Sunday 12 June 2022

Of Barguests and Breadcrumbs - a tribute to Helen Sant

It’s a sad occasion which brings me back to the Soapbox after an overly long hiatus. The death of a co-worker inevitably brings forth a morass of emotions, and of course the writer in me chooses to process that in the only way I really can – by writing about it. At the same time, setting fingers to keyboard has a feeling of the futile about it – almost, of self-indulgence. Who am I, after all, to write this tribute? There are dozens of people, in York and elsewhere, who knew Helen better than I did. Family, close friends, other co-workers on her many projects in the literary, musical and heritage circles in which Helen moved. My words might as well be breadcrumbs, compared with the pearls that they have to offer.

But write I must, and I shall. And I hope these meagre words do justice to a fabulous creative spirit and a deeply valued co-worker, and that for those of my readers who knew Helen (which I suspect is most of you), something in here will strike a chime of recognition at a sad time.

Since I’ve mentioned breadcrumbs, let’s start with these – or rather with the trail of reflective glass balls set into the pavements of central York. They were put there in 2005, a year before I arrived in the city, as part of a storytelling trail designed to guide children through the history and folklore of the medieval city. Accompanying the trail was a rather beautiful book that I well remember being sold in cafés and indie outlets around the city, including my favourite restaurant of the time. York Breadcrumbs (“Tales of adventure that trace a path around York”) was co-written and illustrated by a group of local writers. The book itself is out of print, but you can still pick up second-hand copies from Amazon, and follow the trail through the streets of York for yourself.

Helen Sant was one of the contributing authors. I met her very soon after my absorption into York’s literary scene. I knew her first as the small, striking, slightly Gothic-looking lass who worked on storytelling projects alongside another of the city’s legends, the late great Adrian Spendlow. Before long I had been spellbound by her translations of medieval legend into the language of today. She led ghost walks, under the pseudonyms Gothic Molly and The Yorkshire Storyteller. Even better, hers were no mere trap for the tourist pound – her ghost tours were bespoke affairs, the venues and the material tailored to the interests and enthusiasms of the audience. I still get shivers when I remember her telling the tale of the Barguest – the malevolent phantom hound – underneath the arches of Lendal Bridge, to a tour party made up of many of my oldest friends. I also vividly remember her taking my writing group around York, telling us all about the benign spirit who haunts the wings of the Theatre Royal, amongst other, seemingly endless tales.

Helen became a regular at The Speakers’ Corner, the spoken word open mic that I hosted until 2018. She would use the open mic to try out snippets of new stories, gleaned from near and far, and re-told with an idiosyncratic Yorkshire spin. Eventually she joined me as a host. I think we shared hosting duties for about five years, though in my head, it seems much longer. Helen was very much part of the furniture – as inextricably linked with York as the outline of the Minster against the skyline, or the scent of sugared chocolate that fills the air when the wind is in the right direction.

One of the curses of the coronavirus pandemic was the way it separated people from one another. We got into the habit of Not Seeing People. After Speakers’ Corner closed its doors for the last time in 2018, the places where Helen and I would coincide became fewer, but they still happened regularly. It didn’t seem as if successive lockdowns had removed her from my life; even if in-person events had ceased to take place, Helen would still post regularly on social media – vignettes about the day-to-day dramas of her neighbours, or news of her ventures into playwriting, performing (when restrictions allowed) and, more recently, her excursions into stand-up comedy. There was a sense of continuity there – that “when all this is over” there would be plenty of opportunities to enjoy each other’s creativity once again. So when the news came, that this wasn’t going to happen, it truly felt as if it wasn’t just a friend and a collaborator who had gone, it was a part of the spirit of the city too.

Church of England funerals can be uncomfortable affairs when the person being remembered was not part of the worshipping community, a stranger to the minister officiating at the ceremony. I have no idea whether this particular funeral was anything like what Helen would have chosen for herself, had she been in a position to choose. Somehow, though, it felt appropriate. The vicar had clearly done her homework, spending time with family and friends and “tuning in” to the memories of what made Helen special. The service itself had a minimum of formality to it – a shared recitation of the 23rd psalm and the Our Father was as religious as it got – and instead of hymns, we had the pleasure and privilege of being able to listen to a recording of Helen herself, singing to a jazz-piano arrangement of The Stray Cat Strut. She was buried next to her father, on a picture-postcard early summer’s day, in the grounds of St John the Baptist church, Adel – a lovingly maintained old Norman church – amongst nose-high grasses and cow-parsley, with a choir of wrens in the trees singing their little hearts out in tribute. As a memorial to someone with such a sense of her connectedness to the earth and to the turn of the centuries, it all felt fitting.

