Make it Tall

Back in the early 1990s I was teaching at a newly-minted and deeply underfunded university in the Northeast. I remember having a chat with an art tutor who was teaching sculpture. She praised the enthusiasm and talent of her students but said there was just one problem: not enough space. The students were crammed into a studio meant for a fraction of their number and they were falling over one another as they worked. This had seemed like a problem at first, but there was an interesting side-effect. In trying to find room for themselves all the students had made sculptures that were tall and narrow, like flowers in a meadow crowding upwards to the sun. The result was a rather striking degree show.

The Internet is changing writing in a similar way. While the vast amount of unregulated space means there is now more to read than ever, not all of it good, formats like blogs are changing the way writers work. Here’s a poet making blogging work for her in ways that would have been practically unimaginable fifteen years ago: soundofsplinters. And here’s another. (links via)

Posted by Chris Routledge

Brian Turner: Here, Bullet

Review by Chris Routledge

Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet is a collection of poems about the war in Iraq. It draws on his experiences there serving with the US Army in 2003 and 2004. Twenty-first century soldier-poets have a tough job. Not only do they have to contend with the legacy of Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and the rest, but modern warfare is conducted on television. While the images seen by civilians may be controlled and mediated, the way war looks and sounds is familiar, at least in a general way, to most adults. In World War I poets provided a human narrative to go with the lists of dead. What can a poet add when war itself is right there in your living room?

The answer is, quite a lot. In ‘Night in Blue’, a poem about flying home, Turner says ‘I have no words to speak of war’, but if that is true then the words he finds to speak of other things say a great deal about war and about this war in particular. What strikes me reading these poems is the clarity of the description and the sense of bright, sharp light. This is a war of waiting and long-distance, of sudden violence and shattered calm. In ‘Hwy 1’ a crane is shot by one of the soldiers as it roosted on powerlines: ‘it pauses, as if amazed that death has found it / here, at 7 a.m. on such a beautiful morning’. Elsewhere, in ’16 Iraqi Policemen’ Turner describes the aftermath of a car bomb in which ‘the dead policemen cannot be found, / here a moment before, then vanished.’

Beyond the coolness of these descriptions Turner’s sensibility is one of solidarity and shared experience. Several of the poems are from the point of view of Iraqis; several others have a semi-mystical feel to them, as in ‘Kirkuk Oilfield, 1927’:

… the dead are buried deep in the mind
of God, manifest in man and woman,
given to earth in dark blood,
given to earth in fire.

For the most part the soldiers do their jobs as sensitively and simply as they can, muddling along with the Iraqi population and living alongside them. But war is never far away. Its brutalizing effect erupts in the poem ‘Body Bags’, in which soldiers kick the feet of dead Iraqis and mock them. What is best about the collection though is its understanding of how war ties us together, how it changes forever the way we think and feel and remember:

Rockets often fall
in the night sky of the skull, down long avenues
of the brain’s myelin sheathing, over synapses
and the rough structures of thought, they fall
into the hippocampus, into the seat of memory —
where lovers and strangers and old friends
entertain themselves, unaware of the dangers
headed their way …

You can hear an interview with Turner in which he reads from Here, Bullet at the Guardian Books podcast. Here he is reading on YouTube. Another interview is here at Alice James Books. His page at Bloodaxe Books is here.

Brian Turner studied poetics at the University of Oregon before signing up to the US Army at the age of 30. He served for seven years, including tours in Bosnia-Herzegovina and finally in Iraq, where he was an Infantry Team Leader for a year from November 2003. Here, Bullet is Turner’s first collection of poetry and the first published collection to emerge from the Iraq war.

Here, Bullet was first published in the US by Alice James Books in 2005 and in the UK by Bloodaxe Books in 2007. Extracts are printed here by permission.

Posted by Chris Routledge. Powered by Qumana

Local Literary Events

There are some really fantastic literature events coming up over the next few weeks in the North West, including author readings, drama and poetry performances and literary workshops. We have pulled together a few highlights to showcase some of what’s on offer this month.

Events across Liverpool:

Rob Chapman and Willy Vlautin, Monday 7th April 7.30pm – 9pm, the Bluecoat, tickets £7/5

This is an event for both literature and music lovers alike – two authors with a music background read from their new novels:

Manchester’s Rob Chapman regularly contributes to Mojo, Uncut and The Times. Dusk Music is a darkly comic account of a musician’s career, featuring real-life characters and events such as Jimi Hendrix and the famous Hyde Park concerts.

