Catching up: Mike di Placido’s “Alpha”

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A day late. This is becoming habitual and worrying. Mea culpa. Again. However, it’s Monday morning..sleeves rolled up, best intentions tidily laid out where I can see them, and a poet I like a lot to be introduced. Here we go.

And here’s a question. How many established poets can you name who are equally good at writing funny poems, and poems that are, for the want of a better word, serious? I can name lots of poets who are very good at writing funny poems, but who lapse into sentimentality or worse when they aim at ‘seriousness’. I think Pam Ayres is one, and Les Barker another. There are serious poets who sometimes aim at ‘funny’ and miss by a mile. The ones who do both well are few and far between. Carol Ann Duffy managed both in The World’s Wife. Roger McGough has always managed it, and so has Ian McMillan. In fact, I think our guest poet today occupies the same kind of emotional and topographical territory as McMillan; I think, when you’ve read some of the poems, you’ll agree.

I first heard him before I heard of him…at the Albert Poets in Huddersfield, one of four poets that included Kim Moore. And, like Kim, I was a fan straight off. He’s got a stand-up comedian’s dry delivery and sense of timing. He knows how to deliver a line. Low-key and quick on his feet. There are poets who do a lot of self-publicising. Mike Di Placido isn’t one of them..all light under bushels  and low profile. So, if he won’t blow his own trumpet, I’ll blow one for him. Because how many ex-international footballers do you know who write poetry? How many poets do you know who’ve been shortlisted four times in the PB Pamphlet Competition? 

Mike lives in the village of Seamer, near Scarborough, North Yorkshire. He is an ex-professional footballer and England Youth International – although that time seems to be, increasingly, like some previous incarnation.
His debut pamphlet, Theatre of Dreams (Smith/Doorstop: 2009), takes its title from his trial with Manchester United in the early seventies, recorded in snapshots of Busby, Stiles, Law and, not least, his fourth person of The Trinity, George Best.
After peddling his soccer wares from York City to Australia and New Zealand in the mid-seventies, Mike returned to study, eventually taking an MA in Poetry at Huddersfield University, in 2000, while working as a househusband
His second collection, A Sixty Watt Las Vegas (Valley Press 2013), features poems in celebration of his home town of Scarborough, North Yorkshire. His third collection, Crow flight across the sun ( Calder Valley Poetry 2017) is Mike’s tribute to Ted Hughes and also a thank you to Keith Sagar who read his early poems and encouraged him to keep writing. His poetry has appeared in magazines such as Pennine Platform, The Rialto and his spiritual home The North; and also in Poetry Anthologies by Templar Poetry, Poetrypf and Valley Press. His poems have been shortlisted four times in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition [!!]and once for The Bridport Prize (2012). 
He says he also still harbours a lifelong ambition to be a Frank Sinatra impersonator on a cruise ship. Which brings us neatly to Alpha, his latest collection [Poetry Salzburg 2020]. Another question. If you lived, however briefly, in a land of giants how would it be to return to the world of the everyday? 

Steve Ely (I’ll rely on him a lot in this post) put it better when he wrote that :Theatre of Dreams and Crow Flight across the Sun are characterised by a gently self-deprecating tone in which the author adopts the persona of an unexceptional everyman figure, doomed to fall short of the unattainable standards of his heroes. Theatre of Dreams contains a poem in which a speaker resigned to his quotidian life nevertheless wishes he could be more like Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood

I think this is what colours all the poems in Alpha, and the rueful (and wry, and sardonic, and comic) voice of its final poem

Alpha

I’d like to be 

an alpha male – but do you think

the others would mind?

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When it comes to the stellar and the alpha the collection is multifariously wide ranging. Steve Ely again , from his cover endorsement of Alpha:

Themed around an impossibly wide-ranging array of alpha male heroes, anti-heroes and celebrities (Al Pacino, Harald Hardrada, Paul McCartney, Barry Bucknell, Muhammad Ali, and Nostradmus to name but a few), the poems are written from the perspective of …..a never-quite-made-it, beta male persona looking wistfully and sometimes enviously at their achievements. 

Di Placido’s perennial heroes – George Best, Lionel Messi, Ted Hughes, Frank Sinatra – make their appearances too. But alongside these are other literary heroes – John Ashbery, John Keats, R. S. Thomas, Simon Armitage and John Masefield,  and all of them approached in a range of forms all handled with impressive technical dexterity. Ann and Peter Sansom sum the whole thing up thus:

“Such a pleasure, Mike Di Placido’s poems, funny, often moving and completely unlike anyone else’s. Full of story too and told in such a distinctive voice it’s like an audiobook.”

