Out of the Archive: a Slow Dancer Reading

A few days ago I was reminded a piece by the poet Anthony Wilson called “Life Saving Poems”, describing his visit to a Slow Dancer poetry reading at the Voice Box at the Royal Festival Hall. It was reprinted, with Anthony’s permission, on the old Mellotone blog in 2013 and seemed so evocative, so well-written, that I’m reproducing it again here …

Sometime in the early Nineties I did a very brave thing. I took myself to a poetry reading. I went on my own. I knew nobody there and none of the poets who were reading. The reading took place in the Voice Box on the top floor of the Festival Hall, at London’s South Bank. I was terrified. For a start, everyone seemed to know everyone else. There seemed to be a lot of kissing. It was a bit like showing up at church.

Next, I saw immediately I had woefully misjudged the dress code. The crumpled writer look (grandad shirts and jackets; cursory and floating dresses) was very much de rigueur. Retro ice cream salesman shirtsleeve stripes and baggy shorts were very much not.

For safety, I sat somewhere near the back, praying no one would speak to me.

The evening was hosted by a very impressive and confident looking man wearing the most crumpled suit in the room. He introduced himself as John Harvey, editor-in-chief of Slow Dancer Press, the reading’s sponsors. He told us a few jokes, and explained in a manner that was both light-hearted and somehow menacing that Slow Dancer really did need our money and we should all subscribe to its poetry magazine.

He pulled from his suit pocket a pale looking book of poems, which turned out to be his. With great seriousness and tenderness he read us a poem. The room went very quiet. At the end of the poem we clapped and John introduced us to the evening’s first poet, Lee Harwood.

Lee also seemed very sure of himself. He shuffled papers and old copies of his books and gave the appearance of not knowing what he was going to do next. At the same time he seemed ruthlessly calm and in control of everything he said. His poems seemed carved out of a different language to me, especially those about the natural world and climbing, of which he read several. For twenty-five minutes I did not hear myself breathing.

When Lee had finished reading we clapped and John got up and read another poem and again I seemed to stop breathing. The poem was about Chet Baker, I think. Then he introduced the next poet, Libby Houston.

I wasn’t sure then, and am still not sure now, what to make of Libby Houston’s reading. (I mean this as the strongest praise I can offer). By turns hilarious, unflinchingly honest, deadpan, slapstick and wildly lyrical the words of Libby’s poems seemed to pour out of her at a variety of speeds. Sometimes they came in a torrent, and sometimes in a whisper, almost like a child. But they all seemed to contain vital energy and truth, including the knowledge that Libby herself did not fully understand where some of them seemed to be coming from. In the twenty or so years of going to poetry readings since, I have still not heard anything like it.

When Libby had finished John stood up and said we would need to recharge our glasses during the interval, which was now, and while we were about it please could we buy some Slow Dancer books and magazines.

At this point of the evening I became aware again of my lack of knowledge of poetry reading protocol. People walked purposefully around the room in the direction of the poets who had read, including John and the evening’s final poet, Peter Sansom. I noticed that many of them were holding open the books and magazines they had bought from the table at the back. This seemed to me the best way of engineering a conversation with one of them without appearing strange. I bought myself a couple of back issues of Slow Dancer, and waited in what looked like the most busy queue, which was the one for Peter.

I had been sending Peter Sansom my poems to The North, and had even bought one of his books. In truth, he was probably the reason I went to the reading in the first place. For reasons I had not stopped to analyse I thought of him as a bit of a hero. So as I edged nearer to him in the queue I began to grow very nervous. I realised I had no idea what to say to him. If I said my name that would appear boastful, as though I was expecting him to know it. If I mentioned that I’d been sending him poems that would also look self-promoting, as though my poems were somehow more memorable than the thousands of others he received each week in his mailbag. On the other hand I could hardly resort to what I was overhearing others saying to him further down the queue, most of which sounded like offers of a place to crash for the night.
When it came to my turn l blurted to Peter everything I promised I wouldn’t in the queue. Amazingly, he seemed to know exactly who I was. He appraised me for a moment, shook my hand, and taking from my other a Slow Dancer to sign said: ‘You’re looking very cool, Anthony.’ His reading, from his soon-to-be-published January, was similarly generous: full of anecdote, good natured red-herrings and warmly lyrical.

The evening’s final act, a late night solo, it occurs to me now, was a reading by John. From the same pale book he chose its title poem, ‘Ghost of a Chance’. To the now familiar pin-drop quiet and lack of oxygen I now became aware of moisture gathering in the corners of my eyes. As one of John Ash‘s poems puts it, the surprise was ‘like a snowball in the back’. I’ll never forget it.

