Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Nicole Brossard At Foyles Bookshop 31 March


Acclaimed Montreal-based poet, novelist and essayist Nicole Brossard will tour the UK and Ireland this spring. In addition to participating in the British Association for Canadian Studies’ annual conference at Oxford University, the author of Mauve Desert and The Aerial Letter will read and sign books in London.

On 31 March, Foyles, the London bookstore, will hold an event entitled 'In Conversation With Nicole Brossard.' The event will be hosted by Montreal anglophone poet Todd Swift -- now living in London -- who will also read from his newest book, Seaway. Two-time Governor General's Award winner Nicole Brossard will read excerpts from her novels and poetry, including Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon and Notebook of Roses and Civilization. Audience members are encouraged to bring their questions for the Q&A session that will follow the readings, and to purchase books for signing. The event will be followed by a book signing session.

with readings by Nicole Brossard and Todd Swift
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Foyles Bookshop, 113 - 119 Charing Cross Road
6:30 p.m.

Monday, 30 March 2009

No Bother At All

Jacket's lately been publishing articles and letters defending or questioning Heaney's legacy and poetics. There is even a letter from poet Jamie McKendrick. I can't help but feel the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot. There is a bigger picture, and a bigger struggle, and using Heaney as strawman/ punching bag (or Holy Grail) is just not on. Jeffrey Side, who knows his stuff, has set up a rather obvious Movement vs. New Romantic/Apocalypse historical binary. Histories of modernism are more various and complex than that, as Robert Scholes has shown us. Empson defended Dylan Thomas; Larkin adored Yeats (that sort of thing).

The problem is, when poets get stuck into arguing about 50-year-old grievances, it becomes as intractable as The Middle East - with the difference that the ground has shifted. The real problem, which Heaney typifies for critics like Side, is that there does seem to be a smug, conservative establishment at work in certain parts of the British poetry publishing world - and it is tedious and unilluminating to constantly see the same faces and positions marketed as "mainstream" (and therefore rather safe) to the general public. Side is also correct to observe that this Tradition tends to dislike stylistic excess, poetic artifice, and avant-gardism - though it often represent aspects of High Modernism. But much else is currently going on in British poetry, well-between the poles of extreme-Prynnism and ultra-Faberism.

Side should really be critically reading Peter Porter, if he wants to examine the High Priest of Neo-classical Empiricism. Porter, now 80, is a master craftsman and crafty interlocutor of all things not-quite-right, and also has a new Picador book out, called Better Than God - which makes Don Paterson's immodest title God's Gift To Women appear almost, well, Christian. The mistake that those, like Side, make, when they start exposing Heaney's "poetic" as being conservative, or old-fashioned, or whatever, is that they forget two things: a) most people who read poetry think Seamus Heaney is a wonderful person and immensely talented; b) Heaney writes brilliantly crafted poetry that is some of the most aesthetically and politically subtle of the last 40 years - perhaps the most so. Puzzling over Heaney, as if he was a sham, or a hoax, won't do. His criticism, I agree, is notoriously parsimonious, and full of odd decisive mandates - like a clenched Ezra Pound's A Few Dos and Dont's.

But Heaney's poetry is bigger than that. His poetry is far more stylish, even ornate, than he might care to admit (but which Alvarez observed). I think Heaney is not as great as Yeats or Kavanagh, but clearly, one of the four or five best Irish poets of the 20th century (Muldoon would be there too). He's clearly the major British/Irish traditional "lyric" poet of his generation, and won't be budged from that canonical seat by smug potshots from the lollipop brigade - but nor does he need smug defense either. Heaney needs to be made less canonical, by reading him strangely. That may happen, in 20 or 30 years.

Meanwhile, less ad hominem, from all sides, would be useful. And I do agree with Side - poets needn't be rooted in normality to be excellent - and, for that matter, how many ever, really, were and are?

Third Wish Wasted

I've been reading Roddy Lumsden's fifth collection, Third Wish Wasted, which was launched on Friday. It's seriously good. Or rather, playfully good. Or both. Is there a better mainstream poet of his British generation, currently practicing now? Many might think so, I am not so sure. This new book is so full of word games, and new forms (charismatics, for instance), and delights for the mind and ear.

The poems are rich, sonorous, and always musical - though music varies, and so do these poems. Music, of course, is Lumsden's favoured realm - as is love, from sour to sweet - and how song and love merge well. This isn't a review, just a tip of the hat. Anyone reading Lumsden's work is likely to learn a few tricks of the trade. His growing oeuvre is increasingly exciting. I'd say he was a poet's poet, but his work is popular with more than just poets. Meanwhile, a whole younger generation of London-area poets has been tutored by him, and made better in the process.

By the way, I was astonished to read that Poetry had published 13 (!) of these poems previously - he also seems to be one of the UK poets most making headway in America. Others may claim to be the British Muldoon, but if Lumsden keeps going like this, he may, instead, be the heir to that ludic mantle.

Maurice Jarre Has Died

Sad news. One of the greatest film composers has died. Jarre created the music for three of the most sweeping Lean epics - Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and A Passage to India - as well as countless other films and TV series (such as the classic Jesus of Nazareth) - some of rather mediocre quality at best. But his best scores (including Topaz, Witness, and The Year of Living Dangerously) are unforgettable and always improved the films they were composed for. Most significantly, the marriage of the desert imagery and his momentous music, in Lawrence, must count as some of the most romantic cellulloid ever.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Jenna Butler On Rubicon Press

Rubicon is celebrating its 21st publication and so I asked poet, editor and
small press publisher Jenna Butler to write an article for Eyewear on her
experiences with the press.
In the early spring of 2005, I began Rubicon Press with poet Yvonne Blomer in order to publish a collection of poetry from the MA in Creative Writing: Poetry at the University of East Anglia in England. When Yvonne and I moved back home to Canada after completing our degrees and decided to take the press along with us, I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that it would flourish in the way it has. At just four years young, Rubicon Press has just released its 21st chapbook.

