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London Grip Poetry Review – March 24, 2021
LARKSONG STATIC: Stephen Claughton takes a journey through a selection of Martin Malone’s poems
Larksong Static, Martin Malone, The Hedgehog Poetry Press, ISBN 978-1-913499-01-3, £10.99
Subtitled “Selected Poems: 2005-2020”, Larksong Static draws on Martin Malone’s three previous collections, as well as various pamphlets. The title, which puns on a lark’s hovering and the warbling static of old radios, is taken from “Barbury Castle”, the first poem in the book and one of a number about a relationship conducted in the landscape around the Uffington White Horse:
Here, beyond the tidemark
of Swindon’s dirty ochre,
power up the heart’s deep electric
and bring to me your darkness.
Let me reach towards its livewire
its larksong static, earth your now
in the harebells, ox eye, horseshoe vetch.
There’s a lyric strand that—alongside more hard-edged poems—runs throughout the selection (a strikingly pure example, later in the book, is “What Thought Did”), but if there’s a fault with the earlier poems, it’s a tendency towards sonorous phrasemaking, as in:
But, for now, we stand on Dragon Hill,
our own slain myth bleeding circumstance
onto hope …
Back at Uffington, the line heavier now
with a history; its haul weighty
beyond the burden of ground hefty
with its own tales …
(“Best Kite on the Hill”)
In the next group of poems, about his North-Eastern roots, Malone uses more direct language.
I once was a prize bingo wage slave
marking your card for six bob an hour.
Evening stints on the mic, doing it right
(“Seaton Carew 1979”)
Although the poems are mostly written in free verse, “Digitalis” is a villanelle about his father rediscovering his youth ‘Between his first and third heart attack’. Other poems (“Decades”, which puns on a rosary and time, and “Liverpool-Irish”) deal with the poet’s Irish ancestry. There’s one about an aunt who was a fan of all-in wrestling (“Lords of the Ring”) and a very moving poem about parental illness (“Like I Was Your Girlfriend”). Another poem deals with the technical considerations involved in setting up before a sound-check (“Mic-ing the Kit”).
Later, Malone takes us on travels to the Middle East, France and Italy. There is more lyricism here:
Musandam this Spring, and it catches me
unawares: you below the waterline, striped
with sunlight, shade and a sudden renewal;
the tidal come and go of your limbs
to the elver rhythm of the first stroke
taught you by your daddy when you were five.
But there are more down-to-earth accounts as well:
Things quietened down after Tony left town,
in his wake a grudge and way too much love
to keep him safe in the lifestyle he’d known.
Back in England, there is a short sequence about a dirty weekend in a Leeds hotel (“Prodigals”), preceded by “Cur”, the title poem of one of Malone’s earlier books, which describes sex in terms of something feral happening between foxes. “Prodigals” itself has Metaphysical echoes:
Next stop is yours and we’re cutting it fine
for that connection. You know what, let’s not.
Let’s not make it; neither yours nor mine. Just
turn around and do it all again and keep on
doing it until we change weeks, months, years
into this weekend. We can do that, right?
It’s in the argument rather than the imagery here, although an earlier poem, “Map-Making”, reminded me of Donne’s ‘O my America! my new-found-land’ and “Haas Effect” draws on a psychoacoustic phenomenon in a poem about separation or break-up.
Before becoming a poet, Malone was a singer-songwriter, but—on the evidence of this selection—his poetry responds more to art, with poems inspired by or about Blake, Cezanne, Giacometti, Klee, Paul Nash, Wyndham Lewis and other, less well-known figures. “Mont St Victoire” reads in its entirety:
Cézanne as Sisyphus: each day climbing
the steep sides of self, a mountain on his back,
to lose the light, to not quite get right the it,
the it-of-it. Rolling back down him each night
towards the morning; a mountain on his back,
each day climbing: Cézanne as Sisyphus.
And it is with visual art that Malone begins the extracts from both his pamphlet, Mr Willett’s Summertime, (“Mrs. Mounter” after a painting by Harold Gilman) and the prose-poem sequence, The Unreturning, (the Kitchener recruitment poster). Both sets of poems result from Malone’s PhD thesis on Great War poetry and without wanting to downplay the achievement of the earlier poems, I feel it’s here that he really gets into his stride, the writing more direct and assured and the poems more ambitious and clearly focused.
“Mr Willett’s Summertime” isn’t, as you might suspect, about the idyllic summer before the outbreak of war, but concerns the introduction of British Summer Time during the Great War, the result of a campaign by builder, William Willett. Although the emphasis of these poems is on the harsh realities, there is again an element of lyricism:
A dream, conjecturable as heaven,
flight’s still fresh miracle paints
its brilliance across your days,
and earth grows suddenly remote
while cirrus turns copper, fades pink
then drifts away grey into night.
“Let Us Sleep Now” takes its title from the last words of Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”, Malone turning Owen’s dream of encountering a dead enemy in the ‘profound dull tunnel’ of Hell into a fantasy about sighting him ‘after all these years’ on the opposite platform of the Vienna underground:
You glimpse his profile in the tunnel’s gloom
but can’t quite root that lean face,
clean and good-looking and well again.
. . .
just an Austrian boy heading west again,
not your way but up the line to Simmering.
(Simmering is the location of one of the city’s main cemeteries.)
The Unreturning is a sequence of prose poems also about the Great War. The prose, which is nevertheless rhythmic, has the advantage of distinguishing these from actual war poems, so there is no danger of pastiche. It also enables Malone to get the detail down with the brevity of dispatches from the front and to make sudden switches and juxtapositions. This is important, because they deal not just with the war itself, but the way in which it has entered the national consciousness. A key theme is the re-creation of war for recreation. In one poem, there’s a computer game, in which:
Tommy’s pixelated soul recurs as Warfare 2.1TM from the
bods in Shenzhen: new features, new characters, pathos &
chronotope, a shared heritage with the unseen. True to the
land that bore them, the Surreys play this game as, under the
field gun’s brazen frenzy, the shires win their name. I f love
could have saved us we would not have died but die we did
for all the love, post-human each, lousy with it, reeking.
Please remember that you ought to remember but not like
this, sweet Jesus, not like this.
Another is about the collection of memorabilia (“Webbing”) and a poem linking the war with street gangs (“Aristeia”) refers to a comic sketch (although, as far as I recall, the comedian ‘perfecting the voice: you is, like, dead meat innit, Blood?’ was more RAF than RFC).
Malone doesn’t confine himself to the Western Front, but strikes out into Mesopotamia and the Dardanelles and the returning soldier in “Nostos”—from Mr Willett’s Summertime, but appropriately used here to round off selections from both sequences—is not a Tommy, but a poilu, an ‘Ariége boy, home on leave’ about to commit a crime passionnel.
In a recent interview for The Grierson Centre, which also contains a link to an academic paper he wrote about his First World War project, Malone was asked whether or not he saw himself as a poet of place. He answered by saying that place was no more important to him than time, although certain projects did emerge from his sense of place and he was currently working on poems about Gardenstown on the Aberdeenshire coast, where he now lives. While it’s true that most of his poems are precisely located, place itself isn’t foregrounded, until we come to the poems about Scotland at the end of the book. On the evidence of these word-painted landscapes, set in the present rather than the past, if Martin Malone isn’t yet a poet of place, he may well become one.
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REVIEW: The Unreturning by Martin Malone, Shoestring Press, 2019; paperback £10.00
by Phil Carradice
Any attempt to produce creative literature from a distance, to write imaginatively about the past - in retrospect and with a degree of hindsight - is never an easy task. Keeping the correct balance between literary statement and the history of the event you are writing about is something that requires skill, sensitivity and judgement. But when that goal is achieved it is invariably a marvellous, even magnificent, achievement.
It’s probably wrong to start a review with the judgement which should come, like the fate of the Whore of Babylon, at the very end, but in the case of Martin Malone’s The Unreturning I can do nothing else than offer my opinion here, at the start, and frame my comments around it. This book is exactly the type of wonderful achievement we should all celebrate and enjoy. It is deliberately uneven in style, the words reflecting the unevenness of mankind’s experience in times of war, but in terms of overall effect the collection is solid, steady and direct in its responses to the experiences of the time.
The Unreturning is a collection of spectacular poems and prose poems that takes on the voices of the dead - the “unreturning” - from the First World War and attempts to put them into some type of modern context. To that end there is considerable use of modern idioms and references to modern technology but at no time does Malone lose sight of his aim - to use the words and the vocabulary of the men in the trenches to tell their story.
Telling that story is not an easy task. Malone, like his readers, is grasping for an understanding of a country and a people who have ‘many memorials but no memory.’ Our knowledge of the First World War has been moulded and developed by the writers who attempted to capture their experience at first hand, men like Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon. In their descriptions and judgements, they have become both the bards and the chroniclers of the time. Arguably it is their poems, their words, that have formed our concept of the bloodiest war in history.
Either that or, as Malone declares in his prose poem “Blackadder”, ‘the national ghost goes primetime.’ Television and mass media, it seems, have replaced or at the very least come alongside literature in the ability to influence thought and opinion. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where the knowledge or the inspiration comes from, as long as it’s there.
Malone’s use of the ‘ghost image,’ as in the “Blackadder” piece, pervades the collection, adding to the elegiac nature of individual poems and, arguably, the book as a whole. The “unreturning” of these pieces are ghosts that lie in our memory, haunting us, no matter how often we try to exclude them. You do not have to have seen a ghost to know that it is there!
Malone has a sure grasp of the writers’ world, using their lines and their visions as jumping off points or conclusions to his own verses. So, images like ‘small wonder/the shires were sad’ and ‘the pallor of your last strange meeting’ owe their genesis to Owen. Similarly, ‘now all roads lead to France’ is a direct lift from Edward Thomas. But the integration of these and other lines into Malone’s own poems gives them an added impetus and power.
Occasionally the references are a little clouded or unclear, at least at first glance. And to aid the reader Malone has provided a glossary or explanation of the more obscure references. As a general rule I would see such an addendum as unnecessary or even demeaning but here it works. A poem like “Phoebus Apollo” becomes even more powerful when you learn that those were the last words of Julian Grenfell. Having been given that sliver of information - no connection to the sliver of shrapnel that pierced Grenfell’s brain - your second reading of the poem becomes far more meaningful, far more powerful.
Malone is a master of the direct image and metaphor, that swift all-encapsulating phrase that stays with you long after the book is put down. Lines such as ‘mind yet cobbled with skulls of the lads you left behind’ have a power to shock and mould your response. When imagining a deadbadger Malone begins by describing its ‘pikelhaube snout’ and goes on to unravel the metaphor - ‘this is the boy from your home village, that snotty kid with a terrier whose dad liked a drink; the one who pissed himself when Miss Manning caught him with a rat in his desk.’ The openin description is not, effectively, about a badger but, by throwing at you those common-enough images, the poet immediately transports you to a world outside the war, to a place where the dead boy will ‘walk no more on Cotswold’ - Ivor Gurney, this time.
