Unsuitable blog and HappenStance news

What's happening at HappenStance
The latest news from HappenStance

MORE ON SMALLS

IMG_20170416_115340151

So last week it was small poems for washing up with, but I forgot to mention one.                                                                            

Not sure how I forgot, but maybe it's because it's in the middle of the puddings, when actually it has nothing to do with recipes or cooking. Except possibly a connection with one of the ingredients not being there.

By 'the puddings', I mean Aunt Margaret's Pudding, Alison Brackenbury's book full of more than just poems and more than just recipes.

Somewhere in the middle of this book there is a very tiny poem. But a tiny poem can punch above its weight.

It's called 'Lincolnshire Water' and goes like this, and this is all there is – shortest poem in the book:

Here is strong land, whose grass
does not spill foaming milk,
where I still hear, in February,
taps hiss cold silk.

That's an old poet's trick – starting with a statement that says what something is not.

No dairy farming in Lincolnshire, then – no crying over spilled milk. No, this little poem is building towards something else – a last line that's perilously hard to say out loud. Try it. 

Taps   hiss   cold   silk.

Your mouth has to make each of those monosyllables separately. Each makes its own clear sound, with 's' and 'k' the loudest consonants. It's a line of only four syllables, but long long long on sound and resonance. Each word carries its own full stress and weight ('spondee', if you like the proper metrical term).

Taps   hiss   cold   silk.

Now there's a poem for washing up with!

  346 Hits   1 Comment

SO WHO WROTE ‘FERISHTAH’S FANCIES’?

IMG-20171112-WA0001

Nearly all the poetry I read these days is based on the poet's personal experience. I know we're not supposed to assume that 'I' is 'me', but mostly, actually, it is.

So much so, that one could conclude the main purpose of poetry is, and has always been, to share personal experience, mend the heart, shed the anguish, spill the beans.

Except it isn't. For most of history, poetry was much more likely to be fiction or historical non-fiction. Yes, there were short lyric pieces – songs and sonnets – which might be personal. But the long ones, which represented the more ambitious work, told (and re-told) fictional or historical stories.

Chaucer took Troilus and Criseyde, as well as the linked narratives of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

Shakespeare (forget the sonnets) did plays in iambic pentameter, and Venus and Adonis.

Edmund Spenser spent more than six years of his life failing to finish The Faerie Queene.

Milton? Paradise Lost,of course (recently adapted for Radio 4 by Michael Symmons Roberts). He also tackled Paradise Regained (I dare to suggest this will never be adapted for radio).

Longfellow? Hiawatha, of course.

Keats (forget the odes) wrote elaborate narratives – Endymion, Hyperion, The Eve of St Agnes.

Shelley did the same (The Revolt of Islam, The Witch of Atlas), as well as entire plays in verse. Who reads The Cenci now?

Byron? Don Juan.The Siege of Abydos. The Bride of Corinth.

Browning (not Elizabeth, Robert) wrote one verse novel after another (The Ring and the Book), as well as the shorter narratives (My Last Duchess) that school students still study. 

Coleridge? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Tennyson? The Lady of Shalott and Ulysses.

Wordsworth was the odd one out with The Prelude, which was indeed about his own life, but don't forget The White Doe of Rylstone (subtitled, irresistibly) The Fate of the Nortons).

Even Christina Rossetti had Goblin Market, allegedly for children.

Then we get into the twentieth century and the age of the lyric anthology, and suddenly it seems almost everything's personal and mostly no longer than a page. Magazines feature short poems in verse and short stories in prose. We have forgotten now that T S Eliot wrote no fewer than seven verse plays (The Elder Statesman was published as late as 1959).

Okay – there are, even now, exceptions. Occasionally lengthy fictional verse narratives do pop up, even if they don't win the T S Eliot prize. This is the territory of J.O. Morgan (At Maldon and In Casting Off). And even novelists occasionally tiptoe into narrative poems: Vikram Seth (The Golden Gate), Anthony Burgess (Byrne).

(I am struggling to think of female authors of long narrative poems. Is there a gender issue here? Suggestions, please, in the comments boxes below.)

Anyway, let me get back to where I started. During the reading 'windows' that I manage in July and December, I suggest poets don't send more than 6 poems. This, of course, assumes they are not writing the equivalent of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (though if they were, they could send 6 pages).

The poems that arrive usually sit somewhere near the middle of a page, surrounded by white space. Often people feel obliged to include a prose poem (square boxes surrounded by a similar amount of space). The white space these days is creeping into the poem itself, so it may spread out like a wide paper hanky with holes. Either way, 98% of the poems are short. If I get one that's three pages long, to tell the truth, I take a deep breath and sigh.