We decided to produce chapbooks (as they are called in the UK, pamphlets) because they’re akin to tasters of poets’ work. Chapbooks can be designed to create an immensely strong reader response in a very small space. Again, because of its short length, the chapbook format allows us to work closely with poets on both the editing and design processes in a way that larger trade presses cannot. We’re able to dialogue with our poets not just about their work, but about their vision of how they would like to have it presented on the page.

The growth and change of the press has paralleled the shifts in our own lives since returning to Canada. Among the many changes, Yvonne became the mother of a beautiful little boy. I stepped back from a career in educational administration to write and edit full-time. In much the same way, we took on a lot through the press. There were many years when we said in September that we’d like to publish four books over the course of the year, to balance the time available in our busy lives. But there’s so much intriguing poetry out there, we’d often find ourselves releasing twice that number of books in a year.

Although our mandate has remained the same since the start – to work alongside our poets to edit and create the books they had in mind during the writing process – our book design has undergone a great shift over the past year. We want the books we create to visually reflect and honour the poetry they contain, and so we’ve sought to raise the quality of our books with imported papers, silk-paper flyleaves, improved layout and cover design, etc. At the same time, we’ve managed to keep our retail book costs at a very reasonable level, which allows us to stay true to our guiding principle: to share great poetry and beautiful books with people from all walks of life, all around the world.

We’ve been fortunate to have been able to achieve our goal of publishing internationally: we have published new and celebrated poets from six countries, and many of our chapbooks have gone on to sell several hundred copies around the world. Our little press has been featured in national and provincial magazines, and has been mentioned several times on national radio.

We’ve been fortunate to publish work by luminaries such as Sheila E. Murphy (USA); Dipika Mukherjee (The Netherlands); George Szirtes (England); George Bowering (Canada); Alan Loney (Australia); and Eyewear’s own Todd Swift (England), plus a host of amazingly talented newcomers. And we’ve been able to do it all through the kind support of readers who adore poetry. As we’re a chapbook press, we do not qualify for any government arts funding. It’s definitely a labour of love (we both volunteer our time), but one we cannot imagine living without.

It’s an incredible feeling, being privileged enough to have rafts of poetry manuscripts arriving at my door every week. I’m grateful to all those who have supported Rubicon Press in the past, and who continue to allow us to do what we love best: publishing phenomenal poetry, in beautiful books, for people around the globe.

Jenna Butler
Editor, Rubicon Press
Edmonton, Canada
March 2009

Friday, 27 March 2009

Review: Fever Ray

It is possible you have not heard of Fever Ray - I hadn't until today, when I read a review in The Guardian. Since then I have "spotifyed" the album, and am currently entranced. As the aforementioned review mentions, this is a work of rare and complex beauty - with echoes of the more experimental textures of the 80s.

I am particularly struck by the aspects that sound like Duet Emmo, or indeed, many artists from Mute. It seems to combine aurally the electronic and the environmental in a way, that, too, later Talk Talk explored. Bjork, of course, seems the most direct seam mined.

At times, there are also more contemporary nods to TV On The Radio. In the process - and importantly from an eco-feminist perspective - it goes further, perhaps, especially in writing and singing about motherhood, childhood, and other "less rock" subjects - extending the politics of pop form. Fever Ray, the album, feels like a major musical event of the moment. It certainly sounds a lot more like a work dealing with the world now - humanely but ultra-imaginatively - than most recent releases, proving that the lyrical and the innovative can fuse helpfully.

Poem by Giles Goodland

I am very pleased to welcome the poet Giles Goodland (pictured) this Friday.

Goodland's work, in some ways, ravels up a few of the themes of the last few weeks' posts - particularly, the Forties, the environment, and capitalism. He is a London-based poet who has had several books published over the last two decades. Littoral (1996, Oversteps) is a walking prose and poetry notebook from the South West Coast. A Spy in the House of Years (Leviathan, 2001) is a sequence of 100 sonnets, one for each year of the Twentieth Century, each sonnet collaged from 14 quotations originating in a particular year (parts were recently anthologised in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, ed. Jeff Hilson). Capital (Salt, 2006) collages uses of the concept of Capital from ephemeral publications over the last twenty years. What the Things Sang is due this year from Shearsman.

I've known Goodland for several years now, and read with him on a few occasions - once memorably in Berlin. I've been glad to include his work on an Oxfam poetry CD, and at Nthposition. I believe he is one of the best British poets of his time. I also think he's almost unique in being engaged with the lyric, and the prose poem, at equal levels of stylish achievement. Goodland's father was an imporant poetry editor of Seven Magazine, in the 30s-40s, with Nicholas Moore, and he himself went on to get a PhD from Oxford studying that wartime period. He currently works for the OED.

