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On Poets and Adverts

I think the world would be a better place if there was no advertising. I happen to think that the advertising industry has become a powerful and negative force in our society. It has destroyed our news, for example, funding free until people are unwilling to pay, then flocking to Facebook and Google; making real journalism unaffordable and causing our current hellish descent into fake clickbait. It has eroded the ability of writers and musicians to make a living. It has permeated every public space: our buses, our hospitals, our parks, until there is barely anywhere we are not positioned as consumers. It stalks our every (online) move. It sells gender stereotypes and racial stereotypes and heteronormativity. It sells selfishness and greed and vanity. It sells eating disorders and bleached coral reefs, child labour and pointless plastic, obesity and disappointment. And advertising is clever. Because it takes youth culture and avant garde art and wild music and grassroots politics and literature and any real creativity that might threaten the current system and it tames them. It strips them of subversion then sells them back to us.

There’s been a lot of talk on social media about poets doing adverts. I only noticed really when I saw this poem by Luke Wright on Youtube criticising them. My immediate thought was that it’s a great poem, there are some lines that really made me laugh. (‘So what if Iggy sells insurance and Lydon sells us butter? / I preferred their early work, the greedy motherfuckers’) I also thought it was quite brave – he makes a living as a poet and has the profile to get approached for these things, so he is burning a few bridges here, drawing a line.

However, most people I saw online seemed to be annoyed with him. Like he touched some kind of nerve. Apparently adverts are good profile for poetry. And naturally poets need the money. Apparently, no one has a right to criticise. Fay Roberts defends those ‘feeling stung and belittled by the unsought judgement’. Sophie McKeand argues: ‘The world is becoming more and more judgmental and intolerant and it’s depressing to see that, at times, poets are leading the charge on this instead of focussing on things that really matter.’

Well I suppose it depends what you think matters.

I disagree with this assumption that  ‘judging’ is inherently wrong, as though critical engagement is for meanies. Agreed, we all make compromises and we don’t know the poets’ financial situations. Lots of poets have day-jobs – they might run hedge-funds or work for Google and this is none of my business. But once you write a poem and perform publically then judgement is not ‘unsought’, even if you’re doing it for a large cheque. You’re putting it out there for people to judge, and not just your line-breaks either – your opinions, your motivations, your feelings. That’s what makes being a writer scary. It’s exposing.

I think the adverts under discussion contain some pretty poor poems. To be clear, I’m not condemning the poets generally, just these specific poems. George the Poet’s rhymes are used to suggest that individuality (which ‘doesn’t come off a production line’) can be purchased in the form of an expensive, environmentally unsound jeep off a production line, and urge the viewer to do various things which sound kinda cool but are totally empty (‘Defy your alibi’.) The Nationwide ads are strung together from soft-focus cliches (churning stomaches and melting hearts, knees-up and cuppas, dad dancing and hero’s welcomes) and reinforce, in the juxtaposition of poem and product, certain messages: that a building society lending money is doing you a ‘kindness’, or that house ownership is a necessary part of creating a family home.

So I don’t see these adverts and think ‘well at least they used real poets’. I don’t see anything better in them than any other jingle. And I think we’re allowed to question whether presenting these words to people as poetry actually does poetry any good.

In a statement Jim Thornton, VCCP deputy executive creative director of the Nationwide adverts, said: “Each of these poets brings a raw honesty to the words they have written, the subjects they’ve chosen and the way in which they are performed. It’s rare and refreshing to see such authenticity in a world of advertising artifice. Sometimes, advertising is at its most effective when the hand of the client and agency can be least detected.”

I find that last line faintly chilling. And do you see what he’s buying there? Honesty and authenticity. If that’s what he’s buying, then that’s what you’ve sold.

 

Click Here For Free Poetry

Free poetry! There’s almost too much of it these days. How am I going to convince people to pay £9.95 when my book comes out in two weeks when you can read the new issues of Prac Crit and Poetry and Poems in Which and an ebook by Martha Sprackland about sharks all completely free??? Still, as a hard-up reader I can’t pretend I don’t appreciate it. And if all these talented people are giving away such amazing poems for nothing, the least we can do is celebrate the fact and make sure free doesn’t mean undervalued.

Which brings me to the super-talented group of New North Poets I mentored last year for NWN and the Poetry School.  Kathleen Bainbridge Moran, David Borrott, Jared Carnie, Tom Cleary, James Giddings and Jasmine Simms are very much writers to watch, and have just published this beautiful FREE e-book called, rather wonderfully, All That’s Ever Happened.

Yours for a bargain zero pence. Please click, enjoy and share.

The Mist

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The last month has been blurred at the edges. Mist veiling the trees through my kitchen window. The heron stood stock still in it’s milk at Telegraph Hill Park. Mist obscuring the skyline when I wait for the Overground; the lights of towers smudgy. Fields and fields of pale mist on my early morning train up to the University of Essex. I feel like I’m in Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, and ‘the mist’ is some kind of metaphor for our ignorance and confusion; the alternative facts of our newsfeeds.

When I’ve not been refreshing Twitter with an expression of horrified disbelief, 2017 has been quite nice for me so far. I enjoyed catching up with poetry people at the T.S. Eliot awards. Then Richard turned 40 and we had a big party with friends and dancing and drunkenness.

And of course, there are all the days with the children – the deep dark of 5am wakeups, Cate’s first tastes of fish finger and eggy bread, rivers of snot, row row your boat. Gruff has become a fan of Scooby Doo, so trying to get to anywhere at speed now involves me chasing him down the street howling like a ghost whilst he cries: ‘zoinks’. We made trips to the Elfin Oak in Kensington Gardens to see the little people carved into it (apparently called Brownie, Dinkie, Rumplelocks and Hereandthere); the aquarium; horse-riding; a puppet show about a baby penguin; a pirate-themed birthday party. We cut out lanterns for the Year of the Rooster and ate dumplings at our friend’s house. Killed long hours playing hospitals and sweet-shops and laying siege to a Playmobil castle.

Workwise, January meant marking. I have reviews in the latest Poetry Review and Poetry London, and an interview up about translating. A box of advance copies of my new book, Incarnation arrived, which will be out next month (details to follow…) I’m also judging the poetry for this year’s Northern Writers Awards and the deadline is TOMORROW (come on Northerners!! There’s still time!!) I’ll be selecting the people I’ll be mentoring over a year, with a mixture of one-to-ones, workshops and professional development, and if you’re more established there are Awards for Poetry too to help develop work in progress.

So lots to celebrate. But still, like most people, I find nothing quite feels normal. Gruff keeps saying uncanny sounding things like: ‘will we be people forever?’ or ‘I don’t want the world to end’ (although they’re probably just misquotes from a Pixar movie). I worry for my American friends, my European friends in the UK, my Somali friends.

Waiting for this awful, eerie whiteness to lift.

Helsinki with Caasha

During these final, mean-spirited months of 2016, the news frothing with nationalism and narrowing minds, translation has felt redemptive. It has felt like necessary work to lead the Poetry Translation Centre workshops each week; to collaborate with a diverse, shifting group of people who care about cultural dialogue and precise words. I have learnt so much about different poetries – from the three types of ambiguity in Chinese lyrics to the intricate rhyming forms of Swahili – as well as different cultures – of Iran’s Polish Chairs and Cuba’s guapetones. Most of the poems we translated are now up on the new-look PTC site with my translation notes, so I encourage you to sample Oscar Cruz, Iraj Ziayi, Amjad Nasser and Syed Shah Saud (Abdilatif Abdalla and Yu YouYou to follow shortly). If you’d like to join us next year, the next season is ready for booking – a season pass is £35 and might make a good new year’s resolution. Also, why not check out Modern Poetry in Translation’s advent calendar – I was pleased to see one of my translations was day one, and it’s a nice way to sample some amazing world poets and feel merry at the same time.

And on Friday, translation took me to Helsinki for their first Somali Week, to read with my friend Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf. I am very pleased to announce I am working on some new translations of her work for her first full collection, The Sea Migrations, to be published by Bloodaxe in November next year. Because these fierce, passionate poems by a Muslim, immigrant, female writer are precisely what everyone needs to read right now, and because those labels scarcely matter when you hear her perform and the whole crowd starts chanting along to Dookh – she is just one of our most vital poets in the UK.

I am lucky to be involved in the project and was lucky, too, to accompany her on a 24-hour trip to Helsinki.

When we arrived everything seemed vast and grey and cold, only the lights of pizza places or Subways flashing past (‘Same same, innit?’ Caasha declared gleefully), as we were rushed to our packed event. But there were lots of friendly and familiar Somali faces there, and afterwards we were treated to a much needed kebab. Then the next day I took advantage of the hotel’s sauna and huge breakfast buffet of boiled eggs, berries, pickled fish and rye bread, before venturing out in the brisk, bright morning for an explore.  I saw the harbour with its Christmas market full of reindeer skins and lingon berries, and the little statues of tortoises and bears everywhere. I tried the salted licorice (it tasted of ammonia) and glugged back a quick Glögi. I stumbled on the famous boy’s choir rehearsing their carol concert in the Cathedral and stocked up at the Moomin shop with presents for Cate before our flight home. All very fleeting, but I’m definitely in the festive mood now. 2016 may have been depressing, but the world is still huge and various and beautiful, and you’d have to be dead inside not to enjoy Christmas when your child is three years old and the donkey in the nativity.

‘I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best’ Leonard Cohen sings of Janis Joplin in ‘Chelsea Hotel’. Well tonight I don’t want to suggest that of Leonard Cohen either. I’m not a superfan who owns every album. I’m not grieving. There are sadder things in this world right now than a fulfilled, beloved man dying at 82. But it’s Friday, the children are asleep, and I’m in on my own clicking on ‘So Long, Marianne’ and drinking a glass of red wine to one of the very greatest lyricists of all time.

My dad used to like singing Leonard Cohen songs – he said they were some of the few popular tunes in his vocal range – and he often recounted how when he was dating my mum and they had to live in different towns he would sing her ‘Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ (‘your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm…’).

One of my top ten albums is the deliciously sleazy I’m Your Man with Lorca’s ‘Take this Waltz’ and ‘Everybody Knows’ (‘Everybody Knows the fight was fixed. the poor stay poor and the rich stay rich.’) One of my top ten concerts ever was Cohen at Benicassim, bounding onto the stage full of joy.

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(image of Cohen at Benicassim by Baggio)

Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ was pretty much the anthem of my adolescence, and Chelsea Hotel, well, it’s a top ten song, maybe even top five. It breaks my heart every single time I hear it. ‘You were talking so brave and so sweet’. I think I’m pretty much gone from there.

And he was a real poet. I mean, I love Dylan, but Dylan lyrics without the music don’t sound like poems to my ear. Cohen’s are poems. Look at ‘Suzanne’:

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then he gets you on her wavelength and she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover

Listen to the cascade of soft, feminine rhymes there. Listen to the caesuras breaking the lines like waves breaking. Look at that image of tea and oranges: comforting yet exotic, fragrant, precise.

I’ll remember you well Leonard Cohen. That’s all.

Spooktacular

So we had a very fun ghoulish gathering in the end. Gruff helped me make lanterns, slime jelly and eyeball canapés; ‘Ghostbusters’ rang out from Spotify, and there was some great fancy dress (see our haunting family portrait below. Cate is a skeleton; Rich is the pumpkin-headed dancer meme)

The weather also held out for us to have fireworks and a bonfire in the garden (as well as a keg of ale and a makeshift bar where I sloshed together some sloe gin Negronis. Or Negroanis, for those who enjoy a terrible Halloween pun). And friends generously brought creepy offerings such as a skull draped with cold meats, ‘devil’s mess’, monster flowers and a Hilary Clinton mask.

Also this weekend an interview about Incarnation and new poem called ‘The Reef’ both went up on the excellent Poetry Spotlight website if you fancy a click.

 

Autumnal Update

I’ve been so busy it’s tipping towards fraught (and Cate woke me at 5 this morning), so not much of a blog-post this time, but keep meaning to share a few links.

 

Publications

-My big news (for me) of this month has been that I have two poems, ‘Pinocchios‘ and ‘Leviathan‘, in the October issue of Poetry. Under Don Share’s editorship it’s probably my favourite poetry magazine in the world, and getting in there feels like a massive tick on my ‘Do Before you Die’ list. If you’re looking at the site, I must also implore you to read Carolyn Forché’s poem about refugees, ‘The Boatman’ – just stunning. And I’m part of the ‘Reading List’ feature on their blog.

-I’m very also pleased to be in this provocative new political anthology, New Boots and Pantisocracies, ed. W.N.Herbert and Andy Jackson (Smokestack), with a gorgeous ‘Pawnedland’ cover from the multi-talented Tim Turnbull.

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Events

-I’ve been on the road with Ovid again, with performances at Bridlington and Ilkley Literature Festivals. It was a pleasure to tour misty Yorkshire and see my friend the poet Antony Dunn (who has a rather lovely looking new book out this week, Take this One to Bed, with Valley Press), as well as spend a night with friends in Hebden Bridge (where I discovered an excellent gin bar in the train station).  I now have ONE gig left, in Nottingham – Thursday 10th November, 6.30pm at The Old Chemistry Theatre. Tickets are available here.

-For Londoners grieving that they missed it though, I will be performing some of the Ovid monologues alongside Patience Agbabi’s reworkings of Chaucer from her book Telling Tales at the Hampstead Arts Festival on November the 13th (very much looking forward to this).

-I’ve also been immersed in a translation of a new poem by Caasha Lul Mohamad Yusuf for Somali week, ‘Calaf’ – it’s an big, brave, moving poem about men and women that I’m very excited about. I’ll be debuting my attempt to capture it tomorrow at Oxford House and we’ll also be reading in Bristol on Friday, alongside W.N.Herbert who has been working on new translations of Mahamed Mahamud Yasiin “Dheeg”, and the revered novelist Nuruddin Farah who wrote From a Crooked Rib, an important novel about a girl escaping an arranged marriage which I read many years ago, and found deeply affecting. Details of the events are here at the Poetry Translation Centre website.

-Also, if you live in London and are at all interested in translation do come to some of the FREE translation workshops I’ll be facilitating for the Poetry Translation Centre over the next 7 weeks. No linguistic ability necessary, but the chance to work on literals by really wonderful translators who will give you an insight into other cultures (poetries we look at will include Cuban, Chinese, Dari, Pashto and more…) They’ll be at 6.30pm on Tuesdays and you just need to reserve a place on eventbrite – you’re welcome to come along for just one or three or all. See more about the poets we’ll be looking at and more details here (scroll down)

 

And… deep breath. Will go now as I’m on RLF time (I’m pleased to be back at the University of Essex as a literary fellow) and I think a student’s about to knock. Also, I’ve a lesson on Milton and Geoffrey Hill to prep for the Poetry School MA, and Gruff wants me to think up some ‘Spooktacular’ snacks for our Halloween party. Think I might go as one of the living dead.