Today is the official publication date for Basic Nest Architecture.If you’ve pre-ordered copies, they should be winging their way towards you forthwith (one friend suggested a Raven delivery system, but I think most of them will just be Royal Mail, due to the birds’ tendency to re-purpose them as nest material – apt enough but not helpful for readers).
If you’d rather buy a copy in person and get it signed, I’ll be trotting round with a load and a good pen at StAnza Poetry Festival this coming weekend, and I’ve got a few events coming up to take it for a spin:
Reading at Vespers, The Serenity Cafe, Edinburgh, Tuesday March 14th 2017.
As well as the formal launch at Litfest, we’re having a less formal book celebration party – a book christening? – with drinks, nibbles, guest readers and music at Grasmere Tithe Barn,May 20th 2017, 7.30-10pm.
Jack Nicholls will be reading from his Emma Press pamphlet Meat Songs, Megan Beech will pre previewing her forthcoming Burning Eye pamphlet and we’ve managed to divert Jenn Grant and her band to Grasmere on her UK tour for her new album Paradise, out March 3rd, for the night, which will be a real treat.
As a taster, I’ve put together a playlist on soundcloud of six poems from the book: three new recordings and three I made for The Lonely Crowd last Spring.
The other playlist I have made for Basic Nest Architecture is a list of songs: one for each of the poems. I started this last year to help me think about what absolutely needed to be included and what might be let go out of the collection as we shrunk it down to fit. One thing I found curious is that the choices for most of the poems were really obvious (to me: but I have a rolling playlist in my head at most times anyway and some of the poems are named after or quote songs) except for the poems which deal explicitly with hospital experiences. I have odd rules about my themed playlists: I have to make them from songs I already have, no buying songs that are missing from my collection to fill the gap. So my questions is this: do I not have the right songs, or do they not exist?
When I’ve fixed on my favoured version of that playlist I’ll put the song list up here. At the moment, like most things, it’s still a little in flux.
The version of ‘Strength in Winter’ in the book is slightly different to the version on soundcloud. The long lines were falling off the right edge of the page, and I had to do a last minute re-write, being careful that it didn’t spill over onto a second page. The line-length was a problem with The Lonely Crowd too, but then a two-page solution seemed best. This means the version of ‘Strength in Winter’ in Basic Nest Architecture is the third published version, as it started life in the third Beautiful Dragons anthology Heavenly Bodies.
‘Strength in Winter’ is not the only poem in the book that exists in several versions. I like the idea of this in a way that probably really annoys some people.¹ I wrote a little about this idea in notes I wrote for The Lonely Crowd.In classes I often use a poem by Erin Mouré from her 1988 collection Furious called ‘Three Versions’ to discuss editing, and the choices we make when we edit our work. Particularly to think about what seemingly un-politicised ideas about style have to do with larger ideological constructs. What are we calling on when we’re asking a poem to be ‘tighter’, ‘more succinct’, to be ‘clearer’ or less obtuse, or to cut anything that isn’t entirely necessary.² What is necessary in a poem? ‘Three Versions’ has an epigraph from another writer, Gail Scott: ‘why do you have to choose/a definitive version?’ This is a question that troubles me a lot, especially when tacked to the question of the versions: how you tell ‘if the poet has written with/or without discipline’.
What does discipline in a poem mean? How does it relate to the other images of the poem: the bird with its ‘wings beaten shut’; its ‘chest eaten/sucked in’?
I come back again and again to this poem, to its unanswerable questions about what a poem is and needs.
Though it might seem contrary, I disapprove of writers editing much much earlier work later in their careers when eg. putting together a ‘selected’. Retrospectives need to acknowledge the decisions of that earlier time and earlier writer. If the work is being entirely repurposed, that’s probably different. But we shouldn’t always dismiss the impulses of our younger selves, just because we think we’re wiser, older. Yes, Wm. Wordsworth, I’m looking at you, as usual.
Once an editorial email asked me to cut whatever ‘isn’t entirely necessary’ from the poem in question, only a typo meant they actually asked me to cut what ‘is entirely necessary’. I think about this a lot too.
our touching hearts slenderly comprehend
(clinging as fingers,loving one another
gradually into hands)and bend
into the huge disaster of the year:
like this most early single star which tugs
weakly at twilight,caught in thickening fear
our slightly fingering spirits starve and smother;
until autum abruptly wholly hugs
our dying silent minds,which hand in hand
at some window try to understand
(through pale miles of perishing air,haunted
with huddling infinite wishless melancholy,
suddenly looming)accurate undaunted
moon’s bright third tumbling slowly
Perhaps we should have known, when the January opened with the death of David Bowie, swiftly followed by the death of Alan Rickman, that this year was going to test faith in heroes and in possibility. Like the dolphins fleeing the doomed Earth in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, they were the canaries in the collapsing mine of 2016.¹ In April they were joined by Prince, and people blamed the year itself, as though it were sentient, and angry with us for some unknown reason. As though we had messed it up.
I could say this accounts for the terrible presentiment I had before the Brexit vote, and again before the American presidential election, that the shared rhetoric of hate and division would triumph. I had a funny feeling in my toe: a feeling of blood creeping over the fields. The rabbits are us.²
I don’t normally write a yearly review. Who wants to know what I thought about the year? But this year is exceptional. Many people seem to be finding the events of 2016 hard to process. I process things by writing about them, so forgive me if my thoughts are half-formed or reaching without conclusion.
Both scenarios – for very different reasons (parallel world/chaos theory and the sacking of the series creator as showrunner for season 4) – result in people acting out of character in horrible, humiliating, destructive ways, and in events running out of control as a consequence.
2016 seems a convergence of both gasleak and darkest timeline. After the American election, I saw a number of memes referring to the darkest timeline, and to the time-travel narratives being evoked by Community. I saw tweets that blamed Barry Allen (currently messing up his own Earth in season three of The Flash) or called on Keira Cameron of Continuumto try and correct things (which never goes well, I should say). Many referenced the capitalist dystopia of Back to the Future II,not least because Biff was based on Trump.
The week that Trump took the White House, the salt in the wound for many was the death of Leonard Cohen. Two men who couldn’t seem more averse. Like many, I have felt this year that we are losing our wisest elders: those who can point to the crack the light will still come through, when all we find is darkness, and the death hour rounding it.
The year closed has closed with another spate of losses – George Michael, Richard Adams, Carrie Fisher, and then her mother, Debbie Reynolds. People who seem to have taught generations how to think, feel, believe in themselves, express themselves.
Perhaps the folly is hanging so much on so few. We need new heroes; new cultural leaders to show us a model of an inclusive, nurturing world, in which people of all backgrounds, abilities, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations can thrive.
In the aftermath of Trump’s unthinkable triumph, people seemed to turn to the literary world, particularly to poetry, to show them another way. Two days after Trump was elected, we had our annual poetry month at Grasmere Book Group, and read, amongst others, the poem that opens this post. The group had chosen ‘love poems’ as a theme, to contrast with last years’ ‘war poems’, but as I tried to pick a selection for us to read I was finding it hard to think about celebrating love. The group helped remind me that this is one of the few things we can all do in times of darkness and hate: love well.
The writers involved claim only to be calling for ‘due process’ for the accused, but their letter, and the associated website, failed to mention the right of the complainants to due process, or a fair hearing, or for their experiences not to being automatically discounted by their seniors in the literary community. I was dismayed to read the names of many writers I admire deeply on that list; relieved to find some people reassessing their position and removing their names as the weeks went by; appalled to see some adding their names to the list instead. For writers – people who make their living and their lives not just out of words, but out of nuance and context and close reading – this letter showed at best a lack of attention to detail. Its language, tone and omissions wilfully misunderstood power dynamics and how words contribute to rape culture. It also made me think more highly of the role of editors in Canlit, if so many great writers could not see their own omissions and errors. Most of all, I was disappointed then horrified to see Margaret Atwood backing herself further and further into an untenable defensive position, in which she needlessly brought up the notion that ‘women lie’.
