series he was probably the best actor as the Doctor, combining innocence with a thousand-year-wisdom. His interpretation remains many people’s favourite. When writer Steven Moffat brought him back a couple of years ago in Time Crash, a special scene for Children in Need, the public’s affection for the Fifth was still very much there. In this short vignette, Davison’s Time Lord encounters Tennant’s, who breaks the fourth wall by declaring, ‘You were my Doctor.’

Davison's Doctor regenerated as a result of poisoning when he sacrificed himself to save his companion. After his tenure, there followed troubled times. The Sixth Doctor was a sort of arrogant buffoon with terrible dress sense, but the actor, Colin Baker, did as well as he could with what he was given. The scripts were not always quite as scintillating as they might have been, and the production values were little better than videotaped theatre. This low-budget approach had until now been part of the show’s charm but in the age of Lucas and Spielberg, BBC Controller Michael Grade was embarrassed by it and decided to give the tatty old show a rest. There was an outcry, and a really rather ill-advised charity single called ‘Doctor in Distress’ which was designed to alert the public to the Doctor’s plight. After eighteen months, the Sixth Doctor returned but lasted only one more series before the powers-that-be sacked the actor, blaming him for the declining popularity and quality of the show. Colin Baker was asked to do a regeneration scene but demurred. The following series opened with his much smaller replacement on the floor of the TARDIS, wearing a curly Sixth-Doctor wig, having banged his head. It didn’t take much to kill a Doctor in those days.

Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy, in contrast to Baker, started off as a bit of a clown. Known for his work in children’s entertainment programmes, McCoy had been brought in to lighten the tone of the show. A couple of series in though, under the guidance of new script editor Andrew Cartmel, McCoy’s Doctor became darker and more textured, and ended as quite a successful iteration of the character. In the dying days of the series, writers such as Marc Platt crafted intricate and challenging stories for a show that was finally regaining its creative edge, though there were missteps along the way. McCoy reprised his role briefly in the telemovie, offering a more rounded performance before dying in a hail of bullets and regenerating into McGann's Eighth.

While never officially cancelled, Doctor Who was put on indefinite hiatus in 1989. There was a failed revival attempt called 'The Dark Dimension,' which was replaced at the last minute by an embarrassing crossover with EastEnders for Children in Need in 1993. The rest was silence.

Except it wasn’t. A continuation of the ‘Cartmel Masterplan’ designed in the series proper to bring mystery back to the character, formed the beginnings of a series of novels which took the Doctor into the nineties. Among the writers were fans such as Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss and Russell T Davies; who would all be involved later in the show’s creative and popular renaissance on television. The Paul McGann pilot proved a stylistic bridge between the old show and the modern series and, while Americanised, was successful in updating the show for the audience of the time. Meanwhile, in 1999, Big Finish were granted the licence to make audio adventures of Doctor Who, featuring old Doctors in new adventures. (I wrote one of these in 2006, Fear of the Daleks). Also in 1999, that man again, Steven Moffat wrote a spoof for Red Nose Day, called ‘Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death,’ an affectionate parody starring Jonathan Pryce as arch-nemesis the Master, Julia Sawalha as the companion; and as various regenerations of the Doctor, Rowan Atkinson, Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley. It was all good fun, but it looked like that was the end as far as the Doctor was concerned, until Shalka, and Davies' brilliant relaunch.

The constants in Doctor Who have always been the character of the Doctor, his regenerations, the companions, the monsters, and time travel via the TARDIS. Change is in the show’s DNA. It can go anywhere, any time, and be anything. Doctor Who started as an educational adventure series for children but by its second story the Daleks had arrived, and they weren't giving homework. In the modern series, this element of evolution was brought home through Eccleston’s regeneration into Tennant. Now it’s time for another transformation and the moment has been prepared for.

When Matt Smith was announced, some newspapers asked the question ‘Doctor Who?’ But that was something of a knee-jerk reaction. Bookies had been giving odds on everyone from Paterson Joseph, to Chiwetel Ejiofor, to Catherine Zeta Jones. It is another measure of how seriously this show is taken now that such names are in the frame at all. Smith had hardly figured in the betting. Five years ago, an established actor was needed to re-introduce the character. Now the Doctor is once again so much part of popular culture that he can be played by an actor known for little else, which gives a sense of renewal to the series. Matt Smith is an inspired choice, clearly talented on stage and on camera, but without the baggage of wide recognition. There’s a Doctorish quality to his demeanour, which is an elusive something you either have or you don’t. What that means depends on who’s asking. The Doctor is in the eye of the beholder.

