Thursday, 26 June 2014

WEST COAST EARLY 90S GOTHIC

I was reading a review of Lana del Rey's Ultraviolence the other day, in Q or the NME or somewhere, and I came across the suggestion of a new pop culture genre that had hitherto been vague to me, though one I knew I loved - without naming it - even as I very much lived through it.  In fact, the reviewer doesn't make a claim of a new genre, but mentions that her new album seems to be in the same world as early 90s American artifacts like Twin Peaks, the song 'Wicked Game' and Mazzy Star's heroin-pop music.

There was a deviant, weird twang to that time, basically a twisted 50s vibe, where everything decent and American from the 50s became reinvested with the subtextual sex, subversion and queerness that was always latent in its Sirkian surfaces.  Buried Camp revisited, this time as a darker sultrier post-modern reorganisation - but dreamy, haunted, weird - Ed Wood the movie, as it were. Well, okay, I buy into that - the creepy post-modernity of X-Files (also West Coast and Gothic) fits, as does the fascination with the thwarted love affair between Lecter and Starling.

And, the more I thought about this, I realised, I came into my own, poetically and aesthetically, in the early 90s - my first pamphlets published then.  Suddenly, my own post-modern style came to me - I too was a West Coast Early 90s Gothic kinda guy, at least up until my second collection, Cafe Alibi. Just thought I;d mention that, because, 20 + years later, the 1990-1994 American period in America seems most fertile muck indeed.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

THE GREAT BELOW

I was recently sent a review copy of Maddy Paxman's The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss. It explores the marriage between her and the revered American-British poet Michael Donaghy, who died at the age of 50, from bleeding on the brain, in London, at the height of his poetic powers. This isn't a very long or helpful review, I am sorry to say, because I found the book too sad to complete.

I did, however, read up to page 83, and I am sure that some comment is better than none. Donaghy, friend to Don Paterson, John Stammers, and other major poets in the UK, and someone I admired and knew a bit (I sat beside him at one of his last birthday parties), is as close to a sainted figure among those British poets who love form and wit as one can get, and there seems no doubt this review copy is a poisoned chalice - how can one truly review such a sorrowful tale, without being accused of insensitivity if one notes any faults?  Well, I respect the author too much not to give it an honest critical response, as far as I can.

There is a poignant gulf in the text, between Paxman's own ability with language, and that of her husband's.  Paxman's book is well-written, clear, interesting, and very frank - but Donaghy was a verbal genius, and that absence of linguistic felicity marks this work, which, written in prose, has less of the dark wit and formal surprise of a Donaghy poem.

This is a strange, unsettling book, that exists in that short genre of the "great poet's widow" biographies, the best-known and best, being Left Over Life To Kill, which is such a bleak and powerful title.  I am unsure as to the audience of this book, for it appears as a memoir but also a kind of self-help work, as it show the way forward out of terrible loss.

While Donaghy was very well-known in the poetry world, he was not famous too far outside it, yet there is not quite enough set up, at the start of the book, explaining just how loved and important his work, charisma, teaching, and readings were to those around him.  That's a shame, because it doesn't give readers a way in to the full drama.

Paxman is blunt about personal details of their marriage, but also his dying last few hours.  Did we really need to know that as this great, gentle man was dying he was worried about the so-called "ampersands" - experimental poets - taking over the poetry world's academic structures?  Donaghy is revealed to be profoundly needy, child-like, and often lost without Paxman.  I am sure he was, but the portrait that emerges is somehow diminishing.  If, as she suggests, he was so unable to handle so many details of life, why share that with others? Well, for the sake of honesty, and that must be welcomed - the book will be an invaluable source for biographers and critics of the period.

My final concern is with how other poets are treated.  I attended the famous memorial described in the book, and it was a major, moving, glorious event, perhaps the largest gathering of poets ever in London, for a funeral - there were so many geniuses and brilliant writers, critics, and poets there.  Paxman doesn't mention any of them by name, really, as if to imply readers wouldn't recognise the names, but it closes down the event somewhat.

