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Answers to some interview questions

I’ve begun to take part in an on-line interview about my intentions and ideas in poetry for Andy Cochrane’s blog/magazine, http://as-I-read.blogspot.co.uk/: (or google Andy Cochrane As I read blogspot.).   I’ll also post it here as it develops, for your possible interest . For me, it gives an opportunity to try to clarify some ideas.

A.C.  I’d like to dive straight into your 2008 collection The English Civil War Part 2 and talk about ‘Postcards from Auschwitz’. The poems in this series share an insidious quality that seems to stem from the naiveté on both sides – Jewish prisoners and German officers. The Jews seem to trust that ‘all may be well’ (where the word ‘may’ is so much more devastating in its uncertainty than had you used ‘will’), while the Germans appear not to be much more clued in to what is going on – ‘My orders come from higher up the line.’ I’m wondering whether it’s denial at work here. Can you talk a little bit about what you hoped to achieve with ‘Postcards’?

K.C. Any poem which tackles this darkest of subjects must somehow mediate between Adorno’s question, “How can anyone write poetry that can comprehend the barbarity of the Holocaust?” and Santanya’s assertion that “Those who do not remember History are doomed to repeat it.”  I  have tried to evade this contradiction, tried to hint at just some aspects of the experience,  by coming at them from a multiplicity of directions, viewpoints, styles.   About half of these mini soliloquies were written as if from the Jewish victims’ points of view…presumably some believed the official line that they were travelling to a work camp,  many must have sensed the dreadful truth, while others perhaps preferred to be in denial?  Another six or so of these overheard voices were written from a variety of non-Jewish perspectives – the train driver (part 4), the book keeper (part 6) the retired elderly guard (part 10) the Nazi Inspectors (part 5) etc, which mostly emphasise the ordinariness, the routine-ness,  of their contributions to the horror.   The overall design  for this piece was for a spread of voices, tones and styles .  Obviously, the main organising idea/metaphor is that of Postcards (as suggested in part 9) – postcards being brief and partial points of view.  Some may be crying out, some self-exonerating.   Partly this Postcards idea may have been suggested by Craig Raine’s “Postcards from Mars” collection, his “Martian” theory of poetry (1975?) suggesting that well-worn subjects and descriptions can be refreshed by being approached from alien points of view; it is strange to think of his essentially playful, indirect, approach  being applied to the Holocaust.

A.C. That’s certainly the sense I get with most of your poetry, a playful, indirect style that is applied to really complex, sometimes harrowing, events or issues. How do you balance that? I assume there is something going on in your mind about the dual issue of how not to make fun of important subject matter, but also how not to come across as morbid or sentimental.

K.C. Yes, its’s sharp of you to notice my  predilection for looking at appalling subjects in a quasi humorous tone.  In other collections I’ve written about cannibalism (in the Chilean air crash), Hiroshima, the Cambodian killing fields, a firing squad in the Phillipines etc etc  Come to think of it, I’ve  also written about a lot of unattractive individuals too – a Tourettes sufferer, an autistic boy, a paedophile (spelling?), a girl brought up as a hen, a Peeping Tom, plus innumerable disfigureds and cripples..all of which makes me a not very nice person?  I’m reminded of John Lennon’s memory of being fascinated by the assorted ‘freaks’ of Liverpool, often choosing to follow or sit behind them on the bus.  Except that I’d like to think my interest in the victimised is ultimately  sympathetic.  I guess I feel that we must be prepared to approach the darker aspects of our humanity, contemplating, for instance, systemmatic evil in Postcards from Auschwitz. (I’ve also written alot of celebratory poems, about the brighter side of the human spectrum, especially in my latest pamphlet, The Grandpa Years.)   With the darker subject matter I feel that it is best saved from becoming merely maudlin, mawkish,  by being served up with WIT of tone and style, – verbal humour which may offer a detachment, an ambivalence, towards its subject matter.  Wit is a quality I admire in much 17th Century poetry  – the way Marvell , for instance, presents the execution of Charles ! with such knife-edge equivocation. Wit seems to allow one to gaze at horrors  while remaining detached.   A sense of humour in general and verbal wit in particular may be qualities absent from a lot of post-Romantic poetry?  We tend to prefer emotional intensities and authenticities of texture,- poetry which is “close to the bone” (and the nerve)?  But I do think that humour can act as a corrective, almost a safety valve, to too much intensity.    Question: could Sylvia Plath have survived the horrors of introspective self-therapy if she had been able to laugh about herself…and would the poetry then have been less interesting?

A.C.  That’s very interesting, that you question Sylvia Plath’s ‘introspective self-therapy’. Is that how you see your own poetry: a kind of self-therapy in which you can make sense of your own experiences? I’m referring more specifically to the shorter poems about your life, taken from the section ‘Looking Myself Up’ in Civil War.

 

K.C. Yes, there is a bunch of mainly personal family poems in one section and more scattered among other collections. I don’t know that I would go so far as to call them “confessional” (in the tradition of Robert Lowell and Ann Sexton) but they mainly describe an unusual childhood – being the son of medical missionaries in Northern Nigeria (in the area now devastated by Boko Harum). Such a provenance – the last days of the British Empire included – all feels politically incorrect these days, but I hope that, at least, it is an interesting background. I’m not sure whether these more personal pieces are “therapeutic”; the ones about a difficult relationship with my father probably are. As hinted in a previous reply, I have doubts about the health benefits of diving too deeply into oneself as in the later poems of Sylvia Plath (I rather hate her ‘Daddy’ poem) or in the Henry poems of John Berryman, which are really autobiographical. Both after all couldn’t live with what they had discovered. On the other hand, to contradict myself, I love Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish’ holy excrescences, which couldn’t be more “personal”.  So, to answer your question, yes, I do write directly from personal experience from time to time, but does that make more personal poems more or less authentic? In theory I prefer the idea of art developing a Yeatsian”mask” for oneself, or, to use T.S. Eliot’s phrase, finding an “objective correlative” for the merely personal. But, again to be contradictory, I think that the most powerful elements in T.S. Eliot’s own poetry (the period from ‘Prufrock’ to ‘The Wasteland’) are much more personal than he himself would acknowledge. He liked to claim that he was a spokesman for the classically non-personal … but I suspect that the strongest elements in his own best poems are in fact the product of a sense of sexual sterility and confusion rather than, for instance, a vision of post-war Europe. Perhaps instead of “We are the Hollow Men” he should have written “I am a hollow man”?

