Thursday, July 30, 2009

Deep Cleanse and Escape

Well, I've been back almost a week from the wonderous getaway writer's hotel (okay you get artists there too and dancers and musicians) that is the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig. It was brilliant, I wrote loads and met loads of new and interesting people and talked the face of myself. About writing, art, that I like.

And I feel like it was a month ago. I was whisked off to Cabra Castle, home of the romantic getaway, by mon cheri, for our fifth wedding anniversary. Imagine: five years. People in prison get parole ... only joking!

From Our wedding + Kerry

Back in 2004... ah, God be with the days. Feel free to embiggen. And laugh!

So of course once I got back, there was the state of the house to be contended with. I've just got over the brow of the washing, cleaning and scrubbing mountain today. Even the goldfish were washed.

And very soon I am off to the Kingdom, Ciarrai, for my annual dose of mountains, sea and obligatory Irish-style picnics: sandwiches complete with sand and 'hang' (ham to those not Irish).

From Kerry pictures 03

The western view from our (rented) holiday house in Ciarrai. From the sitting room window.

When I get back, there's Flatlake Literary & Arts Festival, where I'm reading in not one, but two acts, with some really top notch poets and writers! This summer gets more active by the day. Keep an eye on WRW's blog and Musings for more info, as well as Emerging Writer's

See y'all on the far side :)

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Cabbage Cometh Forth

So, who is Rob Mackenzie? Well, Rob was born in Glasgow, and currently lives in Edinburgh. He originally studied law and then turned to theology. He has spent periods of time in Seoul, Lanarkshire and Turin and is involved in organising Edinburgh’s ‘Poetry at the…’ monthly reading series.

Rob’s pamphlet, The Clown of Natural Sorrow (Happenstance, 2005), was what brought him to people’s attention first, and a debut full-length poetry collection was published by Salt books this year, The Opposite of Cabbage, and is already receiving a great deal of critical attention, not only in Scotland but further afield. Current reviews (and they are very encouraging) include Magma 44 and the latest edition of Poetry London.
Failte Rob go blóg Barbara.

Today we celebrate your arrival at this stop in the Cyclone Blog Tour and offer a little Irish sustenance to keep you going on your travels. Our meal will be simple fare: cabbage, bacon and spuds, with homemade parsley sauce (none of that packet stuff, here), which goes well with your collection The Opposite of Cabbage. And of course a creamy pint of plain black porter. Complete with shamrock … or should that be a harp? Anyway, let’s get started on the questions.

In your interview on Nic Sebastian's Very like a whale, you mention when you began to work for real on your poems towards a first collection. Did you find it easy to tell the difference between good poems and better ones? Were there any you wanted to put in but were dissuaded from doing so?

Sometimes I know when I’ve written a good poem; sometimes it’s really difficult to know. It’s easier when the poems are many months or even years old. I often feel my most recent poem is my best one and only realise that it’s crap months later.

Two types of poem particularly resist self-assessment. Firstly, those which seem weird or adventurous, in which I’ve entered territory I’m unsure about, which I’m not sure the reader is going to ‘get’ in any meaningful way, especially those poems when I’m pleased with my own writing.

Writers can bewitch themselves by their own writing. Sometimes that’s because it’s good. Sometimes it’s because writing poetry is partly about casting spells, spells which should act on the reader. However, the writer has to examine his/her material more clinically. Self-deception is a common ingredient in many spells and can involve the writer returning to a poem months or years later and realising, with a high degree of self loathing, that the spell has worn off and the poem is awful.

In contrast, the second kind of poem I find hard to assess is the one that seems quite normal, fairly mainstream. I don’t want to write boring poems that mirror hundreds of others. The question is – does this one stand out from the pack? Is there something about it that’s distinctive? These questions are very hard to answer, although surprisingly easy to answer when it comes to assessing other people’s poems!

I was dissuaded (by a few writers who read my manuscript) from including certain poems. I took some out, revised some, and stubbornly held onto others. I always asked the question as to how important the inclusion of a poem was to me. If it wasn’t really important, it was easy enough to ditch. That’s all a writer can do, I think. You can’t ever guess which poems will go down well with readers. In two reviews I’ve had recently, a poem one critic pointed out as among his favourites was labelled a dud by another (in an otherwise very positive review).

In your other life, would you say that your pastoral work informs your poetry? I detected that behind the poem 'White Noise,' and wondered how faith (and in turn poetry) can be a consolation when we flawed humans feel most frail.

Yes, my work as a Church of Scotland minister does inform certain poems. I have to be careful with issues of confidentiality, so I never write about any individual directly or in a way in which a person could be identified, but many images and ideas come from my experience of working alongside people, often in difficult circumstances. ‘White Noise’ (scroll down the webpage) is a direct example of this – the character ‘Frank’ is entirely fictional, although informed by the death of a baby after a few days in a real family. The trumpet notes and cherry blossom were factual, and come from a house I pass daily on my walk down to my parish, although I’ve manipulated them for poetic purposes. That poem is one of those I wondered whether people would engage with or not, one I found particularly difficult to assess, but I’ve had as much positive reaction to it as to any poem in the collection.