Old Norman churches were very much Helen’s aesthetic. Probably my favourite memories of Helen are those of the times we worked together on our combined poetry performance and storytelling show, Telling the Fairytale. Its first outing was at Bar Lane Studios (as was) in 2011, followed by a bigger show during the York Literature Festival of March 2013 in the decidedly atmospheric surroundings of Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate – a gem of a place that you’d think had materialised right out of a medieval ghost story. My first poetry collection, A Long Way to Fall, was launched that year, and the folklore and fairytales that inspired many of the poems in that collection worked beautifully alongside Helen’s marvellous storytelling. I remember the box pews, our breath forming condensation-clouds around us in the chill of the air inside the church, our set lists and performance notes scattered about the pulpit. This was Helen in her element, treading in the footsteps of generations gone before – imagining their ghosts, perhaps, stirring themselves awake to listen spellbound to her tales.

I had completely forgotten, until the funeral day prompted me to look back at the Telling the Fairytale set list, that one of the stories Helen included in her performance was one of her own devising, about an enchanted shop somewhere off the Shambles in the heart of York, and a customer who falls in love with the magical lass behind the counter. He leaves without declaring himself, but when he goes back to find the shop again and offer his heart to the fair maiden, he cannot find the place. It has disappeared, gone in a breath of magic, leaving him wondering if it was all a dream, or if he’ll ever see it – and her – again. Of course, I can barely do justice to the story here. It really needs Helen to tell the tale, to weave the magic. But it occurs to me that having Helen vanish from our lives is not altogether dissimilar to what the hapless protagonist of that story must have felt, when he realised what he had allowed to slip through his fingers. Helen brought a little spark of magic to York; and now that the magic has worked its spell, the whole city feels diminished by her absence.

Thank you, Helen, for the joy of your words and the quiet delight of your presence. We’ll miss you.

(The accompanying photo shows Helen and me and was taken as part of the publicity material for Telling the Fairytale)

(If you want to know more about the York Breadcrumbs trail there is a great recent article here).

Wednesday 31 January 2018

Is poetry a feminist issue? Part 3: "men's poetry"

Following on from my occasional series of posts about poetry and feminism (see my blog posts "Is poetry a feminist issue?" and "Part 2: "women's poetry"") I’ve decided to turn the discussion on its head and examine a rather provocative question that one of my regular correspondents posted on Facebook recently. My correspondent wanted to know:

“If one was to set up a poetry anthology that only men could be in:
a) as a woman, or a man, would you be ok with that?
b) what would you suggest as a theme?”

This was always going to be a controversial topic in the week that saw the President's Club scandal hit the headlines. Sure enough, the responses made interesting reading. A small number of female poets made clear their disbelief that anybody would even ask the question. After all, there were 250 years of male-only poetry anthologies, as one contributor pointed out – why on earth would we need another one? Several said they couldn’t think of anything in such an anthology that could possibly interest them. One went so far as to say something to the effect of “for goodness’ sake, I’ve had it up to here with bloody men.” And there was one male contributor who hit back aggressively at any response with a hint of feminism to it; his thesis, such as it was, seemed to be that feminism was so loud and influential that men are now an oppressed minority, and how dare anybody think differently...

I must be honest. I spend a lot of time apologising for my gender. And I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling ashamed to be male. It happens most weeks, in my day job, when I meet female victims of domestic abuse. It happened much closer to home, once, when a male guest at a party I was hosting committed a sexual assault on a female friend. It tends to happen most weekends when I have to fight my way through lairy crowds of stag-party-goers on the streets of York, or almost any city in the UK. I had another one of those moments when I read the unhelpful comments of that male contributor. But my heart sank even lower to see the kind of vitriol with which this small cross-section of the female readership greeted the suggestion. Now I wasn’t just apologising for the crassness of contemporary masculinity; I was atoning for centuries of patriarchy too.

Thankfully (for my sanity, if nothing else) the majority of contributors (of all genders) took a more progressive view. Many considered male gender identity in a wider social context. Male poets, it was suggested, have something important to offer by way of a reappraisal of what it means to be male, and an alternative to offer to the kind of ‘toxic masculinity’ that dominates the headlines in the era of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein. Other contributors referred to specific issues such as male suicide and experiences of abuse; several felt that, now that the #metoo campaign has given increased visibility to the particular sufferings of female abuse victims, it is important to create a space where the experiences of male abuse victims can also be acknowledged. Others mentioned the experiences of gay men and non-gender-binary individuals, which are not well understood in cis-hetero-male society. Could a male-orientated poetry anthology make a contribution towards greater understanding and acceptance?

Personally, I think it probably could. But the discussion didn’t end there.

Because, as another contributor pointed out, who would read it? Probably a fair number of male poets. Some female poets too – though, as was clear from the discussion, there appear to be plenty who wouldn’t. With all anthologies, it’s something of a challenge to sell the book to people outside the immediate circle of the poets who contributed to it. My sceptical contributor suggested that a book with such an emphasis on the sensitive, emotional aspects of maleness was unlikely to appeal to the broad mass of the male populace. And if it was only read by the sort of male poets who already get these kinds of issues, then it won’t have achieved anything at all.

