Monday, October 15, 2018

More words for women than anyone can imagine

I've been collecting them for ever, since I discovered the Historical Thesaurus online and read it voraciously, gathered synonyms for 'woman' from there and other sources and put them together in a kind of word search format, on a postcard. There were no gaps between the words. Perhaps I felt embarrassed by the sheer misogyny they illustrated collectively, despite the loving, respectful and sweet words, which I wanted to put in too. 

Recently I've been bothered by social media viciousness, by an unfettered resurgence of misogyny, enabled by the politically naive and by cowardice. My upbringing, my political education emphasised mutual respect. Yes, I'm as flawed as you, but I believe in debate and as a writer, respect for people, for the languages we speak, for how we communicate, for differences we have. Dr Seuss, among others, is good on the insanity of wars about differences between us. When I put the first Words for women together, I wasn't sure how to define it. Not a poem, although it eventually went in Woman's Head as Jug. Not prose. There's no narrative.  It went into Binders Full of Women, the publication that was assembled when another US politican made an incendiary sexist remark. 

I feel the words being used against women now need to be more visible, less cryptic than a word search and so there are spaces between them in my latest version. The spaces represent hundreds of years of thought, abuse, love and hate. These are just the words in English and my lists are not comprehensive. They don't include swathes of slang from US or Australian English or from English spoken elsewhere in the world.

I'm no academic and wish I'd concentrated more in linguistics lectures when I was doing a degree. I have the Royal Literary  Fund to thank, in part, for the first Words for women, which germinated during a fellowship at the University of Surrey. My office was tucked away, the librarians didn't rush to promote what I was doing so I had time to browse the library. I found the linguistics section. There are so many lives I might have had and these shelves held one of them. But rather than regret, what came out of it was a card, imperfect, nearly in alphabetical order, of synonyms. My open mouth. 

Last night I went through my lists, ticking and adding. They need to be read together. The font on the most recent is Gil Sans MT. There are synonyms for girl, for prostitute, for mistress and old woman here. The oldest word is from Old English. Let's take care. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

The bass says more than words can

Nick Makoha's first collection, published
by Peepal Tree press in 2017
Nick Makoha's poems have been attracting attention in the UK for some time and rightly so. US poet Terrance Hayes says they 'animate in the space between story and song' and his work is an important contribution to British contemporary writing.

On the last morning of Winchester Poetry Festival, Makoha was reading with Karen McCarthy Woolf, who's also established a reputation for emotionally demanding material. The third poet, Katharine Towers, was shortlisted for the 2016 TS Eliot prize for her second collection The Remedies.

And the readings complemented one another perfectly - Makoha's are direct, sometimes hard to hear because of the violence they describe but they carry a sense of history needing to be channeled. McCarthy Woolf's are more personal, sometimes hard to access, fluid and uncompromising, while Towers stays in the natural world, her boundaries firmly established, the metaphorical landscape more familiar but still imaginatively sharp.

As I drank coffee I realised that this festival had a markedly different line-up to those I've been used to. And since counting the representation of women and other so-called minorities was good enough for Tillie Olsen, I did a count of the writers appearing at Winchester. It worked out well - about a third of participants were poets of colour and women (for once) outnumbered men.

Makoha said he wanted to stop feeling embarrassed at being Ugandan in an English space and McCarthy Woolf turned the language used to disparage migrants on its head with her poem telling the migrant narrative in the language of the super rich. She has edited a collection for Nine Arches Press, Unwritten, about the citizens of empire who faced racism despite their willingness to fight for Britain in WW1.

McCarthy Woolf's own poem for this unique anthology weaves three narratives in an almost documentary way. Later a Modern Poetry in Translation session, Profound Pyromania, explored the plurality of languages in Caribbean poetry, placing it far from the colonial centre of empire, as Vahni Capildeo put it.

Ishion Hutchinson went deeper into the influence of Lee Scratch Perry on his writing, explaining that dub had preserved the west African languages introduced into the Caribbean by the slave trade. Hutchinson explained Scratch Perry showed how music, particularly the bass, became a different kind of transport - away from daily life. Dub encapsulated the horror of the slave experience in a way words couldn't, said Hutchinson. Dance became a lamented joy, a journey through horror and a listener was overtaken by dub's deep oceanic sound.

Caroline Bird has had five collections published and she's only 32. The most recent, In These Days of Prohibition, came out last year. To my shame, although she's a regular performer, I've never seen Bird live and I was knocked out. It's her professionalism combined with her honesty, a sense of generosity of spirit that is perhaps a side-effect of her astonishing poems - she has a surreal, unfettered view of life, but also a deep humanity.

