Sunday, July 29, 2007

Gearing Up

I'm off to a course with Matthew Hollis and Colette Bryce at the Lumb Bank Arvon centre tomorrow, so this online tongue will stop wagging for the next five or six days at least. Still, there's a reasonably amount for you to enjoy in the virtual cupboard under the stairs.

It should be a fun week. I know Matthew Hollis from his days at Edinburgh University, when he was president of the university's poetry society. He was a couple of years ahead of me and was largely responsible for making EUPS an interesting place to be. I last saw him when he read for the Shore Poets in November. Colette Bryce I met and chatted to briefly when she read for the Shore Poets in, I think, 2003. The course is about working towards a first collection, so it comes at just the right point in time for me.

Speculating as to what kind of people the other course participants might be is always* fun but a little less necessary in this instance, as it transpires that Alex Pryce of Poetcasting note is going on the same course. She'll have her podcasting gear with her, so it looks like I'll be recorded and cast ahead of the expected schedule**. Poetcasting is an impressive project, all the more so given that it's the brainchild of a 19-year-old student. It's one of the most interesting and vibrant UK poetry websites--unique in its mix of emerging and established voices, performance poets, mainstream literary poets and more experimental writers--and I'm looking forward to meeting the person behind it.

*I say "always", but I've only ever been on previous Arvon course, which was way back in 2002.
**Alex is planning a Scottish recording trip early next year.

On the Hard Rain

Today's Sunday Herald contains reflections by John Burnside stemming from the recent floods in England and Wales. It's a typically intelligent, meditative piece written in the considered, weighed and weighted voice that admirers of Burnside cherish. There's no hint of hysteria, not even green hysteria, in his futurology* simply a measured meditation on what the increased threat of flooding demands of us.

*Let's face it, the finest poets are often the unacknowledged futurologists of the world and Burnside is one of our finest.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

As you'll know if you're a regular visitor to these virtual parts, Rob A Mackenzie and I swapped manuscripts nearly a fortnight ago. I've had a read-through of Rob's MS and will comment properly on it in due course, but suffice to say for the moment that it's very good and a lot of fun in places.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in how one might put together a poetry manuscript, you could do worse than visit Rob's series of posts related to the process. Be sure to read the comments streams. The latest of these posts muses on the relation between what gets into a magazine and what gets into a collection. It doesn't particularly mention how changes in one's own writing affect these choices. For instance, the MS I swapped with Rob doesn't contain my most published poem, with which I chose to open Tonguefire, because it no longer feels to me like a piece of my writing.

Of course, this is connected to the notion of voice, a discussion of which is developing in Rob's posts. Some poets develop single strong, distinctive voices. John Burnside comes to mind in this regard; he has developed a style that is a cartography of a mind. It's a highly wrought object that he burnishes further with every new collection; a single poem extended throughout his writing life.

Other writers cultivate range and variety. Edwin Morgan is an obvious name to drop here, as is WN Herbert. Don Paterson might also fit into this category to a certain extent. Certainly, any of us who write in more than one language will find variety creeping in.

If a published collection is a public representation of a poet's development to date, the question that the writer and editor must ask themselves in putting it together is whether and how a given poem fits into not only the development but the representation. It can and should only ever be partial. After all, I don't imagine that any readership I might have will particularly want to read what I wrote on my off days. Therefore, a good sense of the picture one wants to present to the poetry reading world is probably helpful.

For my part, I feel more inclined towards range and variety than the single voice. That's what I hope to cultivate, and I think I've had some success in my most recent writing at least. But there must still be some sensibility to connect the various voices, styles or approaches. I hope I've achieved that as well, but only time and the reactions of readers will tell.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Recently Added

In the absence of the inclination or opportunity to say anything else at this moment, due to a bout of summer indolence, I'll highlight a couple of additions to Tonguefire:

  1. A list of the poems of mine that are published online.
  2. A poll on the Forward best collection prize shortlist (top of the sidebar).
  3. Additions to the blogroll: Reginald Shepherd, Todd Swift and Ben Wilkinson.
Now, shouldn't you be outside enjoying the momentary burst of sun/view of yet more cloud?

Monday, July 23, 2007

How Listening Pays Off

Having lauded Fiona Sampson's Guardian Unlimited workshop (which I have failed to complete), I thought I should mention her choice of the resulting poems. It forms a nice little compendium of significantly different approaches to the practice of listening--a clear demonstration that the workshop exercise is a good one, I think. There's much to learn from this.

I must pay more attention to future Guardian workshops. I've often glanced at them before, but never actually tried them out or read the results with anything more than cursory attention. Shame on me!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Fringe First!

It looks like my dulcet tones will be gracing the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the first time ever* this year: I have a 10-minute reading slot in the Postscript show at Diverse Attractions on Monday 20th August and Wednesday 22nd August. The show starts at 7.15pm and lasts roughly an hour and a half, but I've no idea when I'll be on. Nor have I any idea who else will be reading and performing. Should be interesting and fun, though.

