The male gaze (3)…how does your garden grow?

mary 6

I knew I was going to feature one particular poem this week. Imagine my delight when this image popped up on my Facebook page, posted by Mary Gauthier. I was especially grateful for what she wrote underneath it:

“Ok, a day late .. but here it is. My #oldheadshot I don’t remember being that person. I don’t even know where we took this picture. But.. there it is. The shoot was for the release of my Drag Queens In Limousines record. 1998.”

I’ll come back to Drag Queens In Limousines later, but what I lit on was the phrase

                               I don’t remember being that person. 

Someone made that image of her. For a split second it stood for her, represented her, said who she was. Or, at least, someone’s idea of who she was. Now she can’t remember where she was, or who the image belongs to.  We read that image, whether we acknowledge it or not. I might suppose I’m looking at someone  who’s tired, who’s vulnerable and wary. Or maybe at someone who knows exactly who she is, and isn’t about to take shit from anyone. I might read that as a ‘who you looking at look?’. And so on. And I’d be bound to be wrong in one degree or another.

But that’s how it is, isn’t it. We deconstruct and reconstruct, and tell ourselves stories about the people we look at. The moment we see them is a memory instantaneously. Everything shifts. I actually think that that’s a joyous thing, just as it can be dangerous when we make moral judgements and form opinions about who we look at. We can’t help it. It’s the way we’re made. Just so long as we acknowledge this and take responsibility for it. I have another image of Mary G. hanging on the wall in the room where I’m writing.

mary 7

There she is between one of my grandfathers (about whom I wrote a poem that was spectacularly wrong about him and essential part of his biography), multiple Michael Caines, and one of my great aunts. It’s an image she chose to tour with, so I guess it’s one she was happy with, believing that it told the truth about who she was, or wanted to be seen as. Then.

Maybe you’re not into Americana, and  you’ve not heard of her. Well, now you have. Mary Gauthier is one of those who make me optimistic whenever I’m feeling down about where the writing is going, or if it’s worth the effort. I first heard her sing at The Pheasant Inn in Sheffield. It’s a place that in the 90’s used to host many of the Americana musicians like Steve Forbert and the Be Good Tanyas. It wasn’t the most salubrious or glamorous place. I remember queuing outside in late Autumn gloom and drizzle, and then walking through to the concert room via a taproom with a carpet that sucked at your feet, and between young mums who sat with toddlers in prams, and fed them crisps and bright pink drinks. The overall colour scheme was brown in all its variations, the lighting was perfunctory, and the stage was cramped, and too high. And then on comes Mary G. and lights up my night.

One woman with a guitar and a mission. I’ve seen her since in a church in Leeds, in a church hall somewhere in rural Leicestershire with a backdrop painted by the Scouts for a pantomime (where we bought the poster on my wall); above a wine bar in Wakefield. Man, does she work. To my absolute delight she’s battled and battled and worked and worked and now she needn’t work crap bars filled with people who don’t listen.

These days, she’s on radio shows; she plays festivals all over the States and in Europe; she seems to be booked up for every day, forever. And she’s played The Grand Ol’ Opry. Isn’t that something for an artist who’s gay, who’s battled drug addiction, who wrote a song for Karla Faye – executed in Texas to the applause of George Bush, who’s protested that Woody Guthrie never got inducted into the Country Hall Of Fame. She’s brought out a succession of critically acclaimed albums. I guess that helps.

The first album I knew of hers was Drag Queens in Limousines (1999). The first track is the most explicitly autobiographical.

“I stole momma’s car on a Sunday and lit out for good

moved in with some friends in the city in a bad neighbourhood”.

