Tuesday 30 October 2012

Competitions and poets’ alchemy:
a unique opportunity to be your secret self

Blog Tour Post!!

Today - meaning Wednesday! - is the last day for entries to this year’s National Poetry Competition. Ian Duhig, who has both won and judged the competition, ponders what competitions are really for.  

On the general question of entering a poetry competition, I always thought if it was a good enough idea for Beckett then it would be good enough for me too. Not winning puts you in the company of thousands of good poets, including those who perhaps could or should have taken the laurels. 
Winning competitions isn’t going to guarantee you will be taken seriously as a poet; but what is true is that an anonymous poem, judged on its own merits by a judge or judges, can have a fairer chance of getting any attention it deserves than simply by landing on the desk of some busy editor. 
It is also an impersonal, unembarrassing way to get your work before an informed reader, like showing off our dancing at a masked ball. Very often, a poem that doesn’t actually win can catch the eye of the judge, who then follows that writer’s career and draws other people’s attention to her in the future. This was certainly the case with me when I discovered Rhian Gallagher’s poem ‘Embrace’ among the National Poetry Competition entrants.
What I have learned as a competition judge includes something wonderful: how competitions give people the chance to put their best foot forward, to express what is most important to them in the best way they can, becoming unique celebrations of art in life, from poetry’s power to offer the ‘sad and angry consolation’. Geoffrey Hill attributes to this, in his ‘The Triumph of Love’, a way to make room for the kind of laughter Aristotle valued as a vehicle of social correction, a kind of charivari. 
Competitions can simply be the opportunity to get something off your chest, like a curse or the prayers left at the shrine in Sandra Cisneros’ ‘Little Miracles, Kept Promises’ but worked with the poet’s alchemy. Tony Harrison’s ‘Timer’ is a shining example of grief forging itself into a winning gold ring.
Finally there can, of course, be no real competition between poems, which do such different things, to such different criteria, that any judge’s views may be irrelevant to their success.
Yet competitions offer a venue for our engagement with parts of us that may not normally be exercised in other parts of our lives - as John Riley wrote, ‘the song accomplishes the singer’. They are opportunities for accomplishment, and to accomplish ourselves.

**Ian Duhig worked with homeless people before winning the National Poetry Competition gave him the opportinity to work as a freelance writer, which he has done since. He subsequently won the National Poetry Competition again, the Forward Best Poem Prize and been shortlisted three times for the T.S. Eliot Prize. The most recent of his six books is 'Pandorama' (Picador 2010). Duhig has also received a Cholmondeley Award and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

This post is part of a blog tour commissioned by the Poetry Society. You can find the whole tour on the Poetry Society website

Sunday 28 October 2012


It is rare for me to actually throw up so it was interesting doing so last night. It's just a bug that comes with a mild temperature, feeling chill, and somnolence. No big deal. Out tonight to deliver talk to Peripatetics on Hungary, planned in less than sharpest fashion because of said somnolence. There will be at least two people there who are familiar with the territory.

I don't write much about feeling under the weather because I don't generally and because I know people with serious afflictions.

But we have just shifted gear into winter with the changing of the clock, something of a magic ritual. Time winds into itself by human command. Doing this twice a year seems an easy trick.

Winter, the season of sleep, the city of frost. I will arise and go now. Here's a poem, a memory of China from December last year.

The Dancers in People’s Park 

In my dream I saw the dancers of China
shifting through the dusk of People's Park,
the healthy park where dancing is exercise,
and it moved me to tears in the oncoming dark
to see the dancers in the gathering dark
where bats flew and the cricket creaked
where plane trees peeled and moonlight leaked
and the people, the elderly, especially the elderly,
went dancing in the park. 
I ate magnificent meals, whose history was magnificent,
and was shown bronzes more ancient  than the Ark,
I watched high calligraphy scroll across the table,
the madness, the scholarship, the whistling in the dark,
and I was impressed while whistling in the dark
by the poets, the carvers, the calligraphers, by all
who laboured to fill both the vault and hall
and saw it was a miracle, a marvel and a miracle,
to watch them spinning in the dark.
I listened to the voices, followed their courtesies,
knew to listen out for each scholarly remark,
remarks that were substantial, deeper than a well
that reaches down for ever into everything that's dark.
And I heard the voices crying in the dark
where dancers turned to zombies, or floated like ghosts
drifting round  in circles like the tables of my hosts
and the dancers grew fainter, like a dream of dancing,
of people dancing in the dark.

Friday 26 October 2012

Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense

I haven't done this before but after a day of hard work it's nice to put up a full one and a half hour concert video. Talking Heads in 1984, directed by Jonathan Demme. The words are always intelligence-in-mask, smart, slightly wild, apocalyptic, edge of madness yet commercial, and the music is compulsive, energetic and essentially pop  with a touch of funk but going off in unexpected directions. The dancing is great too. Travelling back on trains from gigs or tired meetings, I sometimes plug into this. It gets better and better as it goes.

It's either that or Bach.

Or tango. 

