Sunday 29 September 2013

The Growing Cycle of the Plastic Daffodil:
A Poem by Ramona Herdman

I’m settled, now. Each spring, I know, 
the house across from the shop 
puts out its plastic daffs 
on the table, in the bay.

And long ago and far away
my dead dad sneaks, overnight,
to plant a plastic yellow bunch 
of fakes amongst his lover’s flowerbeds
(before she died, this is) – a tease
that took her in, almost to August.

This is the way the seasons go.
The way someone unseen puts out 
a weird and plastic tribute. Out of love,
we have to hope.

This is a short poem by Ramona Herdman with whom I read in Norwich recently. I very much enjoyed both the poems and her manner of reading, neither coy nor over-keen to impress, allowing just enough variation to make the poems dramatically effective without making a song and dance of it. The first part of her reading was mostly in high-profile but sprightly rhyme offering a teasing music to subjects that in themselves were often deeply serious. I liked her reading so much I asked her for a poem afterwards and she sent me three of which I chose this.

I chose this one because the subjects - memory, death, love, intimacy, falsehood - as embodied in the central image of the plastic daffodil, are presented with tenderness but also with an inbuilt irony that offer us a genuine understanding of a genuine human experience. The poem seeks the right level and  feels truthful as a result.

That level is comprised of various elements. The poem's deliberate avoidance of poetic diction is not too programmatic. The register, comprising key terms like daffs, dad, and weird, is natural without being affected. It is interesting that the title has daffodil rather than daff. The title establishes the position we are reading from, the text is the performance we are witnessing.

As often in voiced or performed poems, variants of dramatic monologue, we enter the poem in medias res. The present of settled, now implies a past less settled. That immediately suggests recovery from a state of intense emotion, an emotion that becomes part of the poem, its very context. The unsettled state before the poem concerns two dead people whose relationship is coventionally illicit, father / husband to lover. The substition of the fake for the real (a plastic yellow bunch / of fakes) and sneaking (the dead dad sneaks) is the point. One of the illicit lovers - the woman - might be supposed recently dead. In any case we have two important intimate deaths, both mentioned, but both, as it were, off stage. The poem is not about the emotion at the point of those deaths, but later, now, as seen with a wry humour. But we must remember that the planting of the plastic daffodils was itself a curious joke, practised - then - on a mistress still living.

Human emotions are complex. Love is very complex. A writer may present a pure emotion - rage, for instance - effectively in dramatic terms but the terms of the drama - the assumption of some psychological form of classical mask -  have to be clear for us to accept it. Once we are surrounded by the trappings of realism (shops, daff, table, dad, etc) the need for complexity becomes more pressing and this is what the poem gives us. What is fake is itself complex.

The colloquial tone of much of the poem is balanced by phrases like And long ago and far away,...This is the way the seasons go, and Out of love, / we have to hope. The first has a touch of irony. It is a common expression that became the title and first line of a popular musical song by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin, its romantic haze quickly snapped into place by my dead dad sneaks. It is, in effect, a cliché used against itself,  at one with the plastic daffs, or at least we register it being so without making a heavy point of it. This is the way the seasons go, is also song like, but here the song has no ready popular referent. It gently pushes the poem into a region beyond immediate circumstances, the equivalent of 'Twas ever thus, or Heigh-ho, the wind and the rain. It takes the particular and offers a universal in it. Life is like this, it is seasonal.

Those are two justified uses of cliché. The last phrase reminds me of Larkin's passionate yet agnostic attitude to love. The hope in it is provisional. It is the poem settling uneasily in its nest.

I like it very much. The only line I am unsure about is a weird and plastic tribute. The weirdness seems like a comment imposed from above. We can see the weirdness for ourselves. The plastic in the poem has been applied to the daffodils already: it is the subject. Maybe I am wrong; maybe it is the point at which the authorial voice of the title reasserts itself, but is the only point in the poem where the pressure eases off and provides an interim solution, the only time the poem hesitates. Maybe one could move directly from This is the way the seasons go to Out of love... It's a risk, a big step-up in the poem, maybe even abrupt, maybe, even, a touch brutal or clumsy. But it's tempting.

I love the spirit of the poem. It has a humane generosity that is not sold cheap. It is the real daffodil.

Wednesday 25 September 2013

An excellent discussion of Egypt
with Karl Sharro

I was sent this link out of the blue by Vivita at WORLDwrite and watched the discussion through. I thoroughly recommend it. Asked to comment at the site, I did so, as below. 

Karl Sharro has a very clear view that he articulates intelligently, patiently, but passionately. I am, needless to say, no expert on Middle Easten matters so offer apologies in advance for any misunderstanding and ignorance in that respect, but aim to be an intelligent dispassionate listener with opinions stitched out of shreds and patches.

The comment:

Thank you for sending me the link. It is an excellent discussion where many of the central questions are raised and articulately answered by the admirable Karl Sharro The ideas are clear and I don’t quarrel with any of them. I would only add that in terms of realpolitik - the way things actually happen – there has never been an absolutely clear choice between the unquestionable good and the unquestionable bad, and that, at the moment of the coup, many, including myself, didn’t know how far the Morsi government had exceeded its democratic mandate or how far the army had support from a disenchanted electorate. The geopolitical (or realpolitikal) fear was that the Morsi government would rush into the arms of Iran or further, into the wilder reaches of Islamism. How far that was a realistic fear I don’t know. Even if it was, however, that was no reason to rush to support the coup and in terms of principle – in so far as real states ever act out of principle – there were very firm grounds to condemn it.

One of the most interesting things Sharro said was that a better idea might have been to split the army. This is in fact what happened in Hungary (my country of birth) in 1956. It happened pretty well spontaneously as far as we know and the army as a body quickly went over to the revolution. I have no idea whether the circumstances in Egypt were ripe for that, or, if not quite, how long it would have taken to produce such a split. As it is, the situation in Egypt, on the surface, is comparable to that in Hungary 1956, in that people might claim that the army did in fact go over to the revolution, like the Hungarian army did in 1956. I very much doubt that was the case myself (I am sure Karl Sharro would refute any such idea).

