A book-spine poem

A couple of weeks ago, Chris, at Calmgrove, introduced me to another variation on the found poem form. I’ve failed to discover when and where this originated, but did see a lot of interesting examples and challenges around the web, stretching all the way back to 2012!

Unable to resist joining in, I’ve cherry-picked a few volumes from my shelves. My version is a prose-poem.

A World of My Own.

Diary of an ordinary woman, in search of Schrodinger’s cat. Along that country road, footsteps. A view of the harbour, the probable future.

No signposts in the sea. True at first light, wild swimming in the sweep of the bay, familiar passions. The waves, a far cry from Kensington..

Coming up for air, in the heart of the sea, a reckoning. The sealwoman’s gift, ways of seeing room at the top, far from the madding crowd. A woman’s life? Travels in the scriptorium.

Listening to the Poet Laureate in his shed.

I’d just like to reassure you, before we go any further, that I’m not about to confess details of my unsuspected dark-side. While I may have, in the past, enjoyed overhearing conversations on public transport, and in cafes and restaurants, those occasions were purely accidental, and largely unavoidable.

I’m not currently so desperate to feed my habit that I’m sneaking across county boundaries to lurk in gardens in an earwigging-Tomasina fashion. I shan’t need to, thanks to Simon Armitage’s BBC pod-cast recordings. Where would I be without my radio?

As a fellow shed owner, and user, I was instantly drawn to the title, The Poet Laureate Has Gone to His Shed. If my first thought was that I would be listening to a monologue, the blurb gave me a list of eleven guests, and when I checked the date, the series had been made before the lock-down. Two unrelated people able to safely connect, in a small space? Ahhh.

Add to that the idea of our Poet Laureate chatting when he was meant to be writing, and it’s certain that I’m going to drop in to hear what’s said.

The writing that is supposed to be happening, during shed-time, is a translation of The Owl and the Nightingale from middle-English. It is, Simon Armitage explains, a comic, medieval debate. I take it that the poem triggered the idea for the pod-casts.

I stumbled across episode nine, on Saturday evening, because I’d left the radio playing while I tidied up, and caught a repeat broadcast. His guest was new to me. I’ve clearly not been listening to what’s happening in the arts, because Simon described Kate Tempest as multi-talented. She’s ‘a spoken word artist’ ,but that seems to include being a poet, playwright, rapper and novelist. Phew.

Simon & Kate

He might have added, conversationalist to that list. Time passed so quickly, I hardly noticed my chores, and was surprised to find I’d taken an hour to do them.

What did Simon and Kate talk of? All sorts. It was a lovely, gentle, discussion, about the nature and basis of their art, and backgrounds. It was wordsmiths using words to think about the power of words, but it was also a demonstration of the art of conversation. There was a focus, but there was also freedom to roam across topics, to explore.

To finish, though, I want to focus on writing, because as the recording reached the end, Kate said she had something she wanted to say to Simon, and us listeners. Her thoughts seem to me to apply to other forms of producing and consuming literature, and music.

I feel like I’m a novice, that I have so much to learn. Every time I read a poem I’ve got no idea why it does to me, what it does. When it’s a great one, you know. Sometimes it feels like the most mysterious of forms. Even though I have all this experience of doing it in a certain way, there’s so much I…. it makes me feel so young, all the time, when you’re at the foot of a great poem…

Simon’s reply? ‘Actually, if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be interesting, would it…That journey, that’s why I’m in it. It’s not the product, it’s the process…’

Oh, the joys and compensations of being a radio listener. I shall need to ration those other ten interviews carefully.

Six memorable stories: in five words?

This week I’ve been gently challenged by Ola, who, in tandem with Piotrek, blogs about her reading, on Re-enchantment of the World. They recently described some Favourite Books in Five Words. This idea has, it seems, been circulating for at least a year, so I’m late – again.

I wondered whether the inspiration for this owed something to Hemmingway’s six word story. Once I’d made that connection it was inevitable that my list would be short fiction. I decided to limit myself to six that I’ve found unforgettable.

I begin with Mary Mann.

‘Who?’ you say.

I’m not surprised. She is a writer who has been shamefully neglected, so let me stretch the rules a little, and put her into context.

Mary Mann, born 1846, in Norfolk, was a merchant’s daughter who married a yeoman farmer in 1871. They had four children. Yeoman, by the way, means he farmed his own land. Many farmers were/are tenants. It has been suggested that Mary’s writing helped her transition from town life to an isolated rural community, and was a necessary supplement to the family income during the agricultural depression of the 1880s.

