Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Annual Forgetting

As I wrote out this title it struck me as especially pertinent since today is the 25th anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Is it part of our survival mechanism that us humans have crap memories? As if too clear memories might cripple us with fear for doing anything again. It's often the horrific stuff we wipe from our brains.

And to swerve in dramatic fashion from global horror to personal stupidity - this post is actually
about boats.

This weekend we recommissioned our boat and took it for its (and our) annual pilgrimage to Piel Island

What astounds me every year I get back on board after a winter overhaul is how much I look at and wonder what the hell is that for? It's like I've never seen certain ropes and blocks and pulleys before, as if I've not spent weeks tinkering, inching and hauling the wretched things for hours on end - sadly that was over six months ago and all I've done since is paint more antifoul on the hull, service the engine, clean and buff the topsides, measure the anchor warp and fart about with lowgrade general upkeep that makes me so grateful there are others to do stuff too - namely the electronics, which my brain baulks at.

Luckily once it's all back in place - some ropes checked and rechecked that they are in the right place - the actual handling of it seems remarkably easy - especially when we've light winds and an empty enough bay to enable us to sit on a mooring for the night rather than at anchor.

Which comes round to my old bugbear of muscle memory (instinctual memory) as opposed to intellectual memory (requiring a greater need of analysis). I do something often enough and it becomes part of my nature. If I don't do it that much I'm dealing with what therapists call conscious competence...

This analysis slides neatly enough across to writing. Listen to enough music, read enough poetry and the instinctual feel for rhythm becomes part of putting one word next to another next to another. While at Hawthornden I wrote a couple of poem drafts in iambs. I couldn't quite bring myself to go the whole hog into pentameter (more often averaging hexameters but not particularly consistent in that). I've read over the years of several poets who claim not to know where to end a line if they aren't writing in i.p. (which seems like a weak reason to choose that form, but who am I to judge?). Anyway, needless to say it was hard - cranky and simple language ran out along the lines, and yes, it sounded like someone talking. But I generally ask for more than that from poetry. One of the joys of rhythm for me is how it changes, swoops and stops short. It was good exercise I could see that - just as rerigging the boat is good exercise in remembering what all the lines and blocks are for, even if I don't use them, so I can coast out.

Really I just want to go sailing - on water or on irregularly lengthed lines. And really I want to write like Theolonious Monk plays ...

Monday, 18 April 2011

The Autumn Myth

The Autumn Myth, by Joel Lane is a book for the brave. In it he reveals a country, its cities and people without soft focus and smiling faces. It is a raw vision. And truthful. His passion and concern for what lies around us radiates from each poem. The discovered skull in the first poem 'The Refugee' sets up the tone of what to expect: a frank and lucid description of someone stumbling upon a human skull that blossoms into a startling shaft of compassion and perspective: "It had found its way out of trouble… taken its place among rocks and stars."

The Autumn Myth is divided into three sections: the first focuses on the wider city and our social movements; the second is a more tender, slightly hopeful journey through relationships (though there is harshness here too); the third reveals the ghosts that occupy these first two. So the thread leads you round from actuality, to hope to longing, through wastelands, crowds, absences, reunions and quiet observations of behaviour.

But it's not all brutality. Lane dances between tragedy and delicate beauty (think Muhammad Ali). His world is not laden with metaphor, rather he writes in a straight and simple beauty ("a cobbled street ended in a broken ledge – "; "They had two children, both madness."; "and no-one has much to drink") that powers his stories, characters and beliefs.

His message is stark, his language accordingly hammers this home. It is this stripping away that makes reading the collection so compulsive. Each person, encounter and view rubs up against another, so the poems spit and crackle like fire the more you read. The outrage and quietness ensure you don't know what subject you'll read next, but it will invigorate. It is a most relevant book, illuminating how and where we live now.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Scissors, Paper, Stone

I've not said anything yet about the ACE cuts - which have withdrawn 100% of funding to three Lancaster-based arts oganisations: Litfest (who I work for), Storey Gallery and Folly. More widely, four poetry publishers have lost all their ACE funding, as well as two national literature development organisations, a poetry festival and the award-giving Poetry Book Society. Of course other literature organisations have stepped into the spaces: newly-funded publishers, writing development agencies and festivals. It will be a new landscape. There is a part of me that is excited by the new contours, the new horizon (and I'm someone who really doesn't like having change enforced upon me), blended with a deep sadness at losing well-loved institutions. I think what's particularly hard as a Lancasterian, is that we've [potentially] lost our easily accessed, embedded arts scene. But not all of them. And we still have a vibrant, active population.

Carol Ann Duffy set this out in a poem commissioned by the Guardian on Saturday - focusing on the losses for literature. Another poet, Rebecca Irvine Bilkau, sent me this one:

Model citizens
A long view on the cuts to Arts Funding 2011

We trained years for this, strained
our groceries through austerity measures
till they were piquant with our pride

and self-doubt, we mastered our passions,
kept children where we could afford them
best: un-conceived and we anticipate

our rewards, we economise on dancing,
pare back on poetry, paint only the colour
of money and we do it all because this

is cutting edge patriotism, this morality
with a lazy eye. Our names died,
because nothing was done in them

but our legatees will never be confused.
The bankers will balance the deficit left
by every mark we let them stop us making

selling the few we dared. The profit: theirs.
This is the new patronage. Art from those
who can’t afford to eat is marvellously rare.

News yesterday that Zadie Smith's campaign to save Brent Library has lost. I wonder what the building will become used for? Such losses feel irreversible.

Unlike the arts. They don't need buildings. Bricks and mortar might help an organisation's identity, as much as it might restrict it, but the artists that feed and fill the rooms are not tied to particular spaces, and will continue to produce regardless of these organisations/buildings. Finding places to exhibit their work, to reach audiences will be harder. Not impossible. And maybe it will force the creators to embrace new ways to present work

Perhaps the work produced will be more urgent, more insistent, more challenging to the imbalance of government support, more eager to present the economic, social and individual values of art. More committed to reaching people and spreading the word.

Monday, 11 April 2011


"... excellent at capturing social and religious codes of behaviour, with the acuity of Austen or Alice Munro ... Host is a tactile and muscular collection, rooted in the complexities and textures of the physical world. Hymas has created fresh and exuberant work that, at its best, captures the awe of being alive."

Sarah Westcott reviews Host on Eyewear, here

Thank you, Sarah, and Eyewear

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


It was an intense and fruitful month including plenty of exhuberance, concentration, poem productivity, exhaustion, talk, crises of confidence, walking, thinking, reading, pudding eating, learning. But all you're going to get (for now) is pictures:

the castle from the south side of the Esk river

from the Lady's Walk

from the west

from the driveway

a particularly characterful rock

view from the study library (with our one day of snow)

we had a couple of weeks of daffs

caves beneath the castle

from the boot hall looking into the 'courtyard' (once the banqueting hall). It's a stone stag with antlers. Although plenty of deer bounding about the estate.

the front door (locked at 1030)

Bronte's door with previous occupants listed. Other names used to identify writers' rooms were Drummond, Milosz, Herrick, Evelyn, Boswell and Jonson. I was very happy with my allocation. Assuming it was Emily.

inside Bronte room

view from Bronte

mystery Wellington boots (very natty)

other fellows (l to r):Veronica Bennett, Jonty Driver, Colin Donati and James Brookes (with a front view of the stag)