I've also promised I'll drop by the Scottish Poetry Library's courtyard readings at some point. It might be a case of breezing in on whatever day the fancy takes me but, if I decide to go sufficiently ahead of time, I'll mention it here on Tonguefire. Like all open(-mike) sessions, the courtyard readings can be tremendously hit and miss, but they throw up some gems every now and again.

It strikes me that Luke Kennard should perhaps add his voice to the courtyard readings, seeing as he'll be in Edinburgh with his theatre comany anyway. If he does, I hope the folks at Salt have advance warning enough to let us know on their Forward shortlist blog.

*Not counting appearances at Scottish Poetry Library courtyard readings, which are entirely open, if mikeless and therefore aren't real Fringe appearances.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Shore Poets Programme 2007-08

Here's the Shore Poets programme from September 2007 to June 2008 (guest poets in bold, Shore poets in italics and new poets in plain text). Don't forget our special Orkney event on Sunday 29th July.

30th Sept
Polly Clark, Ian McDonough and Gilly Garnett

28th Oct
Gillian Allnutt
, Christine De Luca and James W Wood

25th Nov
David Kinloch, Nancy Somerville and Julie Sheridan

27th Jan
Elizabeth Burns
, Jim C Wilson and Lauren Pope

24th Feb
Jacob Polley
, Diana Hendry and Debbie Cannon

30th Mar
Martin McIntyre

27th Apr
Colin Will, Andrew Philip and Rachael Boast

25th May
Kate Clanchy, Ken Cockburn and Stephanie Green

29th Jun
Richard Price
, Angela McSeveney and Simon Pomery

Weinberger on the Dead

America: the dead

People die, but there are no dead in America. The dead are those who are exhumed a year after burial, their bones washed and placed in catacombs or in a special niche in the house, their skulls painted, with jewels set in the eye sockets, their skulls set on spikes around the yard. The dead are those buried in suits of jade to live forever, with the ornaments, weapons, cooking utensils, and food they'll need in the other world. The dead are buried sitting on a chair, facing east. The dead have a rooster carved on their gravestones, to announce the soul's awakening. The dead are the ones for whom incense, candles, paper money, paper cars, paper houses with paper dishwashers and VCR's are burnt. The dead are the ones whose memorial tablets and portraits occupy a prominent place in the living room or in the temple. The dead have graves that are visited with regularity and kept from weeds, or inspire melancholy at their abandonment. The dead have graves where the family picnics once a year and misbehaves. The dead inhabit a place where the living, through chants or trance or solitude or drugs, can talk to them. The dead are those who take possession of the living. The dead are those who come back.

There are no dead in America because there are no corpses. Corpses are the invisible citizens of America, the secret no one tells, far rarer to observe by chance than copulation. We don't see them, we don't touch them, we don't dress them, we don't know what to do with them, we don't keep them in our bedrooms until they are interred, we don't watch their feet sticking out from the shroud as the flames consume them. So many people die on television in America because in our lives no one dies, they only vanish, and television is the great compensator for all we don't have or see.

There are no dead in America because there is no place. The dead are dependent on generations that do not move. The dead have graves where the family knows where the graves are. In America the ancestors are left behind in a nation constructed, like no other, on the pursuit of happiness, a dream of the future where the dead have no place. There is no happiness to pursue among the dead. The country was settled (in its historical era) as an escape from the dead. Except for those who came in the early years to practice their religion - to maintain the old ways - its emigrants have come seeking freedom from the tyranny of the dead and, like released slaves, they must wander and invent themselves. The generations move on, new people, forever "making a new start," holding the ethical ideal of being "born again" in this life.

In the dream of no history, small fears fester and infect. The standard American horror movie plot is the house, the school, the mall built over a forgotten cemetery, and the subsequent revenge of the desecrated: a story unimaginable anywhere else. Visiting the United States in 1944, the Chinese anthropologist Fei Tsao-t'ung reported that "people move about like the tide, unable to form permanent ties with places, to say nothing of other people . . . . Naturally they seldom see ghosts."

from Renga— ten linked prose pieces, published in Jacket 11 and Karmic Traces.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Another Dose of Salt

Salt has started a blog of coverage, readings etc connected to its Forward shortlisted authors. Can't help but be chuffed to see they've linked to my comments on the shortlist. I'll add the blog to the sidebar. Keep an eye on it: there seems to be something new every half hour or so! The latest is that Luke Kennard is bringing his theatre company to the Fringe, but here's hoping Salt will bring their Forwardeers up to Scotland for a reading or two. After all, Jen Hamilton-Emery is a Scot and the publicity of a wee reading tour could only help them with the problems that I've heard they have shifting books in Scotland.

Speaking of Luke Kennard, his MySpace is also one of the recent additions to the Tonguefire blogroll. As you can see from the two links on his name above, I've tracked down a few of his poems online. First impressions: an interesting flavour of slightly madcap, surreal seriousness. It's a voice I think I could easily warm to. I hope Salt will provide us with some podcast poems and one of their author videos on his author page soon.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Reading and Thinking

It's worth taking 10 minutes to listen to the interview with Fiona Sampson from Woman's Hour last week, helpfully drawn to my attention by my wife. She has quite a few interesting nuggets to share about poetry and editing Poetry Review. It's encouraging to hear that she reads all the roughly 60,000 unsolicited submissions that come into the magazine's office in a year, especially as not all poetry competitions are honest about who does the initial read-through*.

