Unsuitable blog and HappenStance news
The HappenStance website has a free competition flagged on its home page. It is supposed to change every two months, though this year it has really been every three. To begin with, it was a kind of quiz, but there were few entries. Latterly, it has invited poems, and this attracts more interest, it would seem, though the prizes are modest.
The entries are anonymised before being passed to a judge, who is usually one of the HappenStance poets taking on this role for no fee, though much appreciation. The most recent competition invited poems about dreams (not more than 18 lines). It was judged by J.O. Morgan, and his comments on the competition and the winning poem were detailed – too detailed to fit easily inside the competition page. So here they are as a kind of guest blog.
J.O. Morgan's comments on the Dream Poem Competition, 2017
The subject of dreams seems apposite for poetry, or so it would appear to me, since the somewhat elusive nature and tumbled imagery of many poems I read does seem to have a sort of dreamlike quality.
Also, the way in which poets read their poems aloud often has a similar dreaminess to the tone of delivery. Had I not known the subject before I began reading the submissions, it might have taken me a while to realise what they all had in common.
And yet many of the poems did capture the sense of dreaming remarkably well; that stream-of-conscious-craziness where the unlikely seems wholly possible, even expected, and what might at first sound metaphorical is in this case simply real – at least in dream terms.
That then could be a problem: a poem's metaphors have clear meanings, whereas a real dream's imagery may have a meaning so muddled that it is in essence meaningless. As such, do you stay true to the dream and have a meaningless poem, or stay true to the poem and in so doing tweak the dream to give it a false profundity?
Both approaches were evident in the poems submitted, and both with interesting results – some with the sheer delight in dreamy weirdness, others with dreams of sometimes worrying portentousness.
'Formication', the poem I chose as winner, did something else again. It stood out at once for its shift in perspective. But also, in particular, for how much it achieved through suggestion, while actually saying very little and in so few lines. There seems to be a great deal going on beneath the surface, as well as an interesting take on how the anxiety produced by nightmarish visions bleeds through into waking activities.
I'll share some thoughts about it shortly, but first here it is:
The Dictionary for Dreamers says insects
are worries, at least in dreams. Therefore
all those ant poisons, the Raid and Nippon
under the sink, are there to calm me.
I loathe their collective mind, the purposeful lines
that trickle from my ears onto my pillow.
I hate how once you get one, you get more,
lofting bitten dreams in their leaf-cutter jaws.
The dream itself is only hinted at in the first half of the poem, but the hint is enough to put us on our guard. Later the dream is still only mentioned from the perspective of the waking world, but it's a dream we can immediately recognise, even if for us – thankfully – it's not a recurring one. There's subtlety in how a real-world, almost off-hand, reference to the dream suddenly becomes the dream, even if only for a single line.
And then again, following a reference to dream-architecture, how the brain won't be satisfied with a small cast of antagonists, there's the sudden description of tiny delicate mouthparts, which – closer-in, and arrayed in multitudes – might be a lot more concerning for the dreamer.
I also loved those simple phrases 'I loathe' and 'I hate', which seem so controlled, almost polite, in their expressions of dislike, but which have a sense of annoyance, of frustration, of helplessness, of resignation.
Of course we have already been told of the familiar brand-name products that may have no effect on dreams, but which will certainly help in the moment of waking, when the imagined world and its unassailable army lingers for a while in the dark of the bedroom, and then beyond into the daylight hours.
And does the consultation of a dreambook ever really help? Probably not. But when the products of your own mind trouble you this much, what else is there to do?
If it seems that I've analysed this poem partly backwards, that's because it made me read it that way. I read it down, then back up, then through again. It was the poem that made me want to do that. And poems so rarely make me want to do that. A clear sign, for me, that it was something just a bit special. And that last image, both in the dream and out, is really rather marvellous.
Sometimes you don't realise you've learned a word somehow wrong.
Then someone, or some thing, pulls you up and makes you think about it.
Like.... swashbuckling, for example.
There's a lot of stuff these days about pirates. Kids love pirates.
My understanding of pirates evolved long before Johnny Depp. Pirates for me were Long John Silver and Captain Hook.
So it's a very long time since I first met the word 'swashbuckling'. It must have come in somewhere back then, because I know it well, and like it as well as most people. Swashbuckling pops up whenever pirates are mentioned—for example, Ten of the most swashbuckling Puffin pirates.
