Thursday, 26 January 2012


Any idea what this word means? There have been an array of editors appearing recently at the Leveson Enquiry. What do these people do? Do they go through texts with blue pencils removing that which they do not like? Or are they primarily selectors – the ones who read through the stack of submitted material and decide what’s worth using and what is not? Maybe they are commissioners of the material to be used in the first place. The ones who ask for stuff to be done.

On the other hand they may just copy edit. Correct loose grammar, bad spellings, difficult punctuation, imprecise word choices, remove ambiguity, check facts. Nope, from what we’ve all seen on TV they certainly don’t do too much of that.

I got into literary editing at an early age. I had no idea what I was really supposed to do. The editor was the one who chose. That’s how I decided in the end to pitch it. I was running a small poetry magazine at the time – second aeon. The name was all in lower case. Spirit of the age.

Poetry magazine editors, I soon learned, might be well able to decide what went in and what did not. What they could not do, however, was change anything. Correcting text was absolutely forbidden. The editor was not allowed to add or subtract punctuation or suggest stylistic alterations possible infelicities of thrust or meaning to his or her writers. This was mainly because these creatives were poets rather than prose writers. When a poet put it down then there it stayed.

I once tried to remove an expletive from a poem by Chris Torrance and was told, very firmly, no. The poem went in with **!**!! included or it stayed completely out. I’d already had a few run ins with the PostOffice who were on the verge of stopping me from using Her Majesty’s Mail anymore if I continued publishing linguistically offensive stuff. “We have women working here,” the supervisor told me. “We can’t have you pushing such crude through their hands.” “But they won’t be able to read it,” I protested. “The magazines all go out in sealed envelopes.” “Doesn’t matter,” the man said, hat pulled hard over his forehead, “the fact that the words are there is enough.” Shades of Marcel Duchamp, I thought. Deep Modernism at work in the GPO.

So I let the Torrance poem stand. And in the event no one noticed. Lucky that time.

Later I heard how other editors operated. The famous tale of the compiler of an early anthology of Anglo-Welsh poetry who by mistake left off the second page of a poem by Glyn Jones. The book went to press (and stands uncorrected today) with half the text missing. No one noticed until the poet himself got to see it. Glyn was upset but nothing was done.

Nearer home I learned how the newspaper trade did things. Differently from the literary trade that’s for sure. “It’s all copy,” John Osmond told me. “Copy you cut to fit the space. Usually you just slice a bit off the end to make the text fit.” A bit like sawing a bit off the leg of a table to make it balance. In action this boiled down to stories being sliced up as if John Cage was authoring them. If you work in the newspaper business then you learn to live with this. But I didn’t. And when it happens to pieces I’ve written – and it still does - then I find it hard to manage.

But I have emerged with a sense of the text being text. Once it leaves your hands then it’s gone. The best work is always the latest work. The past work is in the past. But poetry, of course, is full of echoes and has a Zen-like staying power. It’s always there, as it were. You can abandon it but you can never let it completely go. It can come back to you when you least expect it, snarling at you in its unadulterated from for the long past, last week, or wherever else it’s been.

Anyway, editors are a dying breed. In these days of access and digital over supply who needs them? Everything is everywhere for everyone every time, as Gertrude Stein might have put it. I once believed this. But now **!**!!

You are the man, Torrance, of course, you always were.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Woke Up This Morning

In Ann Charters’ Portable Sixties Reader there are appearances from many of the expected literary stars of the period. Everyone from Susan Sontag to Timothy Leary, Diane di Prima to Charles Bukowski and Gary Snyder to Norman Mailer. In addition there are contributions from a few singer songwriters, notably Country Joe McDonald and Bob Dylan. All too often such songwriters have been excluded from similar compilations on the grounds that they are inappropriate and somehow unliterary or, more likely, because the copyright holders of their music simply want to charge too much. Seeing Dylan in here, a man who you’d imagine certainly might want to charge given his universal fame, fills me with hope. It’s in such marked contrast, for example, to Rita Dove’s exclusions for copyright fee reasons of several greats from her Penguin Anthology of American verse.

The singer songwriter back in the sixties was the harbinger of song writing’s rehabilitation. Suddenly we wanted to listen to what music was telling us again. Leonard Cohen, Ray Davies, Phil Ochs, Fred Neil, Marc Cohn and many others became as much a part of the literary backdrop as WH Auden, Allen Ginsberg, RS Thomas and Sylvia Plath once had been. I seem to remember the Merthyr poet Mike Jenkins quoting Captain Beef heart as one of his main literary influences. That’s the kind of thing that would have had earlier generations spinning. Stuff no longer entirely in its box. Music and writing on the merge.

