Sunday 28 January 2018

Pivotal details, Roy Marshall's The Great Animator

I’ve been a fan of Roy Marshall’s poetry ever since I read and reviewed (see here) his first pamphlet, Gopagilla, which Crystal Clear Creators published back in 2012. He’s now on his second full collection, The Great Animator (Shoestring Press, 2017), and his development has been startling.

The Great Animator brings us a poet in full maturity. First off, there’s Marshall’s talent for producing endings that provide satisfaction but then unsettle and open out beyond the text. One such instance can be found in the final lines of “Expresso”:

“…His heart, once as easily excited by this dark syrup
as by a lover’s touch, has grown steady, accustomed.”

This extract also provides us with a fine example of Marshall’s mastery of cadence. He has a keen sense of the weight of every syllable, together with a delicate control over the ebb and flow of language.

The collection is packed with terrific narratives. Moreover, Marshall has learnt to home in on the pivotal details that make a story come alive, as in “Thaw”, in which the first stanza sees a grandson waiting outside “by a patch of snow/that’s losing its grip on gravel. The final stanza, meanwhile, invokes a mother’s offer of “a little ice-cream” to an ill grandmother, leading through to another excellent ending:

“…She nods, though both of you know
it’ll melt untouched while she sleeps.”

In this poem, Marshall is inviting the reader to compare and contrast two different thaws, all tied with the drip-drip of three generations. The invitation, of course, is implicit.

Perhaps the most striking poems in The Great Animator are those that portray Marshall’s work as a Coronary Care Nurse. Their strongest quality is their invocation of empathy, as they enable us to connect with the person that lies behind the health professional, casting new light on the patient-doctor/nurse relationship. One such poem is “Carrying the Arrest Bleep”. Again, its final lines are terrific:

“…and when the registrar asks
if we agree to stop, I meet
his eye, and nod.”

The above extract offers us yet another of Marshall’s “pivotal details”: the human meeting of eyes, as the people behind the jobs are revealed.

In The Great Animator, Roy Marshall demonstrates the technical and thematic skills of a mature poet. He’s come to trust not just himself but his readers. The least we can do is get hold of a copy and be thankful for the generosity of his poems.

Monday 22 January 2018

Artificial battle lines

And so yet again the poetry world is spoiling for an internal fight, aiming for civil war instead of forming a common front to take on the fact that millions of people ignore the genre’s existence.

Everything is kicking off on the back of an article titled The Cult of the Noble Amateur in PN Review. Written by Rebecca Watts, it dissects the poetry of Holly McNish and has provoked umpteen discussions on social media.

Artificial battle lines are being drawn (on this occasion spoken word vs written verse, accessibility vs elitism) rather than opportunities being taken. A huge new audience/readership for poetry has developed and is growing, day after day, thanks to the emergence of new ways of reaching people. This can only be positive for all poets, whatever their tastes. Moreover, major publishing houses are encountering new income streams and prominence on bookshop shelves for verse that will inevitably feed back in to all the poets on their list, whatever their aesthetic stance and method.

Here’s an analogy with the wine trade: many young people here in Extremadura drink lager. They find oak-aged red wine a step too far from beer. Over the past few years, a number of wineries (mine included) have brought out fresh, low-alcohol white wines that are aimed at this market. These white wines have taken off and become incredibly successful.

Right now, not only have we managed to wean a whole host of beer drinkers on to wine, growing the market, but more and more of these consumers are also starting to move on to the reds they used to eschew, using those whites as a stepping stone. Of course, a newly acquired taste for those oak-aged red wines doesn’t mean they should turn their noses up at the fresh white wines they used to drink. There’s a moment, a place and a mood for both.

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Review in The North

The new issue of The North (nº59) is now out and features an excellent review of The Knives of Villalejo. I'm very grateful to D.A. Prince for her extremely kind words. If you want to read it in full, alongside a host of other reviews and original poems, you can get hold of a copy over at The Poetry Business website. For the moment, here's a quote that I'll savour:

"...There is a richness and depth in this collection, far more than its relatively short length might suggest...Despite the vivid pictures of his own life Stewart’s concentration does not exclude the reader; instead, it opens up ways of examining what gives texture to all our days. Short poems, and a short collection but within The Knives of Villalejo there is a resonance beyond many longer, wordier volumes."

