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ON NOT BEING A STAR

CAKE

Just over a century ago, when Florence Lawrence switched from D.W. Griffith's Biograph Studios to the Independent Moving Pictures Company, and began to appear in films under her own name, it all began. And that was before a movie 'star', had even found a voice.

It was all to do with money. When movies first started, the studios were wary of the fame of individuals: it might mean paying them more. But it quickly became clear that the the individual with a marketable 'image' could build brand loyalty. The star system could be manipulated. Celebrity status could be conferred on a chosen few profitably.

And now the term 'celebrity culture' is familiar to us all, fundamental to our entertainment and social activity, and thinking.

The cult of the celebrity affects all aspects of the arts, including poetry, though poetry is also dramatically different from movies or TV. If I were writing this blog about film, the majority of readers would be movie fans – not actors or directors. But this is a poetry blog. Most people who read will be poets, though mainly not poetry stars. They are the dedicated actors and directors of their own art form, as well as its audience. Weird.

But put that to one side for a moment. Stardom is commercial. It is about getting attention. It is about getting attention to sell a product or an idea. It is about winning.

In poetry, it is about selling the idea of poetry as a Good Thing. But more mundanely, it is about a) selling books and b) finding readers (the two are not synonymous).

Poetry is nothing without readers. How does it get them?

One way some poetry does it is via the publicity associated with national prizes run by arts organisations. The Forward Arts Foundation and the T S Eliot Foundation are the two best known (though not the only) poetry prize awarders in the UK. Year by year, the short-listing of 'best' poets creates 'stars' that poetry readers recognise. There are even, eventually (and if they pop up often enough), poetry stars that some non-poetry-readers recognise.

The short-lists for the Forward Prizes 2018 have just been announced. So that means a set of five judges have read no fewer than 207 books of poems to arrive at two short-lists. Five of these feature on the 'Best Collection' list, and the other five on the 'Best First Collection'.

It is not my intention to knock the prizes. They garner attention for the work of outstanding books. But I never much liked Sports Day at school. I find myself thinking a great deal about the ones that don't win and, worse still, identifying with them. Not to mention those not even entered (each publisher can only submit up to four titles in each of the two categories. (There are publishers that bring out many more than four poetry books each year.)

When you watch a film, you identify with a leading character – at least until they get killed, and then you transfer to another one. You do not identify with the characters with no names, the supporting actors, the bus drivers, the one-line speakers. Of course, you don't. In fiction, your attention is manipulated towards the main protagonists.

As a poet and poetry reader, you tend to identify with leading poets, dead or alive  – those to whom your attention has been directed (though happily it can be more fun to find a neglected writer or two and attach yourself to them). From the available choice of stars and starlets, you orientate towards writers who attract you, in culture or personality or appearance or way of writing. You can only choose from the ones you have read (there are far too many for anybody to sample all of them, especially when masses are not even writing in English).

If your poetry heroes are alive now, and active, and visible, you want them to win. You think, at the back of your mind, that one day maybe you might be like them. You might win too.

And then you go away and work on a poem of your own. Maybe you'll enter that poem in a competition. Maybe you'll even enter the poem in the National Poetry Competition, run by the Poetry Society, another conferrer of stardom. And what might happen then?

The thought that your work might be a 'winner' is not helpful in writing. In fact, it's the opposite. While it may be true that every published poem is in competition with all the others for attention, while it is still in production what it needs is the best words in the best order. The best words, not the winning words.

Forget about winning. Put it right to the back of your mind.

Banish the word 'success' (it hisses nastily).

Each and every work of poetry – quietly and away from the remotest thought of stardom or celebrity or fuss or prizes – needs space to be its own good self. No publicity. No blurb. No photograph.

Each and every poet – quietly and away from the remotest thought of stardom or celebrity or fuss or prizes – needs to ... write. Despite publicists trying to distract you from the work in hand with new news about new and excitingly important poets, nothing else matters.

Writing poems is not glamorous. Nor is it – whatever the hubbub suggests – about winning.

It is about doing your best for each piece of work without your ego getting in the way. It is about listening. It is about not settling for less. It is about getting on with the job. (You are allowed to have fun.)

In any case, as Stevie Smith said, 'The poet is not an important fellow. There will always be another poet.'

(If you can find two or three good readers for your poems, your writing is likely to last longer than you will. If you can be a good reader for another poet, you are already a star.)


GDPR AND POEM PRIVACY POLICY

GDPR_LOIS

 Poems don't have to have a Privacy Policy. But websites do. Or any organisation that collects personal data that might be used for nefarious purposes.

