It’s National Poetry Day. Here’s one that resonates with me today…

If—
BY RUDYARD KIPLING
(‘Brother Square-Toes’—Rewards and Fairies)

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Kate Tempest ROCKS

Kate_Tempest_8_kate-tempest1366294965

Kate Tempest: prize-winning poet, novelist (her debut novel has just been bought by Bloomsbury), performer, musician, rapper – is a plain-clothed goddess. She’s a younger, ginger, Patti Smith. But with a hiphop edge to her music and poetry rather than the punk that inspired Patti. And she’s similarly determined to subvert convention.

When I went to see her touring show Brand New Ancients at the Royal Court Theatre last Saturday, Ms Tempest eschewed the mic, stepping to the front of the stage to introduce herself and make sure that the audience felt comfortable. She commented on the traditional rigidity of theatre-going and told the audience to make noise; to sneeze if they needed to sneeze. It was a perfect little warm up, helping everyone to relax through comedy.

Next she introduced her girl band. “They usually do it at the end but that don’t make sense,” she said. And she’s right.

Then the show began, opening with an instrumental section – Tempest perched on the edge of the raised platform, head hung, almost meditating to the orchestral sounds – before she took the mic and launched into her heartfelt spoken word. She told us (the audience/ society/ this generation/ every generation) that we are all gods. She explained that today’s antics are the myths of tomorrow (as ancient Greek stories are the myths of today). It was new, and powerful, and uplifting.

Then she broke into rap over music with a hiphop beat, before stepping back and getting stuck into the story. And the story is GOOD. It’s like an episode of Eastenders – with sex, infidelity, violence, class issues, abuse, career dilemmas. But it’s spoken rhythmically; a poetic story. And then followed more rapping over music, to add tension, before she took us back to the well-structured, gripping, tale of two families.

In a later interlude Tempest brought in the X Factor, Simon Cowell and our celebrity-obsessed culture. We look up to celebrities like they’re our gods, she said – not berating anyone for doing it, just trying to understand why we do it. (And she’s part of it – she admitted to watching the X Factor). It seems nothing is trivial in Tempest’s world: everything is poignant and worthy of commentary.

I was blown away by the energy; the drama, by Tempest’s modesty and inner beauty and positivity and kindness and sincerity. The show was well-deserving of the standing ovation it received.

EVERYONE should try to see this because I can’t think of one person who couldn’t derive enjoyment from such an amazing, accessible piece of performance art.

Perfect Moon

by Patti Smith

I am calling
perfect moon
clad impure
I approach
your naked neck
barefoot
baying
perfect moon

perfect moon
I am with you
perfect moon
I adore
surrendering
to thy great
hands
I am yours
perfect moon

 

 

patti on stage

Today I’m rocking a black blazer in homage to Patti Smith, who ROCKED Shepherd’s Bush Empire last night:

patti

She’s 66 but skanked on that stage like a teenager – bowing down to mock-kiss Lenny Kaye’s (the long-time guitarist in her band) feet, running to each edge of the stage to welcome her fans, hopping and jumping and dancing through the entire set.

She played a mixture of songs – new and old – and all AMAZING. Highlights were Dancing Barefoot:

Also April Fool and This is the Girl (written for, and about, Amy Winehouse) from the album she released last June, BANGA and her old 70s classics Gloria (from Horses):

And Because the Night (from Easter).

Between songs she entertained the crowd – spitting, saying ‘fuck’ a lot and responding to the wolf whistles and heckles with witty comebacks.

Halfway through, Patti left the stage – giving Lenny the limelight for two or three songs. The audience’s energy dropped at this point but it made her return to the stage all the more powerful.

Clad in her usual black blazer, jeans, loose t-shirt and cowboy boots, with her frizzy grey/brown hair flying around the stage with her, as she bounced and head-banged; it looked as though she’d pulled her clothes on that morning, in the dark, and hadn’t bothered to get changed for the performance. This, of course, added to the appeal. She said that she’d thrown black linen over the mirrors in her dressing room – and probably wasn’t joking.

