Wednesday, May 29, 2013

End of career poetry residency

"In this poor body, composed of one hundred bones and nine openings, is something called spirit, a flimsy curtain swept this way and that by the slightest breeze. It is spirit, such as it is, which led me to poetry, at first little more than a pastime, then the full business of my life. There have been times when my spirit, so dejected, almost gave up the quest, other times when it was proud, triumphant. So it has been from the very start, never finding peace with itself, always doubting the worth of what it makes."
Basho was a trooper, he stayed with it, observing the changes in himself and the world and left his unique legacy. It seems important to remember the importance of stamina when there are so many things that drag the poor body away from poetry - weeding and planting, work and demanding visitors.
I have been looking for time to think, walk, experiment and fill pages of a notebook - a residency, basically. But I had trouble with my search terms - residencies for coming-up-to-sixty poets? What does it mean, this term 'mid-career'?
The risks of funding emerging writers and artists are low. Youth is enough justification, often. Although those of us who 'emerged' in our mid thirties start off disadvantaged...and there are many, particularly women, who can't produce anything till later in their lives. Then there are mid-career artists and writers, a polite term I presume for unheard of. Nothing yet that I've found for end of career people, still slogging away as Basho points out, sometimes in despair, always in doubt.
Which is why it's important to think about what poems, poets, visual artists, contribute to a collective state of mind, to thinking that is not determined by politics, policy etc etc. it is very hard to think in this way, not always successful.
The disappearance of bees has forced some kind of discussion about how much we need them. No, poets won't disappear, but an approach to thinking and writing is seriously threatened. This is why we should give poets a chance, give the old, strugglers a bit of a hand even if they haven't got a stack of prizes and awards, even if they don't have a single one to their name.
"The project of poetry, in a way, is to raise language to such a level that it can convey the precise nature of subjective experience....... When people are real to you, you can't fly a plane into the office building where they work, you can't bulldoze the refugee camp where they live, you can't cluster-bomb their homes and streets. We only do those things when we understand people as part of a category: infidel, insurgent, enemy." That's more like it....from a talk by the delightful American poet Mark Doty.
And Sigmund Freud, whose work I'm not nearly as interested in, nevertheless comes up trumps with a reflection on the importance of poetry. It's good to be reminded of who believes in poetry when there are so many charlatans seeking attention:  "Poets are masters of us ordinary men, in knowledge of the mind, because they drink at streams which we have not yet made accessible to science."

Mark Doty:

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A poem for Rambert

On Monday I sat with hospital patients to ask my final set of questions about love - how do you carry the memory of love? Can you describe your parents' faces? 

The questions were my solution to the impossibility of running a poetry workshop on a ward. I sat and took notes as people who were able talked about family, partners and children. At the beginning of the project I read people poems but by the end felt that my questions might have the same effect. Ten hours isn't really enough to know what works and experiment with different approaches.

Each week on the train from Brighton and walking along the Fulham Road to the hospital - Chelsea and Westminster - I was conscious of the barrier: a patient in a bed, me coming in from outside. Add poetry into the equation and sometimes I felt like an alien, although the staff were all so young, at least I had age in common with the patients.

Now younger patients will take the poem and work with Rambert on choreography in response to these lines that have come from those 10 hours questioning what love means when you're confined to a bed in a ward, sometimes exhausted, sometimes frustrated by your own body.

Photo by Giya Makondo-Wills

I ask

What is your heart and what is it carrying?

            It's not about the heart,
            it's the whole body, you answered -

            a tree - almond or apple -
            and inside, the background music.

Are some people harder to love?

            My sister laughed behind my back.
            There was someone I trusted with a secret.
            In six months we tiptoed from fun
            to arguing. I told her I'd been on a date.
What journeys did you make and what did you find?

            I walked the backbone of Ireland -
            from Dublin to Cork - dogs barked from kennels,
            joggers overtook, pigs stood in my way.

                        And I crossed the Sahara for two days,
                        took a train to Nguru,
                        heard a general as he beat a young boy.

            I met her in London, 1954,
            a  year after the earthquake on Kefalonia
            killed her father and sister.

How do you carry the memory of love?

One sent her vegetables, all kinds of vegetables
others said in my daughter, my partner, my god

            one held the light on the water in Venice
            another Barbados, her grandmother's voice

one heard a mobile ringing
another, the roll call of all 14 siblings

            one felt rough tweed against her tired face
            another feared she got back less than she gave

one smiled - my mother, 92 and still dancing -
another hummed his dad's favourite song

            and the last said when he was young
            love was spelled lust.

Describe your mother's face, your father's

            First comes the shape of the mouth,
            curve of a jaw, then laughter lines,
            ears, smooth ovals of skin

            and only then, the eyes' colours -
            blue, brown, grey - until,
            as if under that gaze again

            they are led to the exact day
            of a soldier's haircut, his stutter
            and in the hallway, the draught

            of parents' softly spoken
            shorthand, her Norwegian,
            and for another, the affair, divorce

            until he has a photo of his father,
            a child, in his hands and she can admit:
            "In her dementia, my mother loves me at last."

And what are the tokens of love?

It happened so fast, the results, diagnosis
how much we needed to send him to Boston.

He's only seven. Hand to mouth, we went,
site to site, Facebook and Twitter

one told another, at work and at school,
in football crowds, post-office queues,

we grew like a flock of red-billed quelea
folding around him a soft cloak of feathers.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

Hippocrates symposium and Dorothy Molloy

I have been reading Dorothy Molloy's two collections from Faber, Hare Soup and Gethsemane Day to prepare for chairing a session at the Hippocrates Symposium tomorrow on poetry and medicine.

Somehow when Hare Soup appeared in 2004, I was distracted, absent, but what a delight to discover these two books. As I read, I am drawing up a list of friends I want to give these collections to. At one stage I had to stop myself reading aloud on the train, saying:"Listen to this."

The late Dorothy Molloy
pic: Faber&Faber

About Dorothy Molloy at Salmon Poetry:

Katy Evans Bush on Hare Soup:

2013 International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine: