Getting to Grips with “Aslant”

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling

I’ve written before on this blog about Aslant, the small but beautifully formed collection of my poems and Molly Boiling’s photographs published by Shoestring Press earlier in the year, but the arrival of an interesting, quite detailed review by Thomas Ovans in the online magazine London Grip gives me the opportunity to do so again.

This is how it begins …

As I begin to write this review it strikes me that one’s reading of a book can initially be influenced by what one had previously been reading. I came to this collection having just enjoyed another book that  robustly and self-confidently expressed irreverent and sceptical attitudes that I broadly agreed with. Aslant, by contrast, is a much more provisional, reflective and tender work and represented a refreshing change of tone that I hadn’t known I was more than ready for.

Aslant places John Harvey’s poems alongside evocative photographs by Molly Boiling which provide sharp-edged images of steps, shadows, girders and corners of high buildings. These pictures often suggest entrances and exits or incidental glimpses alongside the telling of a story. Hence they combine well with Harvey’s poems which usually have a strong narrative and reminiscent thread.

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling

“A sense of mortality seems to hover over much of this collection,” Ovans writes; “a recurring sense of wistful consolation after loss.”

Of the pieces in the central section which take jazz and jazz musicians as their subject – Lester Young, Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk – Ovans writes, “This is wonderfully evocative writing which, I would maintain, conveys something authentic even to a reader who is not a jazz aficionado.”

And he concludes his review thus …

… this is no ordinary book: the well-chosen images and the way they complement some consistently satisfying high-quality poems make it, in my view, well worth a tenner of anybody’s money.

You can read Thomas Ovan’s review in full here …

And if you don’t already have a copy and feel like following this advice and splashing out said tenner, Aslant can be ordered directly from contacts@centralbooks.com.    or  from any bookstore – including those worthy souls at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop – bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk. You can even buy it on Amazon.

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling
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Poem for My Father

My father died thirty five years ago this week – June 17th, 1984. He was 78, two years younger than I am now: somehow it doesn’t seem right.

Here he is …

Early JBH.IMG.jpeg

And here’s a poem from Out of Silence that I wrote about him …

Sunsets

“Grandad looks like John Wayne,”
my daughter said, pirouetting away.

In the westerns I wrote he filled in corners –
the stage coach driver, the friendly sheriff
with spreading paunch and bowed back,
his holstered gun never drawn in anger,
yet stubborn as a mule when the chips were down.

In photographs he holds me high above
his head like a talisman: pride bright
in his blue eyes I could never fulfil.

Writing, he stands between my sentences:
bits of a life that catch like grit in the mouth.
Once I ran, sobbing, after him until, reaching
down, he swung me, safe, in his arms.

He stands in all the doorways of my childhood.
Stands for my meanness, my grudging thanks,
those shifts of direction which push him
further and further behind.

Driving home to visit I‘d passed him
on the road before I realised, stooped
and suddenly slow, one leg turned sideways,
an old man I’d failed to recognise.

Laughter and meaning clogged thick in his lungs:
they moved him to a private room and fitted
a green mask fast over his face; each breath
rattled dry stones along the bed of his throat,
his mouth peeled back and back until it disappeared.

Yet a week or so before he died,
the old smile alive for a moment in his eyes,
he beckoned the prettiest nurse and as
she bent to catch his words,
nuzzled the hard plastic of his mask
against her face to steal a kiss:
an act of imagination great
as any John Wayne ever made.

Simon Armitage: Poet Laureate

Somewhere in the mid-80s it would have been and I’d been invited up from Nottingham, where I was then living, to take part in a series of readings at the Central Library in Huddersfield that were being organised by Peter Sansom, he of The Poetry Business, Smith/Doorstop and The North. This during that brief envelope of time when the Today Programme was seriously asking if it was true Huddersfield was the poetry capital of Great Britain. Being the visitor, I got to read last, with two young poets I had yet to meet – Simon Armitage and Craig Smith – forming the undercard. And let’s take a moment here to realise I’m relying on a somewhat faulty memory, but the basic facts are as they are.