She was born in New Orleans. Born to a mother she never knew, and left in St Vincent’s Women and Infants Asylum, Gauthier was adopted when she was a year old by an Italian Catholic couple from Thibodeaux, Louisiana. At age 15, she ran away from home, and spent the next several years in drug rehab, halfway houses, and living with friends; she spent her 18th birthday in a jail cell. She enrolled in university as a philosophy major, dropping out during her senior year. She opened a Cajun restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay’s neighborhood, Dixie Kitchen, which she ran, and cooked at,  for eleven years. She was arrested for drunk driving in July 12, 1990, and has been sober ever since. After achieving sobriety, she was driven to dedicate herself full-time to songwriting, and embarked upon a career in music. She wrote her first song at age 35.She sold her share in the restaurant to finance her second album, Drag Queens in Limousines, in 1998. (thanks to Wikipedia for the summary)

It was at a gig in Wakefield a few years ago when I heard her tell for the first time the story of her search for her birth mother, and how it led her to St Vincent’s Women and Infants Asylum in New Orleans, which was now a brothel. The bit that I could never get out of my mind was her telling us that the year photographs of the orphans were still on the walls of the quadrangle. Sometimes an image will lodge itself and demand, sooner or later, to be dealt with. It’s also important to know that that a strong thread of Roman Catholic imagery runs through her songs; often and often it centres on concepts of grace and of mercy. I finally sat down to write a poem that would end up in a pamphlet which grew out of the urge to find voices for iconic sculptures …the conceit is that they imprison the souls of fallen angels, and of the transgressive. In this case the story is told by Mary Magdalene as imagined by Donatello. As it happens, this Mary is ruefully aware of more sentimental versions of herself. And she has what I imagine to be a Louisiana accent…that is, I think she sounds like Mary Gauthier. I probably get it wrong.

 

Mary Magdelene and the orphans

Mary, Mary, quite contrary;  how does your garden grow?

 

Right here in this courtyard, there’s a girl

come lookin’ for her childhood. In this house

in New Orleans. May ‘s  well be  the Rising Sun.

Started out an Orphan Home..St Vincent’ Paul

 

With silver bells, and cockle shells

 

It’s a hot-sheet motel now, where girls pull tricks.

And round these courtyard walls –

ain’t no-one thought to have ‘em taken down –

the Orphans’ photos; go back more’n fifty years.

 

and pretty maids all in row

 

She’ll be there, in one of ‘em, this troubled child

whose mother give her up, so long ago.

They stare down, the Orphans, all of them

conceived in love that righteous men call sin.

 

wallflowers, wallflowers, growing up so high

 

Give a girl a bad name and it sticks.

I weren’t no working girl. No sir. No saint,

neither. Maybe I talked too loud. Only

one man saw me as I truly am. Lord, O lord.

 

Them cracker preachers hung him up. Called me

a whore.  Him, I’d a followed till the end

of time. I washed his wounded feet, his hands,

with tears and spikenard and myrhh,

drew the thorns  from out his brow. I closed his eyes.

I dried his lovely body with my hair.

 

we’re all pretty maidens, we’re all set to die

 

There’s a magdalena here. A little worse for wear.

Them pretty golden clothes get tarnished. Still.

Won’t hurt to light a candle, say a prayer

for this lost child, for working girls. For me.

For Mary Magdalena everywhere.

U – biq – uit – ous.  My lord,

ain’t that a word!  I’m stretched so thin. Wore out.

 

 all these fallen souls, these angels, come  to me,

lookin’ for the grace from which they fell.

 

I can’t do nothin’ for them. And it breaks my heart

 

(From Outlaws and fallen angels. [Calder Valley Poetry 2016. £7.00]

 

There’s so much going on in my mind, now.  The pamphlet’s introduced by a quotation from Mary G’s song Camelot Motel. Cheaters, liars, outlaws and fallen angels /come looking’ for the grace from which they fell. The poem is a thank you for her sharing her story. At the time I thought my motive was simple, but on reflection its a lot more complicated and conflicted. I don’t think I quite acknowledged it at the time, but part of her story is that when she finally found her birth mother, her mother wasn’t willing to meet her. Now, as I’ve written before, I had an adopted son who took his own life when he was 21. The day we met him and took him home was also the day we met his birth mother. What would she feel now if she tried to find out what happened to him. What would it do to her? Here I am, writing about a woman who I can’t be said to know, in the voice of a woman whose story I can only guess at, but who has been dreadfully misrepresented down the centuries. And then appropriating an accent that that I only know by listening to Mary Gauthier telling stories between songs. Do I have the right?

