Friday, 2 October 2015

The Forward Prize; the Poetry Book Fair

I first saw this year’s Forward Prize shortlists while experiencing a moment of internet access a very long way from London.  I noticed with pleasure that Peter Riley was on the main prize list; and wondered who Claudia Rankine was.  The judges looked interesting, chaired by AL Kennedy.  And not one, two but three graduates of the Complete Works programme were on the first collection shortlist...  Maybe the Forward Prizes were stepping off the poetry prize carousel? 

By Monday night I’d read about a quarter of Rankine’s Citizen: an American Lyric (Penguin), more than enough to be thrilled when we came in late, having queued the whole interval at the bar, to see her on stage in the row of five.  (Shortlisted poets from America don’t always turn up – fair enough.)

Citizen presents everyday racism as Chinese water torture.  It’s emotionally electrifying and not like anything I’ve read in form or content.  It pushes the boundaries of poetry, veering from prose poem to lyrical essay to concrete poetry.  It’s ground-breaking enough to sweep definitions aside.  It’s mostly written in the second person, so that you – ‘you’ – become the subject of the many anecdotes and are also challenged by them to think about your own attitudes and behaviour.  Interviewed on stage, Claudia Rankine said that poetry is the realm of feeling and the book is about intimacy.  She had asked people to tell her about moments in everyday life when they felt bad.  The intention is that readers should feel what these individuals felt.  ‘You’ is unstable, she said: it can be accusatory, a call, intimate, general; can become a space rather than a pronoun.  She reminded us of the slights President Obama had suffered, such as the calls for his birth certificate.

There’s a short extract from Citizen, which is published by Penguin, here.  See Dave Poems for a review.   

It was also good to hear Peter Riley, an English modernist whose poems contain landscapes and journeys both physical and political, read from Due North.  And three poets from Ireland (or rather two since Paul Muldoon was stuck in the US lecturing): Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Ciaran Carson.  To focus our attention on less widely read authors such as Riley and Ní Chuilleanáin is one thing prizes should do.  Another first was that three of these poets’ books are out from middle-sized publishing houses, Ireland’s Gallery Press and Shearsman. 

There was a storm of applause when Citizen won.  It felt like a breakthrough moment.  First ever black female winner of the Forward main prize.  We were applauding the woman, the work and the symbolism.  Like the reception last year for Kei Miller, first ever black poet to win.

This year’s First Collection Prize will be memorable too, as the year the Complete Works generation came of age.  Five vivid and memorable books, five excellent readers; and three sets of vertiginously high heels as if in a game of dare.  It was exciting to hear the three Complete Works authors read, in such circumstances, poems I’d read several times on the page. Sarah Howe’s reading of ‘(c) Tame’ gave me the shivers, Karen McCarthy Woolf conveyed the precise madness of bereavement in ‘The Registrar’s Office’, and I was delighted that winner Mona Arshi chose to read ‘The Daughters’ which was published last year in The Rialto.  I enjoyed in a different way hearing Andrew MacMillan and Matthew Siegel read, as an introduction to their work.

If the Forward Arts Foundation didn’t exist we might not believe anyone who proposed to invent it: a private foundation whose purpose is to support poetry and talented poets and to inspire a love of poetry.  A philanthropic poetry godparent.  Really?  In the UK?  I’m not sure we appreciate it enough... 

Anyway the Festival Hall stalls were full last Monday night, the sense of occasion heightened by a glamorously orange-lit stage – same shade as the trousers worn by singer/poetry lover and stand-in for absent poets Cerys Matthews, unless that was the lighting.  She, founder-benefactor William Sieghart and judges’ chair AL Kennedy all played their roles becomingly modestly and our grumbling (no actors to aim at this year) focussed on the over-explanatory MCing of radio and TV personality Kirsty Lang. 

My main motivation for writing about Monday’s ceremony is that nearly two years ago I did an audit of shortlists, winners and judges of the TS Eliot Prize and Forward (main prize only) and concluded that poetry prizes were a carousel.  So this is to mark progress since then.  Forward Director Susannah Herbert deserves much credit for listening openly and constructively to criticism of prize culture (and of previous years’ staging of the Forward).  The way the Forward Prizes are developing ought to put some pressure on the TS Eliot Prize. 

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Reality Street stall
The week’s other treat was the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair with over 80 publishers cramming into Conway Hall, the lack of elbow room a symptom of the expanding scene and the fair’s success.  Who would think that poets and their friends, customers etc (often also poets in another, very different carousel) could make so much din?  As before, major publishers such as Bloodaxe and Faber were next to the middle-sized, the small and the smallest, from Arc or Blart to Veer or ZimZalla, and Hercules to Isobar or Katabasis.  There was a translation focus this year and I was sorry that the Poetry Translation Centre’s reading by Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi was known about and listened to by so few.  He can fill a stadium with four thousand people at home…

Rishi Dastidar on the Rialto stall
The stalls were a delight to browse for look as well as contents.  My favourite thing of all was Sidekick Books' moth-poem visiting cards.  I've nicked a photo off their Twitter feed, right at the end of this.  The Rialto had a stall too so I played stallholder for a bit (it felt like playing shops).  I didn’t buy so much this year but went away as usual with my mental map of poetry publishing enriched.  And with the lovely catalogue, like last year’s no throwaway object but a publishers’ index and anthology combined.  All hail to Chrissy Williams, Joey Connolly and their team of volunteers. 

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Smaller publishers still struggle to enter books for poetry prizes.  I’ve asked a handful of them about what barriers they face and what might make it easier for them.  To follow shortly. 

Monday, 21 September 2015

Beauty in the mind: Agnes Martin

“Beauty is the mystery of life.  It is not just in the eye.  It is in the mind.  It is our positive response to life.”  Agnes Martin, 1989. 

How good to be released from all the words of reading and writing: by walking or swimming or looking at art.  Sometimes a particular episode of release works especially well.  This seems to involve (for me) enlarging the space the mind inhabits and changing its shape.  The Agnes Martin exhibition at Tate Modern has just done that. 

Martin painted and drew using grids: square, oblong, huge or small, marked or scored by lines of graphite or occasionally by dots; often filled, in the big paintings, with pale horizontal bands of paint. 

There’s a whole room, the first, of large, squareish paintings, each banded slightly differently in white or lemon, pale peach and shadow-blue.  It took me a few moments to get used to them.  Then I became drawn in to my own interpretation – shadows on sand and baked earth – while also exploring the detail of surface variations.  Below (or above) all this I felt I was being calmed, floated. 

(I’m wary of reproducing images, so am illustrating this with book covers.  If you google images of Agnes Martin paintings there are plenty on gallery websites.) 

From these late paintings the exhibition takes one back to her early work, her journey towards formal abstraction via Miró here or Rothko there (always fascinating, an artist’s journey to mature style), and through a roughly chronological survey…  

… In grids, mostly.  They are not cold or impersonal.  They seem to give the mind a structure within which it can imagine and explore.  Or a ladder for the imagination.  Light-waves; landscapes as mood – light and shade, sea and sky – mood as mindscape/landscape.  Then there are two rooms of small works which resemble so many different things.  Palimpsests, Linear B, the drawn threadwork we had to make at school, American street plans.  Exercise books, music staves, graph paper (made me think of Rachel Whiteread), timetables, an oven shelf, a grill(e), a street grating with five round-ended oblongs in pale grey.  Unwritten lines.

The mind soon gets accustomed to minor variations, and geekily delights in them; so when confronted by a pair of black pyramids with lime green tips or a huge gold-leaf square on which a grid of horizontal oblongs is scored (‘Friendship’, see here), it’s a shock. 

John Ashbery once described Agnes Martin’s work as “almost distressingly powerful.”

On one grey horizontal banded painting the paint forms liquid patterns as if blown across the canvas.  These look like clouds though clouds, however liquid, never look like that.  

An inner room holds a series of twelve large paintings, The Islands, all variously banded in shades of white.  I was in there on my own…

It was impossible not to search for the human eye, hand, mind in each picture, in a pencilled line’s wobble on the bumpy canvas or a change in the  density of paint.   

There were several paintings which contained wide greyish horizontal bands with a narrow pale strip between each.  Soon I was seeing these as sea with narrow land on the horizon, then sky… then land above the sky, more sea above that, then land, then sky.. like a stuck film reel that flickers between frames.

