Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Week Hollywood Died

It's been a bad week for American cinema.  It seems hard to imagine another seven days or so in which so many generations of Hollywood died off, one after the other.  First, Gloria Stuart died - the actress with the incredible career from the James Whale and James Cameron periods.  Then the director Arthur Penn died - he who helped to announce the new wave of American counter-culture with the splatteringly subversive and sexy Bonnie & Clyde, still one of the great films about American violence.  And, the same day, Sally J. Menke, Tarantino's closest collaborator and editor of all his films, starting with Reservoir Dogs, died - closing another period of American cinematic style.

And, then, today, Tony Curtis, Bronx-born legend of bedroom and bedroom farce, the greatest male comedic sex symbol (the greatest female one was Monroe), and the last of his era's titans, died.  His career was really only 15 years, from Houdini in 1953 to The Boston Strangler in 1968, with perhaps a half-dozen great roles, in Trapeze, The Sweet Smell of Success, Some Like It Hot, The Defiant Ones, and Spartacus (plus the first two mentioned).

What a bad week.  Greats, gone.  We have their films.

2010 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize

The 2010 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize shortlist was announced the other day. The jury received a record total of ninety-five collections.  A Quechua Confession Manual by Sheila Hillier was selected for the shortlist of six titles by the judges Michael Laskey, Neil Rollinson and Jo Shapcott.  I am extremely pleased by this outcome.  As I wrote for the back of this collection, Hillier's collection is one of the best debuts in England for years.  The winner will be announced at the 22nd Aldeburgh Poetry Festival at 8pm on Friday 5 November 2010.

The other shortlisted poets are:
Christian Campbell Running the Dusk (Peepal Tree Press)
Robert Dickinson Micrographia (Waterloo Press)
Katharine Towers The Floating Man (Picador Poetry)
Sam Willetts New Light for the Old Dark (Cape Poetry)
Tony Williams The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street (Salt Publishing)

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Guest Review: Asbury On Finch

Nick Asbury reviews
by Peter Finch

Sometimes you wonder if books are the best place for poetry. The clean white page is like the wall of a gallery, elevating its contents and conferring status, but also sterilising the work, putting a polite border between it and the surrounding world. The poems in Peter Finch's collection come very much from the surrounding world: a gritty world of performance, literary engagement, and a career spent at the front line of Welsh cultural creation.

Many of the poems come with a contextualising back story. 'Kerdif' ends in an acrostic that has been inscribed into the pavement outside Cardiff's new central library. 'The Ballast Bank' has been incorporated into a public artwork at the entrance to the new South Wales Police Headquarters. The title poem was written as an interactive piece of web poetry. Others are clearly intended for public performance more than the page, with a tendency towards deadpan punchlines or spoken-to-camera-style asides.

But here they all are, herded into a book, much like the two sheep on the front cover, standing in a comically restricting shed, looking (sheepishly) towards the outside world. It's a good image for the cover. Playful, charming, melancholy, hard to forget – and a good signpost to the book's contents.

The poetry is a lively mix of accessible and performance-friendly, experimental and gaming (including a poem apparently based on the roll of a dice) and elegiac and personal. Some poems fall into all three categories. The binding theme is mortality and loss, with some powerful poems about the poet's mother and father, as well as darkly comic reflections on his own impending mortality.

I loved the poem 'Rain', dedicated to the poet's mother, which ends:

We walk in the garden where the plants no
longer have names and the birds are blurs.
You are holding onto me with that clutch of
yours that crushes bones. Who are we,
mother and son in a rain which keeps getting colder?
The mouth won't answer, it doesn't know,
but the body, that remembers.

It's typical of the poet's style – conversational, with the occasional seemingly arbitrary line-break, but then resolving into the most arresting of phrases – "birds are blurs" is a wonderful matching of sound and sense.

'Wide' is about the poet's father and also ends with unanswered questions:

He still has on those thick rimmed glasses
helping him see doesn't need them now surely?

Sight of them again clutches my throat
I run upstairs and check the box   still
there   and this hat   dust of decades   those
gone and those coming.

Is this it, I mouth at him.
but he's not answering.

The broken syntax (used throughout) is disconcerting at first but gradually justifies itself. There is a real sense of a hesitant, searching, human voice, suspended in the present tense, trying to strike a match in the darkness.