we are in a sea of sound that laps us & we swim in music
we swim in music & each song has its glossary
each song has its glossary & all flags are the same
all flags are the same & nothing makes anything
nothing makes anything & poetry makes poets happen
poetry makes poets happen & lines float down
lines float down & time sometimes deepens
time sometimes deepens & the river runs more slowly
the river runs more slowly & the car hits morning with a snarl
the car hits morning with a snarl & the streetlights turn off in front
the streetlights turn off in front & the sky fills with language
the sky fills with language & each tree is a wholly owned subsidiary
each tree is a wholly owned subsidiary & you are travelling through light
you are travelling through night & silence is a balance of opposed forces
silence is a balance of opposed forces & I’m an impression the air gets
I’m an impression the air gets & a house swallows me sometimes
a house swallows me sometimes & each human shoulders the next
each human shoulders the next & we come to the gate marked world
we come to the gate marked world & you lose your weight in skin-cells
you lose your weight in skin-cells & you are mostly dust
you are mostly dust & you surf channels
you surf channels & mountains pull inside
mountains pull inside & you are contained by the air outside
you are contained by the air outside & night is engraved in the eyelid
night is engraved in the eyelid & days are painted on the eyeball
days are painted on the eyeball & there should be a chronology of space
there should be a chronology of space & there must be a map of time
there must be a map of time & dreams require no proof
dreams require no proof & a person operates as a universe
a person operates as a universe & the space between thought is infinite
the space between thought is infinite & the shape of shapes is indeterminate
the shape of shapes is indeterminate & space has no enemies
space has no enemies & lines of force never intersect
lines of force never intersect & what cannot be repeated is true
what cannot be repeated is true & you’re momentarily aware of a secret task
you’re momentarily aware of a secret task & the dead are happy in their silence
the dead are happy in their silence & there is illumination in decay
there is illumination in decay & seconds end with a whoom of blood
seconds end with a whoom of blood & I move as much as the sea
I move as much as the sea & what I say solidifies
what I say solidifies & you feel time's heat on the hand
you feel time's heat on the hand & there’s a sound for each feeling
there’s a sound for each feeling & these sounds are not words
these sounds are not words & to sigh is to sing in snake language
to sigh is to sing in snake language & to sniff is to whistle in dog-talk
to sniff is to whistle in dog-talk & silence dissolves into earth
silence dissolves into earth & clouds are the thoughts of hills
clouds are the thoughts of hills & you are earthed to peaches on their trees
you are earthed to peaches on their trees & one bite roots you to stone
one bite roots you to stone & so many doors to burst through
so many doors to burst through & when I push the last sleep spills from my eyes
when I push the last sleep spills from my eyes & nothing makes anything.

poem by Giles Goodland; from his forthcoming collection What The Things Sang

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Poets Without Children

I have been thinking lately of poets - and other writers - without children. The world is such a fertile place, and April's cruel green shoots are coming. Yet, T.S. Eliot had no children - a fact I find less commented on than might be, since it immediately casts many of his poems about barren and fertile ground into new light. Blake had no children with his wife, either. I note, too that Jane Austen and Karen Blixen did not have children. Neither did Mahmoud Darwish. Or of course, Larkin. Or Emily Dickinson. Or Hart Crane. Among the busy world, many go by without offspring.

Derek Stanford Remembered

Oddly, The Guardian has just today run the obituary of the poet and critic Derek Stanford. Sadly, he died 19 December, 2008. Stanford should be appreciated - among other things - for writing on The Ninties Poets with sympathy, and for his early (1954) study of Dylan Thomas. He is not - I don't think - a major Forties poet, but he was a part of the period, and deserves to be recalled.

Leave The Banks Alone!

This is a Burke vs. Paine moment. The recent shattering of windows in the greedy Scottish banker's mansion may be momentarily thrilling - but as Burke observed, you don't rebuild a house by knocking it down. The plans afoot, to storm the City banks next week, timed to coincide with Obama's visit to London, are entirely misguided. One does not pelt a pilot with stale buns during a crash landing. The time to restructure the capitalist system is tomorrow. And slowly. Today we should be speaking and planning, together, how to locate a globally-sustaining ideology, or system, to allow for the world to continue managing the many forces straining against each other. Yes, we need to enter into a post-capitalist world. I am a post-capitalist. However, radicalism in the streets should not be simply a wasted resource. Best to conserve that radicalism for a revolution of minds. Put it in writing, not through someone's window pane.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Like A Prayer

For those who want to feel old, consider this: today marks the 20th anniversary of Madonna's Number One Hit, "Like A Prayer" - in the sense that it stayed at #1 until Easter, on 26th March. The album, of the same title, is considered by many to be one of the greatest pop albums of all time, and the song itself - despite or because of its wedding of religiosity and carnality - is sometimes considered Madonna's finest.

Personally, I prefer "Dress You Up". Her claim that "life is a mystery / everyone must stand alone" is at once religious and nihilistic. The cover of the album is, itself, a striking example of this. Madonna is famous for her anti/Christian puns and dress sense - and in some ways matches Donne or Leonard Cohen, in that department. She also favours simile. "Like A Virgin", surely, forms the basis for this later song. Her "down on my knees/ I want to take you there" it should be said was substantially borrowed from "Tainted Love".

Is Madonna ironic? Hard to say - she is very blatant, and obviously a materialist, pragmatist, and capitalist. Her 80s and 90s excesses (this song the bridge) are somewhat unfashionable now. Still, she remains, 20 years on, a superb entertainer (and dubious moralist) - and a user of paradox. In some ways, Madonna is an heir to Wilde - the use of masks, and outrageous statement, and sexual motifs concealed barely by overwrought style. Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" from 1889 - 120 years ago - perhaps tells us what we need to know of Madonna's art: Art never expresses anything but itself .

Monday, 23 March 2009

Guest Review: Jackson On Jordan

Samantha Jackson reviews
by Meirion Jordan

Meirion Jordan’s Moonrise is a superbly wrought debut collection that demonstrates a masterful craftsmanship that surpasses Jordan’s years (born in 1985). Under the shadow of the moon, Jordan weaves together seemingly discordant parts, deftly transporting us from poems steeped in natural imagery such as ‘Hawthorns Blossoming’ and ‘Poppy Field’, to poems that embrace abstract realities, such as ‘Strange Memories of Death’. What’s particularly impressive about this is that it doesn’t jar, it somehow feels ‘normal’ to shift from the iron bedstead in ‘Circe and Odysseus’ through to Aftershock in ‘Pirate music’ and gypsum daises in ‘Another poem about living on Mars’. Jordan gets away with this because his poems are so exquisitely balanced and drawn. Jordan’s background as a mathematician is made clear throught his precision and he is eager for us to pay heed to this.