I never looked 'swashbuckling'up (I never looked anything up as a kid—my sister and I read voluminously and picked up the meanings of things as we went along). So somehow I developed the idea that 'swashbuckling' was something to do with the pirates' giant buckles on their belts. At the same time, in my mind some of those belts were more like huge sashes (or 'cummerbunds', another word I like).
As a result, I sort of made swashbuckling into sashbuckling. I certainly had no idea what the word actually meant, though I knew it was fiercely piratish.
It was a cartoon that made me think long and hard. Cartoons work like poems, I find. Often they hinge on a single word combined with an image, and it creates an intense cluster of associations and meaning and fun and joy.
This time it was Savage Chickens on September 13th: a chicken with an eye patch is applying for a job, and the interviewer is looking at his CV: 'Hm... I see from your résumé that you've done a lot of swashbuckling'.
It made me laugh. And I started to think about swashbuckling and what it actually was. Had I myself ever done any?
I looked it up. And it's not what I thought at all. Well, it is and it isn't.
It means 'acting in the manner of a swashbuckler'. Ha. What is a swashbuckler?
'A swaggering or daring soldier or adventurer.'
Okay, yes, Swaggering, yes (I won't go into how I've always visualised a swagger, but fortunately we all know what swag is.)
But still—buckling what! And why? And what is a swash?
It seems there is no swash. There is 'to swash', which is to strike something violently. And the 'buckle' is nothing to do with the belt. It's a small, round shield.
A swashbuckler is someone who strikes his opponent's small round shield violently. In battle. Or maybe while boarding his ship.
Or maybe via Twitter.
Swashbucklers are not subtle.
They are all boys.
'The little rabbits smiled sweetly in their sleep under the shower of grass; they did not awake because the lettuces had been so soporific.'
Precisely the right word.
That's it, isn't it? The right one, in the right place.
The fabulous and mysterious surprise of language, which in the ordinary way we use so lightly – merely for talking.
But when you find it fixed and free in a rhyme or simply placed without fuss exactly where it should go in the dark backward and abysm of time – well, the black bat night has flown, that's what, and ringed with the azure world he stands.
The right word in the right place is the star to every wandering bark.
There is wildness and wet, wildness and wet, and then suddenly it's long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. From wildness to wilderness, simply a syllable. But slipping 'wilderness' into the last line of 'Inversnaid', as if it were inevitable, oh my!
I am working on two new pamphlets. They have provoked this excitement and woken up the wonder of words.
The two poets in question are especially good at putting the right word in the right place, and each time this happens, there's that little shock of recognition. It feels like a miracle.
Maybe this is how clichés get to be clichés. Somebody puts the right word in the right place and the world falls in love with it. So a heart of gold loses its original beautiful self and belongs to everybody. Then the level playing field flattens. At the end of the day, we're back to square one, which may or may not have something to do with hop-scotch.
A day job as a copy-writer has been an honorable trade for many poets and if I could write catch phrases for a living, why would I not? I throw you a phrase. You catch it and pass it on...
But there's more to it than that inside a poem. You linger on the precise and delicious word, yes – but it's precise and delicious because of where it is in the poem as a whole, which the sum of the parts is greater than. Another mystery: how a poem adds up to something that seems to make sense even if it doesn't.
Here are two tasters from the poets who have stirred me to dithyrambs.
Ramona Herdman's forthcoming pamphlet is called Bottle and actually it does contain 'a taster of pink fizz', but that's nothing to what else is in there.
For example, there's a ship in a bottle and its deck 'flexes under your feet'. Flexes. Besides, how did you get inside the bottle?
There's 'a stumble of ice cubes' and then ice 'ticking' in a glass. Ticking.
There's a 'quiver of whiskies'. Quiver.
It is a joyful job to be a poetry editor and linger over words. To set them onto a page one by one and marvel. And then to share them.
Lois Williams's forthcoming debut may be called Like Other Animals. It's a bargain. No, really. Read on. She wakes up words and sets them spinning.
There's a cashier, in Poundland, for example. She's 'stuck there, furious, reliable.' 'What if our bargains are / our only words in common?' Bargains.