The collection is full of father figures of a different kind, from pop culture giants (Elvis Presley, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector) to lamented poetic compatriots (RS Thomas and John Tripp – JT – in particular). 'Coming Back with JT and Bob Dylan' is one of the key pieces, opening darkly:

There is downpour, always.
Fat rain hung over South Wales
like a diseased lung.
"There's many here among us
who think that life is but a joke."

and ending grimly:

Two beers with JT's ghost in the swaying bar
full of men in bad suits who
sell and never go home.
Intellect and dignity buried.
The land leveed with golf, junk and garbage.
And God somewhere   making it worse.

This is brilliantly direct and engaged writing, from a poet who isn't afraid to invoke the big abstract nouns, including the biggest one of all in the last line.

The battered dignity of Wales itself is a recurring theme. This is a land that has lost its sense of binding national narrative. In 'I Chew My Gum And Think Of Rifles', the poet comically posits the theory that Wales missed out on a proper armed revolution with a Castro-figure at its head:

... He would have
stood on the balcony they'd have
erected hastily along the front of City Hall
and told us we were worth everything
in the world

But this was never to be:

            Then I recall that we are a peace loving people
full of mothers and hope. If we'd had rifles back then
by now we would have given them up.

The note of rueful affection is typical. This is, after all, a poet who has chosen to stay in Wales and fight the good fight, culturally speaking. Wales itself is slow to return the favour. In 'R.S. Visits The City', the poet recalls the inspirational effect of a reading by R.S. Thomas in Cardiff – a glimmer of hope in a land never visited by Yeats, Pound or Eliot – but then asks wearily:

In his work are there traces of this place,
where he was born, reluctant, leaving
as fast as he could? Do the streets of Cardiff echo?
No, they don't. Do we honour him in this
city as a lost son? Plaque, statue, trail?
No we do not.

Instead, Wales has become a land where "what was once the working class / sashay past dressed by Matalan and Cotton Trader" ('Ikea'). The poet doesn't pretend to sit above this process of commercialisation, recalling a set of postcards of R.S. Thomas, which – rather than cherishing – he carelessly sold.

Some of the above may give the impression of a grouchy poet bemoaning his home country and the lack of respect it affords its cultural heroes. If so, it's down to my clumsy rendering of what this book is really about. It is the work of a playful, questioning and serious mind, willing to take on the big themes and engage in a national literary tradition that it is energetically helping to sustain.

Nick Asbury is freelance writer, poet and author of Corpoetics, a collection of verse rearranging the words on corporate websites. 

Monday, 27 September 2010

Buried and Frozen

Two new movies out now in Britain - Buried and Frozen - chart terrifying ordeals by people caught in a single location - a coffin, or a chair-lift above howling wolves.  Psycho introduced us arguably to the psychopathology of the film experience - Peeping Tom had made audiences recoil a year before.  Now, viewers have been groomed to want, and expect, more sadism, more suffering.  Where once audiences cheered on heroes or ordinary people (they laughed, they cried) now they sneer, jeer and cheer as victims are tortured, mutilated, humiliated, and forced to endure the most nightmarish of scenarios.  There is no doubting the force of "car crash" viewing - some spectacles demand our begrudging, horrified looking - but is pandering to such a looking the best use of the filmic art?  I myself think both films are likely to be suspenseful, well-oiled, and, worst of all, entertaining.  Yet, how will this trend pan out?  As we aim ever more tightly at the heart of the isolated human being in extremis, what shall we, as viewers, hit?  Truth, beauty, or a lowered humanity, on the bestial floor among the gum and stale popcorn.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Adult Ed

Eyewear supported the Lib Dems in the last election.  And, has now switched allegiances, tentatively, back to Labour, who have done the right thing and renewed themselves.  I wish to give their new leader the benefit of the doubt.  Ed Miliband has got several things right, it seems to me: 1) he has expressed regret for Labour going into Iraq as it did; 2) he admits Labour lost the election and has to be humble and truly listen; 3) he is putting the true middle class (and working class) concerns of the British people ahead of the well-to-do; 4) he supports universal welfare as a principle; 5) he is not knee-jerk anti-union; 6) he signals the end of New Labour and Blair-Brown division and wants a new generation to move on.  He is a thoughtful, sympathetic, strong-willed, well-educated, expressive leader, with the "charisma of imperfection" as he puts it.  An excellent foil for his equally well-educated and articulate opposite numbers, Clegg and Cameron.  The next five years will be interesting times indeed, and in Ed, the UK has found the person to properly and fully counter the vicious ideologically-driven cuts to come.


