Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Mainstream Love Hotel

My 6th full poetry collection - and debut British collection (after living here since 2003) - is being launched at the legendary Calder Bookshop, on The Cut, in London, at 7 pm, Tuesday, September 15th (three weeks from today). The publisher is that intrepid small press, now in its tenth year, tall-lighthouse, run by the great Les Robinson. The title is Mainstream Love Hotel. You are very welcome to attend the launch - admission and wine free.

Tears in The Fence 50

I'll be reading on September 5th as part of the celebrations in London for the publication of the 50th issue of Tears in the Fence, one of the indispensable, and more internationally-aware, little magazines of poetry and criticism from the UK. The latest issue features two poems by me, and poems by, among others: Melanie Challenger, John Kinsella, John Welch, Luke Kennard, Isobel Dixon, Jeremy Reed, John James - so you can see its an inclusive and intriguing spectrum. There are also some good reviews and articles by Jennifer K. Dick, Jeremy Hilton, John Stiles, Frances Spurrier, and Dfiza Benson (to name a few). It's a strong issue, and an impressive line-up of talents. Hats off to the editor, David Caddy, and associate editors, Sarah Hopkins, and Tom Chivers.

Alistair Te Ariki Campbell Has Died

Sad news. One of the leading New Zealand poets and writers, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, has died.


In some quarters, Arctic Monkeys are a sort of second coming of The Beatles, The Kinks, Joy Division and The Smiths combined - an authentically-British, regional, literate, and above all first-class band. Gordon Brown and Simon Armitage (and a handful of models) are among their best-known fans. Andrew Duncan, in his latest book, raises the question, how is that pop lyrics are popular, when poetry, which is often like pop lyrics, isn't? The answer, which he does not offer, might be: music. As poets are tired of hearing themselves say, poems are lyrics with the music in-built - poets are one-man or one-woman bands. Armitage is among those careful to delineate the subtle knife that divides a song by Morrissey or Alex Turner from a poem by Geoffrey Hill or Carol Ann Duffy. Duncan, when trying to ascertain the points of difference between "mainstream" and "avant-garde" poems (his terms), doesn't make enough of the ear/eye distinctions between traditional lyric poems that use verbal music, and text-based, "hyperliterate" works that are often more designed for direct intake by the eye-to-brain axis.

The third coming of AM is Humbug, produced, recorded and engineered in sunny America, mainly by Queens of the Stone Age main man Josh(ua) Homme. That this seems an absurd mix of tones would be like saying that who would have expected Elvis Costello to hook up with T. Bone Burnett. Turner is not as good a lyricist as Morrissey (nobody is) but he can turn some phrases that, at least, are more elliptical and strange than your average songsmith - but this time around his wry laddish chip-shop wit has been dulled by too-obvious sexual wordplay just a step above the cunning linguist level, and a few too-many references to circuses and dangerous animals. His tropes suggest he's been listening to The Doors, and seeking a cabaret volta to turn his words to darker subjects, mainly, it seems, pill-box hat types and other hangers-on, as well as devil women who would put him under heel, cracking the whip in furs.

The music is an about face too - these are harder, lurid, and often theatrical rock songs, and The Doors, and other 60s freaks hang over the proceedings; Homme adds his trademark sense of heaviness.

Turner's voice sounds irritatingly twee and faux-English at times, a Herman's Hermit singing over something close to Metallica, or at least, Nirvana (Serve the Servants?). I admire this attempt to do something new but also familiar, this hybridity - U2 did it with Joshua Tree, only much better. Still, Humbug has some very good, persuasive songs, that are louche, genuinely sinister, and the attitude of darkness is beguiling, if not entirely becoming. What seems a little lacking is either exact sexual candour (how wild is their wild new life?) or irony (are they just embracing Brooklyn point blank, or at an angle of repose?). Never are the lyrics less than sly, and rarely satiric or cutting.

This is unlike the other two AM albums - which is good, because the second is dull rubbish, and the first was a tour-de-force by wunderkinds who have now moved on. It remains to be seen whether the Arctic Monkeys are merely a spent force like The Strokes - a very early 00 group whose day has come and gone - or the next Radiohead or Coldplay - British bands able to break America and sustain a career for decades.