At least one contributor suggested that a more populist approach was necessary. An anthology that’s not afraid to immerse itself in the clichéd territories of stereotypical maleness – football, cars, the army, for example. Football poetry, after all, is one of a small number of areas where the world of the poet often does cross into the mainstream. But that kind of anthology wouldn’t appeal to me; and I suspect it would quickly lose the support of most of those female poets who could see the value in the original idea of “men’s poetry” (and quite a few of my fellow males). If anybody is brave (or foolish) enough to take a punt on a “men’s poetry” anthology, I want it to be one that confounds the stereotypes, instead of reinforcing them.

There is, I feel, an alternative. And that would be an anthology with a purpose. An anthology celebrating maleness in all its diversity – from the cult of men’s football to the female impersonator, from the parade-ground sergeant-major to the veteran with PTSD. An anthology that isn’t afraid to question the biological and societal implications of being male, or of being uncertain about maleness. An anthology specifically to raise money for an expressly male cause – such as research into testicular cancer, or (my favoured option) support targeted towards men and boys experiencing mental health difficulties. If the anthology is raising money for a good cause, it already has a natural marketing tool that takes it outside the narrow enclaves of the poetry-writing community. If what is in the anthology can offer some support and solidarity to other men at a point of crisis, then it really would be worth it.

The poet who posed the original question happened to be male, and a director of a small press poetry publisher. He made it clear that his press wasn’t interested in a “male-only” anthology, even for the worthiest of reasons; after all, even in a book themed around male issues, there’s no good reason to exclude the voice of the wives, lovers, sisters, mothers, or the voices of women who were assigned the male gender at birth. Making it “men-only” would be a gimmick, and it could be a gimmick too far. Nevertheless, I was surprised (and, in the end, delighted) by the sheer creative energy his question seemed to generate. I’d like to think that there is a poetry publisher out there somewhere who will have the nerve to pick up this idea, or something derived from this idea, and put it to work for the good of (literal, as well as literary) mankind.

And I hope that if they do, our amazing community of female poets will be prepared not to write off the project as another exercise in male ego-massage, and get behind it the way the vast majority of male poets I know have supported (and continue to support) our female contemporaries’ ongoing campaign for the respect they deserve.

Sunday 31 December 2017

Some poets just need to get over themselves

A little rant to end the year.

Back in September 2016, I wrote a silly little poem in protest at the way the CEO of a certain nationally famous pub chain used his influence, and his company’s money, to generate pro-Brexit propaganda which was circulated amongst patrons of his pubs in the run-up to the referendum on leaving the EU. I subsequently posted the poem on my blog page on Write Out Loud, to receive the unexpected accolade of being voted Poem of the Week.

There was nothing solemn or pretentious in the aforementioned Silly Little Poem (which you can read, in all its glory, here). It was a skit – a pastiche – deliberately written in the metre most famously used by Dr Seuss in his comic rhymes for young readers. It was written to let off steam, and maybe raise a laugh. I wouldn’t ever have entered it for the Bridport Prize, or submitted it to a highbrow poetry journal. It’s not that sort of a poem.

I’ve re-posted links to the poem a few times since September 2016, when the pub chain which inspired it has cropped up in Facebook discussions. Most of the time it is received with the sort of droll amusement I hoped it would evoke. But not recently. The last time I mentioned it, a certain poet and Editor of a Respected Online Poetry Journal pounced upon the link and publicly denounced me for choosing to express my ire in the form of a Silly Little Poem. The poem itself came in for some Serious Critique for its “trite rhymes” and childish metre, and I was made to feel somehow kind of sordid for besmirching the good name of poetry by making a political point in such a light-hearted way.

And you know what? This made me angry.

OK, I should have guessed that my post would be read by some Serious Poets. The correspondent to whom I sent the link was a Facebook friend who is himself a Serious Poet of some distinction. He is however someone who has similar political sensibilities to me, and someone whom I know to be not averse to a bit of satire (and to be able to take it in the spirit with which it was intended). I suspected my contribution would raise a smile. I didn’t suspect that the Poetry Police would be scrutinising every word of his Facebook feed for signs of anything that could be seen to suggest that poetry is ever anything other than a Serious Artform. I certainly didn’t expect the sneering, the self-righteousness or the arrogance of the response with which my light-hearted little contribution was met.

In fairness to my friend, I should point out that he was not the source of the response. It came from somebody who followed his page – someone whose name is well known online in the poetry world, and who in my humble opinion really needs to get over himself.

First of all, who gets to dictate what does, and doesn’t, constitute suitable material for poetry? Political points don’t have to be made exclusively through serious poems – in fact, as I’ve argued before on this blog, sometimes the silly poem is more effective by virtue of being memorable for its daft rhymes, or for a refrain that gets lodged in the mind. After all, the satirist’s job is to make the self-important look ridiculous. The poems in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books were social and political satires; often they were pastiches of poems and songs of the day, or of well-known poetic styles; they were all very silly. And today they are fondly remembered, they are proudly recited by young and old alike, and some of them even feature in The Nation’s Favourite Poems. Now I’m not saying that my Silly Little Poem has anything to commend it to the extent that Jabberwocky does, but that’s not the point. The point is that you simply can’t say, with any justification, that serious political points can’t be made through light verse. A whole tradition of British poetic writing that encompasses Carroll, Lear, Betjeman, Auden, Roger McGough, John Cooper Clarke, Attila the Stockbroker and Les Barker will prove you wrong.

