Archive for September, 2010

Things I’m Reading Thursday #21

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

What I’m reading this week…

We live in an illiterate country. The mass media – commercial theatre included – pander to the low and the lowest of the low in the human experience. They, finally, debase us through the sheer weight of their mindlessness.
Every reiteration of the idea that nothing matters debases the human spirit.
Evert reiteration of the idea that there is no drama in modern life, there is only dramatization, that there is no tragedy, there is only unexplained misfortune, debases us. It denies what we know to be true. In denying what we know, we are as a nation which cannot remember its dreams – like an unhappy person who cannot remember his dreams and so denies that he does dream, and denies that there are such things as dreams.
We are destroying ourselves by accepting our unhappiness.
We are destroying ourselves by endorsing an acceptance of oblivion in television, motion pictures, and the stage.
Who is going to speak up? Who is going to speak for the American spirit? For the human spirit?
Who is capable of being heard? Of being accepted? Of being believed? Only that person who speaks without ulterior motives, without hope of gain, without even the desire to change, with only the desire to create: the artist.

from ‘A Tradition of the Theatre As Art’, part of Writing In Restaurants by David Mamet

I’m only a few essays in and already this book is a new all-time favourite. Thank you so much to the lovely Steve for lending it to me!

What are you reading this week?

(Photo via The Center for Asian American Media)

(Ginsberg photo source)

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Morden Tower

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

ABOVE: Allen Ginsberg at Morden Tower with Basil Bunting and Tom Pickard in 1965 (AG’s account here).

BELOW: Me at Morden Tower with Kevin Cadwallender, September 2010.

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Procrastination Station #78

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Stuff from teh interwebnetz. Some of it is poetry-related. The rest is all tattoos and octopi, usually.

More Howl stuff: Sex, Poetry and America in the ’50s, & Ginsberg’s Howl to Franco’s Ginsberg

Offended by rank objectification of writers?

Can you like Jane Eyre AND Wuthering Heights?

The Southbank Centre needs YOU!

Hot Guys Reading Books = possibly my all-time favourite blog.

I really want to go here (via).

ONS fans and friends — their antics this week: Owl poems by Kerri Ni Dochartaigh and Alex Williamson // New work by Hannah Radenkova, illustrator extraordinaire! // Juliet Wilson at Coyote Mercury // Daniel Watkins won a theatre award! // and Stephen Nelson was very deservingly featured at

I loved Colour Me Katie’s post on Taipei Street Art

Miss Lovelace’s Cabinet of Curiosities is the best tumblr blog ever, it’s official: yes, yes and yes.

Now that’s hot.

ANOTHER octopus gif for you.

Another local celebrity… I see him around campus a lot, doing crazy things. Now he’s on Youtube!

I’ve been playing this song to distraction lately. (Also this one).

Have a great weekend guys!

(Photo by _barb_)

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Things I’m Reading Thursday #20

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Stuff I’m reading, and what I thought of it.