A.C. In terms of Plath and Berryman, though, its obvious that their poetry wouldn’t have existed absent their dysfunctionality. I think for a lot of poets, and artists of all kinds, the art takes precedence over life, in the sense of making a lasting impression in the world and of creating beauty out of suffering etc. (maybe you think this a naive way of thinking?). And that’s what I love about their work, particularly Berryman’s Dream Songs – they don’t seem to hold anything back, or to be written in a Wordsworthian tranquility, but instead seem to have been direct and necessary to the two poets’ existences.  Does your own poetry take a secondary role to your life, or is it something constantly present in your mind, something necessary?

K.C.  The Art or the Life?  That does seem to be a recurring question for, as you say, artists of all kinds.  Yeats put it bluntly: The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life or of the art.  Reading biographies of artists does seem to confirm a kind of necessary egotism – that ‘chip of ice in the heart’ as someone put it.  Having just read Jonathan Bates’ biography of Ted Hughes, I am appalled by his attitude to the women in his life, for instance going off with one of many mistresses while supposedly on honeymoon with his last wife, Carol,  or spending that famously cold January weekend with yet another mistress during Plath’s final attempts to contact him.  Examples of artistic self-centredness abound.   As for myself, I seem to have drifted into the position of finding myself with a large dependent family without ever having had the courage to find an alternative.  Thus over forty years of school teaching, while trying to fit poetry into the interstices of holidays and weekends…  Does that make me an amateur – a “weekend painter” as it were, rather than a full-time “professional”?  Certainly it does.  It probably also made me an uncommitted teacher, thinking poetry while supposed to be marking or preparing lessons.  “Get real” as my wife hung around with kids might have said.   In more harassed moments I have envied the apparently family-free lives of such favourite gay poets as Ashberry and Edwin Morgan who seemed to have felt free to experiment with their lives as well as their Art.  But that is a silly response; gay writers must depend on a range of relationships quite as much as any “family man”.  Larkin, as you will know from several poems such as Self’s the Man, prided himself on his family-lessness while at the same time, with typical complexity, seeming to regret it.  Other artists seem to have been deeply touched/inspired by their family connections/constrictions.  In poetry I am thinking of Chaucer’s dedication to “Little Lewis”; or  Shakespeare’s wonderful sense of the vulnerability of children (maybe guilt-driven by the death of his son, Hamnet?]; or of Browning’s carer-role towards his wife Elizabeth; or the mutually supportive partnerships of Mr and Mrs Tennyson, Mr and Mrs Edwin Muir, Mr and Mrs William Blake… So that the Yeatsian Life/Art dichotomy may not be as clear cut as it would seem; probably the very tensions that it necessitates can be creative?   A clear case of the productive friction between having to earn a living for his family and yet being driven to abandon them for his art’s sake is that of Edward Thomas? And Wallace Stevens, to judge by the “fat cat” photos of him as boss of the Western Union Insurance Company, was happy to commute between work and poetic playfulness. I don’t know what conclusion to your interesting question all this name-dropping is coming to.  On the one hand you get the bullish misogyny of a Picasso, on the other the tenderness of a Rembrandt towards Titus and Saskia.  In my own unimportant case I have always felt a need to think of myself as a writer as well as an equally strong, often contradictory, need to find security in the idea of family.  And now I must go off and wipe the noses and/or bottoms of several grandchildren…

 

A.C. Is this why your poetry hasn’t achieved mainstream success, this juggling of your art and your family life; earning a living while writing? Or is it a part of your sensibility as a poet? Do you, perhaps, see poetry as a free enterprise, a way of life rather than a way of achieving fame/recognition/money?

K.C.   I guess that my poetry hasn’t achieved widespread recognition mainly because it hasn’t been outstanding enough. I’ve had more than my fair share of chances, being picked, for example, as one of “ten promising English poets” in 1970 by Carcanet, who then published a first collection. But I’ve found it more and more difficult to gain publication, never mind recognition, since then. The market for poetry has become increasingly crowded and competitive, for would-be writers almost more than for readers. The “poetry scene” of my youth was dominated by a few big names (Heaney, Hughes, Betjeman, Lowell, Thom Gunn – all men!) and a few (male dominated) publishers. The “poetry world” has changed hugely. For one thing there has been a proliferation of creative writing courses (alas, none available when I went to Uni) which in turn has spawned probably thousands of would-be “creative writers” all toting for recognition/publication (and sometimes, one suspects, for the academic sinecures – those creative writing tutor jobs – that go with becoming a published “name”.  In such an overcrowded field, it would often seem to be necessary to have some kind of personal novelty/gimmick or interesting back story – coming from a different ethnicity, for instance – to begin to grab attention? Or perhaps a knack for self-publicity? Or perhaps, as always, the right personal connections? But I do think that the plurality of poetry outlets these days is generally much more healthy than the old Faber and London Magazine dominated days of fifty years ago. Also, thanks to desk top publishing (and the Internet) there are such a lot of really interesting little specialist presses and magazines to be sampled, from the avant garde (Prynne et al) down to the very local. And the poetic energies seem to be more widespread too – often coming most distinctly from what used to be called “the regions”, i.e. not London.  In spite of this new more hectic, pluralistic, competitive atmosphere, I still do think, must believe, that the most outstanding talents, those with true originality of voice – Alice Oswald and Jo Shapcott spring to mind – can make it to the top of the heaving pile of would-bes. Almost every year fresh young voices emerge – last year Liz Berry and Jonathan Edwards particularly impressed. As for myself, I am probably one of thousands of 2nd or 3rd division “poets”, all fighting like cats in a sack for our brief moments of local fame and recognition… (but certainly not for any money!)