And we do worry about personal data. We worry about our phone numbers, and our dates of birth, our bank accounts and our passport numbers. We worry while giving them to all sorts of people for all sorts of purposes.

And now some of us suddenly worry about a new set of capital letters: GDPR. The General Data Protection Regulation.

Health Warning: the rest of this blog is quite dry. You could just skip to the poem at the end if you're not feeling strong. Or go for a nice walk.

The GDPR is a piece of European legislation (please don't mention Brexit) designed to protect consumers Europe-wide. It gives more rights to the individual and more obligations to organisations holding personal data.

The GDPR is, to be precise, Regulation (EU) 2016/679 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 April 2016 on the protection of natural persons with regard to the processing or personal data and on the free movement of such data, and repealing Directive 95/46/EC.

In the UK, matters of data protection, including this one safe-guarding 'natural persons', are looked after by the ICO, the Information Commissioner's Office. This is the government-appointed body that recently carried out a much publicised investigation into Cambridge Analytica.

Innumerable worthy, smaller, not-for-profit organisations (like HappenStance Press) have also had to think hard about GDPR, because they too are subject to the new regulation, and need to ensure they're doing things properly.

Which is why everyone who uses email will have had multiple emails recently asking them to re-subscribe to X, Y or Z.

The idea is that we shouldn't be receiving marketing or sales emails unless we have expressly asked for them. (The word 'consent'is now the lynch pin.)

After May 25 (next week), every organisation that holds your contact details, and uses them, should have asked your permission explicitly first. They should observe the key principles of article 5 of the GDPR.

Some organisations who hold your contact details have little idea whether they originally asked your consent or not (contact addresses were sometimes shared or purchased in the past) and in any case they want to make double sure.

So they are all asking us to confirm that we want to stay on list A, B or C. (And they are nervous, because the ICO can fine people for not doing things properly.)

The advised consent procedure for mail-shots is called 'positive opt-in' and it works as follows. You go to a website (like this one) and enter your details into a box to be added to a contact list. But you're not actually on that list until you reply to an email which invites you to confirm. When you confirm, this is proof of 'consent', i.e. proof you really really mean it. At least, you really meant it at that moment. Ease of unsubscribing is also important.

So on this very blog page, you will see, in red, instructions on how to subscribe to receive future blog notifications. If you enter your name and email address in the relevant box and click, you will be advised to look out for an email to confirm. 

You look out for the email. You open it. You click again (life is all clicking these days). Now you have consented. Hurray!

Oh but I haven't mentioned the bit about confirming that you're not a robot, which is straightforward so long as you can see. Issues such as these are raised by Giles Turnbull, on his blog. Accessibility is a key issue here, and one that is not always top of the agenda when it comes to legislation.

I understand why people may be uneasy about registering their names, addresses and emails on this website when they purchase books. Why should they trust a little press with a happy-go-lucky name like 'HappenStance'? The information seems to be disappearing into a medium that nobody quite understands, at the same time as we read alarming stories about hackers and alien intelligence. Well, hackers anyway.

It may not help that we promise to keep the information safe, although from now on, HappenStancecustomers can read the Privacy Policy, which I put together this week when I could have been writing a poem. But will it reassure?

There is a good alternative to buying things online. It's called a shop. People can still order books from bookshops without revealing their full personal details. Bookshops are good places, especially indies like The Lighthousein Edinburgh. A bookshop doesn't need personal data. Oh, wait – they probably will require at least a name and phone number, unless the book is held in store. But customers can theoretically use a false name, enter the shop disguised as a gorilla, and pay in cash – while cash still exists.

Sigh. Yes, basically, it's all risky.

But the GDPR is designed to protect us. Or at least make organisations state precisely what personal information they collect from us, why they collect it, and what they use it for, before we sign up. It could be worse.

Privacy Policy & Consent

This poem will not collect your data
to contact you a few weeks later
and call you back.

The lyric stands alone, defiant,
entirely GPDR compliant,
in white and black.

Impervious, then, to consternation
or European legislation
or Union Jack,

it here extends its own address,
which may be shared in times of stress—
no fear of flak.



MORE ON SMALLS

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So last week it was small poems for washing up with, but I forgot to mention one.                                                                            

Not sure how I forgot, but maybe it's because it's in the middle of the puddings, when actually it has nothing to do with recipes or cooking. Except possibly a connection with one of the ingredients not being there.

By 'the puddings', I mean Aunt Margaret's Pudding, Alison Brackenbury's book full of more than just poems and more than just recipes.

Somewhere in the middle of this book there is a very tiny poem. But a tiny poem can punch above its weight.

It's called 'Lincolnshire Water' and goes like this, and this is all there is – shortest poem in the book:

Here is strong land, whose grass
does not spill foaming milk,
where I still hear, in February,
taps hiss cold silk.

