Poetry community

 

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The response to my previous blog, on the disintegration of my life in Belgium, has been wide, varied, startling and often heartening. I had little idea that so many people might be interested to read it, and filled with trepidation about those who I know well reading it for the first time and finding out what had happened. The succour I have been given by the poetry community is something that reinforces my belief that there are other (more important) forms of wealth than merely the pecuniary – that poetry is something above careerism and money and it is kept alive by its readers and practitioners.

I have always been aware of the poetry community, even when it was at the back of my mind, but my previous blog has brought it to the forefront. One friend advised me to use my blog to ‘give something back and contribute to a wider community’ and this is something I intend to do, if I have not already been doing it for a long time without realising. Only today I was additionally bolstered by another poet friend who wrote to me to say that our shared interest in neglected dead poets can, when you write about them, ‘bring out the best in the poetry community’, because everyone can identify with being overlooked and the fact that there are dead means they are no longer competing for the validation of others! I am excited about a project that I have been working on in my spare time that will hopefully bring some archival manuscript poems of a long dead and neglected poet into print for the first time. But more news on this when I have it.

But I am also greatly interested and taken up with the living poets who I feel are still not given credit commensurate with the work they have produced. Perhaps because he is a translator, the Amsterdam-based poet Donald Gardner’s work is I think overlooked. This is the usual fate of translators who are also poets, that when they are acknowledged which they seldom are, it is often for rendering the work of someone else into English. But Donald has a new pamphlet collection out from Grey Suit Editions called Early Morning. It is a very handsome production and the quality of the poems matches this very well. I recently reviewed this collection in London Grip and in it Donald has a poem called ‘April in August’ in which he writes, as if out of an epiphany, that poetry is not the solitary and self-generated thing he long thought it was, it is a populous art, and this helps him out of his own existential rut:

How is it that one voice can release another?

Poetry is not the solitary way I had thought.

When we write we enter a people domain.

Only when I let go of myself was the siege lifted

and I was free to write

what I had long had in me.

What I had always wanted to say.

Another poet who I think is criminally omitted from consideration sometimes is Chris Powici who teaches Creative Writing at Stirling University. I have to declare my bias because Chris is an erstwhile tutor of mine but his first book-length collection This Weight of Light (2015) from Red Squirrel Press is a triumph and it deserves to have sold out or have gone through umpteen reprints by now. Chris’s poems are somehow richly earthy yet also spiritual and almost numinous – and this is even captured in the title where light itself carries weight. He also has an acute awareness of the natural world in a way that is not merely ornithological, observational or ‘anorak’ but is much more fundamental and primal, like the speaker has earned the respect of the things he talks about that is beyond human expression. As such the speaker is often torn between the knowledge of their (sometimes reluctant) place in the built human environment and their longing to enter and understand the wilderness. Here is ‘October, in Montrose’:

A narrow leaf-stained street. A woman in a blue coat

stands beside a garden wall listening

to the raw salt-throated cries of 40,000 pink footed geese

surge across the mud flats into every land and vennel

of the darkening town; a vast estuarine chorus

yelling its brute hallelujah to the trees and houses

shaking the very air, and then the woman

lights a cigarette and walks calmly on –

as if the holy hollering of geese is just a noise

the universe happens to make in October, in Montrose.

As if she has a million gods to choose from.

Even before Chris read about my plight, he had invited me to visit him in Stirlingshire / Perthshire where he now lives, one of my favourite parts of the world. Ahead of my visit, I was wanting to hear his voice, and searched the internet to see if I could find a recording of him reading. On YouTube I stumbled across this wonderfully eloquent and revealing in-depth interview Chris gave with the professor and novelist Kirsty Gunn in Dundee in 2016. As I listened to the interview while I was working, I was amazed when, midway, Chris mentions me and quotes a phrase I only distantly remember saying that I thought poetry was ‘ordinary language but somehow enchanted’. Chris’s work is anything but ordinary, it is certainly enchanted and enchanting. But again, I am not egotistically looking for any mention made of me, but rather that I am proud and lucky to belong to such a poetry community, to enjoy such solidarity with fellow poets and writers. That we all pay into a common word and phrase and image hoard and can take freely from it.

Although my life recently has rather resembled that astonishing and painful short poem by Jack Gilbert – ‘Walking Home Across the Island’ – which closes with the devastating line ‘It is hard / to understand how we could be brought here by love’ – I count myself lucky to have such friends as Chris in the poetry world. Poetry is not a lonely, suffering art (at least not all of the time!).

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