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Archive for March, 2013

10 years ago this week, the military invasion of Iraq began. I was 24 and backpacking around the world, on an adventure that would form the basis for my long poem ‘The Journey’ in Look, Clare! Look! The poem was a kind of travel journal, jotted down in fragments, and that evening in Khao San in Thailand I scribbled:

The man in the bar asked: why do you hate Iraq?
as the hulking ships closed in on CNN,
as the dusty camps set up,
as the choppers descended,
and we tried to explain over beers or Mai Tais
that we didn’t, we hated the war.

That there was just nothing we could do.

Coming as this does after a passage in which entitled young westerners trash a beach at a full-moon party, I hope my readers get the undertow of irony. Of course, I did hate the war. Of course, aside from protesting and signing petitions, which I did, there was on some level nothing I could do. But how hollow it rings. It’s hand-washing; a lame excuse. A shrug over a cocktail umbrella.

It is this that makes the Iraq war hard to write about for many British poets. We can say not in my name, but it was/is. And ‘not in my name’ sounds a bit like ‘not my fault’ or ‘nothing to do with me’. A government that a majority of us voted in (including myself) took us to war. And after this, in 2005, they won another election. We are on some level complicit, and the grown-up thing is to accept some responsibility. I’m reminded of that Mitchell and Webb sketch where two Nazi officers notice the skulls on their caps and it suddenly occurs to them that they are the ‘baddies’.

Last night I went to a very thought-provoking night of poetry organized by Reel Iraq at the Rich Mix. The first half, curated by SJ Fowler for Maintenant, was a response by British poets to 10 years in Iraq: a fascinating hour, but also one in which poets seemed to struggle, slightly, to know on what terms to engage with the war. Patrick Coyle read a transcript of an interview between Tony Blair and Kirsty Wark backwards – an interesting way to defamiliarise the language of propaganda but also a slightly wishful rewinding of events. Nick-e Melville made poems out of coalition leaflets dropped on Iraq and read out numbers of casualties like football scores, suggesting that for its instigators the war was part of a global game. Deconstructing the language of war is necessary, of course, but I wondered if some of this satire was a bit easy. Other poets tried more oblique approaches – Joe Dunthorne read a poem about his grandmother escaping the holocaust; Jon Stone some brilliantly bawdy translations of female poets; Kirsty Irving a dramatic monologue in the voice of a young gay man in Baghdad.

With an audience that included many Iraqis though, I did feel a little like our answerability for the war was ducked. SJ Fowler, though mentioning the ‘stain’ we had as British citizens, also said we should remember that it could as easily have been us, having our culture and our language taken – but this isn’t quite true, is it? It’s not about chance: it’s about power. And whilst the west still holds the balance of power, it’s never going to be me living in a war-zone.

The second half of the evening was devoted to a translation project – poems by the Iraqi poets Ghareeb Iskander, Sabreen Kadhim (sadly unable to get a visa), Awezan Nouri and Zahir Nousa, with translations by William Letford, John Glenday, Jen Hadfield and Krystelle Bamford, who worked with literals and through conversation with the writers. There were some profoundly moving poems, particularly those of Zahir Moussa. In ‘Born to Die’ he asks his premature son to take a letter to God, the refrain ‘tell him…tell him…’ creating the unspoken argument that God must surely not know what is happening or he would stop it. (This is him reading with Jen Hadfield – videos from the rest of the Reel Iraq event are on Youtube too)

In other poems he showed us a world where ‘our young women flare like flames on a stove…my mother’s hair is too bright for her grief.’ Elsewhere Ghareeb Iskander reworked the story of Gilgamesh to resonate with modern Baghdad: ‘All around him the endings of things, nothing more…There wasn’t even a song in that desolation’. These were important voices, and it felt important to hear them.