Agnes Martin (1912-2004) was brought up on the Saskatchewan plains; she lived for periods in New York and in New Mexico, mostly the town of Taos, 7,000 feet up with mountains one side, desert the other.  She described herself as an abstract expressionist though was described by others as a minimalist.   She was interested in East Asian philosophy and spirituality.  She suffered from schizophrenia.  Her preference was to be solitary but she was part of the New York art scene in the late 50’s and 60’s.  Then she took off on a road trip and settled in a remote part of the New Mexico desert for some years.  More about her here.  She was still working in her 90s. 

I came out looking hard at the floor of wooden planks, at how paving stones intersect, at drains in the gutter.  At the gridmarks of the pedestrian bridge and the Renaissance-city view of St Paul’s it opened up.  At bands of river and land and sky.  At the world. “I paint with my back to the world”, Martin said.

Agnes Martin is at Tate Modern until 11 October. 

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Guest Post: Poetry In Conflict by Selina Rodrigues

As promised in the previous post, here is Selina Rodrigues on the talks she heard at Poetry International in the South Bank Centre, Saturday 25 July: Pashtun poetry and landays, and Syrian and Iraqi poets on modern war poetry.  Her account of the talk on landays started me on a fascinating search to learn more.    

“It was about lips and hair and meeting your beloved,” said poet Saleem Khan, describing Pashtun poetry, before Pakistan undertook a military intervention against the Taliban in North Waziristan.  Of course this is a simplification, but with the displacement of over 700,000 people, poets are now recounting their experiences of conflict, death, and the challenges of witnessing and transcribing such events. “Our children are exposed to sun and even the sun is not easy here”, mused Saleem Khan, on the difficulties of living in camps without schools, frequent running water or electricity.  

“You handed me the gun and took away the pen”, quoted Dilawar Khan, also of North Waziristan, and later, “you kept me hungry, so I turned into a man-eater”, these lines showing the agony and complexity of human responses to violence.  Poetry and self-expression are still shared through Mushaira, traditional gatherings of poets and people.  Many have started to write poetry as a response to the conflict.  With limited access to technology, poetry is a spark and signal for subjects ranging from resistance to individual grief, to the solace of religion. 

These two Pakistani poets were also joined by fellow poet Zahid Ullah Khan and journalist Aamir Iqbal in the talk, Free of the Taliban. 

Poetry is acclaimed as a remover of obstacles, a bridge between discordant ideas. These events showed its mutability and flame-like attraction.  Text messaging and social media enable the sharing of landays between rural and urban women in Afghanistan.  Existing for 3,500 years, of 2 lines and 22 syllables, landays cut to the essential, enabling confession, rebellions and companionship between women.

How much simpler can love be.
Let’s get engaged. Text Me.

Sahera Sharif, founder of the Mirman Baheer literary society in Kabul, said women may be writing under pseudonyms, using fantasy or even male personas to convey “the feelings of women… which are different”.  American journalist Eliza Griswold collected and published these landays but as Sahera Sharif gently reminded us, the meanings can be intricate and sometimes the deeper layers remain visible only to Afghani people.

When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together they sell their sisters to others.

Griswold’s i-Phone was placed under a pile of pillows during one gathering in Afghanistan and she suggested that this was due to the potency of the subject matter, created by women. Yes, women and girls experience violence and brutality and poetry and self-expression can be seen as shameful, but perhaps it’s more complex than that. Even in our selfie-saturated environs, the brain clicks from thought, to photograph, to publication. What we say is charged differently when taken by a foreigner to another continent.  Landays are oral forms and there’s an adjustment in transferring to page/screen, as we can see when wonderful UK-based performance poets snake between the landscapes of stage and page.

Sahera Sharif and journalist Eliza Griswold participated in the talk, Why Afghan Women Risk Their Lives to Write Poetry.  There’s a long piece on landays by Eliza Griswold at the Poetry Foundation, here.  Her collection of landays, I Am the Beggar of the World, is published by Macmillan US.