Women O’Dulditch, by Mary Mann (1908)

Dinah and Car’line’s ideal husband?

Bliss, by Katherine Mansfield (1918)

Revelations at Bertha’s dinner party.

Hills Like White Elephants, by Ernest Hemmingway (1927)

Listening for what’s not said.

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1955)

Fate, reverence and a circus.

The Blush, by Elizabeth Taylor (1958)

Mrs Allen listens, watches: sees.

Puss in Boots, by Angela Carter (1979)

Sex, lies, rats and love.

There could, of course, have been more. On a different day of a different month, there would have been other choices.

A few thoughts on changes to my reading habit

This week I’ve been reading some short sci-fi stories from the 1930s, by John Beynon. If he doesn’t sound familiar, maybe you’d recognise him as John Wyndham. Under that name, he wrote seven novels between 1951 and 1968.

I own six. All have the kind of dog-eared covers that might suggest I’ve picked them up cheaply: certainly that they’ve been well-read.

Last year, I included one, The Day of The Triffids, in a course called Reading 1951, partly because I wanted a contrast in tone to my other two novels, by female authors, but also because I knew Wyndham was an easy read. Triffids is around 90,000 words, and a page-turner. I was sure it would make a quick introduction to best-seller genre-fiction.

It did that and more. There were subtleties, for instance in the way it engages with the politics of its publication period, that I’d missed when reading only for entertainment. Sharing ideas brought fresh perspectives to my interpretation, as well as that of the group.

A couple of months later I was offered some unwanted books, and there were two collections of Wyndham’s early short fiction. I couldn’t resist, though I’d no idea when I’d get around to reading them.

I don’t think I’m alone in noticing that the last few weeks have been a godsend when it comes to dealing with the less-likely books on my shelves. It’s not just that I’ve more time, or that I’m less focused in the way I consume, it’s perhaps that being so confined, I need to range more widely in my reading.

In the last few days, I’ve been on three trips around our solar system. Since each journey was imagined in the 1930s, some of the science has felt a little dated. Sleepers of Mars, for instance, has Russia and Britain each sending manned rockets to claim Mars, in 1981.

There was a moment where I hesitated, wondering what something so far from accurate could offer. The opening two pages are scene-setting, and includes some soap-boxing.

But, after all, just what is meant by life? It is a pretty piece of vanity for us to assume that it is only something on a carbon basis needing oxygen for its existence. for there were things on the deserts, things in the cities and things moving in the papery bushes which suffered no inconvenience from the thinning of the air.

Then I had a problem with the ‘story hook’.

These two great rockets from Earth were not wanted on Mars, and their departure was being arranged for them. It was not, however the callous Martian intention to drive them at random into space. The decision that they must leave held no animosity, and the activity about the flanges showed that care was being taken that both vessels should have the best possible chance of making the return to Earth safely.

There are Martians! Put that with twenty-first century Mars explorations, and I’m faced with a paradoxical reading situation.

There are stories that have a short shelf-life. Sometimes I read them as ‘period-pieces’, for insight into the writers and readers of the time. That wasn’t the kind of reading I wanted.

As I wavered, murmuring, ‘What about Mars Rover?’ another question overrode it: ‘What could Beynon possibly do with the rockets, other than send them home?’ It didn’t seem much to build a story from.

One of the many good things about short fiction, is that if you don’t like what you’re reading, finishing it doesn’t cost much in energy or time, and you can always abandon the rest of the volume. I read on.

Actually, Sleepers of Mars turned out to be more of a novella. It had nine chapters, which meant plenty of room for character and plot developments. Mars was not simply a dying world, it had a complex history that was gradually revealed in a sub-plot that impacted on the human characters, and, this reader. Yes, I became involved.

Even in his early days, Beynon, it seems, knew how to hold his reader. Science is not the focus of these stories, intrinsic as it is to plot developments. As in his novels, the real story lies in the facets and flaws of human nature, and the vulnerability of an environment to exploitation.

I’m inclined to suggest that what Beynon/Beynon Harris/Wyndham wrote were timeless parables. The other four equally chilling stories, consider the potential exploitations inherent in developing time-travel; weapons of mass-destruction; the impact of big-businesses on our environment, or short-term thinking when exploring.

Each drew me in by focusing on characters placed in jeopardy. All left me thinking about the ways we live, and should live.

I’m happy to call these timeless writing, which is pretty impressive when you think they were published before space travel became reality.