I was particularly struck by one of Armitage’s poems called ‘Greenhouse’ and, at the end of the evening, thinking, I suppose that he might be quite pleased, asked him if I could publish it in the next issue of Slow Dancer magazine. Sorry, he said, but it’s just been taken by the Times Literary Supplement. That’s great, I said, trying to make it sound enthusiastic rather than  grudging – here was someone who was going somewhere and without my help.

We did publish him later, of course, with poems in Slow Dancer 19/20 (1987) and 22 (1989), as well as a pamphlet, The Walking Horses (1988) – his third – which included ‘Greenhouse’, so I sort of got my way in the end. And it’s now clear I was right about him being a poet who was going somewhere … as did David Belbin, whose perceptive appreciation of Armitage’s work was published in Slow Dancer 23 (1990) and I’m grateful to him for permission to reproduce it here …

SD 23

THE POETRY OF SIMON ARMITAGE
David Belbin

And to think that we once wrote poetry
about the distance between stars, and how
for small things the skin on a surface
of water is almost impregnable.

‘A Place to Love.’

The second half of the eighties has seen a new generation of small press magazines invent itself: The Wide Skirt, The Echo Room , The North and (the late) Harry’s Hand, presenting a distinctly new group of poets. They’re 25-35, mostly male, and mostly live within ten miles of Huddersfield. They go to Peter Sansom’s poetry workshops and none vote Tory,  or get  published in magazines run by the London Litcrit mafia. Instead, they’ve set up their own alternative version (with, of course, the generous assistance of Yorkshire Arts).

Despite a lot of hard work and rather more poetic talent than Faber and Faber have dug out in the last decade or two, none of the Huddersfield Mafia have managed to make any kind of national impact. Until now. Simon Armitage, at 26, the youngest of these new Northern poets, has just published his first collection (Zoom! Bloodaxe. £4.95). Despite not being feted in any of the publications that Blake Morrison’s friends get reviewed in, Zoom! was the PBS Autumn choice and even got shortlisted for the Whitbread. This kind of success is not so much rare as unheard of. Simon also won a major Gregory award in 1988, appeared last year on radios 3 and 4. If he keeps going at this rate, he should get a South Bank Show special while the 90s are still young.

What makes Simon’s evident success surprising isn’t his age or origins (born in Huddersfield, returned there after university), but that his style is so uncompromisingly original (unlike, say, Wendy Cope, the best-selling new poet of the 80’s). Which doesn’t mean inaccessible:

I can half hear you, John, half see you fumble
with a car battery, a two two air rifle
two wires and a headlamp. You and that shivering dog
going as two silhouettes above Warrington.

His style is conversational. Cars appear in a lot of the poems. There’s always a sense of humour somewhere near the surface, but it’s hard to pin down: equal measures  of irony and compassion are directed at his quirky subjects.

None of the poetry in ‘Zoom!’ could have been written by anyone else. What makes the voice so distinct is best summed up in his own words:

It’s often a narrative or yarn, a build up of images and links pebbledashed with a mix of idiom, slang and cliche… although real life is the main ingredient of these poems, they are seasoned with a generous pinch of verisimilitude.

PBS Bulletin, Autumn 1989

Some influences are apparent: like many of the new Northern poets he’s more in tune with the relaxed rhythms and wide ranging subject matter of post-war U.S. poets than their drier, more formal English counterparts. Frank O’Hara gets a namecheck and William Carlos Williams is hanging around somewhere. Ian McMillan’s quirky surrealism might be a more local inspiration. Like McMillan, Armitage’s poems work as well, or better, when read aloud. They share a love for the memorable punchline: ‘no fish: no birds: no shit.’ (‘The Peruvian Anchovy Industry’.) Or ‘My cock’s a kipper’ (‘Bus Talk’).

Armitage also acknowledges influences from rock: it’s easy to identify the tone of David Byrne’s (Talking Heads) deadpan lyrics about Urban American life in aspects of Simon’s style. ‘Don’t Sing’ uses the title of Paddy McAloon’s meditation on Graham Greene (recorded by Prefab Sprout) to tell an absurd yet poignant war story.

