Monday, June 30, 2008

The Price of Pomegranates

Why would anyone pay £1.50 for a pomegranate? I like them and all that, but £1.50 for a single piece of fruit? Oh yes, silly me: they're superfoods, a class of comestible scientifically proven to make the marketing managers salivate three times as fast.* We got two for 35p apiece from the reduced-to-clear basket the other day. I mean, if they can flog 'em off for that, what's the original mark-up?

*Did you like that null comparative? Sarcasm's miles better.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Back to Front?

There's an extensive, thoughtful and very positive review of the sampler over at Jim Murdoch's ever stimulating blog The Truth about Lies. Jim comments on each of the poems in turn, as well as on general aspects of the pamphlet as an object and collection. This is the paragraph that most interests me:

As a poet myself I'm inclined to have my meanings at the forefront of my poems, not that I discount feelings but they've always tended to be something of an aside with me. Philip's poetry, to my mind, concentrates on feelings and the meanings are put on the back burner. These are poems you can't read, tick the box – Yeah, I get that one – and then pass onto the next one. ... A star has exploded and these are fragments rippling away, getting further and further apart, remnants; they meant something when they were whole. Now they are not meaningless but they mean less and Philip is desperately trying to cling onto that meaning. The feelings are clear and unambiguous however.

Always fascinating to see how others read your work, isn't it? I'm interested that Jim thinks I put meaning "on the back burner". I'd certainly agree that meaning is not "at the forefront" of my work as it is for him. That's perhaps the fundamental difference in our poetics: I don't discount the skill and craft of writing something with meaning at the forefront--perhaps I even do it occasionally--but that kind of poetry has never interested me as much as more layered, multivalent poetry has. So that's often what I aim for: something that layers meaning; that can access a sense beyond the surface meaning; that will draw the reader back to discover new meaning on subsequent readings.

I wouldn't call that putting meaning "on the back burner". To my ears, that phrase sounds a touch pejorative in this context. However, Jim is anything but negative about the pamphlet, so I guess he didn't mean it that way. In fact, he says the sampler is

a collection of poems by a man trying to make sense out of something that will never make sense, trying to imbue words with meanings they were never intended to hold and, where that fails, creating new words to try and get his point across.

Absolutely spot on. This is perhaps where we come to the emotions in the poetic. The poems in question being largely about grief and bereavement,* it's hardly surprising that emotion should strike a sensitive and intelligent reader as being at the forefront. Nonetheless, Jim acknoweldges the attempt to make sense (ie, meaning) out of it.

What we have here is the collision or collusion of meaning and emotion. Writing poetry has probably always been to me a means of thinking through my emotions, even more vitally so since I began writing about losing my son, Aidan. And I mean thinking through in a double sense: making sense of my emotional life; and using my emotions as a stimulus to thought. That's not the sum of my poetics, but it's probably a central part. After all, we're talking about an important aspect of the way I'm made: a reasonably intelligent/intellectual individual but, at the same time, uncommonly emotional for a man.**

Thinking again about the relative positioning of meaning and emotion in my poetry, I'd like to suggest that I'm not backgrounding meaning but foregrounding possibilities in the language. Fundamentally, poetry is about language: what we can do with it and what we can do to get beyond it.*** The poem's meaning is a function of the poem as an instance of language--a language event, if I can put it like that--with all the complexity of interaction between the text, the writer and the reader(s) that that implies. That too is a central part of what I'm trying to do. I'm not saying I apply this understanding in the most sophisticated way, but it's definitely mixed into the mortar.

Some of these thoughts have been rattling round in my wee heid for a while, but it's taken Jim's appraisal to get them out into the open, slightly random though they are. My thanks to him for providing the impetus and, above all, for taking the time to read and review the pamphlet so thoroughly.

*This holds for "Tonguefire Night" too in ways I didn't know and could never have known when I wrote it, although I understood at some level the cultural grief and bereavement that it touches on.

**Though not especially sensitive to emotional atmosphere, strangely enough. Aren't we humans complicated sometimes?

***"Poetry is only there to frame the silence", as Alice Oswald said in an interview.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

More Laurels for Morgan

Somehow, I had missed until the middle of this week the news that Edwin Morgan has won this year's Sundial Scottish Arts Council book of the year award for A Book of Lives. Shame on me!

Not having read the collection--or any of the other finalists, for that matter--I can't comment on its merits, but there's no doubt that Morgan is and always has been a remarkable writer. He's perhaps the most widely known of that significant seam of writers who have demonstrated how possible it is to combine experimental and mainstream poetics in one career, even in one poem. Above all, his work--serious, subtle and craftful as it is--teams with imagination, verve and wit. He is a poet for the variousness of today. Incidentally, he's the first poet I ever saw read live and probably the first living poet I read extensively off my own bat, unprompted by any course syllabus.