A friend has died

Sad news. My friend Dr. Richard Berkowitz, beloved partner of Letty Dahme, has died, yesterday, in America. I met Richard on Hydra, Greece, an island we all loved. He was a witty, compassionate, deeply thoughtful, rational, and fine person. He was the light of Letty's life, and together with her - though he was already well into his 70s - he travelled the world, sailed, and otherwise acted like a person half his age. His dancing at my wedding, back in 2003, was spry and impressive and full of vim. I liked him immensely. I loved him. He'd been a talented doctor before retiring. He retained dignity and concern from that career. In Letty, he found a brilliant and literate interlocutor, and friend, and they sparked off each other, adding years of renewal and love and hope. Letty and Richard inspired all who knew them. They made one know that life and love are far less limited than some might claim. They opened doors to people, made unexpected links, and experienced each day as an opportunity to be good, and to be adventurous. His death, by leukemia, has left the world a poorer place.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Brian Jones Obituary

Sad news, the poet Brian Jones died this summer. Here is his Guardian obituary, published today.

A New Poem Inspired By Reading Giles Goodland

Hammersmith, June

The sadness of England.
The coming storm.
The exodus from Tesco.
The death by flu.
The disused factory.
The walk under the rail bridge.
The can of lager in the hand.
The silence of certain streets.
The man smoking by the nursery.
The internet in the video store.
The broken espresso machine.
The 11.30 Mass.
The sunbathers on the Green.
The uneven footing.
The broken pavement.
The methadone clinic.
The shelves outside the shop.
The closed inquiry.
The rain at five to six.
The word path.
The hot and cold.
The end of the class.
The poets of promise.
The ground floor flat.
The geraniums in the box.
The sense of an ending.
The slow growth for another year.
The fear of the impending.
The autumn after the summer.
The unsigned contract.
The request for information.
The loss of nerve.
The godfather agreement.
The leukaemia email.
The post on the floor.
The revolutions elsewhere.
The rubber band left untouched.
The locks on the door.
The friends over after dinner.
The bra being modelled.
The detector vans.
The five novels from Amazon.
The thunder.
The artificial night of a storm.
The brother’s child.
The return to either/or.
The despair of small things.
The respect for the brickwork.
The reading light turned off.
The way a list is.
The book by Goodland.

poem by Todd Swift

The New Andrew Duncan Book: Preaching to the unconverted

I received a review copy of the new Andrew Duncan book of polemical criticism, The Council of Heresy: A primer of poetry in a balkanised terrain, on Friday, and read it through over the weekend, as gripped as if by a thriller. Duncan is perplexing and exasperating and compelling in equal measures: he's arguably one of the most significant poet-critics now writing seriously in Britain (if not the most), because of his passion, wide experience, eccentric insights, and unexpected juxtapositions and references (often to obscure German or medieval or theological texts). He never writes as an academic, per se, but uses footnotes. He is definitely not of the "mainstream" yet he retains an open mind. And, unlike almost everyone else, he knows who Terence Tiller is (the best joke in this book is when he claims that the 40s poets failed because of their moderation, a paradox worthy of Wilde).

He also has here rescued Anthony Thwaite from semi-obscurity (and let's face it, undeserved and general disinterest)by championing his work, an unexpected apologia from someone on the margins that I am sure Thwaite (as a Larkin ally) might be wary of if it wasn't so comprehensive and erudite a championing. Duncan can also be obtuse, naive, funny, and odd, in the same paragraph. Reading him is like reading something by Blake, if Blake read about neuroscience and was an idiot savant. You never know what you are going to get in a Duncan book - they are almost like Gysin cut-ups, with throw-away lines and observations of sometimes near-genius. I think I disagree with 80% of him, but treasure what I don't agree with, when he says it, anyway. He's the informative, engaging and punk edge of experimental UK poetry, in his new role as Greil Marcus to the Prynne Era.

