Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Langston Hughes' "Not Without Laughter"

Just recently I read the book "Not Without Laughter" by Langston Hughes (1902-1967). I bought it in the U.S. last year (possibly when we were in Memphis...) and most likely because I knew the name Langston Hughes but had never read anything by him. I think he's best known as a poet but this is a prose book – the story of a young boy, Sandy, and his life in a small Kansas town in the early 1900s. It is about family life, the racial prejudices of the time, poverty, work, music, education... in some ways a fairly straightforward coming-of-age novel (first published in 1930).

However although "Not Without Laughter" is a slim book (about 200 pages) I would have to say that it is, quite simply, one of the best books I have ever read. I would guess that a lot of the material is from Hughes' own life and yet it still feels very much like a fictional story. It is very moving and yet it isn't at all sentimental or cloying. It is beautifully, delicately written and yet it spreads its aim wide too (the reader witnesses many different points of view via Sandy, his hardworking Grandmother, his lovelorn mother, his upwardly mobile aunt, his downwardly mobile aunt, his various friends and employers...). And all this is encapsulated in such a small book – it's a real piece of work. I can't believe I've never come across it before.

It did make me wonder why some schools don't study this instead of the inevitable "To Kill a Mockingbird" (or at least as well as - they would make great companions for study)? Maybe I'm out-of-date (I hope so), maybe this is different in other countries... but when I did some teaching in England (not that long ago) it was still Lee's book that was high on the list and there was no sign of this one. Aged 15 or so (back in the early 1980s) I studied Harper Lee's classic (and loved it) but how much I would have loved to have read "Not Without Laughter" too. Whilst Lee's book has racial prejudices as a central theme (if in a southern town and set slightly later in the 1930s) all of the main characters are white whereas in "Not Without Laughter", instead of the black characters being bit parts ("Mockingbird's" accused Tom Robinson), they are centrestage. And "Not Without Laughter"s clever Sandy is every bit as a strong a child-narrator as clever Scout (even if the book does lack the high drama of "Mockingbird's" court case). So why is this book so little mentioned (over here anyway... is it better known in the US, American readers?). This is not to say that kids shouldn't study "To Kill a Mockingbird" (not at all) but just a wonder about balance, about how some writers and books get the label "classic" and read for ever whilst others get forgotten, overlooked, passed by.

Unless of course this is just my ignorance and everyone else knew this book but me. Is that the case?

Here's a bit from "Not Without Laughter" (from near the end as Sandy approaches adulthood):

"I don't blame him," thought Sandy. "Sometimes I hate white people, too, like Aunt Harrie used to say she did. Still, some of them are pretty decent my English-teacher, and Mr. Prentiss where I work. Yet even Mr. Prentiss wouldn't give me a job clerking in his shop. All I can do there is run errands and scrub the floor when everybody else is gone. There's no advancement for colored fellows. If they start as porters, they stay porters for ever and they can't come up. Being colored is like being born in the basement of life, with the door to the light locked and barred - and the white folks live upstairs. They don't want us up there with them, even when we're respectable like Dr. Mitchell, or smart like Dr. Du Bois... And the guys like Jap Logan well, Jap don't care anyway! Maybe it's best not to care, and stay poor and meek waiting for heaven like Aunt Hager did... But I don't want heaven! I want to live first!" Sandy thought. "I want to live!"

To finish off here is Hughes reading one of his poems:

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Quite a week

New Poetry Bus magazine cover - “Red Wolf” by Abby Diamond

The Monday just gone was my 45th birthday and whilst some birthdays can be pretty crappy this recent one was really quite enjoyable. It started well on Sunday night when we managed to see the Aurora Borealis out of our bathroom window. We didn't get any great pictures – partly because it was all a bit last minute (“get the camera!”, “where's the tripod?”) but it was amazing to see it anyway (our first time). It seemed a good early birthday present.