Smith Doorstop published ‘Human Geography’ in 1986. It includes ‘Lamping’, quoted above, amongst other equally distinctive poems and several with a rawer approach. By the time it was reprinted two years later, the false starts had been cut — only seven of the original seventeen remain. Some of the cut poems are good, but one gets the sense that Armitage is prolific and has plenty to choose from. Youth isn’t far behind in these poems. ‘Dykes’, despite its predictable puns, somehow links dams with maybe lesbians in wry, revealing couplets:

Later I discovered
She was only pointing to an overflow culvert.
Although we were close, she knew a closer, deeper circle
Which, at seventeen, I found undetectable
And many of her stories held no water
Especially those involving Susan, Gill or Sandra

‘The Distance Between Stars’, which Wide Skirt published the following year, is the best of Simon’s three pamphlets. His style has fully arrived. Bookended with poems on astronomical themes, ‘The Distance…’ moves from the mysterious to the mundane, leaving you never quite sure which is which. Many poems take the form of monologues. These are closer to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads than to Carol Ann Duffy’s Thrown Voices and range from the bleak, bitter Antarctic narrative “Bylot Island’ to the jokey, condescending mechanic in ‘Very Simply Topping Up the Brake Fluid’. The latter poem manages to convey the broken rhythms of a continuously interrupted monologue, while reading with verve and a rhythmic swing which may be as difficult to write as It is easy to read:

…gently does it, that’s it. Try not to spill it, it’s
corrosive: rusts, you know, and fill it till it’s
level with the notch on the clutch reservoir.
Lovely.

Yet the fact that these poems are accessible doesn’t mean that they’re light. Armitage carries emotion confidently, unafraid to confront sentiment. ‘Gone’ reminds me of Larkin’s ‘Home is so sad’,

Not the bed, empty, that’s
one thing. But her watch, still ticking
and the loop of one, blonde hair
caught in her hairbrush. Ihat’s another.

This ability to let a detail stand starkly in representation of death; the stern laconic phrase which conveys intense emotion: these are the work of a mature, and possibly major poet.

Armitage’s last pamphlet was ‘The Walking Horses (Slow Dancer 1988) which is a consistent, but more varied set than ‘..Stars’. Its major poems are his longest monologue so far, “All Beer and Skittles’ , a cynically comic account of the sacking of a sometime plumber, and ‘Screenplay’, a more speculative, tender, visual poem that could not have been written by many of his peers.

Horses

That said, there are qualities that he shares with other new Northern poets: humour, arrogance, awkward sensitivity laced with a generous measure of self doubt, also, a sometimes fussy referential habit (whether to places or people} – Armitage takes all these, but transcends them, making something more original. This was overwhelming apparent later in 1988, when a revised, extended edition of his first book introduced many of the remaining poems to be found in ‘Zoom!’

                        The bears in Yosemite Park
are swaggering home, legged up with fishing line
 and polythene and above the grind of his skidoo
a ranger curses the politics of skinny dipping.

This is life.

Armitage avoids fixed rhythms, attaining a conversational shamble of deceptive pace: walking a kind of metrical highwire. His poems can be read many times and retain their freshness. I recall the excitement of reading ‘Zoom’ for the first time, in issue four of ‘The North’: (The exclamation mark, incidentally, was added later, evidently at Bloodaxe’s insistence) the boldness of the metaphor could have been overbearingly arrogant in almost anyone else’s hands, yet it works as a magical, comic, surreal, and finally quite humble account of the creative process.

The book ‘Zoom!’ (Bloodaxe, 4.95) is a fat first volume which is worth buying even if you’ve got all the pamphlets discussed above, and indispensable if you haven’t. Many of the newest poems seem grittier, more compassionate than his earlier work. His probation worker job may partly account for this, emerging as subject matter in poems like ‘Social Inquiry Report’, ‘Eighties, Nineties’ and ‘The Stuff’. But then some of the final poems in the collection are even harder to classify than any of those I’ve tried to discuss earlier: more wilfully obscure and cynical, yet wistful in tone. And among them, reminding us of his background in Oceanography, is one of the most striking poems about ecology that I’ve read, ‘Remembering the East Coast’.

At conference
how they roared at the chairman’s address,
his much told fable
of the bald patents clerk
who resigned his post circa 1850
explaining ‘Everything we need
is now invented.’
But alone I am with him; dipping the quill,
crossing the t of his signature,
blotting the I’s
of his oddball opinion.

‘Zoom!’ is only a beginning, but a dazzling one, from a poet who’s already past words like ‘promise’ and ‘potential . Finally, it leaves you with the same impulses as all good art: it leaves you wanting more and it keeps you guessing. Give Simon Armitage a test drive.

 

“Aslant”

ASLANT COVER10

This beautiful little book – and believe me, it is beautiful – published by John Lucas’ Shoestring Press, makes its first appearance this week, with a launch evening at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop to set it on its way. That’s this Thursday, 25th April at 7.00pm. Molly Boiling’s photographs will be projected [she also designed the cover] and I’ll read some of the poems. Another Shoestring poet, Stuart Henson, will be reading too. Come along if you’re around. [People have been known to come as far as Derby or Kirkby-in-Ashfield.] Details …

If not, and you’re closer to London, on the following evening, Friday 26th, I shall be reading at The Poetry  Café in Covent Garden as part of Hylda Sim’s long-running Fourth Friday series of poetry & music evenings. Tony Roberts will also be reading and there will be music from very fine singer/songwriter. Liz Simcock. Details here …

If you can’t get along to either of those events, copies are available, price £10.00, from Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham – 0115 8373097 – bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk or from Central Books – 0208 525 8800 – contacts@centralbooks.com or can be ordered from your local bookstore.

To give you a small idea of what your money will get you, here’s one of the poems and an extract from another, with one of Molly’s photographs to finish things off.

HONEYMOON

The swimsuit he’d been wearing earlier,
my father, a single strap draped,
Johnny Weissmuller style, over one shoulder,
set aside now in favour of pale slacks,
white shirt, collar splayed open
across the lapels of his blazer;
sitting a little self-consciously
alongside my mother, smart
in her polka-dot dress, white shoes;
the two of them staring back at the camera,
that picture the beach photographer
will display proudly later in his window.

The first time he’d set eyes on my mother,
she’d been standing close against the piano,
perfectly still, her voice small and clear
yet somehow distant, disarming;
the way, as the last notes faded,
silence seemed to fold about her …

Now she sits with her arm resting
on the check tablecloth, her hand
close to his but not quite touching;
the café doors behind them open,
waiter hovering, a tune somewhere playing.
the world waiting,

Those carefree days before the war:
Ostend, Spring 1939

I REMEMBER

I remember the first time I heard a big band
or any kind of jazz at all –sitting across from my mother and aunt
in the splendour of Lyons Corner House
at Marble Arch, feasting on cakes and petit fours
from a glass cake stand tiered like a chandelier
and listening in muted amazement
to Ivy Benson & Her All-Girl Orchestra
swinging their way gloriously
through the fusty afternon.

And then, a little older,
parties at my friend Michael’s house,
where his Uncle Mac, six foot and sixteen stone,
would get himself up in women’s clothes –
skirt, rouched blouse with false boobs,
stockings, suspenders, bright red lipstick and rouge,
and, between jokes I didn’t always understand,
impersonate Sophie Tucker singing Some of These Days
and, a family favourite, Nobody Loves a Fat Girl,
But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love.

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Out & About in 2019

After an enforced quiet year in 2018, I’m doing my best to make up for it in 2019, beginning with two very enjoyable events – one, with Stella Duffy, at Owl Bookshop in north London and another (SRO – almost) at Nottingham Waterstones – which marked the paperback publication of the fourth Frank Elder novel, Body & Soul.

Things continue with appearances at two major crime writing festivals, Bristol and Newcastle, as well as the publication by Shoestring Press in April of Aslant, which features my poetry alongside photographs by Molly Ernestine Boiling (who also designed the cover.)

ASLANT COVER10
Here’s the list of events … diaries at the ready …

Saturday, 23rd March
States of Independence: a one day celebration of independent publishing, writing & thinking. http://www.statesofindependence.co.uk
Clephan Building, De Montfort University, Oxford Street, Leicester LE1 5XY.
Between 11.00am and 11.45 I shall be reading from Body & Soul and maybe one or two other pieces as well.

