Thursday, 19 September 2019

Differences





Napoleon and me

You walked so fast.
It was more of a march.
A whole lot of cannons
To inspect by teatime.

Quel odd city break
For an offbeat couple –
Private angry young man,
Smart barrel of a brat.

Half-brother, half-leader,
I tried to decipher.
But what you’ve never felt
Is a story, no more.

Our family was a bag
Of broken biscuits,
Though all cookies crumble,
Eventually.

We are nothing now.
No trace of relation.
You’re a souvenir ghost,
An empty shell.




RF 2018


No poems from me recently, in fact even this one has been around for a while, just never made it out into the world (apart from a reading in Glasgow last year). I can't say much about it. I hope it is of interest to someone.

Tomorrow I plan to join the Climate Strike protest here in Dundee. Let there be change!


Saturday, 27 July 2019

Bloody words





As someone who has dared to put poetry out into the world now and again, I have already been asked by various friends and acquaintances about the recent edition of the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs (DID) that featured the poet John Cooper Clarke (JCC). I have been asked if I like him, did I listen, do I think he’s brilliant, all that sort of thing, but somehow I have found it hard to respond with anything like quick and easy answers. I was never a punk so didn’t come across him at gigs as many of my contemporaries did, but I have been aware of him for years now (thanks to the kind of media coverage few poets experience) and I have liked the poems I’ve heard. He is sharp, funny, like no-one else in poetry that I've ever come across and pretty much in alternative national treasure territory by this point so I don’t go into any kind of criticism lightly. And yet, here are some thoughts in response to the programme in a fairly long, easy-to-ignore blog post. Insert smiley face emoji here. 

Firstly, yes, I did listen to the programme. I love DID (as presented by Kirsty Young or Lauren Laverne anyway, some of the earlier hosts have not lasted well…). I even wrote a poem about listening to the show a little while back. I’m not saying it’s a great poem (it’s not) – it’s just a tiny tribute. The show, at its best, is a marvellous thing (try the editions with Victoria Wood, Whoopi Goldberg, George Michael, Jackie Kay, Wendy Cope, Lemn Sissay and many more if you don’t believe me). There is a ‘klaxon’ thing on Twitter for ‘people who have just discovered Desert Island Discs’ and are very excited about it. Every episode is on the BBC i-player for those who have access to such things.

Also, yes, the JCC episode was a good listen. He is very entertaining (and I say that as a good thing - no snark at all) and he has had an interesting life (though to be honest most people have had interesting lives, this is not the preserve of writers and other success stories). Also JCC and I have some things in common (North of England raising, more illegal drug use than some, a tendency to go for laughs and dirt rather than other people’s ideas of perfection, a keen interest in music, songs and singers) and so, partly due to this, there are lots of things about his public persona that make me smile (the accent, the humour, the refusal to be simplistic about drug use – and I say ‘persona’ because I have no idea what he is like when not in public). I especially liked the section in JCC’s DID about his poem being used in The Sopranos because I remember being so thrilled and surprised when I heard Evidently Chickentown at the end of an episode. For that crabby Northern English voice to make it onto such a huge, influential US show – it meant a lot, it even sent the word 'Chickentown', sampled I suppose, into a poem of mine called Home is where (and that poem made it onto the first Poetry Bus magazine… hi Peadar!). So I am, in many ways, a fan.

But the problem for me in this interview came early on with the introduction of the thorny topic of poems and politics (or political poetry). The presenter (Lauren Laverne…another voice from the North of England, buckets of energy and excitement on her new Breakfast Show on 6 Music) started off with “Your poems aren’t political - Why not?” and I so wish she hadn’t. JCC’s answer (I suspect not for the first time) was: “Because I think the poetry and the politics suffer for it, you know, anyone who can be converted to a particular world view because of a poem (laughs) – I think they’re looking in the wrong places for whatever it is they want. But to hitch your poetry to any particular political wagon is always a mistake. Because poetry is forever – you write a poem and it’s out there and you can’t unwrite it and politically, well, you know, one can change one’s mind many times a day.”

