I went to my 3rd annual poetry gathering today, at the Rupert Brooke pub in Grantchester, where I met up with Charlotte Innes (standing right), Jayne Osborn (seated left), David Anthony, and Tim Love (who had to leave before the photo). We had a pleasant lunch and a tour of the village’s literary sights (related to Rupert Brooke, who lived in the Old Vicarage there).
At my first gathering 2 years ago, I wasn’t actually writing poetry at all — I just went along with my sister Susan. Before that time it somehow hadn’t occurred to me that writing poetry could be a fun sociable thing to do. In my mind it was inextricably linked to the sturm und drang of my teenage poetry-writing years. I hadn’t realized what a community there was of people critiquing each other’s work, entering contests together, and so on. I was impressed by what a fun group of people it seemed to be, and it was a definite factor that led to me picking up a pen a month or two later and beginning to write poetry.
It took about 6 months after that before I dared to join the online poetry forum and submit my work to their critical eyes, but they were kind and welcoming (due in part no doubt to Susan), and they’ve given me very valuable feedback. It’s crucial to have impartial and knowledgeable readers take a look at your writing and let you know what works and what doesn’t. Some advice has been better than others, but all of it has been worth having.
More Dana Gioia this week: Journeys in Sunlight. Like Planting a Sequoia, this was another limited edition of exquisitely printed poetry on handmade paper, with etchings to accompany them. It was lovely to behold, but a bit odd how the excellent poems almost take second place to the paper they’re printed on.
What is the purpose? I can understand the impulse to turn everything about your book into a work of art to be savoured, but I associate that more with vanity publishing than with actual strong work. If you’re paying for a book to be produced, then I’m sure the printers try to sell you the top range of everything. I also associate showy production values with trying to distract readers from poor quality work. The thickest people in my classes at school generally had the best handwriting (or in later years, the most professionally word-processed work).
[I may have some sort of anti-style complex, mistaking the presence of style for the absence of substance. It was certainly drummed into me from an early age that style was nothing; and since my mother made almost all of my clothes until I was twelve, stylishness was never an option available to me.]
But back to Gioia: if he is trying to distract from anything, it is probably the brevity of the work. There were only about 8-10 poems, none more than 2 pages long. It has been commented on by others how Gioia’s poetry output is a bit thin for someone who writes it so well. It set me thinking about how rare it is to be both a top critic and an artist. Not a coincidence I imagine: probably he writes much more than ever sees the light of day, because his inner critic tears most of it up as worthless. Probably his inner critic knows best, but I can’t help feeling I would like to read some of his work which was not encased in such steely perfection.
So, a quick summary of what I’ve been reading lately. Following on from Interrogations at Noon, I read Dana Gioia’s lovely short collection Planting a Sequoia, followed by his critical summary of modern British poetry from an American perspective, Barrier of a Common Language. I don’t often like literary criticism, but this was so clear and concise and insightful that I zipped through it.
That lead me to want to read more from the Martian school, so I read James Fenton’s Memory of War, John Fuller’s Pebble and I, and Fuller’s selection of Auden. All good stuff, and I would definitely read more of Fuller in particular.
I read Charlotte Innes’s chapbook Licking the Serpent next. Charlotte is a friend of mine who made the reverse emigration, growing up in Leicester and moving to LA. She doesn’t explicitly write much about the expat experience, but it’s always interesting for me to read poetry by people who are the product of multiple cultures, and she has a deft hand with imagery and metaphor.
The last poetry book I read was Fox Populi, by Kate Fox. We saw her perform some poetry at Wordfest in April, and she often appears on Radio 4. She’s a lot like John Hegley, writing mostly free verse, often with rhymes thrown in, and generally funny. The poetry isn’t the same without her rich Northern voice reading it, but it still holds up all right on the page. My favourite was her poem about the apocalypse hitting the North and the locals’ phlegmatic reaction to it. Tellingly, my mother-in-law picked the book up when I had finished and asked to take it home with her. She didn’t do that with Fuller.