Denise Riley – Say Something Back

Full Disclosure: Saw Riley read at the Scottish Poetry Library in May this year.

“The only constant is a commitment to the thing that is song. This is in some way linked to the persistence of hope. Then as I get older this whole business of ‘song’ only becomes still more mysterious. It is a plain bright mystery.” – Riley, interview in Shearsman (2014).

Review: Say Something Back is Riley’s first poetry publication since her Selected in 2000; since then she has been more regularly published as a scholar of language and feminist theory. A great many poems in the new book seem to originate as critical or creative responses to other poets and artists; a cursory glance turns up Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Heinrich Heine, Michelangelo Antonioni, Wallace Stevens, the singers Little Eva and Johnny Nash, the writer of the biblical Proverbs, Yeats, Shelley, Neruda, Wordsworth, Blake. It’s perhaps remarkable that Riley has produced a book of such emotional immediacy and intimacy among the shadows and echoes of other highly revered artists; the overriding presence of so many major works of grieving or solitude may be artistically enabling for Riley, their commitment to song (or something like song) a last redoubt against silence. Perhaps they are part of the book’s ability to literally ‘say something back’. The book’s title and epigram, for example, is from WS Graham’s Implements in their Places’, another site of complicated exchanges of impression/expression:

‘Do not think you have to say
Anything back. But you do
Say something back which I
Hear by the way I speak to you.’

Graham supposes that he understands his companion by the modulations in his own responding voice. The exchange is fulfilled only by its continuation: he speaks to ‘you’, who does not have to say anything back, but does, which he hears in his own speech; in four lines Graham has made a little perpetual motion machine, expression that creates expression, understanding that creates understanding.

1 Corinthians 13:11 reads:

‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. [12] For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.’

It’s a complex little passage, not least in the English translation’s rendering of time; it’s not immediately apparent in verse 12 which is the action of the child, and which the adult, and the latter line about knowing and being known seems a continuation of Graham’s thinking. Here’s how Riley renders those lines in Say Something Back’s first poem, ‘Maybe; maybe not’:

‘When I was a child I spoke as a thrush, I
thought as a clod, I understood as a stone,
but when I became a man I put away
plain things for lustrous, yet to this day
squat under hooves for kindness where
fetlocks stream with mud – shall I never
get it clear, down in the soily waters.’

For a kickoff, this is a wee bit marvellous. It rejects Saint Paul’s neat moral system, literally muddying the waters between innocence and maturity. After reading the rest of the collection, the image of the poet under a horse’s feet, searching for understanding mostly in vain in horse-water feels emblematic of the book’s repeatedly failed attempts at finding solace; the lament or frustration of ‘shall I never / get it clear’ is beautifully ambiguous. Emphasis is as much on ‘repeatedly’ as ‘failed’, however: like Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, part of the book’s emotional power (and Say Something Back made my heart sore like few others have) comes from Riley’s capacity to face one disaster after another and stay standing, stay saying.

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A cynic, of course, might read this as a bit of an echo chamber – surely what is said is at least as important as its being said at all. This tension between comprehension-by-expression and outright futility is, I think, at the heart of Riley’s sequence ‘A Part Song’, an elegy for her son. Much has been written on the sequence already, not least in Steph Burt’s excellent piece for Poetry Review; Burt describes how these poems ‘find force by seeking accuracy, and never minding whether they’re awkward: they are like rigorous twelve-tone compositions that, somehow, also work as pop songs you can hum’. It’s an apt comparison: ‘A Part Song’ functions in part by tiny, subtle shifts in tone that simultaneously make it stranger and truer, discordant and real. Riley’s control over these shifts allows her tableaux to run from profound understanding of aging and dying:

‘Each child gets cannibalised by its years.
It was a man who died, and in him died
The large-eyed boy, then the teen peacock
In the unremarked placid self-devouring
That makes up being alive. But all at once
Those natural overlaps got cut, then shuffled
Tight in a block, their layers patted square.’ (part (iv))

to a tiny, haiku-ish sigh of a thing:

‘Dun blur of this evening’s lurch to
Eventual navy night. Yet another
Night, day, night, over and over.
I so want to join you.’ (part (xiv))

What each of the registers in ‘A Part Song’ have in common is a complete economy of vocabulary. Even when words or phrases are jarring and awkward, they still fit, they do their allotted work. In most poems ‘Dun blur’ and ‘navy night’ would sound overwritten or lacking weight, but here they are part of a broader network of meaning, and in the realm of this section of the poem, counterbalance the blunt force of that last line. Here’s part (ii):

What is the first duty of a mother to a child?
At least to keep the wretched thing alive
– Band
Of fierce cicadas, stop this shrilling.

My daughter lightly leaves our house.
The thought rears up: fix in your mind this
Maybe final glimpse of her. Yes, lightning could
.

I make this note of dread, I register it.
Neither my note nor my critique of it
Will save us one iota. I know it. And.’

This section is characteristic of Riley’s tone and attitude – bleak humour, self-correction, a capacity to confront the horrendous and render it (almost) mundane, to recognise one’s final powerlessness except in one’s continued survival. It documents the grieving mind (heart?) in action, and with heartbreaking economy lays out an entire dramatic arc in the poem’s last four words. I don’t remember anyone writing so little and saying so much. In part (v) the stakes are matter-of-factly life-and-death:

‘A fat-lot-of-good mother with a pointless alibi: ‘I didn’t
Know.’ Yet might there still be some part for me
To play upon this lovely earth? Say. Or
Say No, earth at my inner ear.’

That ‘inner ear’ speaks as much to me of balance as of the imaginary-audible (note the ‘lovely earth’ on one hand and the funereal/burial earth on the other), and the turn between pity and the refusal of pity, solace and the refusal of solace, still makes my stomach drop on third, fourth, fifth reading. These lines read like a private rumination, with all the cruelty and clear-eyedness we reserve only for our own low ebbs, finding our own weak points and pushing down hard.

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This reading alone, however, overlooks Riley’s wit and humour, which is no less precisely deployed, and no less legitimate as proof of the genius at work here. The first lines of part (vii), for example: ‘Oh my dead son you daft bugger / This is one glum mum.’ This line-and-a-half feels like a pressure valve being released, a sheaf of drafts being torn, the poet throwing up her hands and summarising her project as glibly and reductively as possible. There’s a kind of delight behind their dull thump. The book is full of these moments, as the poet unweaves literary mystique and renders her own writing/grieving as ‘idiocy – this banging on and on / Against such shiny crimson unresponse’, ‘my prancing and writhing in a dozen / Mawkish modes of reedy piping’, ‘where next could this call turn, massing and purpling as low thunder, though just / whiny to stopped ears’. It reminds me of Sophie Mayer’s ‘Silence, Singing’, a lyric essay connecting patriarchal attitudes to prayer, grieving and women’s voices, particularly how ‘stopped ears’ respond to the latter. Mayer connects Mary Sidney’s ‘De Profundis Clamavi’, her ‘ernest, vehment, cryeng, prayeng,’ to the cultural devaluing of women’s voices Anne Carson discusses in ‘The Gender of Sound’. In Mayer’s words:

‘no-one likes to hear a woman’s ‘vehment, cryeng’ – which is too often how women’s writing is apprehended. Confessional, over-emotional, nonsensical, hysterical. But Mary Sidney insists that ‘cryeng’ is also ‘prayeng,’ a protestation of the individual relationship with God – or, in a secular sense, the right to speak and be heard.’

Riley seems absolutely in conflict with this cultural impulse to be silent, and her willingness to express the barbs of an internalised critic but lament publicly anyway is a deeply heartening protest. In ‘A Part Song’, Riley does what few male poets ever do in their elegies; not just addressing the form’s prosaic inefficacy at reviving the dead, but questioning her own capacity to honestly turn private mourning into public art with a straight face. By poking holes in her own enterprise she seems to push away from the grand works of mourning of the canon (one poem is titled ‘Oh go away for now’), and hold fast to her own sense of proportion and perspective. However self-mocking or self-negating are Muldoon’s elegiac epics, they remain epics, not least in scale; they retain the ambition of grabbing a reader by the lapels and pointing at how seriously they take their solemn playfulness. Riley’s ‘one glum mum’ is content to wager her ostensible literary skill, to bank on us reading her duff notes as strategically duff. In other words, Riley puts into action the right to cry vehemently and be heard.

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Outside of its opening sequence, Say Something Back is a series of short lyrics about loss, with a few commissions/occasional pieces – to my reading ‘The patient who had no insides’ is one of the weaker sections, for example, but maybe does important work in providing breathing space among the denser lyrics. The book doesn’t exactly follow a narrative, and I’m fairly confident that two different readers could pick their favourite half-dozen without their choices overlapping. They are, happily, exceedingly quotable:

‘The souls of the dead are the spirit of language:
you hear them alight inside that spoken thought’ (‘Listening for lost people’)

‘Next you’ll expect me to take you around
introducing some starry goners. So mother
do me proud and hold your white head high.
On earth you tried, try once again in Hades.’ (‘Orphic’)

‘It sits with itself in its arms. Out of
the depth of its shame it starts singing
a hymn of pure shame, surging in the throat.
To hold a true note could be everything.
Getting the hang of itself would undo it.’ (‘An awkward lyric’)

These selections, of course, distort the lines’ meaning by taking them out of their full context. I’m personally drawn to moments where Riley allows herself to be boldly declarative, gothically dramatic, or more openly parabolic; these moments are so powerful, however, because of the sheer struggle to give them voice, and quoting them in part kinda misses the point. I think this might be at the core of the book, the reason why critical opinion (thus far) seems so unreservedly positive; yes, this is a book of mourning, of near-hopelessness, but it’s also a book of survival, of unexpected beauty. Here’s ‘Percy’s Relique; on the Death of John Hall’s Peacock’:

‘Rare! Raoaark! Rare! You were adornment.
You were Brook Mill. Its visitors were yours.

You Shelley to us duller poets, Percy. Flare!
Go, glittering!’

The sudden full-hearted goofiness of celebration is breathtaking. I’m more than aware of my optimistic tendencies, so I’m willing to conceive that this might be a selective reading, but I take the final words of the book as its last word on grief:

‘What to do now is clear, and wordless.
You will bear what can not be borne.’

The poem holds in balance what can and cannot be survived, perhaps lending equal weight to both meanings. Say Something Back bears the unbearable with wit, humour, moments of blazing intellectual strength; whether it was written with this effect in mind is, I suppose, ultimately academic: this is one of the most thoughtful, generous, authentic accounts of grief and its survival I have ever read.

Tl;dr: Say Something Back is extraordinary, a book of real significance that I can’t recommend enough.

Further Reading: Interview with Riley in Shearsman

Review by Steph Burt in Poetry Review

‘Silence, Singing’ by Sophie Mayer in The Wolf

PDF of Anne Carson’s essay ‘The Gender of Sound’

Padraig Regan – Delicious

Full Disclosure: Have met Padraig a couple of times. Stephen Connolly, one of the Lifeboat editors along with Manuela Moser, is a pal.

Review: Padraig Regan’s pamphlet Delicious opens with ‘10 Game Fowls after Juan Sánchez Cotán’s ‘Still Life with Game Fowl, Vegetables and Fruits’’. Almost all the titles in Delicious follow painterly conventions – ‘Love Poem with Sandwiches’, ‘Red Interior with Savoy Cabbage’, ‘Vanity with a Breakfast of Apples’ – and all are arranged in a neat justified block down the centre of the page. There is tension between the poems’ formal and dramatic artfulness, their luxuriant vocabularies and exquisite syntactical angles, and their homeliness, their close-focus/high-stakes tableaux.

’10 Game Fowls’ embodies this tension, its single sentence divided across two stanzas. The first is a verbal exploration of Cotán’s painting, drawing out the still-life’s lines of action, reconstructing the painting’s directions for its own reader/viewer:

‘Five of the six sparrows tied
to a pole have turned their
heads to where a bundle of
orange carrots bruised with
purple, or purple carrots
blushing, underline a few
inches of black space &
describe a trajectory to the
base of a white cardoon
whose architectural sweep
curves towards a pair of
partridges displaying the
tincture of their azure chests
& putting to shame a pair of
finches which intersect
between the partridges &
the apples suspended on
individual strings which
twist together like a maypole
adjacent to where the black
background snags on a twig
with three radiant lemons &’

I think it’s worth trying to read this aloud, figuring out where breath falls in such a dynamic, multifaceted sentence, its ostensibly arbitrary breaks in the poem’s short lines keeping the eye and ear moving too fast to fully process how much strangeness is going on. The poem is precise to the point of pernicketude, as each straight-faced detail – splitting the difference between bruised orange carrots or healthy purple carrots – builds a scene of either unbearable richness or unparseable confusion. What seems clear is that the poem cares deeply about not just the painting’s cast of characters but their relationships, investing the birds with partly comic, partly grim agency in their turned heads, displays and shames.

The poem, like many in Delicious, is an odd creature. The care with which these elements have been arranged follows no specific logical or emotional thread that I could follow, barring documentary accuracy; all that is apparent is that painstaking care is at work. Deliberate emphasis on care: I believe Delicious is one of the finest books of comfort, of self-care, that I have read in some time. More on this later. What matters in ’10 Game Fowls’ is that pleasure is there to be taken in the arranged beauty of these dead animals, perhaps in the face of their death, in the sensuality of ‘bruised’, ‘blush’, ‘tincture’, ‘azure’, ‘radiant’, and the conclusion the poem has been building towards, the stanza-break’s formal hiatus after that last ampersand:

‘all this above the plinth
where Juan Sánchez Cotán
has faux-engraved his
signature & added the date
1602: one year before he
gave up eating the flesh of
beasts & fowls & joined the
Order of Carthusians in
Granada.’

The poem doesn’t resolve exactly; Cotán’s decision is given far less space than his lush still life, its inner dramas are far more active and involved and strange than his mere ‘gave up’. Yet the Cartuja monastery in Granada is famed for its baroque architecture, and for its view over a city itself renowned for its glamour; turning away from flesh and aristocratic patronage is not necessarily a turn from beauty. If Cotán’s choice is partly framed as an act of negation, it casts no particular judgement upon him, no more than it judges the sparrows for turning or not turning their heads towards the bundle of carrots. To be blunt, in the right hands even carrots are beautiful.

AW2

Similarly, ‘Epithalamium with Peach Melba’ reads at first like a hymn to decadence, with its references to the dish’s creation by the Duc d’Orléans in honour of an opera singer (Nellie Melba), and a line from Wagner that translates as ‘this sweet-smelling room, decked out for love, now takes you in’. The poem embodies the gaudiness of the scene – ‘a swan / sculpted in ice with the space / between its scapulars // mounded with ice-cream & / peaches’ – the chime between ‘sculpted’ and ‘scapulars’ suggests that the poem, like the duke’s dessert table, is relishing the act. The register then shifts into a kind of aspirational housekeeping guide, advising the reader to ‘Serve it on the patio, in cut- / glass 20s bowls so your guests / can marvel at the contrast / between the orange peaches // & the deep cerise of the / raspberry sauce.’ You might not have ice-swans, but you can still dazzle the neighbours. The poem offers one last option:

‘If
nothing else it sure feels great

to slip your thumb under a
peach stone & push it out. & if
it tears & a little sticky juice
spurts from it,

remember that it is only a
prelude to the moment you bite
in. Remember that eating is
always an act of theft.’

The last line is surprising, but perhaps a logical conclusion; dressing up the peach til it’s fit for nobility does not erase its basic, survival function. Posing this kind of (perhaps) moral question in a poem that clearly enacts – and takes pleasure in enacting – material excess is a complicated business, maybe vital to the book’s aesthetic: does poetry’s formal decoration distract from its own survival function? Does Peach Melba distract from the peach? If eating is an act of theft, can it be enjoyed with a clear conscience? Yet these closing stanzas clearly move a rarefied experience into an accessible realm, the markedly casual ‘it sure feels great’ within earshot of a duke. The answer, I think, is that acknowledging basic moral compromises is not to refuse the question altogether; recognising the complexity inherent in even the most elementary acts is kind of poetry’s bag.

So, too, is there a complicated relationship between what the poet reveals and does not reveal about their own fictionalised self. Though many poems in Delicious seem to originate in a biographical sphere, the construction of a poetic self is very much secondary to the poems’ drama. ‘Love Poem with Sandwiches’ describes a plan to inscribe titles like ‘Nocturne with a Bottle of / Sparkling Wine or Aubade / with Figs & Water Glass’ on slices of bread:

‘& feed them to this guy I
was dating because the first
time I saw him naked in
daylight the hairs on his
belly reminded me of that
texture you find at the centre
of a loaf when you grip the
crusts & pull it apart.’

That ‘because’ is doing an unseemly amount of heavy lifting. The association is clear enough – downy body hair is like fibrous bread – but the justification for (comically-sinisterly) ‘feed[ing]’ the guy poem-sandwiches is absent, and the reader is left with both an intimate daydream and more questions than when the poem began; the ‘because’ is beside the point.

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Likewise, ‘Bowls, Plates & Cups in a Garden with a Shower of Rain’ actively obscures some apparently vital information. In prosaic terms, the poem describes a dropped bowl of soup rendered alien by their fall out of context, but the poem moves on all too quickly for such a mundane possibility to sink in, the single sentence running away towards its emotional, if not exactly narrative, conclusion:

‘in the hope that among
the cubes of pepper, red
onion & cucumber I might
find a few more details

to piece into the story which
I know ends with me in an
all-night self-serve restaurant
in Madrid five years ago

pale & sweaty under the
fluorescent tube-lights’

The ‘I know’ seems key, drawing a line between what the poet knows and what the poem needs the reader to know. The sudden arrival of this memory is what matters, and not the any number of narrative possibilities it might suggest. This too, I think, is contiguous with the book’s generosity: what matters is not an intricately crafted poetic self in performance, but an emotional space for the reader to encounter on their own terms.

So, the matter of care. Delicious is certainly interested in care in an explicit sense; ‘An Exhibit Illustrating the Life of Neolithic Man’ concerns a lie the narrator told ‘you’ about whether the taxidermy was real, and the fallout from this lie:

‘I’m tasting
it still when I can’t
distract myself from all
the stains of all the lies
I’ve ever told & that
I’ve listened to,
knowing that they were
lies but desperate to
accept them. & the
next time we talk
they’ll be there, taking
the shape of a ceramic
bird which neither of
us will recognise.’

Here, the poem’s surface drama is its emotional drama. Trust is broken, the damage is not only done but made into an iconic form. Yet it came partly from a place of kindness, a wish not to hurt ‘you’, or at least to avoid having to confront ‘you’ with a difficult reality. The narrator recognises that a well-intentioned lie is not necessarily more noble than the other kind, owns their faults and even takes ‘your’ position, recognising the temptation to believe a known untruth. The first impulse is not to sensationalise the whole episode but to understand its inner workings. This empathy extends to how Delicious engages with its audience, how it achieves complex and authentic emotional realities without demanding the reader experience unrewarded stress; what exactly happened in Madrid or the museum is not as relevant as how these scenes carry the poem’s deeper meaning.

‘But why should a poet refrain from telling difficult truths difficultly?’ bellow a phalanx of free-speech fundamentalists, ‘isn’t that self-censorship???’. There’s a place for that approach (and no shortage of publishing deals), and there’s certainly no stopping litbros from dispensing all manner of emotional detritus in the name of ‘bravery’ or ‘honesty’, the way it’s brave or honest to acknowledge the aspects of one’s personality that align perfectly with social expectations. There’s also a place for taking responsibility for what you ask of your reader, and what you offer in return; giving voice to your revenge fantasies might be hugely cathartic to the writer, but deeply harmful to a reader who has been subject to very real abuse. It’s also possible to bear witness to one’s own trauma in a way that provides comfort to that same reader; there’s no reason why all poetry should aspire to shock or awe. Readers are people too – if the very idea of reader-care seems alien and objectionable to you, it might be valuable to ask why that is.

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What fantasies Delicious indulges seem comforting by design; I’m thinking of the poem ‘Aoshima’ (the Japanese island where cats outnumber humans by 6 to 1):

‘I imagine you stopping
somewhere along the
infinite ribbon of white
sand & kneeling down to
give your dog one last
scratch behind the ear,
then taking off & burying
your shoes. You wade into
the water which is
decorated by the sun with
a thousand scraps of
lemon rind & warmer
than you expected. If you
can, stay true to west by
south west until once
again you feel the
feathering of kelp
between your toes, climb
out onto a new beach,
walk to a low brick wall
which marks the
boundary where grass
rubs against sand, & sit &
wait until the island’s
hundred cats introduce
themselves, individually,
to your ankles.’

The line ‘decorated by the sun with / a thousand scraps of / lemon rind’ is just perfect, the poem warm and understatedly sad. The poem is a simple gesture, but in context with all things external to the book, a hugely affecting one. Recently Harry Giles wrote an important essay on the role of shock and care in art, how in a culture traumatised by austerity’s demand for precarity and anxiety, especially in those suffering cultural marginalisation, art that gives space for audience care makes a radical statement. Delicious, in its capacity to both indulge and question that indulgence, to accept responsibility and to invite understanding, challenges the assumption that art should be inherently violent or disjunctive, or that the poet knows best what the reader can or should experience. The last line of the book’s last poem ‘almost begs for you / to take it in your hand’; it encapsulates the book’s generosity and kindness, its valorising of the body’s capacity for both pleasure and solace.

tl;dr: Delicious quietly provokes serious questions about how we read (and write) poetry. Funny, generous, and emotionally complex. My copy’s already a bit weatherbeaten, and I reckon I’ll be reading it for a long time yet. Buy Delicious here.

Further Reading: Shock and Care by Harry Giles

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On Warsan Shire, Peter Riley and Poetry Criticism

Last week, Beyoncé released Lemonade, an hour-long multi-genre piece made by leading artists in film, music and poetry. London Young Laureate Warsan Shire’s poems “For Women Who Are Difficult To Love”, “The unbearable weight of staying (the end of the relationship)” and “Nail Technician as Palm Reader” are all adapted as interludes between songs. On the back of this peerless good news, Inua Ellams spoke about Shire’s permanent relocation to the United States, finding poetry culture in Britain hostile to her and her work (Pascale Petit, Shire’s mentor in The Complete Works, mentioned on Facebook how Shire had become frustrated with with the ‘struggle against the (white) grain’. Ellams spoke on Twitter (the whole thread is vital reading) about her epochal collaboration in Lemonade:

“My homegirl Warsan Shire just did a thing with Beyonce. An incredible thing and the only thing I am surprised about is myself response:

For not seeing it coming. It was inevitable. It only happened because Warsan left these shores.

She moved to where her voice would be included, taken for what it is, for the brilliance it is and shared exponentially.

If you disagree, consider this: even Beyonce could not have existed in Britain. The Music industry would not have supported her talent.

To the poets of colour reading this… follow Warsan’s lead. I’m not saying leave Britain…

… but find environments that are welcoming to the poetry you create, to what you write and the way you write them.

Most of us come from oral traditions. We tend to write accordingly. Most of our concerns are “real shit”.

Most of our shit references other real shit. Most of the shit we reference is found in “World literature” dusty sections of book shops…

…so when we pack our real shit with our deep shit, that nuance and intertextuality, the weight of its importance… isn’t even recognised.

Try and find spaces that welcome your poetry. And those spaces might not be in the poetry world.”

Shire is an incredible talent and we weren’t good enough to accept her. We couldn’t read her work the way it deserved to be read and she was compelled to find a place that would.

Poetry in these islands is not a billion dollar industry. The culture of entitlement and resentment towards positive change, however, does not reflect poetry’s reputation or self-image as unique, progressive, liberal, free-thinking. After a winter in which Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade and Mona Arshi’s Small Hands had the quality of their work recognised and rewarded (Rankine and Howe being the first women of colour to win their respective prizes), there was a backlash from upset, barely rational white men clutching at their degrees and lamenting the state of the union. Those complaints rested, predictably, on extra-literary matters of appearance, education, publishing ‘fads’, a disappointing narrow-mindedness about what ‘poetry’ might mean, anything but the work. A few weeks ago, Peter Riley began his review of Vahni Capildeo’s excellent Measures of Expatriation by venting spleen about “identity politics” (scare quotes his), how having an ‘identity’:

“seems to mean that any possibilities a poem might have of contacting existential realities is disallowed; the poem must arise directly from personal experience (standard practice in modern poetry anyway) and stay there.”

Riley very likely means well. He begins this part of his essay by quoting Capildeo’s own frustrations about feeling the expectation to perform her otherness by an extremely white publishing industry:

“I found that marketing and identity politics were combining to crush, like in the Star Wars trash compactor, the voice, the voice on the page, the body, the history… You had to choose, you had to be a sort of documentary witness wheeled around and exposing your wounds in the market place.”

But in trying to defend Capildeo from harmful stereotypes, he throws digs at poets for whom personal experience (their own or their peers’) is the urgent, beating heart of their work. His praise for Capildeo noticeably centres around not making too conspicuous a fuss about one’s suffering or marginalisation, while condemning unnamed others for drawing attention to it. Riley’s complaint that, ‘the poem must arise directly from personal experience’, is immediately reneged, arguing that ‘its admissibility depends not on experience itself, but on participation in a group and thereby involved in cultural conflict’. Riley does not specify who is performing the admission, which poet, group or conflict is being indecently referenced, or what the consequences are for poets who refuse to conform to these standards. His argument is a rorschach blot, empty of substance and ready for the reader to insert the ‘identity’ whose visibility in contemporary poetry they most resent.

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In “In AnOther’s Pocket: The Address of the “Pocket Epic” in Postmodern Black British Poetry”, Romana Huk writes:

“in current poetic projects, there is little reckoning of how the identificatory self is still at work, often with a nationalistic sub-project powering epic desire; the “other” still gets othered, if at the hands of more and more sophisticated theories of reading.”

Huk and Capildeo are, I think, talking about similar processes. Writing by poets of colour can no longer be entirely ignored by white readers; what can be done, by a culture still deeply uncomfortable with writing that does not recognise canon-endorsed standards of quality control, is corralling it into the kind of self-othering box that Capildeo denounces. Inclusion with strings attached is exclusion by another name, and Riley is not wrong to highlight the problem. The failure is in his sudden pivot to declare that actually, it’s about ethics in poetry prize judging:

“A glance at the big prize-winning results this season shows immediately how these ethics have been taken on wholesale by the establishment and now dominate popular perception of poetry’s function — a pre-existing function defined and formulated outside poetry to which it is now expected to conform. The basis of judgement shifted from aesthetic to moral very quickly.”

Poetry has few ‘big prizes’ and few winners. He is subtweeting Rankine, who beat Riley to the Forward Prize with a book that is both aesthetically unique and morally challenging; I wrote about it a while back if you’re curious, and if you’re even more curious you could read what black critics like Shaelyn Smith and Holly Bass thought about it. Riley’s objection is that judgement has shifted from the ‘aesthetic’ to the ‘moral’; these terms are difficult to define and deserve far more careful unpacking than Riley offers. A cynical reader might guess he means the lyric poetry supported by the canon and reified by generations of elite readers has, for once, been deemed second best to an experimental form written by a poet for whom the canon has little time. As Ellams notes, black poets engage deeply with poetic traditions, just not those valued by the British critical mainstream; refusing to acknowledge the value of alternative routes to poetic achievement is a powerful means of excluding black writing from positions of cultural influence. To put it bluntly, just because you don’t understand it doesn’t make it bad; it’s your job as a critic to learn.