I remember back on my (very drunken) 30th birthday saying I'd like to try and see the Northern Lights on my 40th. The thing was that once I got to that next milestone I had other priorities so instead of Mother Nature's greatest light show I managed a (very welcome) trip to the Glasgow music festival Celtic Connections in 2007 (saw Kate Rusby and Crooked Still – both grand). All this considered, I thought it very considerate of aforementioned Mother Nature to arrange the lights for my 45th. Better late than never.

On my birthday itself (this year) ever-thoughtful and beloved man took the day off work and away we went to Aberdeen to just be somewhere different (we like that)... to look at stuff, eat, drink fancy coffee, watch a movie. A friend had recommended “The Artist” so we caught a matinée of the silent one (friend was right – it is a gorgeous film). Whilst the star (Jean Dujardin) is great and the little dog cute-as-cute a lot of the gorgeousness, it must be said, is down to the actress (Bérénice Bejo) who is simply stunning (and on screen a lot so why she is nominated for Best Supporting Actress and not Best Actress I have no idea). It did make me remember once again that whole “male gaze” thing I studied years ago though and how so often, in movies and in life, women are pretty much allowed to be beautiful/sexy above all else (depressing) whilst men can be “interesting”, “tortured”, “deep”... all sorts of things... as well as beautiful/sexy. People debate about this don't they (has it got better? has it got worse?) and to an extent it depends which film you saw last (I saw “Bridesmaids” the other night on DVD... it had some good moments and certainly not all the actresses were out of the cookie cutter... but still... it was just a rom com with a few feistier bits... everybody did get their guy in the end...).

Anyway, all that considered I did really enjoy “The Artist” – the music, the acting, the writing (not many lines as such, obviously, but still a lot of writing in there somewhere!). You really have to look and concentrate on it (and I liked that). I especially liked that for much of the early part of the film we could hear the guns of the First World War (coming from a nearby screening of “Warhorse” I imagine). It added another dimension of strange (and I like that too).

Then we went home, ate fish and chips (lovely), ate chocolate birthday cake (delicious – thanks cousin, Jo!) and, as if my day wasn't going well enough, there, amongst the post, was my copy of the new Poetry Bus magazine! Hooray!

If you haven't ordered a copy of the new Poetry Bus yet you can do that here (and don't forget you get a magazine and a CD too). I haven't read the magazine at all yet but I listened to the CD yesterday and the pieces that first jumped out at me were the ones by Quincy R Lehr, Pamela Clarke Vandall, Paul T Dillon, Kalle Ryan and Kate Dempsey (though it should be noted that not all poems from the magazine are on the CD, as before). I'll be interested to read the magazine now and see how my first favourites hold up as I get to the know all the writing in the magazine better. I was very excited to hear the song “Happy Ending” by the Watercats at the end of the CD too (I am more and more of a fan of theirs – I wrote about them not long back, here) and in a way the CD needed it because there's a lot of sad stuff on there – a lot of winter, a lot of wrong... another reason Kalle Ryan's lovely, funny “The Night Before...” spoke loudly to me on first listen I suspect. Also listening to the CD I was horrified to learn that I seem to have picked up a bad case of “poet's voice” (ugh! Where did that come from? I never used to do that...). Maybe I'll get someone else to read for me next time (if there is a next time...).

My poem in the new PB3 is “Mélodie” which I wrote for the old online Poetry Bus so I'm glad it's found a new direction. I first posted it here (and you can see the, ahem, intended lay-out there...) and I was interested to go back and read the comments it provoked (y'all were too kind!). It was especially interesting to read, PB editor, Peadar O'Donoghue's comment (“poetry is pain”) and on a more personal note it was a bit weird to see that I posted that poem on 29th May 2010... and that my Mum died on 14th May 2010! I guess I was still in shock...

