Wednesday, 10 September 2014

A filthy sonnet

There ain't much poetry on this poetry blog, so here's a sonnet from my upcoming collection "Our Terraced Hum" (part of a 5 poet anthology called "Caboodle", from Prole Books, 2014). This poem will also feature in my first full collection, "The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping" (Freight Books, 2015). 

Get messy.

Basement Beneath the Corner Shop

He’s made himself the castle of his dreams:
the landfill lord, a tin can Midas
moated by nine months of debris. He beams
in the grit of his homemade fortress
because nothing outside can finger through
the pizza-box walls cracked by arrow loops,
his cardboard curtain. The hullaballoo 
of reality is cut by his coup 
d'├ętat, cartons stacked, wrappers tacked, intact
in the order of chaos. Passersby
gleer in, hands fanned over their eyes, retract,
shake their faces at the teem of house flies.
They mark him the idol of their own disgust
when in public but, privately, they lust.

Russell Jones

Poet Profiles 2: Jo Shapcott

Jo Shapcott

The background.
Jo Shapcott is from London but studied in Dublin. She teaches Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. Her poetry has won some big awards including the Costa Prize and the Forward Prize.  Aside from poetry she has also studied science with the Open University. Her collection “Of Mutability” (2011) explores her experiences of having breast cancer.

Why this poet?
She’s one that sticks in my head, like a piece of tasty gristle between my gnashers. If nothing else, her turns of phrase can make me tingle and gurn. Her first collection, for example, she titled: “Electroplating the Baby”. Frankly I don’t think you can beat that. Her poetry is diverse too, from knitting to pissing, cancer to chemistry. She’s interested in everyday life but her poems also talk about bigger issues such as gender and identity.

A poem extract
(from “Of Mutability” – read the full poem here)

Too many of the best cells in my body
are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw
in this spring chill. It’s two thousand and four
and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small
among the numbers. Razor small.


Look up to catch eclipses, gold leaf, comets,
angels, chandeliers, out of the corner of your eye,
join them if you like, learn astrophysics, or
learn folksong, human sacrifice, mortality

A reading

I hate having to paste bits of poems, it really ruins the overall impact. However, we’ll have to cope.

What I love about this poem is how personal it is, and yet it blasts outwards to take in the ‘grand scheme of things’.  Shapcott’s choice of words in the first stanza is brutal: “itching”, “jagged”, “raw” and these words would feel tired if it weren’t for the fact that she’s not talking about flesh as we might expect it, she’s talking about her “best cells”. Of course the fact that these are the “best” ones means that what’s unmentioned (the “worse cells”) is all the more potent. She’s breaking apart. We’re next to her, listening to her talk about her body’s rebellion, and we know this could happen to us too.

And then BOOM, here come the comets and angels. We’re told we can join them, we can learn “astrophysics or folksong”. Is this hope? It’s those things we imagine, those things we don’t quite know, “in the corner of your eye” that open up opportunities. That dissolving body becomes secondary to the possibilities of the mind, but it was the learning of her mortality, and our own, that brings about such vast change and inspiration. It’s as though she’s saying 'once you let go, you’re free to be something else.' She’s prodded life in the eye and she seems to come out victorious, or at least transformed.

I think this poem teaches us something: every experience, even very challenging, even life threatening, can change the way we think about the world and our place in it.

Go read...

Of Mutability (winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award)

Her Book: Poems 1988-1998.

Electroplating the Baby (winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for best first collection) - I think you have to get this second hand now, or read parts of it in her collected poems

Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times (edited with Matthew Sweeny, a very fine anthology of poems for all sorts of reasons, a great addition to a book shelf).  

Russell Jones

Monday, 1 September 2014

Poet Profiles, 1: Edwin Morgan

In a bid to share my poetry preferences and spread the good word about some fine poets, living and dead, I have decided to publish a fortnightly Poet Profile.

Have a gander...

 Edwin Morgan

The background.
For anyone who knows me, this guy’s the obvious choice to begin my poet profiles (my PhD was on his sci-fi poetry). Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) was the Scots Makar until his death in 2010. He grew up in Glasgow, serving abroad in WW2, returning to teach at Glasgow University. For all the ins, outs and sideways of his life I’d recommend picking up “Beyond The Last Dragon:A Life of Edwin Morgan” by his great friend and biographer, James McGonigal.

Why this poet?
Morgan has to be one of the most exciting poets I’ve ever read. His poetry is diverse, funny and profound. He’s written poems about the Loch Ness Monster, Computer Christmas cards, space aliens, love, loss and liberty. He’s written sonnets, sound poems, colour poems, sci-fi poems, dialogue poems, concrete poems, one word poems, emergent poems... I could go on. In short: check him out.

A poem extract.
(from “The Loch Ness Monster’s Song" - LISTEN HERE)

Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl –
gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.
Hovoplodok – doplodovok – plovodokot-doplodokosh?

A reading.
First, I have to express how much fun this poem is to read aloud. You’d be missing out (and partly missing the point) if you just read it in your head. Having taught this at secondary schools and universities, I know how much of a kick people get out of hearing it spoken with gusto. Give it a try, go on, now!

This is a sound poem, but the shape also adds to possible interpretations we might make. At first the poem looks like nonsense, but there are hints of intelligence in there. The monster asks questions, seeming to call out dinosaur-esque names: “Hovoplodok – doplodovok – plovodokot-doplodokosh?”

Now Morgan has discussed what’s “happening” in the poem, but to some degree that is irrelevant. The poem encourages you to make up your own stories, to build a narrative from mere sound. Take that idea  a step further and it starts to question the nature of language: isn’t the way we engage with the world also linguistically bound? And isn’t language simply an assortment of noises?

What’s the point then? Communication. Something ethereal is communicated through listening to the poem, whether it’s merely humour or something deeper. But the listener also begins to try to translate the poem. “What is the monster saying? What’s happening?” They become an active participant, decrypting the song and taking from it what they will. This was a major drive of Morgan’s work: communication is key, we need to work hard at understanding each other.

This is a great example, I think, of how a poem can work without the meaning of the words being the most important thing on the page. It shows us how poetry can be effective and affective without “understanding” ever being a part of the equation.

Go read...
Morgan has published SO many poems in books, magazines and so on. If you’re new to his work I highly recommend his Collected Poems, which gives a good sample of a wide range of his stuff. You can also listen to a few of his poems on the Poetry Archive. If he grabs your fancy, visit the Scottish PoetryLibrary in Edinburgh, the home of The Edwin Morgan Archive.