Secondly, there’s that sniffy assumption often made by Serious Poets, that writers of light verse somehow don’t take their craft seriously. I beg to differ with m’learned friend when he says that the rhymes in my Silly Little Poem are “trite”. I worked bloody hard at those rhymes – and though I say so myself, I think they are effective. The “Dr Seuss” metre requires them to be deployed with the subtlety of a rhinoceros driving a Sherman tank, but that doesn’t mean they are bad rhymes. One of the reasons I love writing Silly Little Poems is that they really make me work at rhyme, scansion and the musicality of a poem; they are great training for the moments when I get the urge and the inspiration to write Serious Poetry. As I’ve blogged before, it takes a great deal of skill to make light verse actually sound light – more than most Serious Free Verse Poets realise.

(Again, read the poem and judge for yourselves. I don’t make any claims as to its literary greatness; I just happen to think I came up with half-decent rhymes that work moderately well).

Lastly, I think I’m just sore at the fellow’s implication that somehow, by writing this stuff, I’m Not a Proper Poet. OK, so it would appear I’m never going to be published in his journal – I think we can be quite Clear about that, can’t we? – but I’ve published a whole collection of (mostly) serious poems and I’ve won 10 First Prizes in UK-wide and international poetry competitions – mostly with serious poems. I shouldn’t have to justify myself. I’ll be a poet in whatever medium I choose, thank you very much. If I choose to write Silly Little Poems, by all means judge the poems, but not the poet. If my output really isn’t for you, then fine – there are plenty of Serious Poets (and some silly ones) whose work I can’t stomach either. But the point is that those words speak to someone. Who are you to silence those words, just because that someone doesn’t happen to be you?

Monday 3 July 2017

Helen Cadbury - a tribute

The Poet's Soapbox was deeply saddened to learn of the death last Friday of one of the true stars of York’s literary scene. Helen Cadbury was a successful novelist, a very fine poet, a playwright and a motivator of all things artistic. Her passing will inevitably leave a large empty space in the lives of her partner, sons and her sister, and it will be keenly felt too amongst all of us in the local arts scene who have had the privilege of knowing Helen and working alongside her.

My first encounter with Helen and her beautiful poetry was at Speakers’ Corner. On a night that was (as sometimes happens) almost entirely dominated by men, Helen’s was one of only two female voices to rise to the challenge of redressing the gender imbalance. I think it’s fair to say I was a little intimidated at first; there was a strength and a self-assurance about her which made me feel she was destined for more prestigious places than our little grassroots open mic. But as I got to know her it quickly became apparent that Helen’s self-assurance came from a strong, still centre. There was never anything about her that was in the least bit pushy or arrogant. She was quick to offer praise and support to others; she listened sensitively, and when she spoke, she spoke wisely. In a field where many of us often feel that we have to push ourselves forward to be noticed, Helen was one of the most humble writers I knew.

It’s also fair to say that I didn’t quite appreciate just how good Helen’s writing was until I landed upon an anonymous short story entitled Hello, which I found in the creative writing competition postbag for the 2011 Malton Literature Festival (the forerunner of what is now Ryedale Book Festival). The story was a chilling little psychodrama written with a breathtaking economy of language and a light touch of the pen which elevated it from its dark origins to something truly special. “I was as unsettled as I was fascinated,” I wrote in the judge’s report. “It is clear from the outset that something terrible has happened, but the writer paces the story cleverly, never revealing any detail until it’s exactly the right time to do so.” It was a story that easily deserved its prize, and it was clearly the output of a writer of extraordinary talent.

That First Prize winner was Helen. The story had its origins, she told me later, in some of the tales she had absorbed and the characters she had met whilst working in a women’s prison. As it turned out, that background was also the perfect starting-point for Helen’s subsequent career as a crime novelist. To Catch a Rabbit, the first book in the PCSO Sean Denton series, was a joint winner of the inaugural Northern Crime Award in 2012 and was first published under the Moth imprint in 2013. Subsequently republished by Allison & Busby, it was followed by a sequel, Bones in the Nest. The third book in the series, Race to the Kill, is scheduled for publication this autumn.

As a keen, but very selective, reader of contemporary crime fiction, I was drawn to the Sean Denton books, not just because I knew how good the prose would be, but because there’s something very “everyman” in the central character. Sean is not a detective, not even a police officer, when the series begins; he’s a lowly PCSO unexpectedly plunged into a world of organised crime and police corruption. His very ordinariness makes Sean such an empathetic central character: he’s a council estate boy, an under-achiever at school, with no great ambitions or pretentions. What he does have – and where I think her greatest fictional character mirrors his creator in many ways – is a quiet, instinctive understanding of what is The Right Thing to do, to feel, to believe, to stand up for. That knowledge, that strength of character, guides Sean Denton through his fictional troubles. And similar qualities guided Helen, as anyone familiar with her work in our community and with her unshowy but wise and insightful Facebook posts will realise. She made no secret of her politics (her sister is Labour MP and until-recently front bencher Ruth Cadbury) but the moral and social convictions which underpinned them were always more important than any party political points scoring.