Thursday, 25th April
Shoestring Press launch of Aslant, which features my poems alongside photographs by Molly Ernestine Boiling.
Five Leaves Bookshop, 14a Long Row, Nottingham NG1 2DH. 7.00pm – 8.30pm
This is a relatively small venue, please book in advance.
0115 8373097 bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

Friday, 26th April
Fourth Friday at The Poetry Café, 22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden, London.
8.00pm onwards. I shall be reading from Aslant, with support from singer/songwriter, Liz Simcock, and one or two other poets from the Shoestring stable.

Saturday, 4th May
Newcastle Noir. Newcastle City Library. https://newcastlenoir.co.uk
Saturday Night Showcase: Going Back to My Roots 7.30pm.
I shall be in conversation with the veteran Norwegian writer, Gunnar Staalesen. Two old guys for the price of one!

Saturday, 11th May
CrimeFest, International Crime Fiction Convention Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel, Bristol. http://www.crimefest.com
Wearing my Special Guest hat (well, cap) I shall be interviewed by Alison Joseph about some 40-plus years of the writing life. Or however much we can fit in between 3.10pm – 4.00pm in the afternoon.

STILL TO COME [Assuming I last that long … ]

Penzance Literary Festival in July

The Inspire Poetry Festival in Nottinghamshire in September
Two Poetry & Jazz sessions, most likely at Beeston & Worksop Libraries.

 

Not so Private Passions …

Four years ago, not so long after the final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, was published, I was invited to be a guest on the BBC Radio 3 programme, Private Passions – a sort of (mainly) classical version of Desert Island Discs, only, since this was to be broadcast alongside the London Jazz Festival, there was to be a somewhat higher jazz content than is often the case.

I was delighted to be asked [understatement!] and thoroughly enjoyed the process, from making the choice of music to be featured to the interview itself, which was conducted with little or no preamble or rehearsal, the presenter, Michael Berkeley, making me feel immediately at my ease. The pair of us sat in a relatively small studio space, listening together to the pieces as they were played on air, which meant that one’s immediate response was, well, immediate.

I wanted to choose music that meant something in particular to me, while being conscious of delivering a broad ranging selection I thought people might respond to, and which might include some pieces with which listeners might be less than familiar with – Jocelyn Pook’s Tango with Corrugated Iron, for instance, or James P. Johnson’s Victory March.

Here’s the full list …

Mean to Me  [Fred E. Ahlert and Roy Turk]
Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra inc. Lester Young (tenor sax)

Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave) [Mendelssohn]
Maxim Dmitrievich Shostakovich  & Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra

Victory Stride [James P. Johnson]
Marin Alsop & The Concordia Orchestra

Shipbuilding [Elvis Costello]
Elvis Costello with Chet Baker (trumpet)

Cello Concerto No. 2 [Shostakovich]
Sol Gabetta with Marc Albrecht & Munich Philharmonic Orchestra

Tango with Corrugated Iron [Jocelyn Pook]
Electra Strings & Jocelyn Pook

Rhythm-a-ning [Thelonious Monk]
Thelonious Monk Trio

And, somewhere in there, I was asked to read my poem about Chet Baker, which, of course, I was more than happy to do.

The programme is now available to listen to for 29 days …

Saturdays … soccer to poetry …

Funny day, Saturday. Used to be football, most of the year anyway; playing it, watching it: cycling with my dad to White Hart Lane, where we’d pay a couple of bob to someone near the ground so as to leave our bikes in the safety of his front garden. Then, more recently, Meadow Lane: gloriously in the heydays of Don Masson and John Chiedozie, Tommy Johnson and Rachid Harkouk; more recently, the doldrums of … well, best perhaps not to name them. Though, after losing the first umpteen games of the season, it seems, at last, as if we’re on the way up.

Could have gone to watch Spurs play Cardiff today, but, shy of Wembley and its transport problems, I’m waiting for the new ground finally to open in Tottenham; if I were in Nottingham I’d be at the County ground, braving the rain and plummeting temperatures to watch the England Lionesses play Brazil in a friendly.