One of Golan Haji’s poems, ‘Shooting Sportsmen’ (published in The Wolf, here) considers how the borders of conflict expand so that no-one, no thing is left unaffected. 

They murdered the madman of the quarter, the milk vendor and the
                                                                          parsley seller
They killed the window and the sister who looked from it
Neither the neighbours’ cow survived
Nor the streetlamp. 

Both Adnan al-Sayegh, a poet from Iraq, and Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji spoke of the need for translation, visits, contact between cultures.  Golan Haji reflected on the complexities of language and power and his concern that non-Western literature is viewed as “from the ruptured country, [we are] pictured as victims in the mundane version of the world”.  But he celebrated his “love [of] poets of the world as if they are of my own country”.

These poets participated in the talk Modern War Poetry.

No fault of the organisers, through all the events we ran out of time, only enough to hear one or two poems and sensing the poets had more they wanted to share.  How strange it was to leave the dark Purcell Room, go out to July wind and sun, back to the internet and hope to see and hear more, again.

Selina Rodrigues lives in London and works for a charity. She is of mixed-race Indian parentage and writes poetry focusing on identity, urban living and the pull-push of desire and behaviour.  Her poetry has been published most recently in The Rialto and Magma and as a competition winner for the Poetry School and South Bank Poetry Magazine.  She has read at the Poetry Café, for Poetry Shuffle and by invitation at various London bookshops.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Iranian poetry, concrete poetry…

The London streets of 2015 are paved with poetry.  It’s quite something to have to choose between several seriously interesting events, which is what happened throughout Saturday.  When I started reading and listening to a lot of poetry 11 years ago there was far less going on.  It’s tempting to use (or misuse) words such as exponential and explosion.

Poetry International on the South Bank was featuring poetry and poets from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, some of this in conjunction with the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT) whose spring issue featured Iranian poets of the 20th and 21st century. 

Stephen Watts heroically covered the last 1,000 years of Persian poetry in a talk.  Infinite possibilities opened up – a whole civilisation in poetry – as he moved from Ferdowsi’s 11th century epic the Shahnameh via Rumi to 20th century greats Nima Yushij and Forugh Farrokhzad and 21st century diaspora poet Ziba Karbassi.

Stephen, himself a poet and translator, tried – tentatively – to identify the distinguishing features of Iranian / Persian poetry.  Classical and modern poetry share, he felt, “a pared-down richness of language”.  Poets are at ease with abstractions and poems may be both rooted and take off – soar – as Rumi’s work does.  Modernists from the 1930’s onwards reacted against the ossification of Persian poetry and their social and political circumstances; they took on the natural language of their surroundings. The best of their poetry combines inwardness and openness.  

This may make little sense without examples; the new MPT contains translations of work by twelve poets.  I find it quite difficult to extract quotes – is Iranian poetry also hard to break up; might this be to do with abstraction?  Here is part of leading modernist and pioneering woman poet Forugh Farrokhzad’s poem ‘In Darkness’, translated by Sholeh Wolpé:

I called your name
Your name I called holding
my own being like a bottle
of milk between my hands.

The moon’s blue gaze
rapped against the glass.

From the cicada city
a blue song was ascending,
slithering like smoke
against window panes.

I was a little disappointed that only two of MPT’s featured poets were female – Stephen said he thought some of the best poetry being written now is by younger women.  But he added that some of the best may be on the margins, unpublished, whether for political and/or other reasons such as geography and language.  Many languages beside Farsi (or Persian) are spoken in Iran, including Azeri and Kurdish. 

The energies of the 1960s and 70s in opposition to the Shah’s rule, both secular (mostly from the left) and religious, were suppressed after the Iranian revolution.  Writing carried on, often in secret; there were workshops.  Some poets have dared to use their own name, some use pseudonyms and some write anonymously.

Poets in Iran have risked much, even life.  Nasrin Parvaz and Hubert Moore talked about their joint translation of contemporary poets – bringing them “out of the shadows” by various routes.  Parvaz herself was imprisoned for many years in Tehran and condemned to death. 

The first poem they read was by an unknown woman in the notorious Evin prison.  The speaker, along with fellow prisoners, watches a woman leave the cells, her walk perfuming the air.  The ambiguity about where she’s going, to her native mountains or to death, makes the poem all the more powerful – you long for it to be the first while knowing it has to be the second – but then perhaps death is a returning home…  And this poem itself has a story.  The poet, before her own execution, passed the piece of paper to someone else who memorised the poem before confiscation by the guards, and carried it in her head and out of prison on her release.  

Parvaz read a couple of poems in Farsi – I’d have loved to hear more.  As someone in the audience said, didn’t they rhyme?  Someone else said that Farsi rhymes anyway, all the time.  The audiences for both talks were very engaged – a woman stood up and talked about Rumi, there was an exchange about whether it mattered if one says Iranian or Persian, and Farsi or Persian (“no they’re the same”, or “yes it’s still highly political”).  A debate nearly happened about whether exiled writers' work is as valid as that of those who’ve stayed in Iran – a theme surely familiar to all diasporas.

Some of Parvaz and Moore’s translations are in MPT, including three short poems by poet and construction worker Sabeer Haka.  ‘Mulberries’ starts like this and the rest is here.

Have you ever seen
how their red juice
stains the earth where they fell?

For more background, MPT have put on their website an interview with literary critic and translator Atefeh Tahaee who is based in Tehran.  Here’s the first paragraph:

Iranians love poetry. The best evidence for this is the constant incorporation of poetry into daily life, a habit which began in the distant past and still continues. Poems, both ancient and modern, run through people’s lives: in proverbs; in the celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and Yalda in the deep midwinter; from the mouths of TV and radio presenters; in the voices of singers and the tunes of musicians; in newspapers, postcards and even in the street where you can buy Hafiz’s auspicious verses for divination for just a coin.

Stephen Watts recommended Six Vowels and Twenty-three Consonants, an anthology from Arc of Persian poetry from the early Middle Ages until now. 

It was impossible to go to everything; the events on Saturday overlapped (why weren’t some of them scheduled for Sunday when mostly workshops were programmed?).  There was a session on why Afghan women risk their lives to write poetry, another on war poetry and one on poetry in north-west Pakistan under threat from the Taliban.  I think everything was recorded, and hope the recordings will be made accessible.  In the meantime Selina Rodrigues went to all three sessions and is writing a guest post about them, to go up on Displacement next week. 

Then there was the proportional representation demo outside Parliament: I spent about 10 minutes there after getting crushed in a scary 20-minute human traffic jam on the embankment between the London Eye and Westminster Bridge.  The demo was disappointingly not a crush but apparently the speeches were good.

A major anthology was launched on Saturday too, at the Whitechapel Gallery – The New Concrete (Hayward), edited by Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe and described as “a long-overdue survey of the rise of concrete poetry in the digital age”.  I can’t wait to have a look at this. Good concrete poetry sets different parts of the brain working together in unaccustomed ways; and there’s something wonderfully geeky as well as aesthetically pleasing about words and letters being unusually patterned, decorated, represented, combined, etc. 

In the evening there was a big reading with the poets (those who’d got their visas in time) and translators at Poetry International.  There was the monthly Shuffle at the Poetry Café, a couple of whose readers are on the Forward first collection prize shortlist.  I missed both of these because it was also the launch of poet Hannah Lowe’s book Long Time No See (Periscope) which promises to be a fascinating mix of imaginative reconstruction and memoir.  It’s Radio 4’s Book of the Week this week, read by Hannah herself.    

Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Printed Snow; noticing things

In March last year I was driving through tree-lined Norfolk country lanes with Michael Mackmin, on the day of the nature tour prize for the Rialto/RSPB poetry competition.  I said I’d recently started to feel frustrated that I couldn’t recognise different trees in winter.  So Michael enumerated them as we drove past: ash, oak, oak, ash, oak, some alders over there, poplar, poplar, poplar, oak… 

Spring was about to burst out, but when winter came I started trying to learn the shapes of trees.  I think I am now quite good at oaks.  The same thing happened with birdsong a few years ago – beyond already known songs by woodpigeon or blackbird such learning is a slow and painstaking process for someone with a poor ear.  The wren, singer of the same set of flourishes again and again, was my first success.