Back in Riley’s essay, put-upon aesthetic poets are ‘now expected to conform’ to these moral standards; a strange concern for a poet who very clearly expresses contemporary moral concerns in his work. Riley employs wounded tones more commonly modelled by Piers Morgan, confusing criticism of his opinions with a threat to his freedom of expression; like Oliver Thring’s inability to acknowledge intelligence that does not come in his own image; like Craig Raine’s abysmal, Oxford-don-knows-best reading of Citizen, which he memorably dismissed as ‘moral narcissism’. It is an insult to Rankine’s achievement to dismiss it as ‘parad[ing] the wound’, which Riley praises Capildeo for refusing. His commendation of Capildeo’s work is deeply compromised by first deploying it as a weapon against other poets whose own work has been marginalised by aggressively careless white readers.

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Poetry in the UK is making tiny, positive steps towards a more complex vocabulary with which to discuss race, sexuality, gender, mental health, income and other inequalities, but at a price. The backlash in poetry is not (as with video games’ harassment campaigns) from trollish men on 4chan with free time and a grudge against those whose inclusion and success they cannot abide, but from well-read men in well-regarded periodicals with notably similar grudges. Even framed as a battle for poetry’s heart, Riley’s critique is hamstrung by his refusal to acknowledge the racial inequalities that force poetry-as-witness, poetry-as-‘moral’ to be a function of survival; Citizen explicitly frames itself as a response to external threats to the wellbeing of black people in America. In an interview with Africa in Words, Shire’s approach to memory and witness is explicitly one of preservation, both of the self and the ‘history or the global ranges of perception’ Riley claims are under threat in British poetry:

“it’s being able to tell the stories of those people, especially refugees and immigrants, that otherwise wouldn’t be told, or they’ll be told really inaccurately. And I don’t want to write victims, or martyrs, or vacuous stereotypes. […] my family are really amazing – they’ll tell me, ‘I have a new story for you’, and I’ll get my Dictaphone and record it, so I can stay as true as possible to the story before I make it into a poem.”

To labour the point, well-respected literary white men don’t need recording equipment to keep their stories alive. Suggesting that such poetry sacrifices its aesthetic-ness is a deeply conservative gesture, both artistically and politically, one that figures the white male poet as the normal, central, rightful inheritor and the black woman poet as interloper, over-promoted, aesthetically invalid.

I’m acutely aware that while making these criticisms, my whiteness etc more or less means that my place in this community is safe come what may. I’m also aware that in all my previous encounters with radical thinking in other forms of art, it’s not cishetero white men leading the way. If we want art that leads us to better ways of thinking about each other, if we believe that poetry does make something happen (more than awards, tenure and hardback Collecteds), that it is a function of the heart and soul (whatever that means) as well as meter and rhyme, we must listen to those who are most vulnerable to the violence our culture has been designed to carry out, and from which we benefit so richly. That means changing how we read, how we write, questioning how much space and praise we assume to be our birthright. It will take a lot of work, and a lot of what will look like giving away what is ours to take, but if we can make a culture in which the next Warsan Shire can feel at home, welcomed, valued, in charge, it’ll be worth it.

Further Reading: Inua Ellams on Twitter

Shaelyn Smith on Citizen at TheRumpus

Holly Bass on Citizen in The New York Times

Interview with Warsan Shire at Africa in Words

Profile on Warsan Shire in The New Yorker

‘Decolonise, not Diversify’ by Khavita Bhanot at Media Diversified

‘Responses to a Tantric Poetics’ by Nisha Ramayya at datableed

Claire Askew – This changes things

Full Disclosure: Claire is a close pal. We were in the same creative writing masters at Edinburgh University in 08/09, and have supported each other’s work since then: e.g. I contribute to Claire’s Patreon and wrote a short thing a couple years ago for the Edwin Morgan Prize. I also wrote the back cover blurb for this collection, for which I was paid £50 plus a contributor’s copy. [Edit: this caused some confusion. I wrote the unattributed back cover blurb, not the named endorsements from Jen Hadfield and Stewart Conn, taken from their Edwin Morgan Prize statements. Those were written by Jen Hadfield and Stewart Conn.]

Review: Appearing immediately before section I, ‘Dukkha’ is a kind of cold open. The word is a Buddhist term wikipedia defines as ‘suffering, anxiety or unsatisfactoriness’; it refers to the pain of aging and death, the essentially mutable, transitory or hollow nature of all forms of life, and how understanding these things is essential to bringing suffering to an end. It’s worth keeping this concept in mind – if This changes things seems uncommonly preoccupied with death and old age, grim fantasies of destruction and bitterness, it may come from a will to intimately understand them.

‘Dukkha’ feels like a parable, standing a little outside the book’s action. It begins:

‘Shelter is the only really necessary thing.
Every creature has its burrow,
bolt hole, cave, its fist of twigs.
Just make it safe, a place
above the flood plain: shake
its sticks and slates to test
it can withstand a storm. That’s all.’

Over the next six stanzas, these basic needs – noticeably at peace with storms and floods, the wilfulness of nature – turn into the will to impose oneself:

‘But then, your square of soil might spoil
its seeds. You’ll need blades, some kind
of beast […] You’ll need to feed it
from your grain: this changes things.’

Tools and weapons are needed, employees and markets, fuel and fences. It’s a bit of a disservice to the poem’s fluid and logical and most of all reasonable escalations to list them in summary. The final stanza turns the first on its head, the storm-safe becoming a fully realised polity:

‘The shelter must be strong,
the water pure. The soil must nurture
tall, true wheat, the hands work
till the yield is in. The lamp must strike,
the gun must kill its target cleanly.
This is all you want.
This is all that anyone wants.’

Security, both physical and ideological (‘pure’ is far from innocent), gives ‘you’ shelter and survival, but takes it from your ‘target’. The ‘anyone’ in the last line is a wee bit devastating, the only point in the poem where a not-you human’s needs are mentioned. The poem’s politics are more subtle than I’m making out here, and land a real hammer-blow – the book’s other narratives, essays and lyrics are predicated on this poem’s philosophy, its self-implication: there is a place where security kills, and we (the white, middle-class, educated readers of poetry) live there.

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After that intro, This changes things keeps a deeply intimate, localised focus. While the narrative voice often shifts – ghosts, a gothic minister, old women with notable frequency – it is always indentifiable and unfractured. The book wants to communicate and be heard clearly; it’s noticeable how many poems direct their dramatic currents with direct cues to the reader – ‘outside’, ‘upstairs’, ‘here’, ‘now’. An early success is ‘Big heat’, a narrative in which Askew appears in the background, a tourist lost on an island in the middle of the night, and desperate for water. The narrator is a woman who lives there, dragged into the poem’s drama:

‘Because I am the one who speaks English,
they call me outside.
In the street, in an elbow of weak light
thrown by our porch, two tourists’

She sees the tourist as a ‘fat white grub’, for whom ‘crying is a stupid luxury / the island women can’t afford’. The poem’s conceit could be easily mishandled – the poet is looking at herself through the eyes of a woman she does not know and cannot communicate with, and who explicitly lives with much greater hardship; the poem risks ventriloquy and re-enacting the tourist’s pre-eminence over the local. Though a lyric voice might just peek through in the lines: ‘Things that thrive here: mules / and stones, crickets loud as fire alarms, / the harder vines’, the poem’s internal drama holds together. The moment in which the freewheeling tourist must rely on someone bound to the physical place, an instance of an economic power imbalance being briefly overturned, becomes a kind of psychic disturbance for the narrator:

‘All night […] I think about the girl’s chapped throat,
the boy she lies beside,
their mouths. None of us sleeps.’

In all senses the poet’s avatar is figured as an intrusion, almost parasitic; ‘grub’ seems a pointed choice of word.

The first section of This changes things is deeply aware of the poet’s own roots. There are poems about growing up in Wakefield (‘Hometown’ – ‘locals lie / that no one needs to lock their doors’; ‘High school’ – ‘What you learned best / was the fact of your disgustingness’), about her family and ancestors – Anne Askew, the 16th century poet tortured and executed for heresy, is a touchstone for the collection, and appears in ‘Two Deaths’, an excellent piece in the current issue of Banshee. If Askew seems keen to push away from these origins, however, she also relishes their grisly details. In ‘Hometown’ there is a real gusto to her relaying of urban myths (‘Last week a horse drowned in the Junction Pool’) and evidence of a town cannibalising itself (‘on the Cobby path the summer nettles / swallow trolleys whole’). ‘High school’ likewise investigates the crude lessons in self-image and social hierarchy that trail the poet into adulthood:

‘They thought that life would always hold
the door for them […] and you’d always be
some chubby joke. You believed it too.
The softest part of you believes it now.’

These sharp self-critical turns are at the heart of Askew’s best poems, an ability to remain self-aware in a poem that seems to shape towards a more prosaic observation.