Her arrogance (“I’m an icon, I’m a legend”) bequeathed her yet more allure – reminding the audience that she actually IS a living legend. She manages to pull off the brazen bravado because of her seemingly carefree attitude about her appearance, and what anyone thinks of her. A perfectly preened, conventionally beautiful woman wouldn’t get away with it.

She said (after an interlude to clear a bubble in her throat) “Now, I better get back to work. But if you knew me – I’m like this all the time.” She then explained that her work and life merge; are indistinguishable from one another. This is what makes Patti Smith so damn cool – she is first and foremost an artist: everything else is just a by-product.

She really did rock. It was emotional.

house of norman loves

As part of Walthamstow’s Appetite food festival, and to launch Rob Auton’s newly-published book of poetry and illustrations – In heaven the onions make you laugh – Jenny and Kate (of Norman Loves) arranged an onion-themed Sunday afternoon of food, poetry, performance, music and piñatas.

onion door

They set up a ‘main stage’ in the garden and served delicious vegan food: onion bread, onion bhajis, humous with a garnish of sweet caramelised onions, raw vegetable salad with sesame seeds and a bulgar wheat salad, which we ate whilst listening to a burlesque performer singing; Kate reading some comical poetry from her wonderful handmade, photocopied book of poems; a brilliant spoken word performer (whose name I need to check) and Rob Auton.

rob auton on main stage

I follow Rob on Twitter (I met him for the first time today, can I call him Rob? Yeah, I think that will be ok) and he is very funny. It’s difficult to write good poetry, it’s even more difficult to write good funny poetry. But he manages to do this.

He carried a rickety suitcase onto the stage with him and struck up a conversation with the audience, reacting to the passing trains (the garden backs onto train tracks) to make us laugh, as a stand up comic responds to to his environment for comedy effect. He then read some poems from a ring-bound writing book with dozens of post-its jutting out the top and pages sellotaped together – all very homemade, all adding to the comedy.

We passed around onion rings and mango chutney, laughed a LOT, drank beers (£3.20 for 10 stubbies, according to Rob – “that’s 32p each”), and then ate the best chocolate cake I’ve EVER eaten, and rhubarb and almond cake with the lightest, crispiest buttery base.

For a Sunday afternoon, it doesn’t get much better than that: amazing food, great entertainment, lovely setting and non-stop laughter.

This is Kate with her onion piñata before we bashed it to death:

Kate and pinata

Check out Rob’s website

Buy his book: In heaven onions make you laugh

Come to Walthamstow and eat lovely food being prepared for the Appetite Festival

And keep an eye out for Norman Loves food events…

patti-smith-2

This morning I had a sudden urge to see Patti Smith live. I remembered that she was playing the Troxy in September and tried to book a ticket. Then I remembered it’s November and she’s already played.

I met her a few years ago at Latitude Festival after listening to her poetry recital. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever been starstruck. I couldn’t speak. But I managed to give her one of my poems before running off and nearly fainting with delight.

This is a song from her new album, Banga, which is amazing – she’s still going strong. It’s called This is the Girl and it’s about Amy Winehouse:

And here is one of her poems:

anna of the harbor

by Patti Smith

anna of the harbor
anna full of grace
wrestles the desire
for the dwelling place
of male against male
where thieves gesticulate
and wink handsome
for the sailor lads
with duffle bags
stuffed with lace
Anna embroiders hopes
for marvelous tattoo rump
and sinks in perfumed
dressing gown
as blue-eyed beauties dance
but the men don’t come
for anna of the harbor

anna full of grace
gazing from her favorite place
by the window
by the sea
by the thieves diaryed streets
where men wound and love
and make frank gestures
behind beaded curtains
as beads of sweat
drip and drip down
like a rosary
from unshaven pits
sliding velvet arms
holy ammonia waters
rising like old loves
rushing satin skirts
and anna of the harbor
with an automatic
feminine gesture
powders her dress
swift and expert
where her pantaloons
part like a woman

I could read her words all day long. Check out her blog here and, if you haven’t already, go to your local library (I’m big on libraries at the moment) and take out Just Kids – her autobiography about her love and life with Robert Mapplethorpe.

