November news

Where to start. Probably with what I was up to last week, which was an Arvon course, at lovely Lumb Bank.

It was tutored by Mimi Khalvati and Katrina Naomi and was as inspiring as I had thought it would be. There are always many things to learn, especially from two brilliant and wise poets as Mimi and Katrina are. Fortunately, my fellow participants were a really great bunch too, so in all it felt like a real pleasure. I got my head down and made the best possible use of all that writing time. As with previous Arvons I’ve attended, the end-of-week read-round proved to be revelatory and celebratory, with the fruits of hard work so evident.

My reading of late has been my usual mixture of systematic delving into poetry collections with non-fiction on the side. I hugely enjoyed Henry Shukman’s One Blade of Grass, which made me question, in a good way, the value of writing poetry in the grand scheme of things, but also flagged up the importance of meditation: how it had helped him with the clarity of his poetic vision, back in the days when he still published poetry. It’s a real shame for me that he no longer publishes his poems, but his book explained over the course of many years’ spiritual journey why he doesn’t.

I’ve been intrigued too by the poetry of Gillian Allnutt, whose 2013 collection Indwelling I bought in Nottingham a few months ago. Her poems are sometimes so short and gnomic that I find them disconcerting, in a beneficial way. Whilst at Lumb Bank, I took the opportunity to read more of her books and will continue to seek them out. I’ve enjoyed too, a conversation she had with Emily Berry, here, and another with wonderful Geoff Hattersley, here. In the latter, Allnutt compares the gaps in her poems to the holes in her mind which she wrestles with during meditative practice. I was also interested in what she had to say about when the use of footnotes (or end-notes) might be appropriate. For me, they are generous to the reader, preferably as end-notes so that the reader has more choice over whether to read them or not. Allnutt does acknowledge that most poets take the view that the reader can simply “Google it” whenever they encounter a reference with which they are insufficiently familiar.

I’ve read two hefty biographies, of near-contemporary Germans who both hugely enriched our culture here in the UK and worldwide: Nico and WG Sebald. You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone: The Biography of Nico written by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike and published by Faber quite rightly iterates the misogynistic treatment which Nico received throughout her indomitably creative years, not least at the hands of Lou Reed, and, most interestingly, has more detail from her years living in England towards the end of her life than any other period. It pushed me back towards her music, especially the trio of albums produced by John Cale – The Marble Index (1968), Desertshore (1970; co-produced by Joe Boyd) and The End (1974) – which are like nothing else ever recorded, except perhaps Agnes Buen Garnås’s collaboration with Jan Garbarek, Rosenfole. The book contrasts Nico’s dry sense of humour with her deep melancholy, which are the two personality traits which also shine forth in Carole Angier’s biography of Sebald, Speak, Silence, published by Bloomsbury. I went to an absurdly brief online interview which Angier gave under the auspices of the LRB Shop, and she explained that, whilst she had been able to draw on the recollections of many of Sebald’s childhood and adult friends, she hadn’t been able to convince Sebald’s wife to cooperate. The sense of omission is palpable in the book, but, as the first biography of him to be published, it outlines the basic facts and inspirations for his writing, which was clearly a gargantuan task alone. Angier also examines the degree to which Sebald stole, misused and appropriated others’ writings for his own. I don’t think the laying bare of these facts necessarily reduces my admiration for him as the great writer he undoubtedly was. Angier’s work was almost entirely silent on Sebald’s poetry, because she felt unqualified to write about it. I would dearly love to read a study of Sebald as a poet, as opposed to the superlative writer of unclassifiable prose.

Lastly, issue 4 of Kingfisher, a haiku journal edited by the fantastic haiku poet (and person) Tanya McDonald, has just arrived in sunny Rotherham. As with issue 3, I’m very pleased to have three haiku in it, because, as I’ve said here many times, I’ve written so few in the last couple of years. I’m grateful to John Barlow for nudging me to submit and very pleased to be alongside him, Simon Chard, Thomas Powell and a whole load of excellent haiku poets from across North America and beyond. Here’s one of my haiku from issue 3, one of the wordiest I’ve ever had published:

rain from nowhere
a short-horned cow snaffles
cobwebbed blackberries

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