At the town centre pond, there are 'goldfish / shimmering their semaphore'. Shimmering. Semaphore.
And at home, there's her father in the greenhouse 'dusting off soil, bits of vermiculite'. Vermiculite. I don't think I've ever said the word out loud till now. Vermiculite.
What a sensuous pleasure language is! What an amazing and humbling gift!
The poetry window has shut again.
Some of the coincidences that occurred during the reading period were extremely strange.
This always happens, but I forget.
Who would expect, for example, to find more than one poem featuring a walrus?
Also several poems about promises. The word 'promise' popped up all over the place (a lovely word, when you think about it).
Dusk, too. A lot of dusk. And silk.
As far as colour went, it was the summer of blue. Many shades of blue, more than one poem being entirely about blueness. Payne's Grey did once put a look in, but blue was overwhelmingly the colour of choice.
'Heft' is, as I think I have said before, definitely the new 'shard', and clouds find themselves shrouding the sun quite a bit.
I am a little sensitive to shrouds at the moment, though I don't think I've ever actually seen one.
Dead bodies are sometimes wrapped in sheets, but we don't (I don't) refer to these as shrouds.
The only shrouds I can find on eBay are connected with gas nozzles. However, on Amazon I have tracked down a 'Premier Disposable Shroud with Plain Collar, White, Adult'. How extraordinary. Only ten left in stock.
There weren't as many envelopes as usual – 97 sets of poems, when there are usually at least 120. But I figure people have picked up the fact that things are difficult here at the moment.
However, reading the poems was a pleasure. Real poems, of which there were many, are not written lightly, and they were not read lightly. I copied out three, so I could keep them and reflect. But images and phrases from others linger, as well as some of the lovely letters that came with the poems.
It is a privilege being trusted with people's poems. I remain convinced that writing them is a good thing, good for the spirit (if not the shroud). and some of that invariably rubs off on the reader.
The work of words is ancient and uplifting. How glad I am to be part of that fellowship.
When life circumstance throw us into disarray, it seems there's a natural human instinct to create order in a corner of the chaos.
So when sirens sound and bombs are imminent, someone may linger to make the bed, or clear the table, or put another piece of the jigsaw into place.
An ambulance is called, and the caller—never mind the chest pains—packs her overnight bag neatly, each thing in its proper place. These things matter.
A violent storm in autumn whisks leaves off the trees and the next day human beings scurry out of their houses, sweeping them up, pushing them into sacks and wheelie bins and compost heaps. Pointlessly. There will only be more.
And in this house, faced with more than one serious illness in the family, it seemed time to organise the boxes of books under the stairs, though other, more important, responsibilities were looming.
You see, we have one room packed with pamphlets upstairs: from here Matt does the packing and posting out for orders, reviews, competitions. In this room, he also has the acetate sleeves, the padded envelopes, the compliment slips, the review slips, the flyers, the newsletters, the postage stamps and customs stickers—everything carefully in its allotted corner—even to the safety pin with which he pricks each acetate sleeve around a pamphlet to let the air out so it will lie flat in the envelope. (This room was a bedroom once.)
In another upstairs room (my study) more books and pamphlets are in tottering piles on a small chest of drawers. Boxes of toner are stacked in one corner, two more boxes of books, reams and reams of paper, white and coloured. The envelopes of poems for the July reading window are filed on the floor, as are a number of other papers waiting to go up the ladder into the roof. (Don't ask about the roof.)
But downstairs, under the stairs, there are far more boxes, and when there's a new delivery, as there was on Friday, yet more boxes go there. It's almost impossible now to get under the stairs, and frequently we forget what's there—or believe a box of books is there that isn't—because we've sold them all. Periodically, I do a recce, involving dust, heaving, reconciliation and a new floor plan. That was what happened yesterday. it's tidier now with a outline of what is where. Some things have been carried upstairs and restacked in other stacks. Publications can be pinned down, their geography (for the moment) fixed. A degree of order has been established in one corner of our lives.
It struck me, while under the stairs heaving boxes, that individual poems are doing much the same thing. Many of them arise from a some kind of maelstrom and attempt to establish their own bit of order. They grapple with problems. The ones I like best creep around the problem describing it from one angle or another rather than solving it. But description is in itself a sort of solution. It puts things into place. it creates a floor plan. The more meticulously it makes its measures and phrasings, the more satisfying it feels.