Musician Willy Vlautin‘s writing has been praised for its “compassion and warmth” (The Times). Willy will read extracts from his second novel Northline, accompanied by the specially composed soundtrack to the novel.

Endgame, 11th April – 3rd May, 7.45pm, the Everyman, tickets £8 – £12.50

Two Matthews. Two Dustbins. No Plot.

A man who can’t stand up, and one who can’t sit down.
Two legless parents and a three-legged dog.
A telescope, a ladder and a fugitive rat.
The stage is set.
How will it end?

Featuring a return to the Everyman stage, alumnus Matthew Kelly returns to Liverpool with his son Matthew Rixon, in a new production of Samuel Beckett’s ‘masterpiece of the absurd’ directed by the award-winning Lucy Pitman-Wallace.

Costa Liverpool Poetry Café, Open Mic Night – Monday 14th April, 7.30-9.30, Costa, Bold Street, free

Heart Beats Rhyme and Roll Poetry Night with Poetry in the City present Salt poets, Tuesday 15th April, 7.30pm – 10.30pm, the Bluecoat, tickets £3/2

Forward Prize nominee Eleanor Rees presents her 2007 collection, Andraste’s Hair: poems of myth, memory, folksong and murder ballad. Jo Colley‘s new collection, Weeping for the Lovely Phantoms, has received widespread critical acclaim with its “distorted landscapes infested with the manifold ghosts of the unresolved and unrequited”. Jo and Elly will be joined by another exciting Salt poet, plus live music from one of Heart Beats’ favourite rock bands.

Fiction reading by Maria McCann and Michael Symmons Roberts – Powerful Prose, Thursday 17th April, 7.30pm – 9pm, the Bluecoat, tickets £7/5

Liverpool born Maria McCann‘s first novel, As Meat Loves Salt, was an Economist ‘Book of the Year’ and featured in September 2007 as one of the Observer‘s ‘Fifty Most Underrated Novels.’ Set in the 17th century, the novel examines the workings of power and explores what happens when someone obsessed by rage and guilt becomes enthralled by idealism.

Michael Symmons Roberts will read from his new novel, Breath, a moving examination of a country recovering from a brutal and divisive civil war. A poet and novelist, his fourth book of poetry, Corpus, was the winner of the 2004 Whitbread Poetry Award.

Orange Broadband Readers’ Day – Saturday 19th April, the Bluecoat, 1pm – 5.30pm, tickets £10/8

Meet some of the UK’s most interesting female cultural and literary figures, take part in exciting book discussions and attend inspiring workshops. Kate Mosse, bestselling author and Honorary Director of the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction joins Clare Allan, Shami Chakrabarti, Philippa Gregory, Bel Mooney and Lionel Shriver for an afternoon of readings and discussions. Beginning with refreshments at 1pm, the audience will have the opportunity to attend events with all five guests and Kate Mosse. This is a wonderful opportunity to spend time with some of the UK’s most interesting cultural and literary female figures and to be privy to the next generation as judges Clare Allan and Shami Chakrabarti will discuss the shortlist of the Orange Award for New Writers 2008.

Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction Readers’ Day is brought to Liverpool to celebrate Capital of Culture 08 by Orange, The Reading Agency, Liverpool Libraries and Time to Read, The Reader Organisation and the Bluecoat.

The Film of the Book and the Book of the Film: Fight Club – Thursday 24th April, 6.30pm, café at FACT, free

Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club and David Fincher’s film of the same name have become cult classics since their release in the late 90s. The story is narrated by a nameless protagonist (Edward Norton) and with his growing discomfort with consumerism and the emasculating effects of American culture. After a chance meeting with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), he creates an underground fighting club as a radical form of psychotherapy. Read, watch, or do both and come to our meeting to marvel at a pop culture phenomenon. Organised by The Reader Organisation

Costa Liverpool Poetry Café – Thursday 24th April, 7.30-9.30, Costa, Bold Street, free

Jean Sprackland (Costa Poetry Award winner 2007) and Headland Press poets: Ade Jackson, Janette Stowell, Sarah Maclennan, Dave Ward.

… and slightly further afield

Wirral BookFest, Monday 7th – Sat 12th April, various venues across Wirral

This new festival, organised by Wirral libraries, promises something for everyone, from graphic novels workshop for youngsters to a murder mystery evening in Wirral’s spookiest library! Big name guests include popular children’s author Brian Jacques, acclaimed poet John Siddique and a special ‘Meet the Authors’ session with a trio of best-selling novelists: JoJo Moyes, Mike Gayle and Jenny Colgan.

The Other Room – Wednesday 9th April, 7pm, Old Abbey Inn, Pencroft Way, Manchester, free

A new evening of innovative/experimental poetry in Manchester, in association with Openned, the highly successful London reading series. The first evening features readings by Alan Halsey, Tom Jenks and Geraldine Monk. Subsequent events will take place on the first Wednesday of every second month.

The Northern Poetry Slam – Thursday 17th April, 9pm, The Northern Pub, Tibb Street, Manchester, free

The first in a regular new series of poetry slams at The Northern is hosted by the effervescent comedian John Cooper and features a special guest appearance from Max Seymour, winner of last year’s Manchester Literature Festival Comedy Slam. Come and discover the city’s rising stars of poetry and comedy and help crown a champion.

Favourite Poems Read by Animals

If there is one thing the Web has taught us it is that a lot of people have too much time on their hands. This video is evidence of that. It was recommended to me by Angela Macmillan and is remarkable not only for the quality of the reading (Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’) but the length of time it must have taken to train the dog to speak. And with such lovely vowels too:

Liverpool Poetry Cafe

The launch of Liverpool Poetry Café – at the Costa café on Bold Street – celebrated City Poems with 15 poets and lovers of poetry, from all ages, reading on the night of 11th February 2008 to a capacity audience of more than seventy. Poems as varied as Felicia Hemans Casabianca rubbed shoulders (as it were) with Patti Smith, Adrian Henri, John Tessimond, Mary Oliver and many more.

The Liverpool Poetry Café venture is the brain child of Alex Scott-Samuel, a passionate poetry enthusiast and public health researcher at Liverpool University and has been made possible through the backing of Costa and a positive association of poets and poetry organisations (including Dead Good Poets Society, Writing on the Wall, Liverpool Reads, Heartbeats, North End Writers and Liverpool Library Service) working together to support a programme of events to encourage a new audience for poetry.

Events and readings will take place at the café on the evenings of the second Monday and fourth Thursday of each month, starting at 7.30 pm for the remainder of 2008 to celebrate Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture status. Readings will include poets Jean Sprackland, Deryn Rees-Jones, John Redmond, Gladys Mary Coles, Aileen La Tourette, Alice Lenkiewicz, Brian Wake and Helen Tookey.

Anyone attending an event is advised to get there early to be sure of a seat.

For further information and a calendar of readings, download the brochure:

By Pauline Rowe

Find the Poet

Angela Macmillan puts out a request to all poetry sleuths.

Can anyone help track down any information about the poem and the poet below?

At school in Bexhill-on-Sea in the early sixties this was one of the dozens of poems we were given to learn by heart. Most of the poems were well known and loved: ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘Ozymandias’, ‘Westminster Bridge’; poems by Hardy, Browning, Hopkins and Keats. They have all remained with me making up, with others memorised along the way, my inner anthology.

The teacher who gave us this one was called Miss Ena Coombe and I think she lived in Eastbourne. I have my suspicions that Ena Coombe and Elizabeth Cumming could be one and the same since I can find no trace of the latter and Ena Coombe would have been one of the generation of women deprived of the possibility of marriage and children after the devastation of the First World War.

I may have bits of it wrong, I don’t know the title and I can only vaguely remember how it looked on the page so the line arrangement is probably mostly my own. But if anyone out there recognises it, do get in touch.

And again tomorrow
it will be Spring.
There will be a sigh in the boughs, a quickened beat
of earth’s pulse, and leaf on leaf, petal by petal, wing after wing
They will return, the green wreaths and the flute players and the dancing feet
And sorrow
will be a shadow at the heels of spring.
I shall forget a little. I shall be glad once more –
(since men have died from time to time but not for love) –
to see again, as all the springs before,
how the pale light trembles between the clustered cherry flowers, how above
the swallows whirl their wide sure loops of flight,
Flashing the small white breast, the small sharp arrow wing,
and the strong heart will bud again and feel the light of spring,
forsaking only half reluctantly its watch beside a too magnificent memory.
I know that men have died each spring, but not for love
and we outlive love’s baffled agony and bleeding pride,
and the dark trance of sorrow,
finding a new inglorious joy when the sky’s soft above
and crocuses push through the grass, tomorrow.
And I know too, it would have been less bitter to have died.

