Monday, 31 January 2011

Review: Tasting the Fruit by Steve Allen (Indigo Dreams Press, 2010; ISBN 978-1-907401-08-4)

Performance poet Steve Allen has been flying the flag for poetry in the cultural wilderness of Milton Keynes for years. In the flesh, he is a compelling performer, using his whole body to bring his words to vivid life. Steve’s sense of dramatic or comic timing is about the best I’ve witnessed on the performance circuit. He can spot an innuendo at 1000 paces, and revels in being able to spice up otherwise serious poems with a choice double entendre or two. It’s the more risqué side of his repertoire that’s best known from his performances, and there are some good representative examples in this long overdue debut collection. But it’s easy to forget that his publication record has been largely built up on serious poetry. The bulk of the collection consists of travelogues, love poems and love-gone-wrong poems (and sometimes all three in the same piece of writing).

It is in the love poems that Steve’s touch is most delicate, his poet’s eye at its most insightful. What I loved about these pieces was their simple domestic intimacy. There is an understated poignancy in the first-time chef’s act of kindness to a sick partner in Can’t Cook, Don’t Cook, the glances and touches of the separated former lovers walking in the woods in Midsummer, the butterfly fluttering past the boarding aeroplane in Incarnation.

As for love poems, so with love-gone-wrong poems. There are a whole clutch of these, that fuse raw emotion with rather cynical humour. Second Adulthood, the exact mid-point of the collection, is the angriest poem in the book. On one level it can be read as a divorcee’s bitter rant against the failure of a marriage; but the overpowering mood is one of triumph:

I’m not fragmenting
I’m intact.”

Other poems chart the search for a human connection to replace the one so brutally disconnected in Second Adulthood. The tone of these is more wistful, the poet’s disappointment quite palpable through the subtext:

“We drank your wine
Not mine
But that’s OK”
(from OK);

“I accept the euphemistic coffee,
mentally noting that, at this time of night,
decaffeinated is safest.”
(from Come, Come).

A similar unsettledness enlivens the travelogue poems, which range through scenes as foreign to Home Counties eyes as Kuala Lumpur street corners, the home of a Brazilian charcoal burner and, erm, Camden market. The scene pictures are deftly painted; the “old boat, now on stilts, that houses her garden” (Zafira’s Garden), the “bandaged, bloodied stumps / of the shuffler / struggling along / the pavement-less road” (Knees), the “village bullock and cart (that) plod the fast lane” (Caste and Contrast) and the signposts filled with unintended doubles entendres (Kum Kum) were particularly vivid for me. But I felt a curious sense of detachment when reading these poems. The narrative voice was that of a self-styled “Englishman Abroad”, wryly noting the alien and incongruous scenes around him, but rarely getting involved. When the poet is dragged into the scenes, it is usually against his will.

A review of Steve Allen’s work could never be complete without mentioning the slightly smutty, innuendo-laden poems which are his hallmark as a performer. Several such poems are clustered together in the central section of the collection. They range from the ingenious Park and Ride and Pay and Display to the splendidly titled Vibrator Racing. At their best, these pieces display a precision of craft that equals any of his serious poetry. But some (You Done Then?, (C)Rude Poem, the laddish punchline of Mind and Behind) leave too little to the imagination. I know that they are effective on stage; but devoid of the performance element, I didn’t honestly think these pieces brought any real poetic quality to the collection.

For me, the greatest poetic depth was to be found at the end of the collection, in a small set of autobiographical poems. East End, Southend was a particularly intriguing piece, centring on the rescue of a vandalised photograph of the narrator’s parents in their courting days. There’s an unstated sense of sadness for lost times in this poem and many of its companions. Here, for the first time, it feels as if the poet is writing honestly about himself without hiding behind a bluster of drama and innuendo: as a child in Early Days, a teacher of disaffected colliery children in Supply, a would-be hippie transported unexpectedly back to 1969 in After the Rain-Gush. The poet’s memories of his mother, sharing the drama of thunderstorms in Bravery Comes in Many Forms, and her simultaneous vulnerability and stoicism in When Mother Fell, are particularly moving.

