Most Obscure on My Shelves – Poetry

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

You might argue that poetry is fairly obscure in itself, as many people don’t seem to have much of it on their shelves beyond the anthologies they had to study at school. I have many of the obvious suspects (Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath) and many signed copies from contemporary poets. I enjoy exploring new styles and discovering new poets as well as going back constantly to the classics. I am referring here mainly to English language poetry, as those in other languages (or translations) have been shelved with their respective countries. I have reviewed many of my recent favourites on this blog, but here are a few that mean something special to me.

Rosemary Tonks: Bedouin of the London Evening

There is something odd and disquieting about the life and career of poet (and novelist) Rosemary Tonks. After publishing two poetry collections in the 1960s, she then disappeared from public view, reinvented herself, changed her name and never wrote again, somewhat like Rimbaud. There is something very boho chic about her poetry, speaking very eloquently of that particular period of time and the first cool Britannia moment. There is a seething anger and disappointment that sexual and artistic freedom is not quite what she expected. Yet she has a jaded, cynical view which transcends time and place, she is the Jean Rhys of poetry.

Brenda Shaugnessy: Our Andromeda

I had the pleasure of meeting Brenda at a Geneva Writers Conference back in 2014, but I read this volume of poetry long before that. In fact, I was reading it as I was queuing at the border control at Washington Dulles airport and encountered the border guard dissolved in helpless tears. I tried to explain to him that it was because of this amazing, heartfelt poem about the alternative world that a mother and her child create together a parallel galaxy where they can both thrive: the baby who suffers injury at childbirth and the mother who feels anguished guilt: ‘It was my job to get you into this world safely. And I failed.’ But it’s not all emotional distress, there are plenty of playful language games, as well as ferocious honesty about the body and the conflicting feelings of the mother and the artist. It is a rich, candid, uncompromisingly clear-eyed way of expressing things.

T.S. Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

T.S. Eliot is one of my favourite poets, but this is his lighter side. I adore it not only because I am a cat lover, but also because back in 1988/89, just before the fall of Communism, us students in the English Department of Bucharest University performed our own version of the musical Cats, although none of us had ever seen the show. It was a huge success (although it was censored in certain locations), and we all had huge fun inventing ways of presenting it, while making subtle political references. We were perhaps even more creative than the stage show I saw later on in London. So it reminds me of my youth, although this particular copy of it also is bittersweet. I bought it and gave it as a present to my newly-wed husband in 1998, when he left to go to Italy for a post-doc. (I could not follow him because of visa issues.) We had watched the show together and the dedication reads: ‘To remind you of your favourite show and your favourite cat while you are in Italy.’ Clearly, it did not do its job, since that was the first time he cheated on me.

Nevertheless, if anything can make me perk up and let bygones be bygones, it is Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, with his no-nonsense librarian air:

He will watch you without winking and he sees what you are thinking

And it’s certain that he doesn’t approve

Of hilarity and riot, so the folk are very quiet

When Skimble is about and on the move.

You can play no pranks with Skimbleshanks!

He’s a Cat who cannot be ignored;

So nothing goes wrong on the Northern Mail

When Skimbleshanks is aboard.

Geneva Writers Conference 2014

This past weekend I attended the biennial writing conference organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. Nearly exactly 2 years ago, during a very cold spell in February 2012, I attended my first one… and its effect on me cannot be exaggerated.  It inspired me to start writing seriously once more (every day), made me fall in love with poetry all over again and was the decisive factor in starting up this blog.

So I was eagerly awaiting the new event – and it did not disappoint, even though this time I was not quite as addicted to meeting every single person and exchanging cards. What I lacked perhaps in wide-eyed wonder, I made up for in deeper connections with fewer people. I can only talk about the sessions I attended, of course, but all of the instructors read to us during the conference dinner and I can assure you they were all excellent. Huge congratulations to Susan Tiberghien (the founder and driving force behind the Geneva Writers’ Group) and her conference committee for organising the event so well.

Mimi Thebo
Mimi Thebo

Here are some of the pearls of wisdom I have tried to capture (apologies to our tutors if I have misinterpreted or misquoted):

From Mimi Thebo, who writes predominantly for YA and children (‘it might be harder, but it’s more fun’):

We writers are not the navy, we’re pirates. I’ll tell you what to do in this class, but if you don’t want to do it, go ahead and rebel.

Young people feel as deeply and suffer everything that we do but without the power to make any changes, to make things better for themselves.

When I sell a book, I don’t get the opportunity to go home and sit on the armchair and tell you how to read the book or explain away all of my many mistakes.

We only write half the book and the readers write the rest when they read it.

Brenda Shaughnessy
Brenda Shaughnessy

From Brenda Shaughnessy, award-winning poet and just a really generous and sweet person, whom I think of as a kindred soul:

Metaphor is key to poetry. This is that – but how do we get from this to that? One of the best ways is to think of it as two balls linked with a tether and you throw them as far apart as you can without ripping the tether.

If you ask a question which can be answered, that’s too easy a question for a poem.

Write and read beyond your own comprehension level. Your poems should know more than you do.

WallisFrom Wallis Wilde-Menozzi, poet as well as novelist and memoir writer, I learnt:

Words have become devalued. In today’s world we are flooded with information and words, at such a volume that we find it hard to bring them back to their basic level, to give words their proper weight and meaning.

When you want to capture that moment ‘that needs speech’, that wrinkle in reality which catches our attention, you need to make it visible with words, but not imprison it. So don’t force your words. Trust your instincts, your impulse, take time to amble and write down your untethered impressions. You can always revisit those first words many years later, as long as you have written enough to capture that feeling.

A poem won’t fall apart with our interpretation. It can take whatever we project onto it. That’s why it’s nice to read poetry together and allow everyone to contribute.

My-Criminal-WorldLast, but not least, from Henry Sutton, author and lecturer of crime fiction, I learnt about asking that next question of your plot and characters, always digging a little deeper into yourself and your novel.

Be prepared to deviate from your plan if that allows you to find your own territory.

We always need to ask questions of why we are doing things the way we are. Why is this book being written? Why are the characters behaving this way? What is the question that best describes my WIP?

Abstract themes and broad concepts are all very well, but surely all literature needs to be concerned with that to a certain extent. It’s the specific, personal stuff that readers want, that they can project their own experiences upon. The personal stuff contains the broader stuff – and abstract concepts have to come through your character, otherwise you might as well write an essay.

I can also tell you what I did not do at this conference: attend the Q&A sessions with the agents and publishers. Not that I’m not curious to hear what they have to say, but I think I’ve heard a lot of it before, some of it on Twitter and in blog posts. And I didn’t want to hear just how discouraging the publishing landscape is at the moment, nor how the odds are stacked against me.

All I want to do is sit down and apply all this wisdom. Finish my novel. Improve my poetry. Write as well as I can, and getting better all the time. Two years is too long to wait for such an inspiring, fun and productive conference! I know that, ultimately, the hard work is down to me, but I am curious to see what effect this conference will have had on my next two years…