There’s a meme doing the rounds on Twitter currently (not that I spend my whole life on social media, you understand) about which famous painting best represents your soul. I went for Van Gogh’s Starry Night but a huge thanks to Annabel Gaskell for choosing Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, which reminded me how much I love his depictions of urban loneliness and angst. My favourite of his paintings is Chop Suey, so much so that I wrote a little poem about it. It’s been far too long since I shared any of my poetry, so here it is, thanks to Annabel!
To warm your fingers on the teapot
till the bruise-blue tinge subsides.
To allow the pallor of the windowblind
mimic the green in your dress.
To know that vegetable wontons will never be as filling as duck
but all you can afford.
To keep the hat on and feel the flash of neon lights
mock the expensive lipstick he gave you for your birthday.
To wait for the office gossip to die down.
To wait for him to leave his wife.
To wait for the order that never seems to come
for single women on the second floor of that small lunch place
In the UK we celebrate National Poetry Day on the 7th of October and the theme this year is choice. I feel I have to celebrate somehow, because poetry – because it has done so much for my mental health in the past few years, both the reading and the writing of it (however infrequently the latter might have shown up). Here is a very rough first draft written in a spurt of creativity (32 poems in 5 days) during an unforgettable journey to Provence. OK, admittedly it’s not a very celebratory poem, but it’s been so long since I last posted one, I’ve forgotten how to do it properly!
Cialdini’s Science of Persuasion: The Principle of Consistency
Ask for small commitments first, then, when the large requests come, they will find it impossible to say no.
It’s been a long time since I last posted any poetry, probably because I still harbour the hope that some of the poems will get published in magazines and hardly any of them accept poems that have been published on your blog anymore. But this weekendI spent some time going through my notebooks and collating all the random fragments from workshops, slivers of early morning inspirationor even just fun notes to self, so I thought I could share some of these oddities in the weeks to follow, in among the book reviews and Friday glimpses of houses to yearn over.
than writing a poem. Just follow the instructions.
Bring righteous indignation and slam it hard on the table. Remember to temper your anger By using capital letter At the start Of every line. Use a list format. Keep adding to the list. Use lots of pages – there are trees to spare on this planet. Besides, repetition is the mother of all good writing. Be forever mournful, waiting and watchfully wanting. Vary your line lengths. And sentences. Include animals from all over the world, with Latin names, but not ones we might have heard of like equus. Don’t forget to describe in detail their plumage, anatomy, habitat and make connections in unlikeliest of places to prove your erudition. Finally, end with geographical incantations, fade out to that most melodious of exotic place names Zanzibar.
One area where the independent publishers really excel is poetry. Probably because there is little money to be made from it on the whole (presidential inauguration ceremony effect excepted – hurrah for Amanda Gorman!), and so most big publishing conglomerates won’t touch it with a bargepole.
Many of these poetry publishers are tiny, often one-person outfits, operating on a shoestring, often run by other poets. And all of us who love (or write) poetry are all the richer for having them: they are worth every penny of arts funding that they can get (although many don’t get any). I have written about discovering and splurging on poetry books back in 2018, so I won’t mention Ignition, Sad Press, V Press, Tapsalteerie, Bad Betty Press, Midsummer Night’s Press, Stranger Press or Burning Eye Books again here, other than to encourage you to seek out their beautifully produced volumes of poetry (occasionally flash fiction) and explore the boundaries of both English language and translated poetry written today.
In this post, I will wax lyrical about the slightly better-known poetry publishers that appear most frequently on my bookshelves and show some of their most beautiful covers.
Seren Books is the book imprint of Poetry Wales, but does not publish poetry exclusively. It does, however, focus on English language writing from Wales, although its range has expanded more recently, for example this fine dual language (English-Arabic) edition of the epic poem Uruk’s Anthem or recent poetry from Latin America. I also admire their beautiful anthologies about Women’s Work or Motherhood, and the way many of their ‘classic’ books reflect the enormous changes in Wales over the past hundred years.
Out-Spoken Press arose from the Out-Spoken monthly poetry and music events which were started in London in 2012 by Anthony Anaxagorou and other poet friends. The press was established in 2015 to give voice to writers that had been under-represented by mainstream poetry magazines and publishers, and it has demonstrated a real knack for finding talent. I’ve been following them since their creation and have had the opportunity to read poets such as Raymond Antrobus, Sabrina Mahfouz, Wayne Holloway-Smith, Hannah Lowe before they became prize-winning household names.
Peepal Tree Press is the Leeds-based home of Caribbean and Black British writing and literary or social studies. They always punch well above their weight and, most recently, have won the Costa Book of the Year Award with Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch. However, I encountered them through poetry, and one particular favourite is Tiphanie Yanique’s moving, by turns tender and broken, combative and submissive, Wife.
The Emma Press is the brainchild and labour of love of Emma Dai’an Wright and publishes lovely poetry chapbooks, anthologies and children’s books, including some in translation. I’ve attended a couple of their launch events and they are brilliant at creating a wonderful sense of community. I would recommend their anthologies on love, aunts and the sea (to just name a few), as well as Poems the Wind Blew In – an anthology of children’s poems translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, with amusing illustrations by Riya Chowdhury. It’s never too soon to expose children to poetry from all over the world!