This impulse shapes the handful of poems which deal with social or political ideas directly, ‘Privilege 101’, ‘The picture in your mind when you speak of whores’ and the closing piece, ‘Hydra’. Arguably the danger for explicitly political poems is that their message moves from the subliminal to the conscious – that the reader is faced with the raw idea, and not the underlying principles that make the idea a logical conclusion. This, of course, is dependent on a great deal of trust – that the reader will be able to identify the code as code, and spend time actively unspooling it – and a readership ready to accept perhaps uncomfortable, perhaps self-incriminating truths. Another strategy is to bypass the whole palaver, and actively confront the reader’s assumptions. Askew’s ‘Privilege 101’ tends towards the latter, deploying a second person that envelops poet and reader, beginning in an obviously well-to-do world of ‘cufflinks and silverware’, before moving to a very writerly scene:

‘It’s sitting in the window of a coffee shop, the sun
painting bars across the wooden floor, the plain steel
flip-top teapots shining, writing down ideas that are all yours […]
and choosing which of those ideas you share with whom’

The intention is simple, but effective – the act of writing in public, having access to a (implicitly expensive) space designed for comfort, is put in its social context, only a short distance from fine dining and easy money, and all dependent on ‘hair’s-breadth tricks of fortune, birth and place’. The poem demands the reader (again, bearing the social attributes noted earlier) acknowledge their own position in a violent hierarchy.

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The two poems that close the book’s two sections, ‘Fire comes’ and ‘Hydra’, seem to be opposite sides of a similar coin; both permit a kind of momentary lyric freedom, pushing away from the more rational processes in the book’s narrative poems. ‘Fire comes’ gives personality and agency to a house fire, which ‘slides its tongue into the house’s ear’, ‘pulls / the walls down around its shoulders like a cape of dark’, ‘tak[es] bites out of the white / tiered staircase like it’s cake’. In the middle of it all is the house’s occupant:

‘All she can think of, crouching down for air the way she learned
in school, is all those times she filled out mental lists of things she’d save from Fire […]

And then the street’s a discotheque of blue and red, the neighbours on their front steps
in their dressing gowns, the kids agape behind the nets.
And she wants none of it.
And Fire takes it all.’

The poem’s uncontextualised wish for annihilation left me heartsick. The poem has a momentum unlike many of the other pieces in the book, the long, run-on lines and sensuousness of detail (‘the engines’ gorgeous, strobing cry’) allowed to dominate the poem’s action; the fire which elsewhere connects the poet to grandmothers and ancestors becomes a death-wish. Other poems’ discussion of death operates primarily through empathy: ‘Spitfires’ gives Askew’s grandfather an afterlife of mending ‘those beautiful death machines’ as he did as a teenager; ‘Going next’ frames her father, the oldest surviving member of his family, as a child himself; both pieces attempt to console and understand. ‘Fire comes’ permits neither. Its power seems drawn from an unwillingness to trust in the poet’s ability to comprehend what seems wholly irrational.

‘Hydra’, which closes section II and the collection, seems a kind of counterweight. It begins:

‘Everywhere you look is light
so exquisite it hurts. Light
off the taffeta sea, the brief white
rips of wake and surf; light
frosting the bleached houses’ sides’

before reaching something like a state of beatific bliss:

‘Ancient, many-headed light
that warms the kilns of myth: clay red, bright
pink, streaked ochre fingering the cloth of sky’

Again, the rational narrative mode is set aside, a celebration of what exists and the ability to perceive it, for a moment relieved of responsibility to the world. Where ‘Fire comes’ leaves the poem in this disturbing uncertainty, ‘Hydra’ peaks on a note equally disturbing in its frankness:

‘insomniac in unfamiliar heat, I’ll write
under the moth-bothered kitchen light,
this is the life. Mine is the lightest, easiest life.’

Any lyric celebration of the life of the mind is tempered by an awareness of the inaccessibility of such a life.

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As in a great many first collections, the quality of This changes things does vary, and for its many successes (the lovely flash-fiction-esque ‘Thing about death’ and ‘Poltergeistrix’) there are pieces which struggle to reach beyond their immediate occasion (‘Greyhound’ or ‘Valentine’) or to shake off a feeling of exercise-yness (‘The western night’), and it’s possible that the poem ‘To Wakefield’ strikes a little unkindly at the kind of people whose lives ‘Privilege 101’ aims to bear in mind. That said, This changes things is contains some deeply moving ruminations on death and loss, a number of significant political lyrics, and a handful of truly reader-altering moments; it’s these pieces that stay longest in the memory, an uncommon achievement.

Tl;dr: This changes things is a heartfelt collection, self-aware and aspiring towards a better way of understanding a complicated and often violent world. Well worth a read.

Further reading: Review by Magda Knight at MookyChick

Review by Russell Jones

Claire Askew at Write Like A Grrrl Edinburgh

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing this, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, and you can cancel at any time. Thanks for reading.

Kayombo Chingonyi – The Color of James Brown’s Scream

Full Disclosure: Wrote about Chingonyi’s work in a post on Ten: The New Wave last year, several poems from which appear here (some with minor alterations, I think). Have not met him or seen him read. Review copy purchased with assistance from Patreon backers.

Review: The Color of James Brown’s Scream is published by Akashic Books in a series commissioned by the African Poetry Book Fund. The series editor, Kwame Dawes, provides context for the pamphlet series, which:

‘seeks to undermine the easy ways of reducing Africa to notions that do not recognize the complexity and variety of experiences and practices that constitute poetry written by Africans.’

Dawes also provides an introductory essay: he explores the book’s engagement with garage and grime music at its culture of making and curating, the problematic norms of contemporary theatre (difficult not to see literary/poetry culture reflected here too), and twentieth century Zambian history. He also provides insightful discussion of how art acts as a site of cultural belonging, ownership, ‘a sense of “home” that is constantly being contested, but one [Chingonyi] must contend with always’.

The preface also makes space to draw attention to the poet’s formal skill, linguistic richness, his ability to make his poems tactile and sensuous; this instinct to make the art sensually pleasing seems itself a central theme, an assertion against nullity, against being erased or simplified. In ‘This Poem Contains Gull Song’, the poet lays out a kind of aesthetic manifesto: ‘such music / we forgot how to understand, since / it lacks that carefully planned sweetness’, ‘an old tune hidden / in the genes of a new one’. The opening piece, ‘In Defense of Darkness’, is partly an account of lovers meeting after time apart (‘the harshness of the journey written / into the depth of a clinch’), but figures its darkness metaphorically:

‘Since I’m remembering this, or making it up,
there is only darkness; our bodies speaking.’

The poem’s catalogue of sounds (‘Drum-brush of fabric. The clink of a zip / on laminate floor’), of tastes and smells (‘Coconut oil, laundry detergent, sweat, / dry shampoo, Burberry Weekend’) faces up against memory’s incapacity to recreate these ‘local delicacies’; the poem seems to ask if it feels less true for being at least partly fictional? Chingonyi seems to be outlining what is at stake in the book: this particular act of witnessing cannot, finally, be confirmed as either memory or fiction; the reader has only the poet’s word, or the word of the poem’s protagonists, for guidance. Throughout the book, the question of authenticity, of recognising the truth of one’s testimony, is a recurring concern.

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In this light, the book’s several poems about music feel united by their drive to accurately preserve or relive important moments in the past, providing as much context as the lyric poem can carry. ‘The Room’ is an outstanding piece, smuggling its deep thinking about the politics of musical (literary?) borrowing into a plain-spoken and comprehensible scene, and a kind of sonnet if you include the two-line epigraph by Oddisee:

when you sample you’re not just picking up that sound,
you’re picking up the room it was recorded in.

While the poem itself doesn’t veer too far from this thought, it does bring it into a practical context; the poem’s action all happens:

‘in the few moments’ grace
before the store clerk, thin-voiced, announces closing time’

and is deceptively full of characters: the clerk, the three musicians in the recording, and the ‘purist’ and ‘mere completists’: the antagonists in the poem’s internal drama. The purist is ‘hung up on tracing a drum break to its source’, finding ‘the room / fetching itself from itself in hiccups and spools’, in their dedication to specificity gaining access to an understanding that eludes the ‘completist’:

‘air displaced in that room – the breath of acetate.’

The few moments’ grace in the store correspond to a few moments in another room, possibly many years earlier, with all the quirks and flaws (‘the MacGyver theme tune’?) intact, a little window into a past, historical, moment. Again, ‘The Room’ feels aligned with ‘In Defense of Darkness’ in its determination to recoup a memory, to be the ‘purist’ understanding the fuller context behind the ‘hiss’, ‘hiccups and spools’ of a moment.

The book’s title poem is similarly concerned with understanding the present by honouring the past. Here, the tradition of garage music is commemorated or elegised, by a poem that seems in tension between a kind of nostalgia for a time of legendary musical figures (Larry Levan, James Brown and Willi Ninja feature), an acknowledgement their significance to the present (‘some / of us don’t know it is your grave / we dance on’), and a recognition of the pitfalls of idolising the past, becoming stuck on ‘a taste we’ve been / trying to recreate ever since’. The poem is alive in the richness of its imagination, doing in language what Levan did in music:

‘I see your hand in the abandon
of a couple, middle of the floor,
sliding quick and slick as a skin-fade
by the hand of a Puerto Rican clipper-man
who wields a cutthroat like a paintbrush.’

Chingonyi connects Levan to the mythical figure Legba, which Dawes’ introduction describes as a shape-shifter, a communicator between mortals and immortals, and a survivor of a wound that leaves him with a ‘phantom limp’. Levan, the poem subtly suggests, keeps a tradition alive that goes back much longer than any of its contemporary practitioners.