Elizabeth Cumming

Sean O’Brien Wins the T.S. Eliot Prize

Last night Sean O’Brien was announced the winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize. O’Brien, who is Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University also won the Forward Prize for the third time last year. The Guardian has excellent coverage of O’Brien’s win, including the poet himself talking about the winning collection, The Drowned Book, and a selection of poems.

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Philip Pullman on Milton

Kirsty at Other Stories, who also writes for the OUP blog, is getting all excited about a piece by Philip Pullman on Milton and Paradise Lost. He writes about Milton’s political life, but especially, passionately, about the poetry:

He would be remembered still as a poet if he had been executed under the Restoration, and had never begun Paradise Lost. But in that great poem he found a theme and a metre that matched every fibre of his genius. From the magnificent opening showing the defeated rebel angels chained on the burning lake, through their plan to travel to the newly-created earth and seduce the ‘new race called Man’, to the superb psychological drama of Satan’s temptation of Eve and its consequences, to the sad but resolute music of the closing lines, Paradise Lost is unmatched. It is the greatest poem by England’s greatest public poet.

Here’s the link again.

Posted by Chris Routledge, Powered by Qumana

A Note on Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh, who died forty years ago today is one of the best-loved of all Irish writers and was effectively the first poet of the newly independent Irish State. He had an honest, unpretentious writing manner which contrasted firmly with that of his intimidating predecessor, W. B. Yeats. The literary critic Seamus Deane has described him, shrewdly, as “a bare-faced poet, without masks” and, thanks to those characteristics, “revolutionary.” Growing up in rural county Monaghan, in the unfortunately-named town of Mucker, Kavanagh experienced firsthand the humdrum hardships of rural life. These feature in his novels, The Green Fool and Tarry Flynn and also in his most important and ambitious poem, ‘The Great Hunger’, which begins with memorable menace:

Clay is the word and clay is the flesh
Where the potato-gatherers like mechanised scarecrows move
Along the side-fall of the hill …

To pursue his literary career Kavanagh moved to Dublin where he lived a precarious, free-lance life, occasionally drifting into journalism. A rough, lumbering man he had a memorably abrasive manner, acquiring enemies and admirers with noticeable ease. These days, Irish artists receive generous treatment from the state but this was not so in the 40s and 50s. To make ends meet, Kavanagh was often reduced to borrowing from friends and similar humiliations. My father, who knew him slightly, remembered how Kavanagh once responded to a greeting in the street: “I’m off to dinner with a fool,” he growled, “the company will be bad, the conversation will be worse — but the food will be mighty.” Kavanagh’s generation of writers, which included Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan, was mired in an outwardly genial, but ultimately scabrous, poverty. Kavanagh was frequently ill. Indeed, his sequence of Canal Bank poems, which most Irish children first enjoy at school, was penned after a period of hospitalisation. These poems reflect a new mood in his work, a quasi-Buddhist acceptance, which he described simply as “not caring.” ‘Canal Bank Walk’, for example, opens with a gorgeous labial waterfall:

Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me that I do,
the will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew.

Celebrity and financial support eventually caught up with him, but, as he put it, “too late.” The final stages of his career were marked by a literary and medical decline. Not that this did anything to diminish his effect on such later luminaries as Seamus Heaney. Kavanagh’s influence is profound — but its nature is not technical so much as it is existential. He showed how it was possible to write about the most crashingly mundane aspects of Irish life while putting to one side the romantic mystifications of the Literary Revival. He is seen, now, as a kind of secular saint: rooted, realistic, and entirely un-pious. “I don’t like the poems of Patrick Kavanagh”, said the Dublin poet Paul Durcan, “I believe in them.”

By John Redmond


John Redmond is a lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. His first book of poems, Thumb’s Width (Carcanet) was published in 2001 and was longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award. Recent poems deal with computer games and car culture. They also reflect a period of teaching in St. Paul, Minnesota (2001-3). He is also the author of How To Write a Poem (Blackwell, 2005).

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