Carcanet Press barely needs any introduction – it is one of the leading publishers of both classical and modern poetry (and literary criticism). Most recently, I’ve been smitten with Caroline Bird’s The Air Year and Eavan Boland’s The Historian, both shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards for Poetry (Boland’s posthumous work went on to win the prize). One of my favourite poetry collections, that I keep returning to again and again, is Her Birth by Rebecca Goss, which might explain why I was so delighted that Rebecca agreed to work with me as a mentor back in 2019.
Last and possibly the best-known of these poetry publishers is Bloodaxe Books, which, in its 40 years of existence, has really redefined poetry for the English-speaking world, always one step ahead in terms of discovering new voices, both in English and in translation. Best known perhaps for their thick, diverse anthologies such as Being Alive, Staying Alive, Being Human, I love them especially for their translations of Romanian poets (naturally!). They have introduced me to far too many poets to mention here, but let me just call out a few on my shelves: Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica, Gillian Allnutt’s Wake, Denise Levertov and Anna Akhmatova (translated by Richard McKane).
It’s been months if not years since I last posted a poem. Partly because I haven’t written any new ones, and partly because I was still hoping to get some of the older ones published (and most journals won’t take previously published poems etc. etc.)
However, I am cautiously optimistic that my love of writing has returned and that more poems (as well as prose) will get written. So here is an older poem, which has been edited and freshened up, and will hopefully lead to newer and better things. The idea is that you can read it horizontally from left to right or in columns. Just a little bit of playing with appearance on the page!
After the Appeal
You have been sifted cleaned
out and weighed
each grain examined you
were found wanting
your feet too shuffling your
teeth too evolved
slow rip and hide under
poked and shushed over tut-tut rejected.
And, because I am feeling super generous and energetic (at least until further notice or rejection), here is another, more personal one. In which it becomes clear that my poetic subconscious is a better judge of character than my rational everyday self.
After reading Robert Bly’s ruminations about poetry, I wanted to read more poets on poetry. It’s always inspiring, even though occasionally it sounds like they are making it up, to provide legitimacy after writing a poem. Perhaps it’s their own way of reflecting on their work. I certainly find poets have much more trouble articulating consistently what they try to achieve with their poetry. They are perhaps too open to change, to different interpretations, to evolving over the course of one’s lifetime. And, of course, there is probably no ‘purpose’ in poetry at all, or if it has too obvious a purpose, it ceases to be poetry.
Anyway, long preamble to say that I borrowed a small volume from the libary entitled Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province, published in 1979 but containing essays and interviews going as far back as the 1950s. Levertov is truly a citizen of the world: an American poet with a Russian name, born and raised in England, with a Welsh mother (and a Russian Jewish father who became an Anglican priest), she also translated from French and Italian (although she only spoke the former). She was also very politically engaged, worked as a nurse during the war, campaigned against the war in Vietnam, supported and encouraged feminist and leftist writing. She is perhaps the perfect contrast to Robert Bly’s far more ivory tower approach to poetry, with his need for solitude and finding inspiration in nature. This becomes obvious when she talks candidly about Bly, but in fact they have similar thoughts about inspiration and craftsmanship.
But visual imagery can be overemphasized, and I think that is what dissatisfies me about so much of the poetry of Robert Bly and the Sixties group write. I like some of it very much, but Bly’s point of view is too much based on phanopoeia (visual image). I think the visual image is terribly important, but it must be accompanied by melopoeia (sound)… of a distinctly expressive kind, not just the musical over-and-aboveness that Pound speaks of in How to Read.
Elsewhere, she has the dancer’s discipline when it comes to poetry (she trained as a dancer in her youth). She creates (in my mind) this image of poetry as some kind of primordial sea that all poets flow into whether rivers or streams. They are all contributing to Poetry in some small way.
I believe that the gift of being able to write poetry must always be considered as a gift. It’s a responsibility, whether one considers it given by God or Nature. It’s something which the poet must take seriously. His responsibility is not to himself, not to his career, but to poetry itself…
She is also very clear-eyed about reading and teaching poetry:
It’s natural that people want to feel that they have understood what has been said, and sometimes a degree of interpretive paraphrase may be necessary if you want to talk about a poem. But you can receive a poem, you can comprehend a poem without talking about it. Teachers at all levels encourage the idea that you have to talk about things in order to understand them, because they wouldn’t have jobs otherwise. But it’s phony, you know.
Above all, I enjoy her discussion of inspiration, what sparks a poem and gives it life.
There is often a kind of preliminary feeling, a sort of aura… which alerts one to the possibility of a poem. You can smell the poem before you can see it. Like some animal… Hmmm, seems like a bear’s around here…
A poem in which the intellect and conscious mind have predominated can be a very good poem, but not at deep levels… In the first-rate poems, something the method breaks and something utterly unpredictable happens… a sudden illumination.
The most interesting poetry can move back and forth with perfect ease between the rational and the irrational.