The playlist:
"Psycho Killer"
"Thank You for Sending Me an Angel"
"Found a Job"
"Slippery People"
"Burning Down the House"
"Life During Wartime"
"Making Flippy Floppy"
"What a Day That Was"
"This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)"
"Once in a Lifetime"
"Genius of Love"
"Girlfriend Is Better"
"Take Me to the River"
"Crosseyed and Painless"

Thursday 25 October 2012

Image in a white shirt

Budapest ID photo from 1968, our only return visit as a family

Today Derek Adams came over to photograph me. His offer to do so came out of something I had said on the net about the photograph as a way of investigating the spirit. What I had written was: No photograph looks absolutely like you until you die: then they all do. Derek responded to that and a few other such little notes by suggesting a photograph and I said: yes.

My note simply reflected on the fact that while we are alive we are in motion and that this or that moment of absolute stillness runs counter not only to our experience of life but also to other people's experience of us. But once we are dead we no longer move. We are still. We have vanished. Now only the photographs remain; they are our final stillness. It is perhaps one of the reasons we like to look our 'best' in photos. If that is all that remains of our appearance it had better be good.

But why do we bother? We won't be there to care.

Perhaps the wish echoes that of our mothers in youth that we should wear clean underwear in case we get run over by a car. Or our own wish that our senile toothless old age should not be the image of us that those we care for - or indeed anyone - carry away with them. This, you must understand, is not us.

Our sense of presentability is something we wear under the skin. I don't mean we want to look false or overpreened, just that we want control of the way we are perceived. That control may involve being 'unpresentable' if that is the way we have grown used to presenting ourselves. There is a pride in not 'letting ourselves go' - the phrase itself a clue that we prefer to maintain a hold on our selves, the selves facing the world, that is.


So Derek arrives at the time discussed. I hop into his car to help him find a parking space, which we do further down the street, and I help him carry his equipment back to the house. The natural light is best in the upstairs kitchen, so we move the table and I make him coffee as he prepares his white backscreen, a couple of circular reflectors, a mirror, the tripod, the camera and various lenses. His series of photographs of poets is entirely in black and white against a white background. Knowing this I decide to wear a white shirt. The idea, presumably, is that it is only the face the viewer really sees, the face without distractions. He puts a chair in front of the screen and I sit on it.

Derek is a professional photographer of long standing so he knows it is good to engage the subject in conversation. But I am deeply self-conscious and know I am. He talks and I talk back but the camera is right in front of me. I am self-conscious because I have no confidence in my appearance. I myself do not know what it is. It is constantly running away from me. I would like to be able to handle it, as sheer phenomenon if nothing else, but I can't. I have no handle on it.

He takes over a hundred pictures and I do relax some way, but never completely. I am wary of my own image. Maybe that wariness is an aspect of my spirit. I suspect it is. I wonder whether that wariness will show. Perhaps it should.

It's about an hour and a half's work, then I put out some lunch and we talk a little more. He is due to give a reading himself in Southend tonight and has to get home and make dinner for his wife who is out at work.


I didn't get to see more than a few of the photos on his viewfinder as Derek flashed them before me. Yes, that is distinctly me, I thought, the me that often appears in photographs, those with presentable selves.

And yet, it is as if I were suspended in aspic.

I note myself in the aspic, that strange jelloid space, my transparent coffin. It is like seeing photographs of my parents in relative youth. They are both dead now. At some point I too will be, and these new photographs will then be older, confirming, magisterial. And somebody will say: He was something like that, though he is posing.

But they might add: And yet that is him as he was too because there will be something, maybe just in the eyes, where what everyone regards as spirit still resides. Behind the theatrical mask, the eyes, the eyes that are full of time - time that is always shutting down, every night, every hour, every moment - those eyes right there will appear to be overflowing with time, leaking time, spilling it, from this picture with its natural light, its white screen, reflectors, mirror, chair and white shirt.

Monday 22 October 2012


When he was very young his slender fingers
and junior ‘bedside manner’ made such an impression,
his mother considered him to be an absolute 
natural for the medical profession.

The doctor across the yard was called
when the boy was in great pain.
He was at dinner. It was mere gut ache
not appendicitis. They had to call again.
Peritonitis actually. Bad call.
But the boy survived, and that’s what counts, after all.

Damn patients! Just listen to them. Holy Moses!
You’d think they could conduct a diagnosis!

The good Chekhovian medic, that sane figure,
Had clearly never met the ghost of Dr Bardiger,
Whose communications were brief and almost dumb,
Who never once said more than mmm or hum.

So hum for ‘take a seat’. And mmm for ‘time to speak’
Another hum for the prescription and good bye
With the odd ahem for ‘Come back in a week
Unless in the meantime, mmm, you sadly die.’

The good doctor had had a difficult day.
He wasn’t going to put up with much more.
The time-wasters and sick could go away.
He strode around his office and locked the door.

The day had been difficult and time was short.
But nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to report.

It was the night and Doctor Crabwise rose
to fetch a glass of water and to think.
Who was the figure there with the snub nose,
He asked the mirror over the bathroom sink.
It must be me, he thought, and took a drink.

The system was ruining him. It ran on wheels
beyond him on its own harsh economics.
The surgery was equipped with glossy mags
and a clutch of second-hand kids’ comics.
Outside, the endless sea of the terrified and sickly.
Get done with them, poor sods, and get done quickly.

I think of the surgeon now who knew the heart,
and held in his hands my mother’s wretched body,
of how he spoke to her and exercised his art
with tenderness, and sorted through the bloody
tangle of her valves and was a blessing
long after the nurses had applied the dressing.

