Sunday, 31 January 2021

Poetry's inner sanctum

I have to admit I'm not keen on references to gatekeepers in poetry, as the term implies that poets might somehow find favour with people who could grant them access to a supposed citadel or inner sanctum, at which point they'll have arrived and somehow made it to the top. This mistaken belief inevitably leads to continual and continuous frustration for the poets in question.

Of course, there's always a social establishment in the poetry world (as in many others), which is successively replaced by new establishments, all with their own prejudices, favourites and friends. However, I personally find that the key as an individual is to focus efforts on living, reading, writing, finding readers who are already out there and generating new ones for the genre rather than wasting precious energy on the pursuit of a non-existent Holy Grail...

Thursday, 28 January 2021

A new poem in The Spectator

Absolutely chuffed/delighted/overjoyed, etc, etc, to report that I have a new poem in this week's issue of The Spectator...

Sunday, 24 January 2021

The Working Time Directive for Poets

I’ve recently seen several excellent articles and features on poetry in lockdown (and in the pandemic in general), advocating all sorts of useful approaches. These articles often focus on energising creativity, on organising time, on motivation, on finding stimuli that might help to generate a reconnection with art. This post is in no way intended to disparage or knock such features, because there’s no doubt they’re helping to bring people together and support in other in terrific ways.

However, there are other sections of the population who are probably beyond this sort of assistance right now, poets who don’t really have the chance to write in the pandemic and especially in lockdown, people whose route to writing has been blocked, such as stay-at-home parents who’ve lost the hours in the middle of the day when they carved out a bit of time for themselves. And then there’s a group who form the core of today’s post. I’m referring to poets that used to leave the house every day to commute and do a full-time job, but are now working from home.

It’s worth pointing out that I’m not among them: my working life, while tough, is also flexible. Nevertheless, I know of many friends who had an established writing routine that they’d built around the construct of the old working week. It made a clear-cut separation between their working time, family time and poetry time, their working space, family space and poetry space. That’s now disappeared.

All of a sudden, these poets are finding it hugely tough to defend their writing. Spaces they once used for poetry are now taken up by work, while timetables are fast becoming blurred. Bosses, colleagues and customers, who are also working from home, are now demanding constant connectivity and immediate reactions to requests at times that were previously viewed as unreasonable and/or out of bounds. In other words, work is intruding on periods of the day and week that were sacrosanct prior to the pandemic. And all of the above, of course, is before we mention home-schooling!

This last point brings me on to another key issue: family. In the past, husbands, wives, partners, sons and daughters might have found it easier to respect the fact that the poet in question disappeared into the attic, etc, an hour or two in the evening or at the weekend. But during lockdown, everyone’s already spending lengthy periods of time in separate rooms in the house over the course of the day, even before the poet dares to ask for more!

In conclusion, today's post isn’t a cry for help, nor a plea for recognition, nor a moan. It’s simply an attempt to open up the topic for discussion, to remind poets in this situation that others are in a similar boat, to lend moral support, to remember that sometimes poetry just has to wait until life gets out of the way….

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Undeservedly under the radar, Christopher James' The Penguin Diaries

When making notes for this review, I was struck by how difficult it was to introduce the book in question, Christopher James’ collection The Penguin Diaries (Templar Poetry 2017), without it seeming a hard sell at first glance. And at that point I realised I had come upon a pivotal reason why this excellent collection undeservedly passed under the radar on publication, as I’ll now explain.

The premise is as follows: 65 sonnets, one for each member of Scott’s ill-fated 1910 expedition to the Antarctic. The stumbling block can be found in certain contemporary preconceptions, which might initially indicate that the collection involves some connotations of failed empire building, etc, thus limiting its range of interest and blocking routes to readers. However, closer inspection soon demonstrates that these are poems of universal humanity that reach out to everyone.

For instance, the poet makes a conscious decision not to tell the story as such. He takes it as read that we already know the outline of the plot, and uses this shared knowledge as a point of departure to explore a specific set of relationships in extreme conditions, alongside the consequent roles that are played out.

However, all of the above shouldn’t imply that The Penguin Diaries simply offers up 65 individual portraits or vignettes. Instead, James interweaves his characters. First of all, he highlights the differing geographical and social origins of each member of the group. Secondly, he allows them to appear in each other’s poems, building up a wider picture of the social and human dynamics that developed in this isolated set of individuals. One such example is Harry Pennell. He might have his own poem, titled The Master, but his presence is significant elsewhere, thus layering his character, as in the following extract from The Baptism, which is dedicated to Raymond Priestley:

The current swept you under, claiming you
for the quiet and the dark. But in that
moment you felt a calmness, looking up at
the turquoise floe, the thin crust mottled
like clouds above a world in flood.
You were a dead man with a whale’s eye view.
When Pennell plucked you out, a hand under
your arm, you began a second life…

The above lines also possess one of the collection’s most interesting qualities: its attitude towards the second person singular.

Each and every eulogy is addressed to the person in question. This person is, of course, long dead. Furthermore, they seem to be told what their feelings are, what happened to them, how it happened. Such a technique would appear patently absurd. Nevertheless, there’s method in James’ technique. By using the second person singular throughout the book, he not only brings his characters back to life, lending their stories a greater immediacy and relevance, but he also establishes an implicit dialogue with them.

In other words, Christopher James’ achievement in The Penguin Diaries lies in his ability to portray the lives behind Scott’s expedition, reaching far beyond mere historical events to reflect on many aspects of the human condition. Once we start reading these poems, we’re immediately drawn in to their tremendous implied sensibility and a heightened awareness of our own miniscule place in history. The challenge now is to enable more readers to get hold of a copy…!

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Prompts and exercises

First things first, I do understand and respect that prompts and exercises help certain poets unblock ideas at specific difficult points in their writing lives.

However, as a poet, I personally find that my own poetry is best served when I get on with my daily business, making sure I read, read, read in the gaps between the stuff I’m doing, thus allowing poems to ripen in my mind before putting pen to paper. As mentioned previously on Rogue Strands, sometimes it's better to wait rather than forcing work to come out.

As a reader, meanwhile, I get the impression that certain collections seem to use prompts and exercises as a systematic method of writing. I'm afraid I have to admit these are books I don't tend to enjoy because I find it extremely hard to connect with the poems in question...

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Prose that's packed with poetry, Liz Lefroy's I Buy a New Washer (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence)

I seldom review prose on Rogue Strands, but I’m making an exception today for Liz Lefroy’s book, I Buy a New Washer (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence) (Mark Time Books, 2020), simply because it contains far more poetry than the vast majority of collections that are brought out by major publishers.

I Buy a New Washer (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence) takes Lefroy’s long-running blog as a point of departure and shapes it into 52 pieces, most about a page long, one for every week of the year. It offers snippets of a life, a family, a job, sometimes portrayed head-on, sometimes aslant, but always accompanied by a feeling that (like the best radio presenters) Lefroy is engaged in a one-to-one chat with the person who’s reading her book.

This effect is achieved via the presence of a fluidity and a supple cadence in each sentence, Lefroy’s excellent poetic ear underpinning every entry to such an extent that I’m tempted to label them implicit prose poems. What’s more, the easy-growing language then lends additional impact to her invocation of arresting images at crucial points, which is another extremely effective poetic technique. Here are some examples of what I mean…

…The space in the spanner which fits onto the nut of the tap is called the jaw. The satisfaction of finding the right-sized jaw for a nut is comparable to diving into water with barely a splash.

…My mother died before my son was born, but her material substance somehow shines through him every time his fingers (long as hers were) play piano keys, and every time he smiles his smile, which is sunlight illuminating thousands of days.

…There was nothing to learn, but that the moment I kick off my shoes, the moment I turn down the lights, the moment I dance for myself, is the moment I feel free.

… I went back to the car to get my camera, and returning, saw my sons silhouetted against the grey winter sky, standing together between rows of white gravestones. I stopped for a moment, watched them as they talked, so alive, so full of hope and energy, coming home for Christmas.

As these extracts demonstrate, I Buy a Washer (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence) is a chronicle of how Lefroy’s creativity fits around and interplays with her everyday life. As such, it’s terrific, thought-provoking reading for anyone who’s juggling their writing with other commitments. However, as mentioned in the introduction to this review, it’s also shot through with poetry in abundance.

Liz Lefroy has previously published two excellent pamphlets, both of which are well worth seeking out if you get the chance. She’s won the Café Writers Competition. She’s been widely published in magazines and read at festivals. Her voice is unusual yet possesses universal appeal. The question now is simply when her poetry itself will be granted the platform of a full collection that it so richly deserves…

Monday, 4 January 2021

The silences between poems

It’s my firm belief that poems benefit from silences between them, from so-called fallow periods that actually don’t tend to be fallow at all. Very few poets benefit from writing eight hours a day, as thoughts and ideas need to ferment and macerate. Moreover, poems improve when blended with experiences, both everyday and extraordinary ones, which is a key reason why I believe most people’s poetry deteriorates once they begin teaching Creative Writing in an academic environment without sufficient non-poetic stimuli and points of reference.

Of course, the same goes for drafts. They too require space to breathe. In their case, the space is necessary to allow me to fall out of love with them, to disentangle myself from the heady fumes of their creation and take a surgical step back before working at them again. And then leaving them in a folder for months. Maybe cannibalising them for a different piece. Maybe realising how to turn them from a failure to a success in a sudden spark, sometimes years after their initial creation. That spark, inevitably, comes from an unexpected facet of a new experience that takes me back to the afore-mentioned old piece and also reciprocally enables me to cast a different light on what’s just happened to me. Without life, poetry starves.