Thursday 11 January 2018

Feminine muscularity, Naomi Jaffa's The Last Hour of Sleep

Naomi Jaffa is perhaps best known for her old job as Director of the Poetry Trust and driving force behind the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. However, she’s also a poet herself. I was dimly aware of this fact, but Anthony Wilson’s recommendation of her recent pamphlet, Driver, brought my interest into focus. Of course, being contrary, I decided to begin exploring her work by going back to the start and getting hold of her first chapbook, The Last Hour of Sleep, which was published by Five Leaves back in 2003.

It’s a remarkable book. A detailing of its qualities might theoretically provide insufficient insight, but there is a definite usefulness in listing them, as its surprising juxtapositions and delicately achieved combinations of theme and technique are key to any understanding of The Last Hour of Sleep. In Jaffa’s hands, the everyday becomes disturbing, the ordinary becomes startling, bold expressions of sexuality become matter-of-fact, clear-cut emotions become loaded with ambiguity, straightforward lines become complex.

The ending to “Weekend” provides one such example:

“…That winter, another weekend, holed-up beside a lake
in a log cabin in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, you opted out

of our fantasy with us and your best friend, Richard. I still wonder
what you felt looking down through the banisters,

why you risked leaving us in front of the fire, seeing
much too clearly what you were missing.”

Such long lines are notoriously difficult to pace and control, but Jaffa’s sense of cadence is surefooted here. Moreover, her juggling of pronouns and prepositions is so clear and precise that it almost goes unnoticed. And then there’s the incredibly skilled manipulation of “risked”. Jaffa turns the verb on its head, making the reader wonder just who was risking more, what they were risking, whether this piece itself is a fantasy or reality. The poem’s feminine muscularity is striking.

The Last Hour of Sleep is packed with such instances of verbs being invested with fresh meanings, as in the following extract from “Unrehearsed”:

“…When skin no longer breathes it yellows and grows cold,
one-sided conversation soon runs dry,
trousers stain and smell without embarrassment.
Everything and nothing is too late…”

Of course, breathing wouldn’t initially be associated with skin. However, Jaffa pulls off the achievement of jolting the reader with this surprise before making it feel natural and inevitable, thus reinvigorating and strengthening the verb’s power.

This extract also highlights Jaffa’s deft use of juxtapositions. Not only is an everyday detail followed by the invocation of abstracts but those two apparently opposing abstracts – nothing and everything - are conflated and given the same quality.

The Last Hour of Sleep is an exceptional pamphlet. It goes without saying that I’ll be seeking out Driver as soon as possible, while a full collection from Naomi Jaffa would be a thing of wonder.

Tuesday 9 January 2018

Necessary poems

There's a school of thought that claims poems can only be any good if they "need" to be written. The argument goes that any poem arisen from a prompt, exercise, workshop, etc, is inherently flawed because there wasn't a necessity of expression at its source.

The opposing argument, however, would have it that many poems can become necessary. From this perspective, an inconsequential or artificial starting point is irrelevant to the degree of necessity that's expressed by the finished product. In this respect, I'd personally suggest that the dichotomy should be nuanced to reflect the difference between a writer's need to write a poem and a reader's need to read it.

However, my own conclusion goes further. I've seen rubbish that's been written out of so-called necessity, while I've seen exceptional poems that were written out of exercises. It all depends, like always, on the individual poet's capacity for taking a point of departure and taking it on a journey.

One such example can be found in Paul Stephenson's terrific recent pamphlet, Selfie with Waterlilies. He clearly states that many of those poems in the afore-mentioned chapbook were born out of workshops, yet that doesn't make them any less authentic or moving. The success of a piece still depends on the poet's capacity to make leaps and thus engage the reader, whatever the source. That's the key to writing a necessary poem.