Doctor Crabwise and the rest: strange gods of hope
Curators of the body and the edges of the soul.
The medicine man with the stethoscope
That seeks the heart and looks to keep it whole,
We know your rank, as also our low station,
We pray to submit ourselves to your most strict examination.

Meanwhile the world, its voice a little hoarse,
Kept grumbling on, and nature took its course.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Sunday Night is... Chet Baker x 3

Three frail precisions. The third time means autumn.

Of late night TV and ghosts

It's a closed-in grey Sunday with the usual raindrops pendant on the semi-transparent clothesline, a pair of blue tits dodging in and out of the leaf-cover, the sun behind those veils of grey making periodic efforts to penetrate them.

It's the long season moving in, asserting its right of possession, bedding down in the yard, draping itself over everything.


It has been a full week to say the least.

I teach Mondays and Tuesdays till about 6pm and after. Monday night saw the welcoming dinner for the new international writer fellows, Tuesday night was the launch of the UEA anthology that I was down to introduce, Wednesday evening was the delayed celebration dinner for the Wymondham Words Festival to which C was going to come until summoned as emergency family baby-sitter, Thursday was London to introduce and converse with Noémi Szécsi on the occasion of the publication of The Finno-Ugrian Vampire, the English translation of her first book of 2002. Friday morning was the postponed university class I had missed right at the beginning of the year, followed by an appointment at the Writers Centre, and Saturday was the Wymondham launch of In the Land of the Giants.

Bad bad night on Friday. Sometimes I feel like a ghost in my own life. Occasionally the ghost wakes up and runs around the shadows in my head until there is no option but to get up and watch Bad Television. Hours of it.  As I do so other ghosts appear - the ghost of Peter Falk as Columbo for instance, the news flickering into ghostly life on various channels, an almost empty House of Lords with its sanguinary red upholstery and its ghostly vacancies. There is the panoply of night goods, panel games, poker, phonesex, sitcoms, death goods. There is no more alien hour than 3am in one of the forgotten lunar pockets of the empire.

This house is over four hundred years old. Lives have passed through it, soaked themselves into the walls and floors. Our lives are doing so right now.


A week full of Events.

I find myself launched into events with my event face on, with the event voice, the event wit, the event bonhomie. On Monday conversations about Arthur Miller, local politics, the passage of time. On Tuesday the inner-cigarette-lighter glow of playing host to new writing. On Wednesday the determined glitter of the good party, to make the good sing and feel good about itself. On Thursday the wariness and nerviness of acting as sub-TV chat show host to a literary celeb, a job I am told I do well, but which feels like a sentence every time, and which is never as good as either host or guest would like. Friday, the slightly smaller delayed class in a different room, the boosting of intellectual adrenalin, the Lance Armstrong aspect of the bright class, then lunch, wondering afterwards whether I have put things the right way. Yesterday, knowing how to read those tiny little poems, doing the old trooper with a leaven of gaiety. ( It was lovely being there, thanks to Robert, with cups of wine and friends long unseen, and family and children, and people back at the house... I am an extraordinarily fortunate man, and the knowledge of that is something that runs, puffing and panting, beside me.)

And this life is in the midst of all those other lives. The classes, the colleagues, the committee, the friends, the visiting writer and the organisers and the audiences. The other hosts, the friends who appear - their own thoroughly substantial lives and worlds, through which I shimmy as though blown by this or that gust - and the life of the imagination that produces both marvels and monsters and, occasionally, just silence.


In between, scribbling, quipping, pushing poems on, reading, reading. Writing this. Watching the spider  outide the window, curled up, swinging in the breeze at the centre of her web.

Some music for the evening later. Maybe a filmclip?

Friday 19 October 2012

The Drawbridge / L'Esprit de l'Escalier

I have recorded the poem for the readers of The Drawbridge to accompany my article of the same name. Please click on the link for the reading. The text of the poem (from New and Collected Poems, 2008) is below.

L'Esprit de l'Escalier (spoken)

Esprit d’Escalier

Suddenly there we all were, talking together
but not to each other. It might have been I
who had started it, muttering as I do
to myself, or rather to a figure to whom
I have something to say in the manner known
as l’esprit de l’escalier, that ghostly meeting

on the staircase with a person already past meeting
for whom we now have an altogether
brilliant answer, one we have always known
but had failed to produce when required. And now, I
and the others were talking, all of us, to whom
it would finally concern us to talk to, as we do

each day on the bus, knowing just what to do
and to say at this and every other such meeting.
There were friends, fears, ghosts, and past selves whom
each of us had to answer, all of us speaking together
every which one a distinct and separate I
in a world where everything has always been known.

The air was packed solid with voices we had once known
or were ours, it was hard to tell which, for how do
you tell the inner from the outer, or distinguish the I
from the not-quite-I? And soon each intimate meeting
had spilled onto the street, all voices singing together
to make one thundering chorus, each who with its whom,

in doorways, on staircases, singing to whom-
soever could hear and respond to the known-or-unknown
harmonies we were producing as if we were together.
We were ghosts. We were dead. There was little to do
but to listen and sing and be dead and be meeting
each ghost on its staircase. And so it was I

myself spoke to the dead ones within me since I
was their only voice, the lost hum of their whom.
It was crazy this sound, the music of meeting
all of them now, there on the bus, having known
only the steps to the top deck, knowing what to do
only in emergencies when we’re all thrown together

and have to make do as we are, no matter with whom
we travel or have known, these voices with their I,
their you, their singing together at each and every meeting.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

In Hungary: the patriot's free library
Please display prominently

It is fascinating to see how the Fidesz govenment, while continuing to rubbish and execrate the old pre-1989 system acts increasingly like it. Old habits die hard, especially when they suit you.

