Thursday, 31 December 2020

A Few Nice Things To End Horrible, Nasty 2020

As 2020 draws to a close (and that's both sad and glad because it was a terrible year for everyone), I have a few more poetry successes to round up in this blog post.

A couple of months ago I appeared in the Spotlight section of Colin Bancroft's Poets' Directory, and for some reason forgot to write about it at the time. Colin is a poet himself and has also started a press, Nine Pens, this year. The Directory is a wonderful resource and as part of the Spotlight I answered some questions about poetry in my life and also shared my poem 'Kingdom'. I was #17 on the Spotlight feature so you need to scroll down, but all the different profile of poets are fascinating and worth reading.

Matthew Stewart once again included The Stone and the Star on his excellent year-end roundup of The Best UK Poetry Blogs, calling it "different, curious, always exploring poetry". Matthew's own blog Rogue Strands is always thoughtful and thought-provoking, as is his own poetry.

I was delighted that the iamb website, where I was one of the first poets to appear when it started this year, nominated my poem 'I dream the perfect ride' for a Pushcart Prize. iamb is the work of poet Mark Antony Owen and it features poems both in readable form, and recordings of readings by the poets. The website had a really amazing year and is definitely one of the poetry sites that you need to be browsing.

Finally, I was enormously pleased when my poetry publisher, Broken Sleep Books, won the Publishers' Award at the Michael Marks Awards a few weeks ago. The Michael Marks Awards are specifically dedicated to poetry pamphlets (rather than full-length collections) and they are run by the British Library, The Wordsworth Trust, Harvard University and The TLS. Winning a Michael Marks Award is really a wonderful honour and even being shortlisted was cause for great excitement. As my pamphlet Island of Towers was published within the required dates for the 2020 awards, I played a small role as my pamphlet was part of the overall submission. I'm just as proud of all my fellow Broken Sleep Books poets. And I'm even more proud of the whole Broken Sleep team (which expanded this year, or was it last year now?) and above all of Aaron Kent, who runs the press. Aaron was extremely ill earlier this year and thankfully has made a good recovery. I'm so happy that he was able to end 2020 in such a positive way and that we all played a part, because we needed that.

(And by the way, if you would like a copy of Island of Towers, you can of course buy direct from Broken Sleep Books on the link above. But I also have some copies to sell, sign and send out, so please get in touch here if you would like a copy, or on my Twitter account: @stoneandthestar)

I'm sending a big hug to everyone who reads this blog and asking you to take good care of yourselves and others in 2021. 

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

In memory of John le Carré, 1931-2020


Ten minutes to midnight: a pious Friday in May and a fine river mist lying in the market square. Bonn was a Balkan city, stained and secret, drawn over with tramwire. Bonn was a dark house where someone had died, a house draped in Catholic black and guarded by policemen. Their leather coats glistened in the lamplight, the black flags hung over them like birds. It was as if all but they had heard the alarm and fled. (John le Carré, A Small Town in Germany)

Bonn was a Balkan city, stained and secret... Bonn was a dark house where someone had died...

John le Carré died on 12 December at the age of 89. The shock felt more considerable than it probably should have considering his advanced age. I considered him my favourite living author, and as with Ursula Le Guin (who died in 2018), longevity was a factor. I was reading both of them by my early teens, if not before, and for many of us very little that follows will have quite the same impact. Others have written more eloquently about his significance as a spy writer, and simply as a great writer. For me his work is deeply personal, and I know that I'm not alone.

I recall le Carré as a sort of mysterious concept before I recall him as an author. My father was often reading his books when I was a child, and I would also see them in the library. In the slightly over-dramatic cover art of the 1980s, 'Le Carré' in huge letters would take up 90% of the space on the cover, and it was years until I learned this was a pseudonym (his real name was David Cornwell). There was something both intimidating and alluring about this monolithic concept.

At some point in junior high, when I would have been 12 or 13, I read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. My memory of that first reading, or at least a part of it, is extraordinarily vivid. I was sitting outside at lunchtime, on a sunny and quiet staircase round the back of the school, and riveted to the book. What I remember is reading this passage:

"As he stood there peering into the room, surprised to find it empty, the door behind him closed. Perhaps by itself, but Leamas made no attempt to open it. It was pitch dark. No sound accompanied the closing of the door, no click nor footstep. To Leamas, his instinct suddenly alert, it was as if the sound-track had stopped."

My reaction to this was absolutely visceral. I remember feeling frozen to the spot - somewhat like Leamas himself. At the moment when the door closed I am pretty sure that the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. In my memory, this is when I knew that I would go on reading this author. 

There is a way in which memory flows in all directions, in time or in our lives (and I am not sure that time is linear, although we perceive it as such). What I don't know is whether I remember such moments so clearly because they pointed the way forward, or whether they have later taken on a greater significance. I'm not sure it matters. 

There are many, many le Carré moments in my life. I remember reading Absolute Friends on a Mallorca beach holiday 15 years ago with my parents, when my father had finished reading it. I remember reading Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy exactly ten years ago while visiting my friends in Japan, and being utterly confused but knowing that it was going to be important. And although I never met him, I was fortunate to see le Carré four times. The first was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's Southbank, in 2008, when he gave a talk for the release of A Most Wanted Man. I cannot forget the thrill of seeing him walk onto the stage. In 2011 (I think) he read from The Spy Who Came In from the Cold on Trafalgar Square, for World Book Night, saying "I want you to imagine that this is the Brandenburg Gate". Later that year I saw him at the premiere of the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy film, and I was as delighted to see him as I was to see the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth (or very close!). And in 2017 I was in the second row at the Royal Festival Hall, a night attended by a cross-section of the literary and artistic world, when he gave a spectacular speech about his life (and George Smiley's) for the release of A Legacy of Spies. The advantage of living in London is that your life can be full of such highlights; le Carré's appearances were especially bright ones, for me. 

In the past ten years, I engaged with le Carré's work more intensely than I had previously done. I have joked that moving to south London and, for a while, having a view of MI6 from my window had an effect, but it's actually possible; geographic locations have quite an powerful effect on me. Although I had been writing poetry for about as long as I'd been a le Carré fan, I also started writing poetry more intensely in the past ten years, and publishing. Here and there, I also found his influence creeping into my work, whether in the occasional poem actually about spies, or in some acerbic tone or wry observation. Le Carré loved poetry, too. In The Russia House, he quotes Stevie Smith and Theodore Roethke in the space of one page. Our Game references Osip Mandelstam. The Honourable Schoolboy opens with Auden's famous lines: "I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn,/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return." Perhaps most tellingly, George Smiley loved "the lesser German poets". 

I have realised that we create a kind of internal genealogy for ourselves. We find the things that matter and they become linked together into a system or a map, and that is who we are, at least in part. The lamplight falls especially brightly, or at least with a particular light, on certain people, places, beliefs, concepts and artistic works on our map. John le Carré's works reside in one of those pools of light, for me. It is very hard to now say goodbye. 

Image: John le Carré at the 'Zeit Forum Kultur' in Hamburg, 2008. Photo by Krimidoedel. Used under Creative Commons license

Saturday, 28 November 2020

Remembering Paul Celan, 1920-1970

November 2020 is the centenary of Paul Celan's birth, and in 2020 it is also 50 years since he died. I have often written about him in this blog, but it has been lovely to see him widely commemorated this year and especially in this past month, even if many events had to be moved online due to the pandemic. And this has its advantages - in the past couple of weeks I attended a couple of excellent Celan events from Deutsches Haus in New York, despite living in the UK. 

While Celan's poetry is often considered difficult, he has managed to gain legions of readers who haven't been put off by this discouraging label and who often (like myself) can't read him in German, the language in which he wrote most of his poetry. Sometimes if I'm looking at Twitter late at night (a bad habit) I find myself searching to see who's tweeting about Celan all over the world (a good habit, or at least a better habit). English is by no means the dominant language, and I'm not sure German is either - he seems particularly popular in Spanish and Turkish. 

Celan's identity is very difficult to pin down in any way. He was Jewish, but that isn't necessary the dominant influence on his work (although it is massive). He was German-speaking but not German. He was Romanian, but his hometown of Chernivtsi is now in Ukraine. His greatest poetic work came from years in Paris, and he worked as a translator with many languages. All of this has probably succeeded in making him more universal. His poems are like radio transmissions directly from his mind and heart, in an new language, untranslated, somehow and mysteriously unmediated in a way that is different from most other poetry. The silences, gaps and elisions in his poems are also like the moments when the radio waves break up - but they are entirely deliberate, an essential part of the work of art, at times the most essential.

My love for Celan's work has sometimes puzzled me. He is not particularly like any other poet or writer that I love. The fact is, though, that he is simply not much like any other poet or writer at all. While his work evidently poses many extreme difficulties for translators, there is no question that the emotions carry across and pierce through. Celan's poems can seem surreal or abstract but they often refer to very specific people, places, events. To know him fully, perhaps these need to be unpicked to a level most of us never will reach. And yet Celan himself said that his work could be understand if readers would simply engage and read the poems again and again. At one of the events I attended, the author Paul Auster said that Celan's intellectual prowess was immense but that the defining factor and what has made his work so loved was the spirit, the emotion that burns from him onto the page. The Celan expert Christine Ivanovic said that even when you engage deeply with Celan and read him again and again, there will be texts that you don't understand, but you still live with the words. This has been entirely my experience. I have lived with Celan since my late teens (which seems to have been a crucial moment at which many enthusiasts and experts encountered him.) I love and admire translations by dedicated translators such as Pierre Joris and John Felstiner, but in English Celan truly lives in me through the work of translator and poet Michael Hamburger, because that was the encounter from which everything else followed. There is always an encounter with Celan - there are many encounters and they persist and can last for a lifetime. He once wrote "I see no difference between a handshake and a poem," and this despite the extraordinarily personal and often mysterious nature of his work. 

In some way I think about Paul Celan and his words every day. I feel as though a small, dedicated area of my mind (or perhaps more accurately, my heart) is occupied with his poetry all the time, even if I may not have read him for a while. He influences my own poetry and beyond that, he takes me to a Celanworld of such unique specificity and beauty that it hurts. His words are a place where no one else had ever gone and where we can all go now, across the threshold. "Louder whirring. Nearer glow. This world and the other." (from 'Under a Picture', translated by Michael Hamburger)

Here are a few of his poems to read if you haven't before or if you wish to revisit him.

Image: Paul Celan's passport photo, 1938. Author unknown. 

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

My poetry reading with Chris Kerr and Nisha Bhakoo on Thursday, 19 November

On Thursday 19 November (yes, tomorrow!) at 7 PM GMT (UK time), I will be reading my poetry on Zoom with Chris Kerr and Nisha Bhakoo, both poets who are also published by Broken Sleep Books.

Each of us plan to read for 10-15 minutes and it would be wonderful if you could join us from any time zone in the world that permits it.

The reading is free, but you need to register through Eventbrite and then you will receive the Zoom details to join the event.

To register, please go to the Eventbrite event page here: 

Friday, 2 October 2020

In memory of Derek Mahon, 1941-2020


Today I am looking at the London rain and crying over the loss of Derek Mahon, who has died at the age of 78. 

Mahon meant as much to me as Heaney, if not more. He was a wry and delicate poet, a great stylist who could make a photograph in your mind or share a personal event and radiate it outwards to larger meanings. I have been reading him for decades and I cannot believe he is gone. So many of his poems are close to my heart. 

I would have a hard time choosing a single favourite poem by Mahon - so many come to mind, including 'Courtyards in Delft', 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford', 'The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush', 'Dog Days' - the list is long. 

One of my strongest contenders, however, is 'Kinsale' - a perfect short poem which captures a place, a mood, and optimism in the face of Ireland's difficult histories. 

Here is a video recording of 'Kinsale' released just a few weeks ago, read by Tony O'Donoghue and produced by Made to Measure Films Kinsale. I love this poem dearly and think of it often. 

I will always miss Derek Mahon. 