There are too many important elements in this book to explore, or ignore. If you are a British poet, or critic, or want to know about the "poetry wars" and poetics, then you have to read this. It's about as unmissable as Avatar will be for sci-fi film buffs this winter. It's the Future. It's also the Past. Duncan in this book sets out to explore ways of imagining how we might go about solving the differences between the Cambridge avant-garde, the conservative postmoderns (Muldoon, Fenton, his designation), the mainstream, and the British Poetry Revival types. He has many important things to say and suggest, not least that there are maybe "eight or eleven factions" not two. He is the first critic to really bluntly state the fantasy aspect to all poets' imaginary positions, and his comparison of Raine's and Mottram's is useful and striking.

Duncan also offers correctives and explanations, to help understand the emptying out of the speedier, more abstract style of experimental British verse, and suggests - heretically I think - that the best way to read it is not to try too hard to understand it. It's meant to wash over one. He also wryly observes that maybe the reason so many people objected to the Mottram-era Poetry Review is because most people don't "like" experimental poetry. Duncan is good on remembering that poetry has or needs readers, and that they have wishes and needs too.

His main point is that there needs to be some sort of truth commission, where poets, and cultural managers and editors on all sides of the battle from 1960 to the present, the battle over the limited resources and assetts that poetry has to offer (and he notes these are real, often editorships for commercial presses where "seedy businessmen" hold sway), can meet and express their differences, truthfully. This is a Utopian dream and he admits it. Duncan's thinking through of why and how there are different poetries and receptions for poetry is confused, at times, I believe. Sometimes he is lucid and accurate, as when he notes that most poetry opinions are formed without reading the books of our enemies; and that since most poetry decisions are made in private there is no historical record of the injustices. However, he seems to want to say that readers may legitimately find modernist work as off-putting as ugly tower blocks, but that also it is ultimately the truer path for poetry.

Duncan is charmingly honest - he never pretends to like most "mainstream poetry" - though he lists some of the books by mainstreamers he does like, like Oswald's Dart. He believes that private mythology passionately expressed is important, so he approves, for instance, of Hughes. If Duncan does want to effect a rapprochement, he might have tried harder to edit out some of the cheap shots that mar this important and smart book. Jibes like we might need to decommission the poetry wars by having a controlled explosion of Don Paterson, or claims that all mainstream poets lead boring lives, seem jarring (especially since most experimental British poets are hardly models of thrilling lifestyles, either; indeed, a lot of poetry's Dad's Army-Shamanism seems pathetic, a bit like the pseudo-Satanist sent up in Polanski's The Ninth Gate). His claim that Auden is a chief problem with mainstream Anglican poetry and its light-verse conservatism also apparently ignores Auden's support for Ashbery, hardly a mainstream-Christian poet.

Duncan traces many problems to Anglicanism and Englishness, and Nonconformism, and the class struggle - yet praises Rowan Williams. Other confusions and errors appear - he claims there needs to be some work on narcissism and the artist, as if the work of the London Freudian school had never explored such things. He calls Ed Wood the Ed Wood Story. He also cites an anthology by the wrong title at some stage. He also claims to have never read critics on how diction claims can be related to suppression of alternate political positions and movements in history - well, he hasn't read Donald Davie then. These seem more like eccentric errors of the fast-thinking math whiz, mere untidiness amid the brilliant clutter. Perhaps his biggest error is to claim that the test case historical moment of observable conflict and suppression of the experimental wing in the UK was the Poetry Review Mottram episode.

Duncan, in general, doesn't think much has happened since 1980 of interest, and that the revolution was essayed in the 70s (and failed). He might have read his comrade, Ian Brinton, and his recent Cambridge guide to contemporary poetry, to see that the best test case was in fact the experimental poems about the Iraq war, and the attempt to suppress them (see Kendall, Tim). Duncan also seems to have missed the fact that the Internet has been effecting a depolarisation since 2002 at least, when Nthposition began publishing global poetry from all known schools and styles; nor does Duncan mention the "fusion poetry" movement, nor the recent Norton anthology of "Hybrid" poetry. There are attempts to reconcile styles and concerns.

What ultimately impresses me is Duncan's claim that such differences between schools and styles have "meaning" - and in fact, in a market, offer the greatest choice for readers. What remains insufficiently explored, for me, is why poems that explore domestic arrangements, and the personal voice, are necessarily poorer or duller than poems that empty out grammar and syntax, and present sped-up, verbally hyperliterate texts. I personally feel that much poetry of all kinds is dull and poor, but enough is worthwhile, across the spectrum. My own work attempts to explore some aspects that Duncan respects - the riotous, the artificial, the rhetorical, the passionate, the mythic - but also wants to be able to speak of the personal, and my experiences. After all, in a capitalist world, perhaps the only thing we almost possess is our self, and even that, of course, is not true; but trying to explore speaking through the almost-self is a valid "procedure" too.

Review: The XX

The XX are a new British band of two boys and two girls that are getting great press for their debut, titled XX. I bought it the other day and it is lovely. I am sure it's going to be ignored as Humbug is released today (more on that later I suppose). One of the things that's not true about the reviews is the claim that their sound is original. It isn't - but it is a clever melange of Sonic Youth, Pixies, Lou Reed, Interpol, and perhaps most of all, Joy Division - that is, the post-punk guitars and spare arrangements, and horse-calmed vocals - most remind one of the artier end of indie. Some of the music even seems like Glasvegas, but one austerely pruned. It's haunting, sweet, sometimes eerie, and often moving - and intelligent in an understated way. It'll be an album of the year. My favourite track is 7.

Guest Review: Harlow on The Best Canadian Poetry

Morgan Harlow reviews
The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008

The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 is the inaugural volume of this series in Canada. Edited by Stephanie Bolster, the series editor is Molly Peacock.

“Who do you think you are?” asks Stephanie Bolster at the beginning of her introduction to The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008. It is a phrase, she explains, that refers to a “reluctance to pronounce a viewpoint,” making an apt launching point for a discussion on the responsibilities of the role of editor in a ‘best of’ series. “Who do you think you are?” echoing the Alice Munro story of that title, is also a political statement, for Bolster and in this context conveying a sense of what it is to be Canadian, to be a woman, to be a poet.

As an American, a United States citizen writing a review on The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008, I, also, begin by asking myself, “Who do you think you are?” Most of what I think I know about Canada, its literature, music and art, feels somehow mythic and iconic. Northrop Frye, the Group of Seven, Gordon Lightfoot, Stan Rogers, Leonard Cohen, several successful writers of fiction, and Anne Carson come to mind. And of the country itself, though I’ve taken three road trips through Canada, twice west and once east, with stops in many of its major cities, I’ve found that what I know best about Canada is that it is diverse, and not at all easy to define.

It may help to get a few facts in order, and a quick Google search brings me to—where else? –the CIA World Factbook where I find the most up-to-date, pertinent facts about Canada, including:

Area—Comparative: somewhat larger than the US

Nationality: noun: Canadian(s)
adjective: Canadian

Who do I think I am? The CIA World Factbook on the United States:

Area—Comparative: about half the size of Russia; about three-tenths the size of Africa; about half the size of South America (or slightly larger than Brazil); slightly larger than China; more than twice the size of the European Union

Nationality: noun: American(s)
adjective: American

Note that the United States is not described as somewhat smaller than Canada, and the identifying term for its citizens is American(s), not United Statesian(s).

Perhaps it has everything to do with that elusive ‘Canadian difference’ and why so many Americans are enthralled by such an idea, for it represents for Americans the possibility of getting outside of themselves to gain a different and valuable perspective.

Which is, after all, what reading poetry can do. Says Molly Peacock, the series editor, “As it turns out, our first volume of The Best Canadian Poetry in English is as different from its US counterpart as Canadian poetry itself differs from what is written to the south” (prologue, ix).

There are 50 poems here. Following these are the appendices: another 50 poems are referenced on a long list; also included are short list’s poets biographies and poem notes and commentaries, a list of magazines where the poems were first published and a list of magazines considered.
In the introduction Bolster describes the criteria on which she based her selections and makes a few observations about the range of work represented, ultimately believing that “what these poems share is a lively sense of the creative process.”