If Malone’s understanding and knowledge of the “war poets” is exemplary, so too is his grasp of the conflict and its history. He tackles everything with the panache of a people’s historian, everything from the soldier’s songs and vocabulary to the battles and the terrible losses. As a Pembroke Dock boy, I never thought I’d see the day when the cruiser Amphion, built in the dockyard there and sunk the day after war was declared, would feature in a poem! Power to your elbow, Martin.
There is pathos and suffering here but there is also humour. Admittedly it is black humour but you would surely expect nothing else - ‘Your “Like the bloody Somme” is nothing of the sort and it’s not us you mean. That’s Third Ypres.’ Sometimes the lines leave you unsure whether to laugh or curse - ‘And each night beside the po, I am cured by persuasion from a ghost-racked wife.’ The myths of the war - the German corpse factory, the Russian soldiers with snow on their boots - Malone is not afraid to use them in order to make his points. But he never loses sight of the fact that first and foremost he is a poet. The sheer power of poems such as “Mallory” and prose that first and foremost he is a poet. The sheer power of poems such as “Mallory” and prose poems like “Permadead” leave you wondering why you hadn’t written them - and as a poet andwriter I can offer no greater praise than that.
The Unreturning is a powerful, stunning piece of work. It has to be essential reading for anyone interested either in the writing of the First World War or in its history. But more than that, this is the work of a master craftsman, someone who is sure of his aim and sure of his talent. A poet of rare distinction, a book of rare skill; that encapsulates The Unreturning .
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Sir Herbert Grierson Centre for Textual Criticism and Comparative Literary History
Aberdeen University has links with more than a few poets, resident and otherwise, and in this, the first interview in a series, we had chance to catch up with Gamrie based poet, Martin Malone, whose work ranges far beyond the tight confines of Gardentown’s cliff-nestled streets.
Martin is an honorary teaching fellow at Aberdeen University and at the time of writing, he has published three collections: The Waiting Hillside (Templar, 2011), Cur (Shoestring, 2015) and The Unreturning (2019).
We talked to him about his new selected poems Larksong Static, published by Hedgehog Poetry Press in 2020, gaining a fascinating insight into Martin’s thinking on place, identity, the male gaze, and his re-imagining of the First World War. We also had opportunity to learn more about his influences, his love of music, his collaborations and forthcoming work.
You can read the interview here.
Your work is embedded in human relationships and experience, but almost always framed by place. Would you describe yourself as a poet of place?
Ah now, a you’d be on dangerous ground to describe yourself as a poet of any one thing, though place is clearly important to my poetics or, at least, my sense of them. ‘Place’ can be many things in poetry – geographical, personal, temporal, even, as in The Unreturning, ‘historical’ – though it’s often no place I’ve ever actually been, that’s what the imagination’s for. Over the course of my PhD, for example, I came to view the corpus of Great War poetry as a sort of site-specific artwork that was certainly ‘chronotopic’ – if we go by Bahktin’s notion of ‘literary artistic’ chronotopes, whereby ‘spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole.’ But this is way too theoretical for most of my stuff which simply happens ‘where’ it happens: in my head or in that head’s physical location.
Intrinsically, place is no more important to me than time, with which poetry has a very intimate relationship. I sense, for example, what Charles Simic is getting at when he says: ‘Poetry secretly wishes to stop time’. And, in connection with poetry and place, one might just as easily cite Michael Longley’s wish to ‘go there’ if he knew where it was. I suppose considerations like ‘place’, ‘time’, intellect and ‘experience’ are the stave onto we compose the score of ourselves. That said, certain projects emerge from one’s sense of place. This is certainly the case with one of the books I have on the go right now, specifically the ‘Gardenstown’ poems, from a collection that might be labelled ‘nature writing’. So, it’d be disingenuous to pretend that place doesn’t feature as a big factor in my work.
‘Liverpool-Irish’ is one of several poems that delves into your Irish roots. The picture of your identity they build up is complex. On one level, they prompt the question of where you belong, whether in the here and now or historically. On another, they prompt the question of whether these poems belong anywhere. Do you feel torn between the need to belong, the need for roots, and the condition of migrant poetics, of being forever on the move?
This is a tricky question to answer. While the term ‘intersectionality’ is relatively new, its reality is nothing of the sort. So, I guess, the ishness of my own sense of an Irish identity is grounded, as with many others, in one’s notion of ‘roots’ and history. In the end, the most any of us can be is some form of ‘Ish’, with all the partiality and incompleteness that implies. We either go along with the herd-determination of a passport-route to this – based upon birthplace – or go off to find our own more complex versions, based upon a whole range of rational and irrational principles. The latter, I suppose, leads to a sense of intersectional identity; my own being as sort of Hiberno-English, as opposed to the historically freighted ‘Anglo-Irish’, with which my family were simply too dirt poor to be landed.
Irish identity is a notoriously complex and loaded debate, though that state-of-affairs has, to a large extent, been imposed upon the island of Ireland historically from the outside: by imperialism and diaspora, which moved me – through time, learning and choice – away from a passport-rooted sense of my own origin. These ideas are explored in ‘Liverpool Irish’, I suppose: where families like mine are ‘history’s/ tenant cousins twice-removed’. But even the concept of ‘belonging’ is a bit of a moveable feast isn’t it (the irony of that metaphor being intentional in this case)? As you say, my sense of identity is somewhat complex: a state-of-affairs I’m quite comfortable with. After all, a writer’s ability to accept “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” grounds him/ her in open-minded practice and a great tradition.
Overall, I can’t help but feel that ‘identity’ is a somewhat over-played hand in much contemporary culture. So, I’m wary of a question like this, since ‘identity’ is worn, all-too frequently, as a perfomative badge fronting a lot of reductive practices that diminish the very power of nuance which energises poetry in the first place. Too many angels dancing upon too many pinheads here. Let’s just say, that I am grateful for my father’s sceptical take upon many of the tropes of belonging whilst he tenderly nurtured his own sense of a nuanced human identity. I suppose that freed me to come up with my own. Ultimately, I aspire – as, perhaps, we all should – to The Blue Nile’s line about love being ‘the only country I know’. In answer to the final part of your question, I hope I’ve sufficient negative capability to remain comfortable with the condition of migrant poetics and being forever on the move. My personal c.v. is nothing if not peripatetic. In the modern world it is probably more difficult to be the Norman Nicholson type poet, rooted in one place through a lifetime.
‘Map-Making’ is one of several poems that use cartography as a foil for questions of the body and desire. Given the temporal range of these poems, across several decades, I wonder what kind of final map you feel you arrive at.
The map is always being re-drawn, I suppose, and will be until a final stop at the plot of earth I’m laid in or scattered over (and, if the latter, even then it’s likely to cover several spots). I think it true to say that one could compose a cartographical profile of my poetry, since it ranges in location and tends to be explicit about each. This may be a circumstantial quirk, born of the fact that I began writing verse again after an epiphany on Uffington Hill, a location that’s become a bit of a leitmotif in my work. Certainly, at that early stage of my writing, I was greatly affected by uprooting from Liverpool 8 to go live in the ancient landscapes of Wiltshire, near Avebury at the end of the Ridgeway. So, landscape represents something of a poetic omphalos, I suppose.
Write what you know, they say, and I’ve been fortunate, since 2005, to live in some remarkable places: West Overton, Avebury, Maulds Meaburn, Monks Kirby, Aberdeen, Gardenstown, Mirepoix – all spots you’d be a fool not to write about if they’re on your doorstep. Add to these locations, residencies on Shetland, Orkney and Mull and the map becomes more interesting yet.
My other great subject, at least in the first two books, was, indeed, the classic one of love, specifically an understanding of male sexuality and desire. I’ve been trying to manifest and explore, frankly, Martin Malone’s ‘male gaze’ and rescue a sense of its validity from the times’ very reasonable interrogation of that concept. When you live in the female-seeming chalk landscapes of the fertile south-west and the harder landscapes of the north, there’s a natural series of correlatives for these concerns. In actual fact, the poem ‘Map-Making’ was written as a specific metaphorical retort to another poem, which struck me as a too-cosily performative dichotomising of male and female sexuality. I knew its author very well and knew also that the poem did not represent her own truth, so much as a piece of easy – and easily publishable – rhetoric. She was/is better than that, so the poem was intended as a gentle reminder, though I doubt she’s ever read it.
The question of temporal range gets far closer to my preoccupation with time and what can be represented and rescued from it by art. We’ve probably not the space here to develop my thoughts on that one, but I’ve always been drawn to the time-torn sensibilities of Hardy’s work. When I started an MA at Manchester Met back in 2006, I told them that I was good up to 1925 but after that they’d need to educate me. So, it’s small wonder that many contemporary readers may find my poetry a bit ‘old-hat’, but that’s OK. It’s all about the role-models who first open your heart to such things. At least I don’t actually use words like ‘wert’ or ‘swain’, nor, in contrast, do I pretend that I’m walking around New York City in my lunch-breaks.
Your selected poems span your earlier landscape focussed work and the later Unreturning, which takes a very haunting and critical look at the First World War. What would you say links, or binds, the range of your selection?
If I’m honest the selection is a rare example of me thinking ahead and curating my stuff a little. Larksong Static could have gone in another direction completely or sought a more general and eclectic mix. But I anticipate my next collection to be something of a return to the nature and landscape focussed work you refer to here, which is a natural consequence of my moving to Gardenstown. So, I selected with an eye to preparing reader expectation. To be honest, it feels presumptuous to even have a ‘Selected’ coming out after only three collections and a handful of pamphlets. However, Mark at Hedgehog was keen to publish me and, with small presses coming and going all the time, this was a solution made more elegant by the fact that it probably buys me a year or two longer to work on the pair of new collections that have shown themselves simultaneously. Of course, should the music-related one suddenly burst into rude life, it may be finished first and my projected timeline is thrown out.
In terms of what binds the Great War material to the rest, I’d suggest that the sort of shell-shocked Edwardian romanticism which characterises much trench poetry written in English is never far from the pastoral mode. So, poems like ‘Mr. Willett’s Summertime’, ‘Ripon Work’, ‘Nostos’ and ‘Wanton Boys’ slide quite easily in beside the landscapes of my earlier work. The outliers are probably the prose poems from The Unreturning sequence which adopt a more neo-modernist approach I’ll discus later. However, despite their modern jazz, poems like ‘Notre Dame des Brebieres’, ‘School Run’ and ‘Clickbait’ are also not far from the land: as it says in the latter, ‘The land itself has never been more intimately known’. And by the end of the collection, I move onto a selection of more recent, post-doc poems that might signpost upcoming ‘nature’ work.