The role of the USA and ‘the West’ in general, is usually very complex. Like any body of states with a common interest they pursue those interests and hope as far as pssible to square that with some given principle. The US has been invited to intervene, somehwat against its will, on various occasions: in WW1 and WW2 and in Bosnia. The West, including the US, has the same kind of interest in what goes on in the Middle East as has any country in matters that affect it. The big difference is that the US has great military power and is able to exert economic pressure.

That is realpolitik and it has been the situation ever since I was born and presumably long before. I don’t describe it because I like it or support it but because it seems to me the case. In the meantime we have the legitimate interests of the Egyptian people in their own condition. And in this respect Karl Sharro is abslutely right. The coup has legitimised further coups and may have deepened divisions in the country.

In so far as I can judge I think Karl Sharro is essentially right in all he says and that the situation is as he describes it, with the likely consequences he foresees. In many ways the questions he raises are questions for us. How do we respond, if we respond at all, to a situation such as Egypt’s? What effect does that have on our own ideas of democracy, where we are? How do we relate to democracy in whatever form we find it? How do we value it?

Sunday 22 September 2013

Meeting Mister Pepys at the Wymondham Words Festival

This is a handsome production of the life of Pepys through letters, song, the diary itself and through new original poems by the poet and deviser of the script, Caroline Gilfillan. It's for four hands. Between them they split up the script forming a sequence of tableau-like scenes.

We begin with Pepys's relatively humble birth and origins and trace his lfe through to the death of his wife Elizabeth by which time he had ceased to write his diary because his eyes were no longer up to it. All that writing by candlelight had done for him. The piece concentrates very much on his private life, and indeed the most human parts of it. One of five surviving children from a family of eleven he survived an operation for bladder stones, the excruciating description of which forms the first major set piece in the production. After that it is chiefly his relations with his wife and servants that supplies the narrative, the plague and the fire being only parts of the whole. The exotic of specific historical circumstance and period song is lodged in the familiar terrain of personal relations and personal ambitions.

The diaries themselves supply only a relatively small part of the text; the letters of Elizabeth and other members of Pepys's family and circle helping to round out that lively, flirtatious, almost irrepressible figure. The poetry part is finely written as a kind of interlaced commentary - quietly present, often only picked out by its slight extra glittering and sense of imagined presence and participation.

And the performance? Very nice and bright by all, with some lyrical singing of contemporary songs by Lynn Wykes, a nicely spiced up Pepys in the form of David Radley, Dee Orr taking on many miscellaneous parts and Caroline Gilfillan herself as Elizabeth. Pepys himself did not dominate the proceedings but popped in and out of the story being woven about him, in fact the four actors occupied roughly equal parts of the script. Associate director, Camilla Falconbridge has moved her players round to effect, without fuss, enabling each to take centre stage at appropriate times.

The piece is going to London, Sudbury, and Cley after this.  Do go and see it if you have the chance.

Notes on laughter, on the falling man, on old age and on a pair of wrists

1. Falling Man

'Bergson now assumes that the comic requires the use of intelligence instead of sensibility, and he tries to determine what is the real role of intelligence in a comic situation. He takes the example of a man falling down in the street in front of passers-by. Laughter is caused by an accidental situation, caused by a movement. The source of the comic is the presence of a rigidity in life. Life is defined by Bergson a perpetual movement, it is characterized by flexibility and agility. Comic situations, such as that of a falling man, are situations where movement is not flexible.' - Wiki

Hard to know what to think. When I first think of a falling man, it is of an incident in a silent film I once saw where a fight in the street carries on down the street to where the street ends at a cliff edge. At this point one of the men hits the other so he falls all the way down the cliff. But when he reaches the bottom the fallen man immediately gets up and shakes his fist at the man who hit him. This I have long taken to be one of the major marks of comedy: relief. We would expect the falling man to die a horrible death but he does not. Fury propels the body back into life.

This is a variant of the banana skin joke. Chesterton, I think, talked of the fall of the man as an enactment of the Fall of Man, the shadow of a great loss. But the man slipping on the banana skin is not really hurt, it's just that his dignity is bruised. Wounded dignity is funnier than a broken leg, and should we ever laugh at a broken leg it would only be as an aspect of lost dignity or, as Bergson has it, rigidity. We think we are more than we are and we are punished, relatively lightly, by a fall.

But then there is another falling man, that one on 9/11, falling down the cliff-like building. The silent film was made for amusement and when the man in the film falls we are observing his fall in the context of the expectation of laughter. Death and crippling injury are in the wrong genre. Comic characters may be injured, may be bandaged up with their legs in straps and harnesses. Tom, the cartoon cat, may be sliced into several pieces or have to swallow a grand piano. We understand this as a kind of rhodomontade. The pain is vaporised or mimed away leaving only the visual puns of the evidence.

But we can't do this with the 9/11 falling man. I was indulging a wild fantasy whereby the man reaches the ground, leaps to his feet and shakes his fist at the aeroplane that had just ploughed into his building, a moment such as in the silent film in fact, man replaced by plane. I was calculating how long the man would have had to be falling and whether there would be a moment of realisation when the moment of miracle - the relief offered by comedy - passed. How long is an appropriate duration? Might we, or he, in that horrified, long, real-time of falling, have entertained any hope? In other words, is laughter as much hope as relief? This manner of laughter in any case because there is a converse laughter, that which enjoys the snuffing out of hope. That laughter on the other side of the face. 'You see! You see! We are mortal!'

2. After the Match

Yesterday, walking into the town centre after the match I see a very old man in full Norwich City kit. He is bent over. His legs are weak. He is holding a transistor radio to his ear. It is turned up loud. He is listening to a football conversation I can't make out. It can't be a commentary as no 3pm match has started yet. I don't know what to feel about him. Is this a sad sight? He must be in his late seventies. He is alone. That is sad. Old age in itself is sad since it is close to death. And is there anyone who will mourn this old man when he goes, his Norwich City kit in the cupboard or in a heap on the floor? These are images of dereliction. And what about the dignity of an old man being a twelve-year old boy, rapt by the same childlike excitements?

But there is the other side. Maybe it is not so much a matter of dignity as decorum, and it can be heartening to see decorum defied, to be Jenny Joseph's old woman in purple, to be an old man living the life of a young boy. Maybe sadness is wasted on a very old man in football shorts. Maybe what he loves, this symbolic game, is a perfectly valid object of love. After all, my own emotions are affected by the game. I cannot see myself as him at that age, but that's partly because I never have been a kit-wearing fury of a supporter. Too meditative, too inwardly, not outwardly wrought.

But he is fascinating, as fascinating as all complex things are. I feel a certain tenderness for him, a tenderness he might not welcome, so this too is within. In any case it was good to see him.

3. So the Wrists

So the wrists. She offers the menu, she serves, she chats, she points out something in a magazine. She withdraws. Both wrists are bandaged.

You might not make too much of the wrists. Maybe she wipes her brow with them and doesn't want to leave traces of oil on her forehead.

It is like opening a book then suddenly closing it. The wrists are clean, the bandage unremarkable. But there was something on the page.

So the page opens and you read a little and surmise the rest, knowing it is a surmise. Everything, including the wrists is a surmise.

One might make a mystery of such wrists. One might not think of cutting them. Between the pages, under the skin, the suggestion of blood.

The wrists in a small diner. The last customers. The kitchen packing up. The sudden flowering into chatter then shutting off, shutting down.

So, let us close the incident. It means little. People wear bandages on their wrists for reasons of their own and the diner is closing.

Catching up with last week

It has been a rather crazy week from last Monday onwards. In fact it has been like that since returning from Malaysia, but the week just ended was something else. Four days in London, three nights.  No chance to write much just moving and talking. This is really a group of fragments

Train to London to stay with son Tom ready for early departure to Canterbury on Tuesday. Tom is waiting at King's Cross and we walk to Farringdon to find somewhere to eat in Exmouth Market. It's quite a long walk so Tom trails my trolley while I lug my bag. Why the luggage? Chiefly books for Canterbury but also a big ring binder for the Stephen Spender judging on Thursday, plus a change of clothes etc. We find a nice restaurant and settle down to talk over pork bellies with some mash. I love talking to Tom. He is a wise, intelligent, civilised, good-hearted man, interested in a range of things at a fascinating stage of his life. What's there not to love? We talk an hour or so, maybe more, then set off for Stratford where he lives. I sleep in his spare room, which is also his music studio. For some reason I sleep very badly, in fact hardly at all, perhaps an hour or so. So getting up is fraught with anxiety. Will I last Tuesday?

Two events, the first in the morning at the Univerity of Kent in Canterbury by invitation of the novelist Alex Preston. It's a simple enough journey from St Pancras on a very new train, mostly empty. I am half awake but am properly awake by the time we get to Canterbury West where Alex has a taxi ready for me. I arrive a little early but soon Alex is there with a group of four students, who are then joined by a group of students from Russia who are studying translation. They are with their teacher. We find the room, and there is old colleague and fellow poet, dear Patricia Debney. Warm greetings. My job is to occupy two hours in a useful way. The two hours speed along, mostly me talking and proposing ideas and instances, with some questions. According to Alex the next day it has gone splendidly. The Russian students nicely enthusiastic.

Back by slower train to Charing Cross and straight back south via Waterloo to Portsmouth. A much older train. No sooner do I sit down that there is Bill Herbert, happening to board the same train and the same carriage, so he sits down and we talk all the way down - of China where we have both been,and  of Somalia where he has been recently. We find a cab to take us to Portsmouth Grammar School where we are to meet Tim Liardet and Maggie Sawkins, as well as Chris Holifield, for the first leg of the Eliot prize tour. The venue is the school library, a panelled room, the audience fanning out. It's well attended, the readings go very well, we sign books, then I dash back for the London train that is very slow. I nod off a little before arriving at Waterloo. There I catch the tube to Euston and walk to my hotel-for-the-night in Euston Square.

This is a hotel I have stayed in some three times for previous Eliot Prize readings. It seems the room has been reserved but not paid for and that they are charging £150 for the night because it's London Fashion Week. The room is just big enough for a model to huddle up in, clean but no wi-fi. Never mind this will be sorted out later. And it is.

After breakfast get over to Stratford again, dump the trolley and the coat and out again to Kings Cross to meet Clarissa. We decide to go to Guildhall Museum to see the steam punk exhibition but get off the tube too early and walk for ages until we get there. Once there I realise I have forgotten my art card that would let me in free and being very tired now, somewhat grumpily decide not to go in but sit with a coffee at one of the metal tables in the blindingly sunny forecourt. The young man selling coffee has decided his is God's gift to ironic conversation, which is the last thing I need. Or not quite the last. The last thing I need is to be sitting at the table with a paper cup of double espresso and a newspaper and for a sudden gust to blow the newspaper inside out so it upsets the almost untouched coffee all over my jacket, though I do not realise that for two or three minutes,when I head off to the toilets and try to dab it with water, which is of limited use. By the time Clarissa comes out I am committed to carrying the jacket on my arm. Thus we go and eventually return to Stratford to Tom, who is working from home for the day. Shall we go out? Tom decides to cook us a chili con carne that he does and lo, it is very good. So we talk more though I retire to sleep for an hour. Last thing we sit down to watch Skyfall which has some interesting questions about ageing, empire, mother-fixation and patriotism, clearly trying to intellectualise the Bond model. In my still half-dopy mind I see the Olympics stunt again, Bond parachuting from a helicopter, not with the Queen this time but with Judy Dench.