Eyewear has now reached the numerically pleasing number of 245 regular "followers" of the blog.  Many more read it each week.  Most poems or articles posted are read by 100s of people daily.  While the traffic is not LA Freeway busy, it is engaged, global, intelligent and active, and I am happy to say that after five years, Eyewear is increasingly a great place for me to post reviews and featured poems.  It'd be swell to have 250 by the end of October.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Guest Review: Spurrier On Pugh

Frances Spurrier reviews
by Sheenagh Pugh

Not many reviews of a 'Selected' would involve googling the execution of Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte but I found myself doing  exactly that when reading through Sheenagh Pugh's Later Selected Poems.  Owing to the omnipotent and unquestionable (!) Wikipedia I was able to enlighten myself that Katte was a army officer in Prussia , living from 1704-1730.  He was executed after it was discovered by King Frederick William of Prussia that Katte was plotting to help the King's son to escape from Prussia to Britain.   The poem's narrative is told from the point of view of five different characters who witnessed the events. 

                        Well would you credit
a crown prince planning to skip the country?

It is perfectly possible to understand the sequence without any external referencing,  but I was so drawn into the happenings, that I felt I needed to know more about the historical context and learned something in the process, particularly that l8th century Prussia wasn't always a very nice place to live.  And it wasn't difficult to die young.  

In this volume, Seren brings together a wide range of poetry from five of Pugh's previous collections: Sing for the Taxman (1993) Id's Hospit (1997) Stonelight (1999)The Beautiful Lie (2002) The Movement of Bodies  (2005).  Straight talking and accessible - these poems are unputdownable  - a word more likely to be heard in connection with the latest spy thriller than a volume of poetry, and yet it is appropriate.    

The sort of territory which would send other writers scurrying for cover seems to present itself to Pugh rather as K2 presents itself to the climber, a challenge which is there to be overcome.  She is a keen observer of life but also of the inevitability of its end for all of us, and is fearless in the face of subjects such as Dachau, Lockerbie and Aberfan.  In the poem 'Lockerbie Butter', the lines "A plane, miles above, is blow apart, gouges a burning crater where, just lately, folk were going about their lives, seeing to some daily matter" somewhat redolent of Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts'.

As a Jew who grew up  in the shadow - both physically and metaphorically - of Aberfan,  I am usually quick to turn the page from attempted treatments of such matters in verse, but  it is difficult to argue with lines like this:  "...the flattened grass rises in their path/and it grows from bones and grief and courage:/and agony the dead are in each blade/and they are not its unfailing greenness..."

Many of the poems are quite dark, alleviated with patches of wry wit.  As in the voice of  the bishop's clerk in 'The Woodcarver of Stendal', expressing determination that the bishop will have carvings of all Twelve apostles, please,  including Judas.   "Judas? You want Judas? Look, nobody wants Judas"/  "We've paid for a full set of apostles, lad, and we're avin twelve."

 Sometimes lyrical, often packing a punch (literally in the case of 'Captain Roberts Goes Looting') : "It's best when they surrender/No time wasted on violence, just a few swift kicks/ to the officers' groins, for luck."

Pugh shares with Carol Ann Duffy a genius for deceptively simple poetry so that the handling of technique, of metre, rhyme and half rhyme, passes almost unnoticed.   For example, from the unlikely titled 'Best Jesus in Show' a poem about competing evangelists at a country show,

All we had to go on was Malcolm
who's the hairy sort with sandals
and this other bloke, who's a suit
and probably works in a call centre.
They're no more alike than a Limousin
and a Friesian, but somehow one of them
has to end up as Best Jesus in Show,
with the other as reserve Champion. 

The poet ranges amongst her characters, finding and deftly expressing the huge variety of voice and subject matter that is out there in the world waiting for poetic treatment.  Within a couple of pages she can move from a keen-eyed view of some particularly ludicrous piece of human vanity to a poignant tribute to the great physicist Isaac Newton  ('The Movement of Bodies') - "Legend will say he died a virgin/and never saw the sea."  Then another poem will deal with the vacuousness of the American Dream encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence: " But he only said/you had a right to chase it:/he never mentioned/ catching it up./Like that coyote,/forever in pursuit/of the road runner."  ('The Pursuit of Happiness')

Originally from Wales, but now living in the Shetlands, Pugh shares with George Mackay Brown a love of the isles.  Brown's influence peeps through some of the earlier poems in mist, mountain and peat-burn.

The Marshland is left
behind, and the brown peat-burns.
You are higher here than snipe
or pipit, higher than butterwort...

('Muckle Flugga')

At the heart of these poems lies a sympathy with the difficult and exposed nature of being., of the inevitability of death and the elegiac beauty to be found in the moment.    If I could have wished for anything more from the 'Selected' it might have been the inclusion one or two slightly less mournful works, but the clarity and compassion in these poems makes this a volume to be turned to again and again. 

Frances Spurrier, originally from Wales, lives in London.  A former charity consultant, she is a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at Kingston University, and widely-published poet.

New Poem by Stephen Sturgeon

Eyewear is very glad to welcome the American poet Stephen Sturgeon today, with a new poem.  Sturgeon's first collection of poems, Trees of the Twentieth Century, will be published by Dark Sky Books next spring. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Dark Sky Magazine, Harvard Review, Jacket and other journals. He edits Fulcrum: an Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics.

Epistola Cantabrigiensis
(Over an Old Copy of Enemies of Promise)

I thought I saw you on Arrow Street, rippling
like an infant scarecrow’s burnt-orange rags
or tight in a green-striped sailor’s shirt, cocking
your head side to side against the tearing flyers
stapled onto any wooden things. I may have been unawake,

holding an imaginary and heavy orb in my hand,
because nothing rests there. I do not think so.
Going between two places, I never want to arrive,
and would rather go on perpetually a passenger, passing
through spicy air and scenes of acquaintances spatting,
whose fight, though meaningless, is the only thing.
Or, it would mean as much as anything else,
your alien capacity to void senescence,
my ripped shoes welcoming the mud. Constantly there is this motor
running itself nearly to cataclysm around my ears.

The fact of ears reminds one so deliriously of death, eventualities
come to look the same, parallel lines that meet the way
a pair of hands does, clapping out of the nightmare.
Why should there be a place to go?
Thinking about the UCL variants for The Princess,
I know it is a world of hollow shows;
thinking about Dublin I know this life
is a warm fullblooded life; and I am happy to say
more than ever these have been pitted in a long bout
where neither wins, and they come to exist simultaneously
inside each other, like Balthus and Hogarth—
there is nothing more important than the spot of weakness
that makes good things work. A hatch-door hinge opens
a basement where aquariums splashing with bright fish
are found alongside a poster of Marilyn Monroe
touching her footsole to her knee. You know these,
remember them, tying your white V-neck to the Maple trunk
across the street, leaving, and leaving the rest to the city.

City buses are crashing
and I can’t hear Murray Perahia. That is part of the ordeal,
having to make up sounds for the music
that sputters beneath melee, and making the two
play inside each other, like the paintings before,
like Marilyn and the fish, like your field rags and sailor-suit.
What a pain in the neck for people who need to be amazed
and need to keep the electricity paid. Isn’t it enough
that Lame Duck Books is closing down? Talk with old friends
is the most pleasant and least enlightening kind of dialogue.
The contours of their minds are already familiar, a well-known scene
which one accepts and loves. Erasmus would erase us.

And standing in front of the Cummings house you can’t see anything.
A big grey fence and pines that were not growing
when Estlin was growing and drooling rhymes
about elephants, which his mother folded away
as if they had been funeral lilies or Easter cards.
They did a fine job of work killing all the old things
we’d like to see now, I suppose in the 60s and 70s
when old things were popularly bad and everyone believed
they were going mad, and they wrote about nothing else,
though they were wrong. Squinting, one might conjure
Scofield Thayer breaking his head on the slats,
crazing after his abducted and indifferent wife.

I don’t care that life will end in an explosion of guilt and cancer.
Criticism is rarely not for clowns. Things I want are against the law.
To accommodate the drifting particulars, the unexpected sense
piping out of dead buildings and ruined families, there will be
another strain of this science to learn. As luck will have it,
there will not be a place to go. For the moment
on Arrow Street I thought I saw you. The day was about travel,
guideless and apparent, and the hour-bells struck until no time was left.

poem by Stephen Sturgeon

Friday, 24 September 2010

Featured Poet: Catherine Woodward

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome the young British poet (pictured provocatively above with Union Jack) Catherine Woodward this Friday.  Woodward was born in Ormskirk, Lancashire and has lived most of her life in Preston. Her first collection Delusions of Grandeur was published by Ettrick Forest Press and her poetry is soon to appear in Ettrick's coming anthology The Reiver's Stone.  She is currently studying English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. She is a member of UEA's Creative Writing society and a part of its spoken word events. She lives in the city of Norwich.  I found this poem delightfully apt for a rather blustery London day.