What brought you to the poems that feature from The Unreturning? Was it through the work of the war poets, particularly Edward Thomas whom I know you admire, and thinking of the reality of their experience, or was it explicitly to take a critical view of the way we commemorate war as a nation?
I think I may have already answered the first part of the question, in connection with the ‘Selected’ at least. But your broader question is, I suspect, to do with The Unreturning and how that book came to pass. The roundabout answer is that it was a subject given/ gifted me on the basis of funding for my Sheffield PhD. My main challenge was to say something new about it from the perspective of its centenary. In an interview a few years ago, Jacob Polley offered the observation that writing so often involves a search for technique and this was very much the case when writing my way into The Unreturning. This process is discussed in more depth in my next answer, but research into the book did, indeed, involve a lot of re-reading the Great War poets and discovering new ones from the 2,225 poets estimated by Catherine Reilly to have been published in English during World War One. My paper, ‘Some Notes on The Unreturning’ sets out the scale of the task and my general response to it.
Both academic research and my creative practice did, indeed, look to poets like Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg, however, as well as the even more obvious ones. For the Ghosts of the Vortex sequence, my purpose was to seek out some of the lost, or lesser-known, narratives of the conflict and convey a sense of its global dimensions and legacies: hence poems like ‘Ansky’s Lament’, ‘Legacies’, ‘The 1st Women’s Battalion of Death’, ‘Nostos’ and ‘The Turnip Winter’. German Great War poetry is, in many ways, more interesting than the British stuff – certainly, it often feels more modern and experimental – though it’s an all-but-lost canon. So, I wanted to be a bit more 360° than is often the case with UK writing about the war. But you can’t ignore the English language canon and writers like Edward Thomas.
Thomas I’m a qualified fan of, as you point out, though I can’t help but feel that Ted Hughes’s remark about him being ‘the father of us all’ made him a hostage to fortune. So subtle are Thomas’s innovations on the English line and so straightforward seem many of his poems that I think many a reader might justifiably think him a little over-rated. However, what Edward Thomas did, in terms of Great War poetry, was to write about it obliquely in a fashion that oddly links him to modernists like David Jones and neo-modernists like Geoffrey Hill. In a way, then, Thomas is a bridge between The Unreturning and my landscape stuff.
The last part of your question pertains to the larger intentions of the book and you’ve correctly deduced my desire to interrogate our mode and aesthetics of commemoration. As I point out, the Great War was the conflict by which we construe all subsequent wars and commemorations. One thing I might observe is that it’s highly unlikely I shall ever again be offered the means by which to live, research and write a single book of poetry as was the case with The Unreturning. So, this collection may end up being a bit of an outlier. Which is, of course, why I packed in a really nice job and left Avebury in order to write it.
Would you like to say something about your turning to the prose poem as a way of writing about World War I? Is there a conscious debt here to the Geoffrey Hill of Mercian Hymns? Your referencing of David Jones and his ‘fucked-up grail of Mametz Wood’ feels like another way of pushing beyond conventional narratives into something more personal and difficult, in both form and content.
If I’m honest, those prose poems arrived like a gift from the poetry gods. I’d never even written one beforehand and, while remaining open-minded, I’d not been passionate about the prose poem form by any means. But, in seeking a technique which felt adequate to the task of saying what I wanted to say about the Great War’s continuing influence/ relevance, I sort of chanced upon the form in the poem ‘School Run’. Sometimes it’s all about finding the right size of expression for what you need to say. So, I dabbled around, knowing that I wanted to use a form which problematised and argued back at the traditional trench lyric I was trying to write for the Ghosts of the Vortex sequence.
After the writing of ‘School Run’, I felt like I’d hit upon a viable working method for looking at the Great War from a contemporary perspective that, nonetheless, served as a prism between past and present. So, 1914-1918 could now be viewed from 2014-2018 and vice versa, in a yin-yang version of Burnt Norton’s ‘eternally present’ yet ‘unredeemable’ time. This ‘unredeemability’ becomes, I suppose, the central political/ anthropological theme of the sequence as it progresses. It was at this point that instinct made me open Mercian Hymns which I’d read 10 years before. I confess, I’d actually forgotten that it, too, was written in the prose poem form. What became more relevant to me was Hill’s attempt, in the Acknowledgements, to ‘justify a number of anachronisms’, because I decided to simply extend this license and work my own anachronisms harder, in order to carry the main anthropological thrust of the book: that history has taught us little in the past century and that, to use Jon Silkin’s observation of the Great War generation, ‘their preoccupations are our own’. Once this link to Hill’s neo-modernist aesthetics was established, the sequence became easier to conceptualise and contemporary events made it relatively easy to write: I only had to pick up a newspaper and the world gifted me parallels almost every day.
And then there was David Jones. He came into play after Hill, but In Parenthesis compounded my sense that a disruptive alternative to the elegiac trench lyric was possible and a wider angled lens could be trained upon the subject. And, of course, Jones bequeathed me a pretext to the sequence by offering a challenge I’d already accepted, when he says in his Preface: ‘It would be interesting to know how we shall ennoble our new media as we have already ennobled and made significant our old – candle-light, fire-light, Coups, Wands and Swords, to choose at random.’ This was an absolute gift to a twenty-first century writer pondering the significance of a century old conflict in a world of all-pervasive social media and computer technology. It confirmed my original desire to seek newer registers – beyond the poppy and lone bugle call – with which to comment on both the conflict itself and the troubling ways in which we commemorate it.
What David Jones and Geoffrey Hill do is exactly what you say here: they push beyond the conventional narratives into something both more personal and, at the same time, anthropologically broader. They share this instinct with my favourite of the ‘conventional’ trench poets, Rosenberg, who could step outside the framework of traumatised personal witness to integrate a form of cultural commentary across a much broader arc of human history.
You explore a great range of forms in the work that features in Larksong Static, but there is always a lyricism and almost audible rhythm present that brings me to hearing you read. I wonder if there is always a connection between the spoken word and the way you choose to represent it on the page. How important is the spoken expression of your poems to the way you compose them?
Well, as James Fenton says: ‘The voice is raised, and that is where poetry begins.’ I always advise my students to read their poems aloud to themselves through their many drafts, describing each poem as ‘a score for the human voice’. I stand by that actually and, as I’ve said elsewhere, it really is why I rarely rehearse for poetry readings. Rather, I use them as a late stage of re-drafting, even poems that have long been published. Because the ear is designed to pick out the rhythms of the human voice and the mouth so often tells the pen to have another go. I’d suggest, too, having others read your stuff back to you because that provides a degree of critical distance from your own words, allowing you to make more objective judgements about lines you instinctively know to be not-quite-there yet.
However, your more general observation about the rhythmic qualities of my verse I put down to the fact that I’ve been a songwriter since I was sixteen, so the facility is far longer established in me than, say, poetic technique. I’m long-used to corralling expression into a variety of rhythmic templates, so there’s bound to be some acoustic bleed-through into my poetry. That said, I’m no fan of the songwriter-is-poet trope. They are different crafts, cousins rather than siblings. I think I may demonstrate the, admittedly negotiable, lines between the two in my other collection, currently in progress. This one – Mic-ing The Kit – concerns itself with a deep love of rock music and my years of playing in bands or working as a sound engineer. Again, it’s an attempt to convincingly introduce new registers into poetry from an insider perspective, but I include a sequence of ten lyrics for songs I’ve written for various albums down the years. I suggest that the clear differences here will demonstrate my remarks far better than any theorising. Song lyrics, no matter how poetic, are not poetry, they’re song lyrics. Just as Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize was not for poetry: our definitions of literature were merely broadened to encompass song-writing. And, while no great Bob Dylan fan, I’m happy about that.
Interestingly, after seeing the leverage to be had from joint practice-and-critical-research methods, I’m preparing for this collection by picking up a guitar again and writing songs for a new album by my 1980s band Innocents Abroad; under the very Edward Thomas-like working title, Late Spring. My indulgence here is the fact that I’ve abdicated responsibility for the lyrics to my mate and erstwhile song-writing partner Dr. Peter Mills from Leeds Beckett University. We’re uncoolly over-qualified (and now over-age) for a rock band but there you go.
Your recent Gardenstown series is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas and the opening to his famous Under Milk Wood. Is that a fair comparison and is it a conscious move toward attempting your own version of Thomas’s god-like gaze on Llareggub, turning your own gaze on the village where you live?
It’s a flattering comparison for sure, one I’ve – somewhat immodestly – made myself, though to be fair I was just paying a debt of originating influence. I suppose it does represent a conscious move on my part but that is mainly to situate a motive and general purpose in the reader’s mind. As I pointed out in Long Poem Magazine, Thomas is one of those rare poets whose distinctive voice is so clear they have to be handled very carefully: any direct echo of his style tends to linger overlong on the breath, like strong liquor. But, here in ‘Gamrie’, we certainly do share certain characteristic and topographical overlaps with Thomas’s fictional village, so this was a gift I couldn’t refuse. Given so, it was a question of rechannelling the sympathetic energies of Thomas’s poem towards a sensibility that is my own. The echoes of Llareggub occurred to me soon after I arrived in the village. Actually, I do plan to punt it all out, at some point, in aural form which, given Pete Stollery’s skills, might link this answer to the next question. I know someone at the BBC I have a mind to approach once this iteration is put together, but that’s some way off yet.
Gardenstown is a rare and magical space, the sort I encountered 30 years ago in Mirepoix, but one I’d thought long lost to this country, where it’s harder to stay under the radar. There’s something toughly romantic about it, almost Whiskey Galore-ish and full of human jetsam yet retains its sense of close-knit community and local identity. Everyone has, either deep farming-and-fishing roots in the place or are blow-ins with a backstory. So, despite its freakishly discrete beauty, it remains one of those villages that really doesn’t give a shit about the outside world. As I write this, for example, Cillian Murphy is billeted down in Seatown while they film episodes of Peaky Blinders over in Portsoy. But does anyone get excited? Not in the slightest. He’s just a light in the window of a rental cottage and another occasional figure on the seafront, muffled up against the snow. The place is a gift for any poet, and I count this blessing every day of my life.
The poem itself, though, is more ‘nature’ writing and ‘eco’ than the wonderful human zoo of Llareggub: the Narrator’s jazz solo, if you like. I have to live here, after all, and am already nervous of anyone taking exception to my mention of the locals’ ‘Doric entitlement’, which I totally understand and respect. Nothing worse than me getting ‘god-like’ on their ass. I’ve had enough problems with my ‘male gaze’ in some quarters, without my sublimating it into the Supreme Being.
Can you tell us a bit about the Northlife project and your methodology in the way you approach composition? In your collaboration with both the visual artist Bryan Angus and composer and sound artist Pete Stollery, how much does the work and approach of the others feed into your own?
Ah, now this is one of those rare, rare things: a genuine win-win arrangement. And it’s thanks to Helen Lynch at the WORD Centre, whose idea it was to pull it all together into a formalised project. It was a quite natural genesis: I knew Bryan, with whom I share similar sensibilities about the role, function and nature of the arts, I also knew Pete, with whom I share an interest in music and audio recording, as well as a certain simpatico. We might well have gravitated together, anyway, as a three-way collaboration but Helen forced the issue with an invitation to contribute an open-discussion event to MayFest 2019 (remember when the world had such things?). So, the loose affiliation now had a framework for itself and a loose timetable, based around a return event at Mayfest 2020 as well as a performance/ installation event at Soundfest of the same year. We all know what happened next. Events also thwarted our intended contribution to Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters. However, before the Plague hit town, we got into a bit of rhythm in terms of working together, the nature of which we describe in our contribution to last year’s substitute Podfest.
Basically, we’re just three middle-aged white guys bumbling around the wonderful coastline of Scotland, either individually (we each had residencies in January 2020) or collectively, recording stuff in our chosen medium, while watching the others do likewise. We have a conversation or two about how we want to shape it all as a multi-disciplinary Thing and then retreat to our respective ivory towers to work on it with our notional template in mind. Phone calls, Zoom Meetings (almost exclusively) take place and show-and-tell moments are scheduled while we try to progress on this basis.
Obviously, apart from the odd socially distanced dog-walk at Duff House with Bryan, our face-to-face meetings have fallen by the wayside and, to be honest, the Northlife project has been in abeyance. But Bryan and I are still working together on a sequence of bird-poems and linocuts, which will be looking for a publisher sometime towards the end of this year/ next spring. And, with my other interest and current recording activities, I’ve no doubt that Pete and I will collaborate in the sonic sphere at some point, just as he and Bryan have collaborated on a sound-map and images project online.
I’ve a long hinterland in composition and sound recording, and I’ve long worked with ekphrasis in my poetry, so these cross-platform collaborations come quite naturally. Both disciplines contribute hugely to my practice, by their sheer otherness. It helps to have some insight into them, but at a very basic level, I used the visual arts a lot in my second collection, Cur, to help put myself beyond the lyric ‘I’ which characterises so many first collections. So, they represented an important bridge at key moment in my development.
Finally, would you say you had a manifesto for your work? Or do you allow your poetic response to colour and define the overall approach?
Oh, I don’t think I’m important enough to warrant a manifesto, despite the length of these answers.
|Posted by email@example.com on January 20, 2021 at 2:45 PM||comments (0)|
'THE TASTE OF TIME'
Martin Malone, The Unreturning (Shoestring Press, 2019), £10
Martin Malone’s third collection, The Unreturning, is a deeply serious, yet playful meditation on the current zeitgeist, our collective myth-making and its very real consequences. The title may refer to the Wilfred Owen poem or it may refer to The Unreturning Army, Huntly Gordon’s memoir of Flanders which details experiences of the battle fields that seem almost inconceivable to us now. But Malone seems to imply that the battlefield has always been of our collective consciousness, or more to the point, our propensity to accept the ‘given’ story along received hierarchies of power. Throughout there’s a tension between the world-weary and the elgiac, between a modern ennui (which he skewers with punchy satire) and an echo of long for the transcendental moment, which, he seems to imply, is the provenance of art, but only of an art which is socially engaged. The reader is to be wary of the misuse of history and of poetry, of ‘The eye’ that ‘seeks out pattern and is satisfied’ (‘Archives’).
It is a book of two halves. ‘Ghosts of the Vortex’ presents lyrics written with great authority, and interested in the line, the stanza, and in striking phrasing which inks itself into the brain. We are to understand our responsibilities to recognise ‘trench honesties/ occluded by one century/ and the paradigms of myth’. May pieces use ‘you’, implicating the reader and Malone is not afraid to also use the collective ‘we’, something out of fashion in contemporary poetry, but useful in his exposure of ‘our tribal code’. The titular second half, written in single-paragraph prose poems, seems to imply no easy return to the lyric and a searing imperative to re-think, reimagine, and re-invent ourselves. There are no easy answers in these poems. They wear a huge range of references lightly and they beguile with prose sentences that come to seem the very stuff of poetry – a difficult thing to achieve. From MOOCs to the Poundshop, from Churchill’s cock-ups to Photoshopping our legacies, Malone takes us on a dizzying ride through both popular and esoteric culture, and yet this work does not disappear into its own scholarship or cynicism, but keeps providing earned, if transitory, glimpses of the human need for meaning. ‘Moon, moon! He says, as if the word holds the heft of all things.’ (’Commuter’). Somewhat reminiscent of the early work of Geoffrey Hill, perhaps most particularly of Mercian Hymns, Malone’s work manages to convey the anguish of a deeply moral sensibility by playfully upending and reinventing traditional lyric tropes and by using the prose poem as a form which provides both a scaffold and a restraint for his uncompromising vision. Beware, though, he may be addressing you: ‘Thank you for your neo-concern’; and ‘be advised, your poppy/ is not mine’ (‘Dear Revisionist’).
|Posted by firstname.lastname@example.org on January 19, 2021 at 3:30 PM||comments (0)|
Review: Larksong Static by Martin Malone
The poems of Larksong Static, Martin Malone’s superb selected verse from the last fifteen years, form an eclectic mappa mundi of love and loss, life and death, charting ‘its contours as surely / as our own’ line after line.
Through its eighty-four pages Malone is both Thomas Hardy and Peter Buck; a poet of lyrical landscapes and jangling post-punk portraits; whose subjects range from the ‘earthworks’ of Barbury Castle to Truman Capote’s ‘old room / at the Pensione de Lustro’ via the late-night, early-morning ‘Prodigals’ where ‘we ease deep into chairs / each snugging the glove of shared hunger.’ One moment we catch him shaving his sick mother’s head in ‘Like I Was Your Girlfriend’ and the next he is ‘Mic-ing The Kit’ or waiting for REM’s Green World Tour to roll into town. And yet there is no discord in such diverse shifts of attitude and approach. The beautiful ‘On An Afternoon Like This She Takes A New Lover’ — with its pitch-perfect ‘man-trap of memory’ — performs a delicate and moving duet alongside ‘Mrs Mounter, circa 1914,’ where the backwards leap in time and space requires nothing more than a simple step or the turning of a page. Through these poems, and so many others in the collection, we travel lightly amongst our unique and universal griefs.
Next we come to Malone’s greatest achievement: the masterful prose-poem fragments of The Unreturning. Pieces such as ‘Mr Willets Summertime’ and ‘Wanton Boys’ foreshadow what lies ahead, but the almost cubist use of language — soldier slang meets twenty-first century tech-speak — is something entirely and vitally its own. Take, for example, ‘Clickbait’s’ ‘unreality of it all’ where dawn ‘lifts too quickly at your shoulder’ and ‘somewhere high a lark sings and off clicks the safety-catch,’ or Tommy’s ‘pixellated soul’ lost in the Great War as war-game of ‘Futureproof.’
But the ghosts of Ypres and Passchendale and the Somme, if not laid to rest, in due course cede their broken ground to the bright coast of Scotland, and a slow renewal of life: ‘trimming / the void to light / as another day / answers for itself.’ The sequence of five short poems for the artist Bryan Angus that close-out the book offer a quiet salvation in the ‘idiom of line and light’ where ‘everything feeds into this,’ and Malone’s craft of life-as-verse glimmers with the hard-earned hope of redemption.
Even without this timely selection, Malone would be a significant poet of elegance and experimentation. But now, once and for all, he has proven he is deserving of far greater recognition, and his renewal of the English nature lyric will long outlive the scrolling newsfeed fashions of the contemporary scene.
Larksong Static: Selected Poems 2005-2020 is available to order from Hedgehog Press.
Or you can order a signed copy directly from the author here: www.martinmalonepoetry.com/collections
|Posted by email@example.com on January 7, 2021 at 10:50 AM||comments (0)|
Hedgehog Poetry Press- The Minds behind the Madness
A Series of Interviews at Home with the Hoglet Poets
And so we begin…
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your ruminations and routines with us today.
Let’s start right in with your latest collection…
1 Why did you write this collection, what is it about and what would you like the reader to take away after they turn the last page and find that perfectly prized place for it on their bookshelf?
I suspect my answer to this one will be different to other interviewees in so much as Larksong Static is a ‘Selected’ sequence, taken from my first three collections and various pamphlets. Though, the fundamental question of why I might have written it is universally applicable, I guess. In and of itself, writing is such an odd pursuit, particularly now, in these almost post-literate times. And poetry somewhat blurs the distinction between audience & practice; since, more than any other literary artform, it tends to be read most by people who themselves write. So, understanding the vague madness or love that moves one to write verse is perhaps not so difficult for the poetry readership. What this collection – or any other – is ‘about’, in a specific sense, is also far less important than it might be with, say, a novel; since poetry is about leaving interstitial spaces of detail, context and meaning in each poem, for the reader to inhabit. In this additional sense, poetry is a facilitative and participatory artform, which is why one of its chief social powers is an innate ability to promote human empathy. What the reader wants to take away from my stuff is, then, entirely up to them. Though I suspect they might intuit a distinctive voice and, hopefully, my poetry stinks of its own fox because that is what I look for in other’s work.
2 My chillout time comes from cooking, endless hours lost in the kitchen along with a blaring radio of eclectic tunes and golden oldies, but I can only chill when the cupboards are well stocked with the basic ingredients. Firstly, what is your chillout routine, your escape from the pen and all the pondering and, secondly, what are the basic ingredientsyou need when it comes to settling down to write- what factors or futons make the best mix for your creations?
My chillout has no set routine, which is what allows me that quality of relaxation in the first place. Presently, this tends to be dominated by the existence of a rather wonderful 7-year-old son, Fíonn, who sings his life into being each day and demands the sort of attention that’s a pleasure to give. Besides that, us walking on the lovely beach in Gardenstown with our border-collie, is another source of great relaxation. Artistically, I’ve been a songwriter far longer than I’ve been a poet and it’s a discipline I’ve found myself revisiting in a big way this year. I suggested to my band from the mid-80s that we might record the album which eluded us back then before one of us croaks, so this is planned for 2021 (in so much as anything can be planned these days). I’ve been cracking on with writing and demoing the music to send out as WAV files to the rest of the band throughout this year. Innocents Abroad’s Late Spring should come out on nice heavy-duty vinyl, sometime in 2022. What’s good for me with this project is that I’m not responsible for the lyrics. I just wanted to shut up and play my guitar and rediscover my old sound engineering chops, which nowadays you can do on a laptop without needing to haunt the studios I once worked in. So, the plectrum is my escape from the pen. Should anyone be remotely interested in stuff I’ve done in the past, this playlist on Soundcloud is half-decent: https://soundcloud.com/user-666655071/sets
In terms of writing conditions, the poem or the deadline dictate to me far more than any ‘routine’ as such. I’m just not that kind of writer. Poetry’s great power comes from its own insistence upon coming into being, and this can arrive from anywhere at any time and doesn’t always have to result in a poem. Larkin had something interesting to say on this subject: about how, often, the best poems are lost but those that are written, nevertheless, satisfy the deep need for their own existence. I paraphrase.
3 Sticking with the cooking analogy for a moment, do you follow a specific recipe for writing or do you throw all the ingredients into the bowl and see what happens?
I don’t, Damien, no. Poems can announce themselves quite randomly, or sometimes they’re carried about in my head for months or even years. I’m quite willing to lose some in this way, just so long as the ones that do get written receive the attention they demand of me…and then the realdiscipline of redrafting, editing and knowing when to set aside.
4 In these days of social media, you’re nothing if you’re not seen and in these unsettling, uncertain days of Covid, seeing, listening and buying has moved online and readings and live launches in libraries and lounges are a rare happening or else there is a limit to the amount of people in attendance. How are you dealing with having new collections coming out right now? What is your way of being seen? How are you coping with the fact that being a writer today also requires a certain amount of spotlight, certainly more than the days of Ms. Dickenson?
We tend, these days, to panic somewhat and fail to credit poetry with its great ability to linger, often beyond the lifetime of its author. I think this is maybe because we’re conflating it with a ‘status’ conferring product as opposed to what it, more truly, is: marks in time, which, if done well transcend their historical moment of composition, if even only for family or those who knew us.Surely, this is a magical gift in such a superficial and soulless world. Actually, this has always been poetry’s gift, we’ve just lost sight of the fact and fail to make our peace with it in the face of performative pressures that confuse career path with artistic journey. After working in the music industry, I came gladly into the poetry world because I thought – wrongly as it turns out – that its tiny economies of scale would filter out the bullshit. As ever, Seamus Heaney has a quote to sum it up for me: when asked why there was so much bitching and back-biting in the poetry world, he said, “Ah, what you have to understand is that the stakes are so low.” For me, then, the best way of ‘being seen’ is to be a seeing being who produces work good enough to last beyond the fads of contemporary taste. Same applies with a lot of music: some of that 80s stuff sounds comical to my ears now, because it was so obsessed with the production techniques of the time that it lost itself in the mix. Poetry puts down deeper roots. Live with that and forget some bogus notion of a ‘career’. I’ve seen that world. It makes me laugh. And the reason I like Mark Davidson so much is that he totally gets this. He does his thing and produces beautiful books. We should do likewise. Of course, I’m prone to social media, like anyone else. It’s our not-so-secret shame. But you’ll find I am self-promotion lite. There’s a law of diminishing dignity which kicks in if you’re not careful. My books sell out in their own good time. My readers like my stuff well enough. That’ll do me. I am literally just getting over COVID as I write this and I can tell you, the last thing on my mind was whether my book was getting attention. Good books can take care of themselves.
5 Speaking of being seen and getting noticed, how important are acceptances from writing journals and how do you deal with the rejection which comes, no matter how much acclaim you have received? The reality we must learn is that not everyone is going to love our work, which can be heart breaking as we’re basically offering up our poetic babies to be loved, though no one loves a baby as much as the parent. So what keeps you going? Head up and move on or hide out and wait till the hurt passes? What encouragement do you have for others starting out?
You will have correctly intuited that I am a bit ‘old school’ in some respects, so my ass is of rhino hide. Though this state-of-affairs comes at the end of a long process. Nowadays, I tell my students that the sooner they learn to love their rejections the better it’ll be for them. They always teach you something, if only to confirm your suspicions of certain magazines or publishers’ wider agendas, which might not necessarily be to do with publishing the best poetry but something else. That is entirely their prerogative and there’s no use upsetting yourself over it. More often, it’s because your work is not quite good enough yet or doesn’t quite fit the drift of a specific issue, or just misses out because the editor had 20 poems competing for each slot and you came second behind the one that made it. Similarly, with competitions, it’s a lottery. My best collection, The Unreturning got returned by a ‘major’ poetry imprint from the big-name editor who had clearly not got where I was coming from and dismissed the book out of hand. HOWEVER, he had, at least, engaged with it on the terms the book demanded, so while he missed the point and went on to publish palpably inferior stuff that will nonetheless find an easier audience, it was the result of proper engagement. Them’s the breaks. The same book has just got a great review from Siobhan Campbell in Poetry Ireland because she, too, engaged with it on its own terms and was smart enough to see what it was about. As I say, good books can take care of themselves. Same with individual poems. Simon Armitage once told me that he papered his bedroom walls with all the rejections he got early in hiswriting. It happens to all of us. So, my advice is to get used to the disappointment and use it as a form of editing. I’ve been a magazine editor, so I know how impossible the task can be at times, though we always tried to publish the poems we felt deserved an outlet.
6 If you had to pick one piece of your own writing that most represents you what would it be and why and would you like to share it or part of it here with us?
Writers are always most in love with their latest work, so it’s impossible – and a bit reductive – to tie yourself down to one piece of work. And, as with the music I’ve made, I’ve always tried to make the next work different from what has gone before. Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous of me to ignore the fact that many poets achieve a quiet form of immortality via a single poem. I did my PhD in Great War poetry and this was particularly the case with many of those writers. So, today, for the sake of argument, let’s say that I pin my own sad little hopes on this excerpt from a longer poem sequence called Gardenstown, about where I now live:
Two hours back, you crept across
the sand to wait in darkness
on the rumour of otter and mink
alive in the dingle of Pishlinn Burn
or Den of Findon. Nothing came
but the dawn, nothing moved
but the shore’s slow reveal of kelp
and the raptor’s dark covenant
with the brae. Nothing brought
nothing but Crovie’s cute one-liner,
the skerry light’s cry for help
and the crescent gather of wave
off Pecking Craig: all give-and-take
and give, then taken-back-again.
No Eastering here but a coastline
of wave-cut and stonechat;
no inscape but a buckled mind’s
frailty for the April Lyrids’
random scatter of meaning
on the heaven-empty primrose.
Despite us all, spring comes
to the bay’s proscenium
in a spike of wild orchids
at the foot of Castle Hill;
with sea-campion and vetch;
with violet and stitchwort,
ragged-robin and celandine;
in the flitting of wren and pipit,
irruptions of gannet on water
and the musical comedy of eiders.
The tide slackens and stills
to the morning’s mood,
its lines flatten, its breathing
short. You walk out to the point
below the Head, inhale deeply
the coconut flowering of gorse
that has swept its wildfire
down the hillside…..
7 Writing poetry, more so than any other writing form, is often the art of pealing back, removing the unnecessary, eliminating lines to uncover the hidden truth- how bare does it get for you? How difficult is it, at times, to tell your story within the lines and framework of a poem? How comfortable is it to be naked with so few words to cover over the possible discomfort or is it just a part of the process you get used to?
I agree with you Damien: this is one of poetry’s unique charms. When I run workshops, I tell my students that poetry is very much like JENGA: what you’re aiming for with each poem, is the last viable and free-standing structure possible; whereby to add one word would be superfluous and to take out one more would bring the whole thing down. I’ve actually had groups play JENGA as an act of kinaesthetic learning about the editing/ re-drafting process. In terms of nakedness, I’d suggest that the ‘sex’ poem sequence at the beginning of my second collection Cur speaks to my ease with poetry’s occasional demand for absolute frankness.
8 When it comes to titles, our pieces as I said, are like children- each needing special consideration and attention- how do you name your poems, short stories, collections or novels- is the name a starting point, a midway consideration or a summation of the theme afterwards? Sometimes I worry when I come up with a really great title it might overpower the poem itself- is there a balance between the two?
I’d say you should always try to work your poem titles as hard as possible: to provide context which allows you to strip back the need within the poem; or take the poem off into another direction completely by way of dislocation, say; or as a hook line from within the poem itself. There are many aspects of this fine art. In terms of naming whole collections, similar terms apply. For my first collection, The Waiting Hillside, I stole a trick from the great American novelist John Irving and made the title the final phrase of the book, so that it seemed like the whole drift of it was towards its final moment. It was a way of conferring some sense of structure on a collection that might, otherwise, seem like a disparate group of poems. With Cur I simply wanted a very strong central image that reflected the visceral nature of some aspects of male sexuality celebrated at the heart of the book. I doubled down on this with the wonderful cover image I found from a female Australian artist. The Unreturning was a way of describing the Great War dead that I’d not come across until I was waiting to meet a friend for coffee one day beside the war memorial in Lutterworth, Leicestershire. I think if you do come up with a great title for something, the onus is upon you to make what follows live up to it. So, a good title might be a useful spur to get you to up your game.
9 For myself, writing started in childhood as a purely cathartic process, even if I was too young to fully understand this, it was a way of self-analysing and coming to an understanding of the world and my place within it. How did you find your way to writing and what was it about the process that kept you hooked?
I honestly don’t think I can better your description of it here, Damien. It was the same for me. Nurtured, perhaps, by a few significant friends or teachers. You’ll notice that Larksong Static is dedicated to the memory of two wonderful English teachers I had in my raggy-arsed comprehensive school in the 1970s and early ‘80s: Bob Lewis and Gerry Breen.
10 For the most things that fulfil me in life, the surrounding visuals are very important, and over the past few years the relationship between the photograph I take and poem I write becomes integral to the success of both- sometimes I never know which inspired the other more. What is your favourite accompaniment while creating a piece of writing?
Again, I find some resonance of my own with this. Oblique meditations on your own practice, via a secondary form, can work wonders for your poetry at times. While writing The Waiting Hillside, which is a time-torn collection of sorts, I too, did a lot of photography because I find it quite close to poetry’s deep-wired relationship with time and the moment, and the ephemerality of the moment that can yet be fixed in time through art. By the time I was writing Cur, my love of the visual arts – in particular, 20th century British and European artists – was parlayed into a sequence of ekphrastic responses to favourite art works; which was, in itself, an oblique love letter to my son’s mother who’s an art historian and curator. As a subject for new poetry, the Great War is its own literary and artistic chronotope encouraging integration across time, space and culture. So, The Unreturning always aspired towards that German notion of Gesamtkunstwerk, which was appropriate for the times it described, I guess. However, the book precluded any cover artwork, since it is impossible to use a World War One based image that doesn’t lead expectation in some way, and I wanted the poems to speak for themselves. Hence the title and the Payne’s Grey only. And now, as is evident from the very fine linocut that is the cover of Larksong Static, I’m doing a lot of collaborative work with the great printmaker of the Banffshire coast, Bryan Angus, whose work I admire and with whom I share a certain outlook and sensibility. Poetry ought to be able to stand on its own two feet on the page but, like everything else, the overall aesthetic package is important not only at a cosmetic level but as a genuine agent of change for the way you write. Visual artcertainly helped get me beyond the potential bondage of that lyric ‘I’, for instance.
