Poetry progress : from Sheepwash to the Sierra Nevada

The hot summer of ’76, the one everyone remembers; the summer, in the short life of my fictional private eye, Scott Mitchell, between Amphetamines and Pearls and The Geranium Kiss; the summer I drove my green Citroen 2CV down to the south west, to Totleigh Barton, a sixteenth century manor house close to the village of Sheepwash and the River Torridge that was the Arvon Foundation’s first residential writing centre; a week in which to get to know one’s fellow students, share the cooking, lean on the tutors for advice and swop pulp fiction for poetry.

I arrived before most students on the first day and combing the house for the best of the shared bedrooms still available, I came across one in which the occupant, having claimed his space, had set out the small library of books he’d brought with him in a neat line. I can’t remember now what they were, but one quick glance was enough to suggest their owner might be an interesting person with whom to share.

Alan Brooks turned out to be an American temporarily living in London, a rural conservationist and a fine poet, someone who has remained a good and close friend. It was with Alan that the idea for Slow Dancer magazine was formed; Alan, after his return to Downest Maine, who became the magazine’s US Editor through its thirty issues.

The covers of the first few – designed by Nadia Stern – will give an idea of the range of poets we were publishing in these early years.

Just as it’s easy to look back on that meeting with Alan Brooks as being of singular importance in that part of my life concerned with the writing and publishing of poetry, so I can point to my attendance in 1993 and again in 1995 at the Community of Writers poetry programme at Olympic Valley – Squaw Valley as it was then called – in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada, as being of great significance on both counts. In terms of my writing, through example and through suggestion and discussion, I was encouraged to vary the style in which I’d been writing, experiment a little, enjoy the feel of language, rhythm, find subjects in the natural world. In the afternoons we would listen to the staff poets such as Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Brenda Hillman reading and talking about their poetry, and it was Robert Hass’s work which affected me most strongly. I can still remember the first occasion on which I heard him read – poems which moved seamlessly between the abstract and the deeply personal, which incorporated philosophical ideas alongside close observations of the natural world, while taking in references to the films of Kurosawa and the blues of Mississippi John Hurt. All of this without missing a beat or losing for a moment the listener’s attention.

The mornings were spent in small workshop sessions headed by those same poets, during which we would read and discuss the poems we had somehow found space and time to write the previous day. Every day. Poems that you left outside the door to be collected in the early hours and photocopied in time for the morning seminar. I doubt I’ve been much happier.

The Community of Writers has recently published Why to These Rocks, an anthology of poems written over a period of 50 years by staff and participant poets and edited by Lisa Alvarez, in which I’m proud to have a short poem – just five lines – Out of Silence – which I think, short as it is, captures something of the essence of the time I spent so happily far from home.

Out of Silence

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

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

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  

Poetry : Outstanding Books

h-wishes

For its current issue, The North asked thirty poets to nominate the poetry book that has meant most to them in the past 30 years, with the opportunity to nominate an anthology and a pamphlet should they wish. For me, it was always going to be a toss up between Lee Harwood and Robert Hass and, in the end, it was Hass’s Human Wishes that won out.

Published in 1989, and so just inside the 1986 cut-off point, while being a favourite, it isn’t, in all honesty, my actual favourite of Hass’s work, which is the earlier book, Praise, but that was first published in 1979.

Praise contains what I think are probably among the best of Hass’s shorter poems – “Heroic Simile”, which begins with a reference to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; “Meditation at Lagunitas”, which begins “All the new thinking is about loss/In this it resembles all the old thinking”; and the wonderfully titled, “Picking Blackberries With a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan”. It also includes what is still my favourite of the longer poems – a form which by the time of Human Wishes had become more complex and assured – “Not Going to New York: A Letter”, which begins …

Dear Dan –
This is a letter of apology, unrhymed.
Rhyme belongs to the dazzling couplets of arrival.
Survival is the art around here. It rhymes by accident
with the rhythm of days which arrive like crows in a field
of stubble corn in upstate New York in February.
In upstate New York in February thaws hardened the heart
against the wish for spring.

The pamphlet I chose was Lee Harwood’s The Books, a tiny 8 page booklet published by Longbarrow Press, which comes in an envelope also containing an equally small CD of Lee reading, that was recorded in Brighton in April, 2011.

Not the beginning this time, but the ending …

She climbed down from the tree a queen.
As we all do, and then set out
across golden stubble to the river.

I don’t intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,
gathering dust until the final slammer,
adjusting my tiara.

I’ll stamp my foot
and, checking the rear-view mirror,
head for the frontier.

I didn’t choose a favourite anthology, because, if I were to stick reasonably close to the truth, my favourites, in so far as The North is concerned, were published too soon.

mod-poets

Penguin Modern Poets 10: Adrian Henry, Roger McGogh & Brian Patten. 1967
Penguin Modern Poets 19: John Ashbery, Lee Harwood & Tom Raworth. 1971
The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revisited. 1982

p-m

Amongst the other poets choosing their favourites of the past 30 years in The North are Mimi Khalvati, Ian McMillan, Helen Mort, Sean O’Brien and Matthew Sweeney. Amongst the authors chosen, Thom Gunn, Sharon Olds, Seamus Heaney, Moniza Alvi and Phiullip Levine.

To find out more about The North and/or to order a copy of the current issue, go to the Poetry Business web site.

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