Ghost of a Chance
He plays the tune lazily,
pretty much the way he must
have heard Billie sing it,
but slower, thick-toned,
leaning back upon the beat,
his mind half on the melody,
half on the gin.
 

Between takes he stands,
head down, shrunken inside
a suit already overlarge,
cheeks sunken in.
He thinks of her, Billie:
already it is possible
he has started to bleed within.
 

From the control room, laughter,
but that’s not the sound he hears;
tenor close to his mouth,
he turns towards the doors:
unseen, not quite unbidden,
someone has just slipped in.
 

At the end of eight bars
he closes his eyes and blows.
After two choruses he will cover
his mouthpiece with its shield:
not play again.

John Harvey, from Ghosts of a Chance (Smith/Doorstop) 1992. Reprinted in Out of Silence (Smith/Doorstop) 2014

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Orphans

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I’ve been reading, and very much enjoying, Ann Patchett’s novel, Commonwealth, which follows, in well-articulated but deliberately haphazard order, the inter-connecting lives of two families based in Los Angeles and Virginia. I reminded me, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, of John Updike’s Rabbit novels, though it manages, I think to be both more sympathetic and, in places, harder-edged; also of the John Irving of Garp and The Cider House Rules. Which, in turn, reminded me of a poem of mine, dating back to the late ’80s, early ’90s, “Goodnight, Fuzzy Stone”. A connection made all the stronger last night, watching part of a Channel 4 programme called Finding Me a Family, in which young children waiting to be adopted meet and interact with prospective parents looking to adopt. Here’s the poem …

GOODNIGHT, FUZZY STONE

“Orphans are notorious for interior games”
John Irving: The Cider House Rules

Inside the folds of his box Fuzzy Stone has a dream:
when he picks up the phone she says she will be home
from work a little late; she arrives and there are
flowers in her arms, so many flowers.
They sit at either end of the sofa while she
tells him about her day; they have not kissed yet –
he has learnt not to claim too much too soon.

He believes in Santa Claus, the power of love,
the tooth fairy, the folk that play happy families
at the end of the rainbow. He believes
if he picks up the phone it will be her:
always.

When he was four his mother packed him off
with his own fork and spoon to find the party.

“Fuzzy is a loveable child who would benefit
from a warm and caring family, preferably one
with brothers and sisters of a similar age.”

Slowly fingering lines
mouth moving to the words,
Fuzzy recognises himself and smiles.

Cars come slowly over the hill,
even in the worst of winter there are cars,
singly or in convoy, and when they leave
another face stares back at Fuzzy
through a blur of moving glass.

When he was sixteen they gave him a new pair
of second-hand shoes, a travel warrant
and a testimonial” “Fuzzy is a pleasant
enough young man, decent and honest,
but when things become too stressful
he likes to climb back inside his boss.”

In the bus station he sleeps with on ear open
close to the bank of telephones.
There are other places: the launderette,
the air ducts out at the bakery,
behind the curtains in the camera booth –
colour photos three for a pound –
he loves to watch them slip into sight,
always when you have given up hoping,
there! Like magic. Like dreams.

The phone rings and he picks it up:
he climbs back inside his box.

What he really wants to do is drive
the wet miles till she holds him tight
in her arms (as he is certain she would).
“Turn over and let me snuggle you up.”
Isn’t that the kind of thing lovers say?

Say good night, Fuzzy Stone.

This poem first appeared in Ghosts of a Chance, Smith/Doorstop, 1992

 

 

Reading at Ray’s Jazz

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The John Lake Band: John (piano) Phil Paton (sax) Matt Casterton (bass) Simon Cambers (drums) Photo: Molly Ernestine Boiling

Continuing what has, in recent posts, become a theme, there was more Thelonious Monk in evidence this Friday just passed when I joined the John Lake Band for an evening session organised by Ray’s Jazz at Foyles flagship bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Though the band didn’t actually play “Evidence”. The first piece I read, a poem called ‘Saturday’ from ‘Out of Silence’ was accompanied by a rocking version of ‘Rhythm-a-ning’ and, towards the end, ‘Blue Monk’ featured both ‘Straight, No Chaser’ and ‘Blue Monk’ itself.

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That’s me paying attention to the words while Simon keeps his eyes on the dots. Photo: Molly Ernestine Boiling

What seemed to be a major incident – possibly, a terrorist attack – fairly close by, resulting in the closing of Oxford Circus and Bond Street tube stations, with customers being locked into stores and armed police deployed in the streets while a helicopter hovered overhead, meant that attendance was not what it might have been, numbers of ticket holders opting – not unreasonably – for the sensible option of sticking indoors. Those that were present, however, seemed to be having a pretty good time – not least the 5/6 year old young lady bopping away down near the front row – and we were, somewhat to our surprise, on the receiving end, not just of applause, but whoops of delight.