There’s a verse in one of her songs, which happens to be a song of amends and atonement. I fell into the space between us / and that’s a long way to fall

 

I’ll leave the question hanging, and equally the question: what kind of gaze is this? Maybe someone will tell me.

In the meantime, go and buy Mary Gauthier’s records.

Discography

  • Dixie Kitchen(1997)
  • Drag Queens in Limousines(1999)
  • Filth and Fire(2002)
  • Mercy Now(2005)
  • Between Daylight and Dark(2007)
  • Genesis (The Early Years)( 2008) – 15 track compilation from the 1st three albums
  • The Foundling(2010)
  • The Foundling Alone(2011) Acoustic Demo’s of songs in development, from The Foundling
  • Live at Blue Rock(2012) 11 mixed new and old tracks plus a hidden Mercy Now
  • Trouble and Love(2014)
  • Rifles and rosary beads (2018)

 

 

 

Stand up and be counted (for Mary Gauthier)

To save me patiently working through this cobweb strand and making minor adjustments, here’s the deal. I wrote most of this on September 17th and planned to post it on Sunday 20th. And then the wonderful Anthony Wilson told me he was putting my Guest Post out on that day. Mirabile dictu!!!!! Fantastic!!!!! Pow!!!!! So this is now coming out a week later than anticipated. So the appearance of the guest poet and polished gem has still to be decided. Cliffhangers, eh? Anyway. The strand for September 7th starts here: just imagine that when I write ‘last week’ it will mean ‘the week before last’, and so on.

cow_poetry

Here starts what I suspect will be an even more rambling post than usual. It’s because I’ve had a couple of 500 mile round trips to read at literature/arts festivals in the last three weeks; I got to read in a brilliant cafe with windows that looked out on a dark sea and a darker mountain; I got to read in a sunlit white room upstairs in a church on the south coast;  I got to thinking how I ever got to this. However did I find myself compering a regular open mic.? However did I find my calendar full of poetry events? Because the Gary Larson ‘Cow poetry’ cartoon pretty much sums up what I imagined poetry readings to be like. I’d been to readings, either by accident, or because poets were booked at teachers’ and advisors’ conferences that I went to when I worked for a living. I got to hear Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Charles Causley..and, I suddenly remember, Wendy Cope, who was splendidly waspish when asked if she’d do an encore. But essentially, those were famous names even though they weren’t necessarily in big venues. No. I’m thinking of open mics. and readrounds in pubs and coffee shops. I came to these  late in life. Here’s the story of how. It’s just a story. No need to take notes. Like I said last week…it’s a no-uniform day.

In the 90’s I started going to singaround folk clubs, because my partner is a fan of singer-songwriters, Americana, acoustic guitar players. These days she gets to guest with her singing partner. I like folk clubs, and guitars and banjos…when it’s done well. Came the day I got asked if I wanted to sing. By someone who had clearly never heard me sing…and then he said, well, next time, maybe you’d like to do a poem. That’s how it started, and how I built up a collection of stuff I could do. What goes down well in folkclubs is poems that rhyme, and poems that are funny, and, preferably, poems that do both. I built up a list of ones that went down well, by people who wrote the kind of poems I still can’t write myself. Pam Ayres, Roger McGough, John Hegley, Matt Harvey, Shel Silverstein, the incomparable Les Barker, and my favourite, McGonagall. I did some of Carole Ann Duffy’s ‘The oldest girl in the world’ (especially, The babysitter). I learned something about getting introductions right for this or that audience, about timing and pauses, and how a bit of redundancy in a poem is what you want to give the audience time to catch up, and, at one club, how to use a mic. to work quietly. All good stuff. But came the day when I’d sat through enough nights where unaccompanied singers sang Authentic Traditional Folksongs with millions of verses and the chorus after every one. They almost always sing flat. Enough nights where beery chaps murdered Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan. I got fed up of the way that many singers have a repertoire of three songs and never vary or learn new ones. I got fed up of Eric Bogle songs, much as I love his own versions. I got fed up of the maudlin false nostalgias.