The Power of Poetry

I’m a firm believer in the power of positive-thinking. But also find that reflection and perspective can be useful; especially in creative work.

Having recently read, and re-read, Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap (read post here) – I’ve been reminded of the cathartic nature of writing. After a trauma, ordering your thoughts on paper can help with the healing process. This is what Olds was doing in her wonderfully emotive, personal and beautiful book of poems, and this is also what the poet Joan Michelson was doing when writing/ collating Toward the Heliopause: her first full collection of poems, published in 2007.

After the sudden death of her husband Michelson recorded her feelings of utter despair, grief and loss in this collection – and published them alongside a selection of her late husband’s poems that she had discovered on his computer.

About two years ago, when I was living in Somerset, I remember reading Michelson’s collection for the first time. I sat at the top of the stairs in our little cottage one morning, read the entire book – and welled up. I was surprised by how moved I felt by the journey this stranger had been on after her incredibly sad loss. In real-life situations I don’t cry often – I go quiet in sad situations, rather than shedding tears – when nervous, I laugh hysterically. But this book moved me to tears.

This, and Old’s recently published book – along with a lot of Patti Smith’s poetry – rouse deep emotions in me. Their poetry is vivid and intimate and it’s an honour to be invited into the depths of their minds; the generosity is overwhelming, as is the power and beauty of the words. But perhaps it’s also because the reader can’t help but relate these situations to their own life: how would I feel if my husband left me? How would I feel if my husband died suddenly and unexpectedly? And this evokes great empathy.

And so although, on the whole, I think it’s good to look forward, to have a positive outlook and not to dwell on dark thoughts – I have great appreciation for the power of good poetry.

Both Olds’ and Michelson’s collections tell a tale – taking the reader step-by-step through the experience of losing someone you love, both introducing their children. Michelson’s only daughter, Jessie, features heavily in her book – making it even more intimate. The book needs to be read in its entirety to fully grasp the work but here is one of the poems:

First Christmas

by Joan Michelson

After you were buried, we had a week
alone together. I felt completely lost.
Then Jessie’s childhood friend arrived to visit.

A godsend, Ruthie seemed to understand
that everything was daunting – not only Christmas
but each moment and the smallest things.

What I found I lost and lost again.
Ruthie got us packed and out, bags out,
house double-checked, heating set against

a freeze. she called the cab. For me the journey
jolts and stops on Middle Lane. A man with
specs like yours, crossing on the zebra,

was slow to realise his specs had slipped
and fallen off. The car in front nearly
hit him. It wrecked the specs – lenses shattered,

frames bent and broken. Merely specs,
but I felt it was the man who bore
the impact and that all of us were caught

beneath the white-walled tyres – front first, then rear,
and we lay crushed and broken on the road.
How we made it through Departures

where Ruthie had to leave us, I can’t explain.
In the Ladies, late and called by name
because Gate 33 was closing,

Jess found the tickets I had crumpled up
and dropped inside the bin. She took charge,
smoothed the paper out, grabbed me, ran.

I read a review in The Guardian about Sharon Old’s new book of poetry – Stag’s Leap. I then heard her discussing it (and doing a reading from it) on Radio 4. It’s a book of poems about her marriage breaking up – and has been shortlisted for the TS Elliot prize.

This is such a sad topic to write (and read) about – but Old’s brutal, saddening, heart-melting, spine-tingling honesty about how she felt losing the husband she loved is gripping and absorbing. And so I bought the book. I suppose it’s our voyeuristic tendencies, as well as an obsession with love, that makes works like this appeal.