However, these are a critic's concerns, and you could say that it is Paxman's right to express her own feelings about her husband, his vocation, his struggles, his moods, and his dying hours.  As such, it is a very forthright book, that holds little back, and will surprise and move any reader who knows his poetry, or cared for them as a couple. I myself cried more than once.  The lack of proper care the NHS gave to this great poet until the very end is sickening.

The second half of the book, which I was unable to read, because the whole thing was just too emotional for me at the moment, is, it seems, a further description of how the author manages to move on, after the early death of her husband, and find a new way of living, with their young son.  I imagine it ends, somewhat, happily, and so I need to finish the book.

For those who want to know about the last days of a poetic genius, and about how his wife and family coped with his sudden, unexpected death, this is a must-read. But I'd make sure and read his Selected Poems, first, and then prepare to be devastated by the brutally open nature of this book, which, it must be said, is painfully honest.

WANTED: POETRY BUYERS

Too often, the discussion is about poetry readers,  What the UK needs are more poetry buyers. I run a small press that has so far produced 21 poetry titles, all designed by Edwin Smet, and printed by TJ International, in handsome, stylish, hardcover editions.  The books are edited carefully, and have no typos.

The poems range from the Cambridge School (Simon Jarvis) to the American contemporary (Don Share) to the gnomic (Elspeth Smith) to the lyrical and witty (Penny Boxall) to the savagely original (SJ Fowler). A few have been highly commended, listed for prizes, got great reviews, etc, and all have been launched in famous bookshops, and are sold at Amazon, and also in many fine shops across the UK.  Sales, despite this (one was an Observer Book of the Year 2013) are low.  Not very low - just slow low.  Several have sold around 450 copies (good for press less than three years old), a few 250, and a few about 150.  None has sold less than 100, and none more than 500 (yet) at time of writing.

The idea that somehow poets, and publishers, are failing the public at this time, in not delivering the goods, is a pernicious error that some poets (those especially who neither understand or engage in, business, much) are trying to spread, because it relieves them of having to face the wider horror of an abysmal culture barely poetry literate.

Instead, small presses like my own have gone out of our way to make books beautiful to hold, read, and share - by excellent poets - accessible and/or innovative - writing on subjects of great current interest - the economy, ecology, desire, love, sex, politics, humour, time, life, faith, science - that could hardly be of a wider range.  The books are priced the same or less as novels of the same standard, and can be found in local shops and online, easily.  They get reviews so people can hear about them and there are also plenty of readings, tweets, posts and status updates, to get the news out and about.  There is no stone or bulletin left unturned.  It is hard to imagine a serious poetry lover or reader in the UK who has not by now seen or heard of, our books.

So - why do (our) poetry books sell on average 250 copies or so - the same amount that Keats and Pound sold for their early debuts, 200 and 100 years ago, more or less?

Is there a law of the universe that most poetry sells a few hundred copies?

Well, we know that famous poets, poets on radio and TV, and poets who win or are listed for prizes may sell 500, or 1,500, or even 5,000 copies, but that's rare.  I dare poets to come forward with their sales figures.  I know over a thousand poets, personally and well enough to consider them colleagues, and maybe 1% sells over 2,000 copies of any one of their collections.

Am I wrong?

If so, tell me how to sell more poetry books.

Meanwhile, let me remind you, the reader, of one thing: every time you don't make a poetry purchase, that poetry press lacks a sale.  And, sooner, or later, without funding or patronage, presses that don't sell a lot of books have to close.

Simple as that.  Salt cut its brilliant poetry list to the bone, not because the publisher hates poetry (he loves it) but because it ceased to make business sense.

Poets tend to forget that most small press publishers risk savings, and marriages or partnerships, to work for years on end, often unpaid, for very little in return.  The least they should expect is that people who read, and enjoy, and appreciate poetry, should stump up and keep buying their books.