poetry slam chickens

About this time, I started going to poetry workshops, and I realised that I wanted to read MY poems, and also that they weren’t what would work in a folk club. I didn’t do ‘funny’. Over the last five years I’ve written ones that might work, and I keep them in a folder marked : Stand-ups and stockingfillers. They could turn out useful useful for relieving a bleak sequence. Like I said at Havant last week , I tend to do bleak. Anyway, I started going to poetry nights instead of folk clubs. Thankyou, The Albert Poets for introducing me to so many guests who changed the way I read and think. Julia Deakin, Clare Shaw, Mike de Placido, Char March, Gaia Holmes, John Duffy….all of them. Gradually I got used to signing up for open mic.s, and eventually I got to do guest slots, and finally to find myself co-organising and compering (is that how it’s spelled? The extra ‘e’ looks wrong) The Puzzle hall Poets Live where I got one of my very first guest slots thanks to last week’s polished gem …Gaia Holmes. And now, here we are, writing a weekly poetry cobweb strand. Who’d have known.

However, despite the pleasure I get from this mutually supportive and inspirational bunch of people who constitute the world of small poetry groups, I’ll tell you what I miss. Since I shifted away from the music, I miss the gigs I’ve been to where I’ve seen and listened to talented artists. Tom Russell, Steve Forbert, Slaid Cleaves, Diana Jones, The Waifs, The Be-Good Tanyas, Laura Viers, John Wright………even the legend that is Rambling Jack Elliot, who can casually tell you, en passant, how he did this or that with Woody, or how he got Kris Kristofferson on stage, and so on.What they all had in common, what made them special for me, was that they were working small venues. Pubs, church halls, concert-rooms (as in club concert rooms). They were doing it for not very much, and some of them had been doing it for years. They know how to tell a story, how to work a mic., how to put a mixing desk to rights, how to balance a set, how to warm an audience. They put in hard hours and hard miles; they can be living from hand to mouth, but they go on doing it. You can learn a lot about how to be a guest poet from folk like this.Inspirations all.

Which brings me to Mary Gauthier.

mary g compilation

Maybe you’re not into Americana, and  you’ve not heard of her. Well, now you have. Mary Gauthier is one of those who make me optimistic whenever I’m feeling down about where the writing is going, or if it’s worth the effort. I first heard her sing at The Pheasant Inn in Sheffield. It’s a place that in the 90’s used to host many of the Americana musicians I’ve mentioned earlier. It wasn’t the most salubrious or glamorous place. I remember queuing outside in late Autumn gloom and drizzle, and then walking through to the concert room via a taproom with a carpet that stuck to your feet, and young mums who sat with toddlers in prams, and fed them crisps and bright pink drinks. The overall colour scheme was brown in all its variations, the lighting was perfunctory, and the stage was cramped, and too high (just click on the picture for the full effect. I could swear that piano was at The Pheasant). And then on comes Mary G. and lights up my night. One woman with a guitar and a mission. I’ve seen her since in a church in Leeds, in a church hall somewhere in rural Leicestershire with a backdrop painted by the Scouts for a pantomime, above a wine bar in Wakefield. Man, does she work. To my absolute delight she’s battled and battled and worked and worked and now she needn’t work crap bars filled with people who don’t listen, on stages like the one in the triptych. Now she’s on radio shows; she plays festivals all over the States and in Europe; she seems to be booked up for every day,forever. And she’s played The Grand Ol’ Opry. Isn’t that something for an artist who’s gay, who’s battled drug addiction, who wrote a song for Karla Faye -executed in Texas to the applause of George Bush-, who’s protested that Woody Guthrie never got inducted into the Country Hall Of Fame. She’s brought out a succession of critically acclaimed albums. I guess that helps.