So many points in there to disagree with! For a start he takes such a small (and I might also say old-fashioned) approach to the word ‘political’. Just by chance this week I came across another reference to the subject in a Barbara Kingsolver lecture from 1993 (Jabberwocky in the book High Tide in Tucson, 1995): “Cultural workers in the US are prone to be bound and gagged by a dread of being called political, for that word implies the art is not quite pure. Real art, the story goes, does not endorse a point of view. This is utter nonsense, of course (try to imagine a story or a painting with no point of view), and also the most thorough and invisible form of censorship I’ve ever encountered.” As an unashamed bleeding heart, I love Kingsolver's books. Like many writers and artists, she has a lot she wants us to think about, a lot she wants us to do something about and I don't think that's a bad thing.

I imagine JCC was not looking for a big debate about this, perhaps he was tired of being asked this question, perhaps he just isn’t interested in seeing things in this way but, for me, it does explain why I’ve liked some of his poems but never loved them. I like political poems (political art of all kinds) and partly because I see strong political content as making the work more interesting, not less. This doesn’t mean I want to read propaganda and I do also understand the argument that says people aren’t going to change their view because of a poem (although I think, in fact, that they often do, maybe not on the huge issues – “I was a fascist until I read Carol Ann Duffy but I’m OK now” – but political change can be, and more often is, a long, slow process and art can be involved in that). 

Also political poetry isn’t only about changing minds but is very often about encouraging people, telling them they are not alone, telling an untold story, being the unheard voice, or part of a whole host of other political activities. JCC has been the unheard voice himself (in terms of the accent, the rebel, the unacceptable face of culture becoming the mainstream), though I’m guessing he’d rather not think about it in those terms (wouldn't we all love just to be amazing and divorced from our circumstances now and again?). As an aforementioned bleeding heart (and proud of it – I nearly called a book of poems ‘On my sleeve’) I will also go out on the stretcher that says that almost everything is political (in some way or other) – our decisions, our behaviour, the things that we don’t think are political at all – and in the current climate (indeed in any climate) I don’t think it’s honest, especially with writing, to suggest that you can escape this. You can think you are escaping it, for sure, but then you get ill and need to see a doctor (and guess what, politics has affected when you will be able to see one and if you will need to pay for it). Thinking that there is anything outside of politics is a story we tell ourselves to try to feel better (even to survive sometimes, in a bizarre twist) and it is understandable that we do this (now as much as ever) because so much party politics/political activity in the news is disgusting, on the one hand, and ridiculous, on the other. But of course turning away from it doesn’t mean it goes away. The stuff keeps on happening no matter how many box sets we hide behind.

So, all things considered I couldn’t really concentrate on the rest of the JCC DID after that ‘political’ start and that’s why I’ve found it hard to respond to in general conversation (not everyone wants an answer this long - largely people just want you to smile and say 'yes'). I do admire JCC in many ways (not that he cares about that I’m sure) and I suspect that, in part, like Bob Dylan, he initially resisted being put in a box that said ‘political’ because of the scene he was first associated with and some of the less than inspiring ‘political’ work he heard from others as part of that scene. But for me ‘political wagons’ are so necessary (what would we rather have – no progress, no rights, no welfare?) and, whilst I can love a love poem*, I do think a good political poem is one of the finest types of writing there is (see Adrian Mitchell’s To whom it may concern or Maya Angelou’s And still I rise for established examples, and yes, I went for Serena reading Angelou). Many poets writing just now are coming up with fierce company for these poems – and note I say ‘company’, not ‘rivals’ – again the words we choose are political in themselves and poetry does not need to be another battleground (we have plenty of those).

Just recently I was listening to my very favourite radio show (Sunday mornings, Cerys Matthews, BBC 6 Music) and one of her guests was the poet Raymond Antrobus. He read his poem Jamaican British and though I knew his name, that he had just won the Ted Hughes award and had heard him on the radio before, the poem he read (and a couple of lines in particular) just flew out at me (I won’t give you a spoiler – the poem is here if you don’t know it already). It is personal and political and there is nothing stronger. And Antrobus is just one of many exciting writers working today - go to any poetry or open mic event around the country these days and you will hear a lot of strong political work. Not all of it will be great of course…there will be clichés (there will always be clichés!) but that happens to everything we make, there are always weaker copies of great work, people just starting out etc. and I don’t think we should let a few half-baked poems put us off a whole kitchen. Political poetry is not a subgenre to be embarrassed about – it is a lively force, a necessary current, the source of much power and reassurance and hope and direction. Out and about, here, there and everywhere, there are new things being said, amazing turns of phrase and eye-opening changes. And we need them.



*Added later - we tend to differentiate between love poems and political poems but of course a love poem can be (and often is) political too. 

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Ships and things




Not much posting on here just now. Not much writing in general, truth be told. But that's OK. Lots of other people are writing fairly regularly so writing doesn't need to feel neglected or anything. I have been working (not writing-related), going out and about, trying to be more alive and less afraid (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't...).

Still, some of my poems live on apparently (in my own mind, in the minds of others). Yesterday somebody quoted a bit of this old thing back to me so I thought maybe it could take another look out at the world. It's not in either of my books or online anywhere that I know of (though I think it was once on MySpace...). It is number 5 in my list of poems (I like a list) and the total to date is 519 so I must have written it a good while ago (maybe 1998?). Those years were a bit blurry though so I can't be sure. It is from my 'no punctuation at all in poems' period too. I miss those days




The Ship

More than a TV show
People have very different interpretations of this word
Friends

To me 'we're friends' means
I value you as a person
I see you as an equal
I am not better or worse than you
You have qualities I admire
That draw me to you rather than to others
I want to do things for you
And relax knowing that we will help each other
I trust you
Because you are my friend specifically
Not an unknown quantity
Or a floating voter
But a supporter
Supporting me whilst I'm supporting you
We're a feat of physics
A natural phenomenon
Proof that people help each other
For reasons other than finances and self-interest

I believe all this
Sometimes it seems stupidly
This word friends
Maybe I read too much into it




RF, way back when.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

A cup or five







Reusing

Years ago, if I saw the word ‘coffee’ in a poem
I would groan and shift in my seat
At the tired cliché of a weary writer
Reflecting over a hot beverage, possibly abroad.

But now I, too, am tired like words, lost like sense,
And coffee calls from every side.
From choppy chains to specialist brews,
I buy it, drink it, know it’s too late.


RF 2019


Not many poems of late but here is a little one. And I NEVER post photos of food so here is a part of a recent birthday lunch. It was a bit frozen in the middle but that is January birthdays for you (and the company was good).

(Added later) And I forgot to say that this one makes me laugh (if no-one else) because there used to be a running joke with a Leeds friend about a 'latte' coffee being pronounced 'late' (early days of Starbucks in the city I think...).

x

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Xmas Number One



Two years ago I posted a Xmas poem on here. And behold... it is now a Xmas song (courtesy of Kinnaber Junction/Gary Anderson). Enjoy. Other song poems here.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes...

It's not a real leaf.


So much change here... moving home... new places... new job... just too much to compute at times. And no new poems, not since the last post, but a few pics on the old instawhat'sit and other such excitements. 

Also, on a poetry tip as it were, I will be reading/performing poems at an event in Glasgow on 4 December. It is at the Project Cafe from 6.30-8.30 pm and other poets on the night are Hugh McMillan (the Mighty!) and Jim Mackintosh (can't comment... will be meeting/seeing/hearing him for the first time). It is a free event so no excuses... unless of course you live on the other side of the world or something. I am just hoping the train there isn't so crowded that I end up getting off at Perth or Stirling and having to bus/walk/hitch the rest of the way... that is the kind of thing I do... 

More after that event perhaps...

Monday, 20 August 2018

Music and moving - the local folk club edition

Links Hotel, Montrose (the 'suite' where the folk club takes place anyway)

In less than a month we will be moving house (and let that explain the recent lack of blogging and all other forms of modern communication). We are not moving too far (an hour or so away… by car) but it is a big move in lots of ways and I am pretty excited about it. It’s not that I don’t love this area (we are currently just on the edge of Montrose in Angus) but we have lived in the same place for a long time now (14 years in this house, 16 in total in Angus) and I am a moving-about kind of person. It feels so right to me to be finally emptying these cupboards and packing boxes and thinking about change.

