Thursday, 22 November 2012

Other people's poetry - Sharon Olds

This week I gave a poetry reading at a local "social club". "We're just all old ladies", the organiser said to me on the phone at one point (or something like that). "No 'just' about it", I replied (or a more stumbly version of that sentiment) — she obviously didn't know that any audience is a good one for a poet and if it's forty good souls, sat there patiently and politely and offering you tea and biscuits at the end, well better still! I had a great time... and I think some of them did too. I talked about life and poetry for an hour and even sold some books (hooray — buns for tea!).

I'd decided that, for a change, I'd read a few poems by other poets as well as just my own work this time so I spent quite a while looking through some of the books and pamphlets and bits of paper in my possession in the past couple of weeks. In the end the 'poem by someone else' that I most enjoyed reading was "I could not tell" by North American poet Sharon Olds (you can read it here, it's from her 1980 book "Satan Says"). I'd given the whole event the general theme of "all the things a poem can do and be" and Olds' poem went into the "say the unsaid" section. It is one of the things I like most about poetry, I think, that it can sometimes say things we might not feel we can say in other ways or places. This poem is really about responsibility and the complications it involves and that's a subject I think about quite a lot anyway so the poem has kind of hung around me since I first read it years ago (the copy I have is just a photocopied one from a library anthology... I don't even own any of Olds' books... maybe I'll change that some time soon). After I read it yesterday and watched the reactions I had that "wish I'd written that!" feeling that a person gets sometimes. It makes you work harder if you channel it right, I suppose.

Olds' poetry isn't to everyone's taste... she makes some people uncomfortable I think and she writes a lot of what you might call personal poems. Indeed I certainly haven't liked everything of hers that I've read but then I'm not sure I like everything that anyone has written. I'm not sure writing works that way, if we're really honest with ourselves about our reactions. I have mentioned Olds on blog before though — when this poem appeared in the film "Into the Wild" for example — and if you're interested there is an online interview with her here. Plus look at this photo... I'm sure I once read some nonsense about how "women over a certain age" shouldn't wear their hair in bunches... well, Sharon Olds laughs at your stupid rules, fashionistas (and so should we all!).

Sorry! Photo had to be removed. It was the one you can see here. Great pic!

And, to finish, some interesting quotes from the interview linked to above:

"I suppose the mission of every poem would be to be a better poem than I am capable of writing."

"it’s fine to make things that aren’t okay"

"As a child I was a very successful liar" and

"My first really vicious review I believe I cried, threw up, slept, woke up, and started writing again. But I took the hit. Someone wanted me to stop doing what I was doing, but it didn’t work."

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Another Sunday

So just last week it was that thing called Remembrance Sunday... much talk of peace, the end of war, remembering the horrors... and then already, just a week later, war is back on the news agenda, big time (not that it really went away... of course... does it ever?). And in this case the war in question, the Palestine/Israel conflict/situation, is one of those subjects where feelings are so strong that it's hard to see any way-out to anywhere... as far as the outside observer is concerned. In fact I remember back in the late '80s when I was at university and quite involved in politics (student cliché no 732) there were two issues that caused the most heated, never-ending debates and one of those was Palestine/Israel (and the other was abortion rights... also back in the news this week, thanks to that horrific incident in Ireland). As women's officer for the student union I was much involved in the latter debates (and got used to arguing, fairly pointlessly, with glassy-eyed young men who knew they were right because Jesus told them so... or something) but I was less involved in the Israel/Palestine debates (mainly because there were large, heavily-informed teams on both sides so I wasn't really needed). I sat in the room for many of those debates though and boy, were they going nowhere towards workable solutions then (and, on the whole, nothing seems to have changed... ). Maybe I shouldn't write about it at all. Probably. It is one of those subjects people really fall out over.

So anyway, the photo... the photo at the top of the post is a war memorial in the grounds of the now-closed mental hospital at the top of our street. I walked past it last week and was interested to know if anyone had visited it to lay any poppy wreaths or anything now the hospital is out of business. There were no wreaths but there were a few paper poppies stuck into the stone. Here are the close-up shots:

and finally... even closer... and almost too packed with meaning...

Who needs poetry?


Monday, 12 November 2012

Talking pish

St Cyrus beach, Aberdeenshire, 7th November 2012

I omitted to mention on here the other week that there is a series of short interviews with poetry folk on the Passionate Transitory right now. Mine is here but there are lots of other friendly blogging types on there too. I think I win the prize for being "least enthusiastic about poetry" (doubt there is one...) and I am aware that it really isn't my first love at the moment. It doesn't really bother me too much... it will probably be back... and currently I'm not even reading prose very much (which is very unusual). Other stuff afoot... just the way it goes.

I did however fall in love with this song this week. It's a straightforward, maybe even resorting to country clichés kind of a thing. Still, I liked it... must be getting old.

And the post title today? Just one of my favourite Scottish phrases... and I suppose it could refer to my interview!


Monday, 5 November 2012

From the onions of Dundee... to the daisies of Fife...

Awaiting Onions...

So, this weekend I went to not one but two music events! Hurray for live music! Hurray for getting out of the house even though it feels like winter! And hell, while we're at it, why not mention a hurray for having power to the lights and amps when our American cousins in New Jersey (literally, they are our cousins) are still sat in the dark and the cold waiting for the power to come on... (added later - power just back on, 8th November).