Anyway, you can see some of the Dublin launch of PB3 here and the rest here (though you might want to fast-forward now and again... unless you really like watching people buy Guinness). It was funny to see our editor in the flesh, as it were (after all this time...) and I don't want to get soppy here but I so love what Peadar does with the poetry magazine format. I love that he does a CD (yay for audio... well, apart from my voice obviously...). I love that he writes “yabbadabbadoo” in the introductory 'words from the editor' (poetry editors can be soooooooo up their own seriousness...). I love the artworks he chooses and the music and the mix of poetry (though a rhyme here and there wouldn't kill you, you know...). And will I (once again) change my mind when he doesn't pick a poem of mine for one of the issues..? Will I hate his guts and want him slaughtered by bedtime? Possibly but let's not think about that right now...

So, here I am... 45 and, thus far, enjoying this (bus) ride over the hill. Next stop Boo Hewerdine at the folk club here tomorrow night.. and here's one of his many lovely songs (it matches the name of this blog too):

We get slower but maybe we get better at the same time. Well, we can hope.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Moving words

Some time before Xmas Mark rented a film I'd never heard of – 2009's “Invictus”. This movie, directed by Clint Eastwood, stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela (see above) and focuses on the year South Africa hosted (and won) the Rugby Union World Cup (1995). To be honest, not being much of a sports fan, I didn't even know about this particular part of South Africa's history, why it was important and so on. I'd never even heard of the team's captain, François Pienaar (Matt Damon in the film), although Mark insisted that I have been in the room when he's been on TV (it's amazing what you can blank out... especially when it involves balls...).

Anyway, we watched the film and I really enjoyed it (even with all the running about and throwing of things). It's pretty hard not to enjoy watching Morgan Freeman though, isn't it? He seems to be one of those movie stars who you could watch doing just about anything. And it seems like he's even a nice guy too – when we were in Mississippi last year we visited the blues club he owns in Clarksdale (see back here). It was a great place – friendly and welcoming. We added our names to the wall (you were allowed to... indeed encouraged to).

But my subject this post is not really Morgan Freeman... it's poems in films/movies. I've written about other poems-in-movies before (e.g. a Sharon Olds poem being used in 2007's “Into the Wild”, back here) and it's strange because whilst often I don't really feel part of "poetry" in any sense (hence the no-go-to-poetry-festivals-urge discussed in last post) sometimes... when I'm watching a movie and a poem gets used (in a good way) I do feel a weird kind of what must be, at least in part, poet's pride. In “Invictus” much use is made of a poem that Mandela read in prison (and let's not forget he spent 27 years in prison – hard to imagine that perhaps... 27 years!). The poem is also “Invictus” (trans. unconquered) by a not-particularly-well-known-or-fêted-these-days English poet called William Ernest Henley (1849-1903 worth reading about him, the inspiration for Stevenson's Long John Silver, apparently...). How proud I felt (for some almost indescribable reason!) that a little old poem helped Mandela through the hardest of times! And how happy I was (ecstatic!) that it rhymed (have I bored you with how many people have started the response to my new writing project with “well, I don't really like rhyming poetry..?”). Still, suddenly I don't care any more! Mandela loved a rhyming poem! This very good movie featured a rhyming poem! Was I getting too carried away with this..? Losing sight of the movie itself..? And Henley wrote free verse too, you know (even way back then!). And "Invictus" has had some less impressive associations (see here and read down to "influence"...). Anyway, back to Mandela and the movie, here is Freeman reading “Invictus” (other longer clips with more of the film won't embed but there is one here if you want it):

And the text of the poem is below (though for some reason in the version Freeman reads “chance” in line 7 seems to have changed to “fate”... maybe there are different versions...):


Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbow'd.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul. 

by William Ernest Henley

There is a webpage listing lots of movies that feature poems here (though it doesn't have everything by any stretch) but I wondered... do any of you have any favourite poetry-in-movies moments? And please don't ALL mention “Four posh weddings and a gay funeral”... (though I do like the poem they used... and they used it well... ). So..?


Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Festivals and hate

the sky here on Friday 13th... apparently it gets called a "mackerel sky"...

So, tickets are on sale for Scotland's StAnza poetry festival. Since we moved to Scotland in 2002 I have been to the festival most years (apart from last year, obviously, as we were far, far away - oh, how lovely that was!). Since I've been blogging I've mostly written about what I've been to see/hear at the festival too (2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010... seems I didn't write anything that year... I think I only went to one event). But this year..? I just don't feel the urge to get down there and soak up the poetry. I could bore you with moans and groans about why that might be... but no! There will be no moaning and bitching on the internet for me! No! No! No!

If I did go this year I'd probably try to hear the delightful writer Jackie Kay (go here for a lovely video of her reading “Old Tongue” - packed full of Scottishness). I would have liked to embed the video but it wouldn't let me (lots of other poetry videos here). Instead I'll embed this one... a song we were singing this week thanks to the TV show “Glee” (season 1 first shown here in 2010 but h got the DVD for Xmas – and loves it!). In the show it is sung by Amber Riley (playing Mercedes) but this is the original from 2007. Apparently Jill Scott, who is also a poet... and an actress, wrote it about finding loads of hateful comments about herself online. It's a great song - and what a way to turn bad into something better!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

How my Granny inspired Beyoncé... and other true life stories

My Granny and Beyoncé... but what is the link? Read on... read on...

One of the nicest things about my Mum was that she was genuinely more interested in other people than she was in herself. I think maybe that's not a very fashionable feeling just now, is it? It may even have got to the point where if people do feel that way these days they don't like to own up to it very much... like it's not very 21st Century or something to not be obsessed with yourself (the push, the shove and all that...). But back to Mum... after a tricky start in life she pretty much always spent her time doing things for other people – whether working with children in an official capacity (she was a social worker just after WW2) or working with people of all ages in more unofficial ways. One of my friends said to me after she'd died that my Mum was the first person who ever really showed her that all children deserve to be loved. It made me choke when she said that (partly realising how often I'd not appreciated her...). She was a good soul, my Mum, strong, patient and caring.

Partly because of this interest of hers in other people our house is full of biographies (many of her possessions are still here – it was her home for her last six years of life). For Xmas and birthdays “any good biography” was always on her short list, somewhere near the top. Chocolate was usually on the list too – partly because after a life positively peppered with sadness and bereavement she had learned the lessons that Michael Rosen refers to (see last post) and she knew well to have that one happy thing a day (if not more if possible). For her that thing was often chocolate-related (though cake would do too).

Now she's gone it does sometimes seem that the cliché is true and that I am turning into my mother (at some speed...). I'm hoping to get the good bits and bypass some of the snobberies she picked up along the way (“well, did you go to university, did you, did you?”) but it does mean that I have got a few biographies on the brain too just now. Mum liked literary biographies most of all but for me it's often music that wins the day. I have, for example, recently read Nile Rodgers' autobiography “Le Freak”. It looks like this:

I hugely enjoyed “Le Freak” as it is a monster of a life story (and it's not over yet – though Rodgers is seriously ill). I've loved Chic's music since I was about 11 (see here) and knew about their work with Sister Sledge of course (see my first poetry postcard – back here) but I didn't know he'd worked with so many other artists too (in the book there are details of working with Diana Ross, Bowie, Madonna - all on key albums). Even before all that though the tales of his childhood and adolescence are really worth reading. Rodgers is a person who isn't well known (partly his choice) but I'm glad I got to know him a bit through the book. He was quite the hedonist too (as well as a hard worker) and I've never minded a bit of hedonism myself. You can hear Rodgers talking about his 1970s on Johnnie Walker's radio show this Sunday just gone (here) but it's only available till Sunday and his bit starts well into the second hour of the show.

