Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Review: "The Psychiatrist" by Mariela Griffor (Eyewear Publishing, 2013, ISBN 978-1-908998-11-8)

The latest in my irregular series of Poet’s Soapbox reviews is a solicited article, in that the editor of Eyewear Publishing approached me directly to provide a review of Mariela Griffor’s first UK collection of poetry. I agreed, without quite realising how long it would be before The Psychiatrist made it to the top of the ‘To Do’ pile. I haven’t seen the final print form of the book; this review is based on a proof manuscript so is guided solely by the substance of the poems, not the look and feel of the book itself.

I have to confess at the outset that my knowledge of Latin American poetry extends not much further than a few Neruda quotes. I’m aware of the dangerous political environment in which many of the great names were writing, and of the long shadow that the 20th-century dictatorships cast over every writer within this tradition; but I’m still largely unfamiliar with the works themselves. As a newcomer, therefore, I’m grateful that The Psychiatrist is a collection which presupposes no prior knowledge of South American literature and only modest familiarity with the politics of the region. This is a highly accessible collection; its clarity is never impeded by unfamiliar references. It even provides a miniature glossary at the end, where a small number of phrases are briefly explained.

The collection spans poems written between 1986 and 2011, charting the poet’s path from Chilean revolutionary to exile in Sweden and, later, the US. The work is heavily autobiographical, or at least biographical – it isn’t clear how much poetic licence has been taken with the more startling stories, but what is clear is that this writer has lived through turbulent times. It’s hard for cosy British poets, with their cloistered poetry readings and expensive writing courses, to honestly understand the ‘other’-ness of a world where being a writer can make you a political threat, a military target. It is to Griffor’s credit that she gives us a glimpse into that world without sensationalising her past, and without any exaggerated claims as to her own role in the struggle.

Despite the autobiographical tone, this collection doesn’t follow a linear narrative arc. Glimpses of the poet’s past are given in snapshot form, without chronology, allowing the reader gradually to piece together a rustic childhood, a great love, a violent bereavement, then exile and motherhood and a coming to terms with the past. The dead lover looms like a ghost over these poems; but what is most intriguing is that we never really get to see more than a shadow of the man. We infer an outwardly conventional marriage (at least, in the sense that elderly relatives are happy to embroider blankets for the couple), an academic career, a circle of intellectual friends – and then the revolutionary stuff, the death. But these are no more than glimpses. Only the penultimate poem, Chiloe Island, offers any kind of linear narrative, eventually stringing these threads together in a coherent whole:

“...When he came back to the hotel, after his
lens in photography class saw everything,
we ran up the street...
...He made me promise if we ever had
a child, and if he was not there, I would leave the country.”

The poems themselves are un-fussy free verse, with plenty of white space to let the words sink in. The language is unpretentious and there is a striking lack of imagery. Those physical images which do carry emotional resonance (flowers, rainbows, blood, long corridors, guns and ammunition, the aforementioned blanket) do so by way of unsurprising metaphors, and I did wonder at first if this was a weakness of the collection. But actually Griffor is a very fine descriptive poet. Like the dead husband, she has a photographer’s eye for the telling snapshot image:

“In Detroit it is easy to see pheasants walking the alleys,
or children running like a flock hunting a dog,
murals of Jesus, Martin Luther King, Bob Marley
or BB King on dirty walls,
pink, velvet sofas covered by bags full of garbage...”
(from Selective Exposure)

“The night before your call, I dreamt of the ocean:
cold, dangerous, deep, dark, blue at dusk and dawn...”
(from Thirty: just in time)

“...They had gardens where the sun rose
face to face with the sand.
They had rainbows, like us,
thirsty and wild.
They had emptiness like us...”
(from In Manistee)

The poet is content to let the visual pictures tell their own story, without imbuing them with more than their fair share of significance.

The emotional heart of this collection lies in the poet’s personal struggles: with exile, bereavement, motherhood. “What do we do with the love if you die?” demands the first line of the second poem, Love for a subversive – a question that rings like gunshots through all the poems that follow. Accusations are levelled against the poet’s mother –

“Here I see her,
her face in a duel with the sun...
I see my pink communion dress in her hands.
I do not know her smell”
(from Parade)

– and grandmother:
“She hid her smile to use against us.
So powerful, so invisible...
Even war is not so cruel”
(from Cyanide Smile)

– though when the narrator herself becomes a mother, a reconciliation of sorts is reached:

“...The last paragraph
of the letter said ‘I hope now when you are a mother yourself
you can understand your own mother a little bit better.’
I couldn’t answer her. Not because I didn’t have anything
to say but it was so hard to say it.”
(from A Mother Thing)

It is in these poems that I begin to suspect a hint of unreliability in Griffor’s narrator. In other poems in the collection, her childhood memories verge on the rose-tinted, and it’s not until she arrives as an adult in Santiago that the conflicts really begin:

“I assassinate the old days with nostalgia.
I don’t see but invent a city and its people, its fury, its sky...”
(from Prologue I)

The title poem of the collection brings these conflicts and contradictions graphically to the fore. Manuel Fernandez, the psychiatrist who guides the poet through her traumas, becomes a hate figure for the narrator precisely because of his reasonableness:

“You are suffering a post
partum depression, he told me, before I shot him,
like the many other voices in my head.”

At its best, The Psychiatrist is a vivid, engaging collection. It’s full of colour and fine description, peopled with outlandish characters – from the pipe-smoking mathematician Robin Gandy, who laughs “the way / a beggar laughs in children’s tales: / smoky and loud”, to the stern taskmaster Andres the Barbarian, “the man who hit me in the head / every time I forgot the letter ‘H’”, by way of a colourful string of revolutionaries with code-names like Wolf and Daphne. Griffor’s sadness for the country she abandoned and for the friends left scattered across the world is palpable:

“...You and I will order
two Napoleons and two coffees.

We will sit at the table, you will look around
to check if everything is the same...

This time you give me your list, full of incomprehensible requests:

go to Mass on Sundays, talk to the girls.
I will bring my chair closer.”
(from The middle of this goodbye)

Where I had difficulties with the poems, these largely seemed to arise not from the storytelling but from the translation. My proof copy contained no translator’s details, so I’m unclear how many of the poems were originally written in English, or whether Griffor made her own translations of any that were not. In the earlier poems there are a number of weaknesses in the choice of words and in the phrasing and layout of stanzas, which I suspect would not have been there had the poems been presented in the poet’s first language. Line breaks happen haphazardly, often on unimportant words (“a”, “the” or “of”). Poems full of dramatic portent fizzle out and end with seemingly inconsequential domestic detail (Death in Argentina). Abstracts abound: “innocence”, “truth”, “disappointment” (Child’s Eyes); “certainty”, “regret”, “indifference” (Heartland). A few poems (Heartland; Boys) seem to be nothing more than lists of rhetorical questions.

These blemishes gradually disappear on progressing through the collection – presumably a reflection of Griffor’s increasing ease with the English language in the later poems. The political narrative, too, evolves, becoming a backdrop for the personal. Stories of tyranny really matter, and it’s important that they are shared; but for me, those stories became so much more moving when the poems progressed beyond reportage, and Griffor allowed me to glimpse how they shaped her narrator, with all her contradictions, years after the tragedy and the exile.

The strengths of this collection lie in the accessibility of its language, the breathtaking clarity of the descriptive writing, and the gradual empathy that Griffor elicits for a complex, not overly reliable, but always compelling narrator. The Psychiatrist is a thought-provoking introduction to an important genre within western poetry, and a salutary reminder to English poets that we should never take our freedom of expression for granted.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Poetry and music: the Sounds Lyrical Project, part 2

Regular Soapbox readers will know that for a year or two now I’ve been part of a collaboration involving four York poets and a group of classically trained composers. The Sounds Lyrical Project was set up to create opportunities for both poetry and contemporary composition to break into new venues and find new audiences. Our respective arts both have something of an image problem with the general public. Poetry is often perceived as twee and childish, or (at the other extreme) remote and unconnected to reality; whilst modern classical music, with its conventions of smart dress and a silent, serious audience, can have a whiff of intellectual snobbery about it. An avowed aim of Sounds Lyrical is to do its bit to combat this image problem by changing people’s perceptions of where poetry and modern composition belong, and who can access and enjoy it.

Our first concert, in March 2013, was very much in the classical mould; but recently, after a long period of repertoire development, we tried something new. Our appearance at Bridlington Poetry Festival a couple of weeks ago made use of the classical set-up of vocalist and piano, but also brought in state-of-the-art electronics. The poets in the Project weren’t just listening to musical settings of our poems; we were also performing our own material, to the backdrop of musical samples and complete pre-recorded instrumental pieces by the Project’s composers. The poems we performed were carefully selected and choreographed so that poetry and music formed a seamless whole.

Rehearsing for this show was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had as a performer of poetry. There was a ‘light-bulb moment’ for me when, sitting over a cup of herbal tea in Lizzi Linklater’s living-room, I realised that the soundscape effects being played through Tim Brooks’ laptop were the perfect backdrop to an as yet unpublished descriptive poem of mine, and that properly handled, they could really enhance the performance of the poem. This was followed by a play-through of a recording of one of Peter Byrom-Smith’s instrumental works – a piece which had exactly the right rise and fall, the perfect complement of rhythm and cadence, to fit another one of my poems. My performance repertoire was suddenly taking off in a direction that would never have been possible had I been working on it alone.

The audience response at Bridlington was highly encouraging. One person commented that the choreography of my words to one of the pre-recorded instrumental pieces was so perfect as to make the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Others said it was much the most interesting poetry they had heard in a long time.

Of course, those who spend any time around the live poetry circuit (particularly in big centres like London, Manchester and Newcastle) will know that what we were doing was hardly revolutionary. Medieval bards were performing poems to musical accompaniment centuries ago. Beat poets revived the genre in the 1950s and 60s. Modern rappers have samples and backing tracks to provide the beat to their words, while the big names in contemporary performance poetry frequently collaborate with musicians to provide a soundtrack for their spoken word shows. Nonetheless, I think the Bridlington concert still provided us with a horizon-expanding moment. What we achieved was to take contemporary techniques into the setting of a very ‘old-school’ poetry reading, carrying those who were more comfortable with the traditional English poetry recital along with us for the ride.

So much for the audience reaction. I’ve found it even more interesting, during rehearsals and after the concert, to talk to my fellow performers about their own responses.

I grew up with music all around me. Although I never became a musical performer in the same way that I have done with spoken word, I’ve always felt that poetry as an art-form is even closer kin to music than it is to, say, prose or playwriting. For me, fusing music with my poetry has felt like a very natural thing to do, now that I have the opportunity to do it. There’s hard work involved, of course – you have to choreograph your performance of the spoken word so that its rhythm fits the musical backdrop, so that its rise and fall follows the rise and fall in the music. But rehearsing with the music, for me at least, is pleasure not pain.

I’m not sure it was that way for all the poets in the Project. One commented to me repeatedly at first that this way of working with her words seemed quite strange and alien. On the day of the performance, however, she choreographed her words to the music probably better than any of us.

Another of the poets in the group is a composer in his own right, with an extensive grounding in the classical vocal and choral tradition. For him, the fusion of his own poetic performance with pre-written music was far less interesting than the creation of new music to fit his words, to be performed by professional musicians. He rightly observed that there are loads of performance poets whose work has a musical backdrop, and they do it probably much better than us. But there are very few poets having their work transformed into modern classical song, or choral work, or opera. An audience who come mainly to hear poetry might be less engaged by the classical song settings than by the performance poems. But an audience who come mainly to hear music are likely to have the opposite response. What the Project’s composers have done so far, in setting our words in arrangements for single vocalist and piano, barely scratches the surface. We have scope to bring in multiple voices, additional instruments – to have our poetic words transformed into whole lush soundscapes.

He’s right, of course. But one of the joys of this project is that we’re all right. One way of working doesn’t exclude the other. The only real limits are those of our own creativity.

Two big pieces of news, post Bridlington, may well give us a pointer as to what’s next. The first is that the Project has been successful in getting an Arts Council grant to develop repertoire and put on our own concert series, which will begin in York in September. The second is that we’ve managed to win a booking for the Project to put on a fringe show at the Ilkley Literature Festival, bringing our music and poetry to one of the most prestigious literary events of the year. With just a couple of months to go before the first of these shows, we have a lot of rehearsing to do. But I think we’re starting to get a flavour now, of just how wide the possibilities are.