Thursday, 6 August 2020

The National Poetry Library and the South Bank Centre

Regular readers of Rogue Strands might recall my post last September (see here) about the National Poetry Library's attempt to charge for membership, an attempt that failed on the back of petitioning from throughout the poetry scene.

Well, the situation has now worsened, not only with the temporary closure of the entire South Bank Centre due to Covid (which means no one could access the Poetry Library anyway) but also with the Centre's consequent aim to make mass redundancies and shift to a far more commercial model. The question at this point, of course, is how the change will affect the library in both the short and long term.

I'm not against the idea of seeking out new revenue streams for arts ventures and venues through the use of their premises, so long as that's combined with sensible public funding. However, this commercial process often seems to provide an excuse for ludicrous salaries in senior posts rather than making the most of those extra funds to generate high-quality, free artistic content for users who might otherwise be excluded.

Moreover, I do get extremely concerned when marketing people start producing word salads like the following quote from an excellent New Statesman article on the issue:

“When we talk about ‘start-up’ we mean a ‘mind-set approach’: being agile, adaptable to change, moving fast, risk-taking, innovating, constantly learning, changing the status quo, learning from failure, for example. We are not re-modelling operationally as a start-up.”

This is just empty fluff. Of course, everyone's aware that the South Bank Centre's income will have dropped hugely and will remain at a low level for the foreseeable future. Neverthless, the current crisis shouldn't be allowed to offer a perfect excuse for a permanent change in approach and the loss of one of the nation's key cultural assets. In this context, central government must step up to the plate for once.

We need the National Poetry Library, we need its excellent staff and we need free access to its unique collection. Once again, we're going to have to defend it...!

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Ten poetry trends in the pandemic

1)      If new online mags appeared regularly prior to lockdown, there’s now a veritable plethora, often created and curated by well-known poets/editors, and technically adroit. Will this be a watershed moment? How many of these outlets will stay the course? Does this daily bombardment of new work mean that poems disappear into a temporal vortex even more quickly than in the past?

2)      Zoom fatigue. When people were cooped up at home in full lockdown, Zoom readings and workshops immediately became popular. However, now lives are gradually opening up beyond the boundaries of the home, is a Zoom fatigue setting in?

3)      If everyone’s anxious, that means poets are probably more so! First and foremost, this seems to be expressed in their work itself, even if it’s not consciously Covid-related.

4)      And the same anxiety for poets is also reflected in an attitude to submissions that feels even more awkward than pre-Covid. Waiting for a reply to a sub is always tough, but it’s made easier if you’ve got a busy daily routine. If you’re furloughed or stuck at home, time weighs more heavily and those subs start to stress you out.

5)      Rejections consequently seem harder to take. People are more sensitised. Or is it simply that they have more time to express/act out these feelings on social media?

6)      And poets are thus subbing more and more of those new webzines (see point 1) with a quicker turnaround and a faster adrenaline hit from acceptances.

7)      Editors are being squeezed even more than normal, especially those who run print-based mags or book publishers. Not only do poets have more time to send them manuscripts, but they also have fewer opportunities to sell existing books. A large chunk of contemporary poetry is sold at readings and festivals, and online stuff can’t replace the ease and physical pleasure of handing over a tenner, having a chat with the poet in question and getting your new copy signed, all in one hit.

8)      Schedules. On the back of the above, publishers are desperately juggling schedules. It’s one thing to bring out a book in lockdown because you’d already committed to doing so. It’s another to print a new one four months later while most of your distribution channels are still out of action.

9)      Poets are having to become more inventive in their marketing ploys. Some are fun, some are annoying, others are plain barking, but they all make for interesting reading on social media.

10)  Weddings, funerals…and now pandemics! Poetry actually becomes a bit more relevant to the general public when there’s a major event in their lives. The key issue, of course, is whether this interest will be sustained in the long term…

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Might and maybe, Alan Buckley's Touched

Long-awaited has become a tacky term, its soul ripped out by marketing bods who desperately hunt a unique selling point for a poet, only to find it’s ubiquitous and emptied of any meaning. However, there are still certain moments when it really is valid. One such is the publication of Alan Buckley’s first full collection, Touched (HappenStance Press, 2020).

