Thursday, 25 February 2010

An afternoon in Brighouse

Had a lovely couple of hours at Brighouse Library this afternoon reading from Bedrock, the sequence of poems that covers four generations of one family. Because I had a good idea who to expect there (I was poet in residence in Calderdale three/four years ago and started a poetry reading group at the library) I'd decided on earlier poems from the sequence, covering the turn of the nineteeth century, suffrage, the first world war, ending with a blossoming post war romance that would leave them with the next generation.

And I chose right. They were extremely attentive, laughed and nodded sagely throughout (even the women who'd told me at the start how much she loved rhyming poetry). I'd factored in a Q&A session afterwards and that lasted far longer than I'd anticipated, talking about the people of the poems, the wider family and how I researched it. This got them talking about their own experiences of researching family histories, how they dealt with what they uncovered and what they were interested in social history.

I'd asked them to bring their own poems on family, only three did, and so that was where we ended, a wider view of what the institution of family means to us. Lovely lovely.

I'd made these little freebies to accompany the reading for people to takeaway.

I'd shown them to various friends and had had mixed responses to them, so was uncertain how they'd go down, but they were snaffled up. I think there was interest since the poem on them was from the sequence, by one of the characters they'd already heard from.

So all in all a great way to spend a murky aternoon in February, and a tribute to the power of poetry of how it unites, disarms and enpowers us. Something I constantly marvel at when I sit in a room with a bunch of people to talk about it.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

In Conversation with Chris Kinsey

Another in my infrequent series of conversations.

This time with the poet, Chris Kinsey, whose second collection, Cure for a Crooked Smile, touched my doggy heart.

SH There's a shift from the urban poems of Kung Fu Lullabies to the natural world of Cure for a Crooked Smile. How would you describe your development from the first to second collection?

CK Your identification of a shift is very apparent in the selection for Cure for a Crooked Smile, but, in effect, it’s accidental. I’m still mining both lodes. I’m very engaged with people in my small home town and also very concerned with the natural world. By the time I got up the nerve to send out to publishers I had an overwhelming number of poems to sift through.

One afternoon when I was staying with the poet Christine Evans on Bardsey Island, she said, “Spread your poems out on the kitchen table and just start grouping and selecting.” Her table stopped me from dithering. (Her fisherman husband and son wouldn’t have been impressed by a trawl of undifferentiated poems for supper.) I decided to split the spiky people poems from those more concerned with the natural world. Andy Croft at Smokestack Books has accepted the former under the forthcoming title, Swarf, and his main note with the acceptance, was that there are, “far too many poems”.

I’m not the best at working out development or performance indicators and cannot proceed very well by increments or goals. I compose more from sense impressions and feelings than intellect or theory. I like Robert Frost’s definition of poetry as, “A fresh look and a fresh listen.”

Every poem is a fresh start too, and sets its own challenge; I rise to that as best as I can. When selecting for a collection, I look for both connections and contrasts – I dislike monotony.

SH The poem, Blue Skies Thinking shows how you play humour and fantasy against the sharply realised details of the physical world. "I love a good hoar" is a fabulous first line to a visceral poem. How do you approach nature in actuality and in writing about it?

CK My default setting is to go out and spend time in some not very cultivated place; usually a riverbank, often a wood, or a beach, mountain or bog. As soon as I could walk I was off, out of our street and up-river, squishing about in rushes and silt or slithering on stones. I’ve never grown out of it. As a student at Bretton Hall, now the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, I walked round the lake every day. For the last 25 years I’ve walked dogs beside the Severn. I don’t have any designs on nature. I don’t go with lenses, checklists, or special kit other than good waterproofs. I’m delighted by what presents itself, especially birds and creatures. I like to experience all weathers apart from sultry heat and notice seasonal changes: migrations, flowerings, fruitions.

