This is shaping up to be a lovely week full of my favourite things: World Ballet Day, World Teachers’ Day and now National Poetry Day here in the UK. Here are a few favourite fragments of poems to celebrate.
I cannot dance upon my Toes—
No Man instructed me—
But oftentimes, among my mind,
A Glee possesseth me,
That had I Ballet knowledge—
Would put itself abroad
In Pirouette to blanch a Troupe— (Emily Dickinson)
…such things are said to be
Good for you, and you will have to learn them
In order to become one of the grown-ups
Who sees invisible things neither steadily nor whole,
But keeps gravely the grand confusion of the world
Under his hat, which is where it belongs,
And teaches small children to do this in their turn. (Howard Nemerov)
Nevertheless, I am extremely grateful to those teachers who shaped me into what I am today (caveat: all mistakes my own, etc. etc.)
About poetry – well, I can’t stop thinking about this poem today, by Robert Bly:
Oh, on an early morning I think I shall live forever!
I am wrapped in my joyful flesh,
As the grass is wrapped in its clouds of green.
Rising from a bed, where I dreamt
Of long rides past castles and hot coals,
The sun lies happily on my knees;
I have suffered and survived the night,
Bathed in dark water, like any blade of grass.
The strong leaves of the box-elder tree,
Plunging in the wind, call us to disappear
Into the wilds of the universe,
Where we shall sit at the foot of a plant,
And live forever, like dust.
Finally, I leave you with this amazing line from Mahmoud Darwish:
You are reluctant to emerge from the metaphor in case you fall into the well of loneliness.
The historical Nineveh was one of the greatest cities of the Assyrian Empire, although it was built on a fault line and therefore periodically ravaged by earthquakes. It then fell into ruins following a period of civil war in the region. The Bible portrays Nineveh as a wicked city, worthy of destruction, although it is ultimately spared by God because its inhabitants repent and fast.
In this book by South African writer Henrietta Rose-Innes, Nineveh is the name of a modern gated development on the outskirts of Cape Town, but it’s impossible not to read something more metaphorical into the name of the settlement and the storyline. The hopelessness of fighting against nature, or overcoming a colonial heritage, or simply the fear of the ‘other’ and the illusion of staying in control: there are hints of all of this and more in this quietly atmospheric story which avoids any of the obvious loud party tricks and twists. The property developer also points out that there is no connection between the Assyrian Nineveh and this contemporary ‘paradise’: one of the early investors was from the Middle East, that’s all. Ha! Believe that at your peril!
Nineveh is pristine, luxurious, but empty: homeowners cannot move in because there is an infestation of mysterious insects. Katya Grubbs has followed in her father’s footsteps and is a pest controller (or relocator, rather, for she specialises in humane entrapment and movement of pests, rather than exterminating them). She is called in to free Nineveh of this nuisance. She moves in and succumbs to a sort of strange spell. The place is ominously quiet and antiseptic in its cleanliness. She explores the surroundings, the swampland and shanty-town bordering the development. Everything about Nineveh seems wrong, yet oddly attractive. Katya is already planning how to trick the property developer into giving her permanent free on-site accommodation. And yet… and yet… there is a pinprick of menace, which grows and grows. The insects seem beautiful individually, shimmering in their iridescent colours, yet it’s only a matter of time before they start swarming.
Along the way, Katya has to mend fences with her father and handle an irate employer. There is an earthiness to her humour, a pragmatism to her style, which makes her flawed but endearing. This is a book which whispers (rustles and crackles and pitter-patters, hisses and sweeshes and hums) rather than shouts, but it is entertaining and thought-provoking, an increasingly rare double feat.
It’s a delight to see that Henrietta’s book has now been published in the UK and US (the South African edition came out in 2011). A French translation has just been published by Editions Zoe.
Reading the article by Michael Mohammed Ahmad about the universality of bad writing and bad attitudes towards receiving feedback was an experience which had me laughing and wincing in recognition. It’s a harsh article, but perhaps a very necessary one. I’ve read (and written) an excess of lines which are too pretty, too laboured, trying just a little too hard to RAM the point down the readers’ throat, and I couldn’t agree more with his recommendation ‘to write something honest, specific, tangible, to use original metaphors and symbols that I could see in my mind’s eye, and to write something that was not a rehash of what they had been conditioned to believe a poem should be’.
My particular problem in poetry is that I go too unfiltered and raw, trying to fit in all the ideas and metaphors, all the images and juxtapositions which occur to me. It’s almost like I scribble down from dictation. Which is fine for a first draft, but a poem requires far, far more subtlety and editing!
So I thought it might be fun to share with you the journey of a poem. Here is the ‘raw material’ for a poem which I jotted down following a pique of anger at the weekend. I will be working on it over the next few weeks and provide regular updates, the reasons behind the changes I make, links to poets who’ve done it better than myself etc. I hope it’s a fun way of approaching poetry for those of you who don’t read it so much for enjoyment or find it too ‘ivory tower.’ For the time being, since it’s just an info dump, I’ve not used any punctuation. It’s the way I always start a poem – making a note of certain ideas or feelings before I forget.