And why am I writing about an American singer-songwriter in a poetry cobweb? Because what she teaches me is that if you want to be any good you work and work and work. You learn from the best, and when it’s all going to hell on a handcart, you grit your teeth and dig in and keep going. And because she writes lines that stand up in any company. I stole momma’s car on a Sunday / and lit out for good / moved in with some friends in the city / in bad neighbourhood. And she did. Aged fifteen. So I’m indulging myself with this big ‘thankyou’. The first time I saw her a long time ago, I wrote a poem and emailed it to her. You know what? The next day, she wrote back and said ‘thankyou’. Star. I’ve rewritten it a few times, and I’ve read it at folkclubs and at poetry readrounds and open mic.s. It’s a poem about one night in Sheffield, and it’s also a poem about her songs. Which makes it, I suppose, an ekphrastic tribute poem. There’s a niche category.

SHOOTING STAR

a cold autumn night and this cold Sheffield bar
smells of 60 watt lighting and yesterday’s beer:
and this lady of the shooting stars
is wondering how she came to be here

with her dreamers and thinkers, her junkies and drinkers
the lovers and dancers, the liars and chancers
the outlaws and angels and whores

in gigs like this in a Thursday night bar,
where the spotlight shines in her eyes.
For a moment she stands there looking lost,
or maybe just looking surprised;

then she unpacks her old blue Taylor guitar
from its scuffed and well-stickered case;
she peers into the 60 watt distance;
and wonders aloud…says: is this the right place?

She fiddles with tunings, tries a coupla chords;
through the mic. comes her quiet country drawl:
hi. I’m Mary Gauthier, from Louisiana;
come here to sing songs for y’all………

and I’m hitching a ride on a back country road
through the landscapes of Mary Gauthier
a ride through another country….
well… they do things differently there:

there’s:

bright lights and lost dreams, poets and drag queens
trailer-trash has-beens, death cells and limousines,
and the angels are falling
and there’s fire in the fields
and places flash past through the windscreen of song
like phrases or rhymes half heard in a dream
Juarez, Las Cruces, Prairie du Chien
Thibodeaux to Raceland…you know what I mean.

And you’re hitching a ride on southern states voice
that sings cool and clear as the moon,
tho’ it isn’t exactly singing
but more like talking in tune

one that lingers on sweet and curdles on sour
holds on to a note like a child plucks a flower
lights on a phrase like a bee on a stem
lets the words run like water held in a cupped palm

or just fades to whispers like a moth in a flame
like the wind in the grasses, like the rain in the pines
like the hushing of tyres when the wet blacktop shines……

so thanks for your leaving home stories
and the roads you’ve travelled before
the poets, the dancers ,the lovers, the chancers,
the angels, the liars, the burned- out high fliers,
the drinkers, the thinkers, the junkies, the whores;

yeah….. here’s thanks for the ride, Mary Gauthier;
the journey was over too soon.
I’m still listening to shooting-star stories.
Still singing along to your tune.

You can follow Mary Gauthier via her website. Google it. You can travel round the States and Europe with her. Go listen to the music. But make sure to start with Drag queens in limousines’  because that was the one that did it for me. And then you can hear the rest:

Discography

  • Dixie Kitchen (1997)
  • Drag Queens in Limousines (1999)
  • Filth and Fire (2002)
  • Mercy Now (2005)
  • Between Daylight and Dark (2007)
  • Genesis (The Early Years) ( 2008) – 15 track compilation from the 1st three albums
  • The Foundling (2010)
  • The Foundling Alone (2011) Acoustic Demo’s of songs in development, from The Foundling
  • Live at Blue Rock (2012) 11 mixed new and old tracks plus a hidden Mercy Now
  • Trouble and Love (2014)

I just looked at my planning notes and realise this wasn’t what I set out to write. I guess I should make sure I make up for it next week. It’ll be about poetry readings. It may well turn out to be one of those poetry posts about what to do and what not to do. It may step on toes. I will think about that. And then, the week after, we’ll be having a proper poetry guest, and it will not be a non-uniform day. See you all next Sunday. Run and skip if you like. It’s a no-uniform day today.

I just read this last paragraph. Forget some of it. Next week we have a guest poet. From the Midlands. So.Collars, ties and proper shoes. No trainers. Don’t be late.

Video killed the radio star

ballad-long_584x237

Well, it’s a grey rainy bank Holiday, and I’m writing this so it’ll be all ready when I come back from the Old Olive Press, and tempted to think…didn’t summer use to be, well, summery. But, as Raymond Williams usefully demonstrated * , nostalgias are infinitely regressive. Which is one way of explaining the oblique title of this Sunday’s post. Wasn’t radio supposed to kill reading, put an end to books? And so on. Anyway, I’m writing this in response to a post that Anthony Wilson** put up on his blog recently (I’ve come late to Anthony Wilson, as I come late to most good things, and so I’m relying on the golden oldies from his back catalogue). The one that caught my attention was one about why students say they don’t like poetry.

Now, I think, like he does, that what they’re saying is : they don’t like Poetry, and I think that there are reasons for this that could be laid at the door of teachers (including me), and, a long time before that, Literacy. When I was an English Advisor, I could guarantee that if I visited a Year 5 or a Year 6 class, sooner or later a group of girls (almost always girls) would want to perform something for me, and (almost always) it would be Alan Ahlberg’s Please Mrs Butler. Nobody made them learn it, nobody suggested they learn it, but learn it they did, and performed it to anyone who stopped long enough to be an audience. I learned it, too: Please, Mrs Butler, this boy Derek Drew keeps taking my rubber, Miss what can I do? And then in comes the voice of Mrs Butler, in this brilliant rhyming call and response poem for two voices. I didn’t try to learn it; it just happened slowly, through repetition.

Another memory. When I was Secondary English teacher and form tutor I used to enjoy, enormously, the way (mainly) girls would copy the lyrics of pop songs from ‘Smash Hits’ into their journals and jotters. In coloured felt pen. Why? nobody made them. Why copy them? They could have cut them out and stuck them in. These were kids who would have been indignant if I asked them to copy out Poems. But, of course, these were poems. It’s just that nobody called them that, so it was OK. But why copy them out? Why, to learn them. We can all learn from that. I used to wonder why it was mainly girls. I think…I think it’s because then (and I don’t know about now) girls’ play was more collaborative than boys’, and that collaboration was sustained, in part, by poetry. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not pushing a nostalgic view of childhoood, but I was 16 when the Opies’ ‘Lore and language of schoolchildren’ was published in 1959, and a lot of the playground rhymes,  for  counting-out and skipping and ball-bouncing, were still alive and well in the 60s as my own children were growing up. I’m not too worried if they’ve been displaced by whatever advertising jingle or popsong has been appropriated and subverted by today’s children. It’s all part of the long revolution.

Literacy has a curious and occasionally disturbing history. For how long was it the monopoly of the church? And then a shared monopoly with the ruling elites? There was no universal literacy before the invention of cheap mass print technology and universal education. And even then, a peer of the realm in the 19th century, debating the education of the labouring classes, conceded that they needed to be taught to read, because they would need to read instructions (about the management of machinery, for instance), but there was no point in teaching them to write, because they would never issue any.

