Promises to keep and apologies to make; it’s been too long since the last post. I may be part-Troll. I may be like Detritus in Terry Pratchett’s stories…our brains don’t work in hot weather.
I’ve also been distracted by disparate things. Like a cat going missing so I spend days of high anxiety, posting 150 “Have You Seen This Cat?” leaflets through the doors of the neighbourhood, and driving round at one 0’clock in the morning, whistling and calling. All’s well, as it is with cats. He comes wandering in, insouciant and unperturbed, but I can’t stand the stress.
I wrote in June: I’ve been trying to juggle the availabilities of 7 guest poets against those of four or five possible venues. It’s like herding cats and knitting fog. I’m in open-mouthed admiration of anyone who manages to run a poetry festival. How are they sane afterwards? Right now I’ve not managed to book a single venue. At this rate I’ll be putting it off till September. We shall see. Well, I made all the arrangements. Lovely venues like the stunning Halifax Central Library which is stitched into the even more stunning Piece Hall, and also the splendid Hyde Park Book Club in Leeds. I bought drinks and nibbles and napkins and paper plates..all that. I ordered too many books from the printer. I had not allowed for hot weather nor for football. It was a delight to read with wonderfully talented poets…Gaia Holmes, Vicky Gatehouse, Alicia Fernandez , Tom Weir, Ian Harker. It was a shame that we almost outnumbered the audience. But gods bless the ones who came, anyway. Was it worth it? Yes. It’s always worth it. Why write, otherwise. And there’s still one launch reading to go. Fingers crossed.
There’s been furniture moving, and painting and decorating, and mixing cement and raking-out and pointing, too. Some wall mending, thrown in, and more to come. It all distracts from ‘the work’, and the less you write, the less you write, and then you get frustrated, you lose all the carefully hoarded vestiges of serenity, and you might just lose your temper and do something(s) you regret.
Which brings us to apologies, and couple of thoughts about anger. A couple of weeks ago I wrote something on Facebook (since deleted) that was silly and intemperate. I’d read an elegantly written piece about Melania Trump’s stupidly tasteless coat with its allegedly post-mod ironic slogan about ‘not caring’.What made me cross was that someone took the the time to write smart piece of semiotic deconstruction when what I fervently believed was needed was a simple statement: this is wrong, immoral; only a stupid person with zero sense or empathy could have worn it in those circumstances . So I wrote something cross and ill-thought which brought deserved gentle rebukes from two poets who I have immense respect for, and left me uselessly rueful for a couple of days. Blake wrote :
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
Blake explains that,
Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion,
Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil.
Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing
from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.
Now you can unpick those paradoxes for hours, but the fact remains that there is useful anger that is channelled, and there is crossness and rage which is useless and makes you ill. As the King James Bible says:
“He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down and without walls” so “let not the sun go down upon your wrath”.
And all this, after my mea culpa, brings me to today’s guest poet, David Spencer.
David is not primarily a “poet”. This is important. Born in Halifax, he is a dramatist and has been creative writing tutor at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg, Burgtheater Wien and the University of Arts in Berlin. His numerous plays were staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg, Volksbühne Berlin. The first time I heard him read was at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield, and he didn’t so much read as perform. His poems are more often than not, I think, soliloquies, and are written, consciously or not, as you would write for performance. They are like a score or a script, waiting for a performer who who understands who the narrator is and what motivates him or her. A bit later, in a Monday writing workshop, he took me to task over my reliance on similes, on not being plain and clear. It’s a blast of fresh air, that kind of challenge. It reminds me that I can’t be doing with arguments about what poems are, or aren’t or should be, and the either/or of some small corners of the poetry world. I deeply distrust the exclusivity of definitions that allow a lyricist I know to to casually dismiss Tony Harrison’s work as if he wasn’t in a great tradition of rhetorical poetry. I want to say as plainly as I can, pace T S Eliot’s ‘a poem should not mean but be’, that I think we are better served by asking not what a poem, any poem, is, but what it does, and how it does it, and if it does it well. I’m reminded, too, that Eliot also said that poems are best read ‘on the page’, whereas for me (and for most of history) poetry is performative, and poems are a synthesis of script and musical notation and pattern and ideas and beliefs and emotion. And, sometimes, anger.
Like this one. I can see it on a stage without props and with hard lighting. Or as a film in monochrome. It can’t be left on a page to be ‘looked at’ and considered and thought about. It has to be heard. And perhaps as an ensemble piece. Three voices.
Last night a seething son
clambered cemetery railings;
last night, I stalked us Dad
and lost me way again.
Last night, under an indifferent moon
yer brother pissed pails
over us Dad’s grave. Last night
if he phoned you, erase the mails,
delete the texts, never read’em.
Last night, he loved yer all again.
* * *
What yer bother’s tryin’t say is:
us childhood, it’s a brick
by wood brick built tower
what wobbles and topples and… .
* * *
Remember Saturday nights? Hammer Horrors
on us portable black n’white?
Us three: wired on crisps
with them little blue sacks a’salt.
Us three: fizzed on Dandelion and Burdock
and Mum, cancering her lungs
at us front room window, praying fierce:
“God Sammy, God! Be on the fuckin’ bus.”
Her at tea time? She wanted him home
before the bookie blew his pay packet
Gone Midnight? Well? If the booze
hasn’t blasted his Barnardo’sbrain
right back to World War Two
then just havin’ him home’ll do.
* * *
F’me: It comes down t’Sunday mornings;
the pale-blue linger of Number 6.
F’me: It’s you two, dressed for Methodists
in semi-synthetic micro minis.
F’me: it’s you two, Sundays,
at the top o’the stairs.
F’me: it’s yer oddly angelic feather cuts
and yer oddly grown up eyes.
Yeah. F’me: it’s you two in
crocheted lime-green Rayon
* * *
Trust me: it’s all unriddled in me dream,
that one where us Dad dyes me pubic hair
day-glow green. And I leg it in t’yer bedroom
sayin’: “Look! Look what he’s done.”
And you two show me yours, chant together:
“It’s alright. He’s done it to us all now.”
* * *
Some-when somewhere in the nineties?
Whose wedding? I watch yer husband’s
stalk yer squealing daughters
ambush them behind the bush
chase, pounce, lift and spin
them up and out in centripetal bliss.
Then off into the woods they shoot,
girls under their arms like rugby balls.
And I ask the two of you: Do you remember
Sundays? At the top o’the stairs
trying to decide
who’s turn it was t’go inside his bedroom.
It’s a distinctive voice ( or voices) with a particular Northern accent, and David has written about this when discussing his play from the 1980s: Releevo
I grew up on a council estate, sixties and seventies; we had a neighbour out the back of our garden; she killed her husband, invited his drinking pals into her house for a chat with his corpse. After three days she was dragged screaming from the house. I remember the policeman on a ladder and her screaming “y’can’t take him off me!” I remember her pushing the ladder away from the bedroom window and the copper toppled into the privet below.
They say drugs were involved – that could have been anything; back then on a Northern council estate even THC containing substances were seen as something uniquely wicked. I never really found out what happened but the mystery of the situation intrigued me; later I learnt that she served only a two year suspended sentence and became a local Labour politician. My play, RELEEVO started as a way of answering something that I couldn’t research or really fathom; it then became something else completely.
At the time I was fiercely conscious of class and had this un-reflected hatred of all things that were not proletarian; of course I was fascinated too by all such things, drawn to them. But for sure I didn’t want any middle class Southerners mucking this up, so I thought fuck this, “am gunna write it as yew’ve t’say it.”
I hold on to that last line whenever I read a new poem of his. It’s important to him as the the controlled anger that propels some of his poems. And also the tenderness. Like that in the next poem
The Red Dog
Down over the cliffs from Siddal Infants
Walsh’s dye works spews purple into the Hebble.
Close to the sluice, the red dog churns in the torrent.