The very first poem, ‘Calculus’, makes a case for the powerful pairing of poetry and mathematics, through Jordan’s faultless use of mathematical terms against one of the greatest poetic backdrops of all time, the sea. There’s something of G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology in this, in which the famous mathematician argues against the perceived ugliness of mathematics and for its affinity with poetry and art. Although I can see why Jordan felt the need to establish his credentialsas a poet and mathematician from the start, it ironically works against him, in some respects. Because Jordan’s poems really are very good, starting the collection with a poem that essentially seeks to qualify his talents feels somewhat misplaced. Such a poem would work better at the end, after we’ve witnessed just how well he arranges his ‘poetic equations’, so to speak.

With this minor criticism aside, once you get past this initial self-consciousness, one of the few things that betrays his youth, poem after poem serves to showcase his ability and agility as a poet. He’s careful to keep his focus wide and expansive, like the moon. He dabbles in both the expected and unexpected, indulging us in all that we’d expect to find in a moon themed collection – wolves, owls, vampires, tombs – and all that we wouldn’t – Dan Dare, ‘The Nuclear Disaster Appreciation Society’, pirate music. As his title suggests, he really isn’t afraid to take on the moon (most new, young poets would steer far from this theme).

But Jordan doesn’t so much write under the theme of the moon, but over and above it, threading the moon through his work how and when he chooses, be it in oblique reference, ‘Saturn Five’ in ‘Sky writing’, or blatant reference, ‘scrapsof moonlight between curtain’ in ‘Still life’. In a sense, Jordan also takes on the moon in his overt inclusion of poetic influences. He shares the language of Sweeney’s Black Moon, including the angels, gulls and owls that haunt Sweeney's pages, and Auden’s influence lingers very much in Jordan’s handling of form and rhythm – he even goes as far to base part II of ‘The Birnbeck Elegy’directly on Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’. But Jordan wants this to be made clear, that his poems embrace all that went before, that, like the moon and the pull of tides, this isn’t something we can get away from. As he declares in ‘Calculus’, we must somehow ‘wear…the rhythms of the sea’, all that has been before, and from within this search the ‘backwash/for the solidus of flat stones,raising them/firm as words’ to forge something new.

Jordan undoubtedly proves he can do this. He uses each poem in Moonrise to effectively showcase his talent and define his own spaceas a talented young poet. Now he’s done this, his first ‘exhibition’ complete, it will be exciting to see what (and how) this poet/mathematician turns his accomplished hand to next.

Samantha Jackson is a poet and a commissioning editor for Pearson. She has studied English literature and creative writing at UEA, and is an active member of the poetry community in London.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Grand Slam!

Perhaps one of the greatest Six Nations rugby games of all time has just ended, with Ireland winning their first Grand Slam since 1948, against Wales. The game was only won in the last few seconds. Great effort all around. Bravo.

Side Lines

Jeffrey Side has a post on Heaney and the avant-garde that may be of interest to Eyewear's readers.

Seaway reviewed in Orbis #146

I am glad to read that Seaway has recieved a two-paragraph mention in a round-up of books by Nessa O'Mahony, the Irish poet, in the latest Orbis, #146.

Motion Unbound

Andrew Motion has been a poet laureate that Eyewear could deal with - in the way that Pound had commerce with Whitman.

Motion has been good - more or less - for poetry in Britain, 1999-2009. His most important work may have been his poetry about bullying, and the Iraq War (related themes), but for most people, the Poetry Archive will seem the lasting monument. I personally regret never having been asked to record for that Archive, but then again, nothing about the poetry establishment in the UK will ever surprise me - I have lived here for over 6 years, and am still treated like an arriviste every day.

Anyway, back to Motion, whose support of my work with Oxfam and those poetry CDs was instrumental. His agreement to read at the first-ever Oxfam event way back in 2004 (five years ago now) meant that Wendy Cope also came onboard, as well as Agbabi and Dark. After that event, all the other great and talented poets were more willing to appear. I think Motion is a very fine, serious poet, and a complex, deeply intelligent, and sensitive man. I also think he is somewhat old-fashioned, but in a flexible and open-eyed way; he tried to more than cope with the rapid changes of our times - and embraced new poetics, and media, more often than not.

This post is occasioned by his article in The Guardian, today, marking his coming retirement. It's refreshingly honest, though perhaps still guarded (more will come later I assume). For one thing, he suggests that Hughes' "great poet" status may be a disservice to the man and work (which is ironic, since no one has done more in these isles to establish Heaney's great poet status than Motion, with, I think similar results there).

Another thing he points out is how negatively journalists, even the top editors, approach poetry, and poems - they are not news, and to be news, they need to be mocked or undermined. I have a similar thought. Recently, after launching The Manhattan Review Young British Poets anthology in London - and the night was a resounding success - a journalist approached me, to say he had wanted to write an article for The Sunday Times about the new generation of young poets, but his editor "didn't like poetry and thought it was dead" so had killed the story.

Too many UK journalists are sour on poetry, and infect the good news with their own toxins. In this way, the lively and burgeoning poetry communities of the UK, in all their variety and passion are daily diminished.

I agree with Motion that poetry, as he writes today, is an essential aspect of being human - or can be. Religion, poetry, myth, dance, music, drawing - all such "primitive" aspects of our imaginative existence tend to be shunted aside in a world devoted to management-speak, consumption and commerce, and science on the march - which is tragic, especially now, at a time when it is becoming evident that industry and science has gifted the world with an unpayable bill, and global warming may - Heaven forbid! - destroy us.