You should, as the saying goes, have been there.

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Reading one of the stories from the recently published “Going Down Slow” while John looks anxiously on. Photo: Sonny Marr

And if you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Eastbourne on the South Coast on the final Friday of the year, you can hear us doing it all again – and more. Details here …

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Hand in pocket, not Hand in Glove. Photo: Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Here’s another Whitby poem from Bluer Than This that didn’t make its way into the more recent New & Selected …

The Wrong Wind

The wrong wind
marshals its forces along the channel
and that range of hills we can quite clearly see
against the northern horizon
will within minutes be lost to sight.

Down in the town
a woman bustles across the bridge
with lowered head, plastic shopping bags
bumping and banging against her legs.

Outside the Jolly Sailors
two dogs pause in their robust examination
of each other’s genitalia to sniff the air,
and along the street at number 54, the children’s
crossing guard, once assistant harbour master,
taps his barometer and scowls;
the parrot in its cage is one hundred and five
or one hundred and ten, depending
what you believe.

High on the West Cliff
we squat in the lea of blackened gravestones
and count our blessings: peppermints, lip salve,
four squares of dark chocolate, the return
halves of two supersaver tickets
to Pudset via Leeds and a compass
neither of us can read. A ladybird,
startled, stops its scuttling run along your arm
and braces its wings for flight. Too late now,
too foolish to make a dash across
open ground, we wait, and if our luck holds
the worst of the storm will pass us by.

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Whitby 2

North Coast

Once, we stayed here, out of season,
arcades and the Magpie Café closed,
clouds massed like bulkheads in the northern sky
and around the municipal grandstand
only the melismatic cry of gulls.
Close by our feet, winter lay coiled like rope.
At night hope hung across the water like a child.
What is never shared, cannot be lost.

When she was seven or eight,
I brought my daughter here to stay.
Our first time in an old-fashioned B & B,
hot water bottles and flasks of coffee on request.
She laid out her clothes, folded and neat,
each item in its proper drawer,
alarm clock wound and set for seven,
books and diary on the square oak table
nudged against the bed.

There have been other lovers, other nights.
The town, I heard this morning, is falling
rock by rick and day by day into the sea.
Tied up against each forecast,
fishing boats, all colours, rack and slide.
My daughter ran yesterday from France,
she and the man she’s lived with for years
are breaking up. I shall come here again, yes,
I think so, with someone else or on my own.
We cling to what we can, and the rest,
one way or another, clings to us.

from Bluer Than This, Smith/Doorstop, 1998

Whitby 2011

Bluer

 

Two Poems for National Poetry Day

Both of the poems I’ve lighted upon to share on National Poetry Day were written in the States in the mid-90s when I was fortunate enough to be a participant in a couple of poetry writing courses at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, tutored by Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Brenda Hillman, Lucille Clifton and Galway Kinnell. If you can’t come up with something half way decent after that, it’s likely time to give the muse a rest.

OUT OF SILENCE
Squaw Valley, 1995

How the light diffuses round house corners;
redwood walls, the breaking colour of packed earth,
ochre in the mouth

The red woodpecker
testilly chiselling sap from a small ash
the only sound in the valley.

FAILED SONNET HOME

The window boxes outside the Clocktower Café
are delerious with blood. Cappuccino with
chocolate and cinnamon. Blueberry muffin.
How many more days can the sky sustain
this absurdity of blue? I can taste vanilla
from the pines. You know the other day
Jake drove me to Truckee in his van
and in Safeway I was stalled mid-aisle
by the scent of that hot-buttered toast
we shared before you drove me to the train.
How far are we away? Crimson columbine,
black centre of violet pansy, its yellow eye –
one thing you learn here: how little soil
it takes to nourish the most stubborn root.

I’d always thought the final lines refer to the continuance of love in what seem to be unfulfilling situations, but it occurs to me now they might also refer to the writing of poetry.

And I believe, for a while at least, the second poem was included in a University of Nottingham English course about the sonnet – a self-confessed example, I suppose, of how not to do it.