When HappenStance publisher Helena Nelson announced that she was producing a pamphlet on typesetting poetry by poet and Dark Horse editor Gerry Cambridge, I was intrigued.  The Rialto is expertly designed by Nick Stone, so when we get the pdf proofs back it’s mostly to check for missing lines, verse breaks gone wrong, etc.  Our occasional discussions about the presentation of a particular poem on the page are my only experience of the design side of typesetting...  Apart from choosing Verdana for this blog because it’s plain and supposed to be easy to read online.  And having a discussion with Helena Nelson about whether a long-lined poem in my pamphlet should be printed vertically rather than horizontally – she said No, it would draw attention to the poem’s vertical appearance rather than the contents. 

I’d already benefited from Cambridge’s typographical skills because he’s advised HappenStance on design.  I ordered The Printed Snow (here) and it was austerely elegant, as one would expect.  With lovely blackberry-coloured end papers.  One feature of it is this: in several places the first word in a line has an inverted comma before it, to open a quote.  The inverted comma lies slightly outside the left-hand margin – it sticks out.  Presumably that’s a characteristic of this particular typeface, Trinité 2 Roman.  Would I have noticed, had I not been reading about typography? 

The Printed Snow soon had me reaching for the pile of poetry books on my table (two piles actually) to look at, and for, things I hadn’t noticed before. Or things I’d only noticed in poorly typeset books: as Cambridge says,

Setting inner text is a scrupulous business in which, like the art of forging banknotes, a creator’s invisibility is a sign of success.

One of the pleasures of reading this pamphlet-monograph is its physical form.  It’s nice, and rare, to hold in the hands a short, pocketable piece of non-fiction prose that’s not part of a newspaper, magazine or website.   

The pamphlet isn’t a comprehensive treatment of the subject but an “idiosyncratic essay” (with a bibliography for those who want more).  Here are some of the things that struck me, a mix of unknown unknowns, unknown knowns and known unknowns.

Design perfection on the computer screen may be something else entirely on the page.  A pamphlet page can be read almost to the central gutter but the binding of a paperback reduces page width by up to 20mm. 

Some typefaces are more economical than others with space across a page. 

Typesetters enjoy finding or making links between the typeface chosen and the writer and/or subject; Cambridge used a typeface called Tacitus (after the Roman historian famous for his irony, unusual vocabulary and the extreme compression of his writing) in a pamphlet on the Gaelic poet and scholar Derick Thomson. 

There is a typeface called Turnip. 

Unlike prose blocks in a book, the varying shapes of poems can lead to ‘show-through’ of type from one page to the next.  I suppose I had noticed this, but not enough to… notice.

Poetry dilemma: do you set the same left-hand margin on each page, or use an imaginary centre line to place the poems?  The latter may be necessary for a mix of long- and short-lined poems.  Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap happened to be on the table: I opened it and read with new eyes.  Her poems may be mostly blocks but the line length varies from middling to quite long.  Cape, her publisher, chose the centred approach.  This does – now – look slightly odd when one leaves through, but the other options would have been to squeeze the shorter-lined poems right over to the left, leaving lots of space on the right; or turn the longer lines over, ie run them on into the next line.  “Love” must have been maddening to arrange on its first, full page: the left-hand side of it almost disappears into the central gutter so as to accommodate all the lines … except line 1, which has to be turned over.  But then this is how the first few lines read:

I had thought it was something we were in. I had thought we
in it that day, in the capital
of his early province – how could we
not have been in it, in our hotel bed, in the
cries through the green grass-blade.

The initial awkwardness gets read into the argument of the poem.  In this case that works rather well with the emphasis on the forced line break “we / were”, two key words for the poem and indeed the whole book.  So I’m now almost wondering if the turning-over here was deliberate.

Cambridge compares writing poetry and typography because both “require almost neurotic levels of attention to detail”.  I’m no designer but am now engaged in noticing typesetting, along with birdsong and the silhouettes of winter trees.  

PS: I know the text of this blog post starts too far below the title.  I’ve been messing around with it for 15 minutes and have only made it worse…

PPS: I’ve just seen that Dave Coates (at Dave Poems, see the blog list on the right) has won this year’s Saboteur Best Reviewer Award.  Hooray!! and congratulations to him.