It is, of course, as a poet that I knew Helen best: whether sharing a stage with her, or sitting around a workshop table at the York Stanza sessions hosted by the amazing Carole Bromley (whom Helen credits as being the person who started her on the path to writing professionally). Helen wrote, quite simply, beautiful poetry. Like their author, her poems were never flamboyant; but they were deeply felt, beautifully crafted, alive with imagery and inner fire. So many of Helen’s poems are stories which uncover the epic, the mythic and sometimes the tragic in the narratives of ordinary lives, poems which grant a special dignity to the otherwise uncelebrated. She was considerate in her critique of others’ work, and humble enough to be grateful for critique of her own. She was also an indefatigable supporter of the writing efforts of her contemporaries. She visited York Writers a number of times to talk (with great charm and self-deprecation) about her journey into professional writing, and the pitfalls she encountered on her way. And she was a founder member of the York Authors co-operative, set up to help published local writers across genres promote and develop their books. Through that group she helped give a platform to many of us who wouldn’t otherwise have the knowledge, the network or the oomph to embark on the thankless round of sales and promotions unaided.

There is perhaps an awareness of mortality in the title of Helen’s debut poetry collection, due to be published by Valley Press in November. Forever, Now is a title lifted from Emily Dickinson’s aphorism that “forever is composed of nows”. It wouldn’t do for me to speculate on how Helen’s long illness may have affected her perspective on now, or on eternity. What is clear is that she remained to the end, not only fiercely creative, but full of possibilities, still excitedly discussing plans for her book launches just the day before she finally left us.

Thank you, Helen. For your wonderful writing, and the inspiration, strength and encouragement so many of us have drawn from you. We will miss you.

Saturday 31 December 2016

Is Bob Dylan a poet?

The decision to award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature is one that has ruffled a few feathers in the poetry world. Judging by my Facebook feed, at least, it also seems to have reignited the ages-old row about just what constitutes poetry anyway. After all, Dylan wrote songs, not literary works. Is there anything in his lyrics which justifies them being read in the way one might read a collection of poetry?

Some of Dylan’s detractors are comfortable with the concept of ‘Dylan as poet’, but can’t help asking was he really so much greater a poet than his contemporaries that he deserved a Nobel Prize when, for example, Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen didn’t? Cohen, after all, was a poet; he only became a songwriter by accident when he realised he could make far more money selling his poems by putting them to music than he could by publishing them as purely written collections. Others take a much more purist approach. Song lyrics, they argue, are not poetry, but a separate artform altogether. They are written for an entirely different purpose. They get away with things that would be unforgiveable in true ‘page’ poetry: trite rhymes, faltering scansion, cliché, wilful obscurity under the guise of psychedelic whimsy. And Dylan, in the course of his vast repertoire, has probably been guilty of all of the above, somewhere along the line. So is it really fair to true poets to put Dylan on the same pedestal as, for example, WB Yeats or Seamus Heaney by giving him a Nobel Prize for his writing?

Those in the pro-Dylan camp are more generous in their assessment of whether or not his song lyrics qualify as poetry. Some go so far as to assert that they are more accessible poetic works than most of the stuff that has been published under the auspices of poetry in his lifetime. They note the impact of his early protest songs on the global peace movement, the powerful social commentary and satire in many of his later writings. They point to the heartbreak of Blood on the Tracks and ask: well, isn’t such a paean to Love Gone Wrong precisely the stuff that poetry is made of? Where the pro-Dylan camp often falters is that they state this in such effusive terms as to suggest that Dylan never wrote a duff rhyme or a wilfully obscure metaphor in his life – a suggestion that, even as a fan, I have to admit is ridiculous.

So: was Bob writing poetry or not? And just what is poetry anyway? One of my correspondents noted, somewhat gleefully, that poets themselves (and free verse poets especially) are often painfully inconsistent on this very subject. “There are no rules – anything goes!” they triumphantly declare one moment – the next, they’ll be adamant that (for example) one of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics isn’t poetry because it has an inconsistent rhyme scheme/irregular scansion/doesn’t look like a poem on the page. My correspondent tells me that he has had great fun recently posting up pieces of prose on his Write Out Loud blog and waiting for the avalanche of criticisms that “that’s not a poem!”

I tend to take a liberal approach to what is and isn’t a poem. Basically, if the person who wrote it says it’s a poem, then who am I to argue? That doesn’t necessarily mean that the piece of writing exhibits poetic qualities. Many poems (or pieces of writing that are presented as poems) aren’t especially poetic. I suspect that my correspondent’s mischievous prose offerings may well fall into this category. But if the writer asserts that they want their work to be approached in the way that one would approach a poem, then as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter whether it is presented as a sonnet, a song lyric, a rambling piece of free verse, or as prose. If there are poetic qualities in the writing, these should sing out. If there aren’t – or if there are features of the writing which clash with any poetic qualities – these will probably stand out too.

