Sunday 29 May 2011

Groundhog day

– I mean in the sense derived from the film with Bill Murray, a day going through an experience again and again until you find a way through, over or under it. Yesterday was one such: the blog post below, written yesterday afternoon, about not having written a poem for a decade; then in the evening three people, in separate conversations, all quoting to me lines from poems that I’d forgotten having written; then discovering that, also yesterday, George Szirtes happened to have picked up (for £1, in a Cambridge second-hand bookshop) and read a poetry collection I published in 1993.

George says some generous things. So did the three people (all far younger than me; I’m not sure why this is relevant, but it feels so) I spoke with in the evening. Uncomfortable encounters. I felt I was being complimented on something I’d done by accident, for which the responsibility was not mine. It was a long time ago (‘but that was in another country; and besides, the wench is dead’). I can see what’s being done in those poems, I can even see that on occasion it’s being done quite well, but whoever is doing those things is not someone I’m now especially fond of.

The account I gave below of stopping writing is a simplification; there were other factors, among them a certain person for whom my poetry-writing was largely an irrelevance and from whom I learned to like the non-poet more than the poet. But even if I stick to what’s on the page, one of the things George says as praise – ‘Your endings allow you to slip out of the poem so perfectly I can only envy them’ – is for me, now, something that utterly damns them: there’s a tactical evasion going on that allows some nice effects but which prevents the poems from ever being more than, well, decent page-fillers. More: the evasion is so built in to the whole way of writing that to write something more than page-fillers it was necessary to start writing in a completely different way. No wonder I stopped.

And here I am up to the same tricks again (‘something I’d done by accident’). Publishing other work under pen names (Jennie Walker, Jack Robinson, for those arriving late) is clearly also connected: they were liberating precisely because they enabled me to sidestep the Charles Boyle I felt a need to distance myself from. Which of course suggests that evasion may be what all the work is about, in which case . . . We’ll see.

Saturday 28 May 2011

Losing things

As noted in a recent post (11 May) I left my notebook in Clerkenwell – well, someone posted it back to me. Last week I left my camera on a bus to Oxford; catching the bus back, I asked the man checking tickets about it and got my camera back. This week I left my bag (with proofs and stuff) in a café; I went back, it was still there.

Ten years ago this month I lost the habit, the knack, of writing poetry – not the will, I still had that – and that’s still missing. In Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview, which I was reading yesterday, Bolaño mentions three forms of stoppage. One is Georg Büchner’s – ‘the silence of death is the one that cuts the edge off what could have been and never will be.’ One is Rimbaud’s, which is ‘sought’. One is Juan Rulfo’s (he published a story collection and a short novel in the 50s, then nothing; he died in 1986), and this one ‘is so quotidian that explaining it is a waste of time’. Rulfo claimed he had an uncle who told him stories, and then the uncle died. Mine is the Rulfo type. A few years ago, when another poet me asked me what I was writing and I told him nothing, he was bracingly contemptuous: stop being so prissy, just sit down and get on with it. I tried but no result. Not because an uncle had died but because, and I do mean this, I wasn’t good enough. I wanted to get a new tone and a new range of material into the work, and I didn’t have the technique, the ability. Writing more of what I’d already written, variations on poems already in print, was pointless – firstly because there was no thrill in this, secondly because it wasn’t as if this was an income-generating activity that I needed to sustain to keep myself in cigarettes. So, quotidian reasons.

‘What made you start to write?’ is a common and usually boring interview question. The process of stopping writing has no less mystique attached to it. The photo above, taken in Yemen in 1880, was bought by two French booksellers in a flea-market and put on public display last year: some say the man second from the right is Rimbaud, some say it isn’t.

Thursday 26 May 2011

Tokaido Road

A blog review– from Scotland – of Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road. There was a party for the book last week at the University of Kent in Canterbury, a party for friends, family, colleagues, ex-colleagues, people who knew a lot about poetry and people who probably hadn’t read a poem since school, and it was a lovely mix. The book is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and it’s worth saying again that for the Arts Council to pull the rug from under the PBS, which is able to send books like this down more roads than I could ever travel myself, is a crying shame.

Monday 23 May 2011

Illustrated days

1. Taken on the ferry back from the Baltic island at the very end of March. I grew very fond of that island (which features largely in Susan Wicks’s new collection from Bloodaxe, House of Tongues; she too spent time there; it doesn’t just disappear over the horizon, it haunts).

2. Chip, on top of boxes of books that need to be sold. I’ve started a consultancy process with people at the publishing studies place at Oxford Brookes. There won’t be uniforms and compulsory company songs, but there’ll be changes.

3. A cockatoo feeding on the neighbour’s feeder. The unexpected happens anyway, no need to plan for it.

4. The fairytale bookshop at the Wapping Project, which is now stocked with a few more CBe titles. Lydia Fulton having gone away to have a child, which is a more important thing than running a bookshop, it’s now run by Benjamin Eastham, co-editor of The White Review, for which I’ve written (too late for the new print issue, which will be out in a week or so, but it's on their website ) a piece on the Arts Council cuts.

Friday 13 May 2011

How funding decisions get made

A reader in Hampstead ordered 20 copies of the Finland book, Not So Barren or Uncultivated, and would there were more such as him, and I took the books up there on the Tube, thinking this was the cheapest way of getting them there, but then paused in the Oxfam bookshop and spent the money I’d saved (on D. J. Enright’s book on irony, and on a Harry Mathews collection that includes his piece of 61 paragraphs each of which describes someone masturbating; which is more funny and touching than erotic, and good, and which I started reading on the Tube back home with my next-seat neighbour also taking an interest).

Money and books is always an awkward mix. This afternoon I came across the above diagram, from the Wikipedia entry on algorithm, and I am now convinced that this is how the recent Arts Council decisions were made: they input some data from tick-boxes, then applied the formula. No one has offered any better explanation.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

In May (‘Nine completely naked girls’)

May, the best month: all summer to come, and not having to put on layers of clothing when I get up in the early hours. And this afternoon I stumbled across a lovely exhibition in an alleyway in Clerkenwell titled Savage Messiah – which is the title of the Ken Russell film about Gaudier-Brzeska, screenplay by Christopher Logue – and there was a poster poem by Logue titled ‘In May’ which gave me the perfect cue, and I copied the first lines into my notebook.

Then I left my notebook in the adjacent cafe. I was, a little bit, bereft. Then this evening someone calls me, and can recite those lines from memory: ‘Nine completely naked girls / Will dance all afternoon/ On the tomb of the Unknown Conscientious Objector. / In keeping with tradition / Their profitable mounds will be close-shaved; / There will, however, be no posing.’ Some kind of magic is operating here.

The exhibition (at 1 Sutton Lane, London EC1M 5PU, until the end of May) is worth calling by. No queues. This is not official art history but it’s a sly and winning take on it: beginning just pre-1914, time of of mad manifestoes (‘Vortex is the point one and indivisible!’) but a period that’s still wide open, that no one has taken a conclusive measure of, and there’s Bill Woodrow and Paolozzi and contemporary artists in there too and photos of Jane Birkin with nothing on and videos of Logue reading and Ezra Pound stalking about a room and slamming books down on the floor. It’s why London isn’t a bad place to live, especially in May.

Sunday 8 May 2011

Book Now (1)

The above is from a new page on the CBe website, giving early notice of the poetry book fair to be held in September. The image is a bit austere (there’s another one coming soon), but you’ll notice that there’s plenty of room on it to add place and date and names of presses. If interested get in touch.

Typesetting: as well as for Notting Hill Editions, And Other Stories and Istros Books, I’m now doing this for an about-to-exist imprint called Savage Poets Collective, who are, so far, very mild-mannered. Anyone interested in adding to the heaps on my desk, speak.

A drawing I remembered last week and that I wanted to photograph turns out to have been made for a project in which all the drawings were rolled up, inserted into tubes and sent out to sea. The girl in my local café has got RSI from making too many coffees. (What happened to RSI, by the way? Wasn’t there a time when everyone was getting it, or worrying about getting it?) The parakeets are back feeding in my neighbour’s garden, but the vodka business is looking fragile – something to do with exchange rates. I met a man who last year sent me some writing from prison. I too, to my own surprise, have been writing (the good weather makes the early hours more usable). My income has been taking a whack. If the Earl of Southampton happens to be reading, or any other generous patron, get in touch.