Some Sundays I’m scratching around for a hook for the cobweb post, and some Sundays (like today) I’m offered a gift on tailor-made platter. I was playing around with the reasons why I’ll buy books at a poetry reading and not at others. Or why I come away sometimes buzzing with something I can only describe as excitement. Or not. So god bless Facebook for someone’s sharing Lemn Sissay’s succinct musing on the importance of ‘the voice’. This is part of it:
“Authenticity in the performed poem is in the voice – high low mumbled screamed inhibited or expressive – and the voice is shaped by the words. I remind myself to read the poem as if I had just written it. This allows me to feel the text. The space between feeling the text and speaking the text is vast. It needn’t be. It is the role of the poet on stage to close the gap to capture the feeling they had when they wrote the poem. A performed poem needn’t be outwardly expressive but it must be internally explosive. Believe me. However quiet the poet is on stage, however inhibited they may be, if they feel their poem the audience will too. Move and be moved.”
And he’s just summed up what I’d have struggled to articulate; I went to three poetry readings in four nights this week, and at each of them I heard poets who ‘closed the gap’, who moved and were moved.
Monday was the Puzzle Poets Live in Sowerby Bridge, where an attentive audience crammed itself into a small upstairs room to be treated to a master class by Ian Duhig. If anything, Ian is an understated reader, quiet though emphatic. But there’s no mistaking the passion; what he writes about is important to him, and he makes it important to the listener. He frames his poems, he gives them context, he shares the processes of their making in a way that makes coherent and accessible a huge range of ideas …a blind roadmaker who he invited us to think of as ‘love’; Franz Kafka and the (apochryphal?) story of a lost doll, and the letters she may or may not have written; England as ashtray land; a character who asks ‘what the fuck’s the Holy Grail?’ ; the Book of Job and one individual against the world; the reminder that ‘by the breath of God, frost is given’; the makers of meaning (all poets and lawmakers, I supposed) ‘whose words they feared betrayed it’. Running through all this was his advice on constructing a pamphlet , or a collection. ‘Don’t overplan…let your poetry surprise you’. What kind of voice were we listening to? One that convinced you that poetry would always become accessible if you listened hard enough. And one other thing. He read and talked for twenty minutes, and then stopped, leaving everyone wanting more. Like I say. A master class. If I hadn’t already bought ‘The blind roadmaker’ I’d have bought it there and then, feeling I’d been invited into its world.
And so to Wednesday in Halifax, at The Loom Lounge, in Dean Clough Mills. Keith Hutson who organises the WordPlay monthly readings in Halifax has done an amazing job of attracting poets from all over the country, but I reckon he surpassed himself on Wednesday, when David Constantine came all the way from the Isles of Scilly….thankfully to good sized audience. Two of the support readers I already knew, and knew I’d enjoy their readings. Bob Horne treats his poems as actor would a text, I think. Every word gets its appropriate attention and no more. His timing… comic, ironic, reflective, whatever’s required…is always exact and felt. Ann Caldwell reads her work with a quiet conviction, and the authority that comes from knowing what you’re talking about.
At this point I confess, guiltily, that I didn’t know David Constantine’s work. There’s a huge amount I don’t know about poetry and poets. I knew that he’d judged the McClellan Poetry Competition this year, because I entered it, but other than that I had no idea what to expect appart from knowing that he has an amazing cv..He read for 30 minutes and it felt like 30 seconds. What was remarkable to me was the complexity of poems made out of entirely accessible lexis, and the way long looping sentences that turn back on themselves are stitched together by barely noticed slant and full rhymes, by a precisely placed set of rhythms that are exact and reliable, and simultaneously unobtrusive. And I noticed all this because he made me hear them. His control is remarkable…he makes the business of breathing through long sequences seem effortless. I sat and wondered if he’d been an influence on Kim Moore, who also is adept at breathing through sentences that can run over a 5 or 6 stanza sequence. The thing is, I was simultaneously entranced by the performance, as by a skilled instrumental musician AND by what the poems say. The monologue of the monomaniac; the voices of the Greek chorus and messenger; the adaptation of fado that name checked Ewan McColl’s dirty old town, the Manchester Ship Canal…and never once seemed odd or forced. Do you see what he did? I have never heard or read this poems before, but they’re lodged in my mind. And that’s why I bought the Collected Poems. Because I already knew I would read and re-read them. I’ve not started yet. I have to finish my rationed reading of the Collected U A Fanthorpe. That’ll take another month, but then I can start on David Constantine..and all on the basis of his reading in a cafe/bistro in a monumental former carpet mill in Halifax.
