By ANTHONY HOWELL.
I WAS TOO late to book a table for Grey Suit’s four chap-books at Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair, held on a September Saturday at the Conway Hall, but with these in my brief-case, and with flyers for readings and launches to distribute, I popped along, curious to see the small press world in all its glory. Glorious it was, indeed, if somewhat overwhelming, with 85 exhibitors cramming their wares onto small tables – aisle after aisle of pamphlets, postcards, posters, books and poetic trinkets. There were readings throughout the day, readings which continued into the evening at the Square Pig and Pen, on the other side of Red Lion Square. Some fifty poets got the chance to give listeners a sample of their stuff. The organisers — Chrissy Williams and Joey Connolly — have brought out a very useful programme and anthology that is well worth getting hold of since it lists all the publishers as well as providing a sample of what they print. The event was described as “an all-day bazaar, market, library, meeting place, performance venue, information resource and more, celebrating the vitality of contemporary poetry in the UK.”
This was a stimulating albeit costly experience, as I felt it incumbent upon myself to purchase each publisher’s own book of poems, in the hope that this would encourage an indulgent smile when I submitted my manuscript. One of these was impressive — Nicholas Johnson’s And Stood on Red Earth All A Round — published by Etruscan Books. I particularly enjoyed the seven sections of “Haul Song” here, where a freedom from directed meaning is kept compact by well-considered verse structures. Gifts came my way as well: Eddie Linden kindly gave me A Thorn in the Flesh – first published by Hearing Eye in 2011 and now reprinted to celebrate Eddie’s 80th birthday, and Michael Horovitz gave me Jeff Nuttall’s Wake on Paper (New Departures) – which I appreciated as Jeff and I had often touched glasses of an afternoon at Bernard Stone’s Turret Bookshop in Kensington Church Walk. I had also seen his happenings in the sixties and several impressive events created by “The People Show” – which he co-founded in 1967. I too have followed a path that has taken me through explorations of various media including performance art, so Jeff was a kindred spirit.
I ended up with several pamphlets: one of these was Robert Minhinnick’s The Mythic Death of Dylan Thomas – an analysis of how useful it is to die prematurely, especially if you manage to do it in New York. Poets have to consider their posthumous reputation, so this meditation on dying young makes for inspiring reading (though as a strategy it’s too late for me) and I admire HappenStance for publishing this essay as a pamphlet — it is very elegantly produced as well, as is another chap-book essay of theirs, The Printed Snow (on Typesetting Poetry), by Gerry Cambridge. There’s some good advice here, if you are thinking of getting into publishing:
In a pamphlet, as generally in a hardback, the reader can comfortably read almost to the central gutter. In a paperback, the binding (depending on its stiffness) effectively reduces the page width by anything from 15 to 20 mm. The binding’s stiffness in turn depends on the paper and cover card thickness, and the particular printshop used. It’s good always to bear in mind with both verso (the left hand page) and recto (the right hand one) the final object the poems are going to become.”
This last point is worth taking aboard. When I prepare a manuscript, I arrange each typed A4 side so that it faces the next typed side – in order to see how verso will balance recto – always starting with the first page on the right. I also found the author’s sense of how the origin and style of the typeface may impact and comment on the matter that is set a genuinely intriguing idea.
I ALSO PICKED UP Mineral Adventures by Fiona Pitt-Kethley (published by Rack Press). This contains wonderfully-wrought poems about stone collecting in the Sierra Minera. I’m reminded of the intense precision of Marianne Moore. The language is clear-cut , describing pyrites and Apatite, Deviline and Erythrite. One gets the feeling that the names are jewels in themselves. “I lose myself within this other world,” she says, and I find myself lost inside these poems which introduce me to new words.
Erythrite (hydrated cobalt arsenate)
Cerro Minado, Huercal Overa
Easy to recognise amongst these stones,
a femme fatale, loaded with arsenic
rose madder, cupcake icing, Barbie pink.
No wildlife living in this silent spot.
Some pines grow here but little else it seems
A garden fit for Mithradates’ use.
The flies of Andalusia can’t survive.
A woodpigeon has fallen on its breast.
What happened to the miners who worked here?
Two or three hours are quite enough for us…
Did they die young? Or else grow used to it,
weathering the poison as Rasputin did?
Seductive, toxic femininity.
We view its deadly beauty through a loupe.
I mistrust women and minerals in pink.
More manicure than heart, deadly at core.
TRANSLATION AND FOREIGN publishers of poems in English achieved a plateau higher than the rest by being perched on the Conway stage. Versal’s stall was particularly intriguing because it brought together several English language presses from the continent. The list reads like an abstract poem: Book Ex Machina (CY), Color Treasury (FR), Corrupt Press (LU), Estepa Editions (FR), Fivehundred Places (DE), MIEL books (BE), Paris Lit Up (FR), Readux Books (DE), SAND (DE), Structo (UK/NL), Versal (NL), VLAK (CZ).
I found my translation purchase downstairs however, in the main hall: Spanish Poetry of the Golden Age in Contemporary English Translations — published by Shearsman Books and edited by Tony Fraser. By “contemporary” is meant contemporaneous with the original. So poems in Spanish by Juan Boscán, Gongora, Quevedo and the like are set opposite their translations by Drummond of Hawthornden, Thomas Stanley, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Richard Fanshawe and others. This book is a delight to read and gives one an insight into the development of English poetry that complements F. T. Prince’s The Italian Element in Milton’s Verse by showing us how a Spanish element was also inspirational.
Almost every press had brought a fair sample of their backlist along with them, and I managed to get Robert Gray’s Lineations, from Arc, which they published back in 1998. Grey is admired by Les Murray, which does not necessarily enamour him to his Australian contemporaries, but as an external observer of their scene, I can testify that Murray’s admiration is deserved. Gray is a poet who writes in a variety of ways — always with accomplishment. The verse moves from metaphor to metaphor with a fine sense of how a poem is made of sound as well as image.
In one ear
when she goes out
from a chandelier,
her face often hangs,
hoping it’s unseen,
with a more beautiful
more fierce tear.
I admire Eyewear Publishing’s immaculately designed hardcover volumes of poetry, and I picked up their reprint of Don Share’s first book Union — terse, rather desolate poems suggesting break-ups and dead-ends. It is the crafting of these poems which lifts them beyond their disappointments. It’s interesting too how Share can “turn” a word — using what is usually found as a gerund as a true verb.
As I think of you,
long gone, remarried,
the house sold,
my eyes still cloud,
and the dry thorn
of my heart, hidden now
from sun, rain, and crow,
in a plot I can’t neglect
excruciates its last faithful leaf.
I bumped into plenty of old friends and acquaintances of course, including Dinah Livingstone, maintaining the stall of Katabasis — which first started publishing in 1967. That makes Dinah and her press one of the survivors. Then I met Martina Evans, who was in mourning for her cat, which had just been put down. I tried a bluff approach, telling her of my mother, a no-nonsense ministry vet, but I don’t think my remarks went down very well. I have just read her prose poem Petrol, and have been casting around for a framework within which to review it, hoping to find another significantly interesting prose-poem to go with it.
Petrol is extraordinary. It was published by Anvil in 2012. Written in thirty-nine sections, the language has the intensity and grain of poetry while unfolding its slice of narrative. Set in County Cork, in a petrol station which is also a bar, it is told by Imelda, the thirteen-year-old daughter of Justin, the proprietor. Right from the start it grips you:
I was under the table with the sugar bowl the day of the funeral and I heard the women saying Justin had killed Mammy. But I thought I was the one who killed her. And the spoon was shaped like a small spade and I sucked hard as I listened. He might as well have put the gun to her head, twenty-nine miscarriages, sure who in the name of god would put up with that? The women wore thick tan tights and one woman’s legs went in a straight line from knee to ankle. The last one put her clean out of her mind. The table was shaking, they were buttering the bread so hard and I dipped my spoon in the sugar. Last time Mammy took Agnes and me down the fields, she took all her clothes out of a big suitcase and threw them into the river and started bawling crying. Agnes ran in to save the clothes but I was only thinking of my stomach. I thought we were going on a picnic, where was the lemonade and tomato sandwiches? A horsy headscarf hung from the hawthorn like a flag, Agnes was up to her knees in green weeds and I was examining the welts on my hands where Mammy’s ring squeezed too hard. I wished hard that she’d die like Bertha’s Mammy and three weeks later she had.
A variation on the theme of Bluebeard, it would be tempting to locate Evans’s work exclusively in some Irish tradition of story-telling, and she has professed that her ambition is to read everything Joyce ever read. But this actually locates her within a modernist European context, and, more significantly, there is a strong American input into this writing. I sense a use of dramatic monologue that might have come from the Faulkner of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. In her recent book of poems, Burnfort, Las Vegas (Anvil 2014), it becomes clear that she spent some of her childhood in the USA — though born in Cork — and this aspect of her experience should not be simply subsumed into “Irishness”. Evans brings to all these influences something uniquely her own: a sense of the dysfunctional, the tawdry, and the way life is pasted with slogans, adverts and jingles. The soap is Lux soap, a wristwatch is a Lassie wristwatch, trysts are tentatively arranged while serving petrol at the pump “…and the BP sign creaked and creaked like a horror in the wind.”
I am pleased to be able to say that at the fair I did manage to find another work that could be considered a prose-poem. Successful examples of this genre seem pretty rare in English, but attracted by its cover (The Punishment of Loki by Luis Huard) I picked it up. The book is an Oulipian concept and its title is The Tome of Commencement (“a Rogetification of The Book of Genesis”) by Tom Jenks – published in 2014 by Stranger Press. Apparently it’s a synonymical translation of the first book of the Old Testament, created using spreadsheets and formulae. Such manipulations can be tedious in the extreme, but here, partly by dint of the cadence strength inherent in the King James Version, the results are hilarious:
1:1: In the freshman year Loki created the Happy Valley and the asteroid.
1:2: And the asteroid was without Settled Principles, and ineffectual; and fog was touching the fizzog of the big drink. And the Daemon of Loki inflamed the fizzog of the fathoms.
1:3: And Loki said, let there be magnolia: and there was magnolia.
1:4: And Loki saw the magnolia, that it was peachy creamy: and Loki split the magnolia from the fog.
1:5: And Loki called the magnolia Green Flash, and the fog he called Pitchy Dark. And the cocktail hour and the cock crow were the first Green Flash.
1:6: And Loki made the welkin, and split the fathoms which were subordinate to the welkin from the fathoms which were above the welkin: and that’s exactly what happened…
A post-publication afterword from Anthony Howell:
Martina Evans tells me that she didn’t spend any part of her childhood in America. “It’s the ‘filums’ as we say in Ireland and especially the Westerns and country music that have influenced me apart from the literature and I think they have a lot of Irish in them. John Ford after all was Irish…”
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here.