Having hastily devised a new constitution and tried to fill all significant state and civil service positions with its own supporters assuring them of extended periods of office, and having replaced important cultural figures with more Fidesz puppets, the goernment is now determined to return to the days when state ideology came first and the rest nowhere.

It's not by law, of course, dear boy, for despite the media laws look! there are people, would you believe it? still criticising us. Of course it's not by law alone, how crude! People and money are the agents. Whoops, your job is gone! Whoops, your financial support has vanished! But it's OK we've got someone to take your place. See, we have an entirely new appointments board.

But it's still not enough.

Now the Hungarian government is setting up its own nationalist publishing venture with public money and loads of free books - providing the books fit into the nationalist agenda, the nationalist agenda being the point.

Some excerpts from an article in Magyar Narancs - my translation.

The state is offering 300 million forints [c £860,000] of support for the first fourteem books to appear under the Imre Kerényi National Library imprint. This sum us roughly 100 million forint more than that allocated to the NKA (National Cultural Foundation) Könykiadás Kollégium (Publishing Academy) fund to cover all Hungarian publishing both in Hungary and abroad. 
A spokesman for the Prime Minister's office declared that the new imprint would comprise books that the government recommends to its supporters and possible future supporters...and is an attempt to offer the nationalist side its own canon. According to Kerényi all political systems try to embody their philosophy in buildings, monuments and books. What these books would have in common is their Hungarian quality and love of the mother country, and would not seek to be a criticism of anyone or of other canons, he said, completely contridictiong his earlier statement to the effect that it would be a canon for government supporters... 
The books in the Library would be published by the 100% government-owned Hungarian Journal and Book Publisher. The books would appear in editions of ten thousand of which half would be complimentary copies. All school- and public libraries would receive the books with a note to the head teachers and to the mayors of all significant communities that they are to be received under the  condition that they be 'prominently displayed'. The cost of the books otherwise is to be 2500 forint [c£7.20]* 
One major problem is that all this has been set up without any consultation with other publishers and writers.
A little late in the day, in fact yesterday, the Union of Hungarian Publishers and Distributors reacted to the setting up of the multi-million new series by pointing out - not surprisingly - that the money is not being provided exclusively by government supporters but the whole nation... and that it does not need 300 million forints to publish fourteen books and that this constituted a serious waste of taxpayers' money.

My bold type. In other words you can't trust actual writers and publishers, especially those with the greatest reputations abroad.  You can't trust the Nobel Prize winner, Imre Kertész, you can't trust Nádas, Esterházy, Krasznahorkai or any of that insufficiently patriotic, internationalist, commie-Jew set.  They are pernicious influences.

Trust us instead and, as you look at your free patriotic book, remember which way to vote next time. It's your money after all.

*Average take-home pay is c £400  per month. (Data from, but note the low pay of doctors)

Sunday 14 October 2012

Sunday night is...Michel Petrucciani, Satin Doll

Beautiful, moving, funny interpretation by Petrucciani (1962-1999) of the Ellington classic. Makes the heart sing. Partly the musical quips, partly the lyrical freedom of the central part but partly the simplicity. Like most old or ageing gits I am more easily moved to tears than I once was. Too many moments say: this is life in its brief dress. This, among other things, does it.

On artistic androgyny 2

In the previous post I talked about androgyny as a sexual condition and tried to unpack, just a little, the terms male and female, while avoiding getting tangled up in gender politics, which is not altogether a different matter, but tends to run wild over everything associated with it.

These are off the cuff, informal remarks, little runs at thoughts and feeling. I hope they'll be read as such.


If we take the standard stereotypes of the male and female imagination as appealed to in terms of marketing, we may find ourselves with chick lit with its mostly female characters on the one hand, and clipped-voice action stories with mostly male characters on the other. The former's depiction of male characters would correspond more or less to stereotype and the latter's depiction of female characters would do the same. Clearly there is a great deal of territory in between, including the realms of erotic or pornographic fiction of which Fifty Shades of Grey might be considered in interesting example, though a dull piece of writing. To visit all the various other shades of grey in the no-particular-gender's-land is beyond me, and in any case I am not particularly interested in taking the task on. Enough to say it is a territory where the shades constantly shift a little this way or that as society changes.

I am concerned chiefly with poetry. There are shades here too of course. There is poetry written directly out of exclusively female or male experience and a general act of redress has been going on for a few decades now, in which primarily female experience has been looking to establish itself not only as a major subject, but as language too. The notion of écriture féminine was developed directly as a response to the language question. It rested on a certain essentialism, the establishment of a crucial difference. Male writing was ultimately boring, said Cixous, dismissing most of written literature at a stroke.  It was a powerful political gesture and a bold attempt to seek and define new forms, including moves away from meter, rhyme, ideas and so on.  The opposite argument from a feminist perspective  - in other words deploying the same rhetorical register - was presented in Annie Finch's anthology A Formal Feeling Comes, featuring work by some very fine woman poets of a more formal bent. The title phrase itself is quoted from Emily Dickinson, whose slantwise version of that formal feeling is one of the glories of nineteenth century poetry.

