Monday, 11 November 2019

Adam Hall's Quiller: podcasts & a new poem

I often wear different hats at different times (so to speak) and one of the hats I occasionally wear in recent years is that of spy fiction enthusiast.

Last year, I wrote a blog post about Quiller, the super-spy creation of Adam Hall, and some poetry echoes I thought I'd found in his novels. You can read it here:

More recently, I appeared on the excellent Spybrary podcast in a two-episode discussion about Quiller, with longtime Quiller fans and spy fiction experts Jeff Quest and Tim Stevens. You can listen to Spybrary on good podcast apps, and also find these episodes here:

In the second episode, I spoke a little bit about the literary echoes I thought I'd found in the Quiller novels. More than that, though - I went full-on spy poetry nerd and read an original poem I had written, inspired by Quiller. For those of you who wanted to see it on the page, or who are not sure they want to listen to me talk about spies for two hours, here it is. (Although I do recommend you check out the podcast. And read the books, of course.)


after Adam Hall's 'Quiller'

Obsessed into being
sideways break
                                      Open the dawn

the order of man
                                      Don't lose the measure of man

Velocity's invitation
bitten to the quick 
                                      Reverse the earth

Still beating
little attack heart
                                      Light up the shadow

Poem © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2019

Rogue Strands reading (28 November) & a review of Island of Towers

I'm very pleased to say that I will be part of the 'Rogue Strands' poetry reading, organised by Matthew Stewart and Mat Riches, on Thursday 28 November at the King and Queen Pub on Foley Street, London W1W 6DL.

Details of the event and my fellow readers are on the poster above, and it will definitely be a great evening. If you would like to come along and cheer in a poetry-reading-appropriate way, that would be much appreciated. Entry is by donation to The Trussell Trust in aid of local foodbanks. Also, my new pamphlet Island of Towers will be available to purchase...

In other "me, me, me" news, poet and poetry blogger David Green recently wrote a thoughtful review of my pamphlet, which you can read here:

David Green always approaches his reviews and poetry commentary with care and thought, and this was evident here. I felt that he had noticed some things in my work which are latent rather than explicit, and I really appreciated that.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Island of Towers - my pamphlet publication day!

My poetry pamphlet has landed! Island of Towers is here, and I'm really delighted to have found a supportive publisher, Broken Sleep Books, who have produced it beautifully.

The title Island of Towers is taken from one of the poems in the pamphlet, but I suppose it seemed appropriate because there are a lot of poems about (or around) islands and the sea, and cities. There are also poems about Sherlock Holmes, spies, travel - the usual suspects. But when it comes to writing poems, I suppose my only strong philosophy is to write something that I would myself enjoy reading.

You can order direct from the publishers here:

I also have some copies to sell myself, which I can inscribe if desired, so please get in touch if you'd like to buy directly from me (click through to my profile to email me, comment here, Tweet me at @stoneandthestar - etc!)

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

New Poem Published for National Poetry Day, & Sherlock Holmes Essay

I never feel as though I end up fully participating in National Poetry Day, because if I'm in London I'm working (it's the first Thursday in October) and if I'm off work, it's typically because I am out of town. I am currently in Canada, which also meant an eight-hour time difference. However, "participating fully" isn't really the point: enjoying and promoting poetry is, and there's always a way to do that at least a little.

The theme of National Poetry Day this year was Truth. I was delighted that the wonderful Ink Sweat & Tears chose my poem 'Speaks true who speaks shadow' as one of fifteen poems in total that they published across five days, on and around National Poetry Day. You can read the poem here:

The title of the poem is taken from Paul Celan's poem 'Speak you too' (the translation by John Felstiner), and my poem is dedicated to Alexander Litvinenko, who was assassinated in London in 2006. I have always been fascinated and saddened by Litvinenko's story, and I recently saw the play A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic, which is about his life and death, so it has all been on my mind.

On another subject, and really not poetry but I'm going to mention it anyway, I've published another essay about Sherlock Holmes in the new collection Sherlock Holmes is Everywhere!, published by Belanger Books. The essay is essentially about how I find Sherlock Holmes in London, and it's just one of a huge variety of essays which locate Holmes anywhere and everywhere. The Belanger Books website is here, but you will find that it takes you to Amazon to purchase the book, so you can also search for it there.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

My poetry pamphlet is coming...and an MPT acceptance

I have a couple of publication announcements to make, and they're both particularly good ones.

In October, Broken Sleep Books will publish my first poetry pamphlet. It seems to have taken me 25 years of writing poetry fairly seriously to get to this point (I am not especially prolific), so I'm delighted. Broken Sleep Books, run by Aaron Kent and Charlie Baylis, have only been around for a couple of years but have already published many acclaimed pamphlets in lovely minimalist designs.

Of course, I will post more details when the pamphlet is actually available. Watch this space!

As for my second announcement: I don't usually post about acceptances from journals - just actual publications, when they appear - but I'm really excited about this one. Modern Poetry in Translation have accepted two of my translations from the original French of Benjamin Fondane's poems, and they should be appearing in a spring 2020 issue. I've loved Fondane's work for a couple of years now, and I feel quite honoured to be able to share him with MPT's audience, following the review I wrote for them in 2018 of Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody's translation of Fondane's long poem Ulysses.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Review: David Howard - The Ones Who Keep Quiet

New Zealand poet David Howard, who lives in the South Island city of Dunedin, has held residencies as close to home as the University of Otago and as far away as Prague; his next residency will be in Ulyanovsk, Russia. His most recent collection, The Ones Who Keep Quiet (2017, Otago University Press), is equally connected to New Zealand, the South Pacific and cities of the Northern Hemisphere, through the shifting figures of Auckland businessmen, alleged spies, and others.

It's an ambitious comparison, but The Ones Who Keep Quiet has something in common with TS Eliot's Four Quartets in that its poems are typically grounded in real-world places, with an almost overwhelming level of historical detail (a couple of the poems have end notes to rival Eliot's The Waste Land), but they feel internal, intellectual, mystical. If anything, they seem to depict the movement of the human mind, with its blend of the abstract and the concrete, and often under great pressure. In some cases, the pressure takes the most final form, death.

The first piece in the book is a long poem written in sestains. 'The Ghost of James Williamson 1814-2014' is about the Belfast businessman's youth on his father's ships and his eventual existence in New Zealand - both before and after his death on 22 March 1888. Appropriately, the sestains flow down the page in shapes suggesting waves, or brainwaves. There are also the tides of belief, their ebb and flow:

    ...Our fall into Paradise shows
             God is an ironist
             who gives the knife another twist -
    pointed refusal to disclose
proof He's the first cause.

There is, perhaps, also an echo of the famous ship appearing at Clonmacnoise in Seamus Heaney's 'Lightenings' (viii), when "stunned under the Gothic/arch of a monstrous swell", James Williamson declares: "the unreal becomes our last port of call". As with most poems in The Ones Who Keep Quiet, the writing is very dense and allusive, with occasional leaps which seem almost random but are carefully calculated. This poem concludes on a very odd and ironic note of "sex, drugs and rock'n'roll", which at first seemed entirely incongruous to me based on its protagonist's life in the 19th century: however, it succeeds in giving the impression that the ghost is floating freely in time, but also trapped.

Throughout, and with rare exceptions, I was more enthralled by the collection's long poems than by the shorter lyrics, as Howard's work seems to excel when it has more leisure to establish a voice and to sink into a story or a train of thought. 'The Speak House' is another centrepiece of the book, a dive into the mind of Robert Louis Stevenson in the last few hours of his life. The poem is full of very specific references to Stevenson's life and work and had a slightly overwhelming level of end notes, but the most rewarding moments are often those of sudden clarity: "Starlight strikes the dead and the living/with equal intensity, flesh being what it always was" and "breathless/running after my shadow: that is what writing is." After the demands of 'The Speak House' I turned with some relief to one of the best shorter poems (well, two pages), 'The Vanishing Line', a self-scrutinizing poem with an unfolding/enfolding structure and echoes of Paul Celan: "Between, that is where the poem grows/between the visible, the invisible."

Howard touches on family history, on love, and dedicates a beautiful poem ('L'Histoire du Soldat') to Russian poet Tatiana Shcherbina. Particularly intriguing, though, is the long poem 'Prague Casebook' which, as Howard says in the end notes, "circles the character of the New Zealander and alleged spy Ian Milner (1911-1991)". A Rhodes scholar and friend of Miroslav Holub, Milner was eventually identified as a spy who passed information to the Soviets while working for the Australian Department of External Affairs in the Post-Hostilities Division during the 1940s. He defected to Czechoslovakia, but denied having been a spy. Milner's case is still controversial. His voice in 'Prague Casebook' is ironic and elusive, sliding away, providing excuses or perhaps simple facts: "Poetry's half a meal. Don't go hungry." Milner seeks kinship with Russian poets Mayakovsky and Mandelstam - "Sing/Vladimir, sing Osip, to show we are still men among men", but no doubt also recalls their troubled or fatal relationships with the Soviet authorities. Addressing God in the closing lines of the poem, Milner could be admitting to guilt, or defining himself as a victim, or both: "Your paradise was a short ride in a fast car, I got out/on the wrong side, that's clear as ice on the highway at first light."

The Ones Who Keep Quiet isn't a perfect collection: I found that its self-consciousness could occasionally be stifling, and Howard succeeds noticeably better with male voices and characters than with female perspectives. However, it is an exceptionally skilled and ambitious work which will reward rereading, as it offers so many layers to explore. Readers who appreciate psychology, flair and challenge in their poetry will enjoy The Ones Who Keep Quiet.

Review copy courtesy of Otago University Press 

Sunday, 16 June 2019

New Poem in Black Bough Poetry, & Alison Brackenbury Review in Magma

Recently, my poem 'Canada' appeared in the new Wales-based micropoem publication Black Bough Poetry (publishing poems of up to 10 lines). You can download the whole publication as a PDF here (it's Issue 1, Summer 2019):

There's a fine variety of poems, by new and more established poets, in the first issue of Black Bough Poetry, and I recommend having a good browse through.

'Canada' is, in part, a poem about imagining how other people imagine. Being Canadian and having spent the first 23 years of my life there, I have a particularly intimate connection to the concept of Canada, and I know that often when others ask me about my country, they're picturing something quite different from what I see in my mind, and feel. I have to say that the poem is also partly about how big Canada is geographically, and how that adds to its "bigness" as a concept. I think it's too big to be understood, in a way that is different from most other countries. (I probably would think that, being Canadian...) So of course, I wrote a very short poem about it. The poem is also partly about night flying - something I find nerve-wracking, but sometimes beautiful in an elemental way. How this all came together, I am really not sure.

My other recent publication came a few days ago - a review of Gallop by Alison Brackenbury, for Magma Poetry. It's an excellent new collection (a Selected Poems from her whole career, actually) and I highly recommend it. You can read the review here:

Photo by Robert Nelson. Used under Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

TS Eliot's Four Quartets in dance, at the Barbican

Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose at the Royal Opera House, London (1911)

This past weekend I went to the Barbican's presentation of a dance version of TS Eliot's Four Quartets, choreographed by the American choreographer Pam Tanowitz and first performed last year in the United States. Alastair Macauley, who was the chief dance critic for the New York Times until 2018, called this adaptation "the greatest creation of dance theatre so far this century".

I wanted to see Four Quartets because it combined a few of my interests and passions: TS Eliot's poetry, dance, and being Finnish (ok, the latter is a stretch, but the soundtrack featured music by the well-known contemporary composer Kaija Saariaho). My love for Eliot's poetry probably needs no explanation, but dance as one of my interests/passions might. I always had some interest in ballet, based on having seen The Nutcracker at a young age, loving Tchaikovsky's music generally, and reading some of the classic children's books about ballet, such as Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes. However, I never learned ballet myself, and I always thought of dance as a beautiful and intriguing art form, but one which I was far more ignorant of than literature, music and visual art. Rather to my surprise, a few years ago I then found myself in a new job as a publisher for the Royal Academy of Dance, and I'm still there. I love the company but occasionally I am still a bit nonplussed that I'm working in dance education. Fortunately, the job required expertise in publishing rather than in dance (although having a bit of a music background helped.) And I have, of course, learned so much about dance.

However, it would probably be a stretch to say that my experience at the RAD helped me a great deal with the dance experience presented to me by Four Quartets. The RAD's main (though by no means exclusive) focus is on classical ballet, and the extent of my dance knowledge for my whole life has mostly resided in that area. I've mostly found modern dance to be a bit of a mystery. I am sure, though, that most of the audience members were there either mainly for the dancing, or mainly because of TS Eliot, and my way in was always going to be the words of Four Quartets. In fact, this show was truly multidisciplinary because the accompanying sets and artworks were by the American visual artist Brice Marsden. Four Quartets was read in its entirety by the US actor Kathleen Chalfant, and the dancers accompanied the words.

The dancers didn't, in fact, try to illustrate the words, which was both challenging and fascinating. As they leapt, rolled, and circled against the delicate but powerful greens, reds and whites of the set, I found myself sometimes confused and irritated, sometimes enthralled, and I think this may have been the idea. This was not a literal interpretation, but one which set up all kinds of tensions, and Four Quartets generates tensions and juxtapositions in almost every line, starting from the opening of 'Burnt Norton': "Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past." At times I thought that the dancers were trying to do the opposite of what the text was saying, and I wondered: is this escape, or a source of power? This performance helped to remind me that (and this makes it quite the opposite of much poetry, particularly now) Four Quartets is a sequence often inspired by very concrete places and things, but frequently presented in very abstract terms. Visitors to the real places of the poems - Burnt Norton, East Coker, the Dry Salvages and Little Gidding - are often surprised that the places are not only real but described with great accuracy. And yet, their explorations feel more mental and emotional than "real-world", at least to me. (I must say that the "rose garden", the "box circle" and the "drained pool" of 'Burnt Norton' feel to me like part of the disturbing, preternaturally silent landscapes of a 1970s/1980s text adventure computer game such as Zork, which is probably both blasphemy and highly accurate, and another area of opposition and tension. What is a computer game, anyway - abstraction or "reality"?)

Saariaho's sparse music accompanied the performance's visual impressions, and the words, beautifully. I may have been confused and challenged by much of the dancing, but I think that it helped to open the poems to me in a different way. Art exerts pressures on our minds, and watching the dancers, listening to the music and to the poetry all at the same time undoubtedly shifted that pressure so that I experienced Four Quartets in a new way.

The Four Quartets program has an excellent essay by Dana Mills about 'TS Eliot and the dance of writing', from which I learned a lot about Eliot's interest in dance; again, he seems to have transformed real people and artistic references into metaphysical concepts. Eliot saw the great dancer Isadora Duncan, as well as Nijinsky dancing in Le Spectre de la rose, which he specifically mentions in 'Little Gidding' ("Nor is it an incantation/To summon the spectre of a Rose"). Later, the groundbreaking dancer and choreographer Martha Graham was influenced by Four Quartets. Famously, in 'Burnt Norton' Eliot wrote " the still point, there the dance is"; more tension and contradiction resolved into a strange unity. Mills writes: "Four Quartets dances on the boundaries between the human and the inhuman; bodiless and visceral; past, present and future; the emotive and the emotionless. The poems are verse that transcends its sum of words. The words have body and transcend their flesh; they are, like dance, both still and shifting."

This page on the Barbican website (which I hope will stay for a little while, as I believe the performances are over) has images from the production and more interesting information about its conception and development: