Thursday 26 May 2016

Pen vs. pencil

Anthony Wilson's recent blog post about the virtues of the pencil reminded me of Larkin's fondness for a 2B, as Anthony himself mentioned, while also chiming with my own tastes. Both pens and pencils are far superior to a keyboard in my mind, especially for poetry. Like Anthony, I love the tactile experience of writing. However, my choice is a pen instead of a pencil.

I do understand that only a pencil allows you to make notes in the margin of a page without defacing it forever, but then I've never been keen on physically altering books. Their magic really does take me over with reverence for the object, no matter how pompous that may sound. In other words, this potential benefit of a pencil over a pen doesn't do it for me.

However, the key benefit for me of a pen is that the destruction of a draft is far more difficult than via the delete key or a rubber. In a moment of frustration or rage, a keyboard or a pencil would enable me to get rid of text forever far too easily, thus cutting me off from a way back. Without the evidence that's left behind by the ink of a pen, how could I retrace my steps through the creation of a poem and salvage a turn of phrase or realise where I'd taken a wrong turn? I often even return to drafts of a second or third attempt while tussling with the sixth or seventh version of a poem.

In summary, a pen always wins out over a pencil when I'm writing poetry. A keyboard, meanwhile, comes a very distant third. What about you?

Tuesday 17 May 2016

How Spain improved my English

The title for this post is a direct allusion to Tim Parks' recent article for The New York Review of Books, titled How Italy improved my English. In his article, Parks asks the following question:

"..what about those writers who move to another country and do not change language, who continue to write in their mother tongue many years after it has ceased to be the language of daily conversation?"

For me, this was what drove me into poetry's arms. I dabbled in verse at college and university, but wrote more drama than any other genre, as my first love was the spoken word. Of course, once I left the U.K. and moved to a non-English-speaking environment, my feel for dialogue soon became weaker. Moreover, there was no one to whom I could voice my thoughts in my native tongue. Poems became my outlet.

As the above-mentioned feature develops, Parks discusses the advantages and drawbacks of such a life of linguistic, social and cultural immersion in another country, mentioning the examples of others and recounting his own experiences. Having lived through a decade of only speaking proper English once a week in an expensive telephone call home, I understand how he feels, while I also learnt an awful lot about English by comparing its mechanics to those of Spanish.

Furthermore, I''ve also found my life turned upside down, and for the better, by the technological changes that he describes in the extract below

"All in all, I feel immensely lucky to have gone to Italy when I did and experienced for a decade or so the relative linguistic isolation that made me focus so intensely on language, writing, and translation. But equally lucky to be able to send this piece to New York by email, and to be part of that now global community that shares its thoughts, on literature and other matters, online, regardless of where we live."

E-mail, Skype and the internet transformed my poetic life and ended my isolation just at the right time for me to reconnect, save my native language from any deterioration and feel part of an English-speaking community once more. I too am incredibly fortunate to have lived through a unique period that has enabled me to experience both old-fashioned and new-style expatriation and immersion. It's fashioned me as a poet.

Thursday 12 May 2016

Three poems in New Walk

I'm delighted to report that I've got three poems in Issue 12 of New Walk, which is out today. I'm especially pleased because New Walk is one of my favourite U.K. print journals. My work is in the excellent company of Carrie Etter, Josephine Corcoran, Helen Mort, Rebecca Goss, Alan Baker, David Wheatley and many more. You can get hold of a copy here.

Monday 9 May 2016

A one-off, Nigel Pantling's Kingdom Power Glory

If you’re only going to read one first full collection this year, make it Nigel Pantling’s Kingdom Power Glory (Smith-Doorstep, 2016). It's a one-off. It's subtly experimental. It's a unique personal commentary on the recent social, political and economic history of the U.K..

This book is packed with so many achievements. Among them is the capacity to take supposedly non-poetic language and turn it into poetry. Pantling never writes chopped-up prose. Instead, he draws out and heightens the cadences of work, of money, of the establishment, of institutionalised violence, as in the final stanza of “In the Interrogation Room”:

“…The ceiling lights pin three shadows
to the ripples of the concrete floor.
Sweat glitters on our faces.
The only noise, our breathing.”

The above poem is from “Kingdom”, the first of three sections in the collection. They chart a journey from the army to the civil service and on to merchant banking in verse that reduces the distance between poet and man to a minimum.

The book’s second section, “Power”, is especially strong in its character sketches. Reaching far beyond mere descriptions of people, they implicitly illustrate how institutions shape people and vice versa, as in the following ending to “Speaking Truth: Gregory”:

“…Faced with a question of principle, Gregory asks
“Minister, what do you want the answer to be?”
and then works backward to a justification.
You guess he might go in to politics himself one day.”

Quotes from two poems so far. Both possess hugely powerful endings. Suffice to say, such endings are a speciality that runs throughout Pantling’s verse.

Moving on to the final section, ”Glory”, this part of the collection depicts “human consequences” of big business from the inside. It’s never boastful, never hypocritical. Instead, the whole book is laced with self awareness, as in one of its best poems, “Photograph Album”, back in the first section. A daughter talks to her father:

“…She asks how that makes him feel.
He says that it was his job in those days
to find these men and lock them up.
“Yes, Dad, but how does that make you feel?””

Nigel Pantling is not some pensioner who’s playing about with poetry now that he’s got some free time. He’s taken an incredible life story and rendered it in verse so as to concentrate and intensify still further its emotional impact, stuffing it with extraordinary insights into inaccessible scenarios via accessible syntax.

Let’s not allow a culture of envy to colour critical judgement: this white, male member of the establishment, already highly successful in other fields, has written an exceptional book of poetry that reaches out to people who aren’t habitual fans of verse. Kingdom Power Glory deserves to win a major award. Most of all, it deserves to be read.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Charlotte Gann's poem in the York Literary Review

So there's a new journal on the block with carefully curated content and serious intent. It's the York Literary Review and you can find it here.

Moreover, the first issue features a highly unusual poem by Charlotte Gann, titled Wallpaper. It goes against received wisdom in terms of the use of adjectives, line endings and repetition, which is probably why it works so well. Gann's verse is an excellent example of the uselessness of creative prescription and proscription. I'm really looking forward to her full collection.