It’s a tradition that has stuck. We’ve a load of great contemporary examples writing out there. Have a look at the work of Mark E Smith for a start. The tradition is just as strong in Wales. Gorky’s set it flowing. Richard James, Gwyneth Glyn, Euros Childs, Gruff Rhys and others carry it on.

My early attempts to join in were singularly unsuccessful. First up I began writing blues lyrics. I’d heard Bob Dylan but not really understood what he was attempting. Things that began “Woke up this morning” seemed much easier. I typed mine up on small bits of paper and usually carried a bunch of them around with me in my inside pocket. When I made it in the mid-sixties to Bristol’s Colston Hall to hear the great American Folk Blues tour featuring Howlin Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Sleepy John Estes I found myself hovering around the stage door. Willie Dixon, bass player and record producer, emerged, cigar in hand. Mr Dixon, I shouted, chancing my arm, have a look at these songs I’ve written. I shoved a few woke up this mornings and big legged mama’s into his pudgy hands. He smiled, grunted, folded the papers without looking at them into a pocket of his saggy suit, said something that sounded like thank you boy and then went back inside. I never heard from him again.

Down at the Greyhound, the scrumpy pub for down and outs and winos, on Cardiff’s Bridge Street, I was the resident singer. This was my decision, I had not been invited. Hell, in that place no one would. I sat there in the corner with bottle caps clasped to my shoes with rubber bands, a guitar on my lap, capo in place, and a harmonica harness holding a Horner Super Vamper in C and a kazoo round my neck. I played the one twelve bar thing I knew how to, mumbled a few lyrics into the space in front of me and then blew a few bits on the kazoo. The can’t play his instruments one man band. Voice so out of tune the windows rattled. What was I doing?

I got requests. Play Nellie Deane. I don’t know it. Bloody useless you are. Can you play anything else? No. Sod off then. After a few more desultory wails on the harmonica I decided that maybe I wasn’t the new south Wales Dylan after all and left.

I’ve no idea what happened to the guitar after that but the harmonica and the kazoo are still in a box up in the loft. I found my blues lyrics file the other day, too, a book into which I’d pasted hundreds of the things. At its end is an entry which reads “No more book but I’m not stopping”. God, the things you write when you are young.

Monday, 9 January 2012


This is the way of bird’s-eyeing the whole scene. Buy an anthology, check what you know and find out things you don’t. Have your prejudices confirmed, have your mind stretched. Discover new roads, find that the alley you are in has a dead-end. Be excited. Be bored to death.

Poetry anthologies have always been the great markers of their age. Editors rush to have their selection end up being the one. And out there are some great selections (although inevitably not everyone will agree). Donald Allen and George Buttrick’s The Postmoderns, Mike Horovitz’s Children of Albion from 1969, Edward Lucie-Smith’s British Poetry Since 1945 from 1970, Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos from 1996, Hulse, Kennedy & Morley’s The New Poetry of 1993, Armitage and Crawford’s The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland Since 1945 from 1998.

The editors of these books have become the taste makers of their age. They are the ones who have decided which names should mean something to the wider public. This on the basis that the wider public are not capable of buying individual books but will chance their arms on an anthology, I suppose. They are also the markers of trends and new departures. Is it time now to leave the mid-century middle-class white male dominance? Should we shift across to poetry from immigrants, travellers, mobile populations, work translated from minority tongues, regionalist, feminist, non-academic rather than university researched, the output of creative writing departments instead of work from the genuinely inspired, wild edge pushing texts in place of measured steady verses, performance work rather than verse from the page?

The anthologists make these decisions. Unconsciously we follow their leads. Sometimes we do.

And if you are operator on the scene, a writer in the field, is your work included? Or have you once again been left out in the cold? I’m in Ric Caddel and Peter Quartermain’s Other – British and Irish Poetry Since 1970 and Allnutt, D’Aguir, Edwards and Mottram’s The New British Poetry but not in Keith Tuma’s Anthology of Twentieth-Century British & Irish Poetry. There you go. Am I upset? I don't know.

Does any of this matter? If you are not included in one book then you’ll be in the next, perhaps. If you are not then set out and edit your own. That’s the way the poetry scene rolls and tumbles.