If I went to Winchester feeling a bit tired of poetry and wondering if it was relevant, I left in no doubt because there are these amazing writers putting life under the microscope and not giving up on the challenge to express what needs to be said, both personally and politically.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Whose land is our land?

The politics of land - where do poems take us?
Here Lies Our Land is a public poem by Kathleen Jamie on the site of a battle, which Winchester Poetry Festival last weekend raised as an umbrella over poets whose material is the natural world.

When I drove to Winchester on Friday the sun was bright and as I left the Downs landscape of Sussex behind, I felt my adolescence. Jamie asked where is this? Is it Hampshire?

Winchester was the start of my first holiday with Susan Wrigby, where I listened to an American boy sing Johnny Cash on a slope near the youth hostel and where I set off for the Isle of Wight. It was the year Hendrix played there, but I had to be home before the festival.

I grew up in Farnham, on a spur of Surrey jutting into Hampshire. And if I happen to pass through now, the county draws me back to itself with William Cobbett's words, the sounds of a folk club and walks among cowslips and brambles. I have always felt that link with Cobbett, himself born in Farnham, whose Rural Rides was on our bookshelf. 

In the Saturday morning session that was linked to a debate about climate change, the Suffolk based poet Rebecca Goss began her poems based on country jobs and I remembered an old bloke who lived down the road and set traps for foxes, the farmer who could trace his family back centuries, the blacksmith and the kennel owners - people from the county I grew up in, Surrey. Goss is well known for her searing collection, Her Birth (Carcanet) and told her audience she was still looking for the 'darker' side of Suffolk. She reminded us of the power of those early poems with 'Sarah' a stunning poem about female friendship. I never heard a nightingale there but Harry Mann's been chasing endangered species around the UK. Appropriate then, perhaps that his first poem was about the neurology of a nightingale. He is modern and experimental. It was right, too, that he left us in stitches at the end with a crazy sestina called Arnie’s Poetic, in the language of Hollywood.

Jamie was reading in the evening, so was present mostly as a contributor to a discussion on nature writing. Happy to be controversial, Jamie suggested it had stopped with Ted Hughes and has only recently re-invented itself. At this point I remembered the always challenging Peter Reading at another festival years ago in Kings Lynn where he laid into what he described as Hughes’ anthropomorphism of the animals he wrote about. And I wondered if this monolithic male, whose work, don’t get me wrong, I admire and read with pleasure, really was a dam or was it a distraction from many other, lesser known poets? 

I thought about Michael Longley and Gillian Clarke, for example, who write lyrically about the natural world. And I began listing in my head some of the others, including Pauline Stainer, Lee Harwood, legions of poets in fact, who are not national institutions. But like nature itself, poetry is various and the non famous, less read poets, like invisible insects, beetles and moths, belong to poetry's eco-systems and within these, to keep the metaphor going, there is an astonishing diversity. Let diversity be at the heart of our debates - there are many poets and many ideas...Winchester Poetry Festival appears to be conscious of diversity in all its meanings and that is refreshing. 

There are mistakes, often, in life that allow for the beautifully unexpected and in another Saturday morning session, the rule of three (the three poet reading) was broken when JO Morgan's car broke down. So for Let Light Be Enough, Cork poet Doireann Ni Ghriofa and Pascale Petit became perfectly balanced scales - Petit majestic and still, Ni Ghriofa deftly playing the music of her contemporary/historic mix. 

It was a world first for the festival - the first time Ni Ghriofa has performed in England, even visited, in fact, and therefore the first time she'd read from her second English collection, Lies (Dedalus Press). The pile of her books on the bookseller's stall was gone as soon as the session finished. I saw a woman whip the last copy away from another as the second hesitated. Ni Ghriofa read in English and Irish and she is a compelling, charismatic young woman. A volunteer afterwards was saying she could read a shopping list, her delivery is so musical. Something of her reminded me a little of Kim Addonizio, in the way she struck out the beat of one poem with her boot. And while her poetry is strikingly lyrical, it is also utterly modern; tied into Irish history, it speaks to a generation brought up on cracked phone screens and interrupted Skype connections. 