I was also interested by what she had to say about the necessity for women's writing not to let go of thinking. That had never hit me as a particular problem, but maybe that's because of the kind of poetry I'm drawn to, regardless of the poet's gender. I'm also struck that we should still have such a label as "women's writing" without ever talking about "men's writing" as a definable cultural entity. Perhaps that demonstrates just how far away we still are from genuine literary gender equality. Perhaps it also points to a greater reluctance among men to read "women's writing" than the other way round. A curious state of affairs, given how much men puzzle over the way women think.

*I did have an online reference for this but can't find it at the moment. I'll put it in when I can.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Courage, Brother, Do Not Stumble

One of the perks of my day job is the flexitime system, of which I take advantage by taking long lunches with friends in the summer recess. Yesterday, I had lunch with Rob A Mackenzie. Rob and I swapped the still Protean manuscripts of our putative first full collections, so publication was much on our minds and in our conversation. Despite our shared lamentations over the struggles of publishing poetry*, our discussions re-envigorated my determination to press ahead with my collection. Nicely timed too, as I'm off to an Arvon course on working towards a first collection in less than a fortnight.

I've not yet had time to do any more than glance at Rob's MS, but I'm struck by how many eye-catching titles are in his contents list. It gives a flavour of the slightly surreal wit and humour that pervades much of his best work, which is what you'll expect if you know his pamphlet or have heard him read. I'll blog properly on his collection once I've had the chance to scrutinise it.

*Okay, so we talked about other stuff as well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Shock of that Silence

I've been meaning to post a link to this marvellous, sensitive article all week. As a bereaved parent, I relate deeply to the experiences that Alice Jolly describes. I can't recommend her piece highly enough to anyone. If you've lost a child, you'll hear your own voice in her story. If you've never been through that horror and despair (and I pray you never will), you'll hear a voice much buried. And if you've ever lost anyone (who of us hasn't or won't?), you'll hear some salutory words about our society's problem with grief and the grieving.

Making Headway with the Forward ?

The shortleet for this year's Forward prizes is out and I haven't read a single book on it. No surprise there, as I don't ever seem to keep well abreast of these lists. I don't own any of the titles yet either, although John Burnside's Gift Songs should already be in the post from the PBS.

Without knowing the work, the only interesting comment I can make about the list this year is that it shows Salt Publishing continuing to make advances into the Mighty Handful's share of the publicity cake: one title in the best collection category* and two in the shortlist for the first collection prize**. No mere crumbs these, especially as the Guardian article linked to above leads with a few paragraphs about Luke Kennard, the Salt nominee for the best collection prize. The folk at Salt are understandably and justifiably delighted. It's due recognition of the vibrance, energy and success of their publishing enterprise.

Also interesting is the fact that the Guardian also has an article by Sarah Crown, editor of Guaridan Unlimited Books and one of the Forward judges, about her experience of reading nowt but poetry for three weeks. As far as I recall, such coverage for the Forward is without precident. It's the kind of treatment usually reserved for the Booker or, at a pinch the Whitbread-sorry!-Costa awards. Does this mean that the cultural media are waking up to the Forward? I hope so, though it's probably just a matter of Crown's being on the judging panel. Even if it is, I doubt it means that we'll see many more poetry collections reviewed in the mainstream broadsheet press in a hurry.

*Cape has two, while Picador, Carcanet and Bloodaxe have one apiece.

**The other two are from Arc and Faber.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Equally Surprised

The publication in which the translation I mentioned the other week appeared came through the door nearly a fortnight ago. You might be surprised to learn that it's “The Language of Equality”: The Mayor's Annual Equalities Report 2006/07, the mayor in question being one Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London. You wouldn't be the only one: when the fee arrived, along with a note saying that the report would be in the post, I was quite surprised! I don't think even Sarah Wardle, when she contacted me to ask me to translate her poem “Hotel Gordon” into Scots, was under the impression that it was for anything further than Hyphen-21's work in hospitals, despite the fact that the document says my translation (which is alongisde Sarah's poem on page 8) "was produced especially for this report". At least, she didn't mention it if she knew. Not that I'm bothered, like! On the contrary, I'm chuffed, not least because the report is peppered with poems by other London-based poets from all over the world, such as Yang Lian, for example. And if I sit reading the poems in this book at my day-job desk, it'll look like real work!

Refreshing of Parts

I've been trying out the exercise in Fiona Sampson's Guardian poetry workshop. For various reasons, I've stopped halfway through and will have to do the rest another day but, to my surprise, step 2 was such fun it re-enlivened my sheer, giggling delight in language. That Heinekening was particularly welcome after a drudgy morning of not really writing anything at all. We'll see whether it spills out into anything else I attempt this afternoon.

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