Poetry likes patterns and patterning. It doesn't have to be rhyme and metrical form, but in the grimmest circumstances those features come into their own. They solve nothing; but they resolve something. (I'm thinking this morning of Anthony Hecht's More Light! More Light!, the least consolatory of poems, and yet ... )
While under the stairs I was thinking about Andrew Marvell's 'Bermudas', which has always struck me as one of the oddest of poems. If the singers are pilgrims, why are they in a rowing boat? What happened to the Mayflower? Where exactly are they going? There's something so surreal about it all, and yet delicious. "He gave us this eternal Spring / Which here enamels everything, / And sends the fowls to us in care / On daily visits through the air"—I like its rhyminess and chime-iness. I find the boat of singers both ridiculous and charming, whatever their sense of entitledness. What they really are is workers. It doesn't matter what they sing (though singing about delights is preferable to singing about despair) so long as it keeps the rhythm going, keeps them going wherever they are going:
This sung they in the English boat
An holy and a cheerful note:
And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept the time.
And then the poem suddenly stops. Just like that—no warning at all.
But we can keep going. We have established a measure of order and pattern under the stairs and we can keep going. A 'momentary stay against the confusion of the world', as Robert Frost has it. The reading window is open and poems are welcome, especially from rowing boats and subscribers. There's plenty of space on the floor.
First, get the recipe from the author.
It will look much like a Contents list, but with no indication of quantities or baking temperature.
But at least it's a place to start.
Here, for example, in Will Harris's debut, are the ingredients:
Self-Portrait in Front of a Small Mirror
From 'The Ark' I
From The Other Side of Shooter's Hill
From 'The Ark' II
Imagine a Forest
But what's the method? And will the ingredients work?
At least some of the contents promise a recognisable cake. First collections nearly always have something autobiographical that fits into the sense of 'self'. Because when you publish, it's a public statement – if not about who you are, at least about who you may be. It's personal, even if the poems aren't.
In Will Harris's Contents, you can see, fourth in the list, a self-portrait. Almost all poets have one, though not always explicitly titled. This one is in prose; part of the mixture. You can see 'Identity' too, and 'Mother's Country' which has to be a bit of heritage stuff. Most poetry cakes have some heritage.
And 'Naming' of course. Poetry gives things names, then sometimes takes them away again. I often think about Gill McEvoy's poem 'Difference'. It was in a pamphlet baked back in 2007, her first collection, Uncertain Days. The poet is in a plane, looking down at the grass at the edge of the runway – 'white clover in the grass, / a bee, a clump of yellow bedstraw, / a small brown butterfly'. All at once, the airport itself is 'a place where species are defined / by difference'. The poet wants 'to be out there', on her 'hands and knees, / naming things'.
Poets name things. At first for themselves; later (sometimes) for other people.
The name of the publication is part of that. All This Is Implied. Great name. Doesn't sound like anything I've baked (or consumed) before.
Having said which, when it comes to first collections, no two poetry cakes are ever the same. Each is radically different from the next. Sometimes difference is the defining ingredient.
'Will Harris'? Not much difference there. It's such an ordinary-sounding name. A white-caucasian-empire-building name. But he's not. A Victoria Sponge this is not.
All This Is Implied took a good while. The author is a thinker and a craftsman. He's been experimenting for years, putting things into words, trying them out, breaking them up, putting them back together again. And he's been working on prose style as well. He writes excellent prose (not all poets do). Blogging about one of the ingredients ('Justine'), he says: 'I think about writing as a way of addressing race, gender, history which might embrace mixedness and confusion ....'
Will Harris is a fellow of The Complete Works III. He self-defines as BAME (Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic). He doesn't 'play the race card' lightly. As he says himself in an essay on this subject, ' the race card is not something the non-white person can choose to play. It is what is done to you'. Do read that whole essay, and watch the YouTube film at the end. There is a context here.
So yes – this debut pamphlet does 'embrace mixedness and confusion', though the complete confection is anything but confused. Numbered among the ingredients are: games, humour, mischief, love, and form – even rhyme. It's not confused: it's fused.
The end product has come out pretty well, in fact. It's hot off the press. Want to try a slice?