Does that mean we should leave writing about Iraq to the Iraqis? Do we have no right to write about it, when we have not suffered, and are culpable for suffering? No, that’s not ethical either – our country has been at war and to ignore that reality is also obscene. In a climate where many dismiss political poetry as unfashionable or preachy, I admire any attempts to at least engage – from Maintenant’s to Carol Ann Duffy’s war poetry commission in The Guardian or Simon Armitage’s brilliant found poem ‘Hand Washing Technique – Government Guidelines.’ Since ‘The Journey’ I have found myself circling the subject of Iraq again and again, in poems like ‘The Two Ravens’, ‘The Cruel Father’ ‘Amtssprache’ or ‘Babylon’. None of them feels like an adequate response, but I keep trying to comprehend what was (and is) being done by my country. There is no comfortable way for British poets to write of the war in Iraq, nor should there be.

The Two Ravens
(a ballad)

As I walked down a street alone,
I heard two ravens make a plan,
one bird unto the other said:
‘Which shall we dine on of the dead?’

‘Out there upon a dirty track
way down a down, way down
a woman’s spread upon her back,
in the mud.
her throat cut and her body raped,
for bags of books, a glimpse of face.
O down, derry derry, if she’s bad they’re good.

The bird said: ‘no one cares she lies
in dust near dogs in smears of flies,
the army’s led by fear and oil,
the husband’s had his honour spoiled,

‘her son’s stood in a hood of black
way down a down, way down
a donkey, ridden, told to crack,
in the blood.
and other women fear to speak,
which means she’ll waste if not for beaks.’
O down, derry derry, if they’re bad she’s good.

So low as planes they did swoop down,
to chew on unveiled eyes of brown,
they pecked out clumps of her dark hair
to line their nests when they grew bare.

And many commentators moaned,
way down a down, way down
but armored cars drove past the bones.
and I stood
I watched the ravens feed on war,
and knew I’d watch for evermore.
O down, derry derry, if she’s bad we’re good.

From Changeling, first published in Poetry International

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So, this is what I’ve been doing whilst I should have been writing poems… Over a year since I first began my experiment with self-publishing children’s fiction, the final part of my Delilah Dark trilogy is out (published under the guise of my alter-ego, Evie Glass).

It’s called Delilah Dark vs. Destiny, and resolves all those big questions my readers have been asking themselves – why do BigCorp want to destroy the world? Why is Delilah’s dad working for the baddies? When will Delilah and the young mind-reader Will Jones admit they fancy each-other? And in the final battle between good and evil, can the cynical young psychic be relied on to pick the side of light?

Here is the very cool, gothy cover Richard has made me:

DDvdD_Yell_INV

This book ended up taking a lot longer than the others – nearly three months, on and off. It was harder to write the final installment, what with plot threads to resolve and twists to stage-manage, but it also felt a bit sad to say goodbye to my characters. I hope those who’ve read the first two books enjoy it anyway, and find it an exciting, satisfying conclusion.

It will probably be my goodbye to self-publishing too – sales haven’t really justified the hours I’ve put into the project, and with new revelations about Amazon’s tax-avoidance, etc. emerging every week I do realize I’ve been working for the enemy to some extent (they’re actually starting to resemble my shadowy organization BigCorp). Still, there have been many positives – besides having learnt a lot about the new world of e-books, I’m still pretty excited whenever I get a download or 5-star review in the US, to think of a young reader thousands of miles away being immersed in a world I’ve created. And I’m definitely inspired to write more children’s stuff (have some ideas bubbling.) I was interviewed by Indie ebook review at the end of last year, so further thoughts on the experience are here

In the meantime, to hustle up some attention for Delilah Dark vs. Destiny I’m doing a promotion, and tomorrow and Sunday (March 16th and 17th) the first book of the trilogy – The Discoveries of Delilah Dark – is going to be free. If you or any young readers you know got a Kindle for Christmas and haven’t tried Delilah yet, do please download a copy. It’s aimed at 9+ – with a similar level of scariness/sophistication to the Harry Potters – though I’ve had plenty of enthusiastic adult readers too. As ever, any ‘likes’ or reviews on Amazon would be hugely appreciated, they really do seem to make a difference to sales.