As it is I’m at home, watching the rain through the windows; happily there when the postman calls with three packets; one, an unsolicited proof copy of a soon to be published novel I might like to read and comment on [well, I might … ], the others, poetry: a copy of Amy Key’s Poetry Book Society Wild Card Choice, Isn’t Forever, which I’d ordered from Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop on the strength of one of the poems on one of the little poetry cards they publish to coincide with National Poetry Day; the other – also unsolicited, but more than welcome – a copy, sent by Maura Dooley, of Negative of a Group Photograph, the book of poems by the Persian writer Azita Ghahreman, that she has translated with Elhum Shakerifar.

Key

Dooley 2

Maura’s book comes with a picture postcard – a carving from Southwell Minster – the message on the reverse remembering a freezing November long ago when she came to Nottingham to do a reading and on the way back wrote “a little poem, All Hallows, that I still quite like”. Here it is …

ALL HALLOWS

This is a day for souls.
Morning doused with air
that has rinsed itself,
wrung itself out over
cropped lands, picked lands, dug lands.
Autumn’s over. Winter comes
in the first stiffening of grasses,
frost seasoning the land like salt,
a chill biting to the core of day.

The town’s horizon blurs with
steam, smoke, mist, never resolving
quite the mesh of silver and heat,
like looking at the world through tears.
Hot, salty tears can’t melt the ice,
nor sluice his heart: but it’s a comfort,
this light and water mixing,
on the day her soul walks out
over the fields to him.

from Explaining Magnetism: Maura Dooley. Bloodaxe, 1991.

Negative of a Group Photograph: Azita Ghahreman, translated by Maura Dooley with Elhum Shakerifar. Bloodaxe, 2018

Isn’t Forever: Amy Key. Bloodaxe, 2018

And with just a few minutes to go before half time at Meadow Lane, England are one goal up against Brazil.

James Schuyler’s “Last Poems” … free for National Poetry Day … and after

Okay, here’s the thing. Back in 1999, when Slow Dancer Press was both still in its prime yet about to fold, we published, for the first time in this country, James Schuyler’s Last Poems. Schuyler, along with John Ashbury, Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, was one of the New York Poets – perhaps the least well known but far from the least. As Ashbery himself said, “Schuyler is simply the best we have.”

I won’t pretend that Last Poems contains his absolutely best work – that, I think, would be found in The Morning of the Poem from 1980. But what there is here is enough to give a strong sense of the keenness of his observation, the delicacy and precision of his style and the breadth of his interests, ranging from the jazz singer Mildred Bailey to the lives of birds, the glories of roses, the shifts and sorrows of the seasons.

Along with Schuyler’s poems [and yet another of Jamie Keenan’s wonderful cover designs] the book includes a six page Afterword by another fine poet, Lee Harwood, in which he writes about Schuyler’s work with affectionate understanding, and which would be worth the price of the book itself. If you were paying for it, which, in this instance, you’re not.

I’ve got a half dozen (or so) copies to give away in celebration of National Poetry Day – and because they should be being read, not gathering dust on my shelf. Just email me at john@mellotone.co.uk with your mailing address and I’ll send you one by return. Can’t say fairer than that.

Schuyler 1

iPod Shuffle, October 2018

Sam Stone : Swamp Dog from A Soldier’s Sad Story – Vietnam Through the Eyes of Black America, 1963-73

Too Close for Comfort : Art Pepper from Intensity

I Sing Um the Way I Feel : J B Lenoir & His African Hunch Rhythm from The Sound of the City: Chicago assembled by Charlie Gillett *

Blue Turning Grey Over You : The Chris Barber Band from Remembering Pat Halcox

Ruby, My Dear : Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane from The Complete Riverside Recordings

Into My Arms : Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer from Not Dark Yet

Single Girl, Married Girl : Charlie Haden from Rambling Boy **

It’s Not the Liquor I Miss : Luke Doucet from Broken

Panama : Luis Russell & His Orchestra from Saratoga Shout

I Left My Baby : Count Basie & His Orchestra with Jimmy Rushing (voc) from Classic Columbia, Okeh & Vocalion Lester Young with Count Basie