The BBC Weather Report Predicts the Death of Catherine Woodward

A blonde woman came on the screen all smiles
‘On Wednesday we can expect the death of Catherine Woodward.’
I remember thinking at the time
That she was wearing really ugly shoulder pads.
‘The death should occur at about three in the afternoon,
There will be low pressure over the North West
And some really dark clouds in the East.’
The woman pointed to some digital clouds
And her shoulder pads obstructed Norwich.
‘Expect backups on the A59,
It’s going to be a big one,
With patchy showers of fish across Manchester
And a blue flash of light over the Scottish highlands.’
I took a big gulp of my very hot tea.
‘The meteorological office has issued severe weather warnings
And advised against panic buying.
There will be no more weather predicted
After the death of Catherine Woodward.
And now Strictly Come Dancing.’

As Bruce Forsyth came on
I fetched my umbrella from the hall,
It’s the English way to always carry an umbrella
Whatever the weather,
And only then did I think how little it mattered.

poem by Catherine Woodward

Eddie Fisher Has Died

Sad news.  Eddie Fisher has died.  Times change: Fisher was once one of the most famous people on the planet, a teen heart-throb easily as known as Lady Gaga is today, and his marriages and love liaisons were huge news.  Today, I wager, he is barely recognised as a musician or public figure.  One of his daughters has become iconic, though, for her roles in the Star Wars films, first iteration: the wonderful actor and writer, Carrie Fisher.

Low IQ Murder

The execution of Teresa Lewis diminishes the humanity of us all.  It has also seriously damaged America's moral position vis a vis Iran.  It seems hard to see how America can critique Iran for executing women, when it does the same itself.  Particularly sad, even tragic, in this case, were the circumstances: Lewis had a low IQ (whatever that means these days) of 72 - 70 would have made her ineligible for being executed; she hired the two hit-men (who testified against her), who both received life sentences without the death penalty.  Therefore, while she has died for the murders, the physical killers remain alive.  There was the strong possibility that Lewis had been manipulated by one of the killers, who was her lover; and while her crime was dispassionately planned, it was not the work of a mastermind, but a clumsy grab for insurance money: shabby but all-too-human.  In short, Teresa Lewis was a simple person who made a series of profoundly wrong choices, leading to the hiring of two killers.  She was guilty of this, and life in prison would have seen justice done.  However, executing a challenged person in such a case seems cruel and unusual.  Where was Obama?

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Get A Real Job

This is an excerpt from an essay taken from Best Canadian Essays 2009, edited by Alex Boyd and Carmine Starnino.  The 2010 anthology will be out soon, edited by Boyd and Kamal Al-Solaylee.  Worth investing in, I'd say.

Get A Real Job

In Grade 8, I joined an extracurricular social studies club called Project Business, designed to help young people learn about supply and demand economics. I signed up because Krista Copper was in it. She had brown feathered hair, eyes like a stunned deer, and wore a corduroy jacket buttoned right up to her chin, which gave her a look of impenetrability that I found alluring. We were to make peanut brittle and sell it at lunch hour, calculating the cost of the peanuts, sugar, molasses and labour time, and fixing a price that would recoup our costs or, even better, make a profit.

The club was divided into three competing groups. I made sure I was in Krista’s, and she set the strategy. The key, she said, was the quality of our peanut brittle. Her mom’s was awesome, so she’d get her mom to make it. We would charge the same price as everyone else, but ours would be better, so we’d sell more. Ours was indeed better, and we did sell more. We made more money, but we used twice as many peanuts, which were the most expensive ingredient. Our expenses were nearly double those of the other groups, and we made less money than everybody else. Krista was demoted from club president to treasurer and I joined flag football.

From a slave to ulterior motives to a career in the performing arts, I’ve spent the past 10 years cobbling together a viable existence by writing, performing and recording original music as Kris Demeanor, often with my Crack Band. Sure, under the auspices of making a respectable living, I have made halfhearted stabs at biology, architecture, horticulture, English literature, but none stirred in me a sustainable passion. Many people love music, and love to play it, but playing professionally requires a type of enthusiasm akin to mild but unrelenting panic. I liken it to navigating through the maze of mirrors at the Stampede as a child. It was confusing, frustrating, and everywhere was me. I would bash into the glass and cry, but suppress my sobs and get it together so dad wouldn’t have to rescue me. I’d go in again the next year. [....]

by Kris Demeanor

Geoffrey Burgon Has Died

Sad news.  The British composer Geoffrey Burgon has died.  While not a household name, Burgon composed the music for the best TV series ever made - 1981's Brideshead Revisited (The Wire is in second place in case you were wondering).  Burgon's exquisitely apt music helped to elevate that extraordinary series, as had his score for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 1979.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Kevin McCarthy Has Died

Sad news.  The great character actor Kevin McCarthy, best-known for his role in the original sci-fi poli-sci film classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, recently died. In an odd coincidence, the film was seen as a commentary on McCarthyism; Joe McCarthy was no relation. His ultimately-paranoid performance has become a benchmark for the genre, and the movie introduced the idea of "pod people" into the imaginative lexicon of North American suburbia - where unthinking ideological "mind absorption" seemed to have struck all those zombified by the Eisonhower-era.  "They're here already!  You're next!" could be the rallying cry for any concerned citizen though - afraid of either immigrants or the Tea Party.  Several times remade, never bettered. 59 years later, it remains one of the must-sees of the period.

