Monday 30 June 2014

Poets and friendship

Poetry has contributed many things to my life, but one of the most important of them is friendship. It's enabled me to meet (both in person and over the internet) some incredible people with whom I've got a lot in common. Of course, this is especially important for me, given my own personal set of circumstances: living and working in Spain means that my poetry friends are a lifeline.

All of the above means that I was captivated when Pippa Little (thanks, Pippa!) posted a link to the following article from the Poetry Foundation on Facebook. It's terrific, a wrenching yet energising story: For the Both of Us by David Trinidad.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

The tales and truths of artefacts, Richie McCaffery's Cairn

When I reviewed Richie McCaffery's excellent HappenStance pamphlet, Spinning Plates, on Rogue Strands in 2012, I ended my piece by stating that I'd be following his progress with great interest. I'm thus delighted to have got hold of his first full collection, titled Cairn, recently published by Nine Arches Press as part of their Debut New Poets series.

First off, the book is a gorgeous object in itself. Nine Arches work with very high production values and a limpid font. This latter quality is key when reading McCaffery's poetry, as his compressed verse unfolds beautifully in conjunction with the white spaces around it.

Cairn possesses all the positive traits from the chapbook (it includes seventeen poems from the manuscript of Spinning Plates), but also showcases McCaffery's continued development. He is a specialist in extracting tales and truths from artefacts. One such example is "Last Lot of the Day". He begins by setting the scene, using lovely turns of phrase to portray an object:

"A mother-of-pearl inlaid, walnut-veneered
writing slop with a scabby purple velvet
surface for dip-pen, paper and blotter..."

He continues by casting fresh light on the object by connecting it to human feelings via the use of the term "mourning":

"...a bundle of black envelopes
with black edges as if mourning has no-one

particular in mind, and no clear address..."

And he finishes the poem by opening out beyond the object, encouraging the reader to seek further ramifications:

"...You might think of the dead that never died
to leave this surplus, as if they were saved."

In similar yet very different ways, McCaffery draws out stories from a police whistle, a bookmark and even a tarnished silver spoon in this collection. The spoon in question is described as follows:

"A deserter from a service, left pearl black
after years of clammy hands..."

The object's "truth", and by extension an implicit questioning of the nature of "truth" as a term, is then invoked:

"...The thought of which truth someone was forced
to swallow, to need so fine a spoon as that."

Nevertheless, my focus on these tales and truths of artefacts shouldn't lead to mistaken conclusions that McCaffery's work is limited or formulaic in any way. Quite the opposite is true, as is shown by longer pieces such as "The Professional" and "Spinning Plates", in which he allows stories to reveal themselves more gradually, removing layer after layer until he reaches their core.

Richie McCaffery is one of a number of significant emerging poets in the U.K. who recognise that "accessible" need not be a synonym of "facile", that Hamilton and Larkin can be tenderised, warped and twisted in a contemporary idiom without even a smidgen of fear. I recommend you purchase a copy of Cairn yourself. You'll soon see what I mean!

Tuesday 10 June 2014

La feria del libro de Madrid

Most town and cities in Spain hold some kind of book fair, but in Madrid it's a very special annual open-air event that attracts visitors from all over the country. What's more, the venue is terrific: the Retiro park, a gorgeous focal point in the centre of the city.

All along the wide avenues of the park, Spain's publishers - both indie and mainstream - set up their stalls. Every genre imaginable seems to have a niche, and kids are a key focus. Moreover, the fair has a dual role - there's a significant trade element, but direct sales to the general public are its driving force. Publishers reach out to readers: dozens of authors can be seen signing books and giving readings on a daily basis, all alongside classical music concerts and children's shows, etc.

And what about our own visit last Sunday? First of all, it was extremely hot! However, that didn't stop the crowds: thousands of people, especially families, had headed for the fair. There was a terrific atmosphere and my son had a great time choosing his books. He was so excited he even devoured one alongside his calamari at lunch. That's a great example of how this type of event can hook new readers. As for myself, I was lucky enough to meet Luis García Montero for the first time and even manage a brief chat!

Could we develop a similar event in the U.K.? Huge commitment would be required from the publishing world, but a legacy would be guaranteed. It was incredible to see so many people simply enjoying books last Sunday!

Tuesday 3 June 2014

The Forward shortlist

And so the Forward shortlist has been published. Or has it? The news seems to have been buried beneath provocative soundbites from celebrities, replies from famous poets and the dubious quoting of diminishing sales figures for poetry, using stats that don't include readings, small publishers' websites or festivals, where many books of contemporary verse change hands.

The media annually whip up a supposedly new crisis in the popularity of poetry, asking whether the genre is just written for an elite. In fact, it plays a key role in the lives of millions of people all over the U.K.. We use it to mark the major milestones in our lives: I've never been to a funeral without poetry. Meanwhile, if pressed, even my geekiest friends will admit to heartbroken teenage scrawlings. Whenever emotion stretches language, we reach for verse.

As present-day poets, our responsibility is to build on those existing foundations, to show that poems can accompany people on a daily basis. This issue brings me back to the Forward shortlist, because an anthology will be published in due course and soon become one of the best-selling poetry books of the year. Will it be a valid portrayal of recent developments in the U.K. scene? Will the contents manage to grab new readers by the heart? Has yet another opportunity been missed or finally been taken...?