A piece of writing needn’t be presented as poetry to have poetic qualities. The prose of George Mackay Brown, for example, contains some of the most intensely poetic writing I have ever had the privilege to read. The flash fiction of writers like Steve Toase and Amal el-Mohtar is often so richly poetic that it can be a surprise to see it laid out on the page in paragraphs instead of stanzas. Some of my favourite songwriters – a gamut that ranges from Paul Simon to Jarvis Cocker, with Dylan somewhere in the mix – have a brilliantly poetic ear for a good lyric. Others don’t, but are no less great songwriters for all that. Kate Bush, for example, only rarely produces lyrics with a true poetic flair – but she’s a musician’s musician, far more interested in the sonic qualities of the music as a whole (words, accompaniment, rhythm and effects) than in the fine craft of rhyme and meter. It all depends on the writer’s intention for their composition.

So the question isn’t really “is it poetry?” The question that interests me far more is “does it have poetic qualities?” If the answer is yes, then the writing deserves recognition – be that a Nobel Prize or a round of applause at the local open mic.

And what constitute “poetic qualities”? I’ll happily throw some ideas out here. Poetic writing, for me, is a distillation – an attempt to convey intense experiences and sensations in as few words as possible. It does this by employing literary devices such as imagery and subtext to point at meanings beyond the literal text of the words themselves. And perhaps above all, it does this using a musicality of language which reinforces the mood and creates emotional resonances of its own.

I plan to look at these ideas in a bit more depth in future blog posts.

As for whether Dylan himself is a poet: I have no intention of answering that. You'll just have to weigh up the evidence and decide for yourselves.

Sunday 27 November 2016

Five Words that Poets Hate

As people who work with words, it’s only natural that poets can end up in paroxysms of rage at the sight of certain words or phrases. A couple of weeks ago I polled my fellow poets on Facebook for the words that make them most agitated.

1. Corner
Nobody puts Baby in the corner, as fans of Dirty Dancing know only too well. But poets get put in corners All The Time. And this really, REALLY gets my goat.

I suppose it’s a side-effect of that nice little mausoleum in the corner of Westminster Abbey, where some of the great names from poetry’s past are commemorated. But somehow the concept of a ‘Poet’s Corner’ has taken on a metaphorical life far bigger than the actual physical space that bears that name. Poets, admit it. How many times have you been to events where the poets have been relegated to a ‘corner’ because a non-poet organiser has got it into their head that poets and corners are supposed to go together?

I’ll admit to being partially guilty here. The open mic that I’ve been running since 2007 goes by the name of The Speakers’ Corner. But there’s a difference between a Speakers’ Corner (named after the very public corner of London where anyone with anything to say can be heard) and a Poets’ Corner. You see, Speakers’ Corner excepted, a corner is where you put something to ensure it is out of the way. It is the shadowy space where you put that embarrassing ornament that was a gift from your rich aunt (the one you daren’t offend in case you lose the inheritance) but that you secretly hope nobody will notice. It is the outcasts’ space at parties, into which the uncomfortable, the awkward and the conversationally challenged are elbowed by their more socially gifted contemporaries. The corner, in short, is The Place That Doesn’t Fit.

And I rather suspect that that is the real reason why poets are so often relegated to corners. Poetry makes people uncomfortable – and so do poets. And if we’re doing our jobs right, we should be making people uncomfortable. Not by waxing lyrical about daffodils (see below), but by following Goldsmith’s admonition to “let thy voice, prevailing over time, redress the rigours of th’ inclement clime”. There’s a sort of collective moral responsibility on poets to call out the fakes, the falsehoods, the failures of our society and our politics – and I think that deep inside, most people with any cultural awareness have some sense that this is a good thing. The trouble is, most people don’t want us doing that in their backyard, or in their cosy artsy gathering. Much safer to relegate us to the corner, in the hope that people won’t notice we’re there, or will treat us as the oddities to be avoided. Meanwhile the organisers can tick the right box on their Arts Council feedback sheet and get on with their lives without being unsettled by what we do.

2. Scribble
It’s a faux-truism in popular culture that poets don’t write, we scribble. ‘Writing’ is an activity with a semblance of nobility about it. It’s the activity that produced King Lear, or Paradise Lost, or Moby Dick. A weighty activity for weighty men (and yes, the gender bias is significant).

‘Scribble’, by contrast, is what very small children do with coloured pencils before they learn to write proper words. It’s something that predates the idea of actual communication. When applied to adults, the picture it conjures up is one of eccentricity, of haphazard scrawl into dog-eared notebooks or on napkins in cafés. The implication is that the words being ‘scribbled’ are trivial, ephemeral. Or even self-indulgent; the whole essence of ‘scribble’ is that it’s indecipherable to everyone except the person doing the scribbling. So referring to a poet’s writings in this way fosters the stereotype that what poets write is essentially meaningless to anyone but the poet.

I have to admit, though, this is a word that divided my Facebook poets. One or two of them pointed out that they often do scribble stuff when they go about their day – and most poets are familiar with the syndrome of being far away from notebook or laptop and having a sudden urge to capture a fleeting line or an image that must be written down before it escapes. Even if that means scrawling it on a napkin, or on the back of your hand.

But as my regular correspondent (and fine poet) Angela Topping points out, it’s one thing for us poets to refer to these contextless scrawls as scribble, and another thing altogether for a non-poet to describe the whole of our creative process that way.

3. Wordsmith
This one divided opinion even more than ‘scribble’. Some were entirely comfortable with it – others hated it with a visceral passion.

One or two of my correspondents added a whole pile of synonyms, with which they were equally uncomfortable. ‘Scribe’ and ‘wordweaver’ were particularly unpopular.

Why do these phrases attract such bile? There’s a slightly archaic, artisanal feel to them, which makes me think they are the kind of words that rich people who like to pretend that they’re cultured would use out of condescension, rather than genuine admiration for the craft. In these words the poet is cast in the role of skilled manual labourer – the verbal equivalent of a potter, or a rug-maker. It suits those who like to appear cultured to have the pot or the rug in their mansion (or the book in their library), but they would never want to get their hands dirty trying out the artisan’s craft for themselves. So they dignify the craft with a fancy title and it makes them feel that the world is ordered just the way they like it: the rich man in his castle, the poet at his gate.

It’s worth mentioning, at this point, some of the other detested phrases that often get bundled together with ‘poet’. ‘Impoverished’ was one. ‘Arty’, ‘intellectual’ and ‘dreamer’ were also in the mix. Again, all these are words which set up the stereotype of the poet as one of the noble, hard-working poor – much as if to say, well it’s all very nice to have them, but you wouldn’t actually want to be one, would you?

4. Award-winning
This is another one that I’m guilty of myself. Let’s face it, 90% of poets’ CVs contain the phrase. And therein lies the problem. When almost any poet you meet can describe themselves as ‘award-winning’, it’s obvious that being award-winning doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. As the great Len Goodman once said, awards are like piles – every arse gets them eventually.

Why do so many of us persist in describing ourselves as ‘award-winning’? I think the answer to that is that we are constantly having to justify ourselves, and our art. Very few poets have a queue of people at their door, wanting to hear their words. Most of us, if we want to be taken seriously, have to get out there and sell ourselves to a largely indifferent world. And in my experience, that’s not something which many poets are good at. There are one or two honourable exceptions (my York contemporary Miles Salter, for example, has a talent for self-promotion that I really envy). But most of us find that we need to stake our claim to being a Serious Poet by constantly referencing those pesky awards, whether they’re the Bridport Prize or our local writers’ group’s annual limerick competition. They are one of the few objective measurements we can cling to, to show that we are Any Good.

But even being award-winning is no guarantee of recognition. The extraordinary Pat Borthwick, for example, has won almost every major poetry award out there, and tells me that she still struggles to get bookings. Which sometimes makes me wonder, if Pat has difficulty, what hope is there for the rest of us?

5. Poetry
I’ve saved the most controversial word for last. But the person who proposed it was quite adamant about this one. It’s a “pigeonholing misrepresentation”, I was told. And I have to admit, that somewhat flummoxed me.

So is it true? Are poets really ashamed, embarrassed or angered to be associated with poetry?

I’ve pondered this at great length since. And I don’t think that it’s the whole corpus of poetry that’s being slagged off here, but rather what my correspondent eloquently described as a “pompous white-ruffled airy arty farty stereotype”. The point was made that there is a way of presenting poetry which is intrinsically ‘uncool’ and which does sometimes irreparable damage to people’s appreciation of poetry, often at a very young age. Poetry was something, says my correspondent, that people just “didn’t do” when he was at school.

I can’t really argue with that. I’ve blogged before about the dreadful negative impact of Wordsworth’s Daffodils on generations of schoolchildren – and the even worse impact that over-sentimental rehashings of Daffodils have on the credibility of poetry as an art form (it’s probably worth mentioning that the word ‘daffodils’ had its own nomination in this survey!). However, I’m far from comfortable with the notion that this means the very word ‘poetry’ is intrinsically devalued amongst those of us who write and perform the stuff. If anything, perhaps the opposite is true.

Poetry is not something which ever had aspirations to be ‘cool’ (except for possibly a year or two in the Beat era). In the UK at least, it certainly hasn’t ever been ‘trendy’ in my lifetime. But what good poetry has going for it is a certain counter-cultural quality. That’s why Goldsmith described poetry as “my shame in crowds, my solitary pride”. That’s part of the reason why it continues to attract such a high proportion of geeks, goths and misfits of all kinds (and long may it continue to do so). Pretty much all the performing poets I know are proud to call themselves poets; that word represents an artistic, cultural and political standpoint very different to the societal norms of capitalism, tribalism and conformity.

But I have met other poets who are still embarrassed to think of themselves as poets. They bring out their notebooks almost shyly at open mics. They share their words hesitantly. And it’s not because the words are bad – they never are. It’s because when they have admitted to friends, family members, sometimes even partners, that they have been writing poetry, they have had their art ridiculed, or dismissed as unimportant.