Common Health Games?

The fact that teams and individual athletes are beginning to pull out of attending India's pending Commonwealth Games in Delhi is unquestionable - but is the nature of the health scare debatable?  One of the Indian officials responsible for cleaning up the contested athletes' apartments complex noted that standards of cleanliness might be different for some nations in the West - a fascinating moment of "relativism" at work.  The comment is both startling and, in a sense, apt - are there universal standards of cleanliness?

If societies are to be encouraged to develop their own belief systems, and cultural values - if multiculturalism is to be allowed to flourish even in a globally-connected capitalist system, which India is clearly a triumphant recent member of - then can they also continue to maintain their own particular, indigenous levels of hygiene?  Might the pampered Australians, or Europeans, expect a sparkling deep clean that in India, with its monsoons and other challenges, would be simply absurd?  Or is there a danger here of a reverse Orientalising? - a romanticisation of the rustic, the dirty, the "foreign" as unhealthy?

This seems a very awkward balancing beam to navigate.  On the one hand, those undertaking to host such events should aspire to the same levels of excellence as, say, the Chinese government showed at the Olympics - thus, not Western standards, but simply elite standards.  On the other hand, how clean is clean?  If stories of the Delhi complex are true, then exposed wiring, overflowing toilets, dirty monsoon water, wandering dogs, and collapsing walkways sound more like an abandoned work site under duress than a high-functioning home for the world's best athletes.

This doesn't sound like India or its standards, so much as a sub-standard error of judgement.  Somewhere, someone failed to prioritise this flagship structure, or recognise its potentially scandalously damaging symbolic value.  India, with its vast population and rich history, has been in the news of late for being very 21st century.  One hopes this mess will be sorted soon, and it can put its best foot forward by start of the Games.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Review: Losing Sleep

Depending on your age, and your love of Scottish post-punk bands, you will either be a fan of Edwyn Collins, or only know him as the singer of a quirky hit featured on the soundtrack for 1995's Empire Records - "A Girl Like You".  Collins, who fronted a key band of the time, Orange Juice, has an entirely unique vocal style, that was very refreshing and non-mainstream in the classic 1983 hit single "Rip It Up" - one of the finest songs of the 1980s.  Collins has had a patchy career - but is beloved - and can be rightly said to have gifted us with at least three great songs in his 30-year career - for the title track of his first album since 2005, "Losing Sleep" is also splendid.

The album has been well-received in the UK, for two reasons: one, this is a near-miraculous comeback for Collins, who suffered a "double brain hemorrhage" five years ago, and had to relearn how to basically speak and play from scratch, and two, the album is also a throw-back to the sort of sweet, genuine, Motown-inflected guitar pop that recalls the era of "This Charming Man", and indeed, at least one Smiths appears here.  Hard-driving, with touching humbling lyrics, Losing Sleep is oddly uplifting, simply catchy, and makes me want to put on a shirt and tie and go dancing in a church basement.  It is growing on me with its modest style and passionate subtext of hope and recovery in the face of really appalling odds.

New Poem by Philip Hancock

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Philip Hancock's new poem this sunny September Tuesday.  His poems have appeared in journals including: Magma, Nthposition, Oxford Magazine, Poetry London, The North, The Rialto, and The Spectator.  Hancock's debut pamphlet Hearing Ourselves Think was published by Smiths Knoll (2009). A selection of his work will appear in Carcanet’s forthcoming OxfordPoets 2010.  

Demolition of the Power Station

Coming back up the A34, counting
how many pylons. The cooling towers
where the white clouds are made, always there.
A black-tipped chimney, zigzag ironwork,
slanted conveyors. Squat transformers
fenced in. Flashing NCB lorries,
white-hatted Dinky men.

Dynamite day: crowds stand behind barriers.
Their mouths come open, thick dust
boils up and up, and through the clearing
for the first time what lies beyond:
the backs of houses, light green fields,
horses easing up, a line of poplars.