It's always encouraging to see poetry winning when it goes head to head with other genres in awards like this one. The poetry shortlist was strong; Carcanet dominated with three titles, while Cape and Edinburgh's Luath had one apiece. But Morgan wasn't the only poet among the finalists: the winner of the first book category was fellow Linlithgow resident Jane McKie, whose first collection, Morocco Rococo, is published by Wales's Cinnamon Press. She was up against a Cape chicklit title and a non-fiction book from Scotland's Sandstone Press so, all in all, it was a good showing for small presses too.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Sampler Listed

Andrew Philip: A Sampler is now listed on the HappenStance website. I'll update the sidebar in due course.

[Sidebar updated.]

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Making the Most of the Web

Four poems by Matt Merritt, whose fine HappenStance pamphlet Making the Most of the Light came out in 2005 and whose first full collection Troy Town was published by Arrowhead earlier this year, have just been added to Alex Pryce's fantastic PoetCasting website. Well worth a listen.

PoetCasting itself has just had some good very news: it has secured funding from the Arts Council England to continue until mid 2010. It'll allow the site to start collaborating with poetry magazines and live poetry performance events, as well as enable it to continue podcasting an admirably broad range of poets. Gaun yersel, Alex!

A Beetrooty Launch and a Groggy Reading

A week past Tuesday, I went to the launch of Angela McSeveney's new Mariscat pamphlet Slaughtering Beetroot at the Scottish Poetry Library. I can safely say it's the only launch I've been to where beetroot cake was on offer. Angela had baked it herself, and it was, you may say, delicious. And the poetry was at least as good. I think this could be Angela's best collection yet. Her characteristic "clear-water shine" (Iain Crichton Smith) is, of course, in evidence, but it grows ever stronger mixed with a certain wry determination and a sense that she is perhaps more relaxed in herself and her writing than in previous work. Well worth parting with £5.00 for it.


Last Sunday was the final Poetry at the Great Grog before the summer break. Jim Carruth was the first reader. His is a distinctive voice, bringing the farming experience to us urban dwellers in unsentimental, inventive poems. No hint of the romanticising of the rural life here, although there is plenty of anger and regret, often below the surface. His love poem to silage (I kid you not) was a tour-de-force of rhyme. I'd quite like to get a hold of it and subject it to my usual "Reasoning Rhyme"-type analysis.

My memory of the order has gone a bit hazy at a week's remove, but I'm reasonably certain it was Mike Stocks next, before Eleanor Livingstone. Mike read very well from his collection of sonnets, Folly. However, I have to say, although there were some fine examples of what you can achieve within those confines, it left me feeling you can have too much of a good form, as do Alan Spence's all-haiku readings. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy such readings at all. Mike can write powerful* and funny sonnets, but sometimes I wanted him to make the form disappear.

Eleanor read well, mostly from new work, including memorable poems about her Fife childhood escapades and her daughter's reading habits.

Kapka Kassabova was the final reader. Kapka is from Bulgaria, via New Zealand, and writes about the experience of exile in a way that communicates strongly to us non-exiles. I say "us non-exiles", but there were other exiles in attendance and, besides, there's something in the Scottish psyche that could almost be described as exiled from itself or from its own history and culture. To me, Kapka's work speaks to that aspect of Scottishness, perhaps not directly, but powerfully.

I also met Julia Rampen, who will be reading at the Great Grog at some point next year. Julia was one of the Foyle Young Poets winners in 2005 and 2006, as well as a runner-up in the Tower Poetry competition in 2006 and one of the winners in The Rialto's fifth young poets competition. To judge by the poems I've linked to, she's obviously talented; I'm looking forward to hearing her read.

Poetry at the Great Grog will be back in September with Michael Schmidt, Helena Nelson, Dorothy Baird and another Foyle Young Poet, Charlotte Runcie.

*Perhaps none more so than the one here, which nearly made me cry when I read it. It wasn't in his set.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

I Had to Pinch Myself

It's been a momentous week in this neck of the woods. As you'll know if you've been following this blog for a while, I've been working on a full collection of poetry, swapping manuscripts with Rob A Mackenzie and submitting to publishers. On Tuesday, the collection--The Ambulance Box--was accepted by Salt, who propose to publish in the spring. I'm delighted. Salt not only have a really strong list, but a positive, 21st century approach to the web, which publishers ignore or downplay at their peril. I'm thoroughly looking forward to working with them.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Poems in the Big City

Sleepers. A fine idea if you can book a berth but a complete misnomer if cash and demand force you into a recliner (read "seat that hardly moves back") for the eight-hour journey. And my seat on the way down to London was the worst possible option: right next to the door to the toilet area and facing another occupied seat. Lots of shuffling and stumbling about next to my head. Ergo, no sleep till berth time (ie, the return journey).

I arrived in London Euston at 7:01 am--godforsaken shed of a place at that hour. I'd left a sunny Sunday in Scotland to come to a sodden Monday in London, with 13 hours to fill before the reading. I had breakfast at chop'd* in St Pancras; found out when the British Library opened; made my way down to Earl's Court to locate the Troubadour and time the journey, picking up a copy of Geoffrey Hill's Canaan for £1.50 en route in a Samaritans book shop; went back up to the British Library, where I sat in the cafe and mulled over a set for the evening before wandering round the exhibition on the Ramayana (fascinating, but a bit much on so little sleep); had lunch in a random noodle bar and observed the terminally damp Africa Day concert in Trafalgar Square.

Then, at 3pm, I was rescued from my wet solitude when I met up with Siriol Troup and Lorraine Mariner for coffee in the National Gallery. Siriol, Lorraine and I also went to the exhibition of new Alison Watt paintings. Beautiful, haunting work, as I've come to expect from Watt. In these, the sense of presence-in-absence is intensified by a new feature: substantial openings in the folds in the fabric that draw the eye, as you can see in this image.

After the gallery, we hopped on the Tube down to Earl's Court and the Troubadour. Helena Nelson and Eleanor Livingstone were already there waiting for the HappenStance band and supporters slowly gathered. Nell had me sign 50 copies of the sampler (sitting in a back room signing books: another sign of being a writer!). I'd not met any of the non-Scottish HappenStancers, but there were so many of us in the party I didn't get much of a chance to talk to them. However, I did have a great natter with Katy Evans-Bush of Baroque in Hackney fame and the chance to catch up with Sinéad Wilson, who I hadn't seen in a few years.

The reading was downstairs in the cellar bar and, when we headed down there, the place was already reasonably full. I was utterly amazed and delighted to see one of my Dutch friends among the audience, another friend I hadn't seen for ages. (He was in the country for an academic conference and had seen the reading trailed here.)

I was first up. At Nell's suggestion, I read the six uncollected poems from the sampler: "Singularity", "Lullaby", "Still" (which is a response to Alison Watt's painting of the same title), "Saxifrage", "Dream Family Holiday" and "Coronach". Not an easy set for the audience, perhaps, but it went down really well. It wasn't an easy set for nor for the other readers to follow either, but the reader who followed me directly was Rob A Mackenzie, whose set was completely different and superb, as I'd expect from him. (For me, his was the best set of the first half.)

There was just time in the break to chat to one or two friends and audience members but, unfortunately, I had to leave shortly after the second half began. However, I managed to hear Tom Duddy, who read quietly from his very fine pamphlet The Small Hours. For a good summary of the whole reading, see Rob's account. It was a shame not to be able to hear Michael Mackmin, whose Twenty-Three Poems is another strong chapbook, or Gregory Leadbetter, who I didn't get the chance to meet either, but at least I managed to sleep a bit on the train home!

All in all, it was a great trip. The reading buzzed with a livelier atmosphere than anything I've been at certainly in Edinburgh, possibly in Scotland full stop, and the audience was obviously attentive. In fact, the dozen copies of the sampler that Nell put out all sold, as did a good number of other pamphlets. Now, that just wouldn't happen in Edinburgh!

*Daft apostrophe but good hot porridge, which is just what a cold, wet traveller needed.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sampler Review

Sorlil has very kindly reviewed my sampler on her blog. As far as I know, it's the first review of this pamphlet and I'm very pleased with what she has to say about it. She comments:

"These poems are unlike most of the poems I read these days, there is something very different and at times uncomfortable about them which certainly makes them stand out and difficult to forget",

which is the kind of thing any writer would want a reader or reviewer to say about their work. I'll be interested to see whether there are many comments on her post.

Meanwhile, why not contact HappenStance and order a copy?

Angus Calder

As other bloggers have already noted, Angus Calder has died. I can't claim to have known him well, but he was a kenspeckle character on the Edinburgh poetry scene and a fine writer. I have clear memories of him reading "Deer on the High Hills" at an event to celebrate Iain Crichton Smith and of an energetic reading from his own Horace in Tollcross he gave for the Shore Poets. But my strongest memory is from the launch party for Tonguefire: before proceedings began--before there was more than the merest handful of folk there, in fact--Angus marched up to me with a copy of the pamphlet and slapped it down for me to sign: the first person ever to ask me to sign my work. He will be missed.

Monday, June 09, 2008

LBF on Facebook

Linlithgow Book Festival now has a Facebook presence. With the full programme listed there, it's a great way for Facebookers to keep up to date with what's happening with West Lothian's literary festival.

What's New on Tonguefire