Writing about what I’ve seen, heard, felt and smelled is as ‘natural’ or habitual as cleaning my teeth. I think it was one of my mum’s regrets that, even when I was as young as two, she wasn’t usually well enough to come with me. She expected me to come back and recount my experiences and helped me to identify what I’d seen. At primary school I was only really good at finding things for the nature table and a fluky boxing jab. By the age of nine I was giving up on my original ambition to become a cowboy and telling people who really pressed the question that I wanted to be a naturalist.

In secondary school, I was excited by the Gerard Manley Hopkins poems I was given to read in assemblies, but the big ignition came from Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist – no one had ever described the sense of frogspawn so vividly. I borrowed more Heaney and then Ted Hughes from libraries.

Wordsworth was part of my A-level course and I was encouraged to read Dorothy Wordsworth too. I’ve kept journals ever since. My way in to any kind of writing is to start by describing the light and what I’ve seen on a walk or can see out of the window. These are useful for my bi-monthly Nature Diary which Cambria publishes.

SH As I read this collection it seems to me that there is much energy and vigour in your view of nature, with people seemingly secondary; I wonder how you feel about this response?

CK I’m still inspired by people. For the last two years I’ve worked part time in a Pupil Referral Unit and been moved to write about students and given their permission to publish, but those poems are lined up for Swarf. People are often in my thoughts when I’m out experiencing the natural world e.g. End-of-year-chorus and Nightshades, many poems carry dedications to friends. The title poem along with the others in the Appointments with Hades quartet is about some childhood horrors.

SH You clearly relish writing in free verse. What, do you think this offers your subject matter?

CK Existence – in a word. I’m usually chasing physical sensations, fleeting experiences and spontaneity. I love exact imagery and natural (well, if a little heightened) sounds and rhythms. As you noted, I love to play, but freestyle. I’m not very interested in patterns, decoration, puzzles or games with rules. Some people find strict forms fun, but I tend to react badly to any sense of captivity or artificiality. I loathe most villanelles because obsessive repetition hijacks meaning. I agree with Frank O’Hara, “You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up!’”

SH The final poem, Recipe for a greyhound, contains the line "Make your mind a boundless park." I know you rescue greyhounds. Can you pinpoint their influence on your poetry?

CK They’re perfect accomplices, so alert and alive. They find the world intrinsically interesting and don’t expect me to indulge any obsessive compulsive tendencies like throwing balls or sticks. They hunt squirrels whilst I hunt images. They’ve taught me to watch movements and interpret later so I see many more small birds, particularly kingfishers, than I used to. I saw the tree creeper in 'The Morning After the Clocks go Back' because I followed the gaze of my bitch Tango. (She’s the one on the book cover.) When we’ve had the stimulation of an outing we like to lie around watching replays on the ‘dream drive’. Hounds are very peaceful companions – affectionate but not needy. I admire their grace and elegance and speed.

Oh yes. And an opportunity for one last picture.

Chris, Thank you.

If you're interested in either of Chris's books, you can find more information from Ragged Raven Press.

Or go and hear her read at the Chipping Campden Literature Festival, in May this year.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

And of course we'll need music

There's been some chat on the news this week (or last week perhaps) about music used for dinner parties. Apparently Massive Attack is very popular. As is Air.

This, naturally, made me realise that I hadn't decided on music for my dinner party.

I'm very sensitive to music. Probably because I don't listen to it that often, perferring silence. But when in the mood, it's just the ticket.

So, while I might feel obliged to have Ojos de Brujo, I'm not sure they'd aid digestion. Maybe for a post prandial dance - just for the delight of watching Gabriel and Margaret swing together. Before that, however, Theolonius Monk for starters, Salif Keita and Ali Fakah Toure for mains and Mary Black for dessert.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

If I Go On

I went to see the Vincent Dance Company's latest show this week, If We Go On. I'm not a big dance fan - watching it, that is - but have seen (and enjoyed) a show of theirs before and know people, who love dance, who regard the company highly. And there's no puppetry on this season at the Nuffield (my local fabulously reliable theatre of the unexpected) so I needed to plug into something.