A.C. What influences would you cite on your poetry? Have these influences changed as you’ve grown older?

K.C. My first big influence was Chaucer; one of my A level teachers at school was David Herbert (who went on to edit the Penguin Book of Narrative Verse); he was very keen on Chaucer, going so far as to paint a mural of the Canterbury pilgrims around his classroom walls.  So I guess I can blame that influence for having tried  so many times to write long narrative poems  – completely out of sync with contemporary taste?!  My main tutor at New College was John Bayley, who also idolised Chaucer; his book on Troilus and Criseyde, The Characters of Love, is still a worthwhile read, I think, and must have reinforced my tendency to try to write those lengthy “story poems.”  But,  having decided to read nothing but poetry while at Oxford, I soon came upon other influences, especially Donne, Marvell and all the so-called “Metaphysicals”, which, hopefully, had a more healthy influence on my own attempts to write, tightening up metre and toughening up style generally.  The Oxford Eng Lit Syllabus famously stopped short of studying the 20th Century  (probably it has now modernised itself?) , but, since getting free of Academia and being able to choose what I read,  I find I  have rather preferred American poets – Emily Dickinson, John Crowe Ransome, Richard Wilbur, e e cummings,  Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Stevens, Ginsberg, Ashbery etc… but especially Robert Frost who, together with his English friend Edward Thomas, is still a favourite.  At best American poets always feel fresher than their European counterparts?   Of course, having been a schoolteacher for over 40 years, I’ve also had to get to know and teach a lot of 20th century UK poets and have developed a more than grudging respect for such near-contemporaries as Hughes, Heaney, Gunn, Larkin, R.S Thomas  and, more up to date-ly,  Carol Ann and  Simon A…   So, thank you very much , Andy, for asking about  “influences”.  I feel flattered… but also feel that  I should have dropped a lot more contemporary this-century names into the mixture!

A.C. Not at all. You’ve given a pretty extensive account of your growth as a reader as well as a writer of poetry there. For my final question, I want to ask you about your current work. I know you have a pamphlet – The Grandpa Years – out at the moment, but what are you working on now? What does the future hold in store for readers of your poetry?

K.C. I recently turned 70 – the  “allotted span.”  Having had your questions to try to answer has given me an opportunity to look back, sometimes mournfully, always solipsistically, over what could be called a “career”.   I seem to be writing as keenly as ever, mostly confining myself to shorter pieces; I have a collection of these, The Goldsmith’s Apprentice, for which I hope to find a publisher soon. I also have a dusty drawerfull of narrative poems which deserve an airing.  The question is when to stop.  Does one know when one is “past it” or, at least, past one’s best? I’d like to think that I’m writing as well, if not better, than ever… but maybe that is just the usual self-deception?  I remember when I was about 50 and  attending a poetry workshop which was full of pensioners, I used to think “Why don’t some of them just shut up? Don’t they realise how OLD they sound, – ‘old’ in terms of subject matter, out of date style, or somehow just lacking in verbal energy/ vividness?  Why can’t they be more open to change?”   But now I find myself in the position of those despised pensioners, carrying on regardless with a “writing hobby”, still trying to compete in what is increasingly a young person’s game… Anyway, to quote Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium”, Why should not old men not be mad?  Why not continue to experiment, to try to make poems, if only for my own interest?

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress”

 

 

 

 

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Confessions of an armchair twitcher

As part of retirement and moving to a smaller house, I looked forward to more birdwatching, – not, as before, sweeping with binoculars the extensive salt scrapes  and windy marshes of East Anglia but getting closer to garden birds in a way that wasn’t possible at our last house in Norfolk.  Perhaps that change was a metaphor for retirement itself – less wide-scale scope but more opportunities for close-up looking? Here, in our Bridgnorth apartment,  the conditions are ideal, – a small crab apple tree hung with different feeders stands only feet away from french windows. Often it is full of little birds, hanging around for their turn at feeding or pendulum-ing downward in little zigzag drops and swings that remind me of a pinball machine, full of colour and movement.   Blue tits are our most frequent visitors but, being so zippy and difficult to distinguish as individuals, one is somehow less interested in them.  They seem to operate at a higher rev rate than other birds, coming and going so fast that one tires of trying to track them.   Goldfinches, which always remind me of the bejewelled missal where I first saw one illustrated, are the most messy feeders; operating in pairs they hog the perches, refusing to budge, dropping much seed litter to the soil (and skulking dunnocks) below.  I remember when goldfinches were comparatively rare birds of the open field; drawn by their silvery twittering you might come across a flock in some neglected corner of a field, eating thistle seeds and chucking the fluff over their shoulders. But, for the last twenty or so years, having discovered an easier source of food in our gardens, they are everywhere. On the other hand, house sparrows, which used to be ubiquitous, are infrequent now.  I used to associate them with chirpy group behaviour – taking careless dust baths in the sunshine, or gangbanging in unselfconscious polygamy – but here they are notably quick to scare.  Is it because a female sparrowhawk, with wonderful blue shoulders and buff apricot chest, has taken to our small garden as part of her patrol-circuit?  I’d like to think that she can’t grab “our” birds with those huge yellow talons of hers because of  the surrounding thorn and holly bushes, but she sometimes sits prominently in the crab apple tree, in Ted Hughes-like hawkish profile, as if to reassert her predatory rights.  Long-tailed tits, which also used to be birds of the countryside, have also come in from the fields; four or five times a day they appear in whistling fidgeting gangs, their tiny badger-striped heads counterbalanced by disproportionately long tails.   Unlike the finches, which are gluttons for seeds, they take tiny pecks from the fat and peanuts. Great tits, coal tits, all the various finches and woodpeckers as well as “the common or garden” blackbirds, thrushes and pigeons (one of my favourites is the little ringdove, so much more elegant in its lovat-coloured tailcoat than its waddling wood pigeon cousin)….and of course there is always an aggressively resident  robin or two… I could go on about “our” bird neighbours for ever.   Perhaps the most striking appearances at the feeders over the past years have been unusual over-wintering visitors.  Two years ago it was a pair of blackcaps which should have been thousands of miles away; holidaying in Madeira in December we came across flocks of them. This occasional choice to stay in England after Autumn must surely be one of the many hints at climate change?  This past winter we have enjoyed a mixed flock of redcaps and linnets which have stayed with us for three months.  I realise that all this bird naming must be beginning to sound like a Twitcher’s list, or just showing off; in reality most of the identifications have not been mine but Vic’s; it is she who, as well as having the sharper eyesight has the superior knowledge.

I do think that there is something quite mystical about birds; after all, they have been denizens of this planet for a much longer time span than have human beings.  It is now thought they evolved from small feathered dinosaurs billions of years ago. There is something quite magical about their migratory abilities, for instance; also the synchronistic flock behaviour in which they appear to communicate faster than mere sight or sound might manage…telepathy perhaps?   Birds are somehow both more advanced and more primitive than we are.  Their little lives act as a kind of fleeting marginalia to our own.

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Homer, The Gruffalo, Rupert Bear and me

 

Of the many old-fashioned qualities and “kinds” that I miss in contemporary poetry – narrative drive, humour, epic sweep and imaginative scope, for instance – some are to be found preserved unselfconsciously in verse for children.  I would argue that Julia Donaldson’s best books – notably The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child, Stick Man, and Room on the Broom –  deserve to be considered as (possibly) contributing more to the future of poetry than scores of slim vols which pour off the  presses (and  take themselves so seriously) every month.   My granddaughters could babble phrases, even whole verses, from Room on the Broom even before they could properly talk.  The Gruffalo, happily illustrated by Axel Sheffler, is Julia Donaldson’s best known creation.  And what an epic story it is.   Set in an archetypal Jungian forest, our mouse hero is surrounded by dangers lurking on all sides.  Absurdly small in this world of big terrors (and I like the way the TV cartoon version emphasises the dangers around every jungly corner) the mouse learns to confront  monsters as frightening as anything encountered by Odysseus – mostly by developing classic trickster qualities.  Most importantly he learns the psychological lesson that bullies can themselves be out-bullied .  The Gruffalo – his eyes are orange, his tongue is black; he has purple prickles down his back – is a construct of all the little mouse’s worst fears but turns out to be the  biggest fool of them all. So Aeneas can trick poor old Cyclops and Brer Rabbit can out-fox the Fox.  A sequel, The Gruffalo’s Child, is almost as successful and perhaps more humorous than the original,  but this time the mouse’s trick  – he  makes his shadow appear more frightening by posing in front a full moon –  seems to me more literal  and therefore less subtle than the mind games he plays in the first story.  It should be noted that all Julia Donaldson’s story poems  employ such old-fashioned narrative devices as repetition with variation,  heavy ballad like rhyme schemes,  skipping non-iambic rhythms, and  formulae such as the Rule of Three –  3 wishes, 3 encounters with monsters, 3 friendly animal guides etc – that are so much a part of the English “vernacular”  tradition, from the anonymous Robin Hood ballads onwards.  Stick Man plumbs our most elemental insecurities  – the loss of family comfort and self-identity – as he ventures further and further away from the family tree. Stick Man too encounters  near-Homeric adventures in his wanderings.  Some might object to the happy Christmassy ending; waiting to be burnt alive on a log fire, Stick Man is able to deliver Santa Claus who is stuck up the chimney and, in return, is himself restored to the bosom of his stick family in time for Christmas morning. But one feels that one is entitled to a happy ending after experiencing such a series of frights; perhaps that is one of the functions of children’s stories – to return us to reassurance after introducing us to the possibility of insecurity, even terrors?.   One of my favourite Julia Donaldson stories, Room on the Broom, does much to rehabilitate the maligned imaged of the witch; her four rescue pets rescue her in turn from a dragon.  Dragons, witches, monsters, forests, caves…where else in poetry can you experience such archetypal landscapes and scenarios?  As Edward Lear’s “nonsense” narrative verse explored buried depths of loneliness and love-longing in his Victorian audience, so these poems for children can, perhaps, serve to recover our forgotten notions of adventure and heroism. Apart from The Book – Bible readings at least twice a day – my own missionary childhood in Northern Nigeria was mostly bookless.   But I do remember the delight of discovering Rupert Bear stories when I was shipped back to England at the age of nine.   At that time everything about the Rupert Bear annuals   – the comic strip pictures, the prose as well as verse commentary – was all the work of Robert Bestall. (The later books, from the 1970s onwards, are inferior, the commercial product  of teams of artists and writers).  Bestall’s brightly coloured squares were like windows into alternative  worlds where Rupert and his “pals” enjoyed adventures  on sub-tropical  islands, in castles floating in the air or within caverns deep underground, always returning to the idyllic environs of Nutwood.. The boy “pals”,  Bill Badger, Edward Trunk etc., all sport huge animal heads  atop their natty English schoolboy attire, while the girl friends are allowed to be prettily themselves…I wonder what a psychologist would make of that?   Bestall himself was the child of missionary parents in China; his depiction of Oriental places and people – most notably the Pekinese dog-headed  Pong Ping, but also Tiger Lily and her conjurer father, alternately frightening and fascinating – must reflect something of his own sense of dislocation.  For me  an important discovery was how the stories could be sped along by reading the captions (in rhyming octosyllabics) beneath each picture; no need to go through all those slow-moving prose paragraphs…no need to impede that headlong rush to adventure.