For my second biography... this Sunday on Cerys Matthews' radio show she read Philip Larkin's poem “For Sidney Bechet”. This made me look up more about jazz musician Bechet... and then order his autobiography “Treat it Gentle”. I have told you many times how much I love Larkin – I wrote about him on the old blog regularly and even got him into a nightclub in a poem here and wrote him a toad poem here. Larkin's Bechet poem goes like this (text here) – and this clip is worth it for the intro by Larkin alone (Matthews used it too):

And then, as if that wasn't enough, recently writer Lemn Sissay reviewed Gil Scott Heron's memoir “The Last Holiday” (here). So now that book has gone straight to the top of my birthday wish list! I will not be able to leave the house at all soon – too many lives in here waiting to be read about.

Finally one more life... my maternal Grandmother (though I mainly called her Granny – her photo at top of the post). Born in 1900 she was originally named Ivy but she changed her name to Frances once she was in a position to do so. My Mum said this was because she considered Ivy a “servant's name” and wanted to sound more sophisticated (she came from a Wiltshire country family, nothing flash, and she wanted to get the mud out of her hair... or something). She was very beautiful, by all accounts, a dazzling redhead, a flapper and once away from the fields she went on to be married four times (I've told you before that widowhood is a big thing in my family). Ivy/Frances died in 1979 when I was 12 but our girl (the younger redhead) is fascinated by names and so is always asking about this name change of her great Granny's (fancying, no doubt, what names she'd choose for herself, given the chance). We were talking about it just this week and I happened to say “the way fashions work the name Ivy will be back in fashion at some point”. And then Beyoncé (and Jay Z) had their baby... and lo, an Ivy was born (Blue Ivy, but Ivy all the same). So you see, this Mum was right... you wait long enough and everything comes back in fashion eventually! Even Ivy...


Friday, 6 January 2012

Ups and downs

In mid December Helena Nelson recommended a book on facebook. It was this book:

“Michael Rosen's Sad Book” by, well, Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake.

Sometimes there is something about a recommendation that just makes me reach for the “order” button straightaway... and this was one of those times. I can't even quite describe the formula that makes for “order straightaway” instead of “think about it for a bit” but I know it's some kind of blend of the following: tastes I know I share with the recommender, emotional state at the time, finances... and a whole lot more besides. In this case I hardly read a thing about the book before ordering it. I just clicked... and then got on with bloody Xmas preparations. Man, I'm glad that's over.

Anyway. The book. When it arrived I was quite surprised because... well, it looks like a kids' book (as I said I read very little about it before ordering). I knew Rosen wrote for kids but I knew he'd done all kinds of other writing too and I suppose I expected this to be something more... adult... with more words. But in the “Sad Book” (2004) there are very few words really. It's a simple book about sadness – largely the sadness brought on in Rosen when his teenage son died in 1999.

I don't want to write a whole lot about it – though there is much I could say... about death... and depression... and pharmaceuticals... – but the book really says it all so I would just back up Helena Nelson's recommendation and say “yes, get this book – for your kids, for kids you know, for yourself, for adults you know”. I think that really the best kids books are for adults too (if not more so) and vice versa (some content depending...).

The illustrations are just perfect. For a start Michael Rosen actually looks like a Quentin Blake drawing in real life (something also mentioned in this article about the book) and that is some relief in our world of ever-more plastic people. I read the book with our girl last night and we talked about the pictures (she knows Blake's style well from Roald Dahl books, like many kids). “They're kind of childlike” she said (getting very fancy now at 11...). “Well, yes, but in a good way,” I said. And I realised that she may be growing up but I am definitely going in the other direction (but then I was one of those kids who wasn't really a kid at all... unbearable, no doubt).

One of my favourite bits in the “Sad Book” is the section where he tells himself how to cope, how to carry on. There are four suggestions/instructions:

“I tell myself that everyone has sad stuff. I'm not the only one. Maybe you have some too.