I mention this but I don't think it's for me to engage in that argument. My own work has been mostly formal for a long time, with increasingly wider and more dramatic breaks from formality as it is generally understood. Reading Finch's anthology I was glad to think I was not to be cloistered in an all-male Browningesque monastery.

Besides which I have never actually felt that most of the poetry I have read was exclusively male. Keats certainly isn't - possibly none of the Romantics really are. The whole essence of poetry was about other than the male stereotype. It wasn't a locker room.  It was more a bower than anything, a place where any number of gradated voices might speak or sing.


It is feeling I am talking about and I have never felt that the voices opening before me as I wrote were ever exclusively of one gender. Sometimes they strode, but sometimes they bent and swayed. Sometimes they formed themselves into statements, but more often they touched on matters lightly and shifted sideways. These descriptions do themselves draw on stereotypes, but stereotypes are what more subtle states of being are built around.

At bottom we are creatures that breed according to our given sex. That is how we evolved and survive. At that point either we reproduce or we don't. At that point we are directed towards the evolutionary essential, the stereotypes that then - remarkably and wonderfully - produce an immense range of human behaviour. We are thinking, feeling, sensate creatures. Our imaginations are deeply interwoven with our conscious roles, but are just as strongly bound to a sense of being beyond the immediately purposive, one that moves like electricity through the extraordinarily complex web of our nerves and extend to the way we deploy language. The poet's business is with language. If the language is to remain alive it has to register the floating imagination as well as the purposive ground we are likely to tread on.

Mosty of the male artists I have known have had a feminine side, most of the female artists had a strongly masculine streak. There is probably an interesting parlour game to be played in sorting out the degree of androgyny in this or that artist. Alexander Pope? High rating. John Dryden? Less high. Keats? High. Aubrey Beardsley? Very high, etc etc. On the female side? Aphra Behn? Elizabeth Bishop? Dickinson? Duffy? Go ahead and do it for yourself.

This is not beyond the realm of the political - nothing is - but at the same time there is nothing that is beyond the realm of the imagination either. The realm of language is both. It is hands and feet and lungs and organs and thought and dream.

I am quite aware of the limitation of these notes and can see plenty of other ways of proceeding. But that would make a book, or at least a longer essay. This is just to register a keen perception and to lodge that somewhere relatively sensible.

Saturday 13 October 2012

On artistic androgyny 1

A few days ago on Twitter - that telegraphic conveyor belt of ideas, opinions, chatter, and literature - I posted the following thought:

All artists are androgynous by virtue of the imagination - and have to be, men, women both. Can't afford not to be.

Having posted the thought there I wondered whether I would quickly regret it. Je ne regrette rien is not the most apposite of mottoes for Twitter as many have found out. In the event it started a little discussion on Twitter and some more on Facebook, but nothing life threatening or prison-worthy. 

The thought occurred because someone had said something about my work to the effect that it was, to some extent, androgynous. The person suggesting this was gay and I suppose the comment was in that context, but it struck me as true as regards the work at least, and therefore of the imagination, and for all I know of the person too, in so far as one can know anything. As another gay friend put it in mildly propositioning me, We are all bisexual, and I didn't disagree, as indeed I wouldn't, and just pointed out, equally mildly, that my life had been based on the premise that I was oriented towards women, that being the direction my Life Erotic had taken me, most especially towards my much loved wife of the past forty-one years and for that and other reasons I would not be giving it up for a gay, or indeed any other fling. Boring, I know, but that's it. He was very sweet about this with a faintly regretful Of course, and so it stayed.


That is not entirely beside the point but it is not the main point. Nor was it gender politics. I think I have read, and in some way worked my way through, some forty years of that too. I know the positions and the passions they engender (forgive the pun) and anticipated being entirely waylaid by it. It doesn't mean the point is invalid, only that it is known, and that while it cannot entirely be detached from the aesthetics of the process - I am not naive enough to think that art is detached from life as it is lived on every other level - it does prevent discussion of some aspects of art that are interesting in themselves.

The conditions under which we discuss such matters have for a long time, as long as I remember, tended towards the Stalinist of the c 1949-1954 period, where any deviance from the politics of the collective was branded as bourgeois individualism, a term still radiant with power albeit under different names, and which resulted in the banning of the best and the encouraging of the worst artists and writers of the time. So, if in contemporary terms, this means being condemned with Hungarian writers such Ágnes Nemes Nagy, Sándor Weöres, János Pilinzky and others I am happy to be accounted a bourgeois individualist.

The responses on Facebook did not reach the full Stalinist position but, as I anticipated, immediately gathered at their posts for a brief skirmish on gender politics. At that point I stepped aside and said, Please go ahead without me.


Now that is out of the way to some expansion of the original thought. I am happy to be regarded as a partly androgynous artist because I think all the best art is. Clearly there are genres and markets for the overtly feminine and the overtly masculine. My contention would be that in what we might talk about as - God forgive me for use of the term High Art (I promise to wash my mouth out with soap and water) - the extremes of masculine and feminine sensibility are mixed. As with Jane Austen so with Lord Byron. If the authors did not possess a degree of androgyny in their imaginations they could not very well create substantial figures of both men and women.