Other responses from Canlit stalwarts were heartening, and show the kind of careful reading and thinking we expect of great writers (Maggie Helwig, Michael Redhill and Laurence Hill’s responses stood out for me in the first wave). As the year closes, the controversy is still raging, and has most recently evolved into a public questioning of Boyden’s claims to indigeneity, after Galloway’s own apparent indigenous heritage was pulled out by his supporters to count in his favour. Boyden’s self-presentation as indigenous has been long queried by indigenous writers and communities, but I doubt this would have kicked off now if it were not for his part in the Galloway debacle, and what it revealed about how little he seems to understand gender relations and power dynamics on (or off) campus.
These are times we all need to stop and ask ourselves if we’ve become our evil alteregos. If this is the darkest and most terrible timeline, and if so, if we are the baddies.
More importantly, even if we think we’re on the side of the good, are we doing enough to help those around us? Are we doing enough to protect the vulnerable in our communities? A positive result of this Canlit meltdown might be a much needed reassessment of some aspects of the teaching of writing, and of what is or is not acceptable behaviour in the mentor-guru focussed system we have. This is not, obviously, just a Canadian problem: anywhere we follow this model of ‘apprenticeship’ there is room for abuse, and far too much of it happening. As a teacher myself I am keenly aware of this, and of what my role may or may not be in preparing my students for the writing world outside university.
Some things much closer to home this year have also made me mull over how power is accumulated in the literary world, and how often this means hurting or exploiting others. It shouldn’t do, of course. And needn’t. This should go without saying, but some people seem to need it said over and over again, because they’re not listening. They think what their behaviour is fine because poetry demands it, or everyone else is doing it, or the same thing was done to them. The best writers I know are also the most generous, the most thoughtful, the kindest. It can be hard to be one’s better self in a world that can so easily descend into bitchy competitiveness, but we owe it to ourselves and each other to try.
Whenever I think of embittered, jealous, power-hungry writers, I think of them as having gone to the dark side of the force. Star Wars was one of the key texts of my childhood. I must have watched the original trilogy hundreds of times before the age of ten. As with Watership Down, I could quote huge chunks even now (anyone who knows how bad my memory is, knows how much that means).We collected Star Wars figures and toys, and spent many happy hours staging spaceship crashes and battles at the top of the garden.
Poets are much like Jedis – few people believe in them. The system of mentorship between Jedis forms a helpful parallel to that same model in creative writing, and a way for thinking about how we handle it from either direction. Those times I have found myself wavering towards the dark side – starting to resent other writers for their successes or blaming their successes for my failures – it is Star Wars that has kept me honest.
2016 has gone beyond satire, beyond science-fiction. If only there were a way to redo or unwrite the wrongs done, the wrong-turns taken, the misrepresentations, false steps, and time-line changing bad decisions. As yet, we cannot repilot life.
In the meantime, we have to learn to live better with what we have. Grieve for what you have lost, but don’t let grief turn you away from life. Be good to one another, and not just those you are already invested in and identify with. May the force be with you.
I won’t go through the full list of cultural heroes who have died this year. I mention in this post those who mean the most to me personally, and this is no slight on those I do not mention. More importantly, this has also been a year of massive humanitarian disasters, and widespread loss of life, particularly during the ‘refugee crisis’ and in Syria. There is something gross about focussing on so few, relatively privileged people over so many, but I suppose it is about impact: we grieve for those we think we know. Maybe this means we need to do more to know more; to care more.
I wrote the main part of this post at the end of November, and had no idea at the time that this mention of Watership Down, which is so often in my thoughts, would become so poignant.
And if my smile seems straight as the Tropic of Cancer, it’s because
nature isn’t magic, it’s just a mystery to us …
It’s a bit cloudy round here, which isn’t just a metaphor for the dark and stormy times we find ourselves in. I got some beautiful views of the waxing moon last week, but over the weekend it has been hidden behind a grim drizzle. Again, not just a metaphor. In lieu of an actual supermoon, for others who may not be able to see it, here is a poetrymoon:
This is what you came home for, you
and the mountain and the forest and the stars in the dark
This has initiated a lot of chatter about what is and isn’t poetry, and what that might have to do with music.
Why am I troubling over this now? Partly – mostly? – because I’ve been working on the final edits of my first collection. So many of the poems in it are linked in my mind with particular songs that I’ve made a playlist to go with it – a song for every poem. I like to make playlists for different occasions, with the rule that the songs have to already be in my library. I make them for visiting particular places, for particular seasons or journeys or events. Last year, for instance, I collected every song I owned which featured wolves, werewolves, shapeshifting or the moon, to play as I drove to a conference on Werewolves. The playlist was over three hours long. I began to notice wolves skulking in the background of songs I had never seen them in before. Songs help me think about what I think and feel about something, whether it’s a personal issue, or a creative or professional one. I have poems named after songs, and poems that couldn’t have been written without particular songs. Even choosing which poems might have to be jettisoned from the collection in editing, I thought of a particular song: a live version of Tori Amos’ ‘Honey’ I had on a bootlegged tape of The Bee-Sides. She introduces it by explaining how it was meant to be on Under the Pink, but got ‘kicked off in […] mastering’. ‘Honey’ was one of my favourites too. I worry about looking back and thinking ‘why did I let her get kicked off?’
It’s no coincidence that poets are always writing about music, and songwriters are always writing about literature. I could make a playlist of songs about writing and of songs which mention authors and of songs which mention fictional characters and have hours to listen to. We all – I think – know something of the long history of poetry and story as song, and how relatively recent any real notion of separation between them is.
But I need to work out what that means to me, not to the history of literature.
I have peculiarly vivid memories of watching the BBC schools programme Words and Pictures when I was three or four. I particularly liked Funny Bones, but I loved the general combination of images, rhyming and lyric storytelling, and song in the episodes. Both music and books were very present and important in our household, but Words and Pictures was an introduction to literacy outside the home, to a wider world of words and pictures and music working together that fed back into what I heard at home. Bearing in mind that I was speaking my own self-invented language at the time that I would sit and watch this show,¹ its presentation of literature as a lively, performed thing, and the relationship of the library hub to the outside and imagined spaces of the stories, was very formative. They even encouraged you to make your own words up.
As soon as I learnt to write I was writing poems, but I was also writing songs and tunes. Words and music were still and always wrapped around each other. I recently found some manuscript paper with a tune I wrote named ‘Tehanu’ after the fourth of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels. It’s not a very interesting piece of music of course, but that’s not what I’m trying to get to.
Growing up, our household’s taste in music was as eccentric and contradictory as my family members. It loved classic Hollywood musicals and Leonard Cohen, Glenn Miller and Queen, Ella Fitzgerald and Tanita Tikaram, The Kinks and T’Pau, James Taylor and Julie London, The Carpenters and Don McLean, Diana Ross and Simon and Garfunkel. I read my way through books of border ballads, the Oxford Children’s Poetry, The Child’s Garden of Verses, Revolting Rhymes, various anthologies of Great Poems, Spike Milligan, McGonagall and Verse and Worse, whilst my older brothers taught me to love Pearl Jam and Metallica and Bowie and Tori Amos and Extreme and Pink Floyd and Kate Bush and War of the Worlds and The Pet Shop Boys and Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians.
The summer of 1992 will be forever linked for me with Metallica’s Black Album, because of a tape my middle brother made of it which included the Guns n’Roses version of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, and The Soupdragons’ ‘Softly’. My best friend came on holiday with me and my parents that year, and the tape became the soundtrack to our travels, and muddled up in our minds with two novels we were obsessing over – one about a vampire with a soul (The Silver Kiss) and one about someone who fed off other people’s youth (Personal Effects – I can’t trace this, but the main character was doing an Art Foundation which completely sold me on the idea, despite the fact she almost got sucked dry because she was just so cool). We listened to that tape until we knew every word, every chord, every beat. I began to grow my own collection of tapes based from songs I heard on the radio or saw on TV or that friends told me to listen to – Nirvana, PJ Harvey, 4 Non-Blondes, Tasmin Archer, The Cranberries, The Stone Roses, then Hole, Heather Nova, Radiohead, R.E.M, James, The Smiths … easing into the mid-nineties indie and Britpop years of Elastica, Echobelly, The Verve, The Cranberries, Pulp, The Wannadies, Blur and Oasis, Catatonia, Gene, Ash, Portishead, Mazzy Star, Ash, Supergrass, Massive Attack … more more more. All great storytellers in their different ways.
I didn’t really know then that contemporary poets existed, let alone that if I read a poem I liked, I could find a whole book by that same person, or that I might be able to hear them read aloud. As much as I loved poetry, I didn’t know of the world of poetry or how to access it. I did know how to access music. Music was my contemporary lyric. My poets were dead, my music was living. Sometimes the music even told me about poets. The Bluetones introduced me to Adrian Mitchell’s poem ‘Celia Celia’; The Verve to Blake’s ‘London’.
Music taught me about the world. It taught me about war and social injustice and global history and racism and feminism. It taught me how to negotiate being a girl and a woman in an often hostile environment. It taught me about joy and despair, and singing through them both.
So it’s no surprise that many of my teenage poems began as songs, or songs began as poems. Weird songs with weird lyrics. Poems which might have made more sense with music. By the time I was in lower sixth, I’d developed quite a collection of songs, and even started to record a few before I dislocated my knee and broke my elbow, putting me out of musical action, and setting me back at school. I never managed to go back and finish recording those songs, and I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had.
After that, I felt I didn’t have the stamina to pursue music, or much at all for that matter. I found more and more I was turning to poetry to try and make sense of what I was feeling, and the incomprehensibility of my recalcitrant undiagnosable body. When everything else seemed physically impossible, I could still write broken lines.
The last time I wrote a song was in 2009. I wrote a few that year. It refers to a number of traditional ballads, Alasdair Roberts’ Polly songs, and an Emily Dickinson poem. There’s nothing deliberate in the fact I haven’t written a song since, it’s just worked out that way. Where a song comes from is as mysterious to me as where a poem comes from. Both are more likely to arise under the right conditions and with practice though. I am very aware that I don’t play as much as I used to, or rather that I play less now that I ever have, and I wonder what that might mean, for my writing and more widely. I also think whether I feel like playing and singing is a kind of measure of health. Still, our tiny living room is dominated by my piano, which was my gift to myself when I moved out of London ten years ago. I had spent seven years dreaming about discovering an extra room in the house with a piano in it and perfect acoustics, and vowed never to live without one again. A house is not a home without a piano squashed uncomfortably into it.
In an overly lengthy way, what I’m trying to explain, is that (as for many poets) for me poetry and song aren’t just linked metaphorically, or historically, but very tangibly and practically.
I have used songs in my creative writing classes to make exactly this point, from variations on ‘The Silver Dagger’ (including Hey Rosetta’s lovely version of ‘Who is at my window weeping’ and Martha Tilston’s deceptively simple cover) to talk about the fluidity of ballad narratives, to using songs by Bonnie Tyler and Dar Williams to open discussion about gender awareness in childhood.
So why have I found myself feeling disappointed that Bob Dylan was granted the Nobel Prize for Literature, instead of elated, or vindicated? Am I a literary snob, or elitist, as some are accusing the nay-sayers of being? Quite possibly. I can’t shake a conviction that Dylan is just not a poet. I write this as lover of many of Dylan’s songs. I think many of his lyrics are brilliant. I know his songs have been incredibly important to many people, not just generally, socially, but specifically to some of the songwriters and writers I most admire, and who have been most important to me. I’m questioning my own bad feeling. My feeling that this is not the inclusive move it is meant to be. I wonder if it has more to do with the men who have tried to convince me over the years that Dylan is a poet, than with Dylan himself. I wonder if it has to do with how riled I get by the continual comparisons between Dylan and Leonard Cohen, who is unequivocally a poet and a novelist as well as a songwriter (and whose music I happen to have a much deeper and longer connection to). Is it that I think one of the best things about ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is that it made Sam Cooke write ‘A Change is Gonna Come’? Is it that I sometimes prefer Dylan’s songs when other people sing them? I would listen to Joan Baez sing ‘Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ all day. Surely this should actually count for the quality of the writing, not against? It speaks of wider influence, of seismic change. Am I just being pedantic? Very possibly. Is it generational/formational? Many of the people I know, and have read about, who have been really delighted by the choice grew up with Dylan in a way I didn’t, either because they were teens in the 60s, or because Dylan was a part of their later household in a way he wasn’t in mine, as Simon Armitage has also found.
Partly I think what I’ve been reacting against is the reaction, as well as a sense that this radical choice is just not radical enough for 2016. The world already knows the work of Bob Dylan – what about highlighting the work of someone they’ve never heard of, or a kind of work they’ve never given a moment’s thought to? On a very basic practical level, there are many more opportunities for a musician of Dylan’s standing than for a poet. Is this important? Maybe. Does it come down to access to audience and livelihood? As others have said, I wouldn’t think twice about the aptness if it a culture prize, but there are more worthy (and necessary) candidates for such a prominent literature prize.
Then, don’t we always think this? Don’t we nearly always have a conviction, especially with the big prizes, that we could pick a far worthier winner ourselves? I’d be just as disappointed if Don DeLillo had won. The only difference would be that the writing world wouldn’t be having quite such a great enormous row about it.
Great songs create whole worlds in their narrow bounds just as great poems, stories and novels do. They live in and grow in your mind and memory. But music is a vital part of their world-building. A song is a complete text. I often say a poem on the page can be like a tune in manuscript, the white space and punctuation telling you how it sounds when you play it through the instrument of your voice, but this is only one story about poetry. It does speak of a difference between poetry and music though. A poem’s music has to be there in the words in the voice and the white space and the breath. A song needs actual music. Giving Dylan a literature prize under these terms seems almost to negate the complex communicative power of music itself. I have a particular soft-spot for lyrics that foreground the failure of words to express feelings or experiences. The shoop shoops and uh huh oh yeahs. One of the many moments that delight me in Neko Case’s last solo album is when she breaks down into ‘blah blah blah, blah blah blah, they talk about, oh oh’ in ‘Calling Cards’. Jenn Grant and Joel Plaskett (who feature heavily amognst my top played Canadians) are both excellent lyricists, but are also especially good at knowing when to employ the oh oh oh or la la la. As is Dylan, though. Maybe even making this separation argument is spurious, and nothing to do with the rationale behind the prize. Maybe it just becomes an easy way to justify either side of the debate.
I hate choosing between things I love. I can’t make lists of favourites, because they end up too long, and I worry about omitting something important.² I refused to choose between Blur and Oasis as a teenager, and could never choose between The Stones and The Beatles. I reject reductive binaries in every other area of my life and I reject them here too. I refuse to be cornered into pretending to choose between words and music. I want poetry and song. I want lots of them. I want them everywhere. I want the whole world to find it as impossible as I do to choose one over the other. And this is why I’ve decided to be glad Dylan won the prize, if only for what else this might make possible in the future.