Unspeakable, the second poem in the book, is so moving…

Unspeakable

by Sharon Olds

Now I come to look at love
in a new way, now that I’m not
standing in its light. I want to ask my
almost-no-longer husband what it’s like to not
love, but he does not want to talk about it,
he wants a stillness at the end of it.
And sometimes I feel as if, already,
I am not here – to stand in his thirty-year
sight, and not in love’s sight,
I feel an invisibility
like a neutron in a cloud chamber buried in a mile-long
accelerator, where what cannot
be seen is inferred by what the visible
does. After the alarm goes off,
I stroke him, my hand feels like a singer
who sings along with him, as if it is
his flesh that’s singing, in its full range,
tenor of the higher vertebrae,
baritone, bass, contrabass.
I want to say to him, now, What
was it like, to love me – when you looked at me,
what did you see? When he loved me, I looked
out at the world as if from inside
a profound dwelling, like a burrow, or a well, I’d gaze
up, at noon, and see Orion
shining – when I thought he loved me, when I thought
we were joined not just for breath’s time,
but for the long continuance,
the hard candies of femur and stone,
the fastnesses. He shows no anger,
I show no anger but in flashes of humour,
all is courtesy and horror And after
the first minute, when I say, Is this about
her, and he says, No, it’s about
you, we do not speak of her.

Katy-Evans-Bush

The New York-born, Hackney-based poet believes the internet has a lot to offer aspiring writers

(published by the Hackney Citizen)

Blogger, published poet and self-proclaimed conversationalist Katy Evans-Bush was recently shortlisted for the Orwell Prize 2012.

Her blog Baroque in Hackney features critiques, anecdotes and musings, just like many other blogs. So what makes hers so popular?

In 2006, following a difficult redundancy, she was advised by a friend to start a blog for her poetry.

She explains that after spending a year reading blogs, researching, “looking for a blog that was poetry-related, but not just revising poems, or somebody complaining about not being published,” she realised there was a gap in the online poetry world.

“I thought it would be really boring to just publish my own poems on a website,” she continues, “and I was looking for blogs that recognise that poetry is part of literature, which is part of the arts, which is part of culture, which is part of the world.”

By this point she had already begun sharing her political views, her comic tales, her poetry and her critical perspectives on poetry on Baroque in Hackney.

“I never set out to fill a niche,” she says. “I just did what I was interested in. But then I realised that no one else was doing it and so I had a sense of responsibility.”

She considers her blogging to be work though she does not earn a living from it. “Rather than rewarding me in cash terms,” she says, “it has made things happen. There’s the Orwell shortlisting, for one, and I probably got my poetry publishing deals through the blog.”

Born in New York but having moved to Connecticut for school, Evans-Bush jokes that she was “cheated out of a New York upbringing.”

She moved to London aged 19, “ostensibly to study,” living first in Hackney Central, with a view of London Fields, and later moving to Stoke Newington, where she lives now.

“There was one coffee shop,” she says of Church Street in the 90s, “and I remember we went there and I said, great, we can live here because there’s a place for me to get coffee. Now look at it.”

Though she condemns the gentrification of parts of Hackney, believing the council to be incompetent and the influx of hipsters disappointing, the borough continues to inspire her writing.

For the Orwell Prize, she submitted 10 posts from her blog focusing on the 2011 riots in Hackney, as well as the government cuts and other political and humanist issues.

“My blog is about world views and connections between things. It’s political and engaged, attentive to what life is actually like,” she says.

She first started writing at the age of four, dictating a story called ‘The Guilty Fairy’ to her mother, who typed it on a typewriter. “I always wrote as a child,” she says, “and I drew. Just read and wrote and drew.”

Whilst believing that you don’t need a manual to learn how to write, she is in favour of master classes and writing groups. “If you have the drive, the creative approach, creativity to write poetry all you really need is that kind of sensibility,” she says.

“You can learn techniques, it always helps. I mean, opera singers have master classes, right?”

After initially writing poetry, Evans-Bush later attempted fiction. “As an adult you think you have to write fiction,” she explains. “That’s just what you do.”