So where’s this taking us? This isn’t a scholarly affair…I’m just saying, without any originality, that poetry is older than prose because it’s older than reading and writing. Its heart and soul is rhythm, and the point about rhythm is that it’s patterned and repetitive. Children teach us this, but I wonder if we listen hard enough.What did rhythm help people to do for thousands of years before writing? It helped them, through songs and chants, to work collaboratively, to move huge loads, raise sails, keep straight lines in planting and harvesting fields. It helped them to celebrate with continuity the important things like birth and death and marriage. It gave them communal memories through the stories of victories and defeats, floods, fires, famines, and myths and legends. If these couldn’t be written down, then they had to be memorised. Stories had to be memorisable as well as memorable. Which is why we needed rhythm and repetition (just like times tables) and then the clever invention of rhyme that underscored rhythm and also helped the storyteller to remember the next line. The Odyssey, and Beowulf, had to be memorised. As did the parts of the Miracle Plays performed by artisans, not scholars.

Poetry was a creation of voice and sound and performance, social, collaborative, and democratic. At some point, in our culture at least, it became Poetry, and Private, and individual and exclusive. Of course, the original morphed through broadsheet ballads, and music hall songs, and pop songs and all the rest of the shared, popular, rhyming, repetitive languages we entertain ourselves with, and somehow stopped being poetry and became popular culture. Poets threw a white light on the obscenity of the First World War, while the soldiers subverted hymns and musical hall songs and sang ‘When this lousy war is over’ and ‘We are Fred Karno’s army’ and ‘Hush, here comes a whizzbang’ much as schoolchildren appropriated Charlie Chaplin and Tarzan into older song-patterns, and the Beatles into ‘We three kings’. And no-one wrote it down for them, or made them learn it.

All of this is taking me towards some of the ambivalence I have about my own writing and the things people have said about it, and to thinking about the relationship of Poetry, and stand-up poets, and performance poets, and written and oral poetry, and whether I should worry about it. Why should I bother about T S Eliot’s assertion that poetry exists on the page, when I didn’t understand ‘The Waste Land’ till I heard it being read aloud?

cooper clark 2

 

Maybe, here’s where I got conflicted. I started reading poems, publicly, in folk clubs, where poems are often called monologues. I didn’t read my own poems, because I wasn’t writing any. My heroes were John Cooper Clark and Les Barker. I plundered the collections of Pam Eyres and Roger McGough; I did McGonagall, John Hegley (especially Rowena), Marriot Edgar. So long as it was robust, had a narrative line and made people laugh it was fine. If it rhymed, then so much the better. I learned that it helps if there are repetitions and redundancies that give the audience a space to take it all in; ditto, places to pause and let the jokes and surprises work. When I thought I might write my own, it turned out to be a lot harder than it looked. There’s craft in these poems.

If you ever get to see the DVD of  Evidently John Cooper Clark, you’re in for an eyeopener. Clarky is more than happy to say that he learned his trade from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury…and then does an impromptu performance of Henry Newbolt’s Vitae Lampada.…that fantastic piece of Kipling-esque jingo, the desert sand red with the blood of English soldiery, the Gatling jammed and the Colonel dead, and the only thing that will rally them is an English public schoolboy, exhorting the chaps to Play up, play up, and play the game!. This is John Cooper Clark, and he’s being entirely sincere. Think on that.               Well, I gave up going to folk clubs because I started going to poetry workshops, and writing poems that simply didn’t stand up in the way that a folk club audience expect. Started going to poetry readings instead. And started wondering about what makes a poem work in an open mic. Because quite a lot of them don’t. You know the kind of thing I mean…when you don’t know if a poem’s finished or not, because there’s no sign off, like a couplet, or there’s a poem you simply can’t take in because by the time you start to realise it’s started it’s finished, or because there’s no resting place. And often because there’s no context. What I always like in a poet or a singer-songwriter is a bit of a story that places the song or the poem.