Many of the poems in this volume combine what Bolster calls “an interesting, even strange, sensibility or imagination” with elements interacting with or informed by some aspect of literary tradition, whether through homage as in Jeffery Donaldson’s “Museum,” experimentation with form as in Méira Cook’s “A Walker in the City,” or, as in Todd Swift’s “Gentlemen of Nerve,” cultural pastiche.

Also notable:

Maleea Acker’s “The Reflecting Pool”: A meditation on seeing and self, with nature as the captivating image rather than—or perhaps truly becoming one with—the self.

James Arthur’s “Americans”: Travel, place, introspection, love. The elegant timing recalls the best of Thomas Hardy’s love poems.

Brian Bartlett’s “Dear Georgie”: A found poem taken from letters written by Bartlett’s uncle in 1918, who was enlisted in the Canadian army and training in England. Thrilling in a way provincialism rarely is, through the authenticity of a voice as real as a tug on the sleeve and could very well have belonged to an acquaintance of the narrator of Edward Thomas’ “As the team’s head brass.”

J.R Toriseva’s “Encyclopedia of Grass”: A nature poem perhaps, but one with postmodern tendencies. Canadian prairie, grass, poetry, language, words and the interrelationships therein, across space and time.

But these are just a few observations on just a few of the poems. The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 is a collection of fascinating and worthy poems, a wonderful beginning for this series. The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2009, A. F. Moritz, ed., will be out in October 2009.

Morgan Harlow is an American poet who reviews regularly for Eyewear.

St Ives School

I am now back from my staycation. Eyewear's policy is to not spend too much time on the merely personal details of my "private life", but I will say it was a welcome break. Penzance and St Ives are marvellous places to visit - the people are very warm, the pace is slow, the beaches as beautiful and clean as on the Med (more so), the light fascinating, and the culture and food (often the freshest of seafood) are excellent.

Next year we'll bring wetsuits - the sea was 12 degrees most days, which made swimming for too long a challenge, though we did our best. Also enjoyable was the hammering deep into the sand of special gayly-coloured windscreens. Watching the families play cricket and other ball games together, and the many children timelessly building their little engineering projects against the waves, was moving. It was possible to form a sense of what an "ideal" Britain might be, one guided by play and simpler pleasures. August is a kind of heaven.

The Barbara Hepworth Museum is one of the best of its kind, anywhere in the world - her sub-tropical garden filled with extraordinary modernist scuplture; and the Tate St Ives is also impressive, from its sea-view, to its collection of the St Ives School - that major moment in modern art where the local and the international came together, as did an interest in nature and the abstract. No wonder WS Graham (and other poets) found so much to inspire them in Cornwall. Our own rental place was in Carbis Bay, right near where Ben Nicholson and Hepworth had lived in the 40s and 50s; and indeed, 1959 was the 50th anniversary of the visit of Rothko to St Ives. I am looking forward to thinking more about St Ives art in future, in relation to British poetics.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Scottish Independence?

Those watching the events of the last few days, in which a principled, upright and devout lawyer stood up to his community to do the right thing, might think they were watching a Scottish version of To Kill A Mockingbird, or even, a play by Ibsen. More Ibsen than Lee, methinks, if only because such moral decisions always have deeper roots and more ambiguous, even tragic results, than intended. It is not enough to be moral, you might say - you must also be wise. A few refreshing things have emerged from this incident of the convicted mass murderer's release - a chance to see Scotland act as a government on the world stage, and a chance to hear Christianity openly discussed as a tool for making decisions. These good things have been offset, though, by the damage done.

As others have already observed, mercy needn't be excessive to be true, and there is nothing in the Bible, or Sermon on the Mount, about releasing murderers from jail (other than Barabbas). Indeed, the early (and very first) Christians often went to their deaths as martyrs, happily, and did not expect or even want early release. Since Marcus Aurelius, that emperor and Stoic himself may have martyred Christians, and often wrote of bearing up to terrible punishment, we can see a long classical history of not, in fact, releasing people as they are dying. Ethically and religiously, it may have been smarter and kinder to keep the man under guard, but also of course in good care and close to his family. Still, the decision was taken to snub Obama and do it anyway.