And to finish my ‘week’, the Albert Poets in Huddersfield. I’ve rarely heard a poor reader there, one who mumbles, or faffs about, or does the ‘poet voice’. but from Thursday night’s readings, among many good things, I want to pick out two. One of the guest poets was Tom Cleary, who read a poem about his father, about the terror of being brutally interrogated during the Irish Civil War, about being repeatedly beaten, about the demand that he SPEAK. Now, I can signal that this word is important. I can capitalise it. I could surround it with white space speak but what I can’t do with written text is what Tom Cleary could do in performance, in the line that dissects the phonics of the word, and then in the performance of those phonic elements inthat one syllable. And then in the silence that he let surround it, so that you had to understand its bleak irony, and the ambiguities of Tony Harrison’s line:
“in the silence that surrounds all poetry”.
When this poem is finally in print I shall buy it. The same is true of a poem that David Borrott read, and equally, it will be because of hearing it as the writer heard it (I believe) in his own mind. David’s poem was written around a childhood memory, an anecdote of being caught by the incoming tide on the mudflats of Southend. Why was it important to hear it in performance? Because the voice is that of a child refracted through the memory of the adult. The child has no language for the enormity of what is happening as the cold sea rises above waists and chests…and makes one anyway. Like Riddley Walker in Hoban’s astonishing novel. All the bafflement of how we got into and out of this near-drowning was there in David’s reading. So, on the evidence of this week at least, there’s no default poetry voice around my bit of Yorkshire, and I understand what Lemn Sissay meant about closing a gap, about moving, and being moved.
Which brings me handily to our guest for this week. Because I heard Ian Harker reading at Mark Connors’ Word Club at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds, and I knew straight off that I wanted him to let us have some poems for the cobweb. He reads with that clarity and confidence that I like, readings that follow the meaning of the poem and let the rhythms work as understated counterpoint or harmony, He can do drily ironic, too. He has great timing. And he means what he’s reading. So here he is:
Ian Harker’s poems have appeared in magazines including Agenda, Stand, Other Poetry, and The North. He has been Highly Commended in the Bridport Prize, and has been shortlisted in the Troubadour and Guernsey International prizes.
His debut collection ‘The End of the Sky’ was a winner of the Templar Book & Pamphlet Award in 2015, and his first full collection, ‘Rules of Survival’, is forthcoming through Templar. I asked him to say a little about the influences that have gone into his poetry…I suspect that what he writes about Paul Durcan put the seed for the introduction to this post in my mind. This is what he says about himself:
“For me, a poem always starts when a voice starts speaking. It usually begins with a first line, or at least phrase. From then on, I try and work in what I admire in other people’s poetry. Much as I dislike him personally (and politically) I can’t get away from TS Eliot – the energy and intensity of his poetry up until ‘The Hollow Men’ is stunning.
Then there’s Louis MacNeice: he gets a bit of a raw deal because of Auden, but in a celestial poetry slam, I reckon Louis could beat Wystan poem-for-poem. I love the way he bends meaning to snapping-point, the way his poems quiver on the edge of sense. That, and the way he brings everyday speech – clichés and jargon into his poems. He picks up language we’ve hardly noticed ourselves using and turns them into poetry. Also his moral energy: he lived and wrote through the worst years of the 20th century, and I think all his poems are really trying to work out what the bloody answer was to so much brutality and crushing of spirit.
Finally (probably most of all) there’s Paul Durcan. I heard him read at Beverley Literature Festival in 2010, and I’ll never forget it. What I adore most about his work is the ways he finds to come at a subject. He’s always completely unexpected, surprising, but by the end of the poem you feel that how Durcan’s written the poem is the most completely perfect way to express just the thing he was driving at. That, and the fact that he can be laugh-out-loud hilarious in one line, then deadly serious the next; in fact he can be both at the same time. (I think this is what I noticed about Ian’s own poems too, when I heard him read in December)
So here we go. Ian’s sent me three poems to share with you. They are all from the upcoming pamphlet. As soon as it’s out, I’ll publicise it on the cobweb. It’s one to look out for. How do I know? because I’ve heard his reading.
Urban legend: Astronauts
They say it sends you crazy –
a range of hills at your back,
the ground ahead not much more
than an ellipse and you’re staring back
at everything you’ve ever known.
And what you thought was black
when you stood in the yard staring up
at the tailfins of meteors
or the appendix scar of Hale-Bopp
or the moon that’s now inches
from the soles of your feet
is in fact a solid wall of starshine
reflecting in the goldfish glass of your helmet
and you feel like you felt learning to swim
when your mom took her arms away
and the human mind is very very small.
I think I like everything about this artful, deceptively simple poem, one that make this reader dizzy with its queasily shifting perspectives, the uncertainty about just where we are and how we got here. The physical dislocation comes along with metaphysical and emotional ones, as the the ground that appeared close turns to a ‘solid wall of starshine‘ which, I suppose, is anything but solid; as the grown-up astronaut becomes a child, and ‘it’ clearly does make ‘you’ crazy’. And, by the way, I’d have given much to have come up with that oddly precise image: the appendix scar of Hale-Bopp…..there was a comet visible in daylight, and its tail as pale as a healed scar. Wonderful.
It struck me that Ian’s poems have that knack of making you see things differently, surprising you into all sorts of reappraisals by unexpected shiftes of perspective..and equally of assuming the voices that allow him to do that. Which is why I especially enjoyed the voice of the next poem.As I alsdo enjoyed the title, and, hard on its heels, the first line…I think of both of them as poential competition winners, ones to snag the unwary reader’s attention.And then the gradual discovery of the narrator’s voice and his subterfuges. Another to read aloud for yourself.
The caretaker compares himself to the happiest man alive
Freddie Mercury employed a butler
to serve cocaine on a silver salver.
Me, however – I’ve been a caretaker
for thirty years, give or take –
I had a spell
as Creative Director
of the Royal Opera House,
Covent Garden –
but now I’ve got to get up at half six
and work one Saturday in four, locking doors,
unlocking doors, switching off lights, moving chairs
for layabout provincial thespians.
But you get free tickets they say down the pub –
not seeing that I got free tickets at Covent Garden
but would give them away to incredulous
Community Support Officers,
who doubtless sold them on eBay.
the Happiest Man Alive
does not have to get up at half six
or work one Saturday in four and does not have to put up
with the square outside full of ladyboys.
How I wish I was caretaker for the ladyboys,
the ladyboys who come every year from Bangkok –
all the way from Bangkok and I would come with them
and move not chairs and water-coolers
but armfuls and armfuls of sequin bodices,
piles of lilies, stargazer lilies making me sneeze
and lashing my new tan with sticky bitter welts –
on my arms, my shoulders, the teeshirt I bought in Dortmund
so that when I go on my break and stand in the rain
smoking a fag people look at me strangely
covered in suntan and pollen and I smile and say
Yes! I am caretaker to the ladyboys
of Bangkok! And I’m on my fag break!
The Happiest Man Alive!
He seems a deliberately untrustworthy narrator..there are characters like him in Camus. What I’m uneasy about is who is being taken for a ride. But if he is a conman, he’s a conman with an absurd dream that makes me smile.
The last poem is more lyrical, but like the previous two, you (I?) can’t be quite confident about the perspective, although I know the voice is urgent.
That first summer other boys
were tight shadows,
static at the tips of my fingers
till out of a steel-white sky
that could have been cold to the touch
came you – blue like Krishna.
No one else knew.
No one could see the cobalt stream
from under your shirt. I was hot
in a school jumper but my eyes,
closed like a corpse’s, opened
and found you – dancing
if you did but know it
at the end of the sky,
at all the far reaches.
And everywhere around you abundance –
petals and filigree, water
through dry earth.
And a point of light under your hand
where all the other light started.
Decide who it is who’s talking to you. I’m not sure, and I haven’t heard Ian Harker reading this one. But I want to. At least I can thank him for being our guest on the cobweb this Sunday, and promise we’ll buy the pamphlet as soon as it’s available.