Archive for October, 2012

Spells and a Séance

About ten years ago I interviewed a witch in a cafe in Camden.  She was very attractive, and soon told me that this was normal amongst witches:  ‘It’s very, very basic to do the glamour, which is surrounding yourself with a layer of beauty,’ she explained.  ‘If you’re ugly you’re probably not a very good witch.  If you’re dirt poor you’re probably not a very good witch either.’

I remember this at Halloween, when the warty witch-masks come out.  I’ve always loved this time of year: it’s close to my birthday, so as a child I often had Halloween-themed birthday parties, with cat-cakes and cobwebs, and my dad would sometimes drive us through the moors to Pendle to go ‘witch-spotting’. I realise now we were mistakenly looking for crones.  In my last book, Changeling, I wrote a couple of Pendle poems (there’s one online at Poetry International).  Now it’s the 400th anniversary of the witch-trial and everyone seems to be getting in on the act – Simon Armitage, Jeanette Winterson and even Carol Ann Duffy (which officially means Pendle is over as a subject.  It’s like with bees).

So this year, instead, I’ve been getting into the Halloween mood by gorging on haunted house stories.  I’m writing a short story about a haunting, and have been procrastinating by reading Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Mark Danielewski’s The House of Leaves.  As the door to our new house bangs in the wind, I’ve been getting fairly jumpy – they’re all brilliant, though Jackson  writes the most wickedly sharp prose, and Danielewski’s gave me the worst nightmares: its monster is, terrifyingly, a kind of vast existential void.

Last night I also took my research a stage further by going to a séance at The Last Tuesday Society in Hackney.  It’s a cramped little shop on Mare Street, based on a 17th century Wunderkabinett, and full of brilliant grotesque curios – a stuffed, two-headed lamb; a shrunken head – as well as things I love to collect like butterflies, fossils, skulls (although the cat skull, at more than £50, seemed a little over-priced – we found ours on a walk through Abney Park cemetery).  After a while we were ushered to a back room for the seance, where Philipp Magos channelled the spirit of a medium called ‘Florence’ to mark people’s hands with candle-ash, work out the names of lost loved-ones and scratch on the ceiling in the dark.  She also tickled me with what felt like a feather-duster, which made me giggle rather than shudder, but it was a lot of fun – at such events I enjoy succumbing to the creepy atmosphere whilst simultaneously trying to see how the trick is done. (In paranormal matters I like to both have and eat my cake.)

I’ll leave you with a poem that always seems appropriate for Halloween: Keats’ magnificently chilling ‘This Living Hand’.  It is, in a way, also a brilliant trick – a sleight of hand.


This Living Hand


This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—

I hold it towards you.


By John Keats

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Extraordinary Women

This week’s been a been a bit of a blur: it was my birthday (thanks for all the birthday wishes), I visited a school in Wimbledon and I began a new workshop project for PEN working with young refugees. On thursday I was part of a reading in Durham to launch the new magazine Butcher’s Dog – it’s a beautiful thing, edited by a very nice bunch of poets: do buy a copy, check out the website and give it your support.

And then it was also Somali week.  There was a wonderful launch – Sarah Maguire, WN Herbert and James Byrne all contributed, and I met the poet Said Salah just moments before reading with him. My co-translations of his work are now up on the Poetry Translation Centre website here.  And on wednesday it was womens’ night, where I caught up with Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf and then enjoyed clapping and shimmying along to the fabulous, funny, charismatic Maryan Mursal (thanks to Caasha for this link!):

Talking of extraordinary women, I also have an essay about a poetic heroine in the autumn issue of The Dark Horse. The editor, Gerry Cambridge asked me (along with several other contributors) to write about a first collection that shaped me as a poet. I’ve chosen the collection Enough Rope by Dorothy Parker, and muse on the relationship between her work and insomnia, as well as the reasons why she’s my definition of cool.

And in other news I’m pleased to say that the ebook version of my most recent collection Changeling is finally available.

Think that’s everything.  I’m having a well-earned rest today, enjoying my birthday presents – an autumn cherry tree we’ve planted in the back garden and an electric hand-whisk, with which I’m about to make chocolate and peanut cookies…

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On Poetry and Thought

One of the books I use most when teaching is Strong Words, edited by Matthew Hollis and W.N.Herbert.  It’s a wonderful compendium of poets writing about poetry: statements, manifestos and musings.  Frank O’Hara introduces ‘Personism’, Plath explains why she’d never put a toothbrush in a poem, and Michael Donaghy gives us a glimpse of his report card.  Now Salt are putting out a similar volume this week – In Their Own Words, edited by Helen Ivory and George Szirtes – which asks more recent and emerging poets to try and articulate their poetics.  Although my copy hasn’t arrived yet, I’ve seen the proofs and it’s full of juicy stuff.  Some great poets are involved: Ian Duhig, Julia Copus, Tim Turnbull, Polly Clark, Luke Kennard, David Morley, Tim Wells, Matthew Sweeney, Luke Wright, Sam Riviere, Mimi Khalvati… And with such a mixture there is plenty to disagree with as well as inspire.  For me the highlights include Jen Hadfield’s essay on how clams are her current muse, and Antony Dunn’s discomforting piece on poetics and posturing.