In the morning to the University of London for the judging of the Stephen Spender Poetry Translation Competition. Robina is there as is Edith Hall, soon enough Susan Bassnett and Patrick McGuinness arrive. It's my last year as judge, and Patrick's too, so there is some conversation about who might succeed us. Not to be revealed of course. The actual judging takes far less time this year as the winners are clear to us from early on and the talk is about runners-up and commended. Though there is agreement on winners there is some difference on the rest , but most of that is quickly resolved through the usual compromises. Some of my favourites have not made it on to any list, so I sound a trumpet for them, as do others for theirs. Maybe I can mention them in my report for the publication. I say a fond goodbye to everyone - it really has been a pleasure - and meet  the beautiful Clarissa in Carluccio's near Russell Square. We arrive home in the evening.

Friday - into UEA to meet Peter W and Meirion Jordan.

Saturday - Norwich City consumes about six hours in all. Train there packed and tickets unvaliable so long queues getting off the platform. Long slow crowds ambling out afterwards. We have dinner at a place in Wymondham. Afterwards I write a little.

Much to do now.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Cryptography, a guest poem from Paraic O'Donnell

All this is happening for a reason,
or it is not. Take this apple,
as we once did, exact from
its lip dark bell a white,
a staring gape, a void,
a love staved in, its long pangs at last passing.
As well to reproach the light
spearing aslant King’s College
that May Week, vaulting the Backs
to a body in exultant flexion,
cleaving the clean flow, spilling
upon your new grace, disclosing all the world withheld.
You laughed, you know, when,
bicycling to the Hut or a picnic,
I dismounted a moment before
the chain, in slipped sequence,
came unfast, wanting a part
I did not have, that could not be had in war time. 
So it is with codes, which instruct
their very unravelling; before
a mark is scratched, the other
must possess you, comprehend you
again from alpha and beta, teach you
to turn as he might, to feel his twist of purpose.
Yes, it is happening for a reason,
or it is not, a man is sitting
unseen in that room, or merely
an idiot tissue of ordained things
set in train when our plain text
was written, when we were first made to be broken.
I first came across Paraic O'Donnell on Twitter where he was posting delicately wrought, sharp fragments from an imagined novel-in-progress. They were deeply literate but in a slightly-over-the-top parodic way, which was the point. But there was poetry in the prose, a sense beyond cleverness of something with a life of its own, something poignant yet barbed and at the same time playful. It was literature moving through the same space as its harum-scarum models but looking to a further space. It was in fact a poetic sensibility working its passage through irony.
It is only very recently I have read any of his poems.  He sent me a few by my request and I am pleased he is happy for me to publish one of them. I chose this one, Cryptography.
The setting is Cambridge, or rather a memory of an attachment in Cambridge. A moment is recollected - the chain slipping - the rest being a consideration of the matter in the light of cryptograms or secret codes. But we begin with an apple in the first verse. The apple opens up the territory in fully sensory terms: that lip dark bell from which a white is extracted that then leads to the love that is staved in. It is complex, the most complex part of the poem. Once we are through it, the rest, which depends on it, is relatively straightforward.
The events are straightforward but the language is pieced together in a jewel-like fashion that doesn't become too precious or nostalgic. We move from "exultant flexion / cleaving the clear flow" and arrive at "an idiot tissue of ordained things" and that "plain text". The lines sit well, delicately balanced, the progress of the narrative is paced for meditation. We understand the love involved, we understand the loss. We certainly understand the intelligence at play.
The chief dangers of poems of recollection - nostalgia and preciousness, as mentioned above - are avoided here. We hear a courtly voice, slightly on edge and all the better for that. There are love poems - not all of course - that prosper to the degree they are withheld and understated. This is like that, but under the understatement the senses are raring to go. Better still, there is fresh air in the poem, which is what matters.
I think there will be more poems to come from Paraic. I am very glad to welcome him here.

Saturday 14 September 2013

On bad reviews

'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,

Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article. 
  -Don Juan, Canto XI (published 1823)

John Keats died on 23 February 1821 of tuberculosis. Rumours immediately went round that he had been so depressed by a bad review that he simply lost the will to live. This rumour would have been fuelled by the inscription on Keats's grave, which read:

"This Grave / contains all that was Mortal / of a / Young English Poet / Who / on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart / at the Malicious Power of his Enemies / Desired / these Words to be / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821"

That malicious power refers to a review of Keats' Endymion in the Quarterly Review. Shelley heard of Keats's death on 11 April and sat down to write his poem Adonais, which was published in July 1821 and included the lines:
...the curse of Cain
Light on his head who pierced thy innocent breast,

And scared the angel soul that was its earthly guest!

On 31st July Lord Byron writes to his publisher, John Murray, and pens a verse:

Are you aware that Shelley has written an elegy on Keats and accuses the Quarterly of killing him? -  
    Who killed John Keats?
    I, says the Quarterly
    So savage & Tartarly
'Twas one of my feats -

A week or so later, he writes to Murray again, saying:

'I have just been turning over the homicide review of J. Keats. - It is harsh certainly and contemptuous but not more so than what I recollect of the Edinburgh R of 'the Hours of Idleness' in 1808.  


Malicious power and homicide review. Our loo-side reading includes an anthology of bad reviews titled Dipped in Vitriol. Who can resist such a book! The cold dish of revenge always tastes good, even if you don't personally know those upon whom revenge is taken. Within its pages you will find D H Lawrence on James Joyce ("Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations"), Dorothy Parker on Mussolini's book ("should not be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with force") and Paul Johnson on Ian Fleming's Dr No ("the sadism of  a schoolboy bully, the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent and the crude snob-cravings of a suburban adult").

It is interesting to note that of those three - chosen at random - two seem about right but that the world seems to have decided in favour of Joyce, even over Lawrence.

Inevitably - unless we know the reviewed or have read the book and formed a different opinion of it -  we secretly identify with the homicidal reviewer. The review becomes a piece of theatre. Giving the thumbs down to  work results in action (work torn apart) whereas thumbs up means nothing happens. We want action. It is as when Roy Keane gave a gobful to Mick McCarthy in 2002. It's the release of the tongue, the misgovernance of it. It's the boys in the playground shouting: fight! fight! No art without conflict! Very well, forget the art, let's get to the conflict.


