Wednesday, 28 April 2010

i.m. Dermot Curley

Just as I finished writing my blog on 'Endings', I heard the news, belatedly, of the death of a very good friend who I had not seen for almost fifteen years.

On and off over the years I had tried unsuccessfully to make contact with him again. However in recent months, with the help of Facebook, I had been getting closer to re-establishing contact, until this morning when I made 'friends' with one of his relatives and discovered the news.

The news has left me shocked and saddened and full of happy memories together with him and his wife Natividad and their baby boy Benjamin.

Shortly after what turned out to be the last time I saw him, I wrote the following poem.

for Dermot

You, in a cream cotton suit, carefully
coat the chicken in golden breadcrumbs
and lay it in a pan of lightly sizzling oil.
For the third night in a row you’ve gone

straight from work to your father’s,
helping him to operate the oven he’s never
had to open. Now you’re cooking
for me, still a little lost in London,

and wondering what your mother would
want to hear at her funeral tomorrow.
Larkin? Not enough on the side of life.
You’d like Neruda, but decide instead

on some words of your own. Then make
a call to check the booze has been arranged.
That’s it; time to yourself. Outside
we toast out of habit then eat in silence.

Traffic nearby drones as if distant,
muffled by the smoggy pollen-thick air.
Swallows swoop in the man-made sunset,
aim at the roof and disappear on impact.

It must be getting on because the tequila
has burnt down like a candle, worm
like a wick, and the students upstairs have
quit their repartee. I start to make a hash

out of something painfully obvious;
how these are the best and worst of times,
the richest seams; then turn my head to
a jacket on an empty seat. Minutes later

you come puffing out of the darkness,
grinning like a naughty schoolboy,
holding up two big peaches
scrumped from your neighbour’s garden.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Publishing Update

Waterloo Press has been in touch to confirm it's aiming to get 'Waiting for the Sky to Fall' out 'by 7 June'.

After unavoidable delays it will be a relief just to have it published. Some of the poems in the collection were written more than ten years ago so it has felt like a long process with a long overdue conclusion.

The collection also contains more recent work, but once it's out I'll be pleased to leave it behind to concentrate on another collection that reflects more accurately the sort of work I've been doing in recent years.

There are however plenty of off-cuts - the length of the book means that I can't include everything publishable written in the past 15 years. I'll look forward to seeing if they can fit into a second collection alongside more recent work that is noticeably less in the short set-piece lyrical tradition.

What's left to do now, it seems, is to confirm the design of the book. Waterloo Press chooses beautiful colours for its books which makes it difficult for me to select one over the other.

Co-editor and poet Alan Morrison has come up with an apposite image of a classical statue cowering slightly under the weight of some oppressive force. Initially I wanted an image of the statue of Dante in the Piazza dei Signori in Verona, but copyright wouldn't allow it and Alan's choice has more suggestive force to go along with the title.

And finally there is the promotion to think about. I've always thought of poetry as an intensely private practice and dislike reading in public. I have little enthusiasm for the 'po-biz' side of poetry so will find it difficult to bring myself to do readings. WP is working on getting its books sold on Amazon so that should make it easier to shift a few eventually. I will post again nearer the time with details of buying directly from WP, for anyone who is interested!

Monday, 19 April 2010

Anxiety of Influence

This morning I got out the hand-written drafts of four different poems written in the past few months, to type and save on my computer. (How disappointing they looked without the original excitement that accompanied their inception!)

Reading through them I could see where they were influenced by my reading of Zbigniew Herbert at the time. Two were even unpunctuated and one was attempting an overt play of philosophical ideas which is pretty alien to my usual way of writing.

Transferring them to hard drive, I started to make some changes and realised they were now beginning to look and sound more like something by Donald Hall whose selected poems I've been reading for a fortnight and finished just yesterday.

The influence is probably less apparent to someone else, but it reminded me just how strongly newly-written poems can be shaped by poems that already exist.

The solitary nature of writing can encourage one to imagine that poems are created in a vacuum. In reality, a very meaningful tacit exchange takes place, sometimes across continents and centuries, between poets and poems. Even the most individual and original poem sets out from and ultimately furthers a tradition of other poems.

Viewed this way, each 'new' poem could be seen as another stanza in the poem/s that preceded and influenced it; and all of the discretely titled poems ever written, sections in the epic of Poetry.

As such, it is amusing to look back to my teens when teachers and older poets would talk about finding 'your own voice', as if each of us has this unique completed vocal aptitude waiting to be uncovered. Linguistic theory doesn't support this view of language. Rather we constantly acquire and reinterpret what we hear around us. The better advice would be to forget about finding a non-existent Voice and concentrate on absorbing as many voices of other poets as possible.

The very personal space I inhabit when writing a poem, and which I imagine is somehow most profoundly me, may well be a misinterpretation, and instead be a way of being that finds me connected fundamentally to other people. Perhaps it would be better to say that the act transcends the Other. This is why it can feel like such a sustaining activity and not at all lonely despite the long hours alone.

I guess I'm not alone in sometimes coming across something in a poem by someone else that I've also thought of writing or have actually already attempted. Likewise, in re-reading other poets I sometimes come across lines or cadences that I recognise as being the catalyst for poems that I eventually wrote and whose origins were quickly forgotten.

This is okay. Acknowledgement of influence honours a profound human bond. Anxiety over influence occurs when the poet feels the need to deny those bonds and imagines that his/her work somehow exists entirely separately from other work.

In this respect there are some interesting parallels between counselling and Buddhism. Buddhism takes as an unhelpful illusion the idea of a separate ego. It does not accept the idea of a separate mental entity acting entirely independently. Poetry - or any creative undertaking - is an expression of interconnectedness; of the Mind of which we all partake.

In a way that is far simpler to understand, counselling identifies inadequate interpersonal relationships as a major contributing factor to poor mental health. Contrariwise, the working through of those difficulties and the improvement of meaningful interpersonal relationships is viewed as an important factor on the way to improving mental health.

Given what I have said, reading Herbert or Hall or any poet for that matter can contribute significantly to our overall well-being.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Three Poems

At the moment I'm in the unusual position of having three poems on the go at the same time.

'Waking in Siena on Easter Sunday' is a title that's been in search of a poem for some time. I wanted to write something that collected some of my memories of the times I've visited Siena, but wasn't sure how to go about it until I read Kenneth Koch's poem 'To World War Two' in which he addresses the event in person. I have used this device and begun what reads like a long letter to the city.

One of the things I like about writing a longer poem is putting it aside when I'm not sure how to continue and waiting for a solution to suggest itself. I find this often takes the poem in a direction I hadn't anticipated or necessarily desired at the outset.

This element of surprise in the writing of a poem is something that readers generally aren't aware of. Many people believe poets are completely in control of their material and that a single word couldn't possibly be different to the published version. Poets I have spoken with differ. There seems to be two approaches: those who grapple to control and shape the language and to subjugate experience to their own ends; and those who use language more freely (not less carefully) to represent as well as possible the nature of experience.

Personally I spent many years following the former approach but in more recent times have felt less need to dominate or intrude upon my poems. This life of its own that a poem possesses is, I believe, what all poets seek in their different ways. It might also be why writers return to subjects and develop themes in their work as they seek to capture what eluded them the last time.

'I stopped writing poetry' is a more personal piece exploring how my relationship to poetry has changed in the last five years or so. The title is borrowed from Bernard Welt's incredible poem and appears as a refrain at the start of many stanzas throughout the poem. Writing it - and Welt refers to this in his poem - I'm reminded just how beautiful the stanza can be. That's got to be some unusual aesthetic response but no different perhaps to how painters feel about paint or sculptors about their material.

The third poem is about sweeping the back yard and death. Mandelstam spoke about poetry being a preparation for death as if the poet was a will-writer perpetuating his memory by leaving behind a legacy of poems. In fact all poems are about death, if not explicitly in their content then in the implicit fuck-you the creative impulse says to all that is deleterious about human existence.