Every day I try to do one thing I can be proud of. Then when I go to bed, I think very, very, very hard about this one thing.

I tell myself that being sad isn't the same as being horrible. I'm sad, not bad.

Every day I try to do one thing that means I have a good time. It can be anything so long as it doesn't make anyone else unhappy.”

All sounds pretty sensible to me.

And if you see it with the illustrations you can see that the thing he's proud of (in the book) for point 2 is cooking a roast dinner – which I loved! We can all do that, right? H and I tried the suggestions last night – what were we proud of for yesterday? What had we done to make us have a good time? It was simple... but effective (my catchphrase...). Try it tonight. Try it every night...

And finally, I heard this song on the Cerys Matthews radio show on New Year's Day (well, actually on replay a few days later). How did I ever miss this one?

Labi Siffre from his 1975 album “Remember My Song”. He's not an artist I've known much about in the past (didn't even know that Madness' “It must be love” was his song...) but I will be learning more about him this year...

In the meantime here's wishing you happiness... and strategies to get through sadness too. It can be done. For the most part.


Sunday, 1 January 2012

And in with a poem...

So – Happy New Year friends and visitors. 2012... sounds kind of dramatic, doesn't it? This time last year we were just about to set off on our big 6 month trip abroad but right now we have no such adventurous plans. This year will see our girl move into high school (adventures of some kind for her in store, no doubt - it's her above with her film guide xmas gift...) but for us adults it will be... well, who knows? Just another year? Something completely different and unexpected? One thing I do know... at some point I will have to decide how much of 2012 I am going to spend trying to do something with the huge poem I have just written... a lot, a little, none at all..? Will it be wasted time? Does anyone really want a 142 verse rhyming poem in 2012? For now I'm avoiding thinking about it. We've still got visitors, girl is still off school, there are lots of other things to do and think about...

One good thing is that I've managed to read a little over Xmas. Lately I've been reading one of my presents (Nile Rodgers' “Le Freak”... he of Chic – a great read, what a life story...) and before that I read “The Room” by Emma Donoghue. I'd never heard of Donoghue's 2010 book until it was recommended by Kat Mortensen a little while ago (who told me nothing other than it was something like brilliant/unusual) but soon after that I spotted a copy in a charity shop and so paid a whole 99p for it. It's got quite a best seller look to it and whilst in theory I don't have anything against bestsellers (who wouldn't like to write one..?) in practice I do often find that they're a bit slight or predictable or something else that doesn't work for me. “Room”, however, is every bit as good as Kat said it was. And though it starts off fairly grim it has so much else going on once you get into the story. You can find critiques of the novel around of course, if you look for them (especially highfalutin ones) but I'd have to say that there are sections of it that I really loved and I found the central character (who to me was Ma, much more than the young narrator, Jack) a magnificent portrayal of a young woman. The book is about many things and that's partly what makes it good. Yes, there is the story of the room (which you'll either know about or you won't... as I say I had read or heard nothing about the story and I'm sure this helped me get more out of the book... I went in with no preconceived ideas) but there is so much beyond it too – about family, childhood, relationships, modern society. It's not everybody’s idea of Xmas reading but it worked for me. There's only so much Santa I can take.

One character in “Room” quotes poetry now and again. First there is a bit of Louis MacNeice's “Snow”, later a bit of T.S.Eliot's “Burnt Norton” and then there is a little from this poem by Emily Dickinson (punctuation and so on below from Faber & Faber's “A Choice of Emily Dickinson's Verse”, 1968):

The Soul selects her own Society ―
Then ― shuts the Door ―
To her divine Majority ―
Present no more ―

Unmoved ― she notes the Chariots ― pausing
At her low Gate ―
Unmoved ― an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat ―

I’ve known her ―from an ample nation ―
Choose one ―
Then ― close the Valves of her attention ―
Like Stone ―

by Emily Dickinson

And that's it for today. Good wishes for 2012... and beyond.