She was well known as a bit of a stickler for how poetry should be read and carefully ‘annotated’ her own poems with indentations and punctuation, becoming too prescriptive, as her students used to tell her.
I defend it, absolutely, because I feel that it’s exactly like the writing down of music. When music is written, it allows a considerable amount of interpretation to the performer, and yet it is always definitely that piece of music and no other… without that much care about the structure of a poem, I think what you have is a lot of slop.
Given how demanding she is with the way her poems appear on the page, you can imagine that she is frustrated by the limitations of the printed format (I dread to think what she’d have thought of ebooks, which I find almost unusable for poetry). As someone who adores oddly sized books but has experienced some frustrations with shelving them, I could relate to the following:
It bugs me when I have a line broken up that way… I have wished that poetry books could be different dimensions… but my publishers tell me it’s very hard to change the dimensions of books. Bookshelves are designed to hold books of certain dimensions, booksellers don’t like to handle books that are odd shapes…
Here are some passages that resonated with me from the book Talking All Morning with Robert Bly, in the series Poets on Poetry published by the University of Michigan Press. Although Bly keeps referring to ‘he’ and ‘him’ when he talks about poets (typical of the late 1960s perhaps), I do agree to a large extent with his breakdown of poetic talent or craft.
Let’s imagine the poem to be some kind of knife. The poet uses the poem to cut through the dead tissues in himself, and through certain filaments or sinews that are holding him to past patterns… But the poem can also be a two-edged knife, with two sharp edges. The whole thing moves like a pendulum and when the knife swings back, it swings away from the private and cuts into something public.
In Anglo-Saxon literary life we’ve always had the knife sharp only on one edge, with the other edge deliberately blunted, so that when it swung back into public life, it did not cut… It’s perfectly clear that Pasternak, by contrast, uses a two-edged knife…
Basho said, ‘To express the flavor of the inner mind, you must agonize during many days.’ That is a wonderful sentence! The purpose of it all is not to write long, endless poems, but to express the flavor of the inner mind… Two hours of solitude seem about right for every line of poetry.
The Japanese say the haiku is a poem in which there’s a tiny explosion inside – and if that’s not there, I don’t care how many syllables it has, then it’s not a haiku. And that little tiny explosion brings the life to this creature.
I dislike the word ‘craft’ when it comes to poetry. Craft suggest an inanimate object, as when we say a carpenter crafts a chest of drawers… Making the poem from the beginning involves three different areas of experience. The first … is interior… When the poet touches something for the first time, something far inside of him. It’s connected with what the ancients called The Mysteries… If any person comes near that experience he or she will never forget it the rest of his life. If he writes poetry it will come from that.
The second necessary stage… I would call something like cunning. And cunning involves the person’s rearranging his life in such a way that he can feel the first experience again. This is worldly and involves common sense… For Rilke… cunning meant finding long periods of solitude.
The third stage could be called ‘letting the animal live’… psychic energy. Living energy is more growing the tree than shaping it. In the US the emphasis on craft and technique comes too early, before the wood has been grown.
Taking care of animals is the best preparation for writing poems. When you write poems, you feed poems language. Instead of craft, I talk about ‘letting the creature live.
Your Honour, we were students, not in the money
for a wedding, anticipated trouble, so my then-honey
and I kept our nuptials secret from our parents,
only informed them a good while after the events.
By then mine had bought a flat for me alone,
or so they thought. Its value soared like a drone,
so we got our next house, and the next. Twenty years later
we’ve had many more donations from the pater…
Mr Judge Sir I protest…
This woman thinks she’s the best,
but she kicked me out less than three years after she found out
that I’d had moments of joy with another. But I called her out,
‘cos it was her lack of uncritical admiration
and the general sense of deprivation
that I could not rule with absolute decree
which drove me to the arms of Gina, Becky, Lee.
She expected me to be apologetic – more like apoplectic
wouldn’t cook or do my laundry while I was texting
the latest mistress I was sexting.
Now I have to pay a massive rent to get a house of similar size –
so what if the kids only spend 6 days here a month – in their eyes
it’s got to be attractive, have room to fit 88 inch TV and Playstation,
while she complains of boiler repairs, lording it in the old location.
That’s the state of our nation.
His salary is high, his pension secure, why do we have to drown in manure, when it’s clear as day, eat or pray, doom and gloom, the boys are mainly spending time in my room? I feed and clothe them, know all the ins and outs of school…
Your Honour, it’s time to overrule. Food bills are such a drag
why bring up the subject? I don’t mean to brag
but the science the boys get from me
are worth 3 of your books, theatre or history.
Just admit it, you’ll never be as good
as my mother tells me I am. That’s understood.
They’re boys, they need a father to set an example or else
they’ll end up as unhappy as I was
when she made me pick them up from school while she was travelling.
All the while my social life was unravelling,
couldn’t go out for beers more than twice a week.
I’ll teach them to be manly not so weak.
I spend as much on my children as she does, or does she believe
that holidays chasing solar eclipses come through charity relief?
Cinema tickets, theme parks all cost money,
so curb your spending on socks, shoes and school trips, honey!
And if you don’t know, now you know…
With apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda and his Cabinet Battle in Hamilton, which inspired this.