Happen

Stance

A MOMENTARY STAY

 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.


Some of the books under and beside the stairs
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HOW TO BAKE A POETRY PAMPHLET

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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:

Object
Mother's Country
Halo 2
Self-Portrait in Front of a Small Mirror
Naming
Bee Glue
Justine
Identity
Yellow
With Cornflowers
From 'The Ark' I
Cured
From The Other Side of Shooter's Hill
From 'The Ark' II
Something
Allegory
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? 


Cake in waiting
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HOW TO END YOUR POEM

Some people are good at endings. Some people are rubbish. This blog will tell you how to conclude your poems in the right way.

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HOT CROSS PAMPHLETS

My last blog entry dealt with the ‘post-pamphlet process’. I’m mid-pamphlet this week so thought I’d share a bit of that too, rather than writing about hot cross buns. (I may write about the first stage one day, and even the buns, but not today.)

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PUFFING AND PANTING AND PAMPHLETS

So we have two new pamphlets at last!

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POETRY AND FLOUR

Photograph of packet of Allison's Very Strong White Bread Flour. The packet is green,with the text detail in large white circle in the middle. There is a graphic of an old windmill and Allinson is in large red cursive letters.When baking poems, you should use strong flour, which is made from hard words. This produces the right kind of dough for lyric work produced at high temperatures, because it has a high fluten and bard core content.

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