If you’re one of these people, then this post is for you. The word ‘poetry’ is on this list because poetry matters. Don’t hate that word. Be proud of it. Immerse yourself in it. It is a truly soul-crushing thing, when those closest to you just don’t understand why it matters to you. But there are hundreds and thousands of us who do get it. Seek us out. Be poets with us. We will do what we can to make your life better. To help you be proud of who you are.

And not a single daffodil will be harmed in the process.

Sunday 25 September 2016

On Not Writing

Regular Soapbox followers will have noticed that I haven’t posted anything for some time. The quietness of the Soapbox is symptomatic of my writing life in general this year. I’ve been doing very little creative writing of any kind. A meagre handful of new poems. Some blog articles. A couple of pieces for the community magazine that I contribute to. And occasional forays into the epic fairy-tales that I write for my own pleasure, as a break from the serious business of life.

I know many novelists – published and aspiring – who agonise over the phenomenon of ‘writer’s block’. But ‘writer’s block’ presupposes that you actually have the time and space and the desire to write – it’s just that when you sit down to do it, nothing comes. There are whole books of advice about it. But I don’t think I’m in the same situation.

My issue is more that the time to write hasn’t been there. The safe space in which to get the writing done hasn’t been there. Above all, the emotional energy which I believe is a prerequisite for any writing – perhaps poetry most of all – simply hasn’t been there.

I suspect a lot of people who write get periods like this in their lives. And I suspect most don’t like to admit it. The received wisdom – from the tutors, the guidebooks, and the writing magazines – is that we have to be writing. All the time. That somehow we’re not ‘serious’ writers if there are periods when this can’t happen.

All of which is, frankly, bollocks.

I’ve blogged before that you do not have to be a full-time writer to be a writer. JRR Tolkien wasn’t a full-time writer. Philip Larkin wasn’t a full-time writer. They had day jobs which paid the bills, and in Tolkien’s case inspired and preoccupied him every bit as much as the actual writing did. And the thing with day jobs is that they sometimes take over.

My day job, for the last year, has involved giving advice and legal representation to vulnerable households who are homeless or facing homelessness. It’s an amazing privilege to do this kind of work. The people I meet are extraordinary, fascinating, complex individuals. Some have serious health difficulties. Some have escaped abuse or violence. Almost all have been scarred to some extent by the present government’s persecution of the poor, the disabled and those at the margins of society. Every day I am honoured and amazed to be trusted with the stories of the hardships my clients have faced. Every day I am struck by their resilience in the teeth of terrible, sometimes tragic circumstances.

The trouble with a job like this is it’s very difficult to switch off from. I sometimes wake in the mornings realising that I have been dreaming about my clients’ cases, or trying to memorise tracts of law in my sleep. The hours are long, the work is demanding, the intellectual challenge enormous. This is all part of the reason why I love my job. But it’s also the reason that when I get ‘down-time’ from my work, I really do need to relax. To open up some emotional space for me to recover, otherwise I’ll burn out.

Now, to produce poetry requires a certain emotional space in which to be creative. To produce good poetry requires time and intellectual discipline, to work on refining those first drafts and turning them into material worthy of publication. Often, too, it requires time to get to workshops, critique sessions, open mics, to try out the material. All of this can be in short supply in a job like mine.

So that’s the reason I haven’t been writing much poetry.

I’m not beating myself up about this. After all, the work that I do is important. Let’s be honest, it probably makes more of a difference to more people than my poetry ever will. It’s an honour to be able to serve my community in this way. And it is, in many senses, a vocation. Right now, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

Nonetheless, I find myself feeling I have to apologise to other writers for Not Writing. Every now and then I’m given the distinct impression that “I’m not taking things seriously” or “I’m not a proper writer.” But I don’t think either of these accusations are valid.

For one thing, writers need source material. And the clients I’m working with now are providing me with inspiration in bucketloads. Right now, I can’t write about them – partly because of client confidentiality, but more because I’m simply too close to the people and the events to be able to write about them with any kind of perspective. I have no doubt that in the fullness of time, these experiences of mine are going to generate vast volumes of words. It doesn’t matter that they’re not doing so now.

Many people discover (or rediscover) poetry, and other forms of writing, when they retire. With new-found space in their lives, and some distance from what was their day-to-day work, those nebulous strands of inspiration start to coalesce. Formative past experiences acquire a certain perspective.

I hope I won’t have to wait until retirement to be writing prolifically again. In the meantime, even if the creative spark is dimmed, I doubt it is snuffed out altogether. I still have a small back catalogue of unpublished work that needs to see the light of day at some point. I have fragments of new poems (often cathartic silly stuff, which at least keeps up the poetic discipline, and provides light relief at the local open mics). And I have a huge store of new experiences to tap into, when the time and the space is right.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t despair. And don’t, for goodness’ sake, let anybody tell you you are failing as a writer, just because you can’t do exactly what the textbooks say, all the time.