Tuesday, 24 April 2018
American poet Terrance Hayes has been one of my favourite discoveries of recent years. His poetry explores themes of masculinity, parenthood, black and American identity, in verse that is warm, energetic and intensely interested in form. For the centenary of Gwendolyn Brooks, he devised a new poetic form, the Golden Shovel, which resulted in an anthology of the same name dedicated to Brooks and using the form.
Hayes' next collection will be American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, to be released in June. A number of these poems - all bearing the same title, 'American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin' - have appeared over the past year in online journals, and I have felt a thrill of excitement every time I have seen a new one. I was at the London launch of The Golden Shovel anthology, where many of the contributors and editors appeared, including Patricia Smith, Malika Booker and others. Terrance Hayes read some of the 'American Sonnets', and the atmosphere was electrifying (this time the cliché is definitely appropriate).
Here are just a few of the 'American Sonnets', which are even more varied than this selection suggests. I'm pretty sure this is going to be one of the best collections of 2018, if not the decade.
Terrance Hayes photo courtesy of Blue Flower Arts
Saturday, 21 April 2018
In the spirit of non-posts after a long time without posting at all, I hereby bring you a bunch of photos from London Book Fair 2018, at Olympia, which was last week. As always, it was a very fun work day.
The regional focus this year was on the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I didn't get a chance to do much that was poetry-related, but it's good to see what is happening in book-world.
The last picture is indeed me, and the picture just before it...well, that's kind of me too.
I promise that actual poetry entries will resume very soon.
Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Helen Dunmore (left), 2014. Photo by summonedbyfells. Used under Creative Common license
Helen Dunmore, the British poet and novelist who died last year at the age of 64, recently won not only the 2017 Costa Poetry award for her final poetry collection Inside the Wave, but also the overall Costa Book of the Year award.
So far I've read relatively few poems from Inside the Wave or her other works, which probably makes this post a little premature. From what I have read, though, her poems seem to me balanced, spare but vivid, a personal voice aware of the wider world. I was somewhat reminded of the poetry of Sarah Maguire, who also died last year at around the same age. I'm also looking forward to reading Dunmore's novel Exposure and perhaps others.
Dunmore's poem 'Convolvulus', published in 2004, is one that I read recently and have often thought of since. In the symbology of flowers, the convolvulus can represent extinguished hopes and death. It is also a plant which can act as a weed and choke out others. The poem thus becomes a thought-provoking and disturbing meditation on hope (a flower that continues to bloom), but also the permanence of death and the repeated dashing of hopes throughout human history. The flower is resilient: this is both a source of optimism and despair. "Crushed, they breathe out their honey, and slowly/come back to themselves in the balm of the night". Humans cannot regain life or hope so easily, certainly not in the face of violence.
It is very telling that the speaker first says "where we say bombs, there will be nothing/until we turn to reconstruction" (the war will stop, the ceasefire will hold) but later acknowledges "Where we say bombs, there will be bombs". The poem ends with the recurring threat of violence in "the shadow of planes" over the sea, which reminded me irresistibly of how I felt when I saw the first plane after 9/11, days later, over a beach near my home on Vancouver Island.
'Convolvulus' reminded me of 'Desert Flowers' by Keith Douglas, a favourite poem: these two poems share the themes of war and the ambiguity of the flower imagery. I also thought that both Douglas and Dunmore seem curiously outside of time. Douglas has dated relatively little considering that he was writing in the 1930s and '40s, and Dunmore seems unlikely to become dated in any kind of hurry.
Neil Astley of Bloodaxe has just written a touching tribute to Helen Dunmore which you can read here: https://www.waterstones.com/blog/helen-dunmore-a-personal-tribute-by-bloodaxe-books-editor-neil-astley
Sunday, 4 February 2018
On the list of poems which have haunted me and refuse to leave, this is a recent addition: 'The Second Going' by Philip Levine.
Philip Levine, who was the US Poet Laureate in 2011-2012, died in 2015 at the age of 87. This poem appeared in 2017 in The Golden Shovel, an anthology in honour of Gwendolyn Brooks (who was also a US Poet Laureate, and the first African-American woman to receive that honour.) The "golden shovel" poetic form was devised by Terrance Hayes and it uses each word of a line of poetry, in order, to form the last word of each line in the new poem. The line which inspired 'The Second Going', "The only sanity is a cup of tea", appears in Gwendolyn Brooks' poem 'Boy Breaking Glass'.
'The Second Going' is a beautiful example of one of my own favourite poetic "forms" (if it can be called that): the very short poem. In just eight lines, this poem says so much.