So, wary, but curious, I went along.

There were moments of shocking brutality, amazing energy and extraordinary angles: kicking and punching the backdrop so it clattered; using the backdrop as a giant blackboard, scribbling onto it a manic musical score and half-formed but very alive drawn figures; and flickeringly small wrist movements under flickering lights. All mesmerising. Emotive. Invigorating. Playful.

Except the spoken word bits.

The theme of the show was the inability of expression. Or so it seemed. Several characters talked at length of how they didn't have the words needed ... Sheets of paper were thrown across the stage (turning it into a highly choreographed version of a Forced Entertainment set), lights were switched on and off as the self conscious existential angst was repeated over and over.

Oo, it got right under my skin. I'm not an explorer of self-conscious art, nor a practitioner of post-modernism. I'm a traditionalist. A believer in just giving the idea over to an audience. A lover of the illusion of art. Old fashioned. Unsophisticated.

And while I can appreciate other people playing with these perspectives, I get very pernickerty when they use spoken word/poetry within an otherwise physical theatre piece. Maybe I should chill out a bit more, be open to the vagaries of language. After all I use elements of physical theatre in my work which probably gets right under the skin of the dancers in my audience.

Talk is cheap, I remind myself.

Except I can't buy into that. Talk in performance is structured, no matter how improvised it yearns to appear, or how much the devising process was improvisation. It is no longer. It is staged. And it takes something/someone special to disabuse me of that. An unselfconscious stream of consiousness. It took Picasso sixty odd years to reach that point in his art ...

Something to aim for, maybe.

Monday, 8 February 2010


I've mentioned here and there, mainly here, that I've been working with Steve Lewis and Beth Allen recently. I say working, that's between the laughter. That's how we know we're a great team. How we laugh, you know to the point of stomach cramp and forgetting what the joke was.

And between the laughter, the work. And to start with there was a lot of faffing kind of work, that we kind of liked, but weren't totally convinced it was anything very special. But after our last meet, Beth had been thinking.

She'd decided that we needed to play to our strengths, which mean Steve on sound, me on words and her on song. Oh it all sounded so simple. So me and Steve nodded enthusiastically and he pulled a dictionary off a shelf, opened it and said, "Let's start here."

And we were away. We played with order, overlap and timing. We played with all of us knowing the word that would set us off or with just one knowing it. We played with Steve's mics and sounds effects. We played with swapping roles (the only thing that wasn't so fun). And after filling it all with water several times we were pretty sure there were no leaks.

We had something.

Then to cap it all, we had a name.

And to cap the cap, a gig (see right).

Which of course could spell the end of our beautiful fantasy.

We've a couple of days in the diary to rehearse. Which I still can't quite get my head around - rehearsing improvising just seems a contradiction. It's probably more accurate to say we're rehearsing my confidence. That's how thoughtful they are. Like I said, we're a team.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Look Who's Coming to Dinner

Not wanting it to be the exclusive domain of the famous, I drew up my ideal dinner party list the other night:

Margaret Atwood,
Gabriel Garcia Marquez,
a thirty-year old Doris Lessing,
Marina Abad,
Charles Jencks,
Wassily Kandinsky,
Elizabeth Bishop,
Jonathan Sachs,
Anna Akhamatova,
me, and friends, Floris and Deb.

I've chosen them as much for how I imagine they'd contribute to a jolly evening as for what they do/think.

We'd start with garlic/chilli mushrooms, accompanied by an Albarino white, followed by a vegetarian Morrocan meze, pick and mix style, with a red Rioja, finished with trifle or baked cheesecake with a Canadian Ice Wine. Oh, and maybe some Garstang Blue. And some chockie mint crisp. Jacob's Joint.

And, of course we'd be on the boat, which would be moored with a view like this.

Let me know if you fancy an invite