For me, this collection was a bit of a paradox. Steve Allen’s talent as a performer, his timing and intonation and sheer energy, are so much a part of his poetry that some of the poems in this collection seem weak when stripped of these elements. What comes across as wry wit in a live performance can be mistaken on the page for smugness or a route to a cheap gag. With few exceptions (Park and Ride being one), the poems here which are most effective as written poems are the more personal pieces, which show a delicacy of touch and a mastery of subtext which is sometimes absent from the performance pieces. So for me, this was a mixed collection. But if its existence provides a means for one of today’s best performers of poetry to get his work performed live in front of new audiences, it will have amply fulfilled its purpose.

More about this book, and some sample poems from Steve Allen, can be found on the Indigo Dreams Press website.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Review: The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar (Papaveria Press, 2010; no ISBN)

Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month is really the literary equivalent of a concept album. Having received a gift of samples of 28 different types of honey from a friend, the writer resolved to taste one a day, and produce a piece of writing each day which reflected the experience of each different honey. The result is a delightful debut collection whose poems and short stories are more than just an aesthetic pleasure; they are a rich sensual indulgence. There’s an ethereal, rather fairytale quality to the writing; but that doesn’t mean there is nothing here for those who like their poetry to be more intellectual.

The first thing that strikes the reader is what a gorgeous book this is. It’s not just the fonts used, the quality of the paper, and the overall feel of the book in one’s hand; the beautiful illustrations by Oliver Hunter, ranging from line drawings to full-page colour artworks, make this a visual feast. It’s fitting that a collection dedicated to a sensory exploration as well as an imaginative one should delight by sight and touch as well as by the music of the writing itself. One reviewer described this as “literary synaesthesia”, and I’m inclined to agree.

The writing in this collection ranges through free verse and formal poetry, prose poems, and short stories. The favoured poetic style is free verse or prose poem, but the poet also has a fascination for villanelles. These are not strictly formal in metre, but where the poet bends the form she does so knowingly, and never pushes things too far. The overall effect is to enhance the poems, rather than weaken them. Day 6 – Lemon Creamed Honey, with its “yellow laughter from a yellow-sounding throng” was my favourite of these.

There’s a light sentimentalism inherent in some of the writing. But like the honeys themselves, the poet keeps any sugar-sweetness well balanced – sometimes with a piece of tart allegory, often with an understated bitter note which makes it clear that this is a poet who has lived, loved, and lost, and dreams of doing it all again. The prayer to the rose in Day 4 – Raspberry Rose Honey struck me as particularly knowing:

“Oh Rose, aren’t you sick
of metaphors, of perfection,
of being Queen to a grasping multitude
who’ve never brushed a thorn?”

Some pieces are a wistful revisiting of the poet’s Canadian childhood. Day 12 – Red Gum Honey is characteristic:

“She wakes to quiet loneliness,
dresses, walks to her windowsill,
and sip by sip, lick by lick,
draws night back home again.”

Others have us rambling across the Cornish countryside which is her current home, in search of magical beings. Day 7 – Thistle Honey introduces us to Scraggle, the thistle pixie who “looks like summer”, while Day 22 – Malaysian Rainforest Honey brings a troll by a trash can, an air-sucking spirit in a water spout, and a romantic beggar girl with “eyes like penny candy.”

Not everything in the honey world is sweetness and light. This is particularly true of the short stories in the second half of the book, where more serious subtexts lurk just beneath the fairytale words. Metaphors for addiction (the eerie ravens of Day 18 – Manuka Honey), depression (the Rapunzel-like girl in Day 24 – Apricot Creamed Honey), and suicide (the mermaid of Day 25 – Raw Manuka Honey) are particularly potent here.

Day 11 – Blackberry Honey tugs us out of fairytale land with a jolt. This is a protest poem with an edge of steel to it:

“They pulled me from the rubble
like a fabled sword; never
was Excalibur so tarnished.”

To create a war poem with a weight of truth in a cynical age is no mean feat. Perhaps more strongly here than in any other poem in the collection, there is a suggestion that this poet’s words are going to become more powerful and even more compelling in her future work.

It is the yearning romanticism which colours almost every poem, the sense of heartbreak in the subtext, which leaves the strongest impression after the book is closed. The motif of the bees’ nectar-dance occurs throughout as an extended metaphor for the emotional journey of love. Usually the dance is doomed. In Day 16 – Blueberry Honey the poet is left contemplating the wiles of the destructive ex-lover (“the twist of your lips in a secret fit to kiss”), while in Day 26 – Blackberry Creamed Honey the poet seems to put herself in the persona of seducer, musing on the lover she leaves behind (“quiet and crunching on cardamom, licking honey from his lips”). “Why are you so sad, girl, you who love us so much?” ask the bees in Day 28 – French Chestnut Honey. The poet’s answer? “I am only a girl, a small plain girl, a girl who must smear her lips in honey to be found sweet.”