Now perhaps I’ll get back to the poems. Aside from commissions and translations, I don’t think I’ve written any since summer…

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A Salon

As a teenager in Bolton, when I dreamt of being a writer I didn’t dream of spending hours by myself in my study. No, in the fantasy, being a writer was a social vocation. It involved hours spent debating philosophy in Parisian cafes, or eating daube in brightly painted Bloomsbury dining rooms. It involved acid-tongued banter around the Algonquin round-table, or Dadaist games, or little magazines. It definitely involved salons.

As an adult my obsession with movements and moments has never really gone away. One of my prized possessions is a swan feather from a visit to Coole Park, where Synge, Shaw and Yeats carved their names on Lady Gregory’s tree. I have pored over Anne Sexton’s descriptions of attending Robert Lowell’s workshops with Sylvia Plath, and their trips to the Ritz afterwards for martinis with George Starbuck (‘Often, very often, Sylvia and I would talk about our first suicides; at length in detail and in depth between free potato chips.’) I have drunk brandies in surrealist bars, loitered over expensive pieces of cake in Viennese coffee-houses and spent hours browsing books in City Lights.

Last month, I read alongside Luke Wright and Ross Sutherland at the National Portrait Gallery, and was invited to choose favourite poems in response to the exhibition of Man Ray’s portraits. Looking through them it was hard not to feel a pang of jealousy – the writers he knew! Imagists, modernists, Beats… I opted to read Helen by HD and Andre Breton’s A Free Union, whilst Luke read a storming version of Ginsberg’s Howl.

But it was a reminder, too, that there are also many groups of writers in London who collaborate and inspire each-other – Luke and Ross are part of the whole Homework / Aisle 16 collective, which has been very influential over the last decade. And then last week I was invited to a salon by the poet Wayne Holloway-Smith. An actual salon! There were miniature cream scones; there was banjo-playing. People passed around a bottle of brandy and swigged from it. There were performances from Matthew Gregory and Inua Ellams and Sophie Cowell and Sam Riviere and the fabulous Matthew Caley, who delivered a lecture with slides in the guise of his altar-ego, Professor Glass. And it was lovely to catch up with many poets I hadn’t seen for a while, like Jack Underwood (who apparently has an opera in the offing).

What exactly is a salon? I guess it’s a kind of curated party. Perhaps if you don’t live in London, the mention of salons will be annoying. A lot of people feel literature is some kind of exclusive club they’re not invited to. And the truth is, with so little money involved, a lot of the poetry world does run on friendships and favours. I’m more likely to write a blurb or donate a poem or do an unpaid reading for someone I like, and similarly, if I’m begging a favour myself, it’s easier to ask someone I know than approach a stranger who might find an offer of unpaid work insulting.

Solidarity is empowering, and this can have a dark side – the cliques, the old boys’ networks. But it also has a very positive side – despite austerity; despite arts council cuts; despite the mainstream media’s constant insistence that poetry is dying, at the moment in London the poetry scene feels vibrant and generous. With zero financial incentive, people are setting up ‘zines and websites and nights and site-specific events and presses. They’re supporting each-other and making a space for poetry that’s social and relevant and fun.

Perhaps we need to follow the example of Homework or Wayne Holloway-Smith. To stop being jealous of movements, and instead get stuck in and start up our own. In the meantime, here’s me performing Phaedra’s speech from Ovid’s Heroides at Wayne’s salon (with wonky camera work courtesy of the wonderful Amy Key and a youtube debut for my bump)

PS – a couple of other links whilst I’m here: last week I was pleased to be interviewed by Carl Griffin for Wales Arts Review, and also be a featured poet on Abegail Morley’s great blog the Poetry Shed.

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