Buckley’s work is riven from experience, both of poetry and life. As a consequence, his verse eschews facile certainties, setting out its stall early on in this book, in the poem Life Lessons, which assumes the format of a Q&A:

…How do I live without being touched?
Your skin will be become stainless steel.

How do I learn to survive in a vacuum?
Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Don’t feel.

Of course, this poem’s significance is also signposted by its reference to the collection’s title. Moreover, its human questions, which are met by inhuman replies, implicitly encourage the protagonist and the reader to explore far more human routes. As such, these lines represent a statement of intent, the poet setting out on his quest.

In technical terms, meanwhile, what’s left unsaid is far more important than what’s actually stated. This requires a linguistic and thematic lightness of touch that in turn demands maturity. In other words, Buckley has left behind any need to prove himself via fireworks. Instead, he’s inviting us to accompany him on a journey of self-discovery through these poems, enabling us to reflect on our own lives in the process.

As mentioned above, the disappearance of certainty is pivotal to an understanding of Touched. Nuancing is present in each and every poem in the collection, and is often represented by the invocation of two key words: maybe and might. Here are several examples…

…Maybe, with patience,
both might be altered in some small way.
Or maybe we can’t be anything better than this…

(from Clocks)

“Maybe this is like that booth —
I’m Harry Dean Stanton and
you’re Nastassja Kinski….

…Or maybe I’m Natassja…

(from Confessional)

…Later, they might dress,
walk out for coffee at some café
down the road; or maybe not.

(from All That Matters)

“…Ordinary stuff, as if the years
to come were blank pages in a journal
that we might fill however we wanted…”

(from Things Can Only Get Better)

“…We part. I cycle down Cowley Road, mindful
of the oncoming buses as they swing out
to avoid the parked cars. It’s a glorious
July afternoon. Anything might happen.”

(from Cowley Road, 3.30 p.m.)

The last quote takes on added importance, as the action of the poem in question unfurls alongside the news of terrorist attacks in London. Buckley is unflinchingly portraying the best and worst of life, showing us how closely the two counterpoints co-exist, coming to the realisation that maturity and self-acceptance require our reconciliation with this fact.

Touched is a deeply moving collection, coherent and courageous in its poetic aesthetics and its attitude to human experience. Certainties are stripped of their facile attraction, while nuance is embraced throughout. Recommended! 

Friday, 17 July 2020

Metrics are all around us

Whenever I notice poets or readers getting themselves worked up about metre, I'm reminded that it's actually dead simple and is often made to seem difficult by terminology. In fact, it's present in all our lives, in every sentence we utter, and then is ramped up, as a certain Mr Matt Hancock might have it, in songs, advertising slogans and poems, etc, etc... At times, the creator of metrical lines is perfectly aware of what they're doing, but at others they're just following their ear.

To show what I mean, I'd now like to offer up a few examples from a wide gamut of sources in order to demonstrate how metre reaches every crevice of language. We can easily get to grips with it if we just relax and listen...

Tell me what you want,
what you really, really want...had the Spice Girls serving up two lines of trochees.

All my troubles seemed so far away,
now it looks as if they're here to stay...saw The Beatles working in a similar vein.

Old McDonald had a farm
and on that farm he had a also a series of trochees (followed by iambs), which is why any translation into Spanish sounds so wonky.

There were three in the bed
and the little one another nursery rhyme, but this time it's using anapests.

All the world's a stage
and all the men and women merely players... might be a classical example of trocheees and iambs...

They f*** you up, you Mum and Dad...on the other hand, was still using a similar beat in the 20th Century.

Let your fingers do the walking was an advertising slogan made up of trochees.

Totally tropical taste was another one that used dactyls.

These are just a few examples of the many that are around us. What are your favourite instances of metre being used in our everyday lives...?

