Sunday, 25 April 2010

Creative routes

I noticed a great post by Jane Holland the other day over on Raw Light, reflecting on "The Creative Writing Generation".

Jane quotes an interesting review of Identity Parade that invokes this term, and I agree entirely with her comments. Let's take the example of myself: I'm sure I'd be far more widely published if I'd had a well-connected mentor or if I'd done the right Creative Writing M.A., while they might also have ironed out many of my clunky faults, saving me from many of my most time-consuming mistakes.

Nevertheless, I've always felt that such help might have indirectly endangered two things I treaure: the little idiosyncracy I've managed to develop and the particular path I've chosen to explore as my own. In other words, creative writing M.A.s and mentoring might have encouraged many excellent poets to emerge over the last few years, but there are still certain other advantages to working outside that environment.

I'm convinced such diversity is key to the future health of British poetry.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Becoming a Poet

I noticed Faber & Faber's latest initiative the other day: a six-month course of thirty sessions to be run by their Academy with the aim of helping "students" as they work towards "becoming a poet".

My reaction started off as surprise at Faber's involvement in this idea, together with bemusement at their above-mentioned use of terminology in the promotional material. However, amazement soon followed when I saw the price - 3,500 quid! And I'd been led to believe there's no money in poetry...

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Music for a rainy Saturday in Extremadura

I often used to browse a second-hand record shop in West Street, Farnham. One afternoon I found the "Smells Like Truth" album on the discounted shelf and was captivated by its cover. As this track shows, the music didn't disappoint once I'd handed over my quid and got it home. "Arms of a Dream" is still a haunting track.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Mappings of the Plane by Gwen Harwood

Gwen Harwood (1920-1995) was a key figure in 20th century Australian poetry. Carcanet/Fyfield brought out a U.K. edition of her selected poems, titled Mappings of the Plane, in 2009, and I managed to get my hands on a copy last month.

A first reading hinted at a series of poets rolled into one - lots of different voices and techniques all fused by one mind. This impression was confirmed by background information: Gwen Harwood was renowned for adopting multiple personas and pseudonyms, using them to try out new masks, perspectives and techniques.

Although Mappings of the Plane brings these different threads together under her name, there's still a sense of these varying tangents working their way through her poems. Add this to the inevitable development undertaken by any poet throughout their life and you can see why this Selected displays such a wide range of qualities.

This above-mentioned range means that no reader's going to be taken with the whole book. Instead, there are gems which glitter every few pages. I particularly enjoyed "In The Park", for example, and feel it's worth reading alongside Larkin's "Afternoons". The latter poem exquisitely observes young mothers, while the former moves under one's skin:

"...It's so sweet
to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive,"
she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
To the wind she says "They have eaten me alive."

Placing this down-to-earth poem in the context of several explicitly metaphysical pieces, Harwood's variety becomes clear. In many poems she's unafraid of abstract nouns and imagery (many critics see her as a Romantic), often leaping from day-to-day contexts to concepts and then back again.

Something of her music reminds me of Keith Douglas, although her work is more slow-building than his. She doesn't manage the sudden acceleration and the rush of clarity that so characterise Douglas. Harwood's poems unwind more gradually, thus not lending themselves to outstanding quotes. Here, however, are the closing lines of "Nightfall", as it reaches high:

" turn
home with the child once quick
to mischief, grown to learn
what sorrows, in the end,
no words, no tears can mend."

Mappings of the Plane is the record of an exceptional poetic mind at work. Gwen Harwood deserves a wider U.K. readership for her poems, as all of us can find something to savour in them.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Capturing an experience

I read a fascinating post over at Andrew Shield's blog the other day, in which he discusses Robin Robertson's poem, My Girls, from his collection titled The Wrecking Light.

Shields recognises the poem's dexterity at capturing a feeling and experience, yet feels it doesn't become an experience in itself, not seeing this as a defect but as a feature that identifies and distinguishes the piece from many others. I agree with him. In fact, this quality makes it unusual in Robertson's body of work.

What's more, I'm aware that I enjoyed My Girls far more than most of Robertson's poetry. I feel this is because in this poem he achieves something that is also my aim when I write: the depiction of an immediately recognisable experience in a specific and innovative way, thus enabling the reader to find a new insight into their own feelings.

Shields also makes a final, extremely interesting point in the light of my previous remarks: he feels that this kind of poetry is not liked by many contemporary poets or readers of poetry. I'm sure he's right, and would argue that it's fashionable to view such writing as unambitious.

I'm actually convinced that the opposite is true: capturing and transforming an event in this way demands incredible skill. Innovation becomes far more demanding yet also rewarding within the bounds of simplicity. I struggle to manage this every time I sit down to write poetry.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Sphinx 12

Reviews tell us as much about their author as about the books they're assessing, something that's made even clearer than normal by Sphinx and its idiosyncratic format of providing three different reviews for each chapbook.

Snippets from Issue 12 are now up at the Happenstance site (including three reviews by myself), and they're well worth a look. Not only do we get varied perspectives on the books in question, but we also find an implicit dialogue and debate developing between the different reviews and reviewers. There are opinions which coincide, others which clash, others which cast fresh light on each other. Each review has been written in isolation, before all three are brought together for the first time in Sphinx.

This process must involve a huge amount of work for Helena Nelson, but a great deal of pleasure is generated for the reader.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Mark Haddon and Paul Farley

Mark Haddon interviews Paul Farley in an excellent feature over at The Guardian website at the moment.

I've long been interested in the relationship between these two writers. Haddon is obviously renowned for his best-selling novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which I thoroughly enjoyed. His follow-up to that book, meanwhile, was a collection of poetry, titled The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea, which convinced to a far lesser degree.

In features after its publication, Haddon mentioned Farley on several occasions, and the latter's stylistic and thematic influence on his verse is clear. What's more, Haddon's poetry seems laden with nods towards others, his linguistic virtuosity and great ear getting bogged down in some attempt to prove he can cut it as a poet.

As for Farley, I've already mentioned my admiration for him in previous posts on Rogue Strands. Nevertheless, seldom have I seen him provide such an insight into the mechanics of his creative process as in this article. Maybe he's been drawn out by the interviewer's clear admiration for his work. All in all, it's a fascinating piece.