Not buying poetry books - and there are a million good reasons, but only give them to me if you are unemployed and never buy alcohol, tobacco, or food in restaurants - is like saying you love the environment, but never recycle.  It's like wanting a democracy, and not voting.

Poetry book non-buying is the great shame and taboo of British poetry - most poets I know don't buy books, often.  Sure, they may be underpaid and struggling, but they likely make as much or more than small press publishers.  My salary is currently zero, and I work 30 hours a week and more on my press.

There is a kind of NOMS - Not On My Shelves - idea - that it's a nice idea that other people buy books, just not me.  Of course it will always mean a sacrifice, and one can't buy all the poetry books, but - and only if - if one actually wants a small press to survive, wishes won't be enough.  You need to support them, by buying books.

Salt is often derided for its ill-fated "Just One Book" campaign - but why?  As a press, it has the ugly job - embarrassing to many poets - of actually trying to sell the damn stuff.

100s of poets send me submissions each month.  Do they realise their book will cost thousands of pounds to edit, design, proofread, print, and launch?  Poets and poetry readers forget that poetry books are labour intensive, time consuming things to get right.  You can't just conjure them.  At some stage, people are going to have to spend hundreds of hours on each book.

I want to keep Eyewear going.  I think we are now publishing poetry books as good or better than anyone else's in the world - as stylish, as well-written, and, usually, as well distributed (in the UK at least).  But I can't keep Eyewear going forever, unless we sell out the books we publish.  You wouldn't expect a news agent to stay open every day on the off chance you might pop in once a year for a lottery ticket, would you?  You'd understand they needed sales every day.

If you love Eyewear books, share the idea of them with as many friends as possible, and, yes, please, try and buy at least one of our books each year - better still, join our book club.  Otherwise, don't blame me when the small presses close.

THE POEMS OF VALENTIN IREMONGER

The small Run Press, from Ireland (Cork) is producing a series of intriguing reading - the Selecteds and Collected of overlooked poets from the past half-century or so. The first I have seen is The Poems of Valentin Iremonger, his real name.  Iremonger, a career diplomat who late in life suffered brain damage, is a minor Irish poet who nonetheless writes some crisp, low-key verse, often about girls, the weather, life, with a sometimes satirical bent.

When he was noticed, critically, it was for his use of the non-poetic register.  At his best he had a way with the image ("summer detonate in our heads") but some of the poems feel occasional, slight, and dusty now - he's a poet for an age, not for all time, it often appears.  A few of his poems are marvellous for their spare, clean, modern lyricism that has all of Yeats' Celtic swashbuckling burned away, such as the great 'Cross Guns Bridge' with the opening stanza:

Once too often for my taste I shall cross
That bridge two miles north of Dublin where
On one side an orphanage, other, a gas-station,
Stand like twin guardian demons on this undoubting road.

By 1972, he had returned with a new book, after ten years poetic dry-up, and the sketchy poems of his later years are not all that good, sadly, though often poignant and interesting for their local and personal detail.

I'd recommend this handsome small hardcover pocketbook for anyone who loves Irish poetry.  It has enough good solid poems and stuff of worth, including a very good introduction, to be of use to anyone at all, really, who would ever want to be au fait with this poet.  One very large caveat though, is that the font size is very small - too small for my eyes, and I suspect many others, and this seems a design flaw, for anyone opening the book in a shop could be easily put off by the perversity of making the words tiny, when most poetry readers are these days of an age advanced enough to require reading glasses.

NEW POEM FROM U.S. DHUGA

Belfast Landing



                for Erin Elizabeth Horlings





When the plane wobbled in its descent
To George Best Belfast City Airport
I thought of the Munich Air Disaster

Then what came to mind was the descant
I forged between us. Never the sort
To cross myself in polyester

Prayer, I crossed myself and thought of what I meant
When I asked you “Will you marry me?” Short
Of runway, I’m working for our daughter

Whom we don’t have yet. These days I rent
A modest basement flat off Dovercourt.
I’m better now, if by better

What is meant is no more descents
No more roller coaster rides to comport
The plane to skid-landing helter-skelter.






