Saturday, 25 July 2009

Creased By Fug

Somewhere in the world of writing there’s an academic study of the connection between writers and drink. Something which explains how great works rise from the sprawl of beer mats, the fog of talk and the slumping numbness of mind that alcohol induces. Why is it that the greatest minds of our generation can be those creased by fug and flattened by hangover? The poets whose verse only trips, sparks and rattles when powered by Brains or allowed to marinade in a sea of red wine.

The Dylan Thomas legend is something that follows Welsh writers everywhere. Sets us up in the minds of outsiders as alcoholic mumblers and Rabelaisian verse weavers content only to stumble from bar to boozer flashing the tropes and images of our musical poetry as we go. The problem with this myth, naturally, is that, for many, it’s actually the truth. Writers do spend time in bars, many of them, most of them even. A number have beaten the same path as Dylan. Loosing their manuscripts down the back of hotels’ plush upholstery, insulting barmaids in back bars and being forever long on hope and short on cash.

It’s almost always men too. Welsh writing is rich with male heroes who are golden at six but incoherent by ten. Some of the most respected among us have done their time sprawled in doorways and lying down quietly on front lawns. Are our women writers in this league just yet? Not quite, but coming soon.

Could this be a Welsh thing? Hugh MacDiarmid, the great Scots poet, reckoned that his drinkers (and he was referring here to the morose boozers of Glasgow) preferred “the hard-bitten, the recalcitrant, the sarcastic, the saturnine, the cross-grained and the cankered” to the sort of confiding, intimate, ingratiating, hail-fellow-well-met drinkers found in the rest of the British Isles. By the rest of the British Isles he meant, I guess, the English. Although there is certainly an element of secret-society, intimate wahoo about the drinkers of Gwynedd and a quantity of all right skip have one with me about some of those found in Cardiff.

Welsh writers also love drink related causes. There is huge support for the establishment of a pub in the grounds of St Fagans. Someone has come up with a name – Tafarn yr Iorwerth Peate. But it isn’t there yet. The Save the Vulcan campaign, to keep the Victorian south of Cardiff Prison in shape for the twentieth first century is led by authors. John Williams, Charlotte Greig, Ifor Thomas, Des Barry, Sean Burke and others have consumed beer in quantity in pursuit of that cause (and have got a result too - which is a really unexpected bonus - The Vulcan goes on - for now).

And when there are campaigns to put poems in public places where do these new verses end up? On the back of beer mats. Where else?

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 25th July, 2009

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Be-Bop Is Back

Did the Beat Generation ever reach Wales? Can anyone now remember what that generation even was? Jack Kerouac holding his thumb out and hitchhiking right across America. Allen Ginsberg riding boxcars boxcars boxcars. Gregory Corso drinking wine into the night, reciting his verse at the sky. Burroughs slicing his novels into the shape of the future. The whole lot a free wheeling, free loving, free speaking charge straight at conservative authority. The paintings on the walls were great swirls of colour, Pollock, de Kooning, the abstract expressionists. On the player were Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie blowing be-bop like there was no tomorrow. Up ahead was nirvana and a new way of living in the world.

An American dream, naturally. But one which seemed to work, for a while. Best that ever happened here was the single copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl that I found, unaccountably, on the shelves of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge’s Bookshop in Cardiff’s Friary. That, perhaps, and the old lags blowing trumpets and smoking things they shouldn’t in the back bar of the Moulders Arms.

Somehow the idea of taking off with nothing in mind other than the journey didn’t catch on in Wales. Hitch hard westwards and you got to Tenby by dinner time. Sit down and eat chips with the retired and the families on holiday. Not the same as three long days on the road to get to Denver where jazz and shimmering poetry awaited you.

To be Beat you had to wear a black polo neck and grow your hair. Made you look like a rebel even if you actually weren’t one. There were loads of those in Wales. Welsh literature was barely dented by the movement. The nearest we got was John Tripp’s famous appearance at the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre wearing cord trousers and no tie. The retired ladies in the front row tutted. Couldn’t he turn himself out a little better?

That was all so far back that almost all movement participants have now died. But the spirit hangs on. Dwang, Michael Curran’s hardback hand-bound magazine of Beat fellow travellers, has just appeared from the Tangerine Press. This is writing reaching its public like it used to. With style and class and, in Dwang’s case, a genuine modicum of excitement. If you are an aficionado you’ll recognise some of the names (and be surprised by others). Edward Lucie-Smith, Dan Fante, Wes Magee, William Wantling, chronicler of factory life Fred Voss, A D Winas, Charles Plymell, the amazing guitar-wielding Billy Childish, grand old man of British Beatdom Jim Burns, Doug Blazek. The hunt for freedom is still there in the writing. Check for details of where to get your copy.

