Wednesday 24 April 2013

George Szirtes on the sonnet

On April 23rd, George Szirtes and some open-mikers gave a standing-room-only Cambridge CB1 audience an entertaining evening of sonnets. The sheer volume of Szirtes' output can be intimidating. His 2008 "New & Collected Poems" is 520 pages long, and he's kicked on since then, extending his range. Focusing on the sonnet only restricts him somewhat - he said he's written over 300 of them!

He highlighted the longevity and flexibility of the form. Those two features are probably related, but there might be psychological (or even physiological) reasons why the sonnet endures. Don Paterson in his "101 Sonnets" was prepared to include "any poem with fourteen lines". "The Reality Street Book of Sonnets" cast its net wider (download the Introduction). Szirtes didn't want to be pinned down to a definition, instead suggesting that a sonnet is like a room, with certain expectations of scale, proportion, purpose and intimacy that the poet can choose to ignore.

He studied Fine Art in London and Leeds, and was asked in the Q&A if there was a strong visual element during composition. After all, many of the sonnets he read were about colours. He replied that there was always a dialogue with words, each line/word capable of changing the course of the poem. Rhyming in particular can take you where you didn't plan to go. You need to be ready to follow. Curiosity and a non-doctrinaire openness to impressions seem to be a source of word production for him - liking a youtube clip, a colour, or a goal may provoke him to wonder what there is in the phenomenon that's interesting him.

I sometimes look upon the sonnet as a franchise. You buy into it to take advantage of the image. You might add some local variation (curried burgers maybe) but go too far and the parent company might disown you - you have a duty to the brand as well as your customers. I have trouble writing sonnets. Finding them a technical challenge I become too much of a slave to the brand. According to my notes I've published 9 sonnets. I don't recall most of them. Two are acrostics, of which I'm unjustly proud (one, called "Going down", reads "Cambridge Blues" down the left margin). I've recently entered a sonnet for the Ware Poetry Competition but only because the content determined the form. So like a fool I followed.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Chrissy Williams and Fiona Moore launch

London was in a state of heightened awareness - the day before there were the Boston bombs, and it was the eve of Thatcher's funeral. What's more, London Book Fair was at Earl's Court. I day-tripped for the launch of HappenStance pamphlets by Chrissy Williams and Fiona Moore. Making the most of the day I went down early. I popped into Foyles, which has a useful range of magazines and anthologies (I bought "Structo 9"), popped into the Poetry Library to do some research (D A Prince, in London for the same launch, had beaten me to it) and visited 2 places for the first time - Brixton (why not?) and Stratford. I walked through the Westfield shopping centre to see the Olympic Park, then desperate for some real shops, went back over the train tracks only to find another shopping centre.

So much for the state of the nation, what about the state of British poetry? By the time I'd walked to the Crown Tavern past the side streets of parked police vans and stacked barricades, poets had overflowed onto the street. I think I saw Jon Stone, Kirsten Irving, Roddy Lumsden, and Simon Barraclough. In the packed room upstairs I talked to Paul Stephenson about getting a collection published. I wonder how much it matters nowadays. He's already much published in magazines and had 9 poems in the "Adventures in Form" anthology.

Chrissie Williams (on the left in the photo) had 4 poems in that anthology too, including "The Lost" which she read in front of a gold-framed mirror (a common back-drop for venues I've recently been to). I found her introductions (to "Green Lake" for example) useful, and her reading introduced me to a different way to access her poetry. When it clicks for me it's striking.

Re Adventures in Form I feel I'm between the 2 poets, having experimented with some Oulipo-ish forms, but having reservations about some other forms. In the main I felt more aligned with Fiona Moore's work. By chance, she and I share a non-poet friend who we've known for decades. Like Chrissie Williams she's been in many magazines and lives in London, but their poetry has little in common. Readers of her Displacement blog won't be surprised by the depth and thoughtfulness of the poems.

I think twin launches like this are an excellent idea, the poets and pamphlets being mutually supportive. John Field's already reviewed Flying into the Bear and the only reason for time. From what he says, you should be buying the pamphlets as soon as possible while supplies last. Try the Happenstance shop.

p.s. I've done write-ups of Flying into the bear and The only reason for time.

Monday 8 April 2013


We spent 4 days or so in Madesimo, Italy, staying a few metres from where the poet Giosuè Carducci frequently stayed and where he played cards in a bar. We skied. The long ski lifts suit me - I can read a few pages each time I go up. I took "Divorzio all'islamica a Viale Marconi" di Amara Lakhous to read. Alas, I took a tumble on the slopes (a blue one) and lost the book when I was only a few pages from the end. I couldn't find the book in shops, though I looked in all the ones we passed.

I went on to read "Birds of America", a short story collection by Lorrie Moore (I was interesting in the balance between comedy/ wordplay and character development) and "Absence has a weight of its own", a poetry collection by Daniel Sluman (whose poems are nothing like most of mine, though I have my moments). I wrote next to nothing.

I did my first social networking from abroad. I didn't realise that Facebook checked for suspicious activity.