In just one poem, Day 2 – Peach Creamed Honey, the dance of love seems innocent and new:

“They say
she likes to suck peaches. Not eat them, suck them,
tilt her head back down and let the juice drip
sticky down her chin, before licking, sucking,
swallowing the sunshine of it down.”

This was my favourite poem in the collection, a sensual overdose that metamorphoses from free verse to pulsating rhyme in a beautifully crafted climax. The impression is of a poem about loss of virginity, but with no mention of sex anywhere. It’s joyous, it’s full of summer, and it made me feel young again.

I don’t think I can recommend this collection highly enough. I’m a sucker for fairytales, so that aspect of the collection won me over instantly. But there is plenty here that those who like their poetry more firmly rooted in real earth can feast on too. It is a triumphant debut for a poet with a mesmerising voice. I look forward to hearing more from Amal El-Mohtar very soon.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Arts funding cuts - where next for the York Literature Festival?

In a recession, arts funding is always seen as a soft option when cutbacks are on the table. It’s not that arts types don’t protest – far from it. It’s more that there’s no easy way for the bean counters to put any quantifiable price tag to the benefit that supporting the arts can bring. Anything that can’t prove its worth to the profit making machine automatically counts as frivolous, not worth spending money on.

It’s a narrow-minded way to conduct cultural policy. The arts have a value that goes far beyond the purely economic. Engagement with culture increases quality of life, boosts health and well-being, improves education, provides disaffected youth with alternatives to anti-social behaviour, and creates and nurtures transferable skills that are essential in the workplace. When you take away provision for such things, you take away a lifeline for many people – and you have to pay the price, indirectly, afterwards.

It is always a pity when a grassroots literary movement bites the dust. That’s exactly what has happened to the York Literature Festival, which will not be going ahead in 2011 despite four successful years as a showcase of the best local and regional literature. York Literature Festival has always been planned and run from within the local community, by a volunteer committee and team of promoters. Despite the inherent challenges of running a Festival staffed by volunteers, it attracted writers of the calibre of Carol Ann Duffy, Kate Atkinson, Jim Crace and Tracy Chevalier over the years.

So why the demise of the Festival?

The first nails started going into the coffin in late 2009, when York City Council formally withdrew the funding that had previously made the Festival possible. The committee were left with no choice but to plan and run a Festival that was entirely self-funding. And they managed it. The 2010 York Literature Festival ran off modest sponsorships from local businesses and generous private donations from groups and individuals. The result was a packed 10-day programme that drew in literary enthusiasts from across the region. But there is only so long a Festival can go on without secure funding to produce programmes and publicity, and to attract big-name writers. The committee could only hold out so long in hope that the funding they needed for the long term would arrive. It never did.

So, for now, the York Literature Festival is no more. In mourning its passing I have to take my hat off to Miles, Fiona, Antonia, Jenny, Rob, Adrienne, Rose and Alan, and the many other local people who willingly gave up their time or donated money to make previous Festivals happen. I might not mind so much if they were just plucky underdogs, defeated by circumstance. But this story illustrates another side of something that’s happening nationally, which is really beginning to trouble me.

On the whole, the arts are resilient in times of recession. Straitened financial circumstances force people into finding new ways to entertain themselves. The Thatcherite recession of the 1980s created a wave of small-scale, local, “do-it-yourself” arts movements. Punk had encouraged the belief that ordinary people could make things happen; Thatcherism forced ordinary people to step up to the challenge. Grassroots art thrived in a way that the establishment couldn’t have predicted – and didn’t altogether like.

There are signs that the same is starting to happen again in the poetry world. Milton Keynes’ Monkey Kettle is leading the way with its triumphant brand of leftfield satire and surrealism. In the north-east, we now have Beautiful Scruffiness. I predict it’s going to be the first of many new, grassroots publications: run by poets, produced on a shoestring but not compromising in production quality, and designed to bring poetry back where it belongs – among the people.

The problem is that there are vested interests even within the liberal arts. And those interests sometimes end up opposing grassroots arts movements, rather than supporting them.