But after getting one short story shortlisted and nothing published, she had a realisation. “I thought, that’s it: I have to just write poetry.”

She believes that some authors can work across genres but that poets’ novels don’t get as much attention as novelists’ poems, because “everyone is more interested if you’re a novelist.”

According to Evans-Bush, the poetry-world and the poets in it suffer a lack of recognition. “The sad truth is,” she says, “even in the poetry world you get a lot more attention for writing a blog than you do for writing poems.”

She contemplates the possibility that the world has enough poetry already and that we don’t need any more. But then she backtracks, remembering the importance of new work and the fact she is a contemporary, published poet.

We move on to the decline of the print industry. “We haven’t replaced paper as a medium,” she says, “we’ve just added another thing to it. Offline still exists.”

Her passion for print is yet to wane: “We’re book people, so we like books. I like my little bookshelf at home that has things on it that I’ve made.”

She does say, however, that as the internet stores poetry that is published online indefinitely, poets should send their best poetry to online magazines because “no matter how prestigious the paper magazine is, the issue circulates to its people and then it ends.”

The success of her blog has instilled in her an affection for the online world. “The internet has been very good to me,” she says, smiling. “I love the internet. It is my medium.”

After the interview I hang around for another half an hour, absorbed in her stories and recollections. I conclude that, true to her word, she is definitely a conversationalist.

Last night I went to the wonderful Kings Place to hear Carol Ann Duffy ‘and friends’ recite poetry.

I was offered a ticket last minute from a friend, as she’d been stood up. Lucky me. Unlucky stander-upper. She missed out.

Kings Place is AMAZING. There’s a sprawling foyer with plenty of seating – long tables with chairs, big beanbaggy-type things on the floor, comfy sofas. The cafe serves coffee, juice etc – but don’t go there if you’re in a rush. The service is infuriatingly slow.

The gallery on the lower ground floor is currently exhibiting The Mechanical Hand: 25 Years of Printmaking at Paupers Press – and there are prints of Damian Hirst’s work, as well as a brilliant set of colourful ‘feminist icon’ prints from Bob and Roberta Smith.

The poetry evening was taking place in the basement concert hall. And we had the best seats in the house – three rows from the front, dead centre. Like I said – the woman who gave up her seat for me SERiously lost out.

The evening was called Words on Monday and is part of the Poet in the City project. It is held at Kings Place each year and the poet laureate is invited to perform with friends. We didn’t manage to ascertain whether the other two poets were actually Duffy’s friends – or if they were more like Facebook friends – ie. not her friends at all. But it didn’t really matter.

There were musical interludes from John Sampson – wind-instrument-extraordinaire – in the form of comical fanfares, background lift-type music and contextual pieces – such as the Christmas carol that he played whilst Duffy recited her poem: The Christmas Truce.

Duffy was funny and serious, romantic and political. This is what makes her the perfect candidate for poet laureate. She shared a story about one of her poems being banned by an exam board after a teacher believing it to be inciting knife crime. Duffy was asked to respond, by the Guardian, and she did so in a very clever poem. “Cow” – she said of that teacher. And we all chortled. She then referred to Meryl Streep’s time as Prime Minister. And we all laughed again.

Ann Gray was second to perform and her soft, clear voice gave her poems a lullaby-quality. She spoke of loss, death, searching for – and losing – love. Again, she covered topics that we are all familiar with and that can be touching but also humorous.

Leontia Flynn was last up and she had spent the former part of the evening looking rather flushed and nervous. The nerves remained whilst she performed but she managed to relax enough to tell some funny jokes and recount a handful of interesting anecdotes. Her strong Belfast accent added variety to the recital – I am rather a fan of an Irish reading voice – and references to her Irish up-bringing and extended family were both comical and endearing.

I was asked to fill out a feedback form after the event – it was funded by the Arts Council – and I wrote, truthfully, that nothing could have been added or changed to improve that evening. It was without fault. A perfect evening of poetry and music in a great venue.