 

 

 

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Talking to Strangers

 

“Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?”  (Whitman, Leaves of Grass.)

Rereading the Lyrical Ballads recently, I have been impressed by how many of the poems were occasioned by chance meetings with strangers: an old huntsman, a mad mother, children, a leech gatherer, shepherds, an ex soldier and, of course, an obsessive compulsive mariner. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge were long distance walkers who do not seem to have been reluctant to open up to people met on the road. I guess our modern equivalent might be to risk conversation with someone on the train, or to share a smile with the person squeezed up next to you in tourist class. I once learned, while waiting for a Ryanair jet to take off, the whole romantic history of a woman struggling to escape from her possessive Italian fiancée.  Whereas trying to write about relationships which are “close” to us may be deeply problematic (I think of Auden’s comment on being asked to write his autobiography: “Well known to everybody except himself.”) these kinds of casual encounters which I’m interested in give comparatively clear, because briefly objective, illuminations into the truth of other people’s lives. Offering, last week, to help a Polish girl struggling with outsized packages up a tube station escalator and then onward towards her all night bus home from Victoria coach station, I learned something of the lives of potato pickers in Lincolnshire. Perhaps women are rather more open to such passing encounters than men? I am often surprised by the casual exchange of quite intimate information over the check out counter.  My wife, who used to work as a nurse, often came home with little vignettes as offered to her by patients waiting to see a consultant; feeling vulnerable seemed to prompt them into offering insights into what was really important in their lives.  One nervous lady wanted to chatter about her pet fox while a taciturn old stockman, having no family to boast of, offered snapshots from a wallet of his favourite cows.  Then there are those glimpses of strangers in the poems of, say, Robert Frost or Edward Thomas, whose conversation with a passing ploughman yields a picture of loss as understated but striking as any description of trench warfare:     ‘Many lost? ‘/ ‘Yes, a good few. / Only two teams work on the farm this year. / One of my mates is dead. The second day  / In France they killed him. It was back in March, / The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if / He had  stayed  we should have moved the tree.’  As priests both Manley Hopkins and RS Thomas were clearly surprised by startlingly unspiritual encounters with their parishioners.  Sometimes, as in Muldoon’s Brownlee or Les Murray’s vagrants, we are left to pick up traces of lives which have already been shrugged off.  Instead of saying “Look at me! Listen to me!”  such poems seem to be saying “Look at this interesting person I  chanced to meet with!”  We have all had heart to hearts with strangers when travelling abroad, none the less touching for lacking the nuances of shared language.  I’ll end this ramble with a recent encounter of my own, with an old man walking his dog in a Suffolk field who suddenly began to relive one of his National Service experiences…

 

A Good Shot

“…on guard.  Everything gone quiet.

Or like the crickets in that field, not quiet,

sort of simmering. We had orders to shoot

on sight. Suddenly I see one coming up the street

towards us. Shoot! screams Harry in my ear. Shoot!

(though, after, he said he was glad it was me not him

with the gun) ForGodsakeDerekhe’sgota bomb!

I had him in my notch by now, growing

bigger by the second. Course, brought up on a farm

I could have knocked him over easy as that.

Then I thought (out of the shadow: dhoti,

head cloth, carrying, was it, a dish?) what if

he was just an ordinary chap like you or me

with a wife, a child, fetching them some food?

Sighting the crosspiece of a telegraph pole

above his head, BANG! I took a chunk out of that.

You should have seen him run. There was hell to pay

with the C.O. next day. Should have shot the bugger.

Would have saved us this Enquiry, he said.

But I’m glad I gave him the benefit…” Shotgun

broken over one arm, he whistled for his dog,

went on up the road.

 

 

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Celebrity Gardeners

 

Visiting a Royal Horticultural Show   –  renamed “The Spring Festival” –  at Malvern recently, I was struck by how much even the down-to-earth dirt-under-your-fingernails world of gardening has been infected by the cult of  Celebrity.  The main attractions seemed to be not so much about our ordinary world of gardening, its skills and problems, as entering a marquee  to hear television gardeners selling and signing books. Thus we had not only all the Big Name Celebs from  the BBC Gardener’s World programme but also various showbiz personalities, pop stars, even a famous ex-cricketer, using the occasion to sell, or endorse, products.

The other trend I noticed was how many of the show gardens were linked to some notion of Charity, the purpose  being, presumably, to warm the icy cockles of one’s  heart as well as espousing the saintliness of the Celeb concerned.  Thus we had Chris Beardshaw’s garden sponsored by Hope for Heroes (war veterans ); many other show gardens were linked to usually medical good causes.  One of the most surreal show gardens was promoting sympathy for Alzheimers Sufferers; another garden particularly wasteful of water with its features, falls and rivulets, was drawing our attention to a Charity for providing bore-holes and wells to thirsty Africa.   So there you have it,- Celebrity plus Good Causes seems to equal guaranteed Success.