Anyway, do buy it.  As a taster, here’s my contribution – having written it speedily for a deadline I’m aware it’s just the first fumblings of an idea, but it was good to be encouraged to articulate some thoughts about poetry that have been in the back of my mind for a while.

Note on Poetry and Thought

When the philosopher Hannah Arendt learnt of the Holocaust it was: ‘really as if an abyss had opened.’  She instinctively felt it was ‘something completely different’ from those evils that had come before and her writings suggest the difference was in that most ‘unbearable pain’ when human particularity is rendered unnecessary.  This year I visited Dachau, and after walking through the gate with its brazen lie, Arbeit macht frei, simply the scale of the yard where the prisoners lined-up for roll-call – the vast field of stones – gave me a cold, sick feeling.  As the academic Kimberley Curtis has explained: ‘The point here is not that totalitarian politics was the first time genocide was practised, but that for the first time making human particularity superfluous became a political ideal.‘  And how did such a terrible system occur?  One strand of this question that Arendt pursued was the relationship between evil and thought, famously asking in Eichmann in Jerusalem whether the ‘habit of examining whatever comes to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content’ could actually prevent ‘evil-doing’.  Was the condition for the rise of Nazism an outbreak of thoughtlessness?

For Arendt, on the simplest level, ‘thinking means that each time you are confronted with some difficulty in life you have to make up your mind anew,’ and thus is the antithesis of ‘the total explanation of an ideology’ that totalitarianism sought to impose.  To think is to look at the particulars of each situation as it occurs – and as such is an anarchic force, resisting all regulation.

In The Life of the Mind, Arendt articulates the dangers of not thinking.  ‘What people get used to is less the content of rules, a close examination of which would always lead them into perplexity, than the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars’.  Because of this, inverted new values are taken on most easily by those who supported old ones – in Nazi Germany ‘thou shalt not kill’ was reversed.  And Arendt points out that the ease with which the ‘reversal of the reversal’ occurred after the war ‘should not console us either.  It was actually the same phenomenon.’  Arendt goes further in her report on Eichmann’s trial.  Eichmann, who managed the deportation of Jews to concentration camps, used the defence that he was simply following orders, and admitted that: ‘officialese is my only language’, leading Arendt to observe that he seemed ‘genuinely incapable of uttering a sentence that was not a cliché.’  The staleness of his statements, with his utter obedience to tired language ‘rules’, both revealed and suggested the cause of his brutal lack of thought.

I believe that poetry is the opposite of propaganda.  The Nazis explicitly declared war on thought, saying: Wer Denkt, Zweifelt Schon: ‘he who thinks has already doubted’.  In the current global crisis the propagandists are more sophisticated, but bankers, politicians, corporations and the military still assert rather than explain; manage appearances, rather than give us the facts.  Our language is corrupted by spin, euphemism, sound-bites and untruths.  Opinions are dressed up as fact and fact dismissed as opinion.   The language of the powerful almost always seeks to short-circuit thought.  As such it can lead us into ‘evil-doing’ – complicity with injustice, greed, war, environmental devastation, exploitation.

Poetry can help us to be what Arendt calls: ‘fully alive’.  It can teach us to think – that is, to react to each moment afresh.  When we begin a poem, we should always be ‘making up our mind anew.’ We must avoid the mental laziness of cliché – received phrases, diction, narratives, images or conclusions – and instead respond in a way that is specific.  In doing this, poetry can clear a space for language in which nuance and human particularity can flourish.  And it creates room for the individual reader to think too – a poem should provoke examination and interpretation, not a stock response.

Though there is an obligation to be original, we should not claim that poetry has any rules.  After all, the assertion ‘never use full rhymes’ is only the reversal of ‘always use full rhymes’, and just as unthinking.  Form should be an alert, improvised response to the subject.  True poetry is anarchic.

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Lost in Translation

Just a hurried post – term has started, we’re trying to do up the new house, and I’ve had loads of translation work, so everything’s been very busy the last few weeks.  I’m currently copy-editing a collection of Palestinian poetry and preparing a ten-minute talk for International Translation Day at King’s Place on Friday – it looks a great event: I’m really looking forward to hearing Dominic Dromgoole on how Shakespeare works in different languages, and the novelist Andrei Kurkov.

I’ve also been doing five new translations for Somali Week in October – there’s going to be a programme of poetry events at Oxford House in Bethnal Green.  It will be lovely to read with Caasha again, and it’s a chance to make some new discoveries – I’ve particularly been enjoying working on Said Salah’s poems.  James Byrne is also doing some translations and will be reading.  Those interested in sampling one of the world’s great poetry traditions should come along.

It’s been a sad few weeks for the Somali community with the loss of two much loved poets: Faysal Cumar Mushteeg and ‘Gaarriye’.  If you haven’t heard of Gaarriye, he was considered one of the world’s great poets and this beautiful tribute by Sarah Maguire on the Poetry Translation Centre website is a good place to start for background and links to his performances. There’s also a moving post by WN Herbert, who translated much of Gaarriye’s work, here.

Will be back with a proper blog soon…

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