A version of this posting originally appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 18th July, 2009

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Are Thespians The Best Reciters?

Stand still for long enough and the whole world comes round again. Spelling Bees were back last year. Competitive remembering of the right letters for accommodation and encyclopaedia. Prizes if you could do antidisestablishmentarianism without drawing breath. This year it’s poetry recitation. Bright young faces on the podium wandering lonely as a cloud and without a piece of script or an autocue anywhere to be seen.

Is this the right way to enjoy poetry? Does remembering the stuff by rote enhance the art form, lift the spirit and excite the mind? Possibly. Verse, we need to remind ourselves, predates print, predates mass ability to read and possible even predates writing itself. A poetry that rhymed and scanned, that had rhythm, that beat like the blood beats, was easy to remember. Great tales of the tribe’s history, of victorious battles and the doings of the gods were cast as epic verse. That way no one forgot.

But that’s hardly something we need to bother with today. This is a world of constant data flood. But well recited, well written poetry does sound good. Hearing it sing in the air is one of life’s great experiences. Trouble is there are a lot of mumblers out there.

Then there’s the matter of the author. Are they the best reciters of their own stuff? Many listeners attend poetry readings not just for the poetry but also to see the poet and to hear how they think it should sound. To hear what they have to say by way of introduction and contextualisation. To get a handle on what the poem is about. That’s rarely available when poetry is recited by actors.

There has been a rise recently in thespians appearing on TV and on public platforms reciting selections from the greats. Some do it well. It’s also the only way most of us are going to get to hear Milton, Donne, Wordsworth and Hughes, given that these great guys are all dead.

Yet the practice remains a problem for the living. Contemporary poets get half their income from live readings. Public capacity for poetry is limited. Poets need to grab what they can get. Should otherwise workless actors be moving in on their territory? How would it be if poets started going up for parts in plays and putting themselves forward for voice-overs in adverts? Remember, said Mr Bookseller to Mr Tesco. I sell novels you do cans of beans. Stick to what you are best at. And we all know how well that worked out.

The late Ray Smith used to recite Harri Webb’s stuff on television. So did Harri, on occasion. But Ray always got paid more. There’s a lesson here somewhere but I’m not sure what it is.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 11th July, 2009

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Don't Put Bricks Through The Library Window

I checked the periodical racks at the local mini market this morning. Huge stack of pamphlets about the last days of Ninian Park. Boxing Monthly. Fighters On Top. Rock Star. Rap Star. Porn Star. Construction News. The Puzzler. Yours. Ok. Heat. Nuts. Lots of things full of pictures. Nothing at all to actually read.

There was a dream, once, that the literate world would enlarge and we’d be engulfed by great works and our lives would change. Might that still happen? At the brand new Roath Library someone has already put the door in with a brick. Attendance is up at Central but that’s mostly from punters going in there to check their emails. Magazine circulation figures wobble and sink. Why would they do anything else? Could it be that we no longer want to read new work this way?

I stood in the rain, once, for six hours outside the old Cardiff Library trying to sell poetry magazines. Shifted two. Had 10p given to me by an old lady who thought I was a deserving cause. Then a desperate wearing a stained mack came up and told me to sod off as this was his pitch. Literature was clearly for the specialist.

But then when you read a magazine like the new New Welsh Review you wonder why? Here’s Kathryn Gray, the hip new editor, giving us all something that’s genuinely exciting to engage with. Writing that matters, with a new direction and seemingly boundless energy again.

Inside is Kitty Sewell on the rise of crime writing. Rachel Trezise giving us street-wise band-chasing fiction full of wide boys and amphetamine cool. Thoroughly enjoyable poetry from Joe Dunthorne, Damian Walford Davies (a man these days who just can’t stop), Anne Stevenson and Meirion Jordan. Tim Lebbon reprising that master of Welsh dark fiction, Arthur Machen. Richard Gwyn rattling the bars in Sicily. There are also decent reviews and an excellent piece on Wales’s late master photographer, Philip Jones Griffiths.

This is issue number eighty-four, which ought to make the Review venerable. But it doesn’t read like that. £5.99 a copy. But buy it cheaper by post.

Agenda, the English Agenda that is, an erudite and pretty old fashionedly solid journal of letters, has come out with a bumper Welsh issue. The last time this happened its editorial reports, was fifty issues ago. The English take on Wales is broader than might have been expected but with quirky appendages, particularly in the reviewing. But is does give a good intro to how poetry is, here, in 2009. Inside everyone from Robert Minhinnick to Byron Beynon have their say. There’s probably no hope of getting this one in the local shop, either. Try instead.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 4th July, 2009