That's an old poet's trick – starting with a statement that says what something is not.

No dairy farming in Lincolnshire, then – no crying over spilled milk. No, this little poem is building towards something else – a last line that's perilously hard to say out loud. Try it. 

Taps   hiss   cold   silk.

Your mouth has to make each of those monosyllables separately. Each makes its own clear sound, with 's' and 'k' the loudest consonants. It's a line of only four syllables, but long long long on sound and resonance. Each word carries its own full stress and weight ('spondee', if you like the proper metrical term).

Taps   hiss   cold   silk.

Now there's a poem for washing up with!

SMALL POEMS FOR WASHING UP WITH

VIOLETS

There's something special about small poems – the ones that slip into your head so you can take them round with you invisibly....       

I find washing up with a poem in my head particularly satisfying. Poems are also good for dusting, polishing, hoovering, and long walks over the hills.

If I'm cross, and don't want to speak about it, a bit of a poem will do it for me. Usually the end.

For example  – 'we should be careful of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.' That's Larkin, of course (the end of 'Mowing'). 

Or 'In Nature there's no blemish but the mind. / None can be called deformed but the unkind' from Twelfth Night.

But a whole small poem has a special something, like a little fish alive and wriggling.

This one has been following me around lately. It's by Elinor Wylie (from Angels and Earthly Creatures, 1929) and full of grief, though doesn't leave me feeling exactly sad. More moved by a sadness shared.

Perhaps, in fact, it's a love poem, rather than a grief poem. Or perhaps they're one and the same. Because whoever it was written for – there they are in the poem about their absence! 

In fact, there they are forever, or for as long as this little poem slips into people's heads.


Little Elegy

Withouten you
No rose can grow;
No leaf be green
If never seen
Your sweetest face;
No bird have grace
Or power to sing;
Or anything
Be kind, or fair,
And you nowhere. 


SO WHO WROTE ‘FERISHTAH’S FANCIES’?

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Nearly all the poetry I read these days is based on the poet's personal experience. I know we're not supposed to assume that 'I' is 'me', but mostly, actually, it is.

So much so, that one could conclude the main purpose of poetry is, and has always been, to share personal experience, mend the heart, shed the anguish, spill the beans.

Except it isn't. For most of history, poetry was much more likely to be fiction or historical non-fiction. Yes, there were short lyric pieces – songs and sonnets – which might be personal. But the long ones, which represented the more ambitious work, told (and re-told) fictional or historical stories.

Chaucer took Troilus and Criseyde, as well as the linked narratives of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

Shakespeare (forget the sonnets) did plays in iambic pentameter, and Venus and Adonis.

Edmund Spenser spent more than six years of his life failing to finish The Faerie Queene.

Milton? Paradise Lost,of course (recently adapted for Radio 4 by Michael Symmons Roberts). He also tackled Paradise Regained (I dare to suggest this will never be adapted for radio).

Longfellow? Hiawatha, of course.

Keats (forget the odes) wrote elaborate narratives – Endymion, Hyperion, The Eve of St Agnes.

Shelley did the same (The Revolt of Islam, The Witch of Atlas), as well as entire plays in verse. Who reads The Cenci now?

Byron? Don Juan.The Siege of Abydos. The Bride of Corinth.

Browning (not Elizabeth, Robert) wrote one verse novel after another (The Ring and the Book), as well as the shorter narratives (My Last Duchess) that school students still study. 

Coleridge? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Tennyson? The Lady of Shalott and Ulysses.

Wordsworth was the odd one out with The Prelude, which was indeed about his own life, but don't forget The White Doe of Rylstone (subtitled, irresistibly) The Fate of the Nortons).

Even Christina Rossetti had Goblin Market, allegedly for children.

Then we get into the twentieth century and the age of the lyric anthology, and suddenly it seems almost everything's personal and mostly no longer than a page. Magazines feature short poems in verse and short stories in prose. We have forgotten now that T S Eliot wrote no fewer than seven verse plays (The Elder Statesman was published as late as 1959).

Okay – there are, even now, exceptions. Occasionally lengthy fictional verse narratives do pop up, even if they don't win the T S Eliot prize. This is the territory of J.O. Morgan (At Maldon and In Casting Off). And even novelists occasionally tiptoe into narrative poems: Vikram Seth (The Golden Gate), Anthony Burgess (Byrne).

(I am struggling to think of female authors of long narrative poems. Is there a gender issue here? Suggestions, please, in the comments boxes below.)