Outwit with passwords
you do me
fat on apps, accounts and Facebook foxiness
Outrun in the gym
to keep yourself trim
belly suck and crow superior
Outcry me with your pulled muscles
nestle in your tea-based need
triumphant in your bedrest
you ignore panda-eyed flu ghosts around you
Outmother me, won’t you,
all laughter and scientific depth
masking the many hours of boredom
which you refused to partake
the allure of long-distance parenting
Swiss chocolate vs. squished pies
drowned in custard
Memoir is a genre that is not immediately appealing to me. Unless it’s a thoughtful autobiography of an artist or writer whom I admire, and therefore at least partly about the struggle of creativity, it just feels too self-indulgent or egocentric a project. So it’s a bit hit and miss whether I will enjoy reading one or not.
For instance, Romain Gary’s pseudo-memoir La promesse de l’aube was wonderful, even when I could see the ways in which the author was manipulating our emotions and exaggerating some scenes (or perhaps fictionalising them) for the maximum benefit and enjoyment of us readers. However, Ariel Gore’s Atlas of the Human Heartinfuriated me, and I don’t think it was because of a gender division of the topics addressed, i.e. men go to war and are therefore interesting, while women drink and sleep around and are therefore dull. On the contrary, it’s usually the women I usually find more interesting, but not in that particular case. I think it was because the focus was not on the readers, but very much on the author/narrator.
Then there are the books which weave nature observations and personal narrative, harking back to the great Romantic tradition of philosophising about nature and how humans relate to it (or how the urban environment encroaches upon it and changes us humans). This is where you might find allusions whooshing over your head, but also the occasional tangential riffs and unusual erudite connections which will gladden your heart and make you feel smart. Two books which I heartily recommend in this respect are: Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in the English Weather.
Where does Amy Liptrot’s tale of alcoholism and life spinning out of control fit in? It’s a strange beast, straddling the two sub-genres – memoir of self-destruction and nature writing. After a hedonistic lifestyle in London, almost but never quite successful in finding work, housing, relationships, the authors spirals into alcoholism and ultimately finds redemption by returning to her home in the wilderness and isolation of the Orkneys. It was largely the nature writing which appealed to me. Confessional writing is so prevalent nowadays and praised as ‘brave, raw, visceral’ and all those other adjectives, but it can come across as self-absorbed and repetitive. So my advice would be: do not read this book all in one go (as I did while tending my sickbed), but just dip into it a chapter at a time, sipping it cautiously like tea which is in danger of scalding you or ice-cream which could freeze you. Because it blows now hot, now cold, and I was often not quite sure if I loved it or thought it merely average.
The nature/lost soul parallels and the rebuilding of self can feel a little forced or obvious at times:
I’m repairing these dykes at the same time as I’m putting myself back together. I am building my defences, and each time I don’t take a drink when I feel like it, I am strengthening new pathways in my brain. I have to break the walls down a bit more before I can start to build them up again. I have to work with the stones I’ve got and can’t spend too long worrying if I’m making the perfect wall. I just have to get on with placing stones.
Yet there is an artless charm and wonder in this rediscovery of nature that is very hard to resist. There are quiet observations about lambing or bird-counting which refuse to sentimentalise life in welly boots. There is a bemused sense of ‘how did I get here from my passion for all things trendy and urban?’.
I never saw myself as, and resist becoming, the wholesome ‘outdoors’ type. But the things I experience keep dragging me in. There are moments that thrill and glow: the few seconds a silver male hen harrier flies beside my car one afternoon; the porpoise surfacing around our small boat; the wonderful sight of a herd of cattle let out on grass after a winter indoors, skipping and jumping, tails straight up to the sky with joy.
These are the kind of moments I remember from my childhood spent in a very under-developed countryside, probably far more backward (though less remote) than the Orkneys. They illustrate joys which become greater in post-event storytelling, when you forget about most of the hardship. But it never fails to amuse me how popular nature writing is in Britain, which has so few truly rural, undeveloped areas left (there are far more isolated villages and communities in France, for instance). Amy is seldom far away from the nearest internet connection, tweeting or posting images of seals and chatting to her London friends on Skype. Yet she and her readers hanker for reconnection with nature, both in its beauty and roughness – perhaps a nostalgia for a bygone age and unspoilt world.
Despite these quibbles, I did quite enjoy the book. The exhilaration of certain passages is infectious, such as this one describing the Northern Lights (known locally as the Merry Dancers):
I let me eyes adjust to the dark for the time it takes to smoke one cigarette then say, ‘Bloody hell’, out loud. In the past I have seen a greenish-tinged, gently glowing arc, low across the north, but tonight the whole sky is alive with shapes: white ‘searchlights’ beaming from behind the horizon, dancing waves directly above and slowly, thrillingly, blood red blooms. It’s brighter than a full moon and the birds, curlews and geese, are noisier than they usually are at this time of night, awakened by a false dawn. There is static in the air and it’s an unusual kind of light, the eerie glow of a floodlit stadium or a picnic eaten in car headlights.
Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that a shorter book (or a series of essays) would have been just as good.
Henley Literary Festival is virtually on my doorstep, and it was the first literary event I attended, back in 2009. I met the dynamic and very accessible, friendly duo Nicci Gerrard and Sean French (better known as Nicci French) there, we discussed the Moomins and the Martin Beck series, and the rest is history. In other words, my passion for reading and writing was rekindled.
It has grown considerably since, in ways which are not always to my liking, although I do understand the motivation behind it. For instance, it relies heavily on sponsors, who are advertised EVERYWHERE. The eclectic mix of writers and TV celebrities has shifted perhaps a bit too much in favour of the latter. The timing of events has become a bit stricter, so there is less opportunity to chat with your favourite writers. But it is still an informal, friendly affair, with good ticket availability, and with many interesting panels introducing debut authors or authors I’ve not heard of previously.
So I missed it during the past 5 years that I was abroad and was keen to reconnect this year! I would normally choose to spend a whole day in the coquettish riverside town of Henley and attend a number of events, but I had work commitments and came down with flu this week. So the only event I did manage to attend was Book Club Friday at the Town Hall, where Cesca Major interviewed two writers I knew: Amanda Jennings and Lisa Owen. The three women were witty, charming, intelligent and very candid about their writing quirks and paths to publication.
[Sadly, I forgot my mobile phone and camera at home, so was unable to take any pictures, so I am relying on official author photos.]
Lisa Owens, author of the millenials’ manual for procrastination and disorientation called Not Working , did not expect to write the novel she did. She had left her job in publishing to do a Creative Writing MA and used odd fragments which she had scribbled down as the basis of her dissertation. She realised that there was a clear voice emerging from these fragments and was planning to turn it into a more conventional type of narrative, but, luckily for us, it’s those pithy observations and vulnerability mixed with cynicism which raise this book above any Bridget Jones comparison.
Amanda Jennings, meanwhile, admitted that In Her Wake, which is her most successful novel to date, was the one which initially caused her the most heartbreak. It was the second novel that she wrote and she dedicated so much time and effort to it, felt that she had neglected her family to give it her all, that she was devastated when it just didn’t sell. Her agent advised her to embark upon another novel (which did sell, The Judas Scar), and it was only a few years later (after 11-12 rewrites) that she finally found a home for it with Orenda Books.
Meanwhile, Cesca Major enjoyed writing romcoms but decided to put her knowledge of history and love of research to use to write a more serious and dramatic story set in war-time France The Silent Hours. Now she alternates between the two, as it provides her with much-needed light relief.
Other topics these authors addressed (often to much laughter from the audience) were: reactions to bad reviews, treating writing as a 9-5 job, leaving notes to self in CAPITAL LETTERS in the first draft and how you think you will write one type of book (Irish rural drama in Lisa Owen’s case, romance or bonkbusters in Amanda Jenning’s case) but you end up writing something very different, more in keeping with your voice. They also revealed what they read during the writing process. Lisa is the only one who doesn’t mind reading writers achieving the effects she is after, and reads a few pages of Lorrie Moore or Lydia Davis for inspiration. Cesca and Amanda understandably say they try to avoid those writing works that are too similar to their own, as it can discourage you as a writer (‘They’ve already said it so much better than me’). So they comfort read: recipes books for Amanda, Enid Blyton and Jilly Cooper for Cesca.
The Friday Book Club format works very well: it felt at times like we were eavesdropping on a conversation amongst writerly friends. And it certainly made me eager to read Cesca’s works now as well. Wishing all three writers every success in the future and many more such events!
September didn’t bring the much-awaited additional reading time, since my older son did not start school until the 19th, while other real-life items grated annoyingly on my little reading bubble. Still, it’s been a far better month than August and I’ve even managed to write some reviews. But most of the reading has been rather dark…
Crimeish fiction has made me travel to modern France, Imperial India, Yorkshire, war-torn Germany, post-war rubble of Japan, remote valleys in Basque country, the school gates in Australia and… Culver Valley in England.
So 15 books, of which 1 DNF, half of the remaining ones crime fiction, equal measures of male/female authors, 5 in translation. However, pretty much all of them were quite sad. Maybe I need to cheer myself up with some lighter reading?
Plans for October include: reading more from my Netgalley backlog, which means Gilly Macmillan’s A Perfect Girl, Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes and Nicotine by Nell Zink. Have the feeling they are not going to be all sunshine and butterflies though…
Some of them belong(ed) to writers, some of them are being used for writing workshops and retreats. All of them will predispose you to a bookish reverie…
Finally, the Michalski Foundation in Switzerland has been busy building different versions of treehouses by renowned Swiss architects. You can apply for a writing residency programme in one of those treehouses, very close to where I used to live (talk about bad timing for leaving the area!). Here are more details on how to apply (deadline is Sept. 30th, hence a Thursday rather than Friday Fun posting, to give you time to apply).