Now the open curve of the new road,
the billboards for retail and office spaces,
families strolling by lakeside apartments,

but the sky’s a blankness, nothing but weather.

poem by Philip Hancock

Monday, 20 September 2010

Guest Review: Van-Hagen on Infinite Difference

The sub-title of Carrie Etter’s anthology Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by U. K. Women Poets presumably alludes to the 1998 anthology edited by Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain, Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan Press and University Press of New England, 1998). Two years before this, Maggie O’Sullivan’s Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the U.K. (Hastings: Reality Street Editions, 1996) which, as its title indicates, also contained North-American work, was the last such anthology of women-only poets. Despite O’Sullivan’s anthology, in Caddel and Quartermain’s offering two years later just ten women poets were included, out of a total of fifty five. Despite the received opinion that writers of ‘other’ poetries of both sexes were well represented in Keith Tuma’s important Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) – the anthology became justly famed for its chronological presentation of Bob Cobbing next to Philip Larkin – only one poet in every four included was female. Will a new anthology in 2010 redress this balance of female to male poets writing ‘other’ poetries in the U.K., raising the profile of the former in relation to their male counterparts? Or will it instead promote the ghettoisation of women poets?

Etter promptly turns to such matters in an efficient, thought-provoking introduction which argues that the anthology “gathers poetries not readily found in the pages of Britain’s broadsheets or larger-circulation literary journals.” (p.9) She addresses both the case for an anthology of ‘other’ poetries and one focussing solely on women poets, suggesting persuasively that “Britain’s tendency to divide poetry into the categories of “Mainstream” and “Experimental” or “Avant Garde” undermines our sense of the rich array of poetries being written” and that “A significant difference between the poetry culture of the United States and that of the United Kingdom is that work regarded as Other to the Mainstream, in the UK, never receives established prizes.” (p.9) On the second question, Etter cites Eva Salzman’s introduction to her recent Women’s Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English, in which Salzman “argues convincingly for the continued need for women’s anthologies, by reviewing the surprisingly low proportions of women to men in even the most recent anthologies and by recounting the still dismissive and gendered critical language often used to describe women’s poetry.” (p.10) Etter is aware that her rationale is potentially controversial and, to her credit, gives room to dissenting voices, including Geraldine Monk, who is quoted arguing that the relative low profile of women poets writing ‘other’ poetries in the U.K. may have been attributable simply to their lack of interest in experimental poetries. Similarly, Etter freely acknowledges that in seeking work for the anthology, “Solicitations to the admirable [Maggie] O’Sullivan and Monk, already widely anthologized, were respectfully denied, on account of the focus on women and the desire not to be categorized; a few other requests for work were ignored altogether.” (p.11)

If it may appear a little cheeky to title an anthology Infinite Difference despite the exclusion of half of the population merely by virtue of their sex, Etter’s own explanation of the title is that: “The poetries being written in Britain today might in fact be regarded as being on a spectrum holding infinite points of difference, and this anthology as bringing to a larger audience work on that spectrum that has limited, if not quite ultraviolet, visibility.” (p.9)  Despite this big claim, and notwithstanding the absence of those figures who did not wish to be included, the twenty-five anthologised poets span the range of those relatively well known to those considerably less so. While a number of the poets are veterans of some or all of the O’Sullivan, Caddel and Quartermain and Tuma anthologies (e.g. Carlyle Reedy, Wendy Mulford, Claire Crowther, Denise Riley, Catherine Hales and Caroline Bergvall) this is an optimistic, youthful and forward-looking selection. As Etter notes, five of the twenty five have yet to publish a full-length collection while another five have published only one, and the discovery of vibrant new voices is one of the most significant rewards that awaits the reader of this exciting collection.

A statement of poetics of up to a page in length prefaces each selection of poems in the anthology. Some of this material describes or introduces specific poems, and may feel like a wasted opportunity to more experienced readers who prefer not to be imprisoned within a narrow and proprietorial meaning imposed on poems by their writers. Nonetheless, some of the more general material is eloquent and committed, and the chosen format is more than useful for teaching at A level, degree level and taught MA level. A number of statements articulate common and recurring issues in the definition of ‘other’ and / or ‘experimental’ poetries against their more ‘mainstream’ counterparts. Claire Crowther, for instance, argues,

When I write a poem, I use line to uncover and climb over the lack, rather than the fact, of connection within an accepted syntax. I am interested in what we think we are doing as much as what we are doing.  My poetry has been called fractured, strange, nonsensical. To me, it’s simply a word-equivalent of an unlined world, as sturdy as I can make it. (p.42)

Catherine Hales turns to questions of function and of meaning:

I think the necessity of poetry is to irritate, to evoke the uncomfortable response. Scraps of language from different places and registers – radio, tv, conversations, lawyer-speak, etc. – coalesce and collide, creating meaning from their juxtaposition, meaning that is not subject to control or definition but ... questions the rules by which we are obliged to live, like grammar, syntax, meaning. Look in vain for (linear) narrative, for anecdote, for epiphanies, for messages, for making-the-world-a-better-place: the world is a mess and language is messy and the world is a language and any attempt to tidy it up with poetry is falsification. (p.63)

Etter herself traverses similar terrain in her poetics, interrogating the inter-relationships between consciousness, meaning and experience, observing that “ ... reading’s goal is not to decode but to inhabit the text on its own terms. I think people could enjoy a much wider range of poetry if they stopped asking “But what does it mean?”, and instead went with the experience the poem offered, in the way many approach abstract art.” (p.122)

The variation within the poems themselves is sufficiently impressive that any brief review will struggle to do justice to it. The poems encompass a wide array of different styles and frames of cultural reference, including Isobel Armstrong’s ‘Desert Collage’ poems, work by Denise Riley inspired by Merleau-Ponty, Frances Presley’s “Learning Letters” (based on a 1950s Dutch primer, Lezen Leren), Anne Blonstein’s work inspired by notarikon and gematria (rabbinical methods used to interpret Hebrew scriptures), work by Elisabeth Bletsoe inspired by botany and ornithology, Carol Watts’ “Hare” (which intertwines the tale of a murdered teenager with the story of a seventh-century woman who saves hares form a hunt),  Redell Olsen’s sequence “A New Booke of Copies” (partly inspired by an Elizabethan Writing Book published in 1574), the subcontinent-influenced work of Sascha Akhtar, and Emily Critchley’s “When I say I believe women”, which uses the relationship between ‘main’ text, footnotes and marginalia to interrogate a range of seeming binaries. A number of poems nudge at the vexed boundary between poetry and prose.

While there are fine individual poems included that are outside the following brief categories, a number of themes, motifs and subjects recur in the collection’s poems and poetics. These include questions of the marginal and its relationship to the centre; substances, materials and surfaces; the importance (or otherwise) of observation and experience to poetry and poetics; as one would expect, with language and its slipperiness (such as Riley’s “Rhetorical” and the poems of Blonstein, Bergvall and Presley); and with the relationship between poetry and poetics and other art forms, including dance (see the poetics of Sophie Mayer), music (the poetics of Rachel Lehrman) and the visual arts (such as the poems of Reckin). Landscape and space also recur (as in Mulford’s “I CHINA AM”, Harriet Tarlo’s “Camelia House”, Zoe Skoulding’s cityscape poems, Andrea Brady’s “Cultural Affairs in Boston”, Lehrman’s “Nightscape” and Critchley’s “When I say I believe women” again). For such a forward-looking anthology, poems concerned with recollecting and reconstructing the past feature prominently (including Crowther’s “Books (A Friend I Had)” and “Once Troublesome”, Lucy Sheerman’s “Somewhere My Love” and “Mine”, Brady’s “End of Days” and Sophie Robinson’s “anecdotally yours”). Perhaps appropriately enough given the formal and thematic concern with space, one of the few criticisms one could level is that this is a spare and taut collection, and the poems chosen by some poets are frustratingly few in number.

A number of poems dwell overtly on signs and semiotics, including Hales’ “divination” (p.64) which embodies wider concerns in the anthology in its concentration on signs, the processes of interpretation and the construction of meaning, and on the recreation of past experience:

signs    drenched in meaning               early
dew     and another fine          but maybe

later cloud         shudders like a headache
lightning          it’ll pass           where

were we then               ah yes              the signs
we were seeking               the words to tell

One wonders a little how the success of this fine anthology will and should be judged – will the greater success have been achieved if it inspires the publication of more women-only anthologies, or if it puts an end to the need for them, in favour of greater inclusion of women poets in ‘mixed’ male-and-female anthologies? Whichever, on the evidence provided by Infinite Difference, the signs for the future of ‘other’ poetries in the U.K. are surely good.

Steve Van-Hagen is Programme Leader for English Literature at Edge Hill University, Lancashire. He is Hthe editor of James Woodhouse, The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus: A Selection (Gloucester: The Cyder Press, 2005) and has published articles on Woodhouse, Stephen Duck and washing-day poems of the eighteenth century. He has two books forthcoming from Greenwich Exchange Press, The Poetry of Mary Leapor and The Poetry of Jonathan Swift.


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