Anyway, let me get back to where I started. During the reading 'windows' that I manage in July and December, I suggest poets don't send more than 6 poems. This, of course, assumes they are not writing the equivalent of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (though if they were, they could send 6 pages).

The poems that arrive usually sit somewhere near the middle of a page, surrounded by white space. Often people feel obliged to include a prose poem (square boxes surrounded by a similar amount of space). The white space these days is creeping into the poem itself, so it may spread out like a wide paper hanky with holes. Either way, 98% of the poems are short. If I get one that's three pages long, to tell the truth, I take a deep breath and sigh.

Except last year something different happened (yes, my entire blog has been building to this point, and I'm grateful if you made it this far).

Joan Lennon, best known for her children's fiction but also a true poet, sent me some verse narratives, of varying lengths. Stories. Some were biblical, some were classical. One was just slightly futuristic.... I found them fascinating, beautifully made, and unusually pleasurable to read.

Then in the December window, one Michael Grieve (whose name was entirely unfamiliar to me) apologised for sending a longer poem. I took a deep breath, began to read and did not look up until I finished, at which point I did – yes – sigh. A sigh of satisfaction.

It suddenly occurred to me I had been reading fictions. Short stories in verse form, beautifully executed. Such a lovely change from the personal piece (which I do not wish to rubbish: it is my bread and butter).

So I asked permission to publish one of Joan's story-poems, and I asked Michael for his (it turns out to be a debut publication in his case). They have materialised: Granny Garbage and Luck.

These are slender one-poem pamphlets. They are utterly readable and great fun. I can't tell you much about them without giving away detail that you need to find out for yourself. I suggest you buy them (they cost very little), read them, and then give them to a friend, someone you can talk to about what happens in the end....

ps I forgot to tell you who wrote Ferishtah's Fancies. Robert Browning, of course. Don't tell me you haven't read it....

THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING

AUNTMSPUD

 I've always thought poems and recipes have much in common. The list of ingredients in short lines. Lots of space on the page. The method of making, sometimes in numbered steps with energetic and commanding verbs.

Weigh, mix, stir, simmer, bake, cool, eat.

So when Alison Brackenbury suggested a collection of poems based on hand-written recipes (her grandmother's) the idea appealed immediately—but the recipes themselves, or some of them, had to go in too.

Then it got more complicated. If the book was recipes, as well as puddings, we would have to test them—otherwise some of them might work for Dorothy Eliza Barnes (Dot), but not for us, or future readers.

Alison had vivid memories of Dot's delicious cooking, which was a grand incentive. She set about trying and testing a method for some of her favourites, including 'Aunt Margaret's Pudding', an old-fashioned steamed affair. Who eats steamed pudding these days?

The answer is—Alison and her husband, and then, last December (when Alison had written down the method) me and my family too. You see, Dot's recipes (she had worked as a professional cook in the early part of the twentieth century) were just a scribbled list of ingredients. She knew how to make them—she didn't need to record that bit.


Page one: Aunt Margaret's Pudding.
Take half a pound of flour,
three ounces lard (or butter), egg,
milk, sugar, baking powder.
Spread jam in basin, summer gleam.
Poke fire! For ninety minutes, steam.

    [ From 'Start' ]

This was a whole new approach to publishing. Not just proof-reading poems but proving the puddings, cakes and scones. My favourites turned out to be Raspberry Buns and Quaker Oat Scones, which disappeared in hours—the ultimate test of a good recipe.

This was a book with wonderful ingredients: poems, recipes (Dot's version and Alison's version), photographs, memories. Knowing Alison to be also a first-rate prose writer (not all poets are), I suggested she do a brief memoir too. She came up with a fascinating narrative—a story of rare determination and creativity in tough times. 

So the book—Aunt Margaret's Pudding—is fully cooked. I gave a copy to my old friend Tony (he is not far off 90). Tony has never understood why I should want to publish poetry, and regards the genre as plainly unnecessary. But I knew for a fact that his mother made steamed puddings: he used to talk about them hungrily. Once a pudding lover, always a pudding lover.

All the same, I didn't particularly expect Tony to read the book, so was rather pleased when he phoned to say at last I had published something he had really enjoyed. 'And the bit at the end,' he said, 'the prose pages about her grandmother—well, that's more poetry than the poems.'

Hurray! The book can, as I hoped, appeal to a wider audience than the usual poetry people, though I feel sure they will like it too. It's the ingredients that really make it different—recipe, then poems, recipe, poems, recipe, poems, memoir. And it's a most moving tribute to Dot, who might otherwise be as lost as 'The Lost Farm'.

Which is not entirely lost. It's in the book.


Quaker Oat Scones
Raspberry bun and tea
Quaker Oat Scones