Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy Hogmanay!

It'll be a quiet one for us tonight, the wee boy's had too many late nights recently to drag him out anywhere tonight. So it'll be a little whiskey and shortbread by an imaginary fire!

Some things to look forward to in 2009, well over the next couple of months anyhow: Celtic Connections which starts next month, haven't yet decided which event we're going to but whatever we decide it'll be a great night out. StAnza 2009, tickets now available on-line so I'll be booking up pretty soon. And last but not least Tommy Sheridan going into the Big Brother house - I'm so looking forward to this!!

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

First Draft

Eyewitness Accounts

Hoarfrost trembles

(post removed)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

I can't resist lists so when I read Colin's end of the year list of categories I decided to nick a bunch of them!

1)Best poetry collection - I've read many outstanding poetry collections this year but the one that really stood out for me is Douglas Dunn's Elegies. Obviously the collection was published long before 2008 but somehow I'd never got around to reading Dunn before. The subject matter, the understated grief and the technical skill makes these some of the most moving and beautiful sequence of poems I've ever read, they reduce me to tears every time.

2) Best single poem - This is a difficult one, it depends on how you interpret 'best'. The poem I'm going to pick for this category is one that has produced the strangest response in me to a poem yet: it made me want to throw up. I can't really explain this response, when I tell you the poem I'm sure you won't understand it either. Something about those last few lines turns my stomach every time I read it. The poem is Vicki Feaver's 'The Camellia House' from her collection The Book of Blood. Last night I had to stop reading the poem, I was that close to running to the bathroom! You might wonder why I would want to choose a poem that has such an unpleasant effect on me for this category - well I think any poem that can produce such a strong emotional or physical reaction (without using tricks of gory details) then it's doing what surely all writers dream of - affecting people.

3) Best poem I've written this year (for a given value of 'best') - I'm going to cheat slightly and mention a poem that I wrote in December last year. My poem 'Mother Nature House Hunting' was a real break-through for me. I'm not saying I think it's a spectacular poem or the best one I've written because it's neither of those two things. But it was the first poem I wrote which thoroughly surprised me and pretty much, in the last stanza, wrote itself. All of my previous poems were suffocated by my internal editor, in this poem I had found my muse (nature) and a freedom to write by ear, I discovered things about myself that I didn't know were there. I'll put a link up to the poem in February when it'll be published on-line.

4) Favourite non-poetry book - A few candidates for this and they are all Scottish (!!) what can I say - I've had a rather patriotic reading year! Scotland's Books by Robert Crawford and I have swiss to thank for pointing me towards that. Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon and probably also The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins - a very strange shortish book that has left my head full of weird images that I can't seem to shake which makes me want to go back and read it again.
5) Favourite place of the year - St Andrew's, last March at StAnza. It was my first visit to St. Andrews and I absolutely fell in love with the place.

6) Best events I've attended - The Kenneth White and the Janice Galloway events at StAnza. I loved listening to Kenneth White read his poetry, I can still hear his voice in my head when I read his poems. I've never heard anyone read prose the way Janice Galloway read it, she really came across as a fascinating and down-to-earth writer.

7) Best TV series - Spooks, for sure!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I like to write a little about poetry collections I've really enjoyed reading because I want to share my pleasure with you poetry people out there but also because writing about the poems makes me think more deeply about them and most of the time I uncover many further treasures I wasn't aware of on a leisurely read. It also makes me think about collections as a whole and the themes or the 'arc' of a collection.

Camper Van Blues

The final collection I've recently sunk my teeth into is Jane Holland's Camper Van Blues. This book is what I call value for money; it is split into three parts and each part is like a mini-collection in and of itself. Part one is a sequence of twenty-seven poems which gives rise to the title of the book. Part two is Holland's modern translation of an Anglo-Saxon poem called 'The Lament of the Wanderer' and part three consists of a further thirty-three poems.

I've been reading Jane's poetry for a while now. I came across her blog quite randomly a couple of years ago and I blogged about her last poetry collection Boudicca & Co here.

The first thing I notice about Jane's work is that she is superb at sequences. The excellent sequence of poems that make up the 'Boudicca' section of her last book wasn't a one off.
The poems in the first part of Camper Van Blues couldn't be more different in subject matter from the Boudicca poems. The blurb on the sleeve says "The title sequence is a British road movie told through poems, one woman and her dog alone in a camper van".
The first poem, 'Day Tripping', sets the tone of the sequence with "Wasted again, I'm slumped / over a fold-up table". It's this kind of informal, talky tone that takes the reader through the sequence revealing, at times, the gritty details of life on the road for a single woman.
The first two poems reveal the impetus for life on the road. In 'Day Tripping' the reader is informed that the narrator is:

"...three months now
unable to pray, or pay rent
or put pen to paper.

Slumped, unseen
behind the stained blind
of a flyscreen"

The second poem, 'Troika', narrates a betrayal of love where the narrator in her camper van watches as the man, to whom the poem is addressed, enters into his house with another woman where "Moments later, light streams / from an upstairs window". This warm, homely image is then contrasted with the image of the narrator:

"The wind's only a thin hiss
across darkening fields
but my camper rocks gently,
ringing its tiny bells"

The wind and the bells here really heighten the sense of loneliness, the contrast of the lovers in the warm, bright bedroom with that of the woman alone at dusk in a camper van which rocks only with the wind. The use of language in the last verse of this poem demonstrates what I really love about Jane's work so I'm going to quote it in full:

"Outside is like the last dark,
familiar as the first hurt.
I'm used to its velvet lagoons
and swim of wet tarmac,
its absence of love,
my road ahead the white trick
of a travelling moon."

I love the many layers of sound repetition - like/dark/hurt/tarmac/trick and first/used, lagoon/swim/moon. The slow pleasure in sounding out 'velvet lagoon' and 'swim of wet tarmac' where the hurt and loss is made all the more poignant because of the use of sensual language. The unusual word usage in the imagery of "the white trick / of the travelling moon". All these factors work together to create an emotional impact in which the poem becomes as much the reader's experience as the narrator's.

There are so many lovely bits to pick out from these poems. Some of my favorites are: "Cornish rain understands loss" ('Tintagel in November', "...lost in the thimblerig / that is England" ('Wend'). From 'Truck Stop:

"...for those
wraithlike countries of the night
where you can dream yourself awake
and the radio speaks to no one
because it's broken".

And from 'Metamorphosis':

"I hawk stile and scree

to the river-bank...

...Fresh channels have
cut cords here

through pitched grass,

sweat-strings of water, sun-

As you can gather, these are hugely visual poems however they are also packed with the nitty gritty details of daily life which make the poems real. 'Recharging the Battery' begins with:

"I bring out the ancient generator. Dense, compact,
oily to the touch, it rests on the tarmac:
a thin coil of wire, steel clips, Golden Virginia beside it."

In 'Dover Cliff': "Haddock and chips, 3a.m. / Smoke a thin roll-up". In 'Flash Bang' the narrator describes her camper van as a "travelling show" packed with "broken clocks / and souvenir postcards...bottom drawers / groaning with porn; forged notes".

I could really go on about these poems but I better say a quick word about the rest of the book. The translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem The 'Lament of the Wanderer' demonstrates Jane's wide range of capability and interests. It is very much a modern take on an ancient poem where Jane even changes the narrator's gender to female! It is beautifully translated and has interested me enough that I'd like to get around to at some point reading a more traditional translation to compare it with. Here's the first few lines as a taster:

"Far out, a solitary drifter falters; falls
to her knees, feels one arm plunge
up to the elbow in water, left numb
by frozen wastes and endless ice."

The last section of poems are of a wide variety, some returning to themes of English mythology prominant in her earlier collection such as in 'The Man who Became a Tree':

"He lay down at midsummer
and woke up green,

his legs rough bark,
branches where his arms had been."

There are also some very startling poems also such as 'Love like Forensics':

"You stooped to push aside the white
mud-stained flap
of the forensic tent of my heart"

You can read more about and purchase a copy of Camper Van Blues here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

December's been as hectic as usual, not much time for writing poems though I've got a good collection of odds and ends waiting to be turned into poems.

I flicked through the latest Poetry Scotland which came in the post this morning only to find a wee poem of mine in it which I had submitted around three months ago and had never heard anything back about! So that was a surprise, a very nice one! It was my Gantocks poem which I retitled 'Who Am I' as suggested by honest man.

I have all my lovely new books in front of me. The W.S Graham collected is one I've been waiting to get my hands on for a long time. He was brought up in Greenock which is just across the Clyde from me, where some of my relatives live and where I spent many a weekend staying with my grandparents. So I'm particularly interested in his Greenock poems and delighted to find a poem which mentions Dunoon, the town I live in!

I want to write some thoughts on Hugh McMillan's latest poetry collection, Postcards from the Hedge, which I've been recently enjoying. It's a gorgeously produced book containing fifteen poems, each poem is accompanied by a full page black and white illustratory drawing by the artist Hugh Bryden.

This collection of poems illustrates the breadth of style in McMillan's work that I've really come to admire. He writes, with apparent ease, some very funny, and very 'Scottish' poetry. He also writes beautiful, tender poems. His use of imagery in 'Romantic Break in the Rainy Season' is surprising yet so deliciously accurate: "we are slow as salamanders. / We leave wet lip marks, / and footprints sunk on the stairs.", and the playful "Our children gurgle like little reeds in rapids".
McMillan's skilled use of imagery fills his work with really lovely lines. In 'Beech Loch February 2008' he writes "the treetops laid like matting / thick enough to walk across the sky" - again, so fresh yet so exact. This poem ends with a surprisingly evocative yet unsettling tone that becomes a familiar feature in some of his, particularly landscape, poems:

the breeze rattles leaves like tin,
and we shiver, shake our heads,
as if we'd been dreaming
that a God has left the wood."

The unsettling tone is particularly strong in 'Lochinver'. The narrator is in a phonebox at night by the sea, in the middle of a storm which "howls like a dog", and where "in orange fog, / a ship spews out whiskery fish". The use of end-rhymes and half-rhymes in this poem (I particularly like 'fish/Dumfries' and 'schooner/sailor') intensifies the tone and creates a sense of inevitability about the poem which ends with the understated yet extremely effective:

"and the rain sounds like drums
in this bubble of yellow light,
emptiness everywhere like the tide."

Out of the funny poems, my favorite has to be 'My Feet':

"My feet think my head's had it easy,
up there in the fresh air all these years,
talking crap."

And the ending, which makes me laugh everytime I read it:

"I think if my feet ever met my head again
they'd give it a good kicking."

I haven't even mentioned the fact that McMillan is a history teacher and many of his funny poems take the rip out of Scottish history, in a gentle teasing way of course!

Unfortunately, from what I can gather, all 300 of Postcards from the Hedge have been sold out - this tells you how good he is, it was only printed a few months back. However you can get a hold of some of his earlier collections, see details on his blog, plus you can read some of his poems on his blog also. I've recently ordered McMillan's Aphrodite's Anorak and looking forward to getting into it.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The other chapbook I've been reading is Gregory Leadbetter's The Body in the Well. This is a 28 page, 25 poem collection available for three pounds.

For the most part, these are striking and unexpected poems. One poem, which I think is a stunner, is 'The Astronaut's Return'. The narrator in the poem is an astronaut who has returned home to his pregnant wife after, one presumes, a considerable amount of time in space, and who is having trouble adjusting to his return as his wife is also. At the end of the poem it says:

"I'm learning to come back. But my eyes,
still wide open, sparkle like topaz when I sleep"

These last couple of lines make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, in fact I think I may end up dreaming of astronauts with sparkling jewel-stars for eyes!

'Who Put Bella in the Wich Elm' is another unsettling poem:

"she was found in the yew, folded up
like a foetus put back in the womb,
her knickers soaked with the last
of her voice, a clot in her mouth."

These are strange stories yet they resonate somehow.
Leadbetter also writes tender poetry with attention to beautiful language and imagery. In the birth poem, 'Naming Day', the child is addressed by the narrator - "You were born / with the waves before morning, lifted out / on the human tide". And in the second stanza: "The sweet spice of your head carries the warmth / of fledging thoughts".

But it's the unsettling stuff I like best. 'Night Owl' begins with - "Then one night I didn't come to bed". I'm not quite sure what the poem is about, it seems to be about an insomaniac but also the metamorphoses of the narrator into an owl which, of course, could be a metaphor for becoming an 'other' in the night, reaching out into the dark and being irrevocably changed by the experience; it's a theme similarly found in 'The Astronaut's Return'. From 'Night Owl' -

"Branches grown through constellations lift me
free of the dreaming streets, nearer
to the creature they hold".

These are poems that ask for several readings and have perhaps many interpretations but their reach is beyond the comprehending mind to somewhere far deeper.
Last month I ordered two HappenStance chapbooks, both of which I have thoroughly enjoyed reading. I'm always amazed at the value for money that chapbooks provide.

Frances Corkey Thompson's chapbook, The Long Acre, offers 28 pages of poetry consisting of 22 poems all for a measly four quid. These poems are right up my street - largely set in nature, these poems are rhythmic, musical and otherworldly.

"air was glass. Trees
hardly dared to breathe. The buzzard hung high,
the hare and the shrew
hid." ('Beeches at Pickwell')

Thompson has a gift of stimulating many senses with a single image. In 'Snow-Melt':

"...I saw above me
all the crowds of pine yielding steam like horses"

I can not only see this but feel it and smell it also. At the end of the poem the narrator heads towards a river -

"...I kicked off my shoes and my plain
bare warm animal feet took me down into
what I could not have imagined"

This reminds me of Hughes in its tactile and earthy evocation. I like that the poem is left open at the end with its rather clever "what I could not have imagined", yet that is exactly what I am doing: imagining the scene and feeling it.

According to the bio on the back: Thompson is Irish, brought up in rural Ulster and 'a child of the manse'.
This provides an interesting background to the poem 'Fiat Deus':

"Surely there was a god for the frog that day
and for the way we laughed. Surely

there is a god for the rain...
...let there at least be a god for this god-awful

hammering of rain"

The repetition of "surely there is a god", like the hammering of the rain, and the proximity in the poem and in the sound of 'frog' and 'god' makes this a very interesting poem. In the last stanza the frog is invisible in contrast to the narrator's "visible / breath on the window". Deep and searching theological and philosophical issues are explored in a fresh and playful manner with hints of a darker side. The title, obviously the name of a well known car, means literally, from what I can work out, 'God's Law'.
These are clever poems without the appearance of being in an over-arching sense.

A strange other-worldliness comes into Thompson's poems through 'The Boy who Understands Light': about a boy who has a moon-face, who listens 'for the music of dust' and is a 'crow flapping on a black sky'; and 'Lough Neagh' where the Lough people, with their blackened faces, can read water and know when to die. The 'Lough People' is a sequence of three poems, the second of which the narrator is haunted by a white-bodied woman from the Lough:

"Like some forgotten foundling ghost
the white-bodied woman stoops and creeps
stirring my settled waters"

The poems ends with:

"I turn from her - we have no common talk.
When I look, she has slipped
back to the water."

Needless to say my favorite poems in the collection are the strongly nature-based ones though there are a variety of other poems such as 'Looking for My Mother in Marks & Spencers and Finding Her', which are no less admirable but not really to my taste.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Okay, nothing to do with poetry but I love this:

Nice landscape eh?

Look a little closer - it's a foodscape created by Carl Warner: 'a pea pod boat sails away from a land made of bread and potatoes, over a sea of salmon'.
Perfect photography for landscape and food lovers like myself!

You can find more of them here. Thanks to Plinius for leading me to these fantastic pics.

Remember the Cockle Picker's Wife? It's been accepted for publication by the literary webzine Horizon Review - I'm totally over-the-moon about it!
It'll be published in February, the same month I'll have a poem up at Nthposition.

I've just posted off my first chapbook submission. It sure is hard finding a chapbook publisher who's not already booked up for publications for the next two years. Anyway it's off so now a matter of wait and see!
A new way to read the olds!

Thanks to Frances who made the funny error of rifling through a pile of small poetry magazines with which Eliot's The Wasteland and other Poems had got mixed up in and read his 'Gerontion' thinking it was in a current poetry magazine, I decided to have a read at 'Gerontion' pretending I was reading it in a current magazine. What a different perspective I gained in the reading of the poem!

The biggest bone of contention is certainly the Jew squatting on the windowsill, I can't imagine any poetry magazines today (quite rightly so) being willing to publish that.
But what stikes me most is the prophetic voice in the poem side by side with the everyday.
We get the rather endearing domestic details of the woman who 'keeps the kitchen, makes tea, / sneezes at evening ' to the powerful image of 'Christ the tiger'.
I'm not going to analyse the poem, just pointing out what really strikes me if I imagine the poem as written today.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

My name is sorlil and I'm addicted to poetry!

The poetry books I ordered for my birthday came in today. I had a quick peek at them but I'm not allowed to read them until my birthday next week.

Four of the books are by Scots, three by English poets - two of which currently reside in Scotland - and one by an American poet. appears that my current poetic tastes are (unintentionally) a little on the ethnocentric side!

Here's the books I ordered:

The Shadow of Sirius - W.S. Merwin
Wolf Tongue - Barry MacSweeney
Nigh-No-Place - Jen Hadfield
The Book of Blood - Vickie Feaver
Elegies - Douglas Dunn
Aphrodite's Anorak - Hugh McMillan
New Collected Poems - W.S. Graham
Public Dream - Frances Leviston

Can't wait to get stuck into them but firstly, over the next week, I intend to say a little about some excellent poetry books I've been reading recently.