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In the subsequent poem, ‘Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee’, the poet recalls his own adolescent discovery of garage in a ‘white-flight- / satellite-town’ in Essex. Chingonyi is at pains to tell this story in its full complexity, and the poem acknowledges the misogyny and machismo of teenage boyhood (‘the underwear section of Littlewoods catalog’, ‘Victor’s dad’s latest copy of Escort’) and art as access to social hierarchy:

‘slick lyrics I could earn stripes
by reciting tomorrow lunch in front of anyone who’d listen’

‘Assemblies,
talent shows, tours of local junior schools, and lunchtimes
in the music room making haphazard recordings onto TDK
cassettes, broken tabs Sellotaped, a surfeit of fame secure.’

On the other side is hard-won self-esteem and sense of belonging through artistic discipline, and at the heart of the poem is the discovery of a recording of his four-year-old self and the ‘kettle drum pitch’ of his father’s voice. There is quietness amid the bravado, silence in a poem devoted to sound:

‘If I throw off the reason I’ve adopted he sat next to me
that day as I rewound the tape and asked me again
and again till the streetlights bloomed through the still-
open curtains and settled in the lacquer of the table.’

All of which makes the poem’s close, ‘Eminem ruined everything’, a bodyblow. The music industry’s compulsion to promote whiteness intercedes, forces the young poet to ‘rattle off the Slim Shady LP line for line’, confronted by the fact that:

‘no amount of practice could conjure pale skin and blue eyes.
The eyes that made Marshall a poet and me just another
brother who could rhyme’

The poem ends abruptly and unjustly, ‘anyone with sense knew it was all about hip hop now.’ The whole story, the time spent learning a tradition from roots to branches, is rendered irrelevant with a single publication.

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This entrapment by the demands of white culture is at the heart of the sequence calling a spade a spade, with an epigraph from American poet Thomas Sayers Ellis:

I no longer write
white writing
yet white writing
won’t stop writing me

The poems are tight, eleven-line stanzas (almost every line eleven syllables), a precision and levelness of tone that allows a kind of distance from the deep hurt and dehumanisation taking place in each tableau. In ‘The N Word’, the speaker addresses the appropriation of hate speech into contemporary middle class argot, ignoring its extremely recent acceptability in ‘a Pinter script’, or ‘polite conversation’, ‘making wine from the bad blood of history.’ In ‘The Conservatoire System’, the question of visibility is unravelled, a poem too knotted and complex to quote in part:

‘All of that to fetch up here, on secondment
to the institute of whiteface minstrelsy –
where I must flay myself nightly or risk
the indignity of being seen, in blackness,
as I am or as I’ve been taught, from without,
I am; an unconvincing Everyman.
But why would I want to be that dry bastard
with his pronouncements on all that can be seen
and practice this, his art of self-effacement, by which
he shakes off the vulgarity of being,
the better to make himself praiseworthy?’

The poem ties the speaker’s blackness to his unconvincingness – who needs/fails to be convinced? – and the assumption that white male actors (consider Martin ‘Everyhobbit’ Freeman) are best suited to be the audience stand-in, observer and commentator. The luxury of being everyone and no-one is contrasted with the choice faced by black performers to be either hypervisible or overlooked. Successful mediocrity is for white people.

The following piece, ‘On Reading “Colloquy in Black Rock”’, a 1946 Robert Lowell poem, draws attention to an academic unwillingness to address casual hate speech in canonical works, ‘The seminar tutor tiptoes round you now’. The labour involved in unpicking contemporary social norms is left to the student (‘Ours is to note the working mind behind the word’), to acknowledge that one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated poets had no compunction about considering black people in terms of ‘us and them’. The cumulative effect of these pieces is a painful reminder that ‘blind casting’ is suspiciously selective, that the US is not the only anglophone nation with a culture of racism to confront. The poems pose a question Chingonyi expresses, in a review of Daljit Nagra: ‘what would happen if we were allowed to be in our full complexity’? What could poets of colour achieve if they weren’t obliged to fight racist assumptions every time they put pen to paper? Extrapolating from this, how can white readers change how we read (who we believe? who we prioritise in our reading lists and festival lineups?) to make this a reality?

In her essay ‘Not a British Subject’, Sandeep Parmar does vital work identifying trends in publishing poets of colour in the UK, that to be accepted in the cultural centre the poet is encouraged to emphasise their own difference or marginality for a white readership, her concern that ‘increased visibility of BAME poets is superficial and, when the dust settles, British poetry will return to a largely monochromatic, monolingual expression of sameness’. (Her conversation with Juliana Spahr in the recent issue of Tender is also required reading.) The Color of James Brown’s Scream draws strength from its literary and musical touchstones, asserts the value of artistic communities outwith the poetry mainstream, and refuses to simplify its acts of witness for the benefit of the uninformed. Its demand that we educate ourselves about, for example, the history of black music in the UK, is an assertion of value and not a performance of otherness; as Khavita Bhanot recently put it in Media Diversified, the book does not ‘diversify’ so much as ‘decolonise’, challenge what non-marginalised poetry readers might consider culturally valuable.

Tl;dr: A challenging, much-needed book from a thoughtful and skilful writer. Better yet, it’ll only set you back a fiver.

Further reading: Review by Nisha Ramayya in Ambit

Buy The Color of James Brown’s Scream direct from the poet

Chingonyi on Daljit Nagra, Kei Miller, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Hannah Lowe and Helen Mort

Interview with Cadaverine Magazine

Khavita Bhanot: Decolonise, not Diversify in Media Diversified

Sandeep Parmar: Not a British Subject in The LA Review of Books

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing this, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, and you can cancel at any time. Thanks for reading.

Stanza 2016 Diary – Saturday 5 March

Full Disclosure: Part two of a two-part series on being at StAnza poetry festival. Still a paid gig, all of yesterday’s caveats apply.

10am: Aase Berg, Clare Best, SJ Fowler, Andrew McMillan, Justin Stephenson: Poetry Breakfast

As I sit down to write this on the mezzanine in the Byre, a poem translated by my pal Jessica Johannesson Gaitán has appeared projected on the far wall. Sometimes wee particles of unexpected joy hurl themselves at you and your heart is glad. Hey Jess! Your poem is wonderful. It’s called ‘Cathedral 2.0’, about a computer recreation of St Andrews cathedral, and has lines like ‘a tissue sustained by professionalised gaming-aesthetics’; ‘There are no stars upon my linen / or on the inside of my eyelids’.

After a morning’s formalities of tea and introductions, the Saturday morning panel was themed around the body in poetry. McMillan, whose book physical won the Guardian First Book Award (AND MY HEART), opened proceedings by introducing a few of the book’s guiding lights: Thom Gunn, whose candidness inspired him as a young reader, his free discussion of love, baths, and the AIDS crisis; Sharon Olds, who seemed to give permission to a confessional openness; and the Yorkshire poet Geoff Hattersley, bringing his daily factory shiftwork to the realm of poetry. Later, McMillan would speak about the politics of telling other people’s stories – an electrician whose granddaughter had died, and four days later was back at work – arguing that his duty as a poet was to bear witness: ‘the only way to go is to be totally sincere’. It’s this sincerity that marks McMillan’s work, and his questions about whether a straight male poet could have ‘gotten away’ with his poems about women’s lives and sexuality (‘Leda to her daughters’, ‘the things men take’) does raise important questions about who the reader ‘permits’ to speak for whom, and why.

Clare Best’s poetry about her mastectomy – breast cancer has affected every woman in her family, and Best took the decision to have the operation voluntarily – was similarly frank and clear-eyed about making choices about one’s own body, about taking control before control is taken away. Aase Berg, who performed yesterday, complimented this idea in a book on her pregnancy, ‘Transfer Fat’; she talked about how women writing on pregnancy are expected to ‘be the warm mother’, even though in reality she did not feel in control of her own body: ‘nature is not a Disney film, it is a Werner Herzog film’. She extended a similar critique to readerly expectations of poetry, that there is a Disneyfied, narcissistic approach to reading, that ‘you go out into the woods and meet a totem animal, a nice deer who likes you’. Poetry has the power to resist a self-centred, comfortable culture, the power to be unlikeable.

Stephenson played his video interpretation of Canadian poet bpNichol’s work, a neat, twisty poem about the process of writing and interpretation, how the physical tools of writing become part of the writing’s meaning: ‘this is a pen moving on paper / metaphorically this is a pen moving on paper / metaphorically the page is a window. it is not.’ Fowler made the very fine point that poetry culture tends to lean altogether too heavily on the idea of the individual genius producing ‘golden nuggets’ from the void. A lot of Fowler’s work comes in facilitating collaboration, and his project today involved tearing up a copy of his own collection and distributing its pages among the audience, who, on cue, read all pages at once; the resulting wall of voices was a neat metaphor for breaking hierarchies. In practice, it was pretty apt, as the audible individuals were the ones who just kept talking long enough. Mulling this over, one notes that one routinely just keeps talking longer than one should. Hm.

The panel concluded with Berg and McMillan’s valuable thoughts about exploitation in poetry – a tendency to beautify or poeticise suffering or other people’s stories. Berg’s collection Hackers features on the cover a photo of a Dutch sex worker; Berg questioned her own motivation – the poet described the image as ‘a Trojan horse’ for the collection to do its work, and recognised the complicated politics of exploiting others’ bodies or acts of witness to one’s own artistic benefit.