My own reading of it is rather dark. I see this as an end-of-life poem, which it may literally have been for Philip Levine, as he died in 2015 and the poem must have been commissioned for the 2017 anthology. Even the poem's shape, appearing as a descending staircase, suggests an ending. The poem's opening, "Again the/day begins", has a weariness about it, and "mercy" (in the final line) is a word I identify with assisted death or, at least, death after an exhausting illness. A sad poem, then, but also an illuminating one, like the strange clarity that can come after being awake for "long nights & absent dawns".
Photo: 'night' by Steve Johnson. Used under Creative Commons license
Tuesday, 30 January 2018
The novelist, essayist and poet Ursula Le Guin died a few days ago, on 22 January. She was 88.
There are so many things I could say about Le Guin. I remember seeing A Wizard of Earthsea in the library when I was young, and being a little frightened by the cover art. Later, I remember reading it on a long train trip in Finland, perhaps at the age of nine or ten. I also remember a certain remote, awed feeling about her name. Ursula Le Guin: it was like one of the characters in her books, perhaps a powerful and beautiful queen, and I think I suspected for a long time that it was a pen name.
Unlike with Watership Down, or even to a certain extent with Tolkien, I don't remember any coup de foudre moment with Le Guin's writing. My brother and I loved the first two Earthsea books - I think for some time we were especially keen on The Tombs of Atuan - but we found The Farthest Shore dull. Much later, I've realised it's one of her most beautiful and profound books. That says something about my relationship with Le Guin's writing: her books have been a part of my life for a very long time, indeed for most of it, but it was more of a slow burn.
It would be incorrect to say that I loved everything I ever read by Le Guin (and I haven't read all of her work, which gives me some relief now that she is gone). I love much of it, and admire all of it. She has been around for most of my artistic/literary/life development, but my awareness of her work has expanded gradually over the years. I enjoyed fantasy literature in childhood, so Earthsea was the logical place to begin. I'm not sure when I became aware that she was probably even more famous as a science fiction writer, author of The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, among others. I suspect that for a long time, I was guilty of doing what she eventually taught me not to do: I pigeonholed her as a sci-fi/fantasy writer, as good as I knew her to be. In recent years I have realised that she was one of the greatest writers of our time - full stop. I now think of her as having left us one of the finest bodies of work from the 20th and 21st centuries. She was the author of magnificent literature, who happened to be working mainly in speculative fiction, and who was so often marginalised for it (and often for her gender, too) when her genius should have been shouted from the rooftops.
Genre fiction often gets shoved aside as mere entertainment. Le Guin's work was entertaining, but I never went to her other worlds merely to be entertained. I went to Earthsea or Anarres or the Western Shore or Orsinia in order to think, to meditate, to explore, to shake things loose in my mind. Her sense of humour is underrated and frequently present, but really, a profound seriousness runs through her writing and it demands that readers approach it seriously. In the days following her death, I've read many superb articles by people who knew her and/or were deeply influenced by her work. Many people have, one way or another, claimed her ideas on feminism, gender, politics and so forth. I have no desire to claim her ideas; in fact, I know that she and I would have disagreed on many things. But although she was a writer whose convictions shine through strongly, even overtly at times, in all of her writing, I found a freedom within her books as well. Her books didn't try to force agreement, which many less subtle and powerful writers have done, especially in recent years. They did, however, call on me to engage deeply with the text and to use my mind, to think about agreement, disagreement, compromise, changing one's mind or holding fast to one's convictions. She also treasured love and the small things which make up a life and its relationships.
As otherworldly as her writing is, there's also something extremely tangible and tactile about it. Even in her prose, her craft held many lessons for poets, in its spareness and meticulous choice of every word. She is not a writer for whom I would use the word "effortless". The craftwork in her writing is extremely evident, as it would be when looking at a beautiful piece of pottery, or a painstakingly worked statue. Many of her characters do such work, or jobs which are seemingly humble. She showed respect for all of it. Some years ago I visited Okinawa, and my friends bought me a stunningly beautiful pottery mug, dark-glazed, depicting a fish. It is pure Le Guin (and so was that world of Okinawa, its little islands, grey winds, bright waves and dark palms). When I still lived in my hometown of Victoria, Canada, I would sometimes see the work of sculptor Maarten Schaddelee, who carved flowing dolphins, sea creatures and waves, often out of highly polished wood. These too were "Le Guin" works of art to me. And it's appropriate that they came from either side of the Pacific Rim, because Le Guin lived in Portland, Oregon for much of her life, after growing up in California. There is a definite Pacific Northwest and West Coast air to so much of her work, which also brought me closer to it.