Behind the milk crates, Phil Radcliffe shows Pauline Hurst
his thingy, says: Mr Mason put his thingy in Miss Crabtree’s thingy,
now there’s a pregnant growing inside her.
Young Spanner knows nowt about that sexy-sex stuff,
he watches the red dog spiral in the eddy,
go under, bob up, beetroot and bloated.
What caught me in this poem was the way he can use a single image around which the poem turns, in this case, the bloated dog turning pointlessly in the current, and the way a character can be realised by his response to the moment. You know a lot about Young Spanner, you think. You think you know how and why he watches, without knowing why he seems ‘apart’ or ‘cut off’. I like the economy of it all. David can make you smile, too. Or even grin..the next poem is a family story. A true one.
At Us Kitchen Table
When our Nick wed into the Carter clan,
their John took the bus to Sunny Bank,
walked the line down Hunter Hill
all the way to Mixenden, a Martin on his back.
It were us auntie Sandra what clocked him:
out the corner of us curtains, “the Man in Black,
coming down us garden path.” Then, ‘bang! Bang! Bang!’
at us side door. Mum gets to it before Sandra, “Hello,”
he sez, “I’m Johnny Cash.” “Oooh,” sez Mum, “I know who you are.”
Then there he is, at us kitchen table, us new uncle John;
“Would you like a cuppa?” auntie Sandra sez and uncle John,
he sez, “Mouth’s mighty dry Maa’m, I don’t mind if I do.”
Jim Caruth called his Poetry Business winning Pamphlet The death of narrative because another poet told him that narrative was dead. I was told pretty well, by another famous poet, that narrative isn’t the real deal. Except she characterised it as “the anecdote, the conversation at the bus-stop” which was all very well in its place but that place was probably not ‘poetry’. And I thought well, if it’s true, that’s me stuffed. But it isn’t true. One of the poems David read the first time I heard him was about an encounter on a train travelling through Germany. He meets an older Jewish woman who shows him the tattooed number on her arm, and for a second they’re drawn into a small conspiracy in the corridor of a train. I think you could make short films of David’s poems, because of the sure focus on the visual moment, and the time you imagine passing around them. One more poem then. This one also set in Germany, and one he performs with rare passion. A poem of useful anger.
We Came to Lay Flowers
with the written permission of the Berlin police,
three hundred of us, here for comrade Mathilde
as she was there for comrade Rosa. We are to the left
and we are in the right, as comrade Jakob was
in the Altnazizeit.
And now, a delegation, the cops say a delegation;
just three of us may enter the Tiergarten town hall.
We say: “All of us or none of us, we came to lay flowers.”
Negotiators negotiate. We crank the lautie louder
“Fuck, fuck, fuck the police! Fuck, fuck, fuck the police!”
We are AntiFa, we are Black Block; we are Green Partei, PDS,
we are SPD, members of the Jewish community; my Germany.
Riot squads down visors, hammer shields, “Fuck, fuck, fuck
the police!” deploy CS gas, water cannon, elite Hessische
snatch bulls; I have seen this shit before:
Belfast, South Africa House, the Miners’ Strike, G8 summit.
With their telescopic whips, their tonfas, they will hurt us.
We are afraid but we are AntiFa: “Fuck, fuck, fuck the police!”
Five to our one, they kettle in; we are AntiFa, we do not run;
we came to lay flowers.
For comrade Mathilde Jacob, Rosa Luxemburg’s secretary and friend; (born, 8 of March 1873 and murdered 14 of April 1943, Theresienstadt.)
I was thinking before I wrote this piece that there is so much to be rightly angered about, from mindless validations of racist violence by powerful men, the brutal separation of children from parents, the needless and pointless deaths of disabled people by the withholding of benefits, the genocides of Palestine and Yemen, the sustained attacks on truth in the MSM…on and on. I have never known a time of so much hate, and we need people who can confront it with controlled anger and empathy for the wronged. We need poets who can write it. So thank you, David Spencer for being our guest today. Keep on insisting that we will lay flowers even if we have to fight to do it.