For anyone wanting to read more, both poems are in included in Out of Silence: New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014), available from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk or http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/bookshop/books-pamphlets  

Remembering Tony Burns: Blues in Time

One of the ideas informing my dramatisation of the Resnick novel Darkness, Darkness for Nottingham Playhouse was that while we ourselves are alive, the dead – the dead that we know – never quite die. The plot is set in motion by the discovery of the body of a young woman who disappeared during the Miners’ Strike, some thirty years before; what the story then does is revisit the significant moments in that young woman’s – Jenny’s – life, showing them in juxtaposition to the present. To Resnick, who knew her only slightly and is now investigating the circumstances of her death, she was little more than the memory of a bright, lively and outspoken young woman, a firebrand, and during the course of the play he gets to know her more clearly, more roundly, so that, in the scene towards the end [possibly my favourite scene of all], when she visits him in his house where he is getting dressed ready to go to her funeral, it is – bar a quick and instant frisson – no real surprise. She talks to him and he answers, much as he would if she were still alive, much as we hold conversations (inside our heads, more usually, rather than out loud) with those we knew and maybe loved long after they are gone. Much as Resnick, in the play, holds sometimes grudging conversations with the strike leader whose funeral he has attended just before the action opens and who, like a somewhat guilty conscience, comes to haunt him – haunt, the word is correct here, I think – as the play progresses.

That I’ve been thinking about this at all was not sparked directly by the Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness [though it does tend to haunt me, both by what was and, perhaps even more strongly, what later might have been] but by the gift of a CD, a remastering of a session by the Gerry Mulligan/Paul Desmond, originally recorded and released in 1957 and sometimes titled simply Quartet, sometimes Blues in Time.

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Listening to it now I am back in the home of my friend Tony Burns, the back bedroom of a house in Finchley, north London, both of us in our late teens; Tony is learning the saxophone – the alto, initially – and I am, less methodically, less seriously, learning to play the drums. Desmond, who plays alto, most usually in the Dave Brubeck Quartet, is probably Tony’s favourite player at this time, though he likes Mulligan too, and, like Mulligan, will play baritone – only finally settling for tenor some good few years later.

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Tony Burns

By profession a tailor, Tony continued to play jazz semi-professionally, only stopping a relatively short time before his death in 2013. By some quirk of circumstance, I was lucky enough, using a borrowed set of drums – my daughter’s – to play with him on a number of occasions in those later years, evening sessions in a pub near the Archway, each one for me a joy. Tony had a way of making you sound better than you really were.

Here, in the final section of a longer poem from Out of Silence called Winter Notebook, are the lines I wrote shortly after Tony died …

My friend, Tony, with whom I first listened,
really listened to jazz, the two of us practising
in his parents’ bedroom, he on saxophone,
me drums, rustling brushes in four-four time
across the top of an old suitcase –
my friend Tony is in a hospice:
the volunteers at the desk welcoming and polite,
all chemo stopped, the carpet deep, the furnishings
not too bright; visiting, we keep our voices low,
talk around you, and just when we think
you’ve drifted off to sleep, you rebuke us
for some mistaken reference to a recording
you know well, Brubeck, perhaps, Mulligan or Getz;
and when Jim retells a joke you first told him
many years before – its punchline too crude
to be repeated here – how marvellous to see
you throw your head back and laugh out loud.

For now I sit alone with you and watch you sleep,
breath like brittle plastic breaking inside your chest,
and, for a moment, without feeling I have the right,
reach out and hold your hand.

One day soon I will push through the doors,
present myself at the desk, only to hear the news
we know must come. It happens, no matter
what expectations we have, fulfilled or not.
And not dramatically, like some monster
rising from the marsh to seize us, drag us down,
but deftly, quietly, like someone switching out the light.

There … you’re gone.

… but not forgotten.

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Tony with, to his right, our friend Jim Galvin

 

Jazz Matters: David Murray

It was my friend, the late David Kresh, who first attuned me to the controlled fury that is David Murray. A one person compendium of the tenor saxophone, a Murray solo can stretch from the honk and rasp of the R & B bands in which he learned his trade, to the keening stratospheric upper-register yelps of an Albert Ayler and the avant-garde, without straying far from the rich and muscular mainstem of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. In print, Murray has vouchsafed Paul Gonsalves as a major influence, and if that isn’t always tonally evident, it is present in the way he muscles rhythmically from phrase to phrase, line to line – evident also in that the length of most Murray solos seems  inspired by Gonsalves’ famous 27 chorus solo on Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue in front of the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.

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I first saw David Murray play at a smallish club in Nottingham, after that in the brutal splendour of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, and then again, last week, at another small venue, the Vortex in Dalston, east London. The first of two nights and to say it was packed would have been an understatement; jazz & crime fiction aficionado, Bob Cornwell and I had snagged the last pair of seats going, close up against the stage with our backs to the window facing out onto Gillett Square – any closer and I would have on top of the drummer’s kit rather than alongside it.

Humourously bemused by the weather – it was a day of unending torrential rain and he had flown in that morning without as much as a coat – Murray was in a relaxed mood (he even sang, pleasingly, on a couple of numbers)  and played, I thought, well within himself, eschewing much of the ferocity of which he’s capable. Which is not to say that he didn’t play with great virtuosity and rhythmic brilliance.

Sharing the front line with trombonist Paul Zauner, with whom he’s played, off and on, since the 80s, Murray was backed by bassist Wolfram Derschmidt and drummer Dusan Novakov, with Carlton Holmes at the piano. It may have been a relatively new rhythm section– he had to refer to a scrap of paper before announcing their names – but they had no problems following the shifts and changes, and soloed well. Sitting as close to Novakov as I was, I was able to follow his playing closely, my admiration soured only by the regret that I’d swopped my drum kit for a pair of DJ turntables somewhere back in the 70s and never pushed my own playing beyond the merely passable when I’d had the chance. I can dream, can’t I?

Here’s something I wrote after seeing Murray on that first occasion …

Grace Notes

Let’s say it’s one of those
insubstantial inner-city days,
from the flower beds in the park
to the slim-hipped cellist
playing the inevitable Bach.

And say, strolling home, I chance to pass
this bar just hours after David Murray
has jet-lagged in from New York.
It’s light enough still for the doors
to be open out onto the street;
the sound and the small crowd
draw me inside, and there on stage
before bass and drums he stands:
back arched, chest pigeoned forward,
horn angled outwards as he rocks
lightly back from heel to toe,
toeing the line of a calypso so true,
the crowd, as one, leans back and smiles,
relaxed, not noticing those heels
have lifted with an extra bounce
and before anyone can blink
his left leg kicks out in the curve
of a high hurdler; his tenor twists
and soars and lifts us, holds us to him,
wrapped in curlicues of sound,
blessed by the effortless grace
of his playing.

from Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)

 

 

 

Robert Frank: The Americans, 2

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Robert Frank: Crosses on the site of a road accident. U.S> 91. Idaho.

Crosses on the Site of a Road Accident. U.S. 91. Idaho

It started when I told Jerry not to take the wheel. Look at you, I said; he was so close to falling-down drunk, if it hadn’t been for the way he was bouncing off the walls, he’d have been eyeballing the floor. Will you get a look at the state you’re in? Well, of course, it was the last thing I should have said. I mean, whatever else he was, sober or drunk, that Jerry always was the world’s most cussed son of a bitch. Besides, by then we’d already hit on these two girls, dark-skinned, like maybe they had some blood in them, you know what I’m saying, and the way they was swallowing down shot after shot, barely stopping to wipe their mouths across the backs of their hands – Hot! Jerry grins at me when we’re out to take a piss. Hot and not a day past fifteen. He was wrong about that. The taller one, Marcie, she was sixteen years, three months, so it turned out; Sheryl, she would have been seventeen three weeks this Labor Day. Anyway, Marcie and me climbed right in the back, Sheryl up front with Jerry, real close, one of her legs hooked over his knee. We had this pack of Coors swimming in a bucket of day-old ice down by my feet. Petey, Jerry said, swinging round his head, pop me one of those. I saw his face, just for that moment, bright in the headlights, Jerry having the time of his life, smiling his cock-eyed smile.

When they rolled the truck back over and reached inside, mine were the only arms that reached back.

from Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998)

Tom Harvey, 1906 – 1984

My dad died in Whittington Hospital thirty three years ago today; he was the same age as I am now.

 

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That’s him, third from the left, in the Auxiliary Fire Service during World War Two.

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And that’s him, off duty, holding me, outside a friend’s house in Stewkley, Bucks.

APPPLES

My father is dying.
Scent of apples from the night stand.
I reach out my hand and rest one
hard against my face; he taught me
to tell the real thing from the fake:
hold it close beside the ear and shake.
A genuine Cox, the seeds will rattle
loose inside their case.
You see. He told me
and I swallowed every word by rote.
Five cotton towns of Lancashire,
five woollen towns, four rivers
that flow into the Wash – Witham,
Welland, Nene and Great Ouse.
Once learned, never forgotten.

My father is dying.
He died nine years ago this June.
They phoned from the hospital with the news.
His face a cask once usedfor storing living things.
A cup of tea, grown cold and orange,
on the stand beside the bed.
Fingernails like horn, unclipped.
Though dead, my father is still dying.
Oh, slowly, sure and slow as the long fall of rain.
I reach out again for the apple
and bite into its flesh and hold him,
bright and sharp,
safe inside the hollow of my mouth.

from Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems, Smith/Doorstop, 2014