Sunday, 12 July 2020

A signed copy of The Knives of Villalejo

I've finally managed to get a certain part of my anatomy in gear and set up a Paypal button on the sidebar to Rogue Strands (only visible on the desktop version, but it's a start!). This means that I can now offer you the chance to purchase a signed copy of my first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, directly from me for 10 quid with free delivery. Perfect summer reading with a glass of Tempranillo, even if I say so myself!

Monday, 6 July 2020

Fame in the poetry world (again!)

I've blogged previously about the ephemeral nature of fame in the poetry world, mentioning the lists of Gregory Award winners that you can find on the internet, tracking their different destinies. And then, of course, I've also mentioned how the spotlight seems to flash past even more quickly in the current climate of Twitter feeds, etc.

However, I was drawn to an article last week that reminded me this problem's been bubbling away for decades (and is probably eternal!). Over at Wild Court, Mark Valentine has an excellent feature on an annual pamphlet series from the 1960s, titled Universities' Poetry, which published poems by the latest flavours of the month. In his piece, Valentine focuses on Issue 7, encountering all sorts of outcomes for the contributors.

There are luminaries who made it big in the following years but whose names now ring only a vague bell, alongside consolidated big hitters who ended up making their names in prose, topped off by (yes, you've guessed it!) another Gregory winner who vanished off the face of the publishing earth.

You can read the essay for yourself in full on Wild Court (see here). It's a thought-provoking read, inviting implicit comparisons and contrasts with our contemporary scene.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

A tribute to Richard Hoyes

I was already scribbling pastiches of Larkin in verse and D.H. Lawrence in prose when I arrived at Farnham College in 1989 and Mr Hoyes started teaching me A Level English, though I soon realised things were going to be slightly different from classes at the local Comp, as he set about dismantling our preconceptions and encouraging all of us to get writing.

Mr Hoyes was no ordinary English teacher. He’d already had an extremely youthful Matthew Sweeney as his Poet in Residence at the College for a year, while numerous workshops with Ian McMillan were still in the future. I suppose I fell between those two stools, but I didn’t have an inkling of that at the time. Instead, all I knew was homework turned into writing stuff of my own accord, turned into staying behind after class to show it to him, turned into him gifting me copies of literary magazines such as Iron, where Peter Mortimer had published his short stories.

This sharing of his own work, treating me as an equal, was just one example of Mr Hoyes’ generosity, as was his gentle prodding of me in new creative directions. His support meant that I suddenly stopped feeling alone and different from everyone else. As such, he was crucial in my becoming the poet I am today.

However, things developed even further once I left for university. On my first trip back, I visited all my old teachers at the college and showed him some of my more recent poetry. He suggested looking at it together over a pint at the Hop Blossom the following Friday. Thus, Mr Hoyes became Richard, and our friendship began, involving London Prides over more than two decades, all combined with swapping our latest work. He’d bring short stories, articles he’d written for the TES and extracts from his regular column in the local paper, and I’d contribute my drafts of poems.

Once my parents moved down to Chichester, it became more difficult for me to visit him during my trips over from Spain, though we still kept in touch, exchanging intermittent e-mails. I wrote to tell him of Matthew Sweeney’s announcement that he had Motor Neurone Disease, and was shocked to get an e-mail back from him to the effect that he’d had a terminal diagnosis himself. Richard was one of those people who’d never seemed to age. He'd barely gone grey and had maintained an almost child-like spark and curiosity. I couldn’t imagine him not being around, and can only imagine how tough it must have been for those closest to him.

I met Richard for one final time last summer. Along with my son, David, I visited his wife, Lizzie, and him at their home in Farnham. He was still on brilliant form, wearing his erudition as lightly as ever, telling tales about “Dear Examiner” scripts (that’s another story!) and taking the trouble to engage with David throughout. I wish I could have seen him again before his death on 29th May, but the pandemic put paid to that idea.

Richard Hoyes made a huge difference to my life, and I know from friends that he made his mark with countless students over the years. He had a unique ability to remove the mystery from exceptional works of literature without ever dumbing them down, capable of joking his way through a class while maintaining everyone’s total respect. And on a personal level, he was a friend, always generous with his time, thoughts and words. I’ll miss him hugely.