11 The more I write, the more it becomes my oxygen, the more my hand shapes itself to the shape of my favourite pen or now my iPhone which has replaced the laptop as the most at-hand instrument to record my thoughts, and these days I have to catch them quick or they are lost forever. As a kid I wanted to be a famous fashion designer and lived in 4 different countries working for various fashion brands, though the writing was always there. Since then, cooking and photography have come more into the forefront. What were your childhood dreams, what were the jobs that followed to fulfil them or just fill time and what, other than writing, would you consider doing in order to express yourself?
I think I may have already answered this in passing. But I recall my childhood dreams involved living in Ireland or northern Scotland, so that’s OK because I do. If I stick with those, I’d have also been a big number 9 for Everton and smashed a hat-trick against Liverpool, or, as per my only English vice, scored a Test century in a tight Ashes match. So much for childhood. As I got older, I fell into the classic traps of English culture and its odious class-system: I did Literature at university but, being the first kid from my working-class family to go to university felt I had no permission to actually ‘write culture’ myself. So, I parlayed my creativity into rock music, from where I could more easily access a wonderful array of empowered punk & post-punk role models. This lasted pretty much until an afternoon on Uffington Hill in 2004, when suddenly flying a kite with an 8 year-old appeared to be more rock n’roll than the latest album I was working on, and the complicated epiphanies of that moment no longer seemed capable of being reflected in the classic verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus structures of a pop song. I was 42 and needed to know better. However, after years of abeyance, the muscle memory takes me back to that world with ease and I’m happy to mix the two. That OK for you?
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts, insights and mental workings with us. It’s been a pleasure to dive inside your head from the comfort of our own armchairs. Before we depart, if you were to leave us with one line, one phrase, one lyric, a one-liner or a once-in-a-life-time admission, either yours or someone else’s, what would it be?
Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have lived
Have found their own fulfillment.
Derek Mahon (Leaves)
|Posted by firstname.lastname@example.org on October 11, 2020 at 4:30 PM||comments (6)|
Review of Larksong Static: Selected Poems 2005-2020 by Martin Malone, pub. Hedgehog Press
Skimming the poem titles in the early part of this Selected – Barbury Castle, Red Kites at Uffington, Wood on the Downs – you might easily file Malone as a poet of place. And indeed there is a strong element of that in him, as evidenced by the incantatory lists of place-names:
We have been here before. Uffington, Hackpen,
Grim’s Ditch, Ogbourne St.George, Wayland’s Smithy,
Sparshott Firs, Bishopstone and Barbury
(“Wood on the Downs”)
In fact, though, it soon becomes clear that the landscape is a backdrop, albeit a sharply and lovingly observed one- in the title (a phrase from the opening poem) “static” is a noun, not an adjective; the lark-song a buzz at the back of the soundtrack. What is really at the heart of these early poems is the development of the relationships played out against the landscape:
You, me and your son
and the best kite on the hill.
Passing around the string, sharing the pull
of possibility, we are shaken;
shuddering through the kite-tail spine
of ourselves, alone in the moment’s blue
latitude. I look from boy to you
with some sense of new gravities.
An inkling load guyed skyward, upon
the caught breath of an idea murmured
into your ear: you, me, us.
(“Best Kite On The Hill”)
In the impressive poem “Small Lightnings”, person, time and place coalesce completely:
Driving the A4 to Burghclere, last summer
passes me in an ambulance
on the opposite side. The flashing lights
tell me all I need to know: our time
here is taking its leave on a gurney;
worked at by paramedics whose
urgency is slipping with each
There is then a change of focus, to poems from his Great War pamphlet, "Mr Willett's Summertime" (Poetry Salzburg). I knew these poems already and was pleased to meet some of them again, especially “Let us Sleep Now”, in which Wilfred Owen meets his former enemy on a Vienna tram, heading “up the line to Simmering”, the cemetery at the end of the tracks. The war poems form a bridge between the poems already discussed and a group set in the north: Orkney, Shetland, the north of Scotland. These feel, to me, subtly different from the earlier “landscape” poems in that the landscape genuinely is the protagonist, rather than the backdrop to humans and their activities (I can relate to this, because when I moved to Shetland, I found the natural world seeming far bigger in comparison to humans and playing a larger part in my writing). In “Bright Coast”, though humans are still present, the
drawn line of horizon
stretched across a bay
the gods died making
overshadows them, a player in its own right rather than the backdrop to players. “Static” in the title, as I mentioned, is a noun; the one thing it does not connote here is “stationary”. There are constants in this poetry, like the acute observation of people, eg a mother’s embarrassment in a restaurant:
before her God, she wavers
before the cutlery.
and of the natural world:
The hunting pair stirs
a lazy spoon of air
(“Red Kites at Uffington”)
the twittering mis-
fires of a thousand
But there is also clear development, a sense of an authorial viewpoint broadening beyond the personal to the universal. There is also, of course, the odd misfire. I was never sure why “Liverpool-Irish” started rhyming in the middle and then stopped again, but I found it distracting. And I’m not sure the first verse of “Haas Effect” was necessary – I liked the amputee moving into the future “on unsteady leg”, but otherwise the first verse felt like a lecture or instruction leaflet. These, though, are minor quibbles beside the craft that gives us the unsentimental, deeply moving intimacy of “Like I was Your Girlfriend” and “Let us Sleep Now”, and the sure rhythms at the start of “Barbury Castle”:
Meet me at the earthworks
in the small hours on the hill.
Up there, above your childhood,
at the swing-door of first light
|Posted by email@example.com on February 10, 2019 at 2:45 PM||comments (11)|
1. I genuinely loved Mr. Willett’s Summertime. I suppose the obvious question is why you decided to write about WW1 (felt able to, maybe) when it was done so well by people who were there.
I’m very glad you enjoyed it, David. And the parenthesised part of your inquiry really gets to the heart of matters, since it was the very question I asked myself at the start of the project. There is so much hinterland to the Great War as a subject for poetry and, yes, what right had I to believe I could add anything new to the topic when there were writers infinitely more qualified to write about it, by virtue of having been there. One’s position – as a non-combatant poet, writing a century after the fact – is ethically questionable at best. That said, there has grown around the subject something of a secondary canon, what the Irish critic Fran Brearton, calls ‘post-war Great War poems’. I’ve written about the subject myself in a chapter from a forthcoming Palgrave-Macmillan Handbook: how the time around the 50th anniversary of the war begat significant sequences of work, by poets such as Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Vernon Scannell and Geoffrey Hill. Poetry which was absorbed into our sense of a Great War canon and became as influential upon subsequent writers as the soldier poets themselves. At the outset I sniffed around the topic for quite some time, reading all I could, before deciding that my most ethical route was to write as much about today’s world as the world of 1914-1918, though simultaneously, with the Great War acting as a lens through which we see the present. It’s not so difficult really, since, as Jon Silkin pointed out when writing about the Great War generation, ‘their preoccupations are also ours’. And, if you look at contemporary global politics, you can see disturbing parallels and failures to learn from history. The centenary merely provides chronological symmetry. In this country above all others, I think, the Great War has huge cultural and historical significance. Once I’d decided to use this to my own contemporising ends it was a question of research and hitting upon a poetics adequate to the task. The more straightforward answer to your question is that I was ‘gifted’ the Great War as the subject of my PhD. So, it chose me, rather than the other way around. I’d originally wanted to write about the influence of Punk and Post-punk on contemporary poetry but didn’t get the funding for that. Probably thanks to the centenary, I did get the funding for this. And having done so, I felt a huge sense of responsibility to represent, with some integrity, a generation whom, I suspect, was better than our own. Sorry if this is a long answer but it’s a subject that’s complicated on many levels.
2. Do you think so far on that perhaps we have lost the soft-focus WW1 had – are people more able to understand the horrors now?
We have and we haven’t. WW1 – as an historical moment – is just so biddable. It gets co-opted by all sorts of people, politics and outlooks. In our lifetime it has certainly tended to have no soft-focus. This has been reflected at most levels of historical study and culture and is almost certainly a product of the surviving poetry above much else. However, while we are in a better position to understand the horrors, time also let’s back in some of the factors that brought about the conflict: self-interested elites, misguided patriotism, mistrust of the outsider, egotistical and authoritarian leaders, nationalism and the fragmentation of international unity, to name but a few of the many and complicated reasons for the war. Look at that list. It ought to sound uncomfortably familiar to the citizen of 2014-2018. And there is little doubt that when I started the collection in 2014, there was an appreciable drift towards a sort of neo-con revisionism which was softening the focus once more. Even in popular acts of remembrance I’m attuned to a troublingly aestheticized and top-down mode of commemoration. It still has the lone bugle and sad shires to the fore and is awash with the usual poppy show. This has always troubled me. Hence poems like ‘Dear Revisionist’, and an attempt to widen scrutiny in order to remind us Great War-obsessed Brits that this was a global tragedy endured by both sides, which made victims of everyone. To be lectured at, once more, by public-school elites and the usual officer class stuck in my craw. Then again, look around and you see the least socially mobile society in the developed world, so while there may never be ‘such innocence again’ there is certainly a relapse towards such deference; a subject I deal with in a poem like ‘Downturn’, which punningly refers to our kinky, kiss-ass love of the old upstairs-downstairs world of the Edwardian costume drama. It’s one of the reasons that, in The Unreturning sequence certainly, I’m dressing up WW1 in twenty-first century garb whenever possible.
3. I was interested to hear how you approached the collection. Did it entail a lot of research as a one-off, or is it a topic you had a long-term interest in?
I think I may have already answered this in passing. It entailed a lot of research funded as a one-off project in the form of my PhD, but that in turn has nurtured a long-term interest. In terms of approaching the collection per se, it was mainly a question of scoping out a poetics adequate to the task of doing the subject justice and squaring my own ethical dilemma of writing about the Great War in the first place. Jacob Polley recently said something like: “one of the main tasks of writing involves the search for technique”. And I now know what he means. This is the first collection I’ve written where I was aware of the need to consciously develop a unifying approach to the verse. I’ve written about it at length, in an essay published in the Book 2.0 journal, called ‘Prized assets of a ghost economy’ but it was evolving all the time. Doing a practice-led critical study of the Great War for my PhD was a new and productive way of working, I think. Though, whether I shall ever again get three years paid time in which to write a poetry collection, I very much doubt. I suppose my approach is clearest in the prose poem title sequence, a pair of which you published in Issue #2. In some ways, what you’ve encountered in Mr. Willett’s Summertime was me writing in that lyric-elegiac mode most readily associated with Great War verse. But that was done in order to let me deviate from the mode in the answering prose poem sequence of The Unreturning, which is both a self-conscious refusal to behave like Great War lyrics and intended to look physically like rows of gravestones in a war cemetery. These 10-line, block-justified poems deliberately wear their conceits to the fore, as 21st-century reconstructions of a century old conflict written by someone who is clearly here and not ‘there’. The touchstones being someone like Geoffrey Hill and certain features of early modernism.
4. Are there new stories to be found, or lessons to be learned?
There certainly are and I hope that Mr. Willett’s Summertime has proved it to a degree. You see, once you start researching a conflict as vast as the Great War, you are bound to uncover hundreds of stories and perspectives that deviate from the easily digestible core narratives we are fed year in year out. Coupled with the multi-directional memory approach of The Unreturning, I can honestly say that it would be possible for me to write about or, rather, through the Great War for the rest of my life, should I choose. Thankfully, Armistice arrived for me once I’d finished the manuscript, though there may be a clean-up operation yet to be gone through with my editor. Poems like ‘The Turnip Winter’, ‘An-sky’s Lament’ and ‘The 1st Women’s Battalion of Death’ ought to flag up the sheer variety of hitherto under-scrutinised perspectives and narratives surrounding WW1. And it’s not just the war itself that is awash with possibilities, the whole social and cultural response to it is material also. Indeed, while I studied the poets of WW1, my spirit guides were just as much the war artists also; a fact evident in the number of poems about painters like Nevinson, Nash and Gilman As for the new lessons to be learned, I hope the reader will soon become aware of the book’s contemporising drift and aspiration.
5. How long did the collection take to come together?
Well, I handed the PhD in bang on time, so three years. But one or two of the poems were written before this collection as a result of my interest in the artists mentioned above and I was adding to it up until I handed it over to my prospective publisher.
6. How did you come to have the collection published by Poetry Salzburg, and did going with an Austrian publisher ‘mean’ anything?
Well, I’ve Keith Hutson to thank for that. He joined their editorial team and asked me to submit something. I sent them Mr. Willett’s Summertime and thankfully they went for it. Poetry Salzburg are a quality imprint so I was very glad to go with them. I love the hint of Russian Constructivism in their corporate covers and Wolfgang Görtschacher is a nice guy and a knowledgeable editor. The fact that they’re Austrian is a co-incidental bonus, given the internationalist perspective I wanted to throw upon the war. Also, some of the early poems came out of a research trip to Vienna I did in the Summer of 2014. I’ve good friends there and knew that the Austro- Hungarian perspective on the Great War might be an interesting place to start. Many years ago, I witnessed the funeral cortege of the last Austro-Hungarian princess, Zeta. So, the ‘meaning’ is as much personal as it is symbolic...
7. There is a very personal feeling to the poetry – not so much reportage a lot of the time, but you really seem to get inside people’s heads. For instance, can you tell us about ‘Let Us Sleep Now’.
...which leads nicely into this question! ‘Let Us Sleep Now’ came from that very trip to Vienna mentioned above. It was exactly 100 years to the day that the war was starting as I sat on the station platform described in the poem. A hot sunny afternoon when I was people watching and saw a young Austrian guy heading up the line towards Simmering on the tram. I just channelled a bit of the compassion of Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ and wrote an update (the title is, actually, the final phrase of that poem). When I got back to Wiener Neustadt, my friends told me that Simmering is the location of one of Vienna’s big cemeteries. So, fate had gifted me all kinds of resonance that afternoon. I suppose, a form of empathetic penetration into people’s heads and lives is just something poets are supposed to do. As the opening poem ‘Séance’ suggests, one has to listen to voices conjured from the past and represent them to the contemporary reader. Poetry isn’t reportage really, is it? I’m just about to teach an online module on voice for Aberdeen University, so hopefully, the experience of writing this book will stand me in good stead. And I’m giving a paper on his poetic afterlife to the Wilfred Owen Conference at Oxford in October. All grist to the mill, hopefully.
8. Can you talk us through your thinking for ‘The 1st Women’s Battalion of Death’ and ‘Sorley’s Bullet’?
Those two poems come from very different circumstances, the first purely from research, the second from personal coincidence similar to ‘Let Us Sleep Now’. ‘The 1st Women’s Battalion of Death’ was one of those many narratives to be uncovered during my research, the sort lost to a national story tending towards the subaltern poetry of the Western Front, as it is in the U.K. Apart from being a wonderful gift of a title, the story of Bochkareva and the Russian women’s battalions put into the field on the Eastern Front resonated with today’s struggle for equality and the recent frontline deployment of women in the U.K.’s armed forces. It’s nothing new and surely a bittersweet development. ‘Sorley’s Bullet’ was actually a poem commissioned by Aberdeen University for their Mayfest 2015, to celebrate the centenary of Sorley’s death at the Battle of Loos in October, 1915. However, there were numerous personal touch-points too. I’d just moved up here and found out that one of my favourite Great War poets had been born just up the road in Don Street. And I shared with Sorley a great love of the Kennet Valley. He’d gone to school at Marlborough and used to wander and run the downland surrounding it, as I myself had done when I lived in the villages of West Overton and Avebury. Also, just as he’d written about that landscape in his posthumous collection, Marlborough and Other Poems, I’d written a fair bit about it in The Waiting Hillside. It seemed fated, then. The title, ‘Sorley’s Bullet’ is an allusion to a line from one of his famous war poems, ‘All the hills and vales along...’. I’m also writing a chapter on his wonderful Letters for a book that I’m co-editing on Scottish Great War writing. A virtuous, though tragic, circle then.
9. More generally, you are leaving The Interpreter’s House behind now, why is that?
I’m leaving it simply because, when I took it over in 2013, I said that I’d do it for 5 years and 15 issues. I’m a man of my word. Temperamentally, I’d have gone for three years but that felt too short and five was sufficient unto the day.
10. What are you planning to do next?
Hm. Quite a few people have been asking me that of late. To be honest, I am simply knackered and feeling a bit burnt out. It’s been a hard five years. I’d like to try writing some short stories and concentrate a little more on my own poetry, but, out of necessity, I am now back in full-time employment. Despite a PhD and three MAs, I can’t seem to even get an interview for academic jobs. So, while I try to create my own, with the development of online courses for Aberdeen, I’m back to full-time school-teaching, having committed a form of ‘pension suicide’ in order to do the PhD. Also, I’ve an absolutely gorgeous but full-on 4-year old who takes up a lot of time and a new/old house up on the Moray coast. Little wonder I’m a bit distracted right now. That said, I’ve made the switch to a new font, which I always do when I start a new collection. I’ve now gone from Times New Roman to Calibri to Georgia to the current Garamond. So, I’ve stated my intent, at least, by opening up a new font in the great war against silence. Sorry, it becomes a habit of mind.
SORT OF GENERIC
1. Can you remember the first poem you read that caught your imagination, and if so what was it?
Yes. I’m going to say that it was ‘The force that through the green fuse...’ by Dylan Thomas. On the cover of ‘Scott 4’, Scott Walker quotes Camus: ‘A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.’ That. It was/is like that. With R.S. Thomas and Ted Hughes not far behind that moment.
2. How about the first poem you wrote – what was it about? Do you still have it?
Like many, I suppose, I wrote poetry from quite an early age and then stopped once I started to properly study literature, crushed under the weight of a dead, white, predominantly middle-class male canon. I detoured through rock music for 25-years before getting back to writing verse at 42. The first thing I did then was ‘At Uffington’, which opens The Waiting Hillside, and captured an emotionally complex moment with an adequacy that suddenly seemed more viable than verse-chorus, verse-chorus, middle-eight, verse-chorus-chorus.
3. How long were you writing poetry before you submitted your work to a magazine?
I’ll answer this one and the next question together.
4. What was the first thing you had accepted, and how did it feel? Similarly, describe how you felt when you first saw your name/ work in
I didn’t actually submit my poetry to anyone before I had it accepted. My friend, the screenwriter, Carmel Morgan, read ‘At Uffington’ thought it was like Hardy, whom her hero Philip Larkin also liked and sent it off to the magazine Larkin About. All without my knowing about it. When she told me it had been accepted and I saw it alongside a poem by Dennis O’Driscoll, I became hooked.
5. Thinking about your first collection – what was that like as an experience? Did you listen to your editor?
Rather uncharitably, I always describe my winning of the Straid Award and the subsequent publication of The Waiting Hillside as something of a mixed blessing. It was basically my M.A. portfolio that I’d expected to tidy up and set aside while I wrote my first proper collection. Then, I got onto a great mentoring scheme run by the Wordsworth Trust, purely because I’d just moved to Cumbria at the very moment the scheme came into being. I was paired-up with the wonderful Paul Batchelor and suggested that, rather than me workshop a handful of new poems, we tidy up my M.A. portfolio in preparation for the bottom drawer. We needed a timescale, so I suggested that the deadline for this new award might be a good notional one. We kept to it, I bunged it into Templar and, blow me, didn’t it win? This was/ is all great. Templar do lovely books, but, in a world where way too much store is set by first-collections (for purely commercial, rather than any real artistic reasons), I think maybe I wasted one of my best shots. At least in terms of building a more solid reputation first and maybe prising open the tight fist of one of the ‘major’ poetry publishers (contradiction in terms, though that may be). But hey, I got a beautifully produced first collection out with a respected imprint and, for all it’s faults, I’m still proud of it. The rest is just business, really. Did I listen to my editor, well, by the time Alex Macmillan got the manuscript I suppose that it had already been heavily edited by Paul. And, on that score, I always cut it 95 – 5% in favour of the second pair of eyes. I’m not at all precious. Every writer needs an editor.
6. What did you expect would happen when it was published and how did the reality compare?
I had no expectations and I still don’t know what that book’s ‘reality’ is, to be honest. Poetry is a curious beast that plays strange games with its own reception through time.
SOME EVEN MORE GENERIC QUESTIONS
1. Can you recommend a poet to us that you have come across that perhaps we don’t know?
From today you mean? I’m keen on Frances Leviston’s work but, as she’s on Picador, I guess she might be known well enough... So, a few writers I’ve mentioned before in editorials/ interviews, who ought to be better known for work they’ve produced in recent years: Roy Marshall, Jim Carruth, Carole Bromley and Lesley Saunders.
2. What poetry collection/ anthology are you currently reading?
I’m reading Richard Skinner’s excellent Smokestack pamphlet, The Malvern Aviator and Virginia Astley’s new Bloodaxe collection, The English River.
3. Can you name a poem you wish you’d written and why?
God, loads. But for present purposes, Derek Mahon’s gorgeous wee lyric ‘Leaves’. Just two quatrains, such profundity, so lightly worn. I aspire to that.
4. If you had a hero poet, who was it and why?
Again, so many candidates but gatekeepers remain: Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, R.S. Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg and, more latterly, Geoffrey Hill. ‘Why’ might take more time than we have here.
5. Name one poet you think is over, or underrated.
There are way too-many over-rated poets, it’s a function of the publishing ‘industry’. Time invariably finds them out and sometimes it is kind to the underrated. That’s the consolation which encourages us grunts to continue. But the question is a good one and I often wonder whether we’d prefer to be over-rated or under-rated. There being no danger of the former I’ll continue to console myself with the latter.
6. Which book should you like but don’t?
I’m no great fan of Virginia Woolf. Sorry.
7. Can songs, rap and grime be considered poetry?
Oh now, I’d need an entirely new conversation to go into that one. I’ve been a songwriter and now I aspire to become a poet. They are different crafts. Cousins not siblings.
8. Who should we talk to next?
John Lucas, Jon Glover and Sheenagh Pugh while we still can. Elsewhere, there are simply too many interesting candidates for me to offend by naming only one.
|Posted by firstname.lastname@example.org on February 10, 2019 at 2:25 PM||comments (2)|
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
You know I really can’t recall now. Something I always say to my students is that, after painting the tally on the cave wall, I think the very next thing humans do is try to physically construct their thoughts and poetry is the readiest reckoner there is for that. I’m not trying to be glib. I think almost everyone is in love enough, or grieving a loss enough, at some point in their livesto turn to getting their thoughts down on paper in what can best be described as a poem. This struck me, when 6-months after my father’s death, I came across some writing by my mother in which she was dealing with her grief and which could be best-recognised as poetry. My mother left school at 15, she’s not educated in the traditions of ‘the Muse’ but its elemental template produced poetry in her at a moment of extremity. So, I think the ‘inspiration to write poetry’ is pretty much hard-wired into us all. Beyond that, I was always – and remain – a weird kid whose aspirations were skewed in this direction, somehow. So, I always wrote stuff, as many of us do in our teens. And, like most of us, I stopped. My particular reasons for doing so were possibly tied up in the same issues of permission that get so over-performed these days on social media. In my case, here was I, a working-class kid from the north-east, the first of my family to go to university and studying – of all things – English Literature. Faced with ‘the canon’, I simply took my ball home and drifted towards what appeared to be more egalitarian artforms: specifically, rock and pop. For 20-years, I detoured around bands, music production, song-writing, singing, gigging and the like. Until I found myself, at 42, feeling the law of diminishing dignity kick in, suddenly stumbling across the complicated epiphany of fatherhood on Uffington Hill, and emotionally ready to write poetry. So, I did.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
First, the Catholic Masses I was dragged to 3-4 times a week, then Dad’s Irish and C&W records.Thirdly, school and two great teachers I had at English Martyrs Comprehensive in Hartlepool during the 1970s. Gerry Brean was a great wee fella from Belfast who taught me ‘O’ Level English Literature and who I would love to have a pint with now if I could track him down. If only to thank him for taking us all to see The Clash. Secondly, Bob Lewis, who taught me at A-level. He had a brilliant back-story, an arch sense of humour, warned me about Tony Blair from the get-go and who I did once track down, to a home for retired teachers in Bishop Auckland. I took him my first collection. Tragically, he’d had a stroke and all his language would then allow him was a broad smile and the words, ‘Yabba-Dabba-Dooh!’ Life has a sadness you can’t invent sometimes.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
Awareness is a state that’s all-too-often retro-fitted to make ourselves look smarter than we are. I suppose, like most of my generation (certainly the few of us working-class kids who made it as far as university), I just accepted what was put in front of me and said ‘Thank you’ for some great poetry.This was the late-70s/ early 80s, debates about canonicity, cultural hegemony and the end of Leavisitehierarchies were only just beginning in this country, really. It’d be self-serving and disingenuous to pretend that I was ‘hip’ to the sort of conversations we take as read these days. What I will say is that Nine Modern Poets nurtured a love for poetry and introduced me to some fucking good stuff. And when I got to university, Liverpool had a very traditional English Literature degree. I read Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon, for goodness sake. But absolutely none of it went to waste. And, overall, I like older poets. When I interviewed for my MA at MMU I told them: ‘Well I’m alright up until about 1925 but after that, you’ll have to educate me’. And they did. I’ve seen some outrageously high-handed and censorious social media posts these past few years, attacking people for daring to have the genuine preferences they have, rather than falling in behind the latest current consensus on what we ought to be liking. People can no more help their age, gender and cultural inheritance than they can their sexuality, intersectionality or skin colour. We’d do well to remember that. Many agendas are rightfully (underlined, italicized and in bold) having their moment, but I fear that many folk who presume to speak for them are utterly misusing this moment (all-too often for their own short-term gains). It ought to grieve us: firstly, because they’re seeking to replace a wrong-headed culture with another wrong-headed culture, secondly because change must come but not like this, sweet Jesus,not like this! Send us a way forward other than this petti-fogging shit-storm of tedious social media performance. It’s so co-opted and middle-class. We tend to connive in what we deplore, in order to deplore in what we connive. Many of the people who embody the issues others purport to speak for are still voiceless, by dint of social inequality and the evils of rampant capitalism above all else. If that viewpoint damns me in the eyes of the current ‘scene’, then so be it. I’ll away to their gulag. If it’s problematical, then good! Part of poetry’s function is to stick in the craw, not to nurture some bogus notion of a ‘career’ and harvest consensus in the form of social media ‘likes’.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
Don’t have one. Not through mere hobbyism, lack of discipline or work ethic but sheer opportunity. For all my education and cultural mobility, I still face the sort of life-economising my father did: I have to work full-time for a living, look after my wee son, live in as harmonious a manner with my rapidly dying planet as I can, and look after my ageing mother as best as I may also. I write when I can and afford myself a wry laugh at this state of affairs.
5. What motivates you to write?
Well, that hard-wired human thing I alluded to earlier and the same sort of weirdness which motivated me as a kid. It’s a mixed blessing really. But I’ll be doing it until the day I die.
6. What is your work ethic?
See my earlier answer. I hope I’ve modelled a fierce work ethic when it comes to writing, editing and teaching against the backdrop of need for full-time employment elsewhere, in order to put food on the table. But who knows, really? I’ve not had to go down the pit or work in a shipyard like my Dad. However, you cut it, I’m lucky in that.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
Well, it’s akin to the music you love when you’re young, isn’t it? That Camus quote which Scott Walker uses on the cover of ‘Scott 4’: “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” Their influence, then, is lingering: Ted Hughes, R.S. Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Gerard Manley-Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Seamus Heaney. As well, interestingly, as Jane Austen, George Eliot and an amazing Victorian novelist called Margaret Oliphant, who bequeathed me an aspirational model of work in the face of insurmountable domestic odds. Then, there’s Shakespeare. There’s always Shakespeare... And a huge list of inspirational songwriters and bands. How could they not exert an intricate complex of lingering influences? I mean, my most recently published poem is about sitting around in Liverpool waiting for an REM tour to come to town.
8. Who of today's writers do you admire the most and why?
Many of them might be novelists, actually. I love John Irving, who has much to teach poets. I think James Hawes entertainingly chronicles where it all turned to shit back in the nineties and noughties. I respect where my old mate, Peter Mills, is trying to take writing about rock music. For all we have our personal differences, I think Kim Moore’s poem ‘My Sort’ says something important, and importantly inconvenient, about the white working-class. I have a number of friends whose work I massively respect: Roy Marshall, Keith Hutson, Richard Skinner, Neil Young, Chuck Lauder, Christopher James, Dawn Gorman, Virginia Astley, Hilda Sheehan, Carole Bromley, Sharon Black, Robin Houghton. All of whom are labouring away quietly, in possession of no little talent, and enriching the scene significantly without picking up any of the baubles used by the publishing industry as its selling tools. But once you start with this it becomes a bit of a list. There a lot of good and under-rated people out there who deserve more attention. In terms of ‘famous folk’, Patterson is pretty good, Simon Armitage is, well, a bit of a genius really, as is Robin Robertson. Niall Campbell is the real deal, as is Zaff Kunial, Dan O’Brien and Kei Miller. I am a huge fan of both Frances Leviston and Vona Groarke, among others. I’m a sucker for Irish poetry, adore Heaney, Muldoon, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley. I’m always conscious of who I might be leaving out when asked questions like this. The poetry commonwealth is rich isn’t it? I’ve not even got beyond these shores yet.... As to ‘why’, we’ve just not got the space here to answer that one.
9. Why do you write?
There is absolutely no logical reason for my doing so, just an inescapable necessity that always outruns me. Frankly, it’s a pain in the ass, at times but I certainly wouldn’t change it. Writing, when it’s going well, makes you bombproof. Even when it’s not going well, it’s good. As Ted Kooser points out, when you’re writing a poem, there’s one less scoundrel in the world.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you "How do you become a writer?"
I’m pretty sure you know if before you turn your thoughts to ‘how’. If it’s the other way around, then... well, I’d not presume to say it doesn’t work but it would work in a way I can’t fully comprehend. The advice I was always given as a sound-engineer was Just don’t do it, it’s a nightmare. Given that, if you still want to do it then you’ve a chance of making it work. If you’ve not the leg up of nepotistic advantage (as in all walks of life, there’s a lot of it about), then the same advice holds for writing also. I could talk about things like ‘always keep your eyes open, notice things, maintain your openness to new ideas, viewpoints etc’. Or suggest daily writing exercises, workshops, courses, reading lists. But, really, there are loads of ‘How-To-Be’ books out there. Go buy some of them.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
Well, I am being ultra-patient in trying to place my latest collection – which has been written for 18- months – with the specific publisher I’d like it to come out with. Beyond that, I’m simply using the interim as bonus time to start sketching out directions for my fourth and fifth collections and accumulating some new material, as and when it appears. I did a wonderful month’s residency at Sumburgh Head lighthouse on Shetland back in April and the handful of poems I got written there are coming out as a Stickleback micro-pamphlet with Hedgehog Press some time next year. As I say, I find myself with a pair of new collections on the go: The Trick of Stars which is just a steady accumulation of material I like, and a more thematically linked set of poems to do with my time in bands and as a fan of rock n’ roll. Away from poetry, I continue to write a fair few reviews for journals like Poetry Ireland and Stand, I’m putting together a bid for a Leverhulme Fellowship in order to write a book about the influence of Punk and Post-punk on what could loosely be described as the ‘Armitage generation’ of poets, and I’m hoping to find time to complete my critical monograph on Great War poetry, Lighted by Troy’s Last Shadow. If I get through all of that,it’ll be time for a rest...and maybe a novel.