Petit's work is difficult, emotionally, but her stillness on stage contains its enormous implications and gives her phenomenal presence. Mama Amazonica, the collection she read from, won Petit a heft £10,000 Ondaatje Prize this summer - the first poetry to bag this prestigious award. Her material both goes to the core of being human as well as mental illness. Mama Amazonica conflates the sickness of a mother with the sickness imposed on the earth’s lungs, the rainforest and Petit’s images are astonishing - drawn from science, observation and myth they seem to hold modern life and release insights from where psyche meets science. And at Winchester, Petit gave the audience a taste of her next collection drawing on the landscape of Rajasthan, the birthplace of her grandmother whose Indian heritage was kept a family secret.

Continuing the world journey, the afternoon led into evening with poetry in translation from Iranian born Azita Ghahreman, Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji and Nicola Madzirov from Macedonia. Award winning poet Maura Dooley read English translations of Ghahreman’s work and Stephen Watts read translations of Haji’s. Madzirov has read in the UK several times and his work is now being translated by Carolyn Forche. His quiet stillness and the space around his words gives him the presence of a monk. He reminds us of peripheral spaces and the traces we leave. Ghahreman’s poems are forcefully visual and in Persian, the sounds are round and rich. Her collection Negative of a Group Photograph covers 30 years of poems, many written about leaving Iran for Sweden. “My tongue trips up when I speak of that journey,’ she writes and ‘my name here is neither immigrant nor exile.’

With Golan Haji’s poems drawing on the Odysseus story, this festival afternoon draws attention to the profound importance of translation in opening up the world, its ability to alter perceptions. And there is a need for that opening up as politicians become increasingly unreliable narrators and interpreters of contemporary life.

So onto Saturday evening and a trio of distinctive voices to end the second festival day, introduced by one of the creative directors, Sasha Dugdale, as compelling, generous and spiritually expansive: Vahni Capildeo, Ishion Hutchinson and Kathleen Jamie - each of them political, each of them fiercely rooted in places marked by conflict. Capildeo barely pauses for breath as her experimental, imagistic words pour out, as if all that has been suppressed must now be expressed. Hutchinson’s poems, like those of Derek Walcott before him, are steeped in history, play with the vernacular and language of the pulpit, are defined by the detail of the Caribbean and the symbolism of that detail. Jamie reshapes the reading space as a storyteller, refusing to translate from Scots, her sometimes awkward introductions a marked contrast to fluid and marvellous poems - where, like the basking shark she introduced us to in the Shetlands, she seems most at ease.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Avant garde jazz and dead poets

Years ago when there were still printers' pubs I went to the upstairs room of one of them in London to hear saxophonist Lol Coxhill performing with poet Bob Cobbing. It was an evening of sounds more than words and could have been a clash of cultures if Coxhill and Cobbing hadn't been so willing (and able) to take flack for their experiment in the interval and turn around the mood at the bar.

I was reminded of that night when Ian McMillan, another consummate performer, brought avant garde jazz into his final poem as he opened the Winchester Poetry Festival this Friday. For an hour, McMillan held his torch up to what a lifetime of writing means, showing us the family that has always loved words and his fascination for how we speak to one another, for what he describes as the battleground of language. Funny, high energy and wise, McMillan's enthusiasm is infectious and what his jazz poem said to me was that poetry is where we can all take courage but it's nothing without love.

Family was at least part of the soundtrack to the later evening reading, Taking Blood, featuring Gillian Clarke, Paul Batchelor and Leontia Flynn. Clarke read one of my favourite poems of hers, Blue Hydrangeas which flashes back to a childhood memory of her mother. Flynn's astonishing poem, The Radio, interlaced her mother's experience with childhood, when the soundtrack was Belfast, bombs and shootings. Batchelor's beautiful poem Pit Ponies drew on a memory of his father's, but he was also evoking the power of Edward Thomas.  And it's right, isn't it, that dead poets should take their place in the family album,  Clarke summoning Waldo Williams, Wilfred Owen and Hed Wynn, the shepherd poet from north Wales,  Flynn reading August 30 2013, her tribute to Seamus Heaney and as well as Thomas, Batchelor revealing his respect for poet Barry McSweeney?

The festival's themes are identity and sense of place, so let's go back to McMillan for a moment, chronicler of Barnsley and way beyond, comparing the quiffs of Elvis and Ted Hughes in a fantasy that imagines Elvis didn't die, but caught a boat to England and became Ted. As Winchester Poetry Festival chair, Stephen Boyce says in his introduction to the programme, contemporary writing and performance represent a "deep well". All the festival readings are at the Winchester Discovery Centre.