Love of Mine : Tish Hinojosa from Destiny’s Gate

The Books, Departures & Ben’s Photo : Lee Harwood reading, on a CD included with the publication, three of his own poems from The Books, Longbarrow Press, 2011. ***

*Living and teaching in Stevenage in the early to mid-70s, whenever possible I used to set aside all other engagements in order to listen to Honky Tonk, the programme Charlie Gillett presented on Radio London between 1972 and 1978, and which included about as broad a range of music that could be loosely categorised as rock ‘n’ roll as possible – from J J Cale and The Coasters, via Graham Parker and Dion, to Manu Dibango and the original demo version of Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing.

Charlie

**Okay proud moment coming up. It took place outside a bookstore in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, where I was due to give a reading as part of a West Coast book tour [those were the days!]; I was waiting outside beforehand,  chatting to some of the people who’d arrived early, when a man came over and introduced himself as Charlie Haden. He couldn’t stay for the reading, he explained, as he had a gig later, but he just wanted to tell me how much he’d been enjoying my books – his son worked in the store and had recommended them – and he wanted me to have something in return, a copy of his latest CD with Quartet West. Oh, and let me go on record here – much as I enjoy the Quartet West CDs and Haden’s other work as both sideman and leader, my all-time favourite, and one of my favourite recordings ever, is Steal Away, with just himself on bass and Hank Jones at the piano, playing a selection of Spirituals, Hymns & Folk Songs. Perfection.

Haden

***Lee Harwood was perhaps the first poet – the first living poet – whose work I responded to strongly both on a personal level and as an aspiring writer – it took me many years to steer my poetry away from sounding like pale imitations of his and it’s a spell I fall under still. There are worse faults, I’m sure. I was fortunate enough to get to know Lee as a friend and to publish some of his work through Slow Dancer Press. [Dream Quilt, 1985; In the Mists, 1993; Morning Light, 1998] On the last occasion I saw him, before his sad death in 2015, we were both reading with the John Lake Band on the South Coast, not far from where he lived in Hove, and his voice was a soft and inimitable as ever. A lovely, lovely man and a wonderful poet.

Charlie 2

Mists

M Light

Barry MacSweeney : Hellhound on His Tail

Desire

Coming in at a little over 340 pages, Desire Lines,  Barry MacSweeney’s Unselected Poems, edited – scrupulously and caringly – by Luke Roberts, and published by Shearsman Books, pays testimony to a poet who was driven by his own devils; by the need to wrestle his verse into a shape that would allow him best to express his most loving and bitter feelings, his growing anger at the changing state of the nation, and the never-ending quest for an often savage and particular beauty. Even then, as Roberts acknowledges, there is no way in which this volume could hope to bring together all of MacSweeney’s work uncontained in the ‘official’ selected, Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems, 1965-2000, edited by Neil Astley and published by Bloodaxe in 2003. He simply wrote too much.

Wolf Tongue

Robert’s intention then, as he states in his introduction,  is to “give the reader a deeper understanding of MacSweeney’s achievements” and “restore to view the volatility with which MacSweeney composed, read, and handled his poems.” What we might also find here is an answer to the sad conundrum Roberts refers to in his opening paragraph – why it was that having emerged on the crest of “the great poetry renaissance of the 1960s, he died with hardly any of his work in print?”

One of the reasons for this can be found in the fact that much of his work was published – sometimes, it might be argued, too hastily and not very well – by independent presses, while other poets were following a more cautious and orthodox route. But MacSweeney had suffered from the treatment accorded from some quarters to his first collection, The Boy From the Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother, which was overhyped by its mainstream publisher Hutchinson in an attempt to jump onto the Mersey Sound bandwagon, with MacSweeney as some kind of youthful cross between the Beats and Roger McGough. But – no disrespect to either poet – another McGough, MacSweeney was not.

I first met Barry MacSweeney towards the end of the 1970s when he was one of the tutors on an Arvon Foundation poetry course in which I was a participant, and it was difficult not to be swept up into his overwhelming pursuit of what he saw as the ‘real’, the authentic, his absolute disdain for the fake or the weak. Along with the American poet, Alan Brooks [also met on an Arvon course] I had recently started editing and publishing Slow Dancer magazine and we were keen to include as much of Barry’s work as we could.