One thing nags at me, though, about Motion's complaint that writing engaged lyric poems about the Royals was taxing (for him, nearly impossible apparently) - it seems hard to fathom. I don't understand it, myself. Obviously, Motion believes poems must be occasioned by organically-sympathetic experiences, in much the same way as Wordsworth. If he followed the more mechanistic line of Larkin, let alone someone more ludic, or artifice-interested, like VF-T, he could well have created fascinating texts about the Royal Family - unmoored from any personal connection, true, but no less poetic in their exploration of language. The connection between spontaneous inspiration and poetic achievement that Motion inscribes in this essay will, in a small way, limit how poetry is understood in Britain - or, rather, reinforce 200-year-old beliefs.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Poem by Michael S. Begnal

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Michael S. Begnal (pictured) this week - a week in which I returned from Galway, Ireland, where for so long he worked and wrote and was such a a poetic influence. This is something of a milestone, as he is also our 151st featured poet!

Begnal is the author of three poetry collections - in reverse chronological order: Ancestor Worship (Salmon, 2007), Mercury, the Dime (Six Gallery Press, 2005), and The Lakes of Coma (Six Gallery Press, 2003).

He is included in the anthologies Breaking the Skin: New Irish Poetry (Black Mountain Press, 2002) and, in the Irish language, Go Nuige Seo (Coiscéim, 2004, 2005). He is also included in the essay collection, Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under “Post-” Conditions (Litteraria Pragensia, 2006), and edited Honeysuckle, Honeyjuice: A Tribute to James Liddy (Arlen House, 2006). Begnal was also formerly the editor of the Galway, Ireland-based literary magazine, The Burning Bush (1998-2004).

The Fluctuations

they warp you sere & black,
they sear you from the inside
that part of the body

a transmigration of soul,
lost genealogies, rocky estuary, the Iron Language,
rain, a structuring gloom — GONE

the fluctuations/
(running through the trenches)
a torrent in a dark room, breath pouring through,
alone in that room don’t know how again

(it’s the fluctuations)
the zephyrs in the night,
the curtains blowing in somebody else’s window,
the charry dry alleys

death & loss dripping from eyes,
death & loss seeping from lungs,
death & loss in your twisted black guts like shit,
in the stark stochastic scald

poem by Michael S. Begnal

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Guest Review: Smith On Quintavalle

Barbara Smith reviews
Make Nothing Happen
by Rufo Quintavalle

You take a calculated risk when you take on Auden’s phrase “poetry makes nothing happen,” from his infamous elegy to W. B. Yeats. You might take that risk in spite of all that lies behind that phrase: a whole movement in poetry that was beginning to end in the late thirties, not just a ‘so long’ to Yeats, ‘and thanks for all the fish.’ This was a time when writers and artists were emerging from a decade of discovering how closely one could marry one’s convictions with one’s art and how important that would come to be in the future.

If only they had known what we know now: all art is continually trying to reinvent itself, to ‘make it new.’ Some people are overt in their convictions; others prefer to be oblique. It is always easy to recognise the difference after the fact.

This might just be what Rufo Quintavalle is attempting in the pamphlet, Make Nothing Happen from Oystercatcher Press. It is in the chiselling away of that ‘s’ from Make, that allows a new usage of that old adage. This chiselling, better still, fine scalpel-work continues in the language that Quintavalle employs, but more so in the way it is employed.

First, there is the feel of the thing in your hand: smooth, high-grade white paper leads you into the crispness of the first five-part "Letter from Iceland" and on into the body of work. There is self-reference but there is cleverness in the structure and shape of the poems.

There is also that continued scraping away of the language used, as though too many words would denigrate the sentiment. There is indeed that ‘thing that nags / and shakes the house’ in his work; making you want to work as hard as the poems do in conveying meaning by what is not given. That ‘thing’ is the continual shuffling back to the title, Make Nothing Happen, as though the writer is trying to achieve just that effect. Or is he?

There is no definitive answer. We may be in the realm of Beckettian existentialism where, as Quintavalle puts it in "Moses & Aaron": ‘there is so much / in the way / of words / these days / it might make / more sense / to say / less.’ Here, the lines scrape back little by little to reveal that silence is preferable to having to continually hear words in something even larger than a burning bush: an ‘afternoon.’

Everything encountered seems absurd and remarkable. There is, in most poems, an attempt to reduce things, but without being reductive – again that scraping back. For example in "Iceland", there are simply four words, ‘Dark / glass / crow / berry’, standing for the whole idea. This is risky, but effective in the context of the pamphlet.

There is a device that Quintavalle uses in his work too: sometimes words are put into unexpected arrangements, arresting the reading; making you read again and find more meaning from the poem. The last line of "Election Day"- ‘Layering a history / on history like concrete or that carpet / so plausible birds sat down on it to eat / does what that a newspaper doesn’t do?’ I quote the second stanza in full to give the entire sense that that strange construction in the last line does: it forces a second and even a third reading to reveal the meaning.

All of this comes from a poet who has been described as ‘a British poet with an Italian name who lives in Paris.’ This would also suggest a poet with a facility for other languages, and this is demonstrated in Quintavalle’s word haul. A word like ‘festinalenting,’ from "Moses and Aaron", leans into Latin and pinches out a new meaning for its context: ‘clouds / festalenting across the sun,’ becomes a satisfying way to describe that rolling hasten slow cotton-cloud motion.

But this is to pick at parts of the pamphlet, the whole of which can be read in the recent light of the collapse of our perceived fiscal sureties. It has become a commentary on it; for example as in "Figs": ‘Today the huge idea of money stopped / but the force which makes money gather and burst / which used to move through God / and some say will again, / will outlive money itself.’ This force, the bubble and bust, which Quintavalle mentions does drive the movement through the pamphlet itself, making the whole an intriguing argument against banal monetarism.