I think poetry (and faith) can act as a consolation for people, but I tend not to write with that in mind. I try not to force poems to fulfil a role. I begin a poem with whatever has sparked it off and go with the flow until it’s done, whether that takes a few minutes or a few years. I then revise sections that seem dull or predictable. The poem may console, celebrate, challenge, illuminate, or discomfort. I don’t go out of my way to do any of these things (I go wherever a poem appears to lead me), but I hope each individual poem generates a reaction of one kind or another in individual readers.

The Opposite of Cabbage uses the device of a narrator that seems unable to help themselves but look, say for example in 'Girl Playing Sudoku on the Seven-Fifteen. They ‘bear witness’ but cannot do anything about it. I think that this points to the way that society tends to avoid having to get involved, and wondered if that was a valid reading?

I hadn’t considered that as a reading of that poem, but it’s a fair way to read it. At least, I think what you’re reading into it is mirrored in several other poems and in society. Paralysis is the dominant political reality of the day, I’d say. Governments do things, often against the will of the majority, and no one can work out what the hell to do about it. It’s no good to vote the party-in-power out because the opposition is just as bad and probably worse. Protest falls on deaf ears.

What’s odd is that mass demonstrations (against the war in Iraq, for example) are ignored and problems concerning young people, education, poverty and the health service are talked away, but when a newspaper reveals financial irregularities at the heart of Government, a whole load of MPs are forced to resign. I find that really disturbing. Scandal always seems to have more effect in the UK than political necessity. Why no resignations over Iraq and Afghanistan, over the dire state of many areas of our cities etc? A financial scandal is shameful, of course, but the resignations won’t change anything in our society. We are paralysed as far as that goes. Some poems in the collection reflect that, bear witness to it, reveal it. Sadly, they don’t, in themselves, have power to ensure change, but I do believe that poetry – and literature as a whole – is important for any society and the very fact that people often turn to it in times of tragedy and turmoil is compelling evidence of its continuing importance.

And finally, Some of your poems are self-referential (and humorous) in that they invoke the poet in the poem as well as the poet looking on from outside the poem. I'm thinking of 'Advice from the Lion Tamer to the Poetry Critic,' and 'A Creative Writing Tutor Addresses his Star Pupil.' Using the sestina form in particular in 'A Creative Writing ...' seems to undercut both content and the form. How did you get the idea to take this approach?

I’ve read quite a number of modern sestinas which undercut their own form. I know some people who would argue that such ‘anti-sestinas’ represent the only way to make the form work these days. I wouldn’t go that far (although good sestinas of any kind are few and far between), but there is something ridiculous about the form. It’s so difficult to write one without becoming repetitious and tedious that the challenge is irresistible for someone like me. I wrote numerous sestinas but only one made the book.

I use ‘John Ashbery’ as an end-word, which is a daft idea in itself. It references the fact that Ashbery has written at least one celebrated (typically oddball) sestina, ‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape’. I wrote an earlier draft of the poem in response to a sestina by Stephen Burt called ‘Six Kinds of Noodles’, which employed ‘Ashbery’ as an end word. I was then directed to another example, by Kent Johnson, ‘Avantforte’,in which the increasing length of the lines only adds to the farce.

I wrote my sestina in iambic pentameter while the tutor in the poem pontificates about how form and metre are effectively outmoded concepts, which I thought had humorous potential. Also, ‘John Ashbery’ was a helpfully iambic name! The poem is a satire on the creative writing industry. Not that the industry is all bad, of course. There are many excellent teachers I’d be delighted to receive a few lessons from myself, and many CW students go on to produce excellent work. The poem is a satire and I do think the sestina has real potential as a vehicle for satire.

Thank you Rob, for these full and informative answers, which I think add greatly to reading your collection. Please scoot along to Rob’s Salt Page, where you can read samples from the collection – it might persuade you to make a purchase, which you won’t regret. I hope you enjoyed the quick meal, Rob, and a pint of plain. Rob’s next Cyclone stop is at poet Michelle McGrane’s blog, Peony Moon.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Cabbage comes to Dinner

... and will be served with bacon and spuds - yes, we are going to toast it in Irish-style!

Yes, Rob Mackenzie is swinging by this blog on Monday 27th of July, as part of his Decabbage Yourself Cyclone Tour, which recently stopped by the blog of Bernardine Evaristo (author of the excellent Blonde Roots).

We will dine in simple Irish style, and raise a pint of the black stuff while we're at it. And of course, we will investigate aspects of Rob's book from Salt, The Opposite of Cabbage, reviewed recently here, as well as other pressing questions on writing.

In the meantime, you can see what Rob has to say at the photographer and poet Apprentice at My (Elastic) Gap Year, when he chats about his book and other musings.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A tiny bit of good news

Those energetic guys who organised the UK Latitude Festival linkup with Pen Pusher magazine had a competiton running for poems about one's postcode.

Today they announced the winner from a shortlist of ten poems that they liked, and the winner is Inua Ellams with 'Lovers, Liars, Conjurors and Thieves'. Inua's poem is an 'ode to Southwark', London, and his poem will be published in issue 13 of Pen Pusher due on July 23rd. He will read on the New Voices stage on Sunday 19th July at 11.40am at the Latitude Festival and will also receive a cool T-shirt with the winning postcode on it, provided by I love my postcode. Well done to him!