1pm: Em Strang, Samuel Tongue, Briget Khursheed, Lindsay McGregor: New Writers Showcase

Anna Crowe’s remarkably effective patiently-smiling-while-audience-settles-down brought the Council Chamber to order for readings from four recent winners of the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Award. Em Strang, whose first full collection, Bird Woman, is coming out this year with Shearsman, read a long poem, a nightmarey folk tale full of fire and horses and cries in a language that might have been Scandanavian(?), entirely from memory. It left an Atmosphere in the room unlike anything I’ve seen at the festival thus far. ‘It isn’t our land but it’s all we need. It stood up to the night for a long time.’

Samuel Tongue is the poetry editor at the Glasgow Review of Books and read short lyric poems on language, the materiality of words (the poem ‘Alef-Bet’ analyses how the physical shape of letters affects what they do, ‘alef’ being ‘a stag head already tracking thought’), science and faith. One proposed the ‘extended phenotype’ (the theory that the environment a creature alters may be considered part of its DNA, cf beaver dams) for humans might be the ‘unplumbed lavatory’ left in the street. Tongue’s poems were thoughtful, generous and precise.

Briget Khursheed’s poems also paid close attention to scientific research and the natural world, with a poem for John Smith, the builder for a large part of Walter Scott’s Abottsford estate, admiring the craftwork of the windows into ‘The Little Gothic Orangery’ he had made, insisting ‘but I had nothing to do with the oranges’. Another observes otters and stoats in their natural habitats, ‘maybe dancing, maybe charming a rabbit’, ‘writhing rodent maps’. A poem about the exact moment Khursheed’s father died, with the line ‘heather so perfect it might hide Tunnocks wrappers’ is witty and heartbreaking.

Finally, Lindsay McGregor explored her new collection The Weepers, a historical group of paid mourners (‘rent-a-crowd’). The book concerns the scattering of her partner’s ashes, and ranges from medieval saints plucking out their eyes to escape unwanted courtship (‘she’ll cure the vision of anyone who asks / she is a lesson to us all’) to the life and times of the fairly monstrous Duke of Sutherland, one of the key perpetrators of the Highland Clearances and a firm believer in the efficacy of steam for just about any problem you could think of, but primarily lazy peasants. A poem on scattering ashes under a frozen lake to be eaten by fish is particulary powerful: ‘I let them / feed, then, fishing deep, I net them. / We must eat.’

2.15pm Martyn Crucefix on The Daodejing and Pascale Petit on Tomas Tranströmer Past and Present

Minidisclosure: I’ve met Petit a couple of times.

The Daodejing is a fifth or sixth century BCE document from China, reportly containing all the wisdom of a single librarian from the royal court, who wrote it all down at the behest of a gatekeeper on his way out into the wilderness; as Crucefix notes, that’s probably just a nice story. What’s certain is its concern with effective statecraft, with wisdom extremely tempting to transfer to the present day, as Harry Giles did with his minimalist Orcadian versions in Tonguit. Crucefix’s own versions turn the ‘sage’ or ‘wise teacher’ character into a woman, on the grounds that the text recurrently insists that good government uses ‘female’ power, ‘rising up from below’; this seems an odd and slightly distracting decision, not least given the text’s own advice to refrain from interference while exercising power. But Crucefix’s general interpretation is extremely valuable, insisting on the theory that those who desire power are worst equipped to wield it, ‘those who delight in the sword delight in its function’; he has clearly made an extensive study of the Daodejing and he seemed completely in his element guiding a tour through its ideas.

Petit’s talk on Tomas Tranströmer was a real pleasure, a thoughtful, incisive and evidently delighted close read of some of her favourite poems. Starting with his name, which in Swedish (I’m guessing with some creative license?) goes something like ‘tran (crane, as in the bird)’ ‘stromer (fast-flowing river)’; Petit took this as an aspect of the poet’s habitual birds-eye views and rapid changes of direction. Starting with his first published poem, ‘Prelude’, ‘waking up is a parachute jump from dreams’, Petit follows his ‘filmic’ zoom in/pan out techniques, the way Tranströmer renders abstract ideas in the comprehensibly immediate physical and sensory world.

Also key to Tranströmer’s work is his love of music, particularly Schubert – his poem ‘Schubertiana’ Petit named as a masterwork. Here, he explores the idea that from a particular point in New York one can look at the homes of eight million people; the city is framed as galaxy, and ‘within this galaxy coffee cups are pushed across the counter’; ‘plants have thoughts’, ‘I know that somewhere in those rooms Schubert is being played, and it is more important than anything else’. In ‘Allegro’, ‘I raise my Hayden flag… we do not surrender but want peace’. Among the technical artistry is an engaged and grounded political mind, a value system that considers coffee cups and music, the small pieces of ‘the vast machinery of a vital organism’ as important as the organism itself.

5pm: Fiona Benson and Andrew McMillan: Five O’Clock Verses

Minidisclosure: I’ve previously reviewed both poets, and have had brief twitter chats with McMillan.

It’s been a couple of years since I first read Bright Travellers, Benson’s first collection. I hardly recognised those same poems, and hearing them read so passionately, and at such an intense emotional frequency, did that thing that I pretty much considered an industry cliché – it made them sound like new poems. The honesty and openness of ‘Love Letters to Vincent’ [Van Gogh], which could easily seem silly, workshoppy – imagine you are in a frustrating and emotionally unviable relationship with a historical figure – are in Benson’s hands totally convincing, viscerally affecting. There is powerful, wrenching emotional reality to these scenes, the Great Artist’s simultaneous dependency and disgust on the narrator, the narrator’s pity and desire, the nostalgia for the better person subject to ‘a vertiginous dark which is never done with you, old pal’ and the self-hatred for their own weakness, ‘and I let you in, and I let you in, and I let you in’. It was something special.

McMillan’s work carries a similar emotional maturity, often hidden behind the absurdity of the poems’ surface action; ‘the men are weeping in the gym’ (introduced as ‘If you’ve ever wondered what has happened to 21st century masculinity, watch men try to talk to each other in the gym. It’s like awkward ballet’) in particular benefitted from a live reading, the little ridiculous twists in each line getting properly drawn out: ‘they have turned water … into protein shakes’. The couple of new poems on show were also beautiful: ‘Fraternal’ has the poet watching his nephew looking after his new baby sister: ‘he is pretending to parent her… this is how we learn the basic wants of people… the body is needful, it must be undressed’. ‘Curtain’ is a brief and disarmingly candid account of a failed sexual encounter backstage, which ends with the speaker with his cock out, bowing deeply. It’s probably coincidental, but this poem came shortly after McMillan shared some of his less appreciative reviews; a recurring idea was keeping one’s feet on the ground. In any case, the reading was one of the best I’ve ever seen at StAnza, two hugely talented and confident poets giving everything for the audience. More of this sort of thing.

 

8pm Nora Gomringer: Poetry Centre Stage

Every time I’ve been at StAnza there’s been some cool sound or noise poetry event, but this was the first time I’ve seen it in pride of place in one of the main event slots. Gomringer is considered a leading German-language poet (acc to Annie Rutherford, who provided a bilingual introduction), and alongside jazz drummer Philip Schultz did a little bit to expand some ideas about what poetry can do, what it looks like, and how many squeaky dog toys may be employed in its creation. Gomringer and Schultz introduced their double act as taking the words of others (including the poet’s father, Eugen Gomringer), and reproducing them in new formats. The pair had a huge amount of energy and bounced off each other beautifully; Gomringer has a huge amount of stage presence and charisma, Schultz’s creative use of unusual percussion props its own kind of physical comedy.

Gomringer’s opening piece was a sound poem that involved play with the component sounds of the word ‘perfection’ (and kind of broke the ice by permitting some weird noises and silly faces). Other highlights included Dorothy Parker’s ‘Frustration’ (‘If I had a shiny gun…’) as performed by a nightclub singer; a performance based around the I Ching, one of the oldest written Chinese texts, including a really sharp bit of silent sound poetry (I guess you’d have to have been there); an autobiographical piece called ‘Family Thing’ in which the poet imagines herself a sister, instead of her seven brothers: ‘if my mother is the mother of invention then invention is my sister, my sister is… invention’. The set closed with a cute piece on being asked to babysit a dog that only speaks English and being given a book’s worth of instructions called ‘How to Love Dog’.

At this point the Fife transport system dictated I must head for the hills, having consumed far in excess of one’s poetry RDA. I know this is a paid gig and superlatives are expected, but it’s a true fact that I’ve never seen crowds like it at StAnza, and paid or not I’ll be coming back next year.

[PS: apologies to everyone I didn’t get a proper chat with on account of running around headless.]

StAnza 2016 Diary – Friday 4 March

Full Disclosure: I am writing this post and tomorrow’s post as part of my role writing for StAnza (it’s a paid post, £150 plus expenses) – so while I’ve got a pretty free hand to write in whatever way I feel works best, I’ve agreed that if I found anything egregiously bad I would politely refrain from mentioning it. So yep, this is as close as I’ll ever get to a sponsored post, but one I’ve no big qualms about writing. I’ve been coming to StAnza since I moved to Scotland seven years ago, it has a special place in my heart and it’s really cool to be working with them.

SO

Day 1 – 10.30am Jo Bell: 52 Ways of Writing a Poem

Mini disclosure: Jo’s a pal and in this context I’d feel weird referring to her as ‘Bell’.