Quintavalle’s poems seem to want to play dodge with the reader: it’s as though they were penned or corralled into the pamphlet – just in case they escaped from the pages, got out and wanted to make something happen. If this is the case, I hope that a full collection will not be long in forthcoming. I should look out for it.

Barbara Smith is an Irish poet. She reviews for Eyewear.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets

I was glad to receive, in the post, a new anthology from Carcanet, to be launched next week. It's Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets, edited by Andrew Johnston and Robyn Marsack. I think it is safe to say that Anglo-American poetry is more influential on, than influenced by, the Commonwealth poetries of Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, and that few poets from these important nations ever get the wider readersip they deserve.

New Zealand has not been that well-served in the past by major international collections, so this is a significant book I look forward to reading and commenting on this spring and summer. Some of the poets gathered here will be known already - such as Curnow, Manhire, Tuwhare, and of course C.K. Stead, the important critic of modernist poetics. One ominous sign, though - the Introduction speaks of ardent literary nationalism finally managing to free NZ poets from the "well-behaved and predictable" British models.

I myself think a lot of damage has been done, in Canada and elsewhere, to poetry, in the name of nationalism, especially the sort that thinks rootedness and sense of place trump sense of tradition and the canon - and doubly so, when the canon being defied or deflated is the one that runs from the Gawain poet through Chaucer, Milton, Donne, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Hardy, and on to Thomas, Larkin, Bunting, Prynne etc. - in short, no need to entirely break with "Britain" to define one's own poetics - and, more to the point - why does each nation require its own poetry signature or manner? Poetry is often best when transnational - the modernist model I prefer.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Busby on D'Arcy McGee

It seems fitting to mention, on this day, this post by Brian Busby, on the great Irish-Canadian rhetorician and poet Thomas D'Arcy McGee.

The Best of Irish Poetry

Happy St. Patrick's Day! While in Ireland over the weekend, I picked up an anthology edited by a colleague of mine, the poet and short story writer Paul Perry. His Best of Irish Poetry 2009 is well worth the Amazon order it may take to wing it across some wide water. Poets selected include Heaney, Muldoon, Higgins, Flynn, Boran, Groarke, Laird, Longley, McGuckian, Mahon, O'Donoghue - in fact, most of the best of the living Irish poets.

Monday, 16 March 2009

James Purdy Has Died

Sad news. James Purdy has died. Purdy's great novella Malcolm was published 50 years ago, and found favour immediately with a slapdash cabal of wits, misfits and weird modernists - but was equally ignored by the more "preppy" (his words) crowd.

I read Malcolm at 14, and it had an instant effect - its grotesque flamboyant perversity enchanted me. Oddly enough, I never read more of him after that - you know how polymorphous teen readers are - there were others to curl up in bed with.

Still, reading about his career again in the New York Times obituary it struck me as surprising he had lived so long, and been quite so marginal.

Review: Yeah Yeah Yeahs It's Blitz!

(The) Yeah Yeah Yeahs have been a favourite of Eyewear's since at least spring 2006, when, three years ago, they launched their second full album, Show Your Bones. It was one of the best of that year.

Now here they are, seeing out this decade of boom and bust with an electro-punk work - Britishly-titled, It's Blitz! - that joyously combines the best of late Blondie, Bow Wow Wow, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and, now and then, OMD - which is to say, it's a pop-disco-new wave mix - not a million miles from the sort of Goldfrapp stuff on their middle albums. What's not to like? Well, Adorno fans will slink away from the dancefloor immediately - this is not art, it is brutally entertaining diversion.

Of course, bands have been mining the 80s for most of the 00s, so nothing here seems like an entirely new move - but Karen O is on form, and, in almost every song, improves on her trademark New Yoik yearning vocals. On just a few listens, I already love it - it puts recent releases by Britney, or Madonna, if not to shame, then in the shade. It is also much less worthy, hard work, or dull-dense than that recent U2. The best songs are everywhere, but here are the five standout tracks, to these ears: "Zero", "Heads Will Roll", "Soft Shock", "Dull Life" and "Hysteric" - but each song has managed to fuse sexy new wave menace and contemporary in-yer-face bravado. This one is Five Specs out of Five Specs.

Seaway Launched In Galway

I am just back from Ireland, where I spent the weekend leading up to St. Patrick's Day reading poetry in Galway to launch my Seaway: New and Selected. I also had time to enjoy Ireland's rugby victory over Scotland on TV. My reading was a busy launch in a most convivial space - Sheridan's Wine Bar - an upstairs rectangular room lined by excellent wine in bottles. The forty or so punters who crowded in to listen and buy books sat or stood comfortably for several hours, as in a pub, and were amiable about the press of bodies. The crowd was mixed, including poets, students, friends and family - and a few household names, like Rita Ann Higgins. I was reminded how, generally speaking, the Irish are such fun to be with - there was bubbling laughter and goodwill across the evening, and little of the tense hustle-bustle one sometimes finds in London. I was particularly glad to see Mary Madec there.

The evening was part of the Over The Edge series, which has been running for five years or so now, the brainchild of Salmon poets Kevin Higgins and Susan M. DuMars. They've done a great job of creating a demi-monde of active poets in Galway, which, while a medium-sized city by international standards, has more than its fair share of talented emerging poetry stars. Galway is a little like San Francisco in the 60s, or Montreal in the 90s - it punches above its weight in the cosmopolitan class. I read with my friend Patrick Chapman, Edward Boyne and Megan Buckley; and Jessie Lendennie was also on hand, to launch Poetry: Reading It, Writing It, Publishing It, to which I contributed an essay on the Internet and poetry. The attentive audience bought lots of books - I sold around 15 Seaways, which is I suppose good for a credit crunch moment.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Nthposition in March

Nthposition has just uploaded 13 poets for March, including Greg Santos, Jake Kennedy, Steven Waling, Matthew Gregory, Rachel Thompson, and Patricia Clark. I am handing over editing duties for half a year or so, starting with the June 2009 issue, to superb Paris-based poet Rufo Quintavalle.

The Commonwealth at 60

The Queen today marks the 60th anniversary of The Commonwealth - an affiliation of nations once part of the British Empire, still nominally ruled by Her Majesty. However, as the BBC report notes, most people in the UK could care less about it. As a Canadian, who grew up singing "God Save The Queen", and learning all about British culture, history, and tradition, as a boy, The Commonwealth was a significant link to the mother country, and to a great (and heroic) past. Obviously my childhood education was not informed by post-colonial discourse - and as an Anglophone in a mainly Francophone province (Quebec) all ties to the English Tradition were welcome, and encouraged. Still, despite all I now recognise about the Empire's many faults and crimes, I do respect some of what British Rule bequeathed to Canada - not least a direct link (if one wants it) to some of the greatest poetry and drama ever written. So it is, I have long felt affection for The Commonwealth, its Games - and the sense that it connects various cultures through the original sin of having been conquered, or settled, by the same major power. Through time, the smaller nations that form this body have divested themselves of much of their "Englishness" and moved on, but by retaining their links, also acknowledged a continuity worth considering - a very Eliotic solution. The fact that most British people don't see the value of this Commonwealth is not surprising. Britain is a victim of its media, which has a stranglehold on the hopes and desires of most of its people, and the current media messages tend to downplay any relationships that Britain may have beyond those between America and Australia. Canada, an extraordinarily rich, beautiful and culturally complex nation, rarely gets mentioned in the British press, nor do most of the other smaller Commonwealth countries, except during disasters, test matches, or elections. Something great if sometimes terrible has been lost in the process.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Manhattan Review Launch Reviewed

Barbara Smith, an emerging Irish poet of talent, flew over from Ireland to attend the Manhattan Review launch in London, which I hosted on Thursday, and has written a glowing post. It was great to have her in the audience.

Böll Over

Heinrich Böll has just suffered one of the worst indignities any great writer can - to be badly served after death by fate or circumstance. Or bad planning. In what would be Kafkaesque tragedy if it weren't about to become known as Böllesque, all the writer's long-collected papers, novels, letters, photos - everything, his vast archives - have been obliterated when the building meant to house them collapsed. It's a major loss and almost a scandal - and, above all else, a pity. We'll have to make do with his published work, or start digging.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Poem by Heather Phillipson

Eyewear is very glad to feature a poem by the poet, musician and visual artist Heather Phillipson this Friday.

Phillipson (pictured) is one of the best of an emergent generation of younger poets now redefining poetry in London and the UK more generally, and, as such, Faber will be publishing her pamphlet later this year, along with three other younger poets. She has been Artist-in-Residence at the London College of Fashion. She was awarded the Michael Donaghy Poetry Prize from Birkbeck College in 2007, received an Eric Gregory Award in 2008, and won a Faber New Poets Award in 2009.

Forthcoming publications include Stop Sharpening Your Knives 3, S/S/Y/K/3 (Eggbox, 2009), City State: The New London Poetry (Penned in the the Margins, 2009) and Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century (Bloodaxe, 2009).

German Phenomenology Makes Me Want to Strip and Run through North London

Page seven – I’ve had enough of Being and Time
and of clothing. Many streakers seek quieter locations
and Marlborough Road’s unreasonably quiet tonight.
If it were winter I’d be intellectual, but it’s Tuesday
and I’d rather be outside, naked, than learned –
rather lap the tarmac escarpment of Archway Roundabout
wearing only a rucksack. It might come in useful.
I can’t read any more of Heidegger’s dasein-diction,
I say as I jettison my slippers.

When I speak of my ambition
it is not to be a Doctor of Letters
or to marry Friedrich Nietzsche, it turns out,
or to think better.
It is to give up this fashion for dressing.
It is to drop my robe on the communal stairs
and open the front door onto the commuter hour,
my neighbour, his Labrador, and say nothing
of what I know or do not know, except what my body announces.

poem by Heather Phillipson; reprinted with permission of the author
This poem was originally published by Magma, and appears at ther site as well.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Sampler

Poet Christopher Horton has started a cool new poetry resource online, The Sampler, offering poems by London-based poets. I'm pleased to have been recently added, alongside poems by Isobel Dixon, Chris McCabe, Simon Barraclough, and Roddy Lumsden - good company to keep!

Michael Donaghy

It is five years since Bronx-born British-based poet Michael Donaghy died, suddenly, at the age of 50. As I've written elsewhere (on several occasions) Donaghy is the fourth most influential American poet to come and live and work in Britain, in the 20th century, in the same group of four as Eliot, Pound, Plath.

This is not to say he revolutionised poetry like the first two, or emotionalised it like the third, just listed - but his immense stylistic influence on an entire generation of mainstream lyric British (and particularly English and Scottish) poets is ongoing, and can be clearly traced in the work of poets like Don Paterson and John Stammers. Donaghy was unusually charismatic, funny, and talkative, and also smart. He loved musicality in verse, and he loved ideas in tune with that music.

His work is no surprise to anyone who knows the work of James Merrill, or John Hollander, or Daryl Hine - it is Yankee Wit writ large, and guided by Donne and Auden. What makes Donaghy perhaps distinct is that he seems to be the least known major poet of the last 30 years - at least in America. Picador has just published two handsome and incredibly useful, welcome volumes, Collected Poems, and The Shape of the Dance.

They will firmly place Michael Donaghy in the canon in the UK for the next 50 years, or more. He has been well and honourably served by his friends and admirers. It is an unfortunate aspect of the excitement around his work that it is sometimes read as a slap at anything experimental. However, the battle, in Britain, over discursive lyricism and Olsonesque intertextuality needs to be somewhat leavened by tolerance. This is not the post to review these works, but I do recommed them here.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Guest Review: Harlow On Rushdie's Best American Short Stories

Morgan Harlow reviews
edited by Salman Rushdie

Not many literary publishing ventures come as close to a sure thing as the Best American Series, annual anthologies in a growing stable of genres. The year's 'best' work, culled democratically from a wide-ranging list of periodicals, with final selections and an introduction by an editor at the height of popularity, has attracted a steady readership since the series inception in 1915.

The series' history, as well as the question, Why read? are topics of discussion returned to frequently in the introductions of The Best American Short Stories (BASS) and The Best American Poetry series, often turning on the present health of the story and on the state of poetry today. Salman Rushdie takes up that tradition, but asks, instead, obliquely, why write? leading, as Rushdie tends, to a higher, purer realm of understanding. Reader, writer and publisher take note f this remarkable truism, that reading and writing are, really, two sides of the same coin.

For Rushdie, a story's success depends upon "the sense that it had to be written, that it was necessary." It follows that what is necessary to write becomes necessary to read, and on the whole, in reading through BASS 2008, I felt Rushdie's choices held up to this criteria.

Rushdie also takes up the discussion of what is American, never more interesting in terms of ethical concerns than today. Not are you American, but what is it about the American that is meaningful. Here a skeptic like myself might interject that what is most American about the BASS is the entrepreneurial spirit of the concept itself. After the crisis we are all undergoing with the teetering (toppling?) of Capitalism, and with high hopes for change, it is well to look urther, to what is valid and good in an American way of influence, to find, as Rushdie does, that "the ethnic mix of this astonishingly diverse country, from Junot Díaz to Yiyun Li, has never seemed as rich as it does now, nor has its literature ever reached so far, into as many different worlds."

Indeed the stories here offer new and strange worlds and make them, in the space of a story, accessible, enlarging our understanding in the process. Perhaps my favorite is "From the Desk of Daniel Varsky," by Nicole Krauss, a self-reflective exploration of the role each and every one of us finds ourselves appointed with, as guardians of the knowledge entrusted to us by all of human endeavor: "I've always considered myself only a temporary guardian and had assumed a day would come, after which, albeit with mixed feelings, I would be relieved of my responsibility, the responsibility of living with and watching over the furniture of my friend, the dead poet Daniel Varsky, and that from then on I would be free to move as I wished, possibly even to another country."

Kevin Brockmeier's "The Year of Silence," is particularly astute to the influences and trends working upon a population, and subtle cultural nuances, such as the observation that stand up comedians are the first to notice and bring to the public's attention news of a phenomenon or situation.

In "The Worst You Ever Feel," by Rebecca Makkai, a boy with unusual sensitivity to the past is a lightning rod for our collective uneasiness over a world we never made and its horrible histories. Elements of artificial ordering clash with the intuitive of ghost images, heightening the story's effect. Alice Munro provides one of the most incredible arcs in reading experience with the story, "Child's Play." What begins as almost unforgivably mundane accrues across the course of the narrative to become startlingly powerful.

Most of the stories are engaging and several of them might easily be called exceptional. The opening language in a few of the stories felt overly dense; other stories were readable but problematic, reflective of what seemed to me to be odd decisions made along the way in the writing of them.

To read as a writer is to see choices made. Some you would never make yourself, others are ones you would have made, if only you had been writing the story and the same brilliant thought came to you as it did the author. This is what drives our preferences, and so it is a tall order to choose the stories for an anthology. The stories we enjoy come back as a reflection, perhaps a fun house reflection but a reflection all the same, of the reader.

With all this good work every year, do we sometimes feel overwhelmed as readers and writers? I'm reminded of Esther, recovering from food poisoning in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, and her reaction when Doreen drops a volume of The Thirty Best Short Stories of the Year in her lap, eleven more volumes waiting in a box in the hall. A present, something to read while she was sick, and did she also want Doreen's leftover soup? "Bring it in," Esther said. "I'm starving."

Morgan Harlow is an American poet and critic. She reviews regularly for Eyewear.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Special Kay

The BBC's cack-handed decision to scuttle the Oxford winning team on University Challenge (which included the best-ever contestant, Ms. Trimble) on a technicality, is both sad and mean-spirited; when considered in the light of the far worse offences perpetrated by the likes of Mr. Brand, it borders on the hypocritical. When even Ur-presenter Bamber Gascoigne weighs in, you know something is amiss. Basically, Mr. Kay entered the contest in good faith - as a student. The BBC, by failing to record all the shows during the school term, and failing to keep Mr. Kay informed of how this might effect contestants who had just recently graduated or left university, is partly responsible for his failure to entirely pass muster. However, whoever snitched was nasty, and whoever jumped at the Beeb and kicked the champions down is dim. They've snatched a defeat from a victory, and spoiled a feel-good story forever. In the process, they may just have ruined a once-timeless and quaint show, a remnant from a better, or at least more Larkinesque, Britain.

Monday, 2 March 2009

The Young British Poets Are Coming!

The Manhattan Review Launch in London
Hosted by Todd Swift
Thursday, 5 March, 2009 - 7 pm start time; ends at 10 pm
Oxfam Books and Music shop, 91 Marylebone High Street
London W1 (5 minutes from Baker Street tube station)

With special guests
Philip Fried, poet and editor, in from New York and Penelope Shuttle

And with short readings by many of "The Young British Poets":

Joe Dunthorne
Emily Berry
Zoe Brigley
James Byrne
Isobel Dixon
Nathan Hamilton
Luke Kennard
Chris McCabe
Alex McRae
Helen Mort
Daljit Nagra
Sally Read
Kathryn Simmonds
Jack Underwood

Admission free


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...