In the corporate mind-set, control is everything. The name, the branding, the “public image”, everything that happens has to be carefully micro-managed to ensure that only the corporate values are reflected. That’s why, to take a purely hypothetical example, you could envisage a situation where a civic authority might refuse a small grant to a grassroots festival and subsequently spend thousands subsidising glossy brochures for a public event (maybe also branded a “Festival”), which turns out to be just a thinly disguised publicity junket for a wealthy local industry. To take another hypothetical example, you might envisage other corporations (and remember, corporations come in all kinds of guises these days, in the public as well as the private sectors) being frustrated at not owning the name and brand identity for a grassroots festival. Instead of supporting, they might want such festivals to fail (or even be planning for it). Where control is not an option, the only alternative is to quash it altogether.

I’m comforted by the knowledge that the grassroots won’t stay silent for long. Where we’re squashed in one place, we will come back even stronger somewhere else. Literature and art will thrive in Britain, whatever the Con-Dems in central government or the stuffed shirts in the councils do.

The great thing about the grassroots is its self-reliance. Local people really can make things happen where they are, with negligible funding. Those corporate interests that sneered at the York Literature Festival because it never was corporate could be in for a shock when the recession axe starts to fall against their interests too. They may well find that they’ve lost the support and goodwill of the community that they need to carry them through the storm.

Monday, 10 January 2011

New Year Resolutions

I've been neglecting the Poet's Soapbox of late. I have to blame that on pressures of the day job, a new course of study, and all the 101 little things that conspire to get between an artist and his favourite pleasures. But with some significant changes in my personal circumstances, I start 2011 determined to give the Soapbox the attention it deserves.

To that end, I’ve come up with a couple of new year's resolutions for my blogging.

One is that I need to do it more often. The core of this blog will remain the Soapbox articles I produce for the National Association of Writers' Groups' excellent LINK magazine. But in order to improve interactivity, I’m going to intersperse these with some personal reflections too.

I'm already drafting a linked series of articles on my experience running an open mic night for poets and spoken word performers (which I’ve given the provisional title of Open Mic Surgery). Regular readers will know that I believe performance to be the lifeblood of poetry. If I have one aspiration for the Soapbox, it would be that it encourages people not to be intimidated about standing up and reading poetry in front of an audience. For those who don't have the good fortune of an open mic on their doorstep, I also want to offer some encouragement that starting one up may not be as difficult as you think.

I'm keen to have other people's insights to offer, not just my own. So if you've been involved in setting up an open mic, or you're an MC or organiser of one now, please leave a comment here or email me (at the usual address) and let me know about your experiences. In particular, have a think about the following questions:

How and why did you get started?
How do you publicise your open mic?
Do you have guest features? How do you find people who are willing to feature?
Have you come across any problems or difficulties in running the open mic? How have you dealt with them?

I'll try and incorporate as many responses as possible into the Open Mic Surgery articles as they evolve.

The other new thing I intend to do with the Soapbox is to write reviews of poetry books.

I seem to pick up poetry books all over the place. Books by poets I hear at readings; books by guest features who've come to Speakers' Corner; books that just seem to get sent me randomly in the post (there have been a whole stack of these in the last few months!). Now that I have more opportunity to spend quality time with these, it seems only fair to do what I can to give the most deserving ones a bit of publicity.

Most of the titles I get are published by small presses, and never get the kind of exposure that the Seamus Heaneys and Carol Ann Duffys of this world seem to automatically deserve. But some of them are every bit as good as the latest Heaney or Duffy. Others – well, poetry is like any artform, a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. I want to be able to praise and promote the writers who really deserve it. But I want to be honest, too. No poetry collection is flawless. If I offer criticism here I will intend it as constructive criticism, and hope that the poets concerned will accept that criticism in the spirit with which it's meant – kindly.

Once again, reader feedback will be welcome. If you've read one of the books I've reviewed, and want to offer your own thoughts, please do (especially if you disagree with me!). The one rule to remember, is be helpful, be constructive; comments that aren't will just be deleted. And if you've read a poetry book you would like me to review – or are a poet yourself, and want to send me a review copy – please leave a comment on the Soapbox or by email in the usual way.

It only remains for me to thank my existing readers for their loyalty, and to hope I get some new readers in 2011! Happy new year.