Tuesday, 19 June 2012

New Writing Worlds 1

I am here for the week, starting yesterday and the programme is pretty full, including a morning salon, so it is going to be hard to keep up. There is a very illustrious list of writers, whose names will be found in the Festival Brochure. You'll find Winterson, Ondaatje, Coetzee, Parks, Shapcott, Teju Cole and the rest, just as illustrious and interesting there. Essentially, it is salons (discussion with provocations / papers by two of the writers) in the morning, then readings and events in the afternoon and evening.

It kicked off with Gillian Beer introducing Jeanette Winterson and Jo Shapcott yesterday. GB gives the fullest, most illustrated introductions ever, though some of those at the Dun Laoghaire festival in Ireland come close. The introductions were brief full enthusiastic readings of the work of both Winterson and Shapcott.

The mature, combative, surreal cartoon strip of Jo Shapcott's early poetry is justly famous. The mad cows and the Tom & Jerries are a slice of contemporary British life in full colour. The later work was understandably darkened by illness and by engagement with Rilke's poetry, but the invention remains. This time we had the Bee poems that retain the invention but are not joky, more dreamlike - a rather terrifying dream of becoming colonised by bees - and the Little Aunt poem about dementia that is shockingly moving. Shocking seems an odd choice, but it is precisely the contrast between the surreal and the tragic that seems properly so. Dementia is shocking.

Jeanette Winterson gave a muscular combative reading from Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, the language shifting from chatty to intense to comic, in her edgy fashion that won't quite let the reader settle. She recites sentences and reads the rest. The personal (one of the themes of the salon, in the sense of the relation between the self and the fiction) presses hard, but then shifts from the remembered to the invented.

The questions included, and then focused on the idea of learning poetry by rote (in the words of the questioner, = the bad way) and by heart (in the words of the answer = the good way). I asked what the difference was, but really I know. It's simple. It's by rote, hence bad, when taught by someone you don't like, and it's by heart, hence good, when it is taught by someone you like. Or if you decide to do it yourself.

Then dinner and back very late. It might be a little like this so hard to keep up but I'll try.


James Hamilton said...

The Winterson's a thrilling book: one of those you find yourself transcribing huge chunks of into notebooks (copying out by hand can be as good as drawing for that experience of physically relating to something, even to a text).

"..the fullest, most illustrated introductions ever.." Mm. The poetry reading equivalent, sometimes, to the way absolutely every classical concert involves rhapsodic applause, encores and (on the radio) that strange, elated tone in a commentator's voice, moonwalking over the cheers and claps. I wonder if the actual poets aren't secretly squirming inside at times!

George S said...

The squirm may be comprised of roughly equal elements of pleasure and discomfort. I never quite know where to put myself when being praised. To say simply 'Thank you' seems smug, and 'Aw shucks' or the equivalent suggests one's cheeks should be burning in a quite unreal cartoonish way. Few of us are good with praise though we all desire it.