U. S. Dhuga was educated at Harrow, Berkeley, Amherst College, and Columbia University, where he earned his PhD in Classics in 2006. His widely acclaimed book Choral Identity and the Chorus of Elders in Greek Tragedy was published through Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies (Lexington Books, 2011), in the series “Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches”, edited by Gregory Nagy of Harvard University, where Dhuga conducted his postdoctoral research. Founder, publisher, and managing editor of The Battersea Review, Dhuga earns his living as a writer in Toronto.

EYEWEAR POETS HIGHLY COMMENDED!

THIS JUST IN....

‘What You Mean to Me’ from Ship of the Line by Penny Boxall & Trepidation’ from The Rottweiler's Guide to the Dog Owner by S.J. Fowler

We are pleased to tell you that Penny Boxall and S. J. Fowler have been Highly Commended by the judges for this year’s Forward Prizes for Poetry. Their poems will therefore be published this autumn in The Forward Book of Poetry 2015. The judging panel was chaired by Jeremy Paxman, and included poets Dannie Abse, Vahni Capildeo and Helen Mort, plus singer/songwriter Cerys Matthews

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

THE ISIS CRISIS, AND BLAIR FLARE

The UK media is tending this past week to see the current Iraq-Syria-ISIS crisis, whereby a group of extremist militants is threatening to carve up a Caliphate in the middle of the Middle East, at the expense of Western (and apparently Iranian interests), through the rather myopic lens of the Blair-Bush axis of 2003.  I was a coordinator of the American poets against the war web site, and also edited Salt's major anthology, 100 Poets Against The War - so it is clear I was not precisely a Blair fan back then.  Nor do I find his wild-eyed interventions these days much more welcome; I chuckled when Boris Johnson suggested he put a sock in it.  There is perhaps some anti-Catholicism in this, but if Blair had been a good Catholic he would have known the 2003 war was unjust. His lapses are legion.

Anyway, the current crisis is not entirely Blair's doing.  While it seems true that the sadistic tyranny of the Saddam years kept a lid on the sectarian divisions, if not desires, the main fault, as Fisk pointed out in a good article in the Independent on Saturday, is the meddling of France and Britain, starting many decades before, when Iraq as artificially carved out on the back of an envelope.  The history of the West in the Levant is shameful, and long - and it involves a will to control and dominion that is colonial.  Lip-service may be paid, from time to time, about human rights and freedoms, but it's been about the geography and geology for over a century.

That's half the problem - the other is that the majority religion in the region, much like Christianity several centuries before, and more recently in Ireland, is riven by sectarian debates and conflicts, exacerbated by regional power politics.  Even without the West, ISIS would be seeking to overthrow Assad, and would be seeking a Caliphate.  It may be that the Iraq war destabilised the region, but so did the Iranian revolution, and the Egyptian one.  The region is tumultuous, and to credit Blair-Bush with the catastrophe is historically limiting.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

ON BRITISHNESS

There has been much debate in the last few weeks in Britain, regarding what constitutes Britishness and British Values.  Ironically, the sort of people who tend who ironically laugh at patriotic, family values-oriented Americans, are now espousing their own jingoistic, nationalistic version of same.  A recent poll, as reported by the BBC, even suggests that most British people think to be British means you have to be born in Britain - holding citizenship or even a passport is merely a technicality.  This blood-Britishness is a disquieting rejoinder to the notion that the UK is a sophisticated, international, and multicultural society, or series of overlapping societies.  Indeed, if a majority of people in Britain really think Britishness is born, not made, then no wonder UKIP is on the rise.  It's an idea profoundly unwelcoming to immigration, in many ways.  Eyewear is a British blog, because it has been based in London, UK, for around ten years, and its editor holds British citizenship.