I’ve though hard and long about this post…certainly for too long…not least about how to select poems that will give you a sense of its range. I chose four, eventually. The first is one I’ve heard Mike read almost like a throwaway line between poems, much in the way an AngloSaxon scop would give you a big list of a king’s virtues while he mentally rehearsed the next bit of the narrative.

Usain Bolt

He wouldn’t live with me 

down the back lane from the chippie

to our ’ouse .

I’d leave him for dead over

the first ten yards, for a start,

and he’d never dodge the wheelie bin

outside no 13

or know to jump that hole in the tarmac

near our hedge.

I’d be waving bye-bye

on the right-hand camber 

down the path to our door.

And when he came in –

panting and sheepish to the kitchen –

the kettle’d already be on.

Usain Bolt?

Hmphh…

I’ve always liked the cheek of it, the insousiance and the casually dismissive ‘hmphh’. The pace of it all, the detail, and the way it stage manages its own performance is lovely. I leave you to imagine the timing of the last two lines….it’s an oral poem. You have to do it aloud.

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The next one, like another about Tiresias, assumes a camaraderie with an iconic figure, and an assumption that his lot is pretty awful much in the way of a king who can touch nothing he loves because it will turn, uselessly, to gold.

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Nostradamus

He couldn’t have enjoyed his gift. Imagine:

loving the one who’ll give you herpes 

(or worse); that over there’s the burger bar

that’s going to leave you heaving for a week! 

And you couldn’t put a bet on or go fishing:

winning all the time would bore you rigid

and what to do between the expected

bites and nibbles on your line? 

You’d be a nervous wreck, expecting

toothaches, dead legs, bashing funny bones…

paranoid too: called a prat behind your back

then smiled at – and that’s from your mates!

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Then the big stuff: plagues, earthquakes, eclipses, 

the Antichrist arriving by taxi. He didn’t need it!

Got pissed off, being the high priest of prescience,

nights waking up in a cold sweat because

some prince or pope’s about to croak it.

So he decided enough was enough: retired 

to a place in the country where he cultivated

amnesia. Settled for the obvious:

full moons, sunrises, sunsets,

winters unlocking into summers;

took himself off the hook, grew cabbages, 

changed his name. 

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When I read this I can imagine that when he changed his name it might just well be di Placido, and has retreated with the poet into his shed, settling for the wonderful obvious, the daily, seasonal miracles. This is one of those that reminds me of his kinship with Ian McMillan, the sense of fun combined with an essential emotional seriousness.

Next up, I wanted a poem from Mike’s own landscape and its history. I’m intrigued by the sympathy the narrator seems to have for Hardrada, who in 1066 landed with a force of 10,000 warriors and 250 longships, maurauded down the the Northumbrian and Cleveland coast, allegedly burned down the town of Scarborough, and was finally killed in a berserk state at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Harald, the embodiment of everyone’s idea of a Viking warrior, I guess. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that if the forces of Harold of Wessex had not had to make forced marches to oppose Hardrada and then to move at speed all the way down to Hastings, the Normans may not have won, and England would be a different nation. However, the narrator has the same sympathetic, if qualified respect for Hardrada as some of us feel for Richard, at Bosworth, say.

Hardrada in Scarborough Bay

September, 1066

The North Bay, at anchor

rocking on a full swell.

The smell on board’s a crew-full 

of men – but you’re used to that –

and anyway, the brine in the wind

and the water sorts that out, 

as you stare into the offing

and the looming scar of rock ahead, 

weighing the level of resistance, if any, 

when the prows of your dragonships

bite the beach.

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You know what it’s like

to bide your time in a bay, 

to wait for the moment, the right moment, 

before you’re off and in –

but this is different: 

because you’re Hardrada, Harold 

Hardrada (the Ruthless), to be exact;

and those dreams you’ve been having,

and those dragons in the night skies

are giving even you pause for thought –

you, who have never admitted to fear 

and who, now, as then, can tell no one.

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But how could you know of the force

that will butcher you and your men just

days from now, or how they, in turn, 

will be slaughtered shortly after?