How do we define the essential starting positions of masculine and feminine sensibility?

We might begin by considering works designed exclusively, or almost exclusively, for either sex. Naturally, we admit that the conditions to which these works address themselves are to a greater or lesser degree socially conditioned, but the socially conditioned is what we have to work with. To define essences is difficult if not impossible: much depends how we want to use them. They certainly have their political uses. Some of us are reputedly from Venus, some from Mars. Some of us are frogs and snails and puppy dogs' tails, some of us are sugar and spice and all things nice. Some of us are more likely to act in one, way, some of us in another. It doesn't take either genius or exceptional stupidity to see that these terms refer to expectations that are not only current but assumed. Artists operate in the same field of expectations and assumption while getting on with making things that respond to or at least include other aspects of being. 

That is a start. I think this will take another post to discuss a little more meaningfully, though I am not looking to solve any question or even fully to justify my feeling about artistic androgyny.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Ferlinghetti declines Hungarian prize

Lawrence Ferlinghetti Declines 50,000 Euro Prize from Hungarian PEN Club, 
Chides Funding from Hungarian Government 

October 11, 2012 Late last week, we learned that famed poet, publisher, bookstore owner, artist, and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti had been awarded the Janus Pannonius International Poetry Prize from the Hungarian PEN Club, a chapter of the larger PEN organization. Established this year, the prize carries a 50,000 Euro financial award. After doing some research on the Pannonius Prize, Ferlinghetti discovered that a sizeable portion of the prize money had been provided by the Hungarian government, which has been widely accused of officially and unofficially stifling free speech. In light of this news, Ferlinghetti decided to decline the award, and sent this message to the President of the Hungarian PEN Club:

Dear Geza Szocs, After careful research into the Pannonius Prize and its sponsors, including the present Hungarian government, I have come to the following conclusions: Since the Prize is partially funded by the present Hungarian government, and since the policies of this right-wing regime tend toward authoritarian rule and the consequent curtailing of freedom of expression and civil liberties, I find it impossible for me to accept the Prize in the United States. Thus I must refuse the Prize in its present terms. However, assuming the total devotion of the Hungarian PEN Club and yourself to freedom of speech and social justice, I propose that the Prize money be used to set up a fund to be administered by the Hungarian PEN Club, said fund to be devoted solely to the publication of Hungarian authors whose writings support total freedom of speech, civil rights, and social justice. These are the only terms under which I can accept the Pannonius Prize. In defense of individual freedom and democratic institutions, I am faithfully yours, Lawrence Ferlinghetti

At that point Mr. Szocs offered to exclude the Hungarian government’s contribution to the prize money and to begin negotiations surrounding the proposed fund, but Ferlinghetti is steadfast in his views, saying:

I hereby refuse the Prize in all its forms. There is no possibility of my accepting the prize in a ceremony in the United States or elsewhere. I am sorry it has come to this, and I am grateful to those in Hungary who may have had the purest motives in offering me the Prize.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti has been a bastion of the New Directions list for over sixty years, and we are proud of his decision and stand by him in his fight for free speech.

By email directly from New Directions

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Purely gratuitous

No reason except that the sad energy of The Specials rings in the bones rather nicely tonight.

I see that one of the Pussy Riot girls is out but two remain in jail.

Galley proofs of  the US edition of Bad Machine arrived by attachment from Sheep Meadow.

Discussed the next stage of the Respond / Reply project* (the link is to the open blog part, the actual work went on at a restricted link behind the scenes, but this link has a couple of poems in draft) with artists Caroline Wright, Helen Rousseau and Phyllida Barlow that produced a good number of the poems in Bad Machine. Several months of work, all compiled, needs editing, needs book form. We have the ingredients and the recipe, now we need to present a nice fat cake.

Met Caroline in favourite bar to talk this over. Then met PhD student. Ordered one Jamesons and a coffee. As student and I were talking poetry, post-post-colonialism and tidalectics, another glass of whiskey appeared, compliments of the house. Brendan Kennelly, that outstanding Irish poet, has a table dedicated to him in a cafe in a street just off Grafton Street. That is the ideal to aim at. György Petri the equally excellent Hungarian poet has a whole restaurant dedicated to him in Budapest. A rather good small restaurant. Petri is dead. That is not part of the ideal to be aimed at.

Then a very long time waiting for a bus. Waiting for buses should be a Zen occupation. But it can be more more a blend of Lenny Bruce and Franz Kafka.

Monday 8 October 2012

For Catechism and Pussy Riot
An Introduction 3

For people on this side of the equation the issue is not so much with Putin as with what Putin represents and what Pussy Riot represent. The meaning of Pussy Riot, for many, is, as evidenced in the poems published here, less a political incident more a set of overlapping contemporary concerns and passions symbolised by the three young women. The meanings of Pussy Riot in this respect begin with what the name suggests, that’s to say feminism in its various forms and moods, from assertion of rights, through core issues of identity, down to protest at an inimical oppressive male world. This meaning - probably the most intense meaning - involves a conception of the world that is the polar opposite of Putin’s. 

Then again, since Pussy Riot calls itself, and performs as, a punk band, the meaning of the group is derived from and invites a punk aesthetic that is partly tribal, partly anarchic, looking to be disruptive of conservative views and manners in exactly the same way as Pussy Riot were disruptive in the church. 

Beyond that, the band is young: there is also the invitation to youth. It is not precisely an old-versus-young battle but, in this case, it is the young, masked and loud who are in the vanguard. For many they represent  the potential for a new and different model of Russia. 

Each of these models and antitheses is crude in itself - life, we know, is more subtle than that - but the antitheses remain. Most importantly, trumping all other concerns, is a conception of justice. It is simply wrong to jail people for that length of time for the minor office of disruption. Three unjustly sentenced individuals stand against a state led by a former operative of the KGB, a state that has seen the arrest and assassination of vocal opponents. In many ways it is like the old days: the repressive state against its dissidents, the corrupt system against those who protest against its corruption...

The anthology contains a variety of poems, some, like Andrew Bailey’s, the second of Mark Burnhope’s, Rebecca Cremin and Ryan Ormonde’s, Tim Dooley’s Charlotte Geater’s., John Ennis’s, Jay Griffth’s and others (the list is too long and I am going alphabetically) address the case directly or refer to it obliquely. More numerous are poems that are born out of a sympathetic feeling, identifying something in Pussy Riot that corresponds with the feeling of the poet in respect of feminism or authority or sheer voice quality.There may be earlier poems now grown particularly relevant. There are poems that appear on a larger map of concerns that happen to find themselves here. There are poems of various styles including Alison Croggon’s Dance of the Seven Veils, Sasha Dugdale’s Perpetual, SJ Fowler’s They, Kit Fryatt’s Sounds Like Sense, Sarah Hesketh’s sharp Some Protest Stones, Philo Ikonya and Helmut A Niederle’s Pussy Riot For Ever: The Body, Amy Key’s Cat Power, John Kinsella’s Penillion for Pussy Riot, Aoife Mannix’s The Eye of the Needle. and so on. I don’t pick these out because I think they are the best poems, only because they are broadly different. I could pick many others.


Like any contributor to such anthologies I am fully aware that it is unlikely to affect the course of events in any measurable way, though it may perhaps add to the weight of protest that hopes, at some stage, on some level, to influence the Russian court and indeed that part of the Russian people who support the sentence.  If not that then at least it might be a consolation to Pussy Riot, and to those for whom they speak, to know that there are many people abroad - including poets - who listen to them and talk back in support. A book of poems in a foreign language published in a foreign place is rarely a factor in the decisions of a hostile administration, but this is downloadable. It may be a factor somewhere, somehow. Who can tell?  One has hope or one has nothing.

Speaking personally it is quite odd for me as an almost sixty-four year old male poet to be writing this introduction. It was odd, but rather nice to be asked on the spur of the moment and to say: yes. Of course I wondered if I was out of place. I am not looking to be cool with those younger than me or of a different gender. I have been on a few demonstrations but have never felt it to be my natural place.

I ask myself this: if the world were arrayed into forces represented by President Putin on the one side and Pussy Riot on the other I know which side I’d be on and it wouldn’t be Putin’s. That’s where we are, and that’s where this is. And that is why it is a privilege to write this introduction.

For Catechism and Pussy Riot
An Introduction 2

Those are the bare facts but the cause of Pussy Riot is more complex than that. 

In the first place the performance was about President Putin personally and articulated a desire to see him leave the political stage. 

Who is Putin? Russians in general have mixed feelings about him. The period straight after the fall of the Soviet Union in President Gorbachev’s time, was followed by a few chaotic years under President Yeltsin. Those years were wounding and humiliating for a people that had felt stable and, in many respects, proud of their role in the Second World War as well as on the international stage afterwards. The Soviet Union with its Warsaw Pact was an equal and opposite force to the United States and NATO. A good part of those who remembered the pre-Gorbachev era, before the dismemberment of the Soviet empire, looked back to those times with a certain nostalgia, because, despite the gulags, despite the secret arrests, despite the censorship, despite the increasing corruption, they felt safe. Given Russia’s history, their feelings about authoritarianism were and remain very different from our feelings about individual freedoms in Europe and the West. The ‘strong hand’ - inevitably a patriarchal hand - was something many trusted. When Putin came along offering just that in a new form in a world of oil and oligarchs, he seemed to them welcome. Anything but the madness under Yeltsin!

But that opinion is clearly not universal in Russia. A good many people have strong fears of the establishing of a new, more corrupt, one-party state in which the state itself is the largest oligarch, a state in which notions of ‘tradition’ are imposed on those who, for very good reason, wish to free themselves from it. 

Putin is an individual, the most powerful individual in the state, but Pussy Riot’s performance, as I read it, was not only about Putin -  it was also a protest against the kind of power Putin symbolises. 

This includes the Russian Orthodox church. The church has an important role in maintaining Putin’s power since it represents a very large conservative constituency in Russia.  Somehow it survived the officially atheist Soviet period to prosper after it. The church is an alternative embodiment of the ‘strong-hand’ Putin can employ to influence and control the Russian electorate, which is why the performance, including the reference to The Mother of God,  took place in a major Moscow church closely associated with Putin. The church is, necessarily, patriarchal.

And the patriarchy - both formal and informal in terms of the family and society generally - is clearly important to a band calling itself Pussy Riot. The performance was, in those terms, a call for female solidarity and rebellion against a state of affairs where Putin’s masculinity is a highly constructed point of appeal. Jack Underwood has a poem in this anthology that comically highlights precisely this aspect of Putin’s power: Putin the macho man, Putin who offers or denies you the power because he not only knows best, but has the means to effect his will. Pussy Riot is a highly intelligent form of resistance to such will: it is a call to disobedience.

Since Putin seems assured of the power, it is rather surprising that the courts should have decided to act as severely as they did. Intended primarily for home consumption as a warning, the charge and sentence have been entirely counter-productive in international terms. The charge of ‘hooliganism’ is rather like the one of ‘parasitism’ that was directed at the Nobel Prize winning poet, Josef Brodsky in 1964. It is broadly seen as a charge of convenience. In that sense Pussy Riot has grown from a minor nuisance to a global cause. They are up there with Brodsky. A crushing and oppressive two-year sentence becomes very big news. The result is that Pussy Riot look, as they actually are, highly intelligent while Russia looks cruel and stupid... 

For Catechism and Pussy Riot:
An Introduction 1

This introduction was written for the anthology Catechism, in support of Pussy Riot, edited by Mark Burnhope, Sarah Crewe and Sophie Mayer via English PEN, that appeared on the 1 October to coincide with the original date for the appeal, which has now been postponed to the 10 October. I am posting it here by agreement with the editors and am doing so in three parts, of which this is the first.

An anthology of poems dedicated to a political purpose is not so much an anthology of poems as a political act in poetic form. 

There is a long history of such anthologies including 100 Poems Against The War, edited by Todd Swift at the time of the Iraq War in 2003, and, about ten years before that,  Klaonica: Poems for Bosnia, edited by Ken Smith and Judy Benson. The two were different in that 100 Poems was an act of protest about a war in which the UK and US were the initiators and actors, whereas the second was to raise money for victims of a war fared by others, the contributing poets being helpless observers. The poets in Klaonica were not taking the Serbian or Bosnian or, for that matter, the Croatian side, but donating work to relieve suffering much as they might donate money. 

These are many other causes in which poets might do the same - hospitals, libraries, celebrations, childhood and so forth  but from the political point of view 100 Poems and Klaonica represent the two main forms.

Catechism is of the second kind. It has been rapidly compiled by its editors to protest - from the outside, as it were - against the two-year sentence imposed on Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, three members of a much larger (twelve to fifteen members) punk band known as Pussy Riot, for staging a brief masked performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. The performance by five members of the band was quickly put up on YouTube and within eleven days two of the performers, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, were under arrest. Thirteen days later Samutsevich was also arrested. The two remaining members of the performing  band have, it is presumed, gone abroad to avoid arrest. The song the band was singing at the time was a raucous prayer asking The Mother of God to chase away President Putin. The two-year sentence is due to be appealed on 1 October, 2012....

Sunday 7 October 2012

Sunday Night is Roscoe Holcomb

I didn't know anything about Roscoe Holcomb until an evening spent a few years ago at the Sainsbury Centre, UEA, at the opening of the photographer Justin Partyka's exhibition for which I wrote a short text, then engaged in a conversation along with Justin and the singer, filmmaker and folklorist, John Cohen. Justin's photos were of small Norfolk farmers at work in their fields and sheds and cattle, a vanishing group some of whom turned up on the night to see the photographs of themselves, Justin has a blog over at his place about the occasion here - the pic there is of me in front of a photo of Holcomb.
Holcomb's style is labelled the 'high lonesome sound'. Versions of this sound were heard in O Brother Where Art Thou and Holcomb does in fact sing, unaccompanied and most hauntingly, one of the songs featured in it:

It reminds me a little of the wonderful Skip James, whom I have fetured before. James is calmer and more falsetto, but he touches the heart much as Holcomb does. Worlds open up.

The Crab Doctor and the Lobster:
A Maritime Film Noir 6

Scene 6: At The Crustacean Ball
With a scene by Magda Kapa (MK)

The crab jacket seems to be tighter tonight, thought the doctor on the way to the crustacean ball. Langoustine was dazzling, luminous, chic.


The doctor looked into the mirror but the North Sea was murky again. People had vanished in these waters. This was not a game. (MK)


Any Tompot could look like that, thought the doctor. The nearby dandy seemed rather too interested in Langoustine.


Who is this ridiculous person? he asked. Manny, said Langoustine. He's a punk. The doctor's patience was wearing thin. 


And this, I suppose, is bloody Alexander Pope, the doctor snapped. Keep your carapace on, whispered Langoustine.


The host was smoking a hookah. Either that or he was rigged up to a drip. The doctor felt obliged to take his pulse.


Then came the entertainment: the Andrews Sisters. But which was Laverne?


Just then a familiar face appeared. Hadn't they gone to medical school together? Langoustine asked to be introduced.


Langoustine passed the doctor a note. 'He is not all he says he is'. In the corner of the note an amber sequin with an oriental monogram.


It was all too Rococo down there. It's like something out of Schnitzler, the doctor said clacking his claws. Langoustine winked at him.


The doctor was not a party animal. He wasn't even a party crab. But Langoustine was in her element. He supposed they all were. Damn water.