Of course the success of the modern show also depends on the writing. Davies’ own episodes were often brilliant, not to mention sometimes cheerfully insane. His home run of audacious stories at the end of the last series was remarkable, with ‘Midnight’ and ‘Turn Left’ being among the best in the show’s entire history. Steven Moffat takes over as someone else who can make Who original and great. One of the best writers working in British television today, Moffat’s CV includes children’s classic Press Gang, the smart yet warm-hearted sitcom Coupling, the chilling Jekyll and the new Tintin movie. When the WGA writers’ strike meant a clash of commitments, he chose the TARDIS over doing a second Tintin script for Spielberg, who understood completely. Moffat’s episodes have been the show’s cleverest and best-written, regularly winning Hugo Awards. The 'gas-mask' boy from 'The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances'; and the clockwork robots running a spaceship on human flesh, from 'Girl in the Fireplace,' were creepy and inspired. ‘Blink’ terrifies kids with its Weeping Angel statues that, like inverted gorgons, can get you if you don't look at them. The Vashta Nerada from last year’s two-parter, ‘Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead’ make children afraid of their very shadows. Those safe scares are what great fairy stories are all about. Doctor Who tells some of the best.

As to the question of Matt Smith’s tender years, it is not exactly the most shattering experience of an older man’s life when, one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself: ‘The guy playing the Doctor is now younger than me.’ But it is perhaps one reason why some people, on hearing that a 26-year old is to take on the best role in British television, ask ‘Who?’

Patrick Chapman is an Irish poet and short story writer.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Something There Is That Doesn't Love A Snowman

The snowman we made last night had been trampled this morning when we awoke, by a chaos of children. His twig arms lay under snow like avalanche victims. His carroty nose was simply no longer present at the scene. His small stone eyes were unaccounted for. He was a gone snowman. He was the snowman who wasn't there. What drives someone to eradicate a snowman? Is it the nature of the materials? Is being built of snow an invitation to break what will melt into air anyway? Nature abhors a melting creature. What isn't solid gets knocked down to size. Molecules scatter, crystals dissipate, the melting white gentle thing dissolves and is forgotten, in the blizzard that is creation, in the murder that is the blizzard. One has to have a mind like an icepick to pick apart a snowman, or just be a wild child, running across snow, perhaps never so deeply seen before. Snowmen are invisible in snow, like poems are in a world of prose.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Snow General Over England

I had some friends over today, one a poet, and we drank lots of wine, ate, and then they left. There was also a dog, and some children, and some crayon drawings on a lamp, by the end of it. Then as snow began falling, I read some new books. Farewell My Lovely, a new book of poems by Polly Clark, which I found exceptionally moving and well-made, with couplets that burst with surprising dark images of loss; and the new Faber debut, by Emma Jones, which seems quite good, though influenced by Wallace Stevens, and perhaps fussy and whimsical (the use of the word "fictive" in several poems is very Stevensian). Some of her poems use tropical flourishes and explorations of doubles and perception in the usual fun and clever ways; I always love both snow and tropical things in poems. Then I started reading The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolano, who died recently. I saw a copy of his 2666 in the Tate the other night (Rothko!) and have found his book very fun, if a little sad: first reaction - it is about poets - a famous novel about poets! - how sad, I know 189 poets who get drunk and could write circles around most novelists and will die generally unread outside the small lamplit circle that follows poetry - and how true the novel was to youth. It reminded me a little of the work of Robert Allen (his novels), who died at 60, but unfamous. Anyway, the snow reminds me of Canada, and of Montreal, and I miss my friends there, and I hope the snow keeps falling so all of England is closed tomorrow, and the children throw snowballs all day, and all the poets can stay home, and write their secret novels, or read the books they want to catch up on. At one point I got up from my book, ran out, and was hit by a snowball thrown by the woman I love, and I threw one back, but somehow hers had more weight, more force, and were more consistently rolled.


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...