Why am I telling you this? Because this poem, about dear old Dundalk, 'Because I Heard About the Harp', made it into the final ten! Oh my :) I knew there was something good about having a beer factory in the town - hai (as we say here!).

Two Irish Winners at the Templar Pamphlet Comp

Congratulations are due to Paul Maddern and Nuala Ni Chonchuir. Strictly speaking Paul is from Bermuda, but we've adopted him in Belfast, and what's theirs is ours and vice versa. I know Paul from my days in Queen's last year and where he is just finishing off a doctorate on sound and poetry.

In Templar's words:

Templar Poetry is delighted to announce the winners of the 2009 Templar Poetry Pamphlet Prizes. The full results, including the anthology poets, and other new titles will be placed on the Templar Poetry Website on Sunday 12th July. The publication of all new pamphlets and collection will be celebrated at the Derwent Poetry Festival in late autumn.

Nuala Ni Chonchuir: 'Portrait of the Artist with a Red Car'

Paul Maddern: Kelpdings

David Morley: The Rose of the Moon

Dawn Wood: Connoiseur

A huge congrats to all the winners -and a special shout out for Nuala - yay!

Work from Kairos

is featured on Peony Moon, Michelle McGrane's blog. She is very kind to host Roosters, which is one of those poems that keeps getting comments, whether by mail, email or at readings. If only we knew what we were doing when we wrote them!

Michelle has work featured on the latest issue of ouroboros which you really should check out - it's packed to the rafters with work, including John Walsh from Galway; not just in print but in sound and vision too.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

More on The Wounded Deer & Frida Kahlo's Art

I pulled down a book I had forgotten I had at the weekend, it's a bio-art book on Frida Kahlo's work, and I read it very quickly, and had a good stare at all the pictures in it and a read of the details of her life. Dear me, but she had a tough life, physically-wise, but she never let it get her down, and in her 47 years on earth managed to produce some amazing art.

Then I read 'The Wounded Deer' again, and I really feel that Petit has gotten Kahlo's voice, or as close as you could dare without the services of a medium. My absolute favourite poem in this pamphlet is based on, and is also titled, 'My Birth,' which you can view here . Don't let the picture put you off in any way, the poem is the most positive thing I've ever read, a real making of good, life-affirming art from -well, good life-affirming art. Art was what kept Kahlo sane and allowed her a true expression of her soul.

Another favourite line comes from 'The Wounded Deer,' also available to view here. 'And once, when I opened my eyes / too quickly after the graft, / I could see right through / all the glass ceilings...' Love that glass ceiling - class.

Pascale has two poems up on her blog today to celebrate Frida's birthday, one just happening to be, yes you've guessed it - 'The Wounded Deer'. She's also reading down in Bantry (thanks Liz) at the West Cork Literary Festival, Ireland on Thursday morning at 11am in Bantry Bookshop. I can't go (sob, sob), so I shall just have to make do with me imagination... ah well!

Monday, July 06, 2009

Poetry Collaborations for Horizon Review

Editor Jane Holland, of Salt's online Horizon Review, has been looking for poets to link up with other poets to create collaborative work for the new issue, Horizon III. The deadline is 30th August, and there's no limit on the topic or the length. I assume that it's poets working with poets and I've seen really successful results coming from projects like these, especially in the last but one issue of qarrtsiluni, where they had some very thougtful collaborations between artists and writers. Gorgeous stuff.

So what are you waiting for? Link up with another poet and get collaborating! Submission guidelines for Horizon Review can be found here.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

First Thoughts... on The Zoo Father et al

... are how disturbing I find the poems in this compact collection (but not in a bad way). I can see why The Zoo Father was much talked about when it came out. There's a fusion of personal mythology with a wider mythology which really works: it's scary in places and has you asking lots of questions, not just of the text, but of yourself too. It makes me excited by the possibilities of poetry: what you can do with material when you're not prepared to just go with ordinary face value.

It also makes me question what I'm doing in my own work - no bad thing. My own stuff has gotten steadily darker lately, and I was wondering if I was going the right way. I'm a bit obsessed with people who are fallen and implements of torture and it's all very heavy going at times. I know I haven't finished mining the present seam I'm excavating, and I can see that in Petit's work, the way that her themes continued into a follow-up collection, The Huntress.

I'm very excited by the pamphlet I got, The Wounded Deer, (only £3.00!) which will be developed into a full 50 poem collection, What The Water Gave Me, expected next year from Seren. I think that Pascale captures not only Frida Kahlo's voice, but the way that she made art, very well. I have a real soft spot for Frida's work, ever since I came across it in an article in the Sunday Times magazine a good few years ago. I like the allegory and symbology that Kahlo uses, which is why her work makes a good subject for Petit to work with.

If you like the sounds of these, go over and check out Pascale Petit's site, there are sample poems you can read, including the award winning The Strait-Jackets.

Now, I'm off to mind this lamb tagine I'm cooking. I'm so sick of salads!