I write this in response to two very recent and highly contrasting reviews of the Sheep Meadow US edition of Bad Machine: the bad, by Patrick Kurp, the good by Erik Kennedy

Needless to say I got more pleasure out of Kennedy's because I wanted it to be true and less out of Kurp's because I didn't want it to be true. Kurp's came first by a few days. so that was, in the still-current phrase, a bit of a downer,  but how nice that Kennedy's should arrive a few days later. The blow had in any case been softened by other, much nicer reviews in the UK, and by the knowledge that the books was a PBS Choice and therefore on the Eliot Prize shortlist blah blah. (Oh but those blahs are of great consolation at dark times).

I am not going to quibble about either review. It is fundamentally bad policy to do so publicly. The only quibble that matters is with yourself. A useful bad review helps in identiying weaknesses that you can actually do something about; a useless one simply tells you you are hopeless and that your sensibilities, such as they are, are a waste of everyone's time. 

I have had useful bad reviews in the past - not many because I have been lucky that way - those after which I have suddenly realised something with a thumping of course! (John Lucas in The New Statesman in about 1982 for example, not in fact a bad review but pointing out something I hadn't noticed. The man was simply right.) 

A badly written or stupid review doesn't matter. An early one - about 1980 or so - complained that my simile of 'growling like a dog behind gates' was a cliché. What the reviewer failed to mention was that it was the sea that was growling like a dog behind gates, which is not by any means a cliché. The man's an idiot, I thought a little uncharitably, and made a note not to read his reviews. But it may have been just a bad day for him (and me.)

Damn braces, bless relaxes, wrote Blake. Whether Kurp is right or not, or is useful or not, it is proper that one should be wary of being over-relaxed by praise, that one should know it is possible to think otherwise. Most of the time most of us just want to be noticed. As Peter Porter said to me a very long time ago: Never mind what they say, count the column inches. Few poets get inches. Most live by millimetres.

That is one of the reasons why poets, being sensitive people to start with, are even more sensitive to criticism when it comes. Notice of any kind is rare and when it comes in the shape of a crock o'shite it is somewhat distressing.

Needless to say, dear reader, I am not identifying with Keats. I am not the hero of Adonais, nor, for that matter, dear reader, are you. We are who we are, the sensitive and tremulous figures Byron caricatured, recognising that it is a caricature, nevertheless sensitive and, inwardly, trembling.


What I do understand is that mutual backslapping and bigging-up are pretty worthless. Being nice or kind in itself is worthless. It is worthless in bypassing the poem and heading straight for the person. Some of the very nicest people are bad at some things and it is the things not the persons we should be considering. The groupification of poetry, the use of hyperbole to describe what is pretty good, is not good for the brain or the heart. We want praise, yes, but we want it to be intelligent, focused on the material, with a sense of history and proportion. A desire to read any work for the pleasure it offers rather than for its shortcomings is permissible. It is worth at least trying to find out what the work is in its own terms. Writing a savage review of, say, Anne Carson or Ted Hughes, is a courageous act. Writing a savage review of a figure you consider to be lesser than yourself is not, unless that figure represents an influential tendecy you deplore. 

A good fuming review can be fun in the way Dipped in Vitriol is fun. It becomes less a review than a display.

I like to think that if I had been Lord Hervey, the butt - as Sporus-  of Alexander Pope's satire, I'd have thought: But this is magnificent. Look what a marvellous monster I have become. It is not me, everyone will know it isn't me, but I shall live for ever in this grotesque mask so beautifully contructed.

It is like popping through the mirror, much like Alice. Most of us will not have such an experience. We will remain on this side of the mirror, with the cat, the chess board and the sofa, wondering whether that odd reflection we see before us is any kind of truth or simply a distortion from a funfair.


Malicious power. Homicide review. In one of Byron's earlier responses to Keats's death (letter to Murray dated 26th April 1821) he reflects on his own bad press: 
I know by experience that a savage review is Hemlock to a sucking author - and the one on me - (which produced the English Bards &c.) knocked me down - but I got up again. - Instead of bursting a blood-vessel - I drank three bottles of claret.
Three bottles of claret, taken regularly after meals, should settle any attack of hemlock. So thank you, Kurp, you crock o'shite, and thank you Kennedy you glorious bouquet.

Friday 13 September 2013

Malaysia Postscript
Notes on a few photographs 3: In Malacca


Almost the first view of Malacca on foot: the old heritage district.  Nice that despite its heritage status it remains relaxed, a touch louche, not utterly finished-and-giftwrapped for the tourist. This entrance to the street tells you much. There is the traditional Chinese-style gate topped with advertisements for Prudential. There are the bright colours - that yellow, that red - the cars and the street furniture.  It is all very different from KL. The part of town is quiet, bohemian, friendly, between two worlds. In the photo below, a little way down the same street there is the air-conditioning fan hung big and any-old-how on the bright wall, the shack-like ambience of the upper floor, the red plastic stool in the street, the big plastic foot sign for reflexology, and that faintly Dutch-looking gesture at a bell gable on the red building. The notices and advertising signs are of the same general disposability as the metal tables and chairs of the eateries anywhere in the country. There is nothing poncified here but old Malacca is a bubble inside a bigger commercial city, a once vital port.


I should know more about the mythological / historical figures represented on this Chinese Buddhist door than I do but Alvin and Pauline were there to explain them and how to read them. I was seeing them primarily in terms of form, all swag, swirl and billow, a design verging on symmetry but not quite given over to it. The style of depiction is familiar but not the code. It is fierce work in its way, the foreign eye lashed by visual waves, drenched by the obsessive detail and high-pitch colour. There is the underpinning in narrative too, the narrative of significance and meaning, a narrative I always assume is there but which I rarely absorb on a reading. I am dazed with an overload of information and the explanatory detail passes me by. Not just on this occasion but all occasions: my poor registering of narrative is one of the reasons I haven't written a novel and am unlikely to write one unless it is shot through with texture and presence. But Malacca is a new place entirely and impressions shower on me like one of those deluge-like rains we come across from time to time on our tour.