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
I’ve been lucky enough to see James Robertson read three times in the past five months. The first time, we appeared on the same bill at the May Shore Poets event (I was first up, he was the headliner), and he read a selection of his poetry and poetry translations, which I really enjoyed. The second time, he’d come to speak to the students of the summer school I was teaching at, and he read a selection of work — some poems, some of his Scots translations for children, and excerpts from his newest work and from The Testament of Gideon Mack. Most recently, I saw him read at the Edwin Morgan tribute evening at the end of the 2010 Edinburgh International Book Festival.
As our paths kept crossing — and as I really enjoyed Robertson’s readings every time I encountered him — I decided I should probably buy one of his books. He’s written a lot, but chances are Gideon Mack is the one you’ve heard of. It was longlisted for the Booker and even got a nod from Richard and Judy, the ultimate accolade in fiction these days, it seems. It’s also about Satan — a bloke who never fails to interest me.
The Testament of Gideon Mack is the story of a Scottish minister called — unsurprisingly — Gideon Mack. Mack ministers to his small rural parish, runs marathons for charity and lives in the shadow of an overbearing father. He’s also a determined atheist… until one day he bumps into the Devil.
The book is a lovely, smooth read, but deceptively clever. Gideon Mack is the narrator of his own testament, but not the narrator of the novel — the testament is being quoted verbatim by an Edinburgh publisher, who’s grappling with the potential legal and moral implications of making it a commercial public document. Throughout this meta-narrative (the aforementioned publisher butts into the testament at the most inopportune moments to offer editorial notes, suggestions and clarifications), Robertson constantly plays with the reader’s ideas about truth, trust, reliability and doubt. Mack is determined that his tale is 100% true, and insists that he is of sound mind even when recounting his conversations with the Devil. You want to believe him, though it’s clear that his congregation do not, and though all evidence points toward mental illness and delusion. In spite of his innate duplicity (only at the very end of his tenure as a minister does he impart to any of his parishoners that actually, he’s never really believed in God), Mack is alarmingly convincing, and when the novel’s epilogue begins to blow holes in the reliability of the testament, it comes as a jolting shock. Robertson is gleefully messing with the idea of the unreliable narrator, as well as making sure that the reader is never able to draw a line under anything — there are no absolute truths in this novel. Does Gideon Mack really reject God entirely? Did he really meet the Devil? Is the testament a fiction? Is the diligent publisher really quoting it totally verbatim? Can we trust anyone’s version of events? None of these questions are ever answered. I absolutely loved the book, not just for its cleverness — it’s also just a damn good story, and it’s full of nods to great, classic Scottish Literature (primarily Hogg, obviously, and a good smattering of Stevenson, too). By turns dark, funny and painfully real, it’s a novel that will stick in your mind long after you put it down.

Riddled with Errors by McGuire

I’ve got shockingly behind with everything this summer. It’s been a weird old time — ending my relationship of five years, moving house at short notice, teaching a highly intensive summer school and trying not to lose my grip on my term-time job, PhD and other commitments in the process. A lot of things fell by the wayside, including several promises of reviews here on ONS. I’m finally righting the balance, and beginning to work my way through the books I should have featured here months ago.
First up is McGuire’s debut collection, Riddled With Errors. If you’ve ever visited ONS before, chances are you already know a little bit about McGuire. You possibly know that he’s a former Featured Poet, or that he’s one of the 100 poets contributing to the this collection project. You’ll almost certainly know that I think he’s pretty darned brilliant.
To me, McGuire’s work is criminally overlooked in the Scottish poetry scene, though he is beginning to be talked about here and there. A gifted performer, there’s nothing quite like hearing him read his own work, but reading Riddled With Errors, I was surprised by how well the poems translated to the page. I was also surprised by the influences I was able to see in them. If you’ve spent any time at all at One Night Stanzas, you’ll know that I am a massive Allen Ginsberg fangirl, so comparisons to the great man are few and far between. But here is a poet who genuinely echoes a true Beat style and aesthetic. Check out, for example, the final stanza of Commander Poetry: “many beautiful things occur / sun rise milk and glancing / much horror much terror / world blood and bombshells / much private hell”. Or Thunder roars tonight!: “And many shut their windows, / rub their hands together, / close curtains, boil the kettle / and watch television!” Or Concrete Irrationality:


But however much he is indebted to the Beats, McGuire is never derivative. These poems manage to remain fresh, original and somehow innately Scottish. Like Ginsberg, this poet is not afraid to shy away from sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — if any poetry collection were to come with a Parental Advisory warning, it ought to be this one. But it’s the immediacy, the urgency and the candid, roving eye of these poems that gives them their edge. This is free verse that is truly free, refusing to be pinned down. Read it if you dare.

What are you reading this week?

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Are young poets losing their sense of literary identity?

Monday, September 20th, 2010

For the month of August this year, while the rest of you were living it up at the Edinburgh Fringe, I was fortunate enough to be teaching at the University of Edinburgh’s International Summer School — my class was Creative Writing, and most of my students were poets. The majority were also English Literature undergrads, and hailed from a variety of countries.

One of the seminars I devised for the class was entitled “The Importance of Reading vs the Anxiety of Influence: Entering the Literary Canon and ‘Making New’”. In this seminar, I spoke about ideas of literary tradition, literary identity and essentially “knowing where you come from” as a writer. Dr Alan Gillis gave a lecture on the Modern Irish literary tradition on the same morning as my seminar, and I asked the students to talk about their own literary identities — how they felt they fit into their national literature as well as the wider literary canon, what tradition they felt they might be working in, or a tradition they might aspire to fitting into. I found their responses pretty surprising.

The students did not believe in literary tradition. Unanimously, they said they felt that tradition — and the idea of fitting into the canon in any specific place — no longer existed for contemporary writers. “It’s just not something I ever think about,” said one American literature undergrad. Indeed, the group seemed to think that if anything, identifying with a particular literary tradition or attempting to emulate literary predecessors was a bad idea. “Isn’t it just copying?” was a question that arose again and again. We talked about the Whitmanic tradition, and the influence of other literary heavyweights on contemporary writing. “It’s just riding on the coat tails of someone very respected,” was one response. The students also dismissed the idea of being part of a national literature. Only one student, who hailed from India, said she felt ties to her country’s literary identity, but said she also felt that embracing her role as “an Indian writer” — and more importantly, as “an Indian woman writing in English” — might actually be potentially damaging, or at least limiting, for her. “I prefer to just be a writer,” she said, and the others agreed. “If you’re a good writer,” said one of the American students, “why does it matter where you’re from?” The general feeling was that where you’re from, who you’ve read and who you admire is — or should be — irrelevant.

This provided real food for thought for me. I’d expected that such a diverse range of young people — hailing from universities all over the world — would have radically different opinions about literary identity and tradition. The fact that they stood united and totally dismissed the ideas about tradition and canon in TS Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent really surprised me. I was also surprised by the fact that, when I asked the question “so, do you feel like you have a literary identity at all?”, the answer was a resounding “no”.

This made me think about my own literary identity, which is apparently a bit of a sore topic. Who I am as a writer — and indeed, who I am as a human being — is something that other people seem determined to have a say in. A while ago, after the now-legendary “where are all the young Scottish poets?” panel debate at StAnza 2009, a comment thread popped up online somewhere, and among a list of young Scottish poets, my name was dropped. I was unaware of this thread at the time, but when I was tipped off about it (I’ve just spent a good while Googling to try and find it again, but to no avail), I found that people were lining up to talk about my national — and therefore, literary — identity. To set the record straight, I had to point out that I was born in England (North Yorkshire, to be more specific), but moved to Scotland at the age of 8. I’ve received about 90% of my education north of the border, and I never wrote a word of poetry while I lived on English soil. Surely, therefore, I am a Scottish poet. Am I a Scot? This is a bit tricker. I have two Scottish grandparents (one on each side, as it happens), but both my parents were born and raised in Cumbria and speak with strong Cumbrian accents. I was born in North Yorkshire and between the ages of 2 and 7 my family lived in the Midlands. Apparently, these were my formative years, because in spite of my sixteen years on Scottish soil, I’ve never shaken my accent — which is a weird southern mongrel with northern vowels, but unmistakably English.
It’s tricky. Apparently, I’m Scottish enough to play rugby for Scotland — if, you know, I was a bloke, and any good at rugby, and even vaguely interested. But because of The Accent Thing I get asked to read at events called things like “Sassenachs in Scotland!”, which I’m not 100% comfortable with. During the festival I was very flattered to be asked to read at Utter!’s “Utter! The Brave” event, which was ‘Scots Only’. I accepted (and a damn fine event it was too), but as it turned out, I didn’t feel very comfortable with that, either.
So my feeling of literary identity is a confused one, but the urge to belong as a writer and to fathom out whose traditions I belong to and where I am accepted is a really strong one. To be faced with a diverse group of young writers (none of them that much younger than me) and told that literary identity “doesn’t exist”, or at least, “isn’t relevant” to writers of our generation was rather shocking. Am I weird? Are they weird? I can see that ideas about literary and national identity change over time, obviously they do — but do they really cease to matter? Have they ceased to matter? Am I the only person under 30 still worrying about this stuff?

Of course, the issue might be my Scottishness (or, my status as a Scottish resident, depending on your outlook). Dr Gillis’ lecture was all about Irish literary traditions and the Irish literary identity, so the Scots aren’t alone — but is it an inherently Scottish thing to constantly think about and debate one’s national and literary background? Is it just us? In the seminar group, there were students from all over the world — Americans, Canadians, Scandinavians, Europeans, etc — but I was the only Scot(tish resident). According to the students, the Americans, Scandinavians, Europeans and — dare I say it — maybe even the English, are just getting on with it. Even my Canadian students reckoned that questions about national and literary identity in their country had mainly been answered (”we just need to get over the fact that America’s right there, really”, said one). It’s just us Scots who are devoting hundreds of hours, blogs and column inches to the issue of what tradition, what nationality, and (apparently) where our new generation of writers are. Is this true? Are the Scots just “very into navel-gazing”, as one student put it? Or is this as much of an issue elsewhere? I don’t feel qualified to comment, but would love to hear others’ thoughts.

Something else that must surely have contributed to this general feeling of rootlessness and the apparent break from literary tradition is the rise of University education. These days, if you’re under 30 and want to be a writer, you’re probably at University, and probably studying something in the Humanities bracket. All of the students in my group were majoring or had majored in Literature. Most of them had moved on or were planning to move on to MA courses. Several of them stated that their MA course was or would eventually be Creative Writing.
I’m not going to debate the usefulness or value of Creative Writing at University level, don’t worry. What I’m left wondering about is the influence of all this literary study on the mentalities of young writers. With so many young writers picking up Literature degrees, is it possible that this study has contributed to their lack of interest in their personal and national literary traditions? As students of Literature, these young writers have access to libraries full of works by authors from across the world and down the ages; they are bombarded with option-courses on everything from Classics In Translation to the contemporary slam movement of Def Poetry Jam fame. Gone are the days where if you grew up in or attended University in New England you’d be expected to name Frost, Lowell or Dickinson as your primary poetic influence — or so my students seemed to think. One of them was, in fact, from New England, and his view was: I have a world canon full of amazing writers at my fingertips. Why should I read Frost just because he was from the same state as me? I can choose to read anything I like.

Obviously, the option to read anything you like — or at least, anything you can gain access to — has always been there for writers. But is access a key factor? More young writers are attending University and therefore getting the opportunity to visit incredible, sprawling libraries full of weird and wonderful works. Most University campuses grant access to inter-library loans across the world, as well as offering online services like LiOn and JSTOR for free. The internet has also, naturally, revolutionised the way we all read — but the current crop of writers under 30 are the first writers of “the web generation.” Does this all add up to explain this apparent disinterest in tradition and sense of place?

The short answer is, I don’t know. I’m still really surprised by the unanimous and unswerving response my students gave me. This post is mainly just the overspill of the seminar and its lengthy discussions. But I’d love to hear what other people think about these ideas… so no matter what your age, leave a comment!

(Photo by paper.lilies)

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Procrastination Station #77

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Stuff I’ve found on the internet, and liked. Some, but not much of it is poetry related. Enjoy!

Howl’s Echoes: the legacy of Allen Ginsberg

The fork of ambiguity is brilliant. Thanks, PoetHound!

I Write Like is interesting, but silly. It reckons I write like Hemingway, for example.

Litany, by Billy Collins… as you’ve never heard it before.

Very happy to see that @JFDerry now has a blog!

Feminism 101: I thought this was a great manifesto. For anyone — not just women, not just feminists.

…and while we’re talking about manifestoes, I also loved this one.

Street haiku!

The anxiety of influence…

This is rather late, but I wanted to feature a few of the lovely tributes to Edwin Morgan that I’ve found online since his passing:
Russell Jones // Stephanie Green // Caroline Crew // Todd Swift // Marion McCready // Morgan Downie // Juliet Wilson // Colin Will

What some of ONS’s fans and friends have been up to lately…
Love this new(ish) poem from the super-talented Alex Williamson // I love magpies - Kerri Ni Dochartigh writes about them, rather well as it happens // Suzie Evans gave me a mention! // Michael Lee Johnson at Bolts of Silk // Christian Ward at a handful of stones

A love letter to Elvis Costello

I loved this photo from the Edinburgh Festival!

You’re not as transparent as you think…

Quit apologising for your Twitter account!

Isn’t Michael Cera just kind of… very successfully typecasting himself?

That’s it. I’m hiring Angela Lansbury to find out who you are. (NB: strong language. And a creepy clown.)

Goals: some good advice.

Is this the luckiest man alive?


Thanks, Wikipedia!

My sister made a lovely tribute to Edwin Morgan:

I just discovered Luke Wright’s Youtube channel:

I defy you not to smile at this:

Have a great weekend, all!

(Photo by Chris Piascik)

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Things I’m Reading Thursday #19

Thursday, September 16th, 2010
Yes, it’s been a while since my last Things I’m Reading Thursday post, but I promise it’s not because I haven’t been reading anything, honest!

Helen Farish: Intimates
So, over the summer I paid a visit to Grasmere — home of Wordsworth and gingerbread — and there are two things that I absolutely always do whenever I’m there. One: eat a large slice of the lemon and courgette cake from the Rowan Tree Cafe on Church Bridge (it’s bright green and it’s amazing), and two: visit Sam Read’s book shop and spend heaps of money I don’t really have on poetry books.
Helen Farish’s Intimates was one of two poetry books I bought on this latest visit. I know I’ve already waxed lyrical about Sam Read’s book shop, but it is a truly magical place — absolutely tiny, but it boasts a poetry section to rival that of any major book chain. I’d never come across Helen Farish before but after just a quick flick through the first few poems I knew I had to buy and read her first collection. The only poem of hers I’d read before was Newly Born Twins, which I think appeared here — it’s an absolutely brilliant poem from an absolutely brilliant selection. Farish’s work is highly accessible but very obviously female; the poems are by turns cheeky, sensual, deeply moving and heartbreakingly sad. Her poems about the final days and eventual death of her obviously beloved father were particularly excellent — difficult to read, but in the best kind of way. But I particularly loved the final poem, Coffin Path Poem, because it reminded me a lot of myself. Indeed, so many of the poems in Intimates made me think “yes, that’s exactly what it’s like”. In short, I’m telling you: this book is truly great. It should be the very next poetry collection you buy.

Jacob Polley: Little Gods
Helen Farish is a Cumbrian poet, and so is the second poet whose collection I bought at Sam Read’s on my trip to Grasmere. Jacob Polley was born in Cumbria in 1975 and seems to have won just about every poetry award there is to win… and rightly so. Little Gods is his second collection and I’ve just finished working my way through it — it’s one of those poetry collections that’s so good you want to savour it over time. Before I’d got a third of the way through, I’d already gone out and bought Little Gods‘ predecessor, The Brink, and that’s next on my reading list… he’s that good. One of the (many) things I love about Polley’s work is his slightly obsessive interest in certain images and themes — this collection is chock-full of rain, night and owls, but every time they appear and re-appear they do so in a brand new, startling, original way. So many of the poems here are also amazing for their economy — for doing a great deal in a very small number of words. For example, check out the darkly funny and delightfully macabre “At Home”, which — in its entirety — looks like this:

Old Death, in slippers and a crocheted shawl, peels
spuds at the sink or ties beans to beanpoles.

The black cloak hangs by its hood in the hall.
The famished scythe whines through the tool-shed wall.

Given that I don’t think I could ever be satisfied with a poem only four lines long, this is the kind of thing I really aspire to. Reading Polley makes me want to write, and keep writing, until I become a better poet. Which has to be a good thing, no?

What are you reading this week?

(Photo by andrea singarella)

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Poems for Eddie: an Edwin Morgan Memorial

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

I’m very happy to hear that, following the recent passing of the truly matchless Edwin Morgan, Swiss Lounge Productions are planning a tribute to him. It will take the form of a collection of poems in memory of the great man, and submissions open on 21st September. For more information on the publication and how to submit, visit the site here.

(Photo by Scottish Poetry Library)

(Photo by goforchris)

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