Jo Bell’s wildly successful writing group 52 was recognised by Sabotage Reviews last year for the vital work it did in nurturing a fully functioning community of practice. The group provided space and support for (six hundred!) new writers to explore their ideas and share them with a caring and receptive audience – a kind of empowering first contact that many folk might take for granted. This motivating spirit of generosity characterised this morning’s workshop, which ran in a warm, bright, airy room on the top floor of St Andrews’ Public Library.

Jo agreed (cheers Jo!) to let me sit in on as an active participant, and damned if I didn’t actually write a few word-clusters that in flattering light might look like poems (wee 5-7-5 things, but it felt good anyway). Jo’s first assertion – no apologising, no self-deprication – set the tone for the morning; it’s not a place to show off to the person next to you, it’s a time to be mindful about your own work and to write the best piece that you’re capable of. Simple stuff, but surprisingly effective, and by the end of the two-hour session the creative meats in my brain were tingling merrily. Here’s the one I wrote in response to the prompt ‘Write to a part of your body’, to my slightly rubbish right eye:

green eye, stay with me
you keep things in perspective
ho ho. seriously

IN JUST ONE SESSION YOU TOO CAN WRITE LIKE THIS.

1pm Kirsten Luckins: Poetry Café

Kirsten (pronounced in the Nordic fashion) Luckins is the Northern programme co-ordinator for Apples and Snakes and a performance poet. (#overheardatStAnza: ‘she says she’s a performance poet but her words are great!’) The Poetry Café shows include a (mac & cheese or scotch, both noms) pie and a pint, and combined with the big comfy chairs in the Byre Studio theatre was a perfect decompressor after a couple hours down the Emotion Mines.

Luckins was launching her first full-length collection, The Trouble With Compassion (Burning Eye), organised loosely around the poet’s Buddhism (‘buddhish’ in her own words), and accompanying principles of love and empathy, WITH HILARIOUS CONSEQUENCES. So her opening piece, ‘Inkless’, has the poet’s persona seething in the mire of writer’s block while some other poets (a handle delivered with steadily increasing bile) ‘sort of hollowed myself out and let [the words] pass through’; ‘I am merely one such flailing wave’.

‘In Which the poet attempts to apply the compassion technique…’ (the actual title is longer but I cannot recall it) sees the poet at a yoga retreat in the Highlands with a woman ‘from London’ – where ‘from London’ means ‘extremely irritating’, acc. Luckins – who ‘out of all of us here, just, really needs this?’, who phones home at the earliest convenience to report There’s nothing here! The poem’s target isn’t a wild affront to poetry audience sensibilities, but the poem’s refrain – ‘may she be happy, may she be well, may she be free from suffering’ – is an important and challenging little twist. The theatre was properly stowed and there was a pretty sizeable line at the author signing queue.

2.15pm: Valerie Laws and Aase Berg: Border Crossings

Crime-fiction writer and poet Valerie Laws kicked off the Border Crossings show with a neat series of poems on anatomy and death, ‘how the body responds in extreme conditions’, interwoven with poems about her personal life, including a pretty moving piece about her mother’s dementia resulting in a delusion that she was married to two identical men with the same name – that the poem emerges with a sense of ironic humour and fair steeliness in the face of some grim circumstances is impressive. Elsewhere is an exploration of Facebook profiles of people who have passed away – in these poems at least the profile survives its owner ‘like a horse whose jockey is long since gone’. The possibility that one might write on a dead loved one’s wall or tag them into conversations is a lovely metaphor for grief and remembrance; the off-hand disparagement of selfie culture felt a little off-topic in the context.

Aase Berg is a Swedish surrealist, and while I’ll defend the rights of anyone to say it’s difficult to keep a surrealist poetry reading engaging (particularly a surrealism as dense and meaningful as Berg’s), I still feel privileged to have heard her perform. There’s a rich undercurrent in the poems she read about troubling subterranean forces, in which ‘continental plates topple’, ‘one always holds the harpoon alone’, ‘in the shell runs the nerves’ thin ghost’, ‘unwhale of rubber rooms’. Berg introduced her most recent collection as concerning ‘horses, men & parasites’, which is all I need, really. Notable lines include: ‘we are legion. expect us always’, ‘we have always been good at very complicated love’, ‘birds are never free, they are in complete control’. I’m not going to pretend I understood every line, or that I recommend surrealism as a consistent diet any more than I’d recommend anecdotal realism as the same, but dang. It put a smile on my face and made a few folk uncomfortable. There’s a series of her poems here if you fancy a taster.

5pm: Anna Crowe, Michael Donhauser, Odile Kennel, Don Paterson: VERSschmuggel (verse smuggling)

In a packed-out Parliament Hall (to reiterate: this is a busy StAnza) was a real joy of an event, an English-, Gàidhlig- and German-language translation project called VERSschmuggel, in which six Scottish-based poets and six German-language poets – armed with little more than a bilingual dictionary, an intermediary translator and the threat of being locked in a room until they’d finished – produced an entire anthology of translations and versions, much of it utterly beautiful. About five minutes into the set between Anna Crowe and Odile Kennel I’d decided to buy the book, which isn’t officially out until May, so, smugness.

Crowe and Kennel’s poems were thoughtful, playful, stoic pieces, delving into deep time and natural resilience, which I’m a proper sucker for. ‘Mended Fence, Barra’ has a epigram from Donne’s ‘Essays in Divinity, which begins ‘Let no smalnesse retard thee if thou beest not a Cedar to help towards a palace […] yet thou art a shrub to shelter a lambe, or to feed a bird’. The poem itself is an exercise in close focus:

‘Purely utilitarian, this link-work
has a beauty that’s all pro tem, ad hoc,
with textures suggestive of the wider picture,
differences: a study in tensions’

Then there was the totally gorgeous nonsense poem ‘Bestial Questions’, which begins:

‘questions on animals
and animals on quest
for festering nests
of gestating cockroaches
hoaching, encroaching
on rockhopper penguins
grasshopping dingoes
that sing to the moon
crooning to spoonbills […]’

I defy you to not be charmed to the back teeth. Later was Don Paterson, performing with translations again from Kennel, as Michael Donhauser was absent with illness. Paterson spoke of long translating sessions that sprang to life on the discovery of a shared love for nihilistic self-loathing, and the assertion that ‘it’s in the syntax that you find the sophistication of the thought’. Donhauser’s poems are small and slight enough to maybe make them worth reading side by side with Paterson’s translation:

‘Vielleicht                                                                            Maybe
regnet es                                                                             the rain’s on
vielleicht                                                                              Maybe
warden es                                                                           there will be
Tage sein                                                                             days to come

Alles bleibt                                                                          all that stays
ist Schein                                                                             is guise
alles steigt                                                                           all that rises
ist licht                                                                                  is light
und erlischt                                                                        and goes out’

Keep your eyes on the Freight Books folks for more news on the anthology’s publication. It’s a wee bit great.

8pm Lemn Sissay and Don Paterson: Poetry Centre Stage

The final show of the day ran in the Byre Main theatre and was live streamed into the Byre’s Studio theatre, which is a cracking idea and, again, was relaxed, warm and full of good vibes. Sissay, who took the stage first, is an incredible performer, and managed to maintain a staggering level of energy, wit and good humour through an entire forty-five minute set, and that after some deeply tedious and weirdly hostile heckling from an old dude in the audience who really ought to get a lifetime ban. For the record, Sissay responded with more warmth and grace than when the same joker – unbelievably – tried it with Paterson.

Sissay’s set ran the span of his career, his earliest poem written at sixteen called ‘**** This’, in which the only audible words were non-swears. He began with an incredible, weird parable named ‘Morning Breaks’, which you can watch here in full. It’s a brave and impassioned poem, a real gift. Elsewhere are neat and intricate pieces like ‘Lost Key’, which riffs on matters of trust and good faith with barely a few phrases, ‘Architecture’ – ‘each wave wants to be tidal / each subtext wants to be a title’ – the beautifully economic ‘Sarcasm’, which as Sissay noted doesn’t work in text. This was my first encounter with him either performing or on the page, and it won’t be the last.

I’ve seen Paterson read so often that the poems are pretty close to earworms, particularly ‘Wave’ (‘I hit the beach and swept away the town’) and ‘To Dundee City Council’ (‘that fine country called the fuck away’), and I could make a fair dig at reciting his introductions, of which ‘A Powercut’ is a bit of a favourite. Both are great though, and it was a bit of a treat to see him read with some exploratory license, airing some new aphorisms – ‘I’d no more contribute to an anthology of aphorisms than crap in a communal latrine’; ‘a poet is someone in the aphorism business for the money’ – and a full reading of ‘Bathysphere’ from Rain, which I’d never heard aloud and had always baffled me slightly. It still baffles me slightly, but less so. There’s nothing like a bit of metaphysical horror to take you home, ‘leaving you with something to whistle’. Much as I’m instinctively suspicious of anyone who gets introduced as ‘surely Scotland’s finest ever poet, and that’s a crowded field’ (how could anyone live up to eternity?) Paterson’s a responsive and generous performer, maybe the best of his generation at making the words mean as much off the page as on.

I type this as tedious English students hoot and holler along North Street, as I lie deep in the warm embrace of a comfy bed in Hoppity House guesthouse (I am not making this up, there are three-foot cuddly rabbits in the hall and it is DELIGHTFUL). I will have pancakes in the morning and there is only the end of this sentence between us. A mañana, Saint Anza.

PS: Part two is here!