The bird has flown, the horse out of the stables, etc. What now? Brown's government looks like hypocrites, snarling at Libya and Scotland, but unable to articulate a coherent position, since they want to deal with the North African nation, and also want to punish the SNP, so can't appear too clear in their views. I had hoped for Scottish independence, personally, at some stage, soon. I'm two quarters Scots, by birth (my grandfather was a Hume, my grandmother a Fraser). Scotland has the history, philosophy, geography and the literature to rival Ireland as one of the great nations of these isles, and could go it alone, within the EU. Its chances - the SNP's chances - have been delivered a bad blow, I think, in the short term. They have looked amateurish and small on the world stage, or rather, idealistic but naive. They don't appear to be a government able to handle the nuanced diplomacy such moments require. On the other hand, the SNP has - at least - not retreated into the sort of deadly equivocation we too often get from the Brown brigade.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Seaway Reviews Update

Kate Rogers, the Canadian poet, has just published a review of Seaway at Cha, the Asian literary journal with an international remit. It has also been recently reviewed at NPR. And, to make matters better, also at Osprey, Scotland's ongoing online literary journal.

Staycationing During A Barbecue Summer

Eyewear is back soon, and will report on the impressive English beach holidaymakers and their stiff upper lips, able to make 12 degree water seem like the Med, and mallet in windbreaking screens to protect against dull and lowering skies with aplomb.

Friday, 7 August 2009

John Hughes Has Died

I am stunned. I just saw this at Baroque in Hackney - John Hughes, the retired genius of the American teen film genre, has died. Now is not the time to go into this in detail - readers of Eyewear will know I have long thought the intersection between Hughes and Simple Minds may be the quintessential preppie 80s North American adolescent moment - but he was great, and will not be forgotten.

Oxfam and secondhand bookshops

The BBC and other media (The Guardian) have recently picked up on complaints made by some secondhand bookshops that Oxfam's network of secondhand shops - for which I have been poet in residence for 5 years - is putting them out of business. Little mention has been made of the good work Oxfam does, of mutual benefit to them and the writers, in establishing innovative cultural platforms across the UK for poetry and other writing, such as their Lifelines CDs, and the recent fortnight book festival, the biggest of its kind anywhere in the world. While I am sure having excellent Oxfam used bookshops nearby provides competition, it is likely the pressures on all book-sellers come more from the Internet, where used books are easily located and cheaply shipped. If anything, the Oxfam shops are extending a quality network of secondhand bookshops to communities and areas that might not otherwise have them.

Guest Review: Naomi On Gittins

Katrina Naomi reviews
I'll Dress One Night as You
by Chrissie Gittins

This collection opens with a bravura poem "Leaving Brancaster Staithe". I was knocked out by this extended metaphor using a flock of geese to foretell a death. You really need to read the poem in full, each stanza builds and reinforces what has come before, and I can't do it justice with an extracted line or two. However, the second stanza will at least give a flavour of the quality of Gittins' writing here:

Spread like iron filings
over a starched white tablecloth
they settled on the marsh,
a single snow goose the eye of their storm.

"Leaving Brancaster Staithe" is the first in a sequence of poems which gives the book its title. While the sequence is strong, for my money, none of the others in the sequence are as powerful as the opening poem. However, Gittins is a fine poet, nearly always managing at least one (and often several) cracking line(s) in every poem.

Take "The Second Drive to Dundonnell", for example, one of many nature- or landscape-based poems, with these wonderful lines: "the cog-sharp ridge jabbed at soft-blue light. / [...] sheep begin to think the road their own."

And in "Landscape and Portrait", Gittins opens with: "There's rain enough to re-surface the sea"; poetry which gets inside the imagination and reinvents it. This is a wide-ranging collection, with many historical figures and settings being invoked. Several of these reminded me of Jane Yeh's work from her debut with Carcanet, Marabou, although for this reviewer, Gittins' historical poetry lacks the emotional punch of Yeh's work.

Gittins' nature or landscape-inspired poems scored far higher with me, as did those of a more personal nature; those with less of the research about them. Gittins has a keen eye and her verbs and imagery are rarely dull. For example, I enjoyed: "her painted toenails/glowed like closed anenomes" from "Pyjama Walk", and from "Alcyone": "how the seams of the ship/tore easily, like new bread".