Poetry festivals still mostly feature real poetry readings.  At the recent Much Wenlock Festival, I served as attendant/ ticket collector for two days’ worth of events – a cheapskate way of hearing a lot of contemporary poetry.  This year I was especially taken by the freshness of two young poets – Jonathan Edwards and Liz Berry – who somehow appear to be unspoilt/uncelebritised by the huge success of their first collections. There was a great deal of interesting poetry of all kinds, from slam to ‘serious poetry’, on offer.  But, inevitably perhaps, the main Saturday evening event was headlined by non-poet Celeb, Michael Rosen, well known for his amusing and insightful broadcasting and his children’s books rather than any keen interest in poetry per se..  Again perhaps inevitably he was selling something, – this time his ‘latest’ memoir of a North London upbringing.  Even real poets (Simon Armitage springs to mind since I have seen him so often at G.C.S.E. promotions), seem to me to put themselves in danger of becoming attended to for their celebrity status, their media ‘doings’ and performing style,  rather than their poetry.  At Much Wenlock another senior Name in the poetry world claimed to have nine pints inside him as he rolled up to read in  (I thought) a far too casual throwaway manner, playing, or perhaps pretending to play, the old-fashioned role of celebrity semi-drunk.   It must be tempting for regular readers on The Circuit  to develop a celebrity-style personality.  I admire Carol Ann Duffy for appearing not to succumb to celebrity worship, even to the extent of sometimes appearing rather grumpy and reluctant to perform. Gillian Clarke is another who concentrates on projecting her poems rather than selling her Self.   Other, perhaps bigger, Literary festivals (Cheltenham is performing as I write, following on as it does from Glastonbury) promote themselves as hosting the starriest –ever galaxy of Big Names for their writer/Celebs.   Same old… Same old….

I guess that there have always, even in pre-broadcasting days, been Celebrities, crowd pleasers, Court favourites, great beauties, leaders of fashion in dress or thought… Attractive for what? Youth?  Charisma?  Charm  – that sense of a  fellow human being thoroughly confident and at home within their own skin? Outrageousness? ‘Sex appeal? Style? All these and more. Whatever it is that gives certain individuals that ‘X factor’ appeal.

I guess that we have always needed such models of celebrity  to emulate or envy.   I only hope that the cult of mere celebrity doesn’t spread its lush weediness  into my small well-gardened world of real poetry too deeply or profusely.  In the end, the poets I most admire, –  Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marvell, Emily Dickinson, – have a marvellous way of disappearing into their creations, like the Cheshire Cat behind his smiling..

 

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Boko Haram

 

In 1996 my sister Faith and I revisited North Eastern Nigeria for 2 months.   Our father, Dr Laurie Chandler OBE, had been a pioneering missionary doctor for over 30 years, establishing two new hospitals and countless clinics in Bornu province, an area the size of Belgium, which had received almost no medical services until then. Starting from the Plateau State he moved ever northwards until his last clinics were established on the shores of Lake Chad.   Faith and I wanted to revisit our missionary past, to meet people and places from our childhood.   It was a very happy experience. We basked, (especially I as “the Doctor’s son”), in the reflected glory of our parents’ good works. Wherever our car stopped, old people were likely to emerge out of the “bush “to show off some operation scar or to reminisce about the magic medicines of the “Ligitur”. We were feasted with chicken and cans of Fanta and festooned with robes and presents. I even brought back a ceremonial sword. Most of all we got used to hearing fulsome speeches of welcome, – from the official fly-whisking praise singers of the Muslim Emirs as well as from the many little Christian communities. Our longest stay, in the town of Gwoza, was organised by an inter-faith group called “Gadamayo”, who worked together to ease religious tensions as well as to provide books and writing materials for the local schools. Another Gadamayo group was trying to establish a computer school re-using second hand pcs from Europe. One lively group of young men, mainly Muslim, took us touring in the strange volcanic hills behind Gwoza – more like heaps of giant boulders than hills. We felt entirely safe with them, despite the dangers of journeying. By night our camp fires were lit up by real African laughter – so much more generous than our Western sense of humour? – and by story-swapping.

Terrible then to hear, from local contacts as well as from the BBC overseas news service, about the devastating guerrilla raids being waged by Boko Haram and its laughing leader in the very area of Northern Nigeria that we visited in 1996. Many thousands have been kidnapped and massacred – far more than the UK media and government seem to acknowledge.  Gwoza town itself has been intermittently occupied by Jihadists in Toyota pickups, machine guns and rocket launchers slung over the tail boards, as part of their would-be Sharia state. We hear of friends, moderate Moslems as well as Christians, escaping to the hills. Many more have been murdered. All schools and medical dispensaries have been systematically destroyed as part of the “death to westernisation” process.

Who to blame? Obviously the murderous extremism of Boko Haram, intolerant to all forms of education and especially to the rights of women (thousands of girls, not only from Chibok, have been forcibly enslaved in multiple marriages to these“holy warriors”) must be fought against by all possible means. But I would also blame fundamentalism and intolerance of all kinds and from both sides – from evangelical Christians as well as from extremist Muslims. Several times I was embarrassed by an over-fervent welcome from the small Christian communities we visited; in one mainly Muslim town a deputation arrived from the Emir asking us to tone down the volume of hymn singing – it was late at night and people needed to sleep. But mainly I think that our European insistence on our right to absolutely free speech, to criticise or even cartoon the Holy Prophet as a goat or donkey, is so deliberately disrespectful, so grossly insensitive to a religion that eschews idolatry and all visual images, as to invite righteous indignation and trouble.  As such Pope Francis’ recent warning about the careful limiting of our free speech privilege is apposite.

At a recent funeral service I was struck by the words, “In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so I would have told you.” Am I totally wrong in hearing this as an indication that in the perfect kingdom there will be room for many different kinds of mutually respectful faiths? (It sounds to me like another version of the Buddha’s“Light that is one although the lamps be many”.)

Meanwhile I am left to fret helplessly over the grievous news coming from Nigeria…and to wonder about my parents’ part in pushing pioneering Christian missionary work in a predominantly Muslim province..

 

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Marmite and toothpaste

I must be reaching that age when, Justice-Shallow-like, one is beginning to look back nostalgically at all the changes that have happened in one’s lifetime.   This morning while brushing my teeth I began to wonder exactly when toothpaste tubes stopped being roll-upable. Do you remember? Up to about twenty years ago you could roll the semi-metallic foil towards the nozzle. At boarding school this flattening and rolling process could go on for weeks until you had squeezed out the very last drop of usable paste. Similarly with Marmite. For weeks after your first supplies of jam had run out, you could extract a little savoury brownness from that characteristic black and yellow bomb-shaped bottle. Such considerations were important to me at boarding school where, unlike most of my fellow boarders, I seemed to lack a supply of family visitors to replenish my stock of teatime extras. I’m not counting poor old Mrs Samuel who every term used to send me parcels of cornflake-based cupcakes glued together with chocolate ; she never realised that such delights were bound to shake apart in the post into a package of crumbs – into which I could surreptitiously dip a wetted finger. Ah, those desperate hungers of adolescence!  Anyway, such nostalgia has started me thinking about some of the changes that have occurred to the world of poetry in my lifetime. Recently, I was invited to a “Writers’ Conference “ – I won’t say where exactly but it wasn’t a hundred miles from Birmingham. The day, the venue, the programme was ultra-professionally organised. After being greeted by smiley students in red logo-ed t-shirts, we all had to clip on those little plastic name thingys – my immediate response is always to want to rip them off – before choosing our groups and our “focus of interests”, for the day.   Again, the “menu” for meetings on offer was all so thoughtfully, professionally arranged – under such headings as “Networking” (yes truly), “Presenting and sending off manuscripts”, “How to apply for grants”, “Poetry in the digital age”, “Jobs in the Publishing Business”…..   I don’t want to sound too sneery. It was all so professionally organised, like the arrangements for lunch where a wide choice, from vegan to semi-vegetarian, was provided.. (Yes, it was an expensive conference – people were making money.) But at the end of the day I realised that not one piece of poetry, not one attempt at literature, had been produced or discussed. We might have been attending a conference on….on almost anything but the difficulties and delights of bonding sense to language. Whereas in my youth (here speaketh Justice Shallow again) wanting “to be a poet” felt like a much less public, more shameful, more haphazard, more amateurish, more dependant on chance and personal contacts, sort of process. There were no creative writing courses available back then; my not-Birmingham conference seemed to be swimming in Creative Writing graduates all greeting each other with little swoops and kisses of recognition.   Nor were there any Creative Writing Tutor type jobs back then either – so (and I’ve just realised this ) what my Writers’ Conference most resembled was a Graduate Job Seeker’s forum…What those bright young smiling Networkers seemed to be most concerned about was arranging poetry as some kind of a Professional Career Ladder, with the right kind of teaching rungs on the way up, rather than any notion of poetry as (Justice Shallow again) the rather lonely, unrewarded and anti-social obsession I have always experienced. And NOW they’re even putting Marmite into PLASTIC bottles!!!

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O what Larks

 

I haven’t done a “blog” for some time, partly out of family busy-ness (baby-sitting grandchildren) but mainly out of a sense of boredom with the whole business of poetry and self-promotion. Meanwhile I have been dipping into Larkin’s “Letters to Monica” edited by Anthony Thwaite; perhaps Larkin’s inimitable sense of ennui (“What’s the point?”) has crept into my thinking? Not to say that the letters are not hugely enjoyable. They are. A much more roundedly compassionate and amusing man emerges from them than I had supposed – far from the right wing bigot and misogynist of legend. But he is decidedly waspish about the literary world, its feuding, constant self-advertisement, petty jealousies… Mainly of course, Larkin is unrelentingly honest about himself, ceaselessly probing for the roots of his unhappiness, his inability to form “proper relationships” (for instance, with Monica). And where does that intense dislike of “home”, family and children come from – surely from memories of his own stifled childhood? I do love Larkin’s poems…but to follow his negativity, however honest, to its conclusions is probably too dangerously anti-life for most of us?  “First boredom and then fear”  That way lies madness, n’est ce pas? So I turn my thoughts out of the window to where Bridgnorth’s annual rowing regatta is taking place: garbled loudspeaker announcements about the various complicated heats; brief excited commentaries as the boats, oars swinging, come flashing round the bend; polite clapping from the crowd together with rude shouted comments from “mates”; also sunlight, birdsong, crowds of promenaders eating chips with plastic forks out of polystyrene cartons; the drift of over-amplified Abba in between the races; a couple (drunk already?) either fighting or “heavy petting” in the shadows behind the boathouse; a huge Asian family, beautifully dressed, parading in descending height order past these scenes of disorder…. all that vulgar noisy real life that, sadly, Larkin would probably have despised…and longed to join in?

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Blog Tour Thingy

Blog Tour

Paul Francis (paulfranciswrites.co.uk) has asked me to take part in this scheme; I am grateful to him for giving me this chance to step back, pause and think about I am trying to do as a writer. The 4 questions to be answered are as follows:

1)   What am I working on?   I’m working rather randomly at present, trying to write poems about whatever presents itself as having something interesting to show or say. Having experienced new grandparenthood three times in the past few months I have been writing  a lot about babies, parents and early childhood – maybe that will add up to a sequence? Before that I was engaged in the new landscapes, social as well as physical, impressed on us by a move from Norfolk to the West Midlands.

2)   How does my work differ from others of this genre?  Narrative verse used to fascinate me – especially that of Chaucer.  Writing long (mostly unreadable) poems has been part of a life-long protest against what I considered to be the “minor-isation” of much contemporary poetry. But nowadays, thanks to the shorter energy bursts and briefer concentration spans that have been brought about by old age, I am writing  shorter “byte-sized” poems – hopefully in a more accessible free verse style.  I am writing those occasional lyrics and “minor” observations that I used to despise so heartily. So perhaps my poems are becoming less different, more mainstream.

3)   Why do I write what I do?   Because I have tried to write “poetry” for so long that I can’t stop now even nearing the age of 70 when I probably should be finding more useful things to do like tidying up the house. I guess that a psychologist might say writing is actually a way of tidying up the psychic house, which would otherwise be full of cobwebby corners, haunting memories, puzzling encounters, personal chaos…  But one also hopes that one’s best poems might be thought-provoking and entertaining for “the general reader” as well.  One hopes that such a reader might be able to relate to one’s exploration of common human experience. (What alot of “ones” one has used!)  I like the idea of poetry as descriptive play but I also like the idea that it should be instructive, – “eye-opening” in the widest sense.

4)   How does your writing process work? I have been interested to read how previous contributors to this blog tour still use old-fashioned long hand on paper… Jeff even mentions a “biro” – how quaint!  My own handwriting has been illegible for so long, my eyesight so poor, that I have got used to composing straight into/onto a computer… I find it invaluable for moving text around, for filing, drafting, endlessly redrafting – in other words for continual experimentation.  As for the mysterious sources of the creative process itself, a useful metaphor might be that of dropping a first idea, sensation or image like a log on a rope into the depths of the unconscious, then pulling it up from time to time to discover whatever images, even clusters of language, have accreted. More practically, exposing drafts to writing workshops and to fellow writers I find to be increasingly useful; nearly always others can spot mistakes or suggest improvements that I have overlooked.

Thank you for giving time (if you have) to reading this.  How flattering to be afforded the space to muse, like some attention seeking adolescent, on My Poetic Self.   Two further writers on this Blog Tour who I would enthusiastically recommend are Nadia Kingsley, who publishes beautifully produced books and pamphlets at Fairacre press as well as being a meticulous nature poet herself, and Tom Wentworth, an exciting and award-winning  young dramatist.  Tom and Nadia will be posting their answers to the four leading questions on March 17th .  Here are their details:

Nadia Kingsley is a poet, writer, editor and publisher. Her poems have appeared in Orbis, the colours issue of Here Comes Everyone, We’re all in this together (Offa’s Press), Inspired by Dudmaston, and Bridgnorth Writers’ Anthologies. Her short stories and poems have been placed in competitions; but most of her recent work can be found as part of the growing Fair Acre Press catalogue.

www.fairacrepress.co.uk/

 

 

 

(photo courtesy of  Patrick Baldwin)

Tom Wentworth is a playwright. His current projects include being part of Graeae Theatre Company’s Write To Play Programme while Windy Old Fossils, his full length play will be performed as part of Pentabus Theatre Co.’s Young Writers’ Festival in 2014. Tom is also a regular reviewer for Disability Arts Online and a long time columnist for Able Magazine where he writes about life after university. Tom splits his time between Cardiff and Shropshire.

tomwentworth@wordpress.com

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Some Bridgnorth Connections

If we were in Italy Bridgnorth might be described as a “picturesque, fortified hilltop town”.  In 1641 King Charles, walking the castle terrace with his two young sons, declared it to be “the finest view in my kingdom”, -but that was before they built the outskirts of Low Town with its flood plain estates and aluminium factory. The royal party stayed in the Governor’s House, then new and still standing, where the boys’ tutor was one William Harvev, –  he who is said to have later discovered the circulation of blood. Four years on, when the Civil War was at its most furious , the besieged royalist garrison inside the castle tried to break out by lobbing fire-bombs at St Leonards church where barrels of  Roundhead gunpowder were known to be stored.  The consequent  explosion shattered the church and much of the area around the High Street. In retaliation the besieging Parliamentarian forces led by Colonel Lavington began to tunnel under the castle, into the soft blood red sandstone which characterises the town and seems to invite being carved into. Hearing and fearing the scritch-scratching of shovels approaching from beneath, the royalist garrison quickly surrendered, but the roundhead engineers blew up what they could of the old Norman castle anyway. At the Restoration Richard Baxter, ex-puritan polemicist and cleric of St Leonards, petitioned Charles II for funds to help rebuild much of High Town. He described the people of Bridgnorth as being notably hard-hearted, “incorrigible and insensible to my preaching”.  Today the solicitors, doctors, retired businessmen and clergy of West Castle Street still look down, literally if not figuratively, on the trading estates, new housing, supermarkets, all-day drinking pubs and bail hostel of Low Town. “Fidelitas Urbis Salus Regis” (“In the town’s loyalty lies the King’s safety”) urges Bridgnorth’s debatable motto. The remains of the blown-up castle (“more leaning than the Tower of Pisa” boasts the town’s tourist brochure) still stands like the stump of a worrisome old tooth on the cliff top where the last absolute monarch of Britain once posed to admire the view.

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