What is British poetry then? Roddy Lumsden famously restricted it to people who had been "here" for quite some time, in his anthology, as opposed to blow-ins, and of course editors can draw borders as they wish.  For many critics, Pound is not British, nor even Eliot.  Britishness is not Englishness, of course, or Scottishness, or Welshness.  It is something more complex, and, I would argue, ideally it is very inclusive. My definition of British poetry is banal, to be helpful: it is poetry written by people living in Britain when they write it, who consider themselves British; or poetry written anywhere else, too - by people who are British citizens.  It can be in any (or no) language. It needn't be published in Britain.  Michael Donaghy, thus, is a British poet.  So too, Eliot. Wendy Cope is a British Poet.  But so too is Denise Riley.

As for the nature of Britishness in poetry - well, that's another blog post - but it seems safe to assume that in a kingdom of 60+ million souls, an art form practiced by tens of thousands will have many variations, be multiform, heterogeneous, and resist easy definition.  Britishness is rife with contradictions, as all identity is - no person is just one aspect of themselves - we are all myriad aspects of a contiguous but ever-complicating self. British poetry helps to celebrate and explore that variousness, and, at its best, evidences a subtlety, generosity, and inclusiveness not more widely in evidence among the majority of Britons.

Friday, 13 June 2014

PERSONA NON-GRATEFUL: THE NEW ULTRAVIOLENCE ALBUM BY LANA DEL REY

In what is either a True Detective style creepy sign, or very lo-fi viral marketing, someone has scrawled the name Lana on the pavement today outside my flat in chalk, amid some occult symbols. Meanwhile, the second album from Ms Lana Del Rey, titled Ultraviolence, in a bald reference to A Clockwork Orange (she had already exhausted that other hip transgressing novel Lolita) is upon us. This is not a review - I am still taking in the deadly nightshade that is this aural intoxication - but more of a nod of assent.

Del Rey is a persona - so what? so was Oscar Wilde - and she gives good dark mood.  Her interview in today's Guardian is perhaps more nihilistic than even Detective Rust, though - she claims not to want to be alive, and not to enjoy her enormous success or performing live.  With ennui like that, who needs fiends?  A common criticism is that her soporific melodies are attached to lyrics that are obsessively one-note: that basically they are torch songs about doomed love, and screwed up femme and homme fatales, set amid a faux America like the film sets in Day of the Locust - an American landscape of dives, diners, fast cars, gamblers, suicides, sex maniacs, addicts, bikers, bibles, guns, and video games - a shady, shaded world that seems best rendered with a sort of Monty Norman twang, and slow-dirge drumming - to call her default tone funereal is to call Poe macabre. 

It is the fact that begins the interest, not that closes the coffin lid on appreciation. Unlike Poe's stories, one wants to be in Lana's - she makes woozy Californian self-destruction appealing in the way that Pulp Fiction did drug-taking and murder.  It's a clearly fictional set of tropes, and she is moving them about her cross-genre chessboard slowly, black and white.  There is nothing new under the sunglasses, she is saying, but to be languid, beautiful, evil, and dying is simply to be the rotting half-eaten apple in Paradise.

The core of her message is that normal life may be banal and require political engagement, but that there is a darker Sex and Death America, that, like the ear in Lynch's grass, yawns beneath the public surface, an imaginary B-movie realm we recognise and are drawn to.  Because what is bad for us sometimes tastes better.  This album is the sonic equivalent of Vivi in 3 Days to Kill - Amber Heard's outlandish lipstick-spy. Sure, the sex, drugs, sado-sadness and death is only cartoonish here - but so are so many of our wicked dreams.

This may not be the best novel, poetry book, short story collection, movie, TV show, or album of the year - but it comes close to offering the same illicit pleasures that such would.  Good work from an ungrateful wretch, maybe, but we can thank her.

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