I’d love to know what your take is on all this. Somewhere along the line, I found I tended to write anecdotal/narrative poems, and that I had a default rhythm…which was iambic (pentameter). People started to say they recognized my ‘voice’. That was nice, but recently I was knocked sideways by a comment someone made in a workshop session. The criticism was that the poem looked too regular and predictable. It LOOKED too regular and predictable? What does that say about a way of reading poems. I didn’t think it SOUNDED predictable. I thought it had a rhythm any reader could hear. But I’m insecure enough to have spent the subsequent weeks trying to write non-narrative, irregular-looking poems. I’m still wobbly about it, even though the business of the ‘look’ of a poem seems important to some, as does the playing about with terza rima and sestinas which strike me  as being akin to flower-arranging on the Titanic. The clever craft of coteries. Maybe I’m sour because I can’t do them, or if I can, I can’t say anything important that way. See what I mean about ‘conflicted’? Because I’m on record about my love of Metaphysical poetry and Tony Harrison. I think I’ve blogged myself into a cul de sac.

Tell you what. I’ll sneak away under cover of a poem I wrote for Mary Gauthier (it’s pronounced Go-Shay) who I first saw playing a dingy pub gig in Sheffield, and who has finally, years later, made the bigtime breakthrough, and this year played the Grand Ol Opry. And at least I wrote one poem that I can do without any qualms at folkclubs and poetry open mics. And Mary G. likes it. Sorry about the rambling…too many arguments going on. But let me know what you think about on-the-page/read-out-loud poetry. Please.

Shooting Star

a cold autumn night and this cold Sheffield bar

smells of 60watt lighting and yesterday’s beer

and this lady of the shooting stars

is wondering how she came to be here

 

with her dreamers and thinkers, her junkies and drinkers

the lovers and dancers, the liars, the chancers

the outlaws and angels and whores

 

in gigs like this in a Thursday night bar,

where the spotlight shines in her eyes.

For a moment she stands there looking lost

or maybe just looking surprised.

 

Then she unpacks her old blue Taylor guitar

from its scuffed and well-stickered case;

she peers into 60watt distance,

and wonders aloud…says: is this the right place?

 

She fiddles with tunings, tries a couple of ch0rds;

through the mic. comes her quiet country drawl:

hi. I’m Mary Gauthier, from Louisiana,

come here to sing songs for y’all……

 

and we’re hitching a ride on a backcountry road

through the landscapes of Mary Gauthier,

a ride through another country.

well., they do things differently there:

there’s:

bright lights and lost dreams, poets and drag queens,

trailer-trash has-beens, death cells and limousines,

and the angels are falling,

and there’s fire in the fields

 

and places flash by through the windscreen of songs

like phrases or rhymes half-heard in a dream

Juarez, las Cruces, Prairie du Chien,

Thibodeaux to Raceland…you know what I mean.

 

And you’re hitching a ride on a southern states voice

that sings cool and clear as the moon,

tho’ it isn’t exactly singing

but more like talking in tune,

 

one that lingers on sweeet and curdles on sour

holds on to a note like a child plucks a flower

lights on a phrase like a bee on a stem

lets the words run like water held in a cupped palm

 

or just fades to whispers like a moth in a flame

like the wind in the grasses, like the rain in the pines,

like the hushing of tyres when the wet blacktop shines..

 

so thanks for your leaving home stories

and the roads you travelled before

and the folks who’ve travelled them with you:

 

the poets, the dancers, the lovers, the chancers

the angels, the liars, the burned-out high fliers

the drinkers the thinkers the junkies the whores

 

yeah, thanks for the ride Mary Gauthier,

the journey was over too soon.

I’m still hearing your shootong-star stories,

still singing along to your tune.

 

There’s a lot of ‘ands’  in that.   I get told that a lot, at workshops.  Poems with too many ‘ands’. That’s me.  There’s a lesson there, somewhere. But do go and listen to Mary Gauthier: especially Drag queens and limousines, and the album that followed it, Filth and fire.

* Raymond Williams: The country and the city [Chatto and Windus. 1973]

** Anthony Wilson’s blog…not to be missed   http://anthonywilsonpoetry.com/