I’m not included in the new Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove either. Dove, her of the Pulitzer prize, former poet laureate of America and star of Barak Obama’s White House poetry evenings (yes, there have been such things). But then I’m not American but even if I had been I would have remained out in the cold. Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath didn’t make the final cut either. Not important enough to Dove’s world view. Dove is on record as saying that “the entire poetic trajectory of the century flashed before me.” From that arc she made her choice. I can see what she’s trying to achieve, to redress a balance. But with something as significant as this anthology perhaps not quite the thing to do.

Doyen of critics Helen Vendler has taken Dove to task for these and other exclusions. Dove’s selection, Vendler claims, “expressed a clear preference for “multicultural inclusiveness that would shift the balance away from the centrality of the century’s acknowledged titans of English-language poetry—Eliot, Frost, Stevens…—by introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors”. Dove, Vendler goes on, has included too many writers for “ their representative themes rather than their style.”

Dove, of course, does not agree. She has issued a point by point rebuttal claiming that Vendler has “allowed outrage to get the better of her, leading to a number of illogical assertions and haphazard conclusions”. Not including Ginsberg and Plath was the logical thing to do, obviously. Their work does not fit with Dove’s new twenty-first century view of the past one hundred years of US verse. The small matter of Dove having run out of permissions fees and therefore not being able to pay the copyright charges and then failing to sort this out with her publisher is something else. A lot of people have now had their noses put out of joint.

But, of course, anthologies are supposed to do this. Upset some of, enrage others, as well as enthralling and exciting everyone else. Controversy is the stuff of poetry, it ought to be. If poetry is predictable then it has failed.

Meic Stephens edited the great anthology of Twentieth Century Anglo-Welsh poetry for the Library of Wales. Poetry 1900 to 2000. We are now a decade down the line. Time for some of the new voices to be seen as well as heard.

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Voyage of Dementia

Ah dementia. Word of the year for 2011. A condition on the rise with any number of battles with a reluctant NHS up ahead. I’ve known at least two people who have ended their days in the grips of this mind thinner. It’s a condition that has no cure, that cannot be fixed, that cannot be made better. The mind wears away, its edges fray, its central parts rub thin like overused shoes. The memories flake off and float away. The ability to move from A to B becomes compromised. The familiar is no longer familiar.

Things get worse in stages, like descending steps. There are plateaus of calm but nothing ever climbs back up. Eventually it all goes on down. The drugs the NHS reluctantly prescribes, reluctant because they are deemed too expensive, can help. They can reduce dementia’s advance and slow its progress. But this condition cannot ultimately be stopped.

My mother carried the names of things she couldn’t remember around with her on scraps of paper in her pockets and in her purse. When she pulled them out she wondered what they were for. Who put these here, she’d ask? You did, I’d say. I did not. Why would I do that?

Yesterday I couldn’t remember the name of the pub built onto the restored pilot house in Cardiff Bay. Leave the Millennium Centre and turn left instead of right. Sam Smith’s Brewery. Like the Tardis once you got inside. What was it called? I just couldn’t recall. Today I still can’t. The name has become erased. Gone off into a set of brain cells which have had their ends taped up. It’s not the Eli Jenkins nor the White Hart. It’s The Waterguard. I’ve just looked it up.

Should I be worried? Not with Google at my side.

Mike, when he was in the teeth of it, would sit in the pub watching his beer evaporate. What do I do with this glass of brown stuff, he might have been thinking, who knows. But after we’d somehow persuaded him to drink a bit and the alcohol began to flow in his veins he’d brighten up. He’d become chatty, remember who he was and who we were. Told the odd joke. Smiled. Almost the man he once was. For Mike alcohol helped.

Dementia – Alzheimer’s –it’s a process, it’s a condition of our post-modern world.

Here’s the poem:

The Voyage of Dementia

The voyage of discovery
The victim of disaster
The volume of dissonance
The vileness of dementia

The discovery of shelter
The death of simplicity
The dissonance of decisions
The disaster of democracy

The viciousness of critics
The volume of criticism
The voyage of creation
The vision of cremation

The dimness of vicissitude
The demonstrability of volume
The debility of ventilation
The death of vision

The fracture of the future
The firmness of dissonance
The fullness of digression
The filibustering of death

The criticism of creation
The commuting of conquest
The consolation of commutation
The cessation of courage

The diagram of depth
The digitisation of drumming
The disregard of dignity
The dimness of diplomacy

The directness of the dharma
The diagnosis of devaluation
The desperation of death
The dementia of denouement

The denouement of dementia.