Monday, October 31, 2011


Last time I was in Paris I was alone, so I spent my spare time mooching around the bookshops of the Latin Quarter. This time, with my wife and teenage daughter, it was a bit different. I found myself mooching instead around the textile and dressmaking shops of the Place St. Pierre in Montmartre, and having lunch in the cafe featured in "Amelie". This last attraction is a typically and admirably
French phenomenon; tourists flock from far and wide, as we did, because of the movie connection, but cafe is run with complete indifference to it all. Sure, there are pictures of the movie and Amelie table covers, but it's still a rough-and-ready bistro serving very good, cheap meals, and catering for the locals.

During our visit to Paris we were also lucky enough to be able to take in the Stein exhibition at the swanky Grand Palais museum. They've gathered together the paintings originally collected by Gertrude Stein, her brother Leo and sister sister-in-law Sara, so you get to see some of the greatest paintings of the first half of the twentieth century. But if you're interested in Gertrude Stein the writer, as I am, then it's a bonus, as there are home movie clips of Gertrude at her sister's Le Corbusier home, and of her reading from "Tender Buttons". I hadn't realised how many artist's had painted her portrait; in addition to the famous Picasso portrait. I also hadn't quite realised how, in her "Autobiography of Alice B Toklas" Stein had bigged up her own role in the formation of the famous salons at the Rue de Fleurus, to the chagrin of her brother Leo, and others. Such is the benefit of being a writer; there's always the possibility of creating your own myth, which then becomes almost impossible for anyone to undo.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Carrie Etter: The Son

pub. Oystercatcher Press

There are times when a poet who is skilled in modernist techniques and the use of abstraction in poetry feels the need, due to the circumstances of his or her life, to tackle a personal subject, or at least one that deals with emotion and with the basic humanity that is common to us all. When this happens the results can be powerful. Carrie Etter's pamphlet "The Son" represents such a moment. The poems centre around a child who appears to have been given up for adoption; a sensitive subject, and one that could, in the wrong hands, result in sentimentality. But there's no fear of that with an accomplished practitioner like Etter. The collection consists of a series of prose poems, entitled "Imagined Sons", numbered 1-12. Interspersed with the prose poems are four poems called "A Birthmother's Catechism" with a question and response format:

How did you let him go?

With black ink and legalese.

How did you let him go?

It'd be another year before I could vote.

These short responses are in a laconic American tradition; their deadpan understatement conveying much more than any overblown cry of emotion could:

How did you let him go?

Who hangs a birdhouse from a sapling?

What a great line that is: expressing self-doubt and fragility in practical, workmanlike terms. The "Imagined Sons" poems are short dream-like stories, which hit exactly the right note, as suppressed emotion resurfaces in our dreams. There's a surrealist element to these stories, with a motif of a young man, familiar, but out-of-reach, the repetition of which builds up a powerful sense of longing.

The first and last poems - both in the catechism form - link the personal loss to the public loss of the 9/11 attacks. It's a risk, but it works, due in part to the understated nature of the poems; in fact, it succeeds in universalising an experience that might otherwise be intensely personal.
The Shindig in Leicester this week has been reported on by other bloggers, and everyone's commented on the strength of the open-mic slot. I must have listened to around thirty poets read that evening, and every one was worth listening to. It's interesting that, according to Kathleen Bell, one of the De Montfort Creative Writing team who have done so much to engender these type of events in Leicester, that the open-mic standard has improved as time has gone on, as less experienced poets have learned from the more experienced ones. To me, the whole phenomenon says a great deal about the contemporary poetry scene. Poetry is a participation sport; most readers are also writers of poetry, and the whole scene is democratic and unhierarchical. But this is not to say that standards have to be driven down to the lowest common denominator; there's no reason why that should happen, and the evidence of the Leicester readings is quite the opposite, with people generally trying to raise their game to keep up with others. Despite attempts by initiatives like The Forward Prize and now the Salt Best British Poetry (more on that one later), to establish canons and hierarchies, it seems that, at the cutting edge, the poetry scene is open, participatory and supportive. Long may it stay that way!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Simon Perril's Nitrate: the video

Simon Perril's 'Nitrate' (Salt Publishing) is a "meditation upon the birth of the moving picture". Here's the video to go with it: