Monday, 2 September 2013
Thursday, 25 July 2013
Wednesday, 19 June 2013
Thursday, 21 February 2013
Friday, 11 January 2013
Back in 1965 the Evening Standard ran this:
Tuesday, 12 June 2012
Friday, 6 April 2012
I’ve never been one to win things or obtain honours. My books don’t get onto short lists. Not that I’m complaining. This is how it is. After at least forty years in the business I’ve barely a literary award anywhere in the house. There was a runners-up book token in a 1970s National Eisteddfod Concrete Poetry Competition. I was the only entrant and I still didn’t win. And a third prize in the 1982 Bridport Short Story Contest. I didn’t enter anything after that. Last year I got the Ted Slade Award for Services To Poetry. A significant boost. Maybe the times have turned.
Last time I got another. I’m now the officially adopted poet of the Institute of Directors. There was a ceremony at their headquarters, the William Burges-designed and rather splendid Park House Club on Cardiff’s Park Place. The building is going through a new promotion campaign and has itself wrapped in a giant pink bow. Could have been to coincide with my reading I suppose but I rather think not.
Getting companies to adopt poets is the idea of Ali Anwar, an Iraqui-born Cardiff businessman. He has set up the H’mm Foundation to promote his cause. Poets are cheap, announced the evening’s mc, the broadcaster and author Jon Gower. You’d be amazed how little they charge. He does us down. It’s true that many a bard will turn out for not much but in the end we all need to keep the same wolf from the door. In terms of remuneration a small rise in the level poets are paid wouldn’t go amiss. Current rates of anything between £50 and £250 for an evening’s show have been pretty much the same for decades now. But I digress.
Ali Anwar’s idea has a certain amount of brilliance to it. He’s determined to get poetry into the workplace and into places where it previously has never thought of going. Poetry at board meetings, creative writing classes for workers as an aid to productivity, verse as inspiration to sales teams, poetry in the PR departments, specially commissioned works for the annual conference, poets leading the workers in the singing of new company songs. Poetry that does something, poetry that earns it keep.
The room is packed. Directors, associates, company presidents, board members, Assembly members, innovators plus a few other writers here to see how the whole thing hangs together. I spot Ifor Thomas there, Clare Peat, and Clare Potter. We’ve all had some wine and are slightly mellowed, the mc has set the scene and now I’m on.
For me it’s a new audience. I give them a fair sampling from my greatest hits. With my own business background and with time spent in the corporate sector it’s not that difficult for me to build bridges. I start with a sound poem which predictably stuns and then follow with a found poem made from lines taken from North American Welsh ex-pat newspapers. I then add a few pieces about committee meetings, sales techniques, sending your offspring to university, meeting your wife’s lover and, for good measure, the political economy and future of that place we all love, Europe. Be eclectic. Stare them straight in the eye. Stay on your feet. Entertain, engage, make them laugh if you can. I do.
My cop out is to leave my new poem, part of a sequence about Assembly members drawn from their public pronouncements, Omaggio a Edwina Hart (The Welsh Government’s Business Minister) in my bag. Never yet done in public and still unrehearsed. It might have struck the wrong note. But given the nature of this group I doubt it. Next time.
Georgia Ruth, who amazingly worked as my personal assistant for my few last months with Literature Wales, rounds the event off with three song. Two of these are her own and one is a plaintive ballad from the American minstrel shows, Old Dog Blue. She’s got something, Georgia, a voice that lifts the spirit and an ability to write songs as if she were the reincarnation of Jackson Browne.
The other side of the applause I’m standing there with a glass in my hand, pleased I’ve managed my first real event in an age when I’m confronted by the smiling face of an academic not normally an attender of my events.
You know, he says, that was really good. I didn’t know you did things like this. Your books are, you know, okay, sort of. But hearing the poetry performed brings it alive. Ali Anwar and a small collection of others standing in the same circle all nod in agreement. It’s a compliment. Isn’t it? I’m not quick enough, of course. I should have replied, thank you, you know that’s rather how I feel about your own work. But I don’t. I smile instead.
It was a compliment, says Sue, on the way home. Just not that well expressed. She’s probably right.
This morning Robert Lloyd Griffiths, Institute of Directors secretary tweets “Thanks so much for your contribution to our even. Superb!”. Got through somewhere then.
Now for the hard part. Taking poetry on to where drink is absent and commercial success is paramount. A place where you don’t normally find poetry. At work.
Wednesday, 14 March 2012
The past is littered with them. My past is. Poetry readings, literary events, evening of live verse, of poets standing there expounding, shouting, declaiming, orating, performing, reciting, generating poetry into the thick book free air. Poetry live manages something that poetry dead, or at least poetry printed, simply does not.
The theory is that spoken poetry possess some sort of power that the stuff you experience silently by reading it from a book does not possess. Having the poet present adds value. The activity becomes an event, transcends itself, makes sparks.
Of course, as anyone who has been an habitué of the reading, and in particular the open reading, will know not all live lit is like this. There are the longeurs. The great spaces into which the untried and untested stumble. The spaces where the imperfect spout their material. Where the not that good spend time. Where the less than perfect flaunt their broken parts. Where the never to be really exciting try so hard to be something they are not.
But we’ll skip round that. It’s part of the territory. A necessary component of the great twenty-first century literary experience.
Hidden in this morass are the great readings. The outstanding events that happen once in a lifetime. The recitations by the great who are now dead. The sparkling performances by the rising and the recitations by those at the top of their games. I’ve been to these. Heard Sorley Maclean read with RS Thomas, watched John Ashbery smile, listened to Ed Dorn act out Gunslinger, bp nichol enthral a hard-bitten north London mob, Ian Macmillan make his audience laugh more than they knew was possible. I’ve listened to Yevtushenko electrify a stadium full of Russians, John Ormond thrill a Cardiff pub back room, Ted Hughes act like a great standing stone at the Sherman, and Bob Cobbing stun a room full of besuited businessmen. The great readings. The ones where something happens that’s out of the ordinary, where the poetry lifts and flies. Where the usual is totally transcended into something many thought it never could be.
And all of this goes unrecorded, the large part of it. Little is taped. Less filmed. The reading happens and then it’s gone. All that’s left is memory and mist.
When I began as a poet I sort of hoped that here in Wales at least we’d have our newspapers review literary performances. The one last night by Lawrence Ferlinghetti making a rare visit to the Oriel Bookshop, Jeff Nuttall falling off the stage at the Reardon Smith or Lily Greenham making truly amazing sounds at the Park Hotel. But no.
Soccer, running, fishing, horses, am dram, school pantos – all of that. But poetry readings? No. Never seen a one.
Julia Novak recognises this. Her Live Poetry – An Integrated Approach to Poetry in Performance (Rodopi) is the first study I’ve seen that sets about trying to provide academics with an apparatus with which they can discuss the poetry reading. Poetry readings have become an essential part of the writing and distribution of poetry during the past forty years. Why is it that “we know almost nothing about how specific poems, poets and types of poetry have been shaped by expectations of performance?”
The argument that performed poetry is somehow inferior to the printed kind or that the live reading is merely an extension of the written word no longer hold water. There are too many top end writers out there who make money from the circuit. They produce work specifically for those arenas. But it is their books that get reviewed rather than their performances. Check the Sunday papers. Gillian Clarke’s latest from Carcanet will get a complete discussion but not her full-on performance with Carol Ann Duffy at the Hay Festival. Barry MacSweeney at the Sandringham Hotel gets no mention but his great Wolf Tongue, that gets the full treatment.
Novak is nothing if not thorough. Her study encompasses not just the poet with a voice on the platform but offers a whole analysis of how arm gestures, stances, introductions, contexts and ways of actually mouthing the words can have an effect on the emerging poem. She offers ways of analysing the articulatory parameters of the poet’s verbal utterances. Pitch, movement, deviation from the printed text, body communication, accent, tone, range and context are all quantified. She concludes that there is a branch of artistic endeavour, of literature, being practised that has yet to be fully-engaged with by the academic community. She proposes that a start be made. She has something here.
Live Poetry gives us valuable insights into a reading scene that many know little about. The whole battle between street wise and studied, between black and white, between loud and quiet is explored. She says what she means. Live poetry “can be defined as emerging from the fundamental bi-mediality of the genre of poetry – i.e. its potential realisation as spoken or written word – as a specific manifestation of poetry’s oral mode of realisation, which is parallel to, rather than a mere derivative ‘version’ of, written mode.” It’s something different.
Back down at the Juno Lounge or Clwb Ifor or Chapter’s Media Point the latest open mic is in action. A cluster of newbies are there with poem in hand waiting for their slots. The main acts, the guests, brought there as the supposed reason for this night’s live event, have their audience swelled by the wannabes and the wannabe’s mates. In fact without the wannabes and their cohorts there may, on occasion, be no audience at all. It is how it is in the poetry world.
Sometimes someone will record something on an iPhone. Now and again there’ll be a camera on a tripod in the corner, its red record light winking. But generally the experience will sift off into the air once it’s done. We’ll talk about it for a bit in the bar. We might mention it when we get home. But after that it’ll be mostly forgotten. Poetry reading, gone.
The pic at the top is Ed Dorn reading at Buffalo
Friday, 2 March 2012
Do you have them? What’s it like when after the passage of time you go back and check? Are these guys still up to it? Do they thrill like they once did? Do they remain the ground breakers and the jet engined bodhisattvas you once imagined them to be? I’ve just got round to reading Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters. This is a book I sold for decades when it appeared as a British Picador but never got round to actually reading. Until now. Johnson was Kerouac’s girlfriend in the fifties and one of the few women who made any sort of impression as a Beat. Minor Characters is her memoir of the period. “A young woman’s coming-of-age in the beat orbit of Jack Kerouac.” It was published in 1983.
Johnson, Jewish Joyce Glassman at the time, emerges as a writer to be reckoned with. The book is half beat memoir and half the story of Johnson’s own struggle to make it as a female writer. This was a time when, despite all the rule breaking, the masculine ethos still ruled. Ginsberg is there, the intellectual centre, the master of turn and spin. Robert Frank, the photographer, is the quiet genius. John Cellon Holmes is the man you can talk to. Michael McClure and Gregory Corso are tolerable outsiders. Kerouac comes out as a misanthrope, a drunk, a bore, a writer who perpetually let his friends down and was inconstant as the wind. All the qualities, of course, which made his writing as exciting as it was. But as a hero this wasn’t the sort of description I wanted to find.
I chase down another hero. Michael McClure. The San Francisco poet appears as Pat McLear in Kerouac’s Big Sur. His beast language as exemplified by some of the work in his seminal 1964 City Lights title Ghost Tantras was a big influence on my early sound improvisations.
McClure’s version went something like:
Grahhhhr. Grahhhr. Gahar. Ghrahhr. Grahhr. Grahhr.
Ghrahhr. Grahhhr. Grahhr. Gratharrr! Grahhrr.
Ghrahrr. Ghraaaaaaahrr. Grhar. Ghhrarrr! Grahhhrr.
Ghrahrr. Gharr! Ghrahhhhr. Grahhrr. Ghraherrr.
A mix of guttural and laryngeal sound that brings together lion roars, a touch of detonated dada, and emotional truths. I set up my BBC B computer with a data pool derived from McClure’s beast outpourings and let the machine randomly rip. Finch the sound poet as beast master. For a time I’d be there on stage, roaring at startled audiences who’d never heard of McClure and wondered what I was on.
Penguin have now reissued two earlier McClure titles, The New Book/A Book of Torture and Star in one set as Huge Dreams – San Francisco and Beat Poems with an introduction by Robert Creeley. Irresistible. And never read by me. In it McClure pours forth spontaneously. “I was twenty-seven. Writing these poems, I imagined it as one long poem. That was as coherent as I could be…..I imagined I was Shelley, sometimes I imagined I was Antonin Artaud.” He would have done better if he’d imagined he was Allen Ginsberg.
But I’m probably being Unkind. Spontaneity can succeed, as McClure’s Ghost Tantras so well proved. As a performer McClure went on to work with Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek and to take the results out on the circuit. You can see him reciting Chaucer in Scorsese’s the Last Waltz.
Two down. Where next? At the British Library recently I bought a postcard of the late J G Ballard. Taken by Fay Godwin in 1976 at Ballard’s experimental height. It’s on my notice board now, behind me. I take down High Rise and Crash and, for good measure, The Drowned World and check, gingerly, to see if they still hold their original exotic and innovative power. I dip and read. I needn’t have worried. Unlike batteries left alone in a dark room for decades these books are still full of spark. Ballard was the hero I’d never invite as a guest to the Oriel Bookshop for fear that he might turn out to be ordinary and not the genius I’d expected. But I need not have worried.
Yet I can’t give up on Jack, can I? I reread a slice of Dharma Bums, his description of the void and his wine-fuelled search for enlightenment. Still speeds, still crackles, still works. Not all lost.
Kerouac had already begun to fade as the fifties turned into the sixties, the time I discovered him. As Johnson has it, Kerouac “who retreated farther and farther from the centre of the stage into the dusty wings, out to the back alley, tunnelling backwards through decades toward the Lowell of his earliest vision, and – finding it in a narrow place, the wonder gone from it – making the desolate effort to assume its prejudices, its bitter suspicions, ‘The pure products of America go crazy,’ Dr William Carlos Williams had written.” So it all went.
I put the books back. All of them. Turn round and face the future. This is 2012. Move on. There’s a hell of a lot still to happen.
Thursday, 9 February 2012
Are these the best ways to create new work? When you are starting out and you have none and all the work you’ve ever done has been written because you wanted to write it you imagine that commissions are somehow the pot at the end of the rainbow, the holy grail. Get one and the future will be secure. Real work. Stuff you get asked to do and with recompense somewhere down the line at the end of it. You fervently hope.
The Poets Laureate who are on a sort of full time permanent commission, at least for the period of their holding of the office, are a particular case. How well do they fare? Ted Hughes, heart not in it, clearly hopeless. Andrew Motion, considerate and acceptable enough but nothing really to make the heart soar. Duffy, early days, so far so good, but where next?
Commissions are drivers but they are also constraints. They remove the need, as it were, for the hunt for initial inspiration. They mark out territory. The commissioned bard simply has to fill in. It’s a game full of joy, strain and endless teeth-gnashing stress. Can I do it, will I do it and, having done it, will it be any good?
The playwright Roger Stennett told me years ago that his method was to do absolutely nothing until the deadline for the commissioned work was virtually on him. Then he’d lock himself in his room for a day or however long the work would take and go like fury. This was the up against the wire solution. The terminator arriving and the work coming out of you like sweat. Start too early, he argued, and the adrenalin wouldn’t be there to help.
One’s attitude depends, I suppose, on where you see the poet sitting in society. Is twenty-first century verse still a self-indulgent activity with the poet right at its heart? Should poetry’s ultimate audience be considered at all? Or is poetry still essentially a personal art? Indeed, who do poets write for? Do they act like late capitalists looking for a gap in the market and then moving in to fill? From the evidence of the blogs and the anthologies and the mags most certainly don’t.
Commissions do away with this dichotomy. They walk right round it. But they can still induce copious fear. I am usually scared to death when one arrives. Can I really do this? Will what I come up with be as good as my last creation? Do I still cut it as a poet? Hasn’t everything I’ve done so far just been some sort of fluke? Will the future be an Alzheimer’s’ plateau of inability and dark?
My technique is to go at it immediately and not to let up until I’ve enough down on paper to stop the sweat from worrying my brow. That happened with the recent piece I’ve written for the Penarth poet Harry Guest. Guest will be 80 this year. A famous Penguin Modern Poet with a Shearsman festschrift due for publication soon. I opened the commissioning letter, thought about it for a moment or two, then turned on my computer and didn’t turn it off again until I had the bones of what I was going to do written down.
The same sort of thing happened with the poem outside the James Street South Wales Police HQ in Cardiff. On that occasion I had to make a presentation of my idea to a lay panel and worried myself stupid about it all week. The poem was the only thing in my brain, 24/7. In the event the art work architect talked, the panel smiled, and I then performed. Someone cheered. The rest of the panel applauded. I knew then that we were in.
What you end up with here is completed work. Material that broadens your range. Up ahead money usually changes hands and to make that happen you need to deliver the goods. Otherwise you fail. Poets don’t fail. They never do. I haven’t done so. Not that I know of. Not yet.