Montrose has been an amazing place to be. For a start it has huge (often empty) beaches and long sunny days and amazing skies (ages ago I wrote a very little poem about the latter called Looking up in Montrose – you can find that, along with a few other poems, here). There are various places of interest nearby too if you’re mad for wildlife (St Cyrus, the Basin) and it is a just a very pretty little town (or a ‘bonnie wee toon’ as I find myself saying more and more… and the more I say it the less strange that version feels in my mouth… I’m not doing it on purpose… I am just less English every day). But one of the things I will miss the most when we move on is the local folk club as it has been important to me in so many ways (social life, cultural life, musical life, philosophical life, poetry life...). For all my time here it has been run by the same person and held in the same venue (the Links Hotel), though there have been changes to the hotel over the years. The ‘stage’ for the club, for example, has been in different rooms and different parts of the same room… and you only need to know this to understand what I’m going on about in the poem at the end of this post... if you stay with me that long…

When we moved to Montrose I was 37 and I had never been to a folk (music) club. I didn’t grow up listening to anything that I would have called traditional or folk music though I had, I suppose, gone through phases of listening to some folky artists, like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, but that had mainly been a private kind of listening and I don’t think I ever knew what to call that kind of music (I’m not sure I still do..). In 2004 in particular I was in a period of recovery from listening to far too much house music and so really at that point I was happy to listen to anything that didn’t have an endlessly banging drum machine (and therefore a folk club was the perfect antidote – I think I’ve seen one drummer there in 14 years and only odd flashes of a drum machine…). I have gone to the club more or less regularly for all our time here and it has given me so many great nights of music and taught me so many things. It has been a very good friend.

Ours is the kind of folk club that takes place every fortnight and invites a guest artist or band and gets them to play, on the whole, two sets of 45 minutes or so (many are Scottish but certainly not all... lots also from Ireland, England, the US, Canada, plus an Italian, some Australians, New Zealanders...). There are also support slots now and then and, most weeks, an opportunity for locals to do a song or two in the middle part of the evening (or maybe even a poem – if they're really cheeky…). The quality of the guests’ music is phenomenal – amazing musicianship, often excellent songwriting of their own and, almost always, they tell a good tale too so you get a very broad experience, much more than just a few hours of music. After all these years I have learned to appreciate the stricter traditional instrumental music (though I can’t say I will continue listening to it all that much) but some of the singing (and the songs – both old and new) will definitely come with me (in my memory, in my hard drive…) and will remain an important part of my life. I can’t even start to list some of the great artists I have heard at the club (some of them you might have heard of, many others you won’t) but I suppose I could mention (once again) how without Montrose Folk Club I would never have heard the incomparable Michael Marra. I saw him 3 times in Montrose (and once in Dundee) and I have mentioned before my poem about his performances at the club and local songwriter Gary Anderson’s version of that poem turned into a song.

So to get to the new poem… quite a few years ago I wrote a poem about the folk club (called, shockingly, Folk club) and you can read it, if you want to, at the end of a long rambling post at the old blog (it’s here – the poem is in my first book More about the song too). That blog post (very long, very full of… something I don’t feel much anymore…is it youth?) also details how and when I started reading poems aloud during the open mic/floor spot part of the evening at the folk club and all that that meant to me (a lot… ). And as I sat in the folk club last week (enjoying a wonderful night of music and raconteuring from Findlay Napier…up from Glasgow, down from Grantown-on-Spey…) I thought maybe I should try to write an updated version of my folk club poem – something to read (as a thank-you) in a couple of weeks’ time when I go down to hear the Delightful Squalor Trio and maybe say a few good-byes (if temporary ones, we’re not moving that far away). And so I wrote another poem and you can read it here. It isn’t fancy – that’s not the folk club way (not in Montrose anyway). Thanks for reading.




Montrose Folk Club (2018)

Well, the hotel has changed
And, of course, so have we –
Our faces, our places,
The way that we see.

The bar’s still expensive
And yet here we are.
We turn to the music,
Our comfort, our star.

We sit (never dance!),
Put our stories on hold
As we laugh, hum and cry
With the new and the old.

It’s all “tell us a good one”
And “play us a tune”.
Because winter is coming.
Yes, even in June.

The quicks and the slows
And the chairs are the same.
We are nothing but folk.
There’s a clue in our name.

It’s a club, but it’s not
And the rules, they are few –
Just listen and drift,
Be a more rounded you.

There is one other note
And again it will rhyme –
You’ve been kind to this rambler,
So thanks for the time.




RF 2018 



Montrose folk club's website is here. There is a facebook page too.