Except last year something different happened (yes, my entire blog has been building to this point, and I'm grateful if you made it this far).

Joan Lennon, best known for her children's fiction but also a true poet, sent me some verse narratives, of varying lengths. Stories. Some were biblical, some were classical. One was just slightly futuristic.... I found them fascinating, beautifully made, and unusually pleasurable to read.

Then in the December window, one Michael Grieve (whose name was entirely unfamiliar to me) apologised for sending a longer poem. I took a deep breath, began to read and did not look up until I finished, at which point I did – yes – sigh. A sigh of satisfaction.

It suddenly occurred to me I had been reading fictions. Short stories in verse form, beautifully executed. Such a lovely change from the personal piece (which I do not wish to rubbish: it is my bread and butter).

So I asked permission to publish one of Joan's story-poems, and I asked Michael for his (it turns out to be a debut publication in his case). They have materialised: Granny Garbage and Luck.

These are slender one-poem pamphlets. They are utterly readable and great fun. I can't tell you much about them without giving away detail that you need to find out for yourself. I suggest you buy them (they cost very little), read them, and then give them to a friend, someone you can talk to about what happens in the end....

ps I forgot to tell you who wrote Ferishtah's Fancies. Robert Browning, of course. Don't tell me you haven't read it....

Recent Comments
Helena Nelson
Kate Tempest. Yes -- oral tradition -- and maybe some of the ballads singers (more fictional/historical narratives) were female. W... Read More
Sunday, 15 April 2018 13:10
Helena Nelson
Oh YES -- had forgotten Barrett Browning's The Battle of Marathon and Aurora Leigh. Good point! And The Farmer's Bride (which I l... Read More
Sunday, 15 April 2018 13:56
Helena Nelson
And oh YES, the-boy-stood-on-the-burning-deck Felicia Hemans! I wonder what an 'abencerrage' could possibly be? It's really impres... Read More
Sunday, 15 April 2018 14:03
  489 Hits   21 Comments

THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING

AUNTMSPUD

 I've always thought poems and recipes have much in common. The list of ingredients in short lines. Lots of space on the page. The method of making, sometimes in numbered steps with energetic and commanding verbs.

Weigh, mix, stir, simmer, bake, cool, eat.

So when Alison Brackenbury suggested a collection of poems based on hand-written recipes (her grandmother's) the idea appealed immediately—but the recipes themselves, or some of them, had to go in too.

Then it got more complicated. If the book was recipes, as well as puddings, we would have to test them—otherwise some of them might work for Dorothy Eliza Barnes (Dot), but not for us, or future readers.

Alison had vivid memories of Dot's delicious cooking, which was a grand incentive. She set about trying and testing a method for some of her favourites, including 'Aunt Margaret's Pudding', an old-fashioned steamed affair. Who eats steamed pudding these days?

The answer is—Alison and her husband, and then, last December (when Alison had written down the method) me and my family too. You see, Dot's recipes (she had worked as a professional cook in the early part of the twentieth century) were just a scribbled list of ingredients. She knew how to make them—she didn't need to record that bit.


Page one: Aunt Margaret's Pudding.
Take half a pound of flour,
three ounces lard (or butter), egg,
milk, sugar, baking powder.
Spread jam in basin, summer gleam.
Poke fire! For ninety minutes, steam.

    [ From 'Start' ]

This was a whole new approach to publishing. Not just proof-reading poems but proving the puddings, cakes and scones. My favourites turned out to be Raspberry Buns and Quaker Oat Scones, which disappeared in hours—the ultimate test of a good recipe.

This was a book with wonderful ingredients: poems, recipes (Dot's version and Alison's version), photographs, memories. Knowing Alison to be also a first-rate prose writer (not all poets are), I suggested she do a brief memoir too. She came up with a fascinating narrative—a story of rare determination and creativity in tough times. 

So the book—Aunt Margaret's Pudding—is fully cooked. I gave a copy to my old friend Tony (he is not far off 90). Tony has never understood why I should want to publish poetry, and regards the genre as plainly unnecessary. But I knew for a fact that his mother made steamed puddings: he used to talk about them hungrily. Once a pudding lover, always a pudding lover.

All the same, I didn't particularly expect Tony to read the book, so was rather pleased when he phoned to say at last I had published something he had really enjoyed. 'And the bit at the end,' he said, 'the prose pages about her grandmother—well, that's more poetry than the poems.'

Hurray! The book can, as I hoped, appeal to a wider audience than the usual poetry people, though I feel sure they will like it too. It's the ingredients that really make it different—recipe, then poems, recipe, poems, recipe, poems, memoir. And it's a most moving tribute to Dot, who might otherwise be as lost as 'The Lost Farm'.

Which is not entirely lost. It's in the book.


Quaker Oat Scones
Raspberry bun and tea
Quaker Oat Scones
  886 Hits   1 Comment

RECIPES FOR POEMS AND POEMS WITH RECIPES

RASPBERRY-BUNS

There are recipes for certain kinds of poem. Villanelles, for example.

Ingredients: one rhyming couplet, each line sufficiently persuasive to bear four repetitions and bake on its own with strong flour. If you have any iambic pentameter, so much the better. Select a third line that's easy to rhyme with, since this pudding (I mean poem) only has two rhymes throughout. Pre-heat your oven to approximately 180°C.

But you don't want to make a villanelle, surely. I know they're fun to concoct, but so rarely sustaining. They remind me of Dr Johnson's unfortunate but memorable observation on women's preaching: 'like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all'.

But I digress. I am thinking really about poems with recipes rather than recipes for poems. I am working on Alison Brackenbury's forthcoming HappenStance publication, which was to have been a pamphlet and has grown into a delightful book. It is called Aunt Margaret's Pudding and contains a mixture of poems and recipes, as well as a brief account of the life of the woman who inspired them – Alison's grandmother, Dot – who worked, at one time, as a professional cook.

As a recipe lover myself, I have often been struck by the similarity, on the page, of poems and recipes. They both often resemble lists, but they're a little unpredictable. They can sprawl unexpectedly, and contain little asides that have nothing to do with the food. You can make of them what you will.

Either way, it strikes me as an excellent combination. Alison's poems are particularly good if read in combination with a cup of tea and, say, a raspberry bun. (I especially like Dot's raspberry buns and my other half, Matt, who almost never eats cake, has developed an interesting partiality for them.) So this is a little advance puff for her book, though there will be much more about it later.

I once tried to combine a recipe and a poem. That is to say I converted a recipe into what seemed to me at the time to be poetic form. I am not sure the results would have pleased the T S Eliot judges, but at least it has saved the recipe from getting lost – another use of poetry, if you like. Before it became a poem, I once lost it, and my friend Barbara, to whom I had passed it on, copied it out and gave it back to me. It is called 'Pain de Campagne' and when Barbara returned it to me, she had subtitled it 'Tired of Living in the Country'.

So whether or not it's good poem, I know it's a good recipe. It is tried and tested by more than one of us and will not let you down. Here it is:

Pain de Campagne

Day 1:
Mix these things in a roomy bowl:

8 ounces of strong white bread flour
A scant dessertspoon of table salt
8 fluid ounces of tepid water
A little dried yeast (a scant half teaspoon)

Cover with a plate and leave till next day.
At night dream richly. Record your dreams.

Day 2:
Return to the bowl.

Add 4 fluid ounces of luke-warm water
and then 4 ounces of whole-wheat flour.
As you stir the mixture, remember your dreams.
They will rise to the surface in tiny bubbles.

Cover and leave. Sleep well that night.
Record your dreams.

Day 3:

Back to the bowl.

Beat in more water—4 fluid ounces
and then add 12 ounces of strong white flour—
enough to make a workable dough.
Knead at length, remembering your dreams.
Add flour if needed. Continue to work
until the dough is beautifully smooth.

Leave to rise till doubled in size.
Sleep, if you wish, while the bread rises.

Later the same day

Punch back the dough.
Knead briefly and form a long oval.
Place on a baking tray covered in flour.
Shake more flour on top of the loaf.
Lightly cover and let it rise.

This loaf will grow.

When the size impresses you
slash the top with diagonal cuts
and bake very hot[1] for a quarter of an hour,
then somewhat cooler for twenty minutes[2].


The crust of this loaf will be domed and firm,
the crumb dreamy.
It will make great sandwiches, keep well
and prove that poetry can be useful.

[1] 230C

[2] Or perhaps a little longer, at 180° 



Recent Comments
Ama Bolton
Mmm ... yummy! Thank you. Here's my recipe in return. How to make Sloe Gin Buy a litre bottle of gin. Drink half. With friends. ... Read More
Monday, 15 January 2018 14:29
  534 Hits   3 Comments

WORDS, AND WAKING THEM UP

ceres

'The little rabbits smiled sweetly in their sleep under the shower of grass; they did not awake because the lettuces had been so soporific.'    

Soporific.     

Precisely the right word.    

That's it, isn't it? The right one, in the right place.    

Soporific.                      

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!



  947 Hits   1 Comment

HOW TO BAKE A POETRY PAMPHLET

DSC0141_20170604-094601_1

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
  1235 Hits   0 Comments