I have sometimes been known to say that I'm a bit under-read when it comes to the Great American Novel. Well, Ursula Le Guin was the great American novelist. It doesn't have to be a man or the author of Gravity's Rainbow or Portnoy's Complaint. When the writing is this good, when the thoughts are this expansive, the great American novelist can and should be a woman writing science fiction and fantasy. Like so many of her readers, I am deeply sad that she is gone, but slightly comforted that I haven't read all of her work yet - including much of her poetry, which many consider underrated. She could no longer work on another novel in the last few years, but she still had poetry. In one of the many articles written in the last few days, Zoë Carpenter, who had known her, wrote: "She told me it was important that I read her poems in order to understand her current preoccupations, her attempt to 'report from the frontier' of old age." I'll reread her novels and will move on gratefully to the poetry while I remember this extraordinary woman.
Photo of Ursula Le Guin by Marian Wood Kolisch (Oregon State University). Used under Creative Commons License
Sunday, 17 December 2017
As I may have mentioned in past years, I'm not much for end-of-the-year lists: other people do them better, my mind doesn't really work that way, I spent much of 2017 reading spy novels (all actual excuses for me this year.)
However, I thought I'd share some of my go-to poetry and poetry in translation websites, where you can find the finest and most varied poetry and work around poetry. Many of these are probably obvious already if you read my blog, they're also probably obvious even if you don't read my blog, and I've left out a lot (call this a small sampling rather than a list). But anyway, all of these come highly recommended and if you don't already know them, they will expand your poetry world.
As further proof of my laziness, I won't recommend blogs specifically, but will instead point out to Matthew Stewart's list at the Rogue Strands blog: http://roguestrands.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12/the-best-uk-poetry-blogs-of-2017.html
Forward Arts Foundation
And Other Poems
Ink Sweat & Tears
Poetry in translation websites
Modern Poetry in Translation
Poetry Translation Centre
Poems Found In Translation
Words Without Borders
Thursday, 14 December 2017
I recently went to my first Poetry Translation Centre workshop in a while, where we translated a couple of poems by the Persian poet Iraj Ziayi (using a literal translation by Alireza Abiz, who was also present, as a starting point). He is known as "the poet of objects", often imbuing inanimate things with an unusual charge of meaning in his poems.
One of the poems in particular, 'Tehran letter', affected me deeply. It accomplished what honestly I'd probably like to do in all of my own poems: in a brief format (14 lines) it evokes the emotions and memories that cling to a place, and a non-linear sense of time. The intimacy of translation - and in a Poetry Translation Centre workshop every line is carefully debated, discussed and decided on, with an expert in the original language present - immersed us in the poem and its mysterious approach to time.
By the end of the poem, I realised that it reminded me of TS Eliot's Four Quartets, perhaps 'Burnt Norton' in particular. "If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable": in 'Tehran letter', "they came and killed and burnt" is a reference, well-known to Iranian readers, to the 13th-century Mongol invasion. To me, there was a kind of agitation in the postman's repeated return to number 49, even if it's to seek birdsong (also reminiscent of 'Burnt Norton': "Quick, said the bird, find them, find them/ Round the corner..."), a sad sense of a broken automaton. The poem is beautifully constructed and deeply poignant, but the way the central image of a letter exists and un-exists, writes and unwrites itself, is also disturbing. It seems to spool in a motion that suggests both the "river-that-isn't", and a kind of eternal Mobius strip (as another workshop member said), even a trap.
As well as the final translation of 'Tehran letter', do read the 'About this poem' section, describing the meanings that we explored - some of them nearly impossible to translate without a considerable loss of the original meaning. Translation, especially of poetry, really is a joy and a sadness.
Photo: Glassware and Ceramics Museum by reibai. Used under Creative Commons license
Monday, 11 December 2017
snow in london by myrealnameispete. Used under Creative Commons license
When cold weather comes, I often think of Robert Bridges's 'London Snow'. The fact is, though, that recent London winters have been mild (I think the last really cold and fairly snowy one was 2012-2013) and this poem just hasn't seemed as appropriate. But today (yesterday? and maybe again today) it did snow, substantially. I was out and about in it for a while, but didn't get a chance to visit a park, which would have been a good idea; it usually sticks for longer there. We had big fat flake snow, wet snow, rain, more big fat flakes... When I walked down the road later to my favourite local coffee shop, the large, airy flakes fell and I had a moment of...whatever snow conjures. Motion, stillness in motion, nostalgia (something I indulge in far too much these days).
The languid movement of the poem is exceptional in conveying the coming of snow, the gentle swing through the poem's lines of the present participles - "flying", "settling", "lying", "hushing". After the snowfall, the language becomes brisker and more descriptive, but still conveying the transformative nature of snow ("the solemn air," "crystal manna".) I also like how the poem describes the conflict between fallen snow's stillness and beauty, and the struggle of human beings in a big city who need to clear the snow away and get on with their lives.
LONDON SNOW (Robert Bridges)