The first piece that we published, in Slow Dancer No. 4 [Early 1979], remains one of my personal favourites. “Blackbird : Elegy” dedicated to William Gordon Calvert, was one of three elegies MacSweeney had written at that time for his Northumbrian grandfather, some finding its way later into the poem sequence Blackbird that was published by Pig Press in 1980 – though this itself was pre-empted by, as it states inside its plain maroon cover, “a very limited preprint edition rushed out for a reading by Barry MacSweeney & Elaine Randell, Castle Chare, Durham, 8.00p.m. nov. 9th 1979.”

This is how the version published in Slow Dancer begins …

curlew chatter
crescent beaks
ragged wings swoop
snipe song

we catch a hen
playing lame
long way from Kent
to your rough ash slot
which pours
& fills this skull

schooled in grind
taught with pennies
tall on th’earth
purity strength
not fascist Aryan
dangerous claptrap
wild Allendale rosehip
whose fruit-blood dries
on my stones
lichen is amour
against those sores
moss grows
in cracks
we don’t know

Blackbird dedication

Blackbird

By the time of Slow Dancer No. 7 [late 1980] times – and MacSweeney with them – had changed. As Luke Roberts states …

After Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was elected in 1979, MacSweeney’s work became more vicious and despairingly political. The three offcuts from Jury Vet printed here marked the first appearance of MacSweeney’s new style in print. Published by John Harvey’s Slow Dancer magazine in 1980, these punk-inflected odes herald the nightmare of the Thatcherite decade. They are violently problematic works. “Blood Money” also appeared in Slow Dancer [No. 12/13, 1983] and looks on with disgust at City Council politics in Newcastle.

In the context of the above it should not be forgotten that MacSweeney’s first job was as a reporter on his local evening paper in Newcastle – “Reporting gave me a sense of what words could be: economy and just get down to the needed things, with no frills.” His training as a reporter and a digger after facts lay close to the root of Black Torch, a major poem sequence about coal mining in the north-east that was published by New London Pride in 1978 and is included in Roberts’ selection. Reviewing it in Slow Dancer No. 7, David Murray, lecturer in the Department of American Studies at the University of Nottingham, had this to say …

Black Torch represents a poet giving rapt attention to his political and physical environment and at the same time facing and solving problems of formal organisation in a long poem. Using primarily written and oral accounts from the mining communities foe Northumbria and Durham, he combines and juxtaposes miners talking, historical documents and his own personal memories. Crucially, though, the personal elements do not subsume the rest.

MacSweeney’s reliance on local speech in the poem works brilliantly, Murray says, quoting the poet himself on his preference for its usage in this context …

… it is longer lasting, it’s durable, it’s harder, it’s springier, it’s more elemental, it comes out of all sorts of historical, geographical and social conflicts.

Or, as he says in the poem, his words …

have come from the north to feed you
iron voice brazen tongue red dust

Black Torch

Slow DancerNo. 14 [Autumn 1984] was, as declared on its cover, a MacSweeney Special,  with some 18 pages [unfortunately printed on purple paper and less than easy to read] given over to his work, preceded by an appraisal by the poet and visual artist Maggie O’Sullivan. Here we have the poem “Wild Knitting”, which begins with an epigraph from Elvis Costello – “Everyday, everyday, everyday, I write the book” and ends “This State of the Nation bulletin for Lesley MacSweeney, April – August 1983, Bradford.” There are extracts from “Jury Vet – Started  September 1979, Abandoned October 1981 – and, importantly, I think, sections from Ranter, a major work in progress which MacSweeney prefaced with …

Undefinitive takes
of Shivering Primrose
and the wind’s dark
beat & Ranter’s Reel
from the version of
the Ranter saga that
was started February
1984 and is soon for
publication in full

A promise fulfilled when it was published by Slow Dancer Press in 1985.

McSw Special

Ranter

Barry MacSweeney died in 2000. With the publication of Desire Lines, his work will further live on.