The first event I got to was the much anticipated first showing for Pauline M Hynd's new project The Onion Club in Dundee on Saturday night. Pauline has been mentioned on blogs of mine before - she took part, for example, in an event I organised in Edinburgh back in 2008 (Postcards from the Song). She stole a fair amount of the show on that night in '08 ("who's she? She's brilliant!" said McMillan and other poets after her set I seem to remember) and it's true, she is pretty brilliant and she proved that again this weekend with a marvellous night of music. Here she is at work (photos by Mark but apologies that they're not up to usual standard... broken camera + dark + sitting right at the back because that's where the disabled seats were and one of our party that night uses a wheelchair = not the best shots ever... also he wants a new camera for xmas...):

For the Onion Club Pauline is working with pianist Stephen Lee on what they describe as "a theatrical event through which we re-imagine the songs of iconic artists such as David Bowie, Nick Cave, Brecht & Weill, Lou Reed, Goldfrapp and Billy MacKenzie and set them alongside original work within a 'dark cabaret'". And the event (this presentation entitled "Adieu Mon Coeur" anyway) was pretty much as promised... some props, some costume changes and a lot of very dramatic, moody songs matched with dramatic moody lighting and art... 

Except it was a whole lot more than that too. Anyone can have a go at dark cabaret (and many do) but not everyone can pull it off as well as Pauline and Stephen Lee did in Dundee this weekend. Split into two halves the show consisted of, firstly, the more stylized performance part of the event and then, secondly, Pauline back with her beloved guitar singing a few original compositions and a few local favourites. Here are just a few good things about it (for me, especially the first half):

The piano playing was superb (I didn't hear a bum note and Lee gave off more than a hint of that winning combination — the unassuming genius...). 

The singing was delightful, playful, passionate, professional. 

The humour was subtle (easy to go the other way in cabaret...). There wasn't a lot of talking but what there was worked perfectly.

The slides/backdrops were truly quirky and well-chosen (especially one chosen to honour Dundee's recent loss, Michael Marra, see last post). 

The songs showcased were an interesting choice of new and old. There were ones I already know and love (by Antony & the Johnsons and Bowie...), ones I know and like (Weill/Brecht's "Alabama Song"... though of course many of us know it best from the Doors version...) and then ones I've never really taken notice of or almost disliked before (Goldfrapp, for example, have never been favourites of mine and the show opened and closed with their songs...) but somehow it didn't really matter what you or I liked or didn't like... because they all made perfect sense in the setting of this show (and it was a show... in the proper sense of the word). The whole presentation was just... magnifique really. And I suspect Pauline was a little disappointed that the venue wasn't full but really we were quite a big audience it's just that the venue was bigger! I did wonder if another venue might suit the Onions better for future shows (the pluses of the Gardyne Theatre being accessibility, bar, big stage and proper lights/sound, the down side being the rows of seats when really every cabaret needs tables und chairs, darling, don't it?). But that's for them to decide and really what I'd like to say most of all is just "bravo, brava, bravo". Well done all round.

Particularly well done because I know this must have been a tough time for Pauline of late. Not only have she and her family not long since lost her own Mum but the recent death of Marra must have hit everyone hard too (he was a friend and inspiration to so many in Dundee). Here's a pic of Pauline, later in the evening, singing Marra's song "Alphabet" (a new song to me, online version by some Marras here):

No videos of the Onion Club online yet that I know of but I'll post some up here once there are. I should also mention that there was a support act on stage before the Onions themselves — an "alternative" Irish drag act from Sligo called Claudia Shifter ("alternative" was her word and it indicated more Leonard Cohen than ABBA in the routine, amongst other things, so she told us). I did enjoy this part of the night (quite funny, couple of good songs, nice wig, good audience teasing) but it was a little... rough round the edges compared to the star turns later on (sorry, Claudia... don't hate me...). Was it her first time performing out of Ireland (she didn't seem sure what material to use)? Was it the big venue... the giant stage... because Claudia did seem happier when joined by a member of the audience on the maracas (I mean, aren't we all?). Was it that I've seen material by other alternative drag acts (some who wouldn't even thank you for the name "drag"...) who would eat the poor love for breakfast (Chloe Poems... David "scare the bairns" Hoyle, once the Divine David). Anyway, maybe a bit of gentle drag is better than eating others for breakfast, what do I know... Here's a pic of Claudia:

And I must share this with you — when I put Claudia's name into a search engine it mentioned a competition she'd been in where other contestants were called Cher Guevara and Tyra Wanks. Don't you just love drag names.

So that was Saturday... and then on Sunday I even managed to get out to the almost local boozer here to catch a set by Fife's Coaltown Daisies (I posted a song of theirs not long back here). Again there was fine singing, good playing (some lovely guitar solos added in by Montrose's own Gary Anderson too) and strongest of all for me, from Vivienne Bern and Lynzy Moutter (for thems the Daisies), an impressive standard of songwriting (theirs are guitars'n'feelings songs... but of a much higher quality than your average gigging band/songwriter). At one point Bern called a song of hers, "Fly by Night", her least favourite/worst song and all I could think was "well, if that's your least good song... then that just shows how good the rest of the songs are!"

And then it was home... home to reflect... home to get the bairn to bed... home to sleep.