And so you stare into sea flint,

then up into the boiling welkin

and the wrath of the gods, wrestling

in vain with these strange runes,

then do what you’ve always done –

act: marshal the fear to work for you,

push on into hell. 

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Finally, a poem that is my favourite in the whole collection. Everything about it is tender, assured. It never puts a foot wrong.

To R.S. Thomas

If poetry can’t cope with what God means in the late twentieth century, then it doesn’t 

deserve to be regarded as a major art form.

                                      R.S. Thomas. The Independent, Saturday 27th February 1993 

I was wondering if, towards the end,

faith’s compass had failed you?

Whether its bleak north proved illusory

(the needle going haywire

in some terrible

re-configuration). I hope not.

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I hope it stayed true to its promise

(though trembling as those needles do);

that what you met there vindicated utterly

the journey towards that

which you’d divined on your peninsula

(as near to heaven as could be without touching)

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or in your verse: those chiselled, austere,

persistent attempts to explain the unexplainable;

views now deemed, at best, ‘old hat’,

precisely because of that.

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Perhaps, though, you’d found it all along –

the journey (not the destination) being the point.

In perfecting your art, you perfected yourself,

knowing

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that that little is more than enough.

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It’s what I mean about Mike di Placido’s ability to be funny and to be serious, and in this case, reverential. I love the use of those tentative parentheses, the qualifications of hope, and the way it turns on the core image of the compass needle, and God as true (if bleak) north

I hope it stayed true to its promise

(though trembling as those needles do)

It’s taken me far too long to catch up with Mike di Placido and Alpha. I find myself finishing with another quotation from Steve Ely.

Alpha is quite a tour-de-force, a delight on every level – these poems are vivid, pro-found, compassionate – and often laugh-out-loud funny.”    

Except that I’d change the order of that sentence. I say:

“these poems are often laugh-out-loud funny. They are also vivid, pro-found, and above all, compassionate.”

Like I said at the beginning, there aren’t that many poets who are both.

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PS. I’d just finished when this stop press piece arrived in my email inbox. So now you have a post like a DVD or a CD, with outtakes and Director’s thoughts. Which is nice

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On Alpha

“I’ve written lots and lots of Alpha-type poems over the years (as well as those in my previous three collections) and, at some point, I had the idea that I could not only lump a lot of them together, but also, through the title poem, set a prism, of sorts, through which the poems could be viewed and notions of Alpha-ness celebrated and, where appropriate, deconstructed and challenged. It seemed incongruently topical, too, in the light of a more questioning time in gender politics – although this was never a main aim, as such, just something which occurred as the book took shape. Also, many pieces which I’ve always had a feeling for and which, for some reason, had never been published or placed anywhere, could have a home at last. Pleasingly, I can also report that some of these pieces – many written at the very start of my writing career, for want of a better word/description – have registered the most positive responses amongst readers, and many of those readers are writers whose work I admire and respect. (The sequence on Wilfred Owen has been accepted by The Wilfred Owen Society, for instance, and will be appearing in one of the Society’s journals later this year.)

Ok, so not a staggering ‘How to’ account of putting a collection together, I grant you, but there you go! Sometimes – most times – I’d say, simplicity can be the key. Interestingly, too, the project seems to have continued since the completion of the book. Those natural bedfellows – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Francis Bacon, Albert Einstein, Norman MacCaig, John Cooper Clark, Kevin McCloud from TV’s Grand Designs and Dick Strawbridge from Escape to the Chateau are all pushing for a place in the second edition of Alpha, which will surely be forthcoming as sales go through the roof…..

Well, I’m nothing if not an unreconstructed optimist! “

If you want to know more about Mike, then try his website. It’s very handsome. Here’s the link

https://www.mikediplacidopoetry.co.uk

The books:

Theatre of dreams:  [smith|doorstop] £5.00

A sixty watt Las Vegas [Valley Press] £7.99

Crow flight across the sun [Calder Valley Poetry] £8.70 incl.p&p

Alpha [Poetry Salzburg] £10.00 +£2.00 p&p

Acknowledgement: The image accompanying Harald Hardrada is by the wonderful Len Tabner. It’s actually a painting done further up the coast. But it’s the right coast, and, I think, exactly the right light.

3 thoughts on “Catching up: Mike di Placido’s “Alpha”

  1. Hey – this stuff’s great! Loved it. I could see “Nostrodamus” fitting in under N to the “When all this is over” pamplet that you initiated, John! Thanks. Jean x

    Like

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