Underneath the temple door there is a bohoish wallful of cats in collage, often with texts. There's this one above. Another says "Only the poet can water an asphalt pavement in the confident anticipation that lilies will reward his labour." You've got to try it, I suppose. Credit for neat expression. This is a cat that has been places. Possibly to San Franciso.


Karl, Clarissa and Pauline have all taken better photographs of this visit to the Royal Press in Malacca. Clarissa's are there if you click on the link to her name above. For Clarissa and I this visit was like a door into the past when we worked on a press very like one of those in the picture. We ran The Starwheel Press in Hitchin from 1978 onwards, active till 1984. The name is still extant. You'll find its production sometimes on second hand book lists at ABE, priced much higher than we ever priced. We had an etching press in the cellar and the monotype press in an outhouse. We produced portfolios of etchings by five artists (including ourselves) and five poets (not including me).  Presses of this kind are what I have always thought of as Romantic Mechanics. Cars too were Romantic Mechanics then. You could fit a fully grown cat and a litter of kittens under the bonnet then and still get to the moving parts.

Entering the Royal Press was like entering a family house, and it was indeed a family house and family business. The light, the typecases, the printed specimens, the smell blended with the stir of a rather vestigial activity still taking itself seriously. It was a dose of the familiar. Friendly as ever, getting on with life, turning the house into a museum, but not yet a museum, still a working place. I think of the light as falling, falling like a solid object, through the two courtyards, and rumbling through the various rooms according to its own Romantic Mechanics: mechanical yet magical, sudden, perpetual, hovering.


It is evening. We park the bus and set out to find a bar/eaterie that Alvin remembers. But it is closed. The owner has gone off on a holiday. Down the same street we find this. We are all sitting round the table upstairs, Clarissa, Iqa, Pauline, Alvin and Karl (Eddin couldn't come on this trip). This place has a sense of presentation but we are the only people upstairs. A TV screen shows repeated clips of a resident band that is not playing tonight. Another displays information on Malacca. I get up and take a few photographs because I sense there is something photographable here. The walls, the space, the windows and doors. I look out of the back window and there is a car, like a silent question, poised under a sign, a name. Yellow, red, black, and the deep brown of street lighting in shadow. It strikes me like a half-heard song. So there it is. And this table. It is a poetry I understand, a still-life of practically nothing, just light. The setting for still-life. Profusion dazzles me: this half-vacancy immediately finds its way to my heart.

Then we get back in the bus and drive back to KL.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Malaysia Postscript:
A few photographs with notes 2, the events


Musicians from the Kelantan Wayang Kulit performing in the auditorium of the Central Library in KL. Although this event came at the beginning of our time it was in some ways central in that it lies at the heart of the PUSAKA movement. (see the Facebook page too) 

What is that? 

One is always faced by one's own ignorance. I am talking about myself here of course but our sense of self, history, social-relation, and location in general is never broad enough. The point, as I took it, was that there are deeper worlds under the official versions of identity presented for national consumption and that these worlds may be disturbing because they return us precisely to those depths. Magic, healing, trance, levels of consciousness - all these are aspects of a universalism beyond locality yet, paradoxically, precisely at the heart of it. It is not nations as constructed by political and economic forces that drive us at depth, but elements of the human psyche that may be opened up at any spot on earth. 

The gamelan band's music was almost entirely percussion, plus that single pipe and the healer's human voice. It isn't entertainment: its purpose is not to divert but to conjure. It looked slightly incongruous in that official auditorium, almost municipal. Out in Kelantan it would be very different.

The other main part of the event was the first PUSAKA lecture by Goenawan Mohamad. I have already said something about that in an earlier post, so I will move on to the next event in which Goenawan was involved.


Eddin and Pauline, Pauline and Eddin. They are the powerhouses of both PUSAKA and Obscura and much more, including new publishing, new festivals, and a whole cultural-political force. Once you know a little about Goenawan (lower picture) it is easy to see why Eddin and Pauline chose him as the first writer to give the PUSAKA lecture. In his resistance to authoritarianism in Indonesia, especially through his editorship of Tempo under Suharto, he represents a democratic, internationalist, political and cultural field whose values he is very well able to articulate. In many ways I understand Goenawan to be of the post-1968 form of socialism too. We talked, in snatches, of Lukács and Brecht. He was interested in the situation in Hungary. His eyes are brilliant and alive even when he is tired. He thinks in terms of idea-as-feeling, in great historical detail, the whole amplified through experience. His lyric poetry, as I heard it,  is of place and politics, full of physical energy and desire. It would be at home in anthologies of world poetry, among the Szymborskas, Enzensbergers, Nerudas and Heaneys. Here is one poem taken from his page at the Rotterdam Poetry International website. More poems there.

in a Picasso sketch

Into the bed the Minotaur comes, sniffing
your body, your body hair,  
that glows in heat,
and gives off  
the aroma of aniseed.  
Your face is ripe
like a grain of wheat 
in the final field.  
And the growl that makes the curtain shiver
lures you: you sway your breasts
towards the eerie and acid smells,  
when desire sticks out its tongue,
its red tongue,  
onto lust
that moistens.  
And then, awakens. And Death  
sits in the arena where the bull
scuffs his feet  
and seconds seem to pour like rust from the sun,
in the plaza where fate pulls the trigger
in the waning light of Saturday evening.  
Soon the room becomes bright.
And the Minotaur vanishes from the bed. 
The hour seeps into the ground.  
Only Death slips
from the thrill
though your navel
your loins—
the imperishables. 

© 1996, Goenawan Mohamad
From: Misalkan Kita di SarajevoPublisher: Kalam, Jakarta, 1998
ISBN: 979-95480-1-2

Eddin I have already praised. He is in the top picture, articulate, memorable, clear, passionate. In cliché terms he is fire to Pauline's apparently deep and tranquil lake. But let's drop cliché. We cannot substitute clichés for people however we perform a kind of shorthand in our minds. This occasion at Ed Soo's restaurant was more informal, though there were plenty of political and cultural people present.  Obscura is a new journal containing writing in Malay, and a good deal of translation from English, German and Greek into Malay. Looked lovely.  The first issue was put into our hands the evening before in a night eaterie by the designer. It will be biannual. I have a copy here.


Attending these events, an inaugural lecture and the launch of a new magazine, both the beginnings of projected series, is like boarding an engine about to set off. We are guests on the train but we can feel the potential power, the energy that drives it. We can only guess the work that has gone into creating it, the mechanics of the machine, the parts that must work in concert. And, beyond that, the conditions under which it has had to be constructed and must henceforth operate

More pictures to come. More travelogue and thoughts rather than cultural events. 

Monday 9 September 2013

On Lighthouse Literary Journal: a Guest Blog (2)

Lighthouse Literary Journal - How we Lit the Lamp (2)

So things were happening. Then along came the painful work of putting in place the processes needed, the back office stuff, the toad work to squat on our lives. How would people submit, and how would we edit? How would we reject people? What tone can you adopt that doesn’t sound patronising or over apologetic? We wanted an online submissions process, that much was certain, as it would be much easier to handle data than hard copy. We also felt that the size of the editorial team meant that an online system where we could log in from anywhere in the world (Angus and Laura spent their honeymoon in India, visiting an internet café with dial up) gave the editors a freedom that snail mail didn’t. In the end we got a good system which even now is being tweaked as we evaluate our editorial process, for example, we would make sure that if we knew someone who had submitted, their work was looked at by an editor less familiar. We also put in place a first refusal option, where at least two editors looked at a submission before being rejected. 

Keeping the price low was paramount. We are, after all, publishing mostly unknown writers, and we wanted the price to reflect our demographic. We felt that one of the problems with journals is the prices. I remember having to read them in libraries as an MA student, as I couldn’t afford to buy them. That’s not a criticism of the journals; it’s hard to keep prices down on larger periodicals, especially if colour is involved. So keeping the journal black and white was hugely important, as well as making enough per sale to have some money to reinvest in future publications. We also felt that we should avoid applying for Arts Council funding, finding a way to create a successful business model that was sustainable on its own terms.

Grassroots activism was the driving force behind the journal. We put on fundraisers, with published writers as well as open mic events, such as the Cold Turkey Cabaret, where we were swamped with people who wanted to get out of their houses, bored stiff by the snow that had basically stopped the UK once again. We raised enough money to go to print and we launched issue #1 in March of this year. After a long year of planning, we finally had the thing in our hands, and it felt really good to see the writers we had selected in print. The grassroots activism continued with contributors such as Jonathan Gibbs hiking around various bookshops in South London pitching the journal. Social media has of course played a massive part, and by having so many people involved, we can update and post interesting things on all the usual sites. Angus Sinclair even made a short film to advertise the open submission process for issue #3 which went up on Youtube and had over 1,500 views in the first week from a Facebook newsfeed connection. 

Issue #1 sold out on a print run of 250. We got the book into all corners of Norfolk, several postcodes in London, and a small bookshop in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. We also had two writers selected for a popular series of anthologies which we can’t yet reveal, but it’s been exciting to see these poems and short stories picked up by other editors.  We had a few hiccups with the second issue. Our printer, Biddells, went into administration. This delayed us by a month, taking our launch into the dusty space of August where everyone is away. That said, the launch was well attended, and our online sales and subscription list continues to grow. Issue three is about to go into production with some features by Matthew Welton and Elizabeth Reeder, and issue four will see a piece by Ian Duhig, and hopefully something from the phenomenal (and phenomenally busy) musician Alasdair Roberts.


So what’s the future? 

This has all been done democratically from the outset. I wanted to manage a project that would be realised by a team, and I hope that, when I come to the end of my stewardship somewhere down the line, other editors will come on board, that the magazine retains its cooperative aspect as editors leave and are replaced.

We will launch our pamphlet series in 2014 with work from Edwin Kelly and another poet we want to work with funded by sales of Lighthouse. We are also floating a short story pamphlet subscription service, though these are early days.

But importantly, we want to hear from you, we want your submissions, we also want features, small essays on poetry or prose or literature generally, both for our print journal and our blog page. We want a space for emerging writers to discuss, agitate, chew at the bit, and create an ongoing dialogue about writing. We want, as stated in our issue 1 editorial, to create a rung on the ladder for emerging writers. This might all sound terribly over-ambitious, but we’re trying. So come have a looksee. Over to you.

On Lighthouse Literary Journal: a Guest Blog

Lighthouse Literary Journal - How we Lit the Lamp (1)

Wake Up And
smell the coffee
smell the coughing
the cacophony
the cafard
the cavern 
wake up and smell Cavafy
wake up and smell Cephalonia
smell the kaftan
smell the kif
the kofte
the Kiefer
the O’Keefe
wake up and smell the cufflink
wake up and smell the coffin

Paul Stephenson
From issue #2 of Lighthouse Literary Journal

When George asked me to write a guest blog for his page about Lighthouse literary journal, I thought that it was a perfect opportunity to reflect on where we came from and where we’re heading. A little over a year and a half ago, I was approached by Tom Corbett, the managing director of Gatehouse Press, an award winning independent publisher, to see if I was interested in joining the board of directors and putting some energy into moving the press forward, and ye gods, turn a profit which could be invested back into publishing.

I had been thinking about creating a journal for a while, but didn’t have the framework in which to support a serious launch. Gatehouse offered an opportunity – it had key structures in place such as web development, typesetting and a long relationship with a printer. What we needed was the rationale to launch another journal, and a team of people to work as editors and advocates. Another driving force was the fact that I was about to become a father, my daughter arriving in mid October 2012. I wanted to fight the ‘pushchair in the hall’ mentality head on, and be involved in making something happen. On reflection, becoming a father probably made things easier, as I spent lots of time at home, finding time during baby naps and walks to email and generally chat about stuff on the phone.

Two things struck me: the first was that there is a huge amount of people on creative writing courses. Have a quick look on UCAS, or Google and you’ll find that the majority of universities offer the complete creative writing package from BA up to PhD. When you think that an average BA course probably has around 40 learners, that’s a lot of people who want to be published. The second thing that struck me was that there are not many magazines that take on emerging writers as editors or even work as a team. (NB The Rialto is currently fielding a scheme that is worth a look for anyone interested in editing). I felt that a new journal could be created that allowed the space for emerging writers to practice editorial skills and also engage critically with an audience via blog posts. So with that in mind, I had a rough sketch of what the journal would be:

1. A space specifically for new writing.

2. A space for emerging writers to gain editorial experience.

3. A platform to identify new talent that we could work with to produce pamphlets.

4. Affordable and handsome.

I approached some emerging poets, Laura Elliott, Meirion Jordan, Angus Sinclair and Julia Webb as I knew them to be engaged seriously with poetry and would be good people to work alongside. From the initial meetings, we also elected to bring in Philip Langeskov and Anna de Vaul to work as the prose editors. 

What was clear from the outset was that we wanted something that looked good and had a printerly feel, in fact the economics of printing helped crystallise the look and feel of the magazine. The printerly feel etc. was almost entirely down to the fact that we needed something that looked good in black and white, without a shred of colour anywhere. The latter was from the idea of doing something lo-fi, reflecting the vision and activism of small music labels we admired such as Domino, Drag City etc. We talked about what we liked and didn’t like about existing journals. We wanted something pocket sized and easy for book shops to stock, and also for it to have a spine. In retrospect this was one of the best calls we made, as many bookshops told us that they loved the fact it had a spine, as then it wouldn’t vanish on the shelf.  Lighthouse seemed an obvious title for a journal seeking to publish new writing, and we wanted to find a logo that was a lino-print or similar. Meirion suggested we approach Igino Marini, an Italian digital typesetter who takes old letterpress fonts and digitises them. Meirion found a beautiful Fell font: IM Fell English, slightly uneven and, well, if you are so inclined, a little bit sexy. We also found the excellent Norfolk-based printmaker Gini Hanbury who designed our logo by linocut:

* I invited Andrew McDonnell of Lighthouse to write a blogpost for me. This is the first part with a second to follow. I do welcome guest posts. I don't always have time to write longer posts myself but this is a useful space and I am keen to support Lighthouse.To the extent that I have give three different links to it.

Sunday 8 September 2013

Malaysia postscript:
a few photographs with notes (1)


Eddin Khoo and Pauline Fan on our first day. I cannot speak too highly of Eddin and Pauline. They are luminous people. They invited us, treated us, talked deeply, intensely and passionately to us, and took us everywhere, to both remarkable places and everyday places,  including this eaterie, which, to look at, resembles almost every other eaterie, so all the eateries blend into one package of simple lighting, fan-ventilation, functional furniture, and an endless series of small dishes of greater or lesser spiciness passing across the table in rapid and infinite procession. Life with Eddin and Pauline was bound to be packed. Their cultural projects are extraordinarily demanding but they deal with it with a mixture of articulate fire and divine calm.


Alvin Pang with Clarissa in the passage between two hotels in KL. He appears to be surrendering to her -you can't see the gun in her other hand - but he is innocent. Alvin was very much instrumental in bringing us to Malaysia. He is a terrific poet, wise, humane, funny, deeply perceptive and knows everything that may be known to mortal. He guided us round. In cars, round tables, in streets and in lobbies we talked, talked endlessly of politics and poetry. Beside being a poet he is editor-in-chief of an important magazine on strategy and analysis. A world composed of Alvins would be a far better place, certainly saner and clearer-sighted.


Karl Rafiq Nadzarin and Shafiqa Nabeera, aka Karl and Iqa, both lawyers, Karl qualified and heading for the Bar (chiefly the legal one), Shafiqa just in the process of qualifying. Both are involved in politics and literature, Karl as an activist for democracy, against nationalism and corruption, and Iqa as a commentator and blogger. Extremely bright people, seen here at a bar (small b) on our last day, in Ipoh. Karl also took excellent photographs and did a great deal of driving in all conditions. With some luck and much hard work they may be the future of the country.


This photo gives some idea of the blend of KL without including the bustling cheaper areas around the corner. The vast corporate buildings tower over the multicoloured, small-scale colonial terrace. There is the smart car, here is the noise of several languages chatting at once (a noise you can't hear but I have on film), the shift from open fronted shop to bazaar, the magnificent hydra-headed food culture, the great loops of elevated highway that make KL seem a city built by cars for cars; the cosmopolitan buzz of it against a background of puritanical religion and nationalistic politics.  A city once mostly ground level, rough and ready, now rapidly turning itself into a playground for the rich from whichever country happens to be rich at the time.


KL from a high window, like a hazy dream. Looked at from here it is a city of luminous statements that don't quite add up. The Petronas Towers just off-centre are a kind of claim in a part-European, part-Oriental architectural language. Tyrants put up such edifices. The twin towers in New York were dedicated to a different deity, but, from a certain height, the deities look hazily similar. Money towers. Power-towers. Below this window poor Nepalese guards in uniform check for security. When Becky, whom we were visiting, talks to them - and she does take the trouble to talk to them - they are all smiles. They love babies. They are poor workers near the bottom of the pile, like the Bangladeshi glazier who hung outside her window without any harness to fix the cracked glass. You don't get much lower in the social scale than that.


KL at night. So we are between these polarities. On the one hand the streets with their stalls, their buskers, their smells, their intimacy, their utter indifference, their blurring and crossing, their massage parlours dedicated to feet downstairs and erogenous zones upstairs, their cheap t-shirts, their sweat and rumble and horns and horniness and their need to survive into dawn. On the other, one of the Petronas Towers, those almost heavenly Christmas trees I half expect to start flashing and singing with some neon King Kong scampering up their shining ribs. We are blasted into the future where the food is delicately plain and sex is astronomically expensive. Fay Wray returns to the jungle and everyone is gobsmacked.

All this is simplification, no? But so is syntax. We simplify into language to build an alternative tower as complex as the world we started with. That's the idea anyway.

Some more photos and notes to come.