Photo: Derek Mahon in Moscow, 2010. Photo by Marina Masinova. Used under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 4.0

Thursday, 1 October 2020

National Poetry Day 2020: Vision


Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, and the theme for 2020 is 'Vision' or 'See It Like a Poet'. There are many wonderful resources and poems available on the National Poetry Day website, and a lot more out there generally on the internet (even more so than usual this year, of course...) 

Wandsworth Art has done a 'Wandsworth is poetry' feature to mark the occasion, and delightfully, I am included as a Battersea/Wandsworth poet, alongside excellent contemporary poets and the greats of the past such as Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy. You can read it here: 

(Thank you so much to Hilaire, another poet who lives locally, for getting me on this list!) 

Black Bough Poetry's 'Deep Time Volume 1' issue, published in print during the summer, is now also online and includes my poem 'Open Ocean'. You can download it here. Buying the print issue is also highly recommended, particularly as the artwork is beautiful and more so in print. You can buy it here in the UK and also on Amazon in other countries. 

Muse Pie Press, who have published several of my short poems over the years in Shot Glass Journal, recently crowd-sourced a 'pandemic poem' from writers who they have previously published. We were asked to contribute a line responding to our feelings about the COVID-19 pandemic, which could then be woven into a long poem. You can now read the ambitious and startling result here. I could ask you to guess my line, but rather than do that, I'll tell you that it's 'Waking to light's anxiety - the distance of all things'. 

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Victoria Kennefick: 'Cork Schoolgirl Considers the GPO, Dublin 2016'


I recall first reading Victoria Kennefick's poem 'Cork Schoolgirl Considers the GPO, Dublin 2016' at least a couple of years ago. The poet is from County Cork, Ireland, and the poem was first published in Poetry Ireland Review in 2016, around the 100th anniversary of the Easter 1916 Rising. (The GPO, or General Post Office, is one of the most famous buildings not only in Dublin but in all of Ireland, because it was the headquarters of the Easter Rising.) Now, you can both read and listen to a reading of the poem here, on the iamb website: 

This is absolutely one of my favourite poems of the past several years. In 20 lines, Kennefick captures humour, pathos, history, and the total insanity of being a teenager - the latter being possibly the most difficult accomplishment of all. 

The poem pays tribute to "those boys in uniform" but it also captures the problematic ways in which our countries teach us history: "all the men of history sacrificing/themselves for Ireland, for me, these rebel Jesuses." This obviously isn't a particularly healthy perspective, but what brings me close to tears in these lines is also how true it is to how teenage girls think, or at least some teenage girls. Falling in love with dead heroes is just the kind of thing a lot of us did at 16. At the end of the poem, when the speaker says "I put my lips/to the pillar...I kiss all those boys goodbye", we understand that some day she'll look back at this as a crazy, sentimental, teenage moment. And yet, we also kiss those boys goodbye along with her and we feel the poet's empathy for those in history who were lost to war, and her equal empathy for the wild emotions of the teenage years. 

Image: The shell of the GPO on Sackville Street (later O'Connell Street), Dublin in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising. Date: May ? 1916 NLI Ref: KE 121

Sunday, 16 August 2020

New poems up on Anthropocene

 Once again, distraction takes charge: I think I was pretty convinced that I had already written a blog post about the following.

I've had a couple of poems published on the Anthropocene website, another excellent online journal published by Charlie Baylis (who is also Chief Editorial Advisor with my publishers Broken Sleep Books. Yes, I love saying "my publishers".) You can read them here:

Anthropocene is a very impressive journal which has also published the likes of Vahni Capildeo and Mark Waldron, among others. As for my poems 'Brush Pass, Royal Albert Hall' and 'Scarlet', it will come as a surprise to hardly anyone that the first one is inspired by spies and the second by Sherlock Holmes. Especially in the case of 'Scarlet', though, I think you could read them outside of those contexts and still find a way in. 

Rereading 'Brush Pass, Royal Albert Hall', which I wrote a while ago, made me miss the Proms terribly in this pandemic year. In a "normal" year I always go at least a couple of times and usually feel as though I should have gone more. The Gallery, in particular, with people wandering up and down and behaving mildly oddly, is an excellent location for the discreet exchange of secrets.