This is Gittins' second collection for adults (her first Armature was published by Arc in 2003), she has also published two collections for children. She is originally from Lancashire and lives in south London. Both geographical influences can be seen in this collection. While there is much to enjoy in this second collection, especially the imagery, I found myself wanting more poetry that gave of itself emotionally, that engaged with me as powerfully as the opening poem.

Katrina Naomi's first full collection The Girl with the Cactus Handshake (Templar Poetry) will be published in the autumn. She is shortly taking up a residency with the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Yorkshire.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Workshop

I have two poems just up at Irish poet Paul Perry's site, which features poets. Recommended.

The Decline of the Auteur

Sight and Sound's latest issue features a wild bunch of out-there auteurs. Also, a fawning interview with director Quentin Tarantino. I haven't been to Cannes or seen his latest Nazi hunter film, though I know his production company once expressed interest, about ten years ago, in a Nazi hunter screenplay I'd co-written. I'll be interested in seeing his movie. I actually think Tarantino has done some expressive, stylish and startling work of importance, especially in Kill Bill 1, and he seems a key cultural figure of the 1990s. I also think it is a sad reflection on the decline of the arts, and the auteur, that, in 2009, as significant an arthouse journal as S&S should be hanging on this indie maverick's every word.

The problem, it seems to me, is that QT's ideas - if translated into a literary or literate medium (and he often speaks in terms of novelistic devices, like chapters) - would be sub-par, or even old-hat. Apart from his explorations of genre, via the lenses of violence, soundtrack and character - which he does with genius - the man has little to say. Certainly, it has become tedious to consider that his movies continue to be indulgent adolescent male fantasies, populated with sexy women, killers, and other pulp tropes. I am all for low culture meeting high culture - I am the poet who wrote a poem called Gun Crazy, after all.

I suppose I am worried that film is being colonised by a very low common denominator. Of course, Hollywood and commercial film product can and should entertain - but Tarantino makes claims to be an artist, much like Welles was, and magazines of note like S&S support such claims. Welles made the supreme B-movie - Touch of Evil - and its bravura helming is still breathtaking.

Many of the nouvelle vague films were crime-inflected, to be sure. And, the best of the film noirs are high art - as with Aldrich, one of the key original autuers, and a maker of the great Kiss Me Deadly. But is Tarantino in that Welles-Bresson-Aldrich league? Is he a Huston? I fear not, if only because his emotional palette appears so limited. He badly needs to explore humanity (if not morality) in one of his next films, much as Scorsese has done, or Spielberg. It is true that Hitchcock remained a supreme master, but also focused on depravity and murder - but his Vertigo explored a major theme that has been superficially touched upon in Tarantino's work: love.

Ross Macdonald

There was a quite good retrospective little essay by Tobias Jones on the North American crime writer, Ross Macdonald, in the Guardian recently. Macdonald has been one of my favourite novelists since playwright Morwyn Brebner turned me on to his work over twenty years ago. For those who love Chandler, Macdonald does deepen that oeuvre. I went to Foyles, the UK bookstore, the other day, to see how Macdonald was doing. There was only one of his books available, whereas the crime shelves featured more than a dozen books by most well-known crime authors. It seems his rep may have flagged, at least over here. Of his many classic books, The Blue Hammer, his last of the Lew Archers, moves me the most. I find the key trope almost unbearably moving.

Sonja Skarstedt Has Died

Sad news. One of the leading lights of the Montreal literary scene since the 80s, Sonja Skarstedt, poet, editor, essayist, and publisher, has died of cancer. I have incredibly fond memories of Sonja and Geof (her partner) during the Zymergy days (87-91) when she was editor. She took great photos of the events I was running, then, with Bill Furey, the New McGill Reading Series, which we ran out of the Bistro Duluth. It seems strange to think that was more than 20 years ago now. Sonja was funny, kind, very warm, and very brilliant. She lit up the room when she walked in. She was interested in so many people and ideas, and was a fine writer. She did